Archive for May, 2017

Foster Parenting?

Home after a satisfying day’s work in Tamworth.

Something not right in the back garden. The logs piled against the bottom wall (fire-pit fuel) are tumbled down. And the ruins of the nest built by robins inside it are strewn across the floor, nearby three dead nestlings. What caused the slippage? A cat? Searching for the nest, on the prowl or just using the pile as a route over the wall? But I would have expected a cat to take the chicks. Or maybe the unexpected downfall scared it away. A hedgehog? A rat? Something else?

We are truly sorry for parent birds, remembering our neighbour saying when she saw the secretive pair flying in and out of the narrow space (the nest was truly invisible) that there would, inevitably be danger, at least, from cats.

Later, we sit outside watching a pair of pipistrelles hawking the spaces around the small leafed lime tree and, so much higher swifts doing the same. Listening to the chatter of magpies and the evening songs of blackbirds.


The following evening, we are enjoying another outdoor sit-down.  Hanging baskets planted up, seedlings in the greenhouse and those hardening off are all watered, newly planted out plants up on site watered in. It is hot (20 Celsius!) and these plants need settling down. The skies are pink as the sun lowers itself toward the roof top horizon. As we sit, quietly observing we notice three blue tit fledglings in a pieris by the fence. Clearly they have successfully emerged from the nest box in the tree. Each sits in a different part of the shrub: so well-camouflaged that I only notice them by following the circuitous flight of a parent blue tit as it brings food for its youngsters. This is parental dedication at its greatest: the exhausting search for more and more and more food, necessitating perhaps journeys further and further afield.


We marvel at what we are watching, but the wonder turns to something else as a robin also begins to feed the youngsters. We do a double-take. Maybe one of these nestlings is a robin? Clearly not, they have the trade mark blue tit plumage.

Then, perhaps over-anthropomorphising, I come up with a theory:

This robin is one of the recently bereaved parents and is, either compensating for her own loss by feeding another species, or is simply programmed after so long brooding to respond to the ”feed-me” calls of young birds – even of a different species.

Now I know it is not good practice to assign human values to wild-life; their circumstances and “hard-wiring” are so very different so I don’t get too carried away with my theory.


But the robin (or maybe it is two robins) continue to bring food until light is all but gone and the youngsters are falling asleep on their very perches.

Are robin and blue tit diets similar? I have the impression that robins (being thrushes after all) feed on worms and ground insects and that blue tits feed their young with caterpillars, greenfly and the like. So will the fledglings survive on the mixed diet they are, currently, being fed?

Will there be any conflict between the species co-parenting? Robins, particularly are aggressively territorial, so will they drive the natural parents away?

Certainly this behaviour is something I have never noticed before – unless, of course, it involves cuckoos.



Work Hard or Starve*





The things we do as allotmenteers must have the local residents** wondering.


The Plantation Owner’s Wife and I recently took reams of newspapers and old supermarket apple boxes up to the plot and painstakingly pegged them out over our growing potatoes: Arran Pilot, Desiree and Roosters. We also used ripped fleece but didn’t have anywhere near enough to do the whole job.

It was an emergency measure to keep off a predicted late frost as we simply don’t have enough fleece (which is, if anything a redeeming sign of some sanity perhaps). The rows have already been earthed up and the haulms looked really healthy.

On the way out, stopping to introduce ourselves to some newbies we spotted a stack “stuff” piled against the “dungeon”. The dungeon is our name for a concrete sectional garage that was initially used as shop, store, rent-collection office and general “dumping ground” by the committee when we first took on a plot.

Since then, go-ahead, community minded committees (and, yes I was a part of these committees, so forgive a certain lack of modesty) acquired a couple of freight containers, expanded the site shop and community involvement so that the dungeon is becoming “surplus to requirements”. The current committee, it appears had cleaned out this old kit and what was leaning against the wall was free of charge (ask anybody who knows me: my favourite price!)

