Fascinating moth by the back door handle - 22.5.14
Fascinating moth by the back door handle

There are so many beautiful small things to see if you keep your eyes open!

To see a world in a Grain of Sand
And a heaven in a Wild Flower,
Hold Infinity in the palm of your hand
And Eternity in an hour.........
William Blake (1757-1827)
Snail on window birdfeeder - trying to work out the logisitics! 21.5.14
Snail on window birdfeeder - trying to work out the logisitics!
Biodiversity isn't just vitally important - it's very beautiful and life-enhancing too
Holding the closest thing to infinity in the palm of my hand - 17.5.11
Holding the closest thing to infinity in the palm of my hand! 
I think I held possibly the closest thing to infinity in the palm of my hand a couple of summers ago - when I had to scoop yet another young swallow up from the kitchen windowsill and set it free!  Now forever immortalised in the photo I took as he very calmly surveyed all around him while sitting in my hand!  Those small jet black eyes looking back at me had seen such marvelous things in exotic landscapes that I shall never see - such a tiny, perfect, weightless scrap of life - to fly so close to infinity! To think that swallows fly those 6,000 miles, with all it's many hazards and yet somehow miraculously come straight back to the very nest they were born in! The result of millions of years of evolution and genetic programming. Nature truly is a wondrous thing. After flying all those thousands of miles - it seems strange that some of them can't even find their way back out of my kitchen! But it truly was a moment I shall remember forever! For me - that one swallow most definitely did 'make my summer'! People really miss a great deal when they don't appreciate the small things in Nature - there's so much joy to be found in them.
The top half of the kitchen door out into the courtyard is permanently open at this time of year - I can't bear to shut it unless there's a westerly blowing in a horizontal storm from God-knows-where. I so love to hear all the birdsong - with the result that swallows regularly fly in several times a day, to see if there's any suitable rafters to nest on!  There's obviously a lot of pressure on the housing situation at the moment, last year they raised three broods successfully, and judging from the flocks skimming and swooping over the fields catching insects, and dangerously 'buzzing' low over the dogs lying in the yard - it seems like most of them made it back home again after their winter sojourn in warmer, more exotic climes! They fly in through the half door, do two or three circuits of the kitchen ceiling above my head as I sit here at the computer, and then most quite easily fly out again. Just a few dumb ones try the closed windows, then sit on the windowsill looking pathetic until they're rescued! They're looking for every prospective nest site now - and while I'm quite prepared to keep on covering mowers, feed bins etc. to protect them from swallow droppings - even I draw the line at bird droppings on the kitchen table!

Happily there's loads of insects around at the moment to feed all the demanding broods! Apparently there's been another daddy long legs population explosion both here and in the UK due to the mild autumn and winter last year. There's certainly been one here - if the huge beaks full the starlings are able to collect are anything to go by - they're doing their usual fantastic job of pest control! There's leather jackets in some of the vegetable beds that didn't get weeded over the winter but the starlings can't get at those, as I have to cover them with netting against pigeons or I'd have no lettuce at all! Leather jackets have already cut off a couple of lettuces just at soil level - where they munch through the root. Very annoying - but that just proves that leaving beds with grass on them in autumn and winter only encourages the little blighters!  I've been watching the starlings going in and out of their nest sites in the stables.  They're so comical!  I have to hide and peep just around the corner - if they see me they stand on the gutter just above the air vents where they're nesting with stuffed beaks full of leather jacket grubs looking very jittery, trying to pretend they're not really going in there and making extremely annoyed and tetchy noises when they see me! They won't go into their nests while a potential large predator like me might be watching! There's such a huge bird population in the garden now that I hardly ever see a pest of any sort. The birds do their job of hoovering up edible pests very efficiently - it never ceases to amaze me that there's actually enough food for all of them! Our five acres have been organic for 34 years now though - and there's a huge amount of biodiversity here. Sadly it's not enough habitat to support some birds like Cuckoos which used to nest close by. All that habitat that was so abundant when we first moved here has all been destroyed now. Hedges ripped out and everything drenched with poisonous chemicals. Even on a garden scale I know several people who use slug pellets like a mulch and still constantly have plants destroyed by slugs - and yet I never use a thing and there's barely a hole in anything thanks to all the wildlife here that lives on them! I'm convinced  that once you start killing anything - you upset the balance of the garden ecology and that allows pests to get out of hand that would normally be kept in check by other creatures. Nature's wonderful food chain where everything depends on something else for it's survival.

