Tuesday, July 20, 2010

Pump up the bramley - sky lanterns, fire and elderflower champagne

Last weekend I had a party in the 1920s orchard at Charingworth. I invited the people I work with in the market garden and a few other friends and orchard helpers. Three of the guests were cider-makers so we were well supplied with cider and perry, and also got to try out my elderflower champagne for the first time. 'Too yeasty' is often the verdict with this kind of venture, but actually it was really good. Young, fresh, very fizzy and refreshing. A bit like me I hear you say? Ah gags!

A cheeky tribe of scrumpers, armed and dangerous! It takes some skill to get your face that muddy.

Orchards are great for camping as they never get too windy. I was pitched a little close to my hive of sleeping bees though.

It was the first time I had tried this back-to-nature minimalist fire pit design for the BBQ. It worked really well, and I would recommend aligning it with the direction of the prevailing wind to maximise air-flow. We cooked Cumberland sausages, burgers, and spicy 'Hungarian Hot Wax' peppers stuffed with coconut rice. Use British charcoal if you can - it burns so much better and the woodland management involved in producing it benefits many species. I like to think Ray Mears would have loved it, although someone brought tin foil and I know he hates that.

Everyone knows that there is nothing quite as entrancing as fire, and when you combine it with the gaping mouth of a drunken man it becomes a special pleasure.

No ultra-hip orchard knees-up would be complete without a sprinkling of sky lanterns (or should that be a twinkling?). I'm sure the NFU would have something to say about that, but apparently the wheat is not ripe enough to burn yet and life is too short anyway. Our ones didn't have any metal wire in them making them 100% biodegradable and safe for cows etc.

Saturday, July 3, 2010

Orchards and beekeeping with Charlie the jackdaw

On Thursday I was invited to a special orchardy event hosted by the Farming and Wildlife Advisory Group (FWAG) at Day's Cottage. My beekeeping guru Tanya was one of the main speakers, covering all aspects of the the longstanding relationship between orchards and bees. In this photo she is showing us the different components of an occupied hive (although it does look suspiciously like some kind of cult meeting). I also gave a short talk about orchard restoration - hold onto your hats people!

Beekeeping is crammed full of interesting facts and props and this makes it ideal for demonstrating. Look at the amazing glass-fronted display hive on that table. We all had to try to identify six different honeys by taste. They were: Cotswold garden honey (Tanya's), Salisbury Plain honey (florally diverse), Sicilian Eucalyptus honey (monofloral), English heather honey (bleak?), oil seed rape honey (lurid?) and New Zealand manuka honey (TCP++). I got two right but was impressed by the range of flavours.

Here is Dave Kaspar, chairman on the Gloucestershire Orchard Group, and that chap on his shoulder is Charlie. Dave and Helen Brent-Smith have been raising him on cat food and he's now two months old. When I first arrived he came out of nowhere and landed on the FWAG lady's head and she freaked out, thinking he was a wild bird. In the other photo Dave is doing a demonstration of budding with a plum variety called Rivers' Early Prolific. Budding is another method of reproducing varieties, like grafting, only it's quicker and is done in the summer.

Here is the pommace left over from an earlier juicing, and see how it is studded with freshly germinated apple seedlings. Back when most farms had a press and made their own cider for the labourers, this stuff was often either fed to the pigs of spread on the fields. Farmers used this latter option as a way of generating new apple seedlings to use as rootstocks for established varieties. Every now and again one of these seedlings gave rise to a brand new variety, but sadly this source of new variation has been largely lost. Pips will not germinate unless they have been completely liberated from the apple flesh and 'scarified' by the cold of winter (or a fridge).


Here's Jonathan Briggs - you may recognise him from one of my previous posts - a mistletoe expert. He gave a fascinating talk all about this parasitic plant which is a key component of traditional orchard ecosystems. That sprig of mistletoe is emerging from an unusually thick branch. Day's Cottage is deep within mistletoe territory and it is abundant, but up in my corner of north Gloucestershire it is far less common and the nationwide distribution patterns are yet to be fully understood. I have had some success getting it established in Charingworth, but that's for another day...

Imagine this for a pub accessory. And look at his fantastic cool blue eye. Who's a good boy?! Jackdaws are corvids, a family that includes crows, jays and magpies, and they are very bright. They can use tools and have demonstrated self-awareness. Perhaps one day he will be tempted by the glint in your eye...

