Friday, 29 July 2011


Stooks or shocks in Peter's Field.
If you have walked down the Heron Trail by Peter's Field this week, you will have seen that our winter wheat has been harvested.

Normally, "harvest" means dusting off the combine harvester, fuelling it up, then driving it around our little field for half an hour while it hoovers everything up. Grain goes into the hopper on top and chopped straw flies out the back. Thankfully, a cloud of dust usually obscures exactly what goes on in the field while deer, pheasants, rabbits and courting couples flee to the safety of the nearby woods.

The wheat we grow at Paxton is an old, long-stemmed variety called "Wigeon". It used to be grown in England for thatching, but most thatching straw now comes from Eastern Europe. Very few farmers still have the patience or the equipment to harvest the wheat in such a way that the straw remains as long as possible. You need a binding machine that cuts the wheat off at the base, lies it neatly on the "table" and ties it up with string, like a bunch of flowers. Our friend Roland Fletcher has such a machine and volunteer Davy Jones knows how to work it. Davy also knows how to make new parts for this pre-war, Heath-Robinson affair. The good thing about old farm machinery was that it could be repaired, or even made, by a local blacksmith and a carpenter, which is just as well as it is constantly falling apart. Ranger Matt Johnson was there to drive and to do the heavy work of stacking the sheaves to make "stooks" or "shocks".

Despite the drought, it's a pretty good crop this year because we grew clover in the field last year and then ploughed it in to add nitrogen to the soil. The stooks will have to dry out before the thatcher comes to collect them on Monday. He has a threshing machine that will retrieve the grain without mashing up the straw.

While the stooks are drying in the field, they will attract grain-eating birds and small mammals including harvest mice. Weasels and stoats will forage through them for mice and voles, then, when the crop is carted away, more grain will be spilled, so keep an eye on Peter's Field next week if you want to see wildlife.

If you spend some time at the River Viewpoint nearby, you may be as lucky as Ranger Kirsty Drew was this week. She watched an otter there at lunchtime!