Mary's Dairy Diary
The summer was hot and dry, and the autumn is cooler and wetter – seasons in the right place. That is so reassuring for a farmer – you realize how much we need everything in place. We had the finest harvest of field mushrooms for years, soil warm, good rain. We ate them for almost every meal, even dried them and froze them – I’ll report how that works. The hedgerows are still full of fruit – the sign of a warm summer, not a cold winter, we hope.
I was watching the house martens gathering on the telephone line, chatting away. One came back from the wood, and there was a murmur through them. They all took off in a flock, darting, swooping, scything over the trees, even flying in under the leaves. It looked like the one was a scout, reporting back that the flies were particularly fat, juicy and plentiful in the wood. Too soon they gather on the wire for the last time, and are gone until the spring. The house is suddenly still, quieter, and the insects return, made bold now they are no longer being harvested to feed chicks. It’s an end of summer moment when they go.
The summer is slowly cranking up – we are past the longest day. The mad rush of spring catching up on lost time after our extended winter - everything from March to June happening at once - has quieted. Now we want the sedate and orderly progression of seasons. As farmers, we are so reliant on the weather happening at the right time in the right order. We sit on top of natural processes, imagining we control them. The weather gave us a little slap to remind us who’s boss.
The miracle of spring is here in May. The farm had a bleak and wintry look through to the end of April, every bit of our 52 degrees north of latitude – we are as far north as Newfoundland. Buds burst into a blasting cold gale, the grass shrivelled into purple bonsai, all the right shape but dwarfed. The wildlife had a hunted, hungry look. I saw a treecreeper, the shyest of birds, come towards our bird feeders, where normally only the bolder birds come. Now, with sun and balmy warmth, birds are singing loud all day, bumble bees are starting their busy summer. I had no idea how much those simple sounds lift my heart. Oddly enough, the house martins arrived 11 days earlier this year than last year – perhaps they know something we don’t.
The end of our long winter? The bitter sting in the winter’s tail last month makes the sweet weather of April all the more gorgeous. The late spring has the plants seem prescient – primroses, bluebells, blackthorn seemed to hold back their flowering, waiting till after the frost, only to come with a rush when the weather finally warms up. The leaves unfurl, the hedges bloom, the grass speeds up its growth, young rabbits appear, birds take on the busy air of those with many chicks to feed.
We’ve been hearing in the news about how many deer other people have, how much damage they are doing to fields and delicate habitats. I’m glad to hear it’s not just us. I love to see the deer, and you can have too much of a good thing.
The days slowly lengthen, the sun creeps a little higher at noon and wider at dawn and dusk. The dark mornings have me slow to wake, the dark evenings tricksy - is it six or midnight? I drove my car one dark evening along a lane, came to water over the road. In the dark I didn't see how far the water was from the stream, and drove on. The water was over the headlights and I could see a flooded car and tractor beside the road - can't stop or the car will take in water. I made it to the humpback bridge, which is covered in water, can't turn round, maybe I'll make it across the next low bit of road. I set off, lights go under water, the car sighs to a halt. There is silence, then I hear the gurgling of water coming in through the doors. The windows don't work. Will I be able to get out? I open the door, water pours in almost to the top on the seat. I scramble into the boot to put my wellies on, get everything I can think of onto the roof, and climb onto it myself.
The dark time of year, dark mornings, night comes so early. When we have sun it seems very special, and with a thick enough coat and hat is a magical time, precious brightness, low light highlighting every bare twig and blade of grass. The earth feels like it is ruminating, digesting last year, brewing next year. The undergrowth disappears, leaving everyone’s tracks clearer. Tom & I were in the garden one late afternoon, and about 20 wild boar solemnly trooped by on the other side of the stream, a couple of sows, a few gilts, but mainly this year’s piglets. Boar, like the farmed pigs they are so closely related to, have large families. Tasty, but scary when you get too close. When we said we wanted more room for wildlife on farms, I’m not sure we meant this: be careful what you wish for, you will get it.
The rainy weather of June has everything growing, breeding, putting stores by for winter. The trees, fields & hedges are dripping with the heavy tresses of well-watered leaves, using July’s peak sunlight. Plenty is everywhere, including lots of insect life. I love watching the house martens ceaselessly combing the high air, the swifts scything across my path, inches above the ground, then swooping up. The birds keep us free of insects - the midges come out when the martens go to bed.
Our beautiful farm is stepping into its most beautiful garb - light, lacy, luminescent leaves, newly unfurled on the trees. Spring blossom makes dark branches a graceful backdrop. You can see why the Japanese hold cherry blossom festival, and party as the petals drop on their picnics. The hedgerows explode with Queen Anne’s Lace, cow parsley, white umbrella flowers on long stalks that suddenly make the lanes very narrow. After it rains the heavy flowerheads lean in and brush your car, leaving petals on the side. The birds get busy nest building and egg laying: not the peregrine falcon that the pair of goshawks nesting over the hill devoured. The peregrine was being trained, but escaped from the next village, but got no further than here.
Such warm weather so late makes the cold weather seem colder when it comes. The autumn colour seems less bright, too - the leaves have just faded on the trees, rather than go through those startling colours. The fallow deer started their rut later - so are still roaring this month. It’s such hard work for the bucks, they seemed to delay, or maybe it was the does deciding they were hot and bothered not just hot. It won’t change the time they kid, as the does store the semen until it’s time to implant - how do they do that? I’ve heard they can even choose whether they produce males or females, depending on what the herd needs.