Sunday, June 27, 2010

A Winnie the pooh daydream: bees, drones, queens and HONEY

My bee guru Tanya supervised another peek into my bee colony last week. This is the 'wild' colony that I managed to capture in my bait hive in the 1920s orchard. Since the colony is about to have a population explosion we added another story onto the hive (called a 'super') and hopefully it is from this that we will be able to harvest honey. And check out the suits...(could I bee any hotter?)!

Unfortunately to get into the hive we had to disturb this wild comb somewhat, but it provided the perfect opportunity to have a really nosey snoop around their magnificent wax world. You can see a cross-section through the brood comb and inside these cells are the white developing larvae. Along the top edge of the top photo the comb is for a different use - it has honey and pollen (the darker brown stuff) stored and this is both a food source for the workers and developing young. Do they have it on toast, you may well ask?

Look how delicately sculpted the cells are. This close up shows the sedimentation of pollen produced as different bees contribute their tiny parcels collected from a range of plants with different coloured pollen.

Whenever you open a hive and disturb the bees they tend to congregate and do this special nosier wing-fan action. This is their way of calling in any disorientated bees who have gotten lost or wandered off.

I know what you're thinking: who's this handsome lad? He's a male bee (or 'drone') and slightly larger than the female workers. A proportion of each colony is made out of drones (even though all of the workers are female) because no colony can reproduce without a fertilized queen. He was skulking on his own on one of the frames. Pull your wing out son and get pollinating!

We made some frames to go into the brood box and encourage the bees to build their comb on them. In this photo I am helping Tanya attach this wild comb onto a frame before returning it to the hive. Ideally we should have filled the box with frames very early on and then the bees would have had no choice but to build comb on them.

The advantage of the removable frame system is two-fold: Firstly, you can take them out to check up on their progress. Secondly, it is less energetically expensive for the bees to build comb on a frame with a sheet of wax that has the hexagonal cell pattern embossed into it (a 'foundation'). Wax takes about six times more energy than honey to make so this foundation reduces the amount of energy the bees spend on wax and thus they can produce more honey.

That metal grid thing is called a 'queen excluder'. It separates the brood box at the base with the 'super' above and has gaps that are just too narrow for the queens abdomen to fit through. This prevents her from laying eggs in the super, keeping it just for honey and pollen. Royal discrimination.

Picnicking with winnie the pooh? I got to take home some of the honey comb and it tasted goo-ood.

Sunday, June 6, 2010

Inspecting the hives...I'm covered in bees!

At the end of April my beekeeping guru Tanya came over and helped me to install two bait hives, one in each orchard. The aim was to try and capture a wild colony when they start to swarm around this time of the year. It seemed like a real long shot, but amazingly I started to see bees going in and out of one of the hives about two weeks ago. So on Thursday evening we went back to have a peek at the colony and see how far they had got with their empire...

This is Tanya carefully lifting the lid on the hive in the 1920s orchard. That beautiful construction is wild bee comb and represents the natural form of a bee comb, the home of the colony. It is so pale because it has been made recently - over time apparently it will become browner with the build up of propolis. Unfortunately, comb like this is more tricky to manage than comb built on the removable frames you can see to the front of the hive. Ideally we would have filled the hive with these frames before they managed to build this natural comb and thus forced them to build on the frames. Still, what a wonder to behold!

Most commercial beekeepers would break up the natural comb into flat sections and attach it using string or elastic bands to the frames, thus allowing the colony to be managed much more easily. Since I don't have to be as efficient we decided on a compromise where we left the bulk of the natural comb but filled the rest of the hive with frames for them to move onto as the colony grows.

Here I am using the smoker to move the bees around and try and prevent any from being squashed. Smoke irritates them and they shy away from it. Amazingly, the bees didn't seem to get too bothered with our meddling and they didn't try and sting us. Phew!

We took a small piece of comb out to have a taste. The cells on one side are filled with nectar and the darker cells contain pollen which you can also eat. The bees have not yet started converting the nectar into honey. They do this by adding an enzyme and reducing the water content. This allows them to store energy supplies since honey will not ferment (it is in fact the only type of food that never goes off in pure form!). When the colony gets bigger I can add another story to the hive and sustainably harvest some honey periodically. We ate it with the first strawberries of the year. Very decadent!

