Iain Tolhurst by Tractor

On badgers, worms and swallows. And on weather, of course.

So here we are again after a break of several years, can’t remember how many, back with the Onion Oracle. You have asked for it! This time it’s in a new format, web wonderful and without the hassle of printers that refuse to co-operate on a busy Thursday morning, paper that jams and ink that runs out halfway through the job. So this is progress we think; only problem is if you want a hard copy we are going to let you get in a tiz with your own printer.

The great temptation of having a page to write on like this is that it could become a great venue for moaning about the weather. I will try to resist, but will inevitably have something to say about weather later on.

One of the delights about growing organic stuff is the interaction we get with the local wildlife; it has to be seen as a positive, or else, like the weather it could get you down. We are surrounded by badger setts. I know of at least 10 within a few hundred metres of our fields and Gardens and for most of the time they get on with their business and we get on with ours. I reckon Tolkien must have modeled hobbits on badgers as there are so many similarities. When I was at school back in the 60s I did a project on badgers, spent a few evenings studying them then did what was my first ever very scary presentation. They have their regular tracks and pathways that they have been stomping along since pre-history. Badgers are stubborn, put a barrier across their well trod tracks and they go right through it, so I have installed badger gates that they push open rather than destroy the wire netting. There is over 2000m of this netting erected to keep the bunnies out of our veg; organic growing is all about damage limitation and risk reduction!

The main diet of badgers is worms, we have huge populations of this wonderful creature and badgers love to root them out. As a result of the worms activities we have had to change our system of growing onions. In the past few decades we have used a bio-mulch laid on the soil to plant onions into; this prevented most weeds and allowed a green manure crop to grow in between the rows. The system worked great apart from the heavy carbon footprint of the mulch. But over the course of time the worms learnt to pull our freshly planted onions out of the ground and back into their burrows leaving them upside down and unable to grow until we came along a few days later to replant them. It gets a bit tedious once you have done this a couple of times; it also becomes expensive as 60,000 onions are a lot of work. The badgers soon learnt that under the mulch was a tasty stash of juicy earthworms so they would pull up the mulch in their night time forays and add to the chaos. So last year we adopted a new system planting direct and using the tractor and suitable equipment along with hand work to keep the crop free of weeds. Not sure how well it works as last season was a dead loss for onions anyway.

In the same way that the earthworms and the badgers learnt to adapt and evolve to new situations, so we as growers have had to as well. As the weather changes we need to find new ways to survive if we are to continue to grow food for our local communities.

We are blessed with a vibrant bird population here, a wonderful selection of species that thrive on this bio-diverse site. We give them all the help we can by farming the way we do, making sure that we sow flowering plants around and in the fields to give them a winter food source. We have seen the number of birds and species rise steadily for many years now and it is most encouraging seeing how a little bit of help to nature can make such a big difference.

During the growing year we look out for markers, significant happenings (well to us they are)
One of these markers is the arrival of the swallows, these aerial acrobats delight us with their shows over the garden and we make a special effort to ensure they have decent places to nest, by leaving doors open and even sticking their fallen nests back up to the rafters! Most years they are with us by the 2nd or 3rd week of April, so we started to get a bit concerned when there was no sign of them by May. Eventually one turned up looking rather lost on its own; it hung around its regular shed for over a week and was singing very loudly to itself. The saying goes “one swallow does not a summer maketh” I am not particularly superstitious but I started to think that unless another one turned up we would not get a summer again this year.

Here we go back onto weather stuff – well it’s very hard to avoid it in this job and what else am I going to write about anyway? It’s a great page filler. Eventually its mate arrived and it sang even louder clearly delighted to see each other. Not half as happy as I was though, two swallows ought to be enough to make a summer. But normally there would be at least 10 of them around the walled garden, so numbers are well down. The lousy weather last summer put their population under pressure, less insects meant less surviving young and less able to make the horrendous flight to and from S Africa. Bad weather on the return flight caused more losses and they are going to need some sunshine and warmth if they are to recover their numbers over the next few seasons. We and all growers need the same too.

As for the swallows, well if I was them I may be tempted to fly straight back to S Africa as this morning the temperature is just very low, a pathetic 9C at 9am and during the night is was 4C. So here we go another weather excuse for late crops again this year. I marvel at these little birds and their journey half way across the planet, how something so tiny can do this fueled only on insects is a humbling act indeed. And then to make it back to the very place it was born is even more incredible. Each year they raise 2-3 broods, up to 15 offspring in the hope that one will make it back, I rate that as a serious amount of optimism.

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