Hens enjoying a fresh new run last year before the bird-flu restrictions - heads down & busy looking for bugs!
An 'Eggsistential' Crisis for Free-Range and Organic Egg Production?
Many of you will be aware by now that there have recently been bird-flu outbreaks in several parts of Europe. Due to this, for the time being, all free-range poultry must by law be kept confined in their houses and not allowed to roam outside, where they could potentially have contact with wild birds. I feel desperately sorry for all the organic and free-range poultry that are currently having to be kept completely shut in. Being permanently housed upsets laying hens when they are used to having the freedom to go outside whenever they wish. The restriction and abnormal overcrowding could eventually cause them to go into an early moult, if it continues for much longer. Moulting is something hens would normally do around midsummer. That's the time they usually drop their feathers in order to grow new ones, take a bit of a holiday and go 'out of lay' for a few weeks - or in other words completely stop laying eggs. The restrictions are already causing problems for both commercial conventional free-range and organic producers - but it could also have very serious implications for the long-term viability of their businesses if the ban lasts for much longer. There's been some debate among consumers in recent weeks as to whether free-range and organic producers may continue to label their eggs as such in the light of these restrictions. Some consumers have even suggested that they should be made to change their packaging - as it is now to all intents and purposes misleading! This is an unrealistic demand! As a former commercial organic poultry producer, I am acutely aware that producers are already working on very tight margins and such a requirement could be a potential game-changer for many.
So what's to be done about this? Firstly I think that the all the departments of agriculture in affected countries should fund the production of labels explaining the reason for the current restrictions - something which could temporarily be stuck onto existing packaging at no expense to producers. Secondly - we all need to get behind organic or free-range producers, whichever type of eggs we prefer to buy - by buying their produce regardless of our feelings about the current ban. The egg yolks may possibly be lighter in colour, due to the hens being able to eat less green food, if they are on truly extensive free-range - but in most cases there will very little difference, if any, in the eggs. If we stop buying free-range eggs altogether, then their businesses may go to the wall. Then not only will consumer choice become more restricted - but so will many more hens! It will be the perfect excuse for intensive poultry farmers to argue that keeping poultry indoors in typically overcrowded, unhealthy and inhumane conditions is the only way to produce both eggs and chicken meat!
My hens have a large scratching pen adjoining their house, with a roof of clear polycarbonate sheeting to keep it dry, which they normally walk through en route to their various different runs. It's a bit like a large covered loggia or porch! Currently their scratching pen is also completely covered with fine-meshed fruit netting - this very effectively keeps any wild birds out. Luckily they're quite used to this as wild birds can be an awful nuisance, stealing their expensive organic hen food - so the majority of their pen is normally kept covered, with just a small entrance and exit for them to access their runs. This means that they don't have to be completely shut up in their house currently - but can go in and out of the covered scratching pen whenever they want too. They're not upset by being a bit more restricted than usual, as I often shut them into it when changing them over to a new run. When I used to produce organic chickens for meat - I allowed my broilers to range into one of the four large polytunnels which I then had for growing vegetables. They absolutely loved it in there and spent most of their time stretched out, luxuriating in the warm sun - when they weren't scratching around for grubs and worms in the tunnel soil! They had a pretty good life! They were the usual commercial broiler breed which the uninformed say can't be reared to larger than about 1.5kg - but I could rear them to 4kg plus - almost as big as turkeys - without any of them having heart attacks or any leg problems! They were fit and healthy, organic birds that's why!
After I gave up commercial production I kept my few hens in a movable small run attached to a house on wheels which was moved every day. In 2013 I broke my shoulder very badly, so I could no longer move that heavy run. They're now kept in a 'des res' spacious new house (a re-purposed Wendy house, complete with a smart front door and windows!) and we built a permanent system of runs radiating out from it like the spokes of a wheel - which can be constantly rotated to give them fresh ground. This is vitally important for keeping hens healthy and free from any parasites or diseases. It's a system that works very well for me. Their old movable pen was then re-purposed to become their new 'scratching pen'/loggia and in there they have plenty of room to do everything that they normally would. They can dust bathe, scratch around in plant remains and litter, flap their wings, eat their daily ration of the greens which I grow specially for them and even sunbathe - which they really love! Although they would normally much rather be ranging completely outside in the runs when the weather is dry - they're also used to being in the scratching pen a lot because they always dash in there at the slightest hint of any rain and it rains quite a lot here! Hens prefer to keep their feathers dry! They are originally descended from jungle fowl in the far east and in their natural habitat would spend most of their time foraging and scratching around under dense shrubs in forests, for grubs, seeds and the like,so there they naturally always had the ability and instinct to dash under bushes or trees to keep dry in any tropical downpours.
All poultry still have that deep-rooted, instinctive need to be able to exhibit their natural behaviour. I think that my 'scratching pen' arrangement is an example which could easily be adopted by commercial free-range or organic producers - even those with movable houses. Polytunnel-like structures would be equally effective as 'scratching pens'. I can't understand why the many free-range poultry farmers who are currently complaining about having to shut up hens, don't have a similar arrangement but just on a larger scale. I suppose once again it comes down to the cost. It would otherwise be easy enough to do and far more humane. Their hens would be far happier, warmer and more likely to go outside the houses too, if they had a covered and sheltered 'half-way house', where it was dry. Surely informed consumers would support this and be prepared to pay a little extra for their eggs? Some organic free-range producers are at least starting to 'enrich' their runs as they call it, with a few trees for shelter. Having kept poultry all my life and observed their behaviour - I believe that this lack of shelter is why, when very large numbers of free-range hens are kept in a house together, often 90% of them will never go outside at all! This even applies to organic hens, if too many are kept in large flocks with hundreds or even thousands in a house. When I kept organic free range hens commercially, I never kept more than around a 100 in a house because I found that if I went over that number - increasingly fewer hens would venture outside. I'm totally appalled that in the USA - even organic laying hens are allowed to be kept in huge barns full of thousands of birds, with no outside access whatsoever! This is clearly due to pressure from big agri-business interests wanting to jump onto the organic bandwagon, due to the rapidly increasing demand - but it is a total disgrace and eggs from those systems should never be allowed to be certified organic! That would never be allowed in the UK or Ireland under our organic standards. Organic free-range is not just about what the poultry are fed or not fed! It's also about ethics and allowing all poultry the most natural life possible, whether they are being kept for egg laying or reared for meat.
To be really healthy, ideally all poultry should be kept in fairly small numbers, with the houses and runs moved regularly to fresh ground. This is naturally a far more expensive way to produce both eggs and poultry meat though and currently is not economically viable even for many organic producers. For some reason many people seem to believe that eggs should be dirt-cheap - even organic ones! This is encouraged by the relatively cheap organic eggs available in some of the discount supermarkets. However - the quality of both eggs and chickens for meat really suffers when producers are forced to keep them at the highest stocking density allowed in order to be profitable. Producers have no choice but to cut corners in order to cut costs - even in some organic flocks. The inability to behave in their instinctive natural way is why it's so cruel that most of the poultry kept for food production are now kept in such unnaturally overcrowded, cramped and stressful conditions. This is also true of many of the conventional so-called 'free-range' units I've seen. This overcrowding can lead to serious injuries from cannibalism, due to the close proximity of so many others, when they in the wild they would normally range widely in small family groups, getting plenty of interest and exercise. Overcrowding is also the reason why they can be more prone to diseases which can spread rapidly. As a result many are constantly medicated with antibiotics, purely as a preventative measure. Routine use of antibiotics in intensive farming is one of the major reasons for the increasing rise in the incidence of antibiotic resistance.
People complain about wild animals kept in zoos but somehow poultry often seem to be exempt from many peoples compassion! Hens are essentially wild animals too and far more intelligent creatures than most people give them credit for. I always believed and was told by my customers that our eggs were the best available anywhere. 25 years ago I was actually getting the same price for my organic eggs that most producers still are now! Frankly I would have to be very hard-pushed to buy any commercially produced eggs - even from organic flocks which are fed on organic, non-GMO feed. I would sooner go without eggs altogether than buy non-organic, even free-range ones. I'm sorry to say that most so-called free-range hens are just wandering around on sour and lifeless, faeces-ridden mud patches! In addition to that - non-organic, free-range laying hens or chickens for meat are still fed exactly the same ration containing the GMOs and pesticide-treated grains that caged hens are and are still treated with additional pesticides and antibiotics when necessary!
The best quality eggs should be valued for the wonderfully healthy, complete meal that they are. Customers should demand the very best and be prepared to pay for it! Then all poultry might have a far healthier and happier life!
Here are some basic precautions you can take to avoid backyard poultry catching avian influenza (or bird 'flu.)
As the virus can survive in any bird droppings or manure from hen houses for up to 105 days - good basic hygiene at all levels is absolutely essential.
These are mostly common sense guidelines which should always be followed when keeping any poultry - whether you have hundreds or just one or two!
Make sure they have warm, weather-proof housing, with plenty of ventilation but no draughts if possible. I am constantly horrified at the filthy conditions in which I see some backyard flocks kept - even some 'rescued' ex-battery hens. Being 'rescued' to live in a dark airless shed with only a small filthy mud-patch to walk round in is NOT being 'rescued' - it's just exchanging one kind of hellish prison for another - and frankly they'd be better off dead! Some people actually seem proud of showing off their hens living in this way! If you're not prepared to give them the best conditions you possibly can - then you shouldn't be keeping them at all!
Keeping hens away from any contact with wild birds which may be carrying the virus is essential for as long as the the Dept of Agriculture restrictions apply.
As this can stress poultry and also restrict their movement and fresh air - it's a good idea to make a small enclosure outside their run which is completely covered on top with something like polycarbonate corrugated sheeting or even just heavy clear plastic sheeting as I suggest above. This stops any wild birds sitting on top and depositing droppings. Putting wire netting on top first and then the plastic sheeting over the top gives it some support. The sides should be left open for fresh air movement. My hens' scratching pen is covered with wire netting as a base, a polycarbonate roof and and then fruit netting over the top of everything including the sides. This completely prevents even small birds getting in and also stops the plastic sheeting flapping and frightening the hens.
Keep housing regularly cleaned out to avoid build up of droppings which can give off damaging ammonia fumes.
These can damage their lungs and cause respiratory infections even without contracting any virus! I find wood shavings far more absorbent than straw or even shredded paper. I buy large bales from my local farm supplies store. I top up the shavings every day to absorb any dampness and ammonia and then the whole house is cleaned out completely - hay in nest boxes and all - once a week.
Make sure that all feeders and drinkers are kept scrupulously cleaned - if possible every day.
Even in a covered run I find it useful to raise the drinker on a brick or similar to avoid any contamination by the hens' own faeces or mud. A couple of cloves of crushed garlic can be put into a small muslin or net bag and put inside the drinker is good for the hens. Putting it in a bag stops it blocking the holes where the water goes out. An old washing-up bowl, which I saw in one acquaintance's hen run will not do! (Not only that - it was empty on one occasion when I visited! That person considers that they are an 'expert' and should have known better!) I've always used garlic as a preventative measure for the hen's health. I've never found that it affects the eggs or the taste of the flesh sadly - although some green foods like red cabbage can affect the taste of eggs. (Many years ago an organic acquaintance looked sceptical after I told him this - he called in unexpectedly to see my broilers one day, no doubt thinking that he could catch me out! When I opened the door of the polytunnel they were enjoying ranging in at the time he reeled back in shock at the smell of the garlic and was thereafter forever silenced!)
Keeping feeders inside the house will discourage any wild birds from trying to get in. Feeding your wild birds somewhere well away from your poultry areas is also a good idea.
If rats or other vermin are a problem set metal cage traps
Don't use poison. Crunchy peanut butter makes excellent bait - works a treat!
Feed your hens the best compound feed you can if you want the best eggs.
I feed mine Organic Layers Pellets. These are all organic, free of GMOs and contain a nutritionally balanced ration with all the essential nutrients they require. They can't obtain everything they need if they are enclosed in a small pen - and neither can they when free-ranging, as any worms and grubs etc quickly get disposed of. Just throwing them a handful of corn occasionally is false economy and won't produce the bet eggs or many of them!
Finally - I think that feeding fresh green food is essential.
In addition to any waste from the tunnels or the kitchen - I grow chicory and kale specifically for them. This is particularly important in the winter when grass growth is slow. When they're shut in they won't even be able to eat any grass - so it's even more important then. This gives the eggs a lovely colour - the hens love their greens and look forward to them every day. If they see me coming their way from the polytunnels there's a general stampede to the side of the run to be there first!
A quick checklist of symptoms just in case you're worried.
Coughing, sneezing, runny noses, runny eyes - just like us when we have a cold. A build up of ammonia in a dirty house can also cause these symptoms.
Hunched up, lethargic and depressed looking, feathers ruffled and standing up.
Decrease egg production and any a lot of shelled eggs (be careful not to get confused here as keeping them shut in if they not used to it may stop them laying for a while).
Severe & smelly greenish diarrhoea - very serious if accompanied by other symptoms but can also be caused sometime by greedily eating too much green food!
If you suddenly see a lot of dead birds anywhere - especially waterfowl - inform the Dept of Ag immediately! One or two is natural. Do NOT handle dead birds. If your own poultry are affected do not handle them without gloves and put any dead birds into a bin bag immediately to avoid other birds scavenging.
There's a link to further information together with some frequently asked questions and answers here:
"Compulsory housing of poultry and captive birds in Ireland from the Department of Agriculture." -
In the Wildlife Garden - Nature is Slowly Awakening
The birds are starting their dawn chorus about 6.30 am now. It's really beginning to sound almost like spring all of a sudden, despite the weather! The chaffinches are parading around in their spring finery and singing their hearts out. The blackbirds and thrushes are really tuning up. It does our hearts good to hear them, making up a bit for the alternating storms, freezing gales and wet weather that have been so depressing. The blackbirds have done a great job clearing up slugs and snails over the winter, earning their pay of seeds, rotting apples and fruit scraps. This morning I found this perfect, untouched bloom of Iris Lazica on the B&B bank (bee and butterfly bank). It's a rare sight without holes, as they're usually reduced to miserable lacy shreds whilst still in bud in a bad slug year - but the huge population of birds here have definitely been out doing their job this year! The increasing light is encouraging a lot of early spring flowers now, despite the cold. Every day there's something new to look at and everything is waking up for another year. It's so lovely to see those first signs of spring again - especially the flowers given by old friends, some now gone. The brighter daylight hours are noticeably approaching an even amount of daylight to dark now. By the end of next month there will be almost two more hours of daylight in every day and that's when growth really starts to accelerate. The spring equinox is less than a month away now. In only two months our swallows will be back - bringing summer on their wings. One swallow may not make a summer - but it certainly makes my spring perfect! Let's hope we've got a warm dry summer to look forward to, with abundant insects for them to raise their precious broods once again.
The garden is already full of busy activity - with birds thronging around the feeders eager to build up their energy to breed. Food has become so scarce now that feeding them is vital for their survival - and will continue to be for a couple more months yet. A friend remarked the other day that we have sparrows in industrial quantities here - so any stray garden seeds have long since been hoovered up as efficiently as usual. The 'charms' of goldfinches are constantly clustered around the Nyjer feeders now - more like noisy swarms of bees. They're amazingly aggressive and argumentative for such tiny delicate-looking birds. If you can manage it - feeding birds all year round is a good idea these days. It not only feeds them reliably, but also means they may eat fewer hoverflies, butterflies and bees which are finding it harder to survive too. I love sparrows but can't bear it when I find a beautiful pair of satin butterfly's wings left from some sparrow's lunch, like an unwanted ball gown cast off after a disappointing dance! I know that's nature's way but it's so sad sometimes to see it. Peanuts and fat balls are fine for the smaller birds and even blackbirds - but the shy thrush that's singing so beautifully at the top of the bee and butterfly border behind the polytunnels right now won't come too close to the tunnel or the house - so I put some damaged and rotting fruit or other scraps out for him further away from the feeders. Most of last autumn's fruits are long gone - and they are so grateful for any fruit you can spare now in freezing weather. Avocados are a great favourite - and it's often possible to buy these cheaply from the 'reduced' sections of the local supermarkets. Unlike more fussy humans - they don't mind a few bruises on their fruit!
Not so bird-brained after all!
I recently read some research from scientists at the University of Lund in Sweden, who published a study in the Journal of Behaviour Ecology and Sociobiology which showed that Great Tits actually spy on other birds to see where they hide their reserves of seeds and nuts. Biologists found that great tits can remember the position of the hideaways up to 24 hours after seeing it being hidden! (Amazing - I often forget after five minutes where I've put something!) Interestingly, even though great tits share this mental ability with well known hoarders such as crows and jays - they don't store up food for themselves. They're too lazy I presume - or too darn clever. It's far easier to steal it from others than to waste energy doing all that hard work yourself! So that's why they're always the most abundant bird on the bird feeders! Another less than charming habit they've developed was noticed by researchers in caves in Hungary. In harsh conditions of freezing snow cover when food is scarce - they will even eat Pipistrelle bats! No wonder the 'free-for-alls' on the bird feeders are so vicious and noisy - the little thugs! I suppose they have to survive though, like everything else it's the survival of the fittest - and I hate to think of what may happen among all of nature as climate change inevitably puts more pressure on everything. I think it will be an increasingly hard fight to survive for many.
The importance of shelter
Any creatures that didn't settle down for a proper winter hibernation, due to the milder weather in late autumn, will already be desperate for food. With loss of habitat, pesticides etc. - food is something that's becoming harder for them to find every day. Many farmers now cut their hedges down to the bone, and some - like my neighbour - take most of them out altogether. They obviously don't know of the research a few years ago which showed that the small amount they may gain in extra room for crops, by ripping out their hedges, is actually far more than cancelled out by the lack of shelter afforded to their crops by a decent wind-proof hedge. A hedge can give wind shelter up to as far away as a distance of 20 times it's height. Even the most inexperienced gardener knows that plants won't grow well without shelter from strong winds. It can be a big problem in new gardens. I wouldn't have a garden here at all without the shelter belt of trees I planted well over 30 years ago. The shelter provided by growing hedges and trees in gardens also means plenty of habitat for all the creatures and plants that used to live in our rapidly vanishing woodlands and forest margins. When many of those were cut down, their flora and fauna then had to take refuge in the only strips of remaining woodland they could find - which were hedges and field edges. Now - with those disappearing - everything we can do in our gardens to provide a home for nature is vitally important for them.
There is really nothing that looks more sad than a hedge which has been vandalised to shreds - torn down to ugly stumps by those powerful flailing machines. It's of little use for anything except to mark a field boundary, and certainly does nothing to prevent flooding, as the more abundant hedges and trees years ago did. A hedge that's been reduced to stumps provides no shelter for crops or animals - doesn't make a stock-proof fence and provides virtually no cover or habitat for wildlife. It also doesn't slow water flow during heavy rainstorms - something which is becoming more of a problem everywhere. For 35 years now here, I've been trying to develop as many different kinds of habitat as possible on my five acres, in order to attract the widest diversity of native flora and fauna as I possibly can. It's been very successful, with my wildlife meadow, gardens and woodland beginning to feel more and more like a small sanctuary among the ever-increasing spread of chemical farming 'desert' all around us here. It's becoming daily more difficult for all wildlife to survive, not just in this area but all over the country and in fact the world. It's really important that us gardeners do everything we can to help wildlife and to protect it's biodiversity by providing the right habitat and by not using pesticides - particularly slug pellets - which slowly poison many of the creatures like hedgehogs, frogs and birds whose diet consists of slugs which may have consumed them....and which also - by the way - are fast becoming one of the biggest pollutants of our ground water everywhere! So much so that the EU issued strict guidelines on their use a couple of years ago - but who is out there policing their use? No one - is the answer to that I'm afraid!
Habitat decline is becoming worse here in Ireland - driven by the constant ongoing intensification of agriculture. It's about 15 years since I heard an owl here at night. I think I've only seen one or two flying overhead at dusk since then. They used to be abundant until the wildflower-rich old pasture surrounding us was ploughed up to grow cereals. Naturally, the crops were huge over the first few years because of the abundant humus, fertility and biological activity in the soil which had built up over countless generations. Since then the crops have gradually declined - which happens when chemical fertilisers are used instead of compost and manures. The soil and crops look increasingly sick and my neighbour was complaining recently that there's no drainage in the soil any more. There was just no point me saying anything - he thinks I'm barmy because I'm organic! A popular view among certain sections of the sadly uninformed farming community! He doesn't make the connection between the increasing amount of poisons he's pouring onto the land and the fact that there are no worms or soil life left! It looks like an open sewer after rain! Compacted and with green algae-filled puddles everywhere. He might as well be trying to grow crops on the road! It's so terribly sad.
Why I don't use peat anymore
Another major contributor to habitat decline, loss of biodiversity and increased flooding is the destruction of peat bogs to mine peat - both for generating power and for use in gardens. 'Mining' peat releases huge amounts of carbon into the atmosphere - as peatlands are a major global carbon sink. This adds to global warming and climate change:
In terms of biodiversity - there are many plants, insects and other creatures that are totally dependent on bogland habitats and can't live anywhere else - many of these will die out if bogs are destroyed. We've recently suffered floods all over Ireland - but few people understand that our bogs act like giant sponges - absorbing any rainfall and then releasing it again very gradually - in amounts that waterways can naturally cope with. See how a large bath sponge absorbs water - scale it up - and you get the idea. We're increasingly seeing the results of removing such natural flood protection - at a huge cost to the environment, to agriculture and to peoples homes.
Gardeners really don't need to use peat - these days there are plenty of alternatives. There are several excellent peat-free composts on the market now - both organic and non-organic. Organic gardeners try to encourage microbial activity in their soil because this enhances plants immune systems and helps them to grow. Peat is a naturally anti-microbial product - so why on earth would you choose to use it? In fact spaghnum moss - which most peat is made up of - was actually used for making anti-bacterial dressings in World War One! I stopped using peat and peat composts many years ago - with varying success from the peat-free products available then. But I now get excellent results from the Klassman peat-free, organic seed and potting composts which I personally use. I never lose seedlings in them as they are so healthy - so any additional cost is offset by far fewer plant losses. They may cost a bit more than cheaper peat composts - but I promise you if you try them you won't be disappointed! Despite what some may say - peat bogs can never be restored. Re-planted perhaps - but you can't restore millions of years of accumulated carbon just by planting a few trees! Once they're gone - they're really gone! Our peat bogs are precious - diminishing them diminishes both us and the nature that needs them.
So many people don't understand just how very dependent on pollinating insectsus larger creatures higher up the food chain are! I think it was Darwin that said that if pollinating insects were to disappear - then we would be 3 years away from mass starvation! I wonder if my chemically-dependent neighbour ever gives a thought to what would possibly pollinate his oil seed rape if he sprays everything out of existence? I doubt it! Hopefully the generation of children now at school are being taught just how vitally important the survival of seemingly insignificant insects is for our own survival! The latest really sick thing is that Chemical giant Syngenta are now investing millions on research into farming bumble bees - they can see a huge market worth billions of dollars in the future when their pesticide sprays have killed off all the natural pollinators! A study in the science press recently reported that although those bees are supposed to be healthy when imported for pollinating crops - DNA tests showed that many are actually carrying viruses and bacteria that are already starting to endanger our native bees - as if they weren't under enough pressure already! It's a bit like selling us chemically laden foods and antibiotics that destroy our gut bacteria - then selling a few of them back to us in the form of expensive probiotic drinks. Such drinks with fancy named bacteria actually do nothing for you anyway because they have to be pasteurised - which kills the beneficial bacteria!! And that's quite apart from the fact of all the sugar and rubbish they contain too. An expensive six pack of that stuff can't make up for an unhealthy diet - although perhaps it might make the buyer feel better about themselves! You're far better off eating some home made yoghurt, or kefir - which is even better.
My polytunnels are a great food source for smaller birds - and many spend a lot of time in there. After lunch yesterday the temperature on the thermometer in there registered almost 20 deg. in the frosty sunshine! A wren and a robin were hunting busily along the sides for any small insects that might be lurking around. I spent an hour weeding one of my favourite bits - the small herb and flower beds under the two peach trees at the north end. Not a moment too soon - I hadn't noticed the Greek oregano had already put on so much young growth (I love some of the young soft leaves in early salads) and the lemon thyme in the other bed has such a wonderful scent - almost as good as lemon verbena - it's an instant aromatherapy lift and deliciously soothing to weed. I was surprised to see borage already flowering in there. All those herbs and flowers in the end beds bring in masses of insects and bees both on mild days in winter and later on in spring - which help to pollinate those crops like peaches and strawberries which need it. Their industrious hard work saves me a lot of arm-aching pollination with a paint brush.
At this time of year, even if it's cold, I usually try to take some time out every day just sitting in the garden listening to the birdsong - such soothing music for the soul. I have a bench at the top end of the orchard, which nestles cosily under an old, thick hedge of hawthorn and blackthorn, facing south. I've put bird feeders close by because birds love to have a bit of cover which they can hop into between snacks. Whenever I sit there I'm instantly joined by a bevy of blue tits, robins and sparrows etc. waiting for me to produce more food. I'm beginning to think that they see me as some sort of giant mobile bird feeder! Everywhere I go around the garden in winter, I have a cloud of little feathered followers, their wings fluttering and whirring as they hop from twig to twig, waiting to see what's in my pockets. When I first came here, there were very few trees, only those along the perimeter hedges, and no birdsong at all that very first spring - it was a real 'Silent Spring'. And thus it might have stayed - but over the intervening years since then I've planted hundreds of trees, under-planting them with many kinds of fruiting shrubs and wildflowers for the birds, butterflies, moths and other insects. Now every year the dawn chorus grows louder and more varied. Sound is really important in the garden - and so often it's something which is completely overlooked. Trees can make a wonderfully soothing sound - as they sigh and whisper in a breeze. It's almost like meditation to stop for a few minutes in the midst of a busy life and really listen sometimes - you will be amazed at what you can hear - even seed pods popping on the Euphorbia Mellifera in late summer! I heard a tree's heartbeat once - it was utterly magical!..........The peace to be able to hear those small elusive sounds is truly beyond price! As the poet G K Chesterton said - "To truly learn how to value something - imagine losing it."
As the birds are so hungry now, they're really grateful for any food, and there will be hardly any insect activity for weeks yet, until some warmer weather. Good news for some gardeners - but very bad news for birds - so do keep feeding them high protein foods like seeds, peanuts and meal worms. Fat balls are a favourite but they're quite an expensive item. You can make your own though - as I've described before - by getting free bones and scraps from your butcher - cooking them to render off the fat and then mixing that when cooled with seeds, grated cheese, brown breadcrumbs, currants etc. Old yogurt pots or something similar are great for molding them in - grown up seed castles instead of sandcastles! They're much cheaper and the birds love them. They're only a bit of bother - and really valuable to the birds. The antics and the birdsong are well worth it anyway! Nature's free entertainment - and cheap at the price!
According to a recent survey, blackbird and song thrush numbers are seriously declining. Numbers of starlings, tree sparrows, yellow wagtails and many other woodland and farmland species have plummeted too. All mostly due to habitat loss, weedkillers, slug pellets and pesticides - so our gardens are becoming ever more important to their survival. Especially chemical-free organic gardens.
There's so much you can do to help them. There's still just time to plant bare root fruiting and berrying trees like crab apples, and shrubs like elder, cotoneaster, hawthorn and pyracantha to feed birds, insects and other wildlife. These provide cover and nesting places too. Willow cuttings will also root very easily at this time of year too - just bury them about 2/3rds in the soil in a damp spot. You also only have a couple more weeks to put up nest boxes for the early broods. Nearly all the 'des res's' will be bagged by now, but there's always room for a few more. Make sure that old ones are clean and ready for action too. The sparrows and blue tits in particular have already been busily house-hunting for several weeks now.
There's also lots of things like sunflowers and teasels that you can easily grow for the birds. If you just grow teasels just once - you will always have them - as they tend to sow themselves around or the birds drop them. They make really handsome, tough and statuesque plants in a wild corner or even in a flower border - where their huge silvery-green leaves make a wonderful contrast with smaller leaf shapes. Bees, butterflies and moths love them in summer. Then bats come out in the dusk to eat the moths they attract. In winter, birds like goldfinches and the tit family love their seeds too. They're a wonderful plant for wildlife. If you've grown chicory or endive over the winter in the vegetable garden - you could transplant one or two plants to a sunny corner - they have incredibly beautiful blue flowers, also much loved by bees etc. and then afterwards, useful seeds for birds like goldfinches too. This year I'll also be sowing more nectar and pollen producing annuals in the garden, as well as hedgerow and woodland wildflower mixes for the meadow and down by the pond. Bees, butterflies, moths and bats need all the help they can get - they too are disappearing alarmingly fast. By the way - if you're thinking of growing wildflowers this year - don't just scatter seed into your lawn - they'll just get lost or eaten. Sow some in seed trays or plugs instead and plant them out when they're bigger - they're far easier to establish that way.
In the borders and woodland garden - Hellebores are one of the best pollen-producing plants at the moment - they're very popular with bees on any mild days. Some of the Helleborus Orientalis hybrids flowering in the garden now:
Green spotted Helleborus Orientalis hybrid
Hellebore 'Old Tapestry' - my own hybrid
Hellebore 'Taffeta Velvet' - and another home-bred
The Hellebores really lift one's spirits now after a long winter. The small voles that used to mince up all the flower buds to get at the pollen, just before they flowered, seem to have disappeared. Perhaps killed by the cats or plentiful local buzzards!Their graceful drooping flowers really are stunning - but they bashfully hide their beauty so you have to turn them face up to really appreciate them fully - or pick individual flowers and float them in a bowl of water. Nature is truly wonderful - how can something so utterly beautiful be so incredibly tough? They can be completely bowed down and frozen solid, early on a frosty morning - but a couple of hours later they will look as perky and pristine as ever! The poisonous alkaloids they contain in their sap must be some sort of anti-freeze. Some of the dark ones have really gorgeous young foliage - of the very deepest bronze. Those hellebores in particular look beautiful well into May - many of the others look rather ugly as they fade though, particularly the pink ones, which tend to look dirty. The bronze ones look lovely contrasted with snowdrops and later on pale lemon narcissus (daffodil) W.P. Milner and lemon and gold-laced primulas. I never get tired of looking into their beautiful faces and marveling at the endless variations of colour and form. The bees love all of them too - they provide valuable early nectar and pollen.
Some more flowers - you can never have too many Hellebores!:
Slate black double
White & crimson picotee
White with claret nectaries
More jobs in the wildlife garden!
If you haven't done so already - rake dead rotting leaves off borders and remove dead and untidy leaves from things like stachys lanata (lambs ears) epimediums etc. this makes room for any new growth or flower buds coming through. It also exposes any slug hiding places! The birds are so hungry and eager for food at the moment they won't be too long about clearing up any lurking pests! After tidying - give border plants a general, slow release, organic feed like fish, blood and bone and a mulch of home made compost - that is if you can spare it from your vegetable garden. Don't get too enthusiastic about tidying everywhere in the garden though and do be careful just in case there's still something asleep under dry piles of leaves!
Leave a few untidy corners where last autumn's gales blew in piles of twigs and leaves, otherwise you might still disturb creatures like hedgehogs. Some may still be hibernating and it's really too early for them to come out yet. They need to sleep peacefully for just a bit longer - their bodies barely 'ticking over'- until the much milder days of spring, when there will be more food about.
Remember - wildlife loves an untidy garden - and that's really the best excuse in the world if - like me - you're not the tidiest anyway!! It's always good to leave some long grass somewhere with maybe a berrying shrub or two and a tree. Everyone should have a little wildlife corner - no matter how small their garden - you can even do it in a tub! It provides much needed habitat for all sorts of creatures.
My biomass willows at the bottom of the field are just starting to come into flower now. Their glittering silver 'pussy willow' catkins catch the light as the trees sway in the breeze - they almost look like flowering cherries from the top of the hill. If we get a few mild days there'll soon be early bees collecting their pollen. The willows don't just provide great carbon neutral fuel, but look beautiful, provide shelter and encourage wildlife while they're growing! What a paragon of a tree! They'll be coppiced to burn in our wood burning stove in another couple of years, leaving the stumps to re-grow. They grow really well, making the very best use of a difficult wet spot if you have room to plant them, some putting on as much as ten feet or more of growth every year on our heavy County Meath clay soil. There ought to be a lot more of them planted downhill of many rural domestic sewage systems, to deal with the problem of nutrient run-off into the water table!
I wonder if we could possibly try something like offsetting 'willow - nutrient & carbon capture points' against any septic tank charge? Now there's a thought............On the other hand - they might decide to tax the willows too - though they haven't thought of that one yet!!
The sun's just come out brilliantly - I'm off to eat my lunch in the tunnel, listen to the bird song, enjoy the moment and make plans for summer!
(P.S.I really enjoy sharing my original ideas and 40 years experience of growing and cooking my own organic food with you. It's most satisfying and naturally also very complimentary if others find "inspiration" in my work......But if you do happen to copy any of my material, or repeat it in any way online - I would appreciate it very much if you would please mention that it originally came from me, as it's the result of many years of hard work and often hard won-experience. Thank you.)