Wednesday, 30 September 2015

Doing it the Ouse Valley way.

Come with me for a stroll along the Ouse Valley Way. It's a long-distance footpath that follows the river from its source, way beyond Milton Keynes, to the Wash.

When I said that we would take a stroll along the Ouse Valley Way, I did not mean the WHOLE distance. If we started in Milton Keynes it would take us a week to get to Paxton Pits and then another week to get to King's Lynn. It could be done and you could write it up and win a Pulitzer Prize, but I was only talking about the bit that runs through our Reserve.

These days I no longer have time to just go for a walk; I have to justify my journey. (Is it really necessary?) Maybe I will be emptying the dog bins, or I might be checking on the cows, or reading the water meter on the wind pump. Today I have two jobs; one is to check out the state of the moorings and boats along the river and the other is to get water to our cows in the Great Meadow. Why don't you come along?
Matt Hall is the ranger who manages the farm side of our operation and he has asked me to give him a hand with our Highland cattle.

As soon as we arrive they all rush over to see us, which makes it easy to count them and check for any signs of illness. Once they see we have no hay for them, they soon settle down and stand still, drooling and staring with that vacant shaggy Highland look.

They get water from a ditch that we fill using the wind pump, but Matt has taken the pump's innards out for a service so instead we are using a petrol-powered pump to get water from the river. The water goes into a bowser that automatically fills two cattle troughs. It is quite a physical job to lift a heavy pipe full of water and get it to go anywhere but all over yourself! I stand by with my camera in the hope of capturing an embarrassing moment. All I get is what you see, but you can have fun writing captions for it!

Matt is organising a vintage tractor week-end on the 17th and 18th of October. If the weather is good and the soil is not too wet, or too dry, or too soily, we can expect a great photo-opportunity and a chance to familiarise ourselves with the agricultural calendar. 

How many youngsters these days use words like fallow, till, cultivate, harrow, plough, furrow, drill or sow? Harvests no longer consist of reaping, binding, sheaves and ricks and no-one uses a scythe any more; that rural vocabulary is rapidly being lost. I find this sad because those words occur in Shakespeare, the James I Bible and everything from the Brontes and Thomas Hardy through to Laurie Lee's "Cider with Rosie" and beyond.

Everyone was familiar with the rural calendar until well after 1950. I think you can see the change coming in the 60s and 70s when combine harvesters and huge tractors with cabs first appeared here. The process was, and remains, the same but it is largely hidden from public view. That's why I love the little tractors that I grew up with. You could get on the back and chat to the farmer while he worked and learn all about agriculture first hand. I learned quite few Jim Reeves songs that way, from a farmer called Arnold Alderson who had an old Fergie tractor like the one above. 

We do not farm the arable fields to produce any kind of marketable crop. You may just make out the bristly, drooping heads of barley in one field, but we mainly grow a wild bird cover mix that provides a lot of small seed. The idea is to provide habitat for birds and wildlife while maintaining the traditional farming landscape. The Higher Level Stewardship Scheme provides us with a small income for doing this, but our real reward is to see a barn owl or 100 yellowhammers on the fields in winter, or to find harvest mice in the Autumn.

As we walk along the arable fields, our attention is diverted across the path to the edge of Dodder Fen. Close to the path there is an array of berry-bearing plants including some fine elder-berry bushes. Elders really struggle in our poor drought-prone soil but this year they have thrived and we have a bumper crop. Well, we had a bumper crop: the birds have been hammering them lately. Do you see that flock of long-tailed tits drifting through the hedge? There's a couple of chiff-chaffs with them. After they pass I hear a harsh "tick"......Wren? No, it's a male blackcap and he is eating berry after berry. For every one he eats, half a dozen fall to the ground beneath. A week ago there were whitethroats too, but they have all gone now.

At the back of our farm-yard we have planted a small orchard. Let's have a tasting sesssion! Most of the apples have been scrumped by now but one tree is bent over with glowing fruit. They taste superb; very juicy but crisp and slightly sharp. These apples are old local varieties that you cannot buy in the shops. Worth preserving.

We have come to the moorings to prepare for tonight's meeting with our boat-owners. It's the end of the boating season and time to take stock. How are the boats looking? Will they all stay afloat through the coming winter?  What's the state of the mooring platforms and the vegetation along the bank?

This is a lovely, peaceful spot except for the East Coast Main-line that follows the river. It can sound so close that it makes you jump when a train comes. The river is slow and clear and the water plants are growing in luxuriant profusion; so much so that the boaters are complaining that they can't get their boats into the main channel. Thankfully, weed cutting is not our job.

On the bank, the wild flowers have gone similarly berserk! The big pink blooms are not our native willowherb, or purple loosestrife; they are Himalayan balsams and I have never seen so many. This plant puts out thousands of seeds that float down the river and spread along the water's edge. Animals and people spread it from there, so now we have a fine show of balsam on the river bank, and in our farm-yard, including some white ones. They will all have to go!

Our poor mid-week volunteers have already pulled up hundreds of balsams, but they keep coming back. It's too late to do much this year but we will have to be pretty radical with the herbicide next summer.

I would like to walk with you on downstream for a look at Washout Pit but it will have to wait for another time. I can offer you a ride back to the Visitor's Centre, just in time for a cup of tea before the shutters come down.