Wednesday, June 2, 2010

Charingworth Orchard Trust on the road

I work part time in the market garden at Daylesford Farm and on the 22nd of May we had our summer show. Over a thousand people came and I had a little stall promoting traditional orchards and their many wonders. I met Monty Don who seemed pretty knowledgeable on the topic and said he had his own garden orchard with 38 varieties - go Monty! That jam jar by the dead log is full of beetle poo, or more accurately, the characteristic lozenge shaped frass of the Noble Chafer beetle. Its a rare beauty and an old orchard specialist so I thought it would be a good prop to have in case I met anyone really keen! I had a selection of some of the good orchardy books too:

The Story of the Apple, by Barrie Juniper and David Mabberley

Man-made Eden: Historic Orchards in Somerset and Gloucestershire, by James Russell

Ciderland, by James Crowden

The Northern Pomona, by Linden Hawthorne, Elke Laver, Bridget Gillespie and others.

All worthy additions to any garden library. I also had a few copies of my article for Historic Gardens magazine - The Traditional British Orchard - A precious and fragile resource. It's not in print yet but stand posted...

Saturday, May 29, 2010

Looking for water voles on the River Evenlode

Recently I accompanied two ecologists from the Gloucestershire Wildlife Trust, along with Tim Field (Daylesford Environmental Scientist) and John Field (Water Vole Officer, no relation!) to look for water voles on the River Evenlode. One of the main areas we were inspecting was a wetland ecosystem beside the river that has recently been created by Tim on behalf of Daylesford Organic. The project has already looked at several Cotswold rivers recently and is part of a nationwide scheme to help reverse disastrous recent declines in the mammal.

The highlighted area is the wetland reserve, photographed in May 2009. The Evenlode is visible as a thin line passing down through it. Until quite recently this water-meadow was very 'horse sick' - that is to say it had been heavily overgrazed by horses. Two years ago the culverts, ditches and pond (visible as lighter brown marks) were added using a JCB with valves to allow the water levels to be adjusted. Over the winter months the area is flooded, providing valuable habitat for migrant waders and waterfowl as well as flood alleviation for people living up- and downstream. In the later summer and autumn the regrowth is enjoyed by Gloucester cattle, an old breed hardy enough to handle rough grazing land.

Already a number of key meadow and wet meadow species have emerged in the sward, including meadow foxtail, marsh thistle, common knapweed, marsh woundwort and meadowsweet. The ecologists suggested that the sward could be further enhanced if a hay cut was taken off the site, followed by a transfer of wet hay from the fantastic wet meadows at Greystones Farm Widllife Trust reserve near Boughton-on-the-Water. This would provide seed from some of the rarer species (e.g. orchids and sedges) that are unlikely to naturally recolonise.

The main dyke and surrounding marsh. Exposed soil and algal blooms betray the young age of the water feature, but it will already have been colonised by many invertebrates, particularly dragonflies and damselflies. A pair of Lapwing were diving and calling over the marsh and perhaps had a nest nearby or were prospecting the site.

We looked for water vole latrines as the only sure fire way of confirming their presence (apart from spotting one obviously!). There are a number of secondary clues that can be used for further evidence such as,

1) their burrows - BUT can be old and uninhabited or confused with the brown rat's
2) piles of chewed grasses and reeds - particularly yellow flag iris - BUT also displayed by bank and field voles so unreliable.

Overshading of the riverbanks by trees and bushes has made many river banks unfavourable for the water vole, combined with the other big factor, American Mink. These hardcore predatory mammals are often foolishly released from farms into the wild by so-called 'animal rights protesters' (ha!). Unfortunately they have quite a taste for the water vole. This stretch of the river looked like quite good habitat so mink are probably why we didn't find any.

A mallard's nest in an old coppiced willow. Is this an unusually large clutch?

Otter spraint and footprints on the riverbank. They have very large territories (40 miles!) so it may not live nearby. The spread of the invasive signal crayfish may well have helped otters recolonise much of the country. A large contributor to their decline were the endocrine disrupting chemicals (EDCs) used as agricultural pesticides that accumulated in the food chain from the 1950s until recently. These are now banned and otters are doing well.

Monday, May 24, 2010

1920s orchard in full spring glory

Before and after shots of the 1920s orchard. The 'after' photos were taken two weeks ago and the 'before shots in the winter of 2008. Fifty trees have been pruned, the grass has been cut and the birds are nesting all over the place.

Areas of long grass have been left to provide nectar sources and cover for birds and small mammals. In combination with the short grass this will provide some variety of habitat. Better air circulation will improve the health of the trees and reduce scab on the fruit. Mechanical mowing is a short term solution - in the long term we will hopefully fence the site and reinstate sheep grazing.

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