The newbies were, in the finest of allotment traditions, grabbing tools that they didn’t already have: reminding me of a time when we only had a spade with a wonky handle, a shovel (with no handle) and a digging fork with a bent tine. We encouraged them to take whatever they thought they needed: they could repair or cannibalise it, couldn’t they?

And the application of a wire brush and a lick of paint can, after all, make such a difference … and next time you come to dig there’s maybe a spade each; and the work gets done so much faster!

We pick up a spade (for our daughter who, even as we swoop, is setting up raised beds at her house), two Dutch hoes (which will find their way to both of our daughters), a stiff-bristled broom and an unusually shaped tool that, held onto a stave that looks too spindly with two bent nails and a Posi-drive screw, looks something like a draw hoe with a cast iron blade that comes to a point. Ideal, I am thinking, for making furrows to plant peas.

Back at home the spade takes very little effort: some earnest hammering to remove lumps of concrete, a wire brush, some emery cloth, some left-over Hammerite (gold of all colours!) and hey presto!


I am more circumspect with the “hoe”, removing the nails and screw first (easy enough), then wedging the blade securely before beginning to remove the rust, which is more advanced than on the spade: years of it rather than months. Looking closely I can see letters (?) appearing. My default metal cleaner comes into use, half a cupful of gone-flat Coca-Cola brings a sharpness tot he metal (goodness only knows what it does to your insides then!).

Yes, definitely!


I recognise the  “broad arrow” symbol as that of the War Department. The numbers then, presumably, a date. The penultimate year of World War Two. Why on earth does a horticultural implement have this stamped on it. And Brades? Somebody’s name?

I fire up the computer and simply type the whole thing into a search engine. Following one or two diversions to selling sites I come across the following information:

BRADES is a brand name of implements cast by a Birmingham company William Hunt and Sons (WHS is another of their brand names (not the bookshops, by the way)). The following from Wikipedia:

“The founder of the company, William Hunt, was an edge tool maker at Rowley Regis, near DudleyWorcestershire, in the late 18th century. In 1782 he purchased the Brades Estate at Oldbury, near Birmingham, and established a new works there known as Brades Forge, or simply as The Brades. By 1805 they were also manufacturing steel on the site, which was now known as the Brades Steel Works. Around 1793, Hunt took W. Cliffe into partnership, and for a short period the firm was known as Hunt and Cliffe: this name appears in the company’s first ledger, dated 9 May 1794. This partnership dissolved around 1803, and Hunt continued trading on his own account until 1809, when he took his sons into partnership and the firm became known as William Hunt & Sons.”

While on the internet I also find this striking, if somewhat chilling, image:


Vintage Military Tools & Equipment Gallery

The Implement, Intrenching, pattern 1908 – Head, Mark II replaced the Mark I issue with List of Changes entry §15905, dated 4th August 1911

Note that this is similar to the Mark 1

Stores Ref. J1/JA 6022 Implement, entrenching, Patt. ’37, helve, Mark II, complete with bayonet adaptor. This version had an adapter fitting on the end, so that a “spike” Bayonet from the Lee-Enfield No. 4 Rifle could be fitted to it, for use as a mine probe.

This picture (one of many), I found particularly fascinating. Looking closely at the rear of the “business end” of the blade I have been renovating it is clear a piece has been, accidentally or deliberately removed. Perhaps the stave it is now fastened to is not it’s original either. And, clearly, given this most peremptory of research, this is a military entrenching tool; for digging in, latrine digging, sandbag filling. Once I know this I view the thing in a far different light. The pattern is from 1908, so similar tools would have dug trenches in the Great War.

How would they have been carried: one per soldier? Strapped to the turrets of tanks? By certain troops only?

Was the one I have involved in the D-Day invasions? What, if any campaigns did it witness?

Was it still in military use beyond the end of the Second World War? My own father-in-law (God bless him, no longer with us) was a post-war conscript stationed in Egypt (where he learned to dislike tinned pineapples because they were served ad nauseum) and, ironically, one of his tasks was the routine clearance of minefields.

And the sixty-four thousand dollar question: how