The House Martin situation is sadly again not looking happy either again this year.  There was a pair inspecting the remains of old nests a few of weeks ago but they didn't stay and obviously weren't descendants of ours. There are none here again this year and I miss them so much. Late in the summer, the last time they had nested here four years ago, I'd found some fledgelings, looking perfect but completely weak, listless and unable to fly, on the ground in the courtyard - they later died. I guessed that they'd suffered nerve damage when being caught in some chemical spraydrift somewhere. That's a perilous hazard of our 'modern' industrial farming if you're a bird and your diet totally consists of flying insects caught on the wing. I am utterly heartbroken - I will miss their sleepy cheeping at dusk in late summer, as they squashed tightly together in their cosy nests before they took off again on their long flight to their winter home.  It was such sweet music to fall asleep to. I haven't seen one swift flying above here either - years ago there used to be lots nesting in old high buildings in the village 2 miles away - but sadly the spraying has poisoned their food supply too. They may well never come back now.............There's so much spraying around here now that I'm beginning to feel that I might just leave one day too - despite the wonderful memories in all of the plants and trees that I planted with such hope 34 years ago. But who would provide a home for all the wildlife that relies on us here now? We're like a tiny oasis in the middle of a chemical desert!

It's Starling Central here at the moment! The noise all around the garden everywhere is unbelievable - there's an absolute cacophony of bird sound - particularly first thing in the morning - squawking, screaming, demanding babies everywhere!  The noise in my kitchen is ear-splitting at times too! The ivy on the side of the house facing the stables is definitely the noisiest spot, it's a multiple nesting site busy enough to challenge any city high rise development in terms of busy comings and goings! You could easily spend a whole day just sitting and watching them - it's fascinating! Sparrows and a robin on the bottom few tiers, a pigeon just above them and jackdaws at the top on one side of the chimney - with starlings under the roof tiles on the other. The starlings are by far the noisiest, but are the most assiduous parents, never leaving the nest unattended if they think another feathered species like crows or magpies are watching, looking constantly stressed out and aware that something's waiting for an opportunity to 'baby snatch'. Sadly they're no match for the crafty magpies though - who wait their chance until the parents are away searching for food to feed their hungry broods. Magpies really have become vermin, there's so many of them now and they prey on all the bird's nests. They've destroyed so many again this year - it's heartbreaking.  People throwing their takeaway rubbish in our road ditches just encourages them! 
Fekkitt the starling - the story of a brief but unforgettable love affair
If you follow me on Twitter you'll know that two years ago I rescued a baby starling.  It's nest had been destroyed by a marauding magpie and all it's siblings murdered. Nature can be so cruel sometimes - but never as gratuitously cruel as man.  Anyway Fekkitt - as I called her - was named so for reasons that are obvious when you think what I might have said when I saw the magpie drop her from a height onto the concrete yard one evening in early May! Baby birds are always difficult to rear and restore to the wild - so I didn't hold out too much hope at first. She was popped into a small, snug cardboard box full of toilet tissue near the back of the Aga for the night to keep warm and perhaps recover.  I fully expected her to be dead the next morning, so the squawking that greeted me at 5am the following day was very welcome! The next problem was to supply some juicy food! Birds get all the hydration they need in the first few weeks from the insects and grubs like leather jackets that their parents provide.  I wished I could find the lovely beaks full of leather jackets that all the starling parents were able to find in such vast numbers in the wildlife meadow. How I wished they'd drop some for me! So as a last resort it was a few worms from my worm bin and chopped tinned dog food for a day or so, which she ate but didn't really like. It was difficult to find enough food until we discovered that a pet shop a few miles away in the local town sold meal worms for feeding to pet lizards etc. 

Fekkitt absolutely thrived on them, getting noisier and cheekier by the day.  As she started to fledge she amused us hugely by 'helicoptering' as my son put it - jumping up and down in her cage to practice flapping her wings furiously! She rapidly grew into a beautiful sleek young bird and when I saw her looking out of the window longingly, I knew it was time that she was outside. So she spent a few days out in the security of the stables, still able to go back into her cage at night if she wanted and still being fed with mealworms by me - but flying freely around the yard whenever she wished. After her first night not roosting in the cage but up in the rafters, I couldn't find her the next morning, so was convinced she'd gone. I was so upset that I decided to go and buy a couple of plants to cheer myself up. I never need much of an excuse! When I came back no happier after a long morning of miserable and fruitless retail therapy, my son said there was a starling flying around the ivy over the back door all morning and that he was convinced it was Fekkitt. I thought it highly unlikely but the minute I appeared out of the back door - a frantic ball of feathers dive-bombed me, landed on my head and clinging on tightly for all it was worth! Just like a toddler after being left for the first time at playschool - or a dog whose owner had been away for a few days. After that morning she was never far away from me if I was outside - and if she was hungry she'd hang around and wait at the back door for me to appear.
We used to go for walks together to look for grubs hiding under stones like the other starlings do, but she often got bored and found investigating the laces on my boots far more interesting! Her first flight up to the top of the TV ariel on the house chimney was a terrifying dare-devil affair! I wondered if mother starlings were quite so nervous - but to them it's probably just a matter of course! Her first bath in some water she found in a bucket in the yard had me in helpless fits of laughter. She went totally bananas, had so much fun and the antics were epic!  Lots of diving in and doing somersaults, wing flapping and showers of water sprayed everywhere! Then afterwards, just like a grown-up bird, she went and sat on one of her favourite perches in the fir tree at the end of the old stable in the yard to preen her feathers dry in the sun. It was so funny to see her doing all those 'grown-up' bird things - I could have watched her forever. At times she would jump onto my shoulder and snuggle under my hair at the back of my neck. I think she really regarded me as Mum - and my mop of hair as a warm and secure nest! She was so entertaining and utterly enchanting. Then one night - as part of the gradual process of growing up - she started roosting with a bunch of other starlings in the blackthorn thicket at the end of the top paddock. I was so worried, as there was always a sparrowhawk lurking nearby ready to pick off the unwary - and that particular morning it had grabbed a pigeon. In the midst of the blackthorn thicket there was relative safety in numbers with all the others though - and whenever I called to her she would answer me immediately and fly swiftly towards me like an arrow to sit on the fence waiting eagerly for me to produce some more goodies. 

Finally the day came when there was a huge gathering of what seemed like hundreds of starlings in the blackthorn thicket - the level of noise was simply incredible. When I heard it I instantly knew that it heralded the end of our magical time together.  I'd seen those gatherings before. The call of the wild is far too strong - and in truth I would not have wanted it any other way. I called to her a few times until she finally answered me with her usual chirrups and very reluctantly tore herself away from her new chums, to fly onto my arm just briefly for one last time.  It was almost as if she was saying - "Goodbye - I've really just GOT to go"........Then she flew back to the others and a couple of hours later they all left.  Everything suddenly went horribly quiet. The silence was deafening!. I had mixed feelings as you can imagine - I missed her so much. But starlings are wild birds not pets - and it was always my intention that she should be free to go with the others, when the time came that she was ready. I have to admit I cried rather a lot on and off for a few days! I still well up thinking about it even now two years later. Despite the fact that I felt so sad - I was so grateful and happy that I'd been given the extremely rare privilege of being accepted as a trusted foster mother, by such a tiny but hugely intelligent scrap of life. It was a truly magical and unforgettable experience.
This year the starlings are back here once again and nesting in the stables as usual. They always come back to the same place just like swallows. They're currently frantically busy all day rearing their noisy broods and hunting for leather jackets in the meadow.... But there's just one particular bird that often perches either at the very top of the weeping ash, or on the branches of the fir tree at the end of the old feed shed, when it's taking a moment's break from feeding it's brood. They were Fekkitt's favourite perches! It doesn't fly away immediately as the others do when we walk past - and I can get quite close before it flies off back to it's nestlings. It often sits watching me as I work in the garden. I've been out a few times with some meal worms in the same dish - tapping on it in just the same way and calling her. The sleekly beautiful adult bird often answers me several times with chirrups and seems to hesitate for a few, heart-stopping moments - but doesn't fly down to me. Perhaps it is her - I'll never know. But I like to imagine that it might be. All I know is that I shall remember that incredibly precious time with her to my dying day. 
1. The baby starling - just dropped in yard by Magpie 18.5.15 2. A nice snug nursery for Fekkitt 3. Fekkitt - beak open screaming for food!
4. Growing fast 5. I suppose you must be Mum! 6. Just one week on & starting to look sleekly grown-up already
7. Becoming curious about the world outside her nest 8. Fekkitt gazing longingly out of the window from her cage - time to move outside! 9. 'I believe I can fly'! Her first terrifying flight up to the top of TV ariel
10. I used to take her for walks to teach her to look for grubs under stones 11. But most of the time I think she felt safer sitting on Mum's boot! 12. Soon Fekkitt spent more time with her new pals in the blackthorn bushes
Fekkitt - Bon Voyage my precious baby - it's been nice knowing you!
I hate to see birds in cages. Someone once said to me that my courtyard outside the kitchen door was an ideal spot for an aviary, since I love birds so much. I said - "I have one already". They said "Oh? Where"?... I replied - "Out there ... and all the birds you can see in my garden are there by choice because they want to be and because they think it's a lovely place to live. Not because they've been trapped!"
The most precious things in life on this beautiful planet are priceless - and cannot be bought or owned by anyone. 

Biodiversity begins at home - we can all do something to help preserve it and every little bit helps


Biodiversity is the fragile web of complex interactions and interconnections of life on this planet, both above and below ground, that scientists are only just fractionally beginning to understand. But it matters crucially to all of us - wherever we live or whatever our creed or culture. Whether it's a wildflower or a forest, the destruction of any of it impoverishes us all in every conceivable way, and increasingly threatens our own very existence. For what man does to the Earth and all the things that exist on it - he ultimately does to himself. We should be putting money into researching ways of reducing food waste - not pumping more money into GM crops and even more chemicals to produce food that will mostly be wasted, and make those who consume it ill! That agenda's being pushed by the chemical companies of course, to swell their bank balances. More production will just mean more waste and more pollution and more destruction of carbon-fixing soils unless food waste is dealt with first.

Even such a seemingly small thing to many people as gardening organically, without using chemical sprays and slug pellets, can make a huge contribution if you add up all those chemical-free gardens around the world. It can really make a difference in out own backyard too. Hedgehogs, for example, can eat an enormous number of slugs and ground beetles in one night- but if those they eat have been poisoned with slug pellets or neonicotinoid pesticides, they will die too! They are becoming increasingly rare and endangered now but they're our garden friends - help them and they will help you. Right now they're making nests and rearing their litters of hoglets (lovely word!), so please be careful you don't tidy too much, particularly any corner you haven't touched for a year or so, or you may disturb them! Always leave an undisturbed corner in your garden where wildlife can thrive and it will make an enormous difference. You will see the results of helping wildlife very quickly, not just by reducing the number of pests in the garden but also greatly enhancing the beauty and your enjoyment of your garden as you begin to appreciate and understand it's resident wildlife more and more. I talked in April about some of the things you can do to help it to thrive, so have a look back at last month.

A hedgehog story
Mother hedgehog and 3 small, blind, spineless 'hoglets'

Mother hedgehog with 3 small, blind, spineless 'hoglets'

A few weeks later, tucking into breakfast and ignoring slugs!

A few weeks later, tucking into dog food and ignoring slugs!

Nurturing Nature - a very prickly but timely tale!! -  About twenty years ago or so, we were tidying up a rather neglected corner of the garden under shrubs when our terriers started barking furiously - unlike us, they had spotted the hedgehog nest! I knew that even if I covered them back up there was absolutely no way the dogs would leave them alone - so I had to make a very quick decision, before the mother possibly deserted the nest - or worse! I scooped them all up, mum and three mouse-like, spineless, soft, grey, blind babies, and put them safely into a shed, with an old tea chest full of hay for a nest box. I gave the mother water and fed her with a saucer of dog food every day, and also cut a fresh turf of grass each day, putting worms, slugs and beetles in it for her to find, and also to teach her hoglets to hunt as they grew. After a few weeks, those babies became lively adolescents,  by then prickly but totally enchanting, highly intelligent and very friendly. They would come running to the door whenever they heard the sound of the knife tapping on the dog food tin, and would pull at the laces on our trainers - perhaps their eyesight isn't too good and they thought they were worms!
Myself and Wendy in the garden - 17.5.11

Myself and Wendy in the garden - May 2011

Friends from far and wide came to visit them, spending hours looking through the window!  Most children are fascinated by hedgehogs - particularly if they've been brought up on a diet of Beatrix Potter's 'Mrs. Tiggywinkle' stories, as mine were. Her lovely stories are a great way to introduce them to wildlife. Even my daughter - by then a teenager and pretending to be far too 'cool' to be excited by mere hedgehogs - could occasionally be caught out watching, riveted, at the window!  
One of the people who came to see them and brought her grandchildren was my dear friend the late Wendy Walsh - who remembered actually meeting Beatrix Potter and shaking her hand as a very small child, when staying with an aunt in the Lake district in England. Just imagine that! Beatrix Potter was a great conservationist, as well as being a talented artist and author, personally saving thousands of acres of the beautiful Lake District for posterity, and also the Herdwick sheep, a breed which evolved over centuries to become perfectly adapted to living there and nowhere else.  Wendy was a neighbour of mine and not only one of my dearest friends, but also my role model. She was a wonderful gardener with a great knowledge of plants and also a kind and incredibly wise woman - an 'old soul', as she would say. A wonderfully encouraging and patient teacher, she was a brilliant botanical artist who had painted a lot of illustrations for the Kew Gardens Magazine. She did much to raise people's awareness of the value of biodiversity through her many books of beautiful paintings which she collaborated on with Dr. E. Charles Nelson of The National Botanic Gardens at Glasnevin, here in Ireland. She had led the most fascinating life travelling all over the world, and even in her nineties was still full of vibrant and unquenchable spirit, and curiosity. She was like a surrogate mother to me and I learnt so much from her.  I always remember her when I think of hedgehogs - and she would be so delighted!
Anyway, as time passed, one day I felt that the hedgehog family were finally ready to face the world, and so with the most regretful of goodbyes, we left the door open............! I often come across hedgehogs in the garden now, and occasionally have to rescue them, so I like to think that their descendants may still be out around our 5 acres here somewhere. There's plenty of 'hogitat' - and they certainly won't be poisoned by slug pellets here!
Sadly hedgehogs - once abundant throughout the British Isles - are now becoming an endangered species, like so much other once abundant wildlife.  If we don't change our chemically-addicted ways, we may become endangered too - within just a few generations! Surely anyone who has children must think about what they are feeding them and what sort of a future world we are passing on as their inheritance - even if those people don't care about wildlife. The kind of future they will live in is being shaped by us every day by our choices and actions.  Anyway - I take a great deal of pleasure and pride in being able to manage a large garden organically - with no help and also producing all our own food. And it's chock full of biodiversity. I would never dream of telling people "you must do this" - I prefer to show people that it can be done in a practical way by showing them the results!
I think that "Walking the walk" rather than just "Talking the talk" - as the saying goes, is the best example.
Encouraging wildlife is rewarding in so many ways. Teaching children about it and it's importance is really vital, it can also become a lifelong interest which costs them nothing and can bring them great joy and peace, as it has done me. I was lucky enough to be brought up in the country and to learn about the importance of biodiversity at my father's knee. He was passionate and knowledgeable about wildlife and the countryside, and enjoyed passing on that knowledge to me in the happy hours I spent by his side. I treasure those memories and hope that I was able to pass on much of his love of the natural world to my children. You don't need to have a big country garden to be able to enjoy nature - or even a garden at all in fact. Most parks and gardens, or even a country walk, are full of wonderful wildlife sights if you just stop, open your eyes and look  -  the small things are often the most fascinating - and there truly can be almost a whole world in a grain of sand! Children who spend all their free time looking at screens of one sort or another are starting to develop many behavioural and health problems - like attention problems, anxiety, depression and obesity - all of which are directly attributable to their virtual 'incarceration' inside.  Richard Louv's brilliant book 'Last child in the woods' coined the phrase 'Nature Deficit Disorder' for this problem. He said "that a lack of routine contact with nature may result in stunted academic and developmental growth". I think that some adults suffer from that too! If you want to find out more - here's a link.
(Please note. 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. It's the result of many years of hard work and hard-won experience. Thank you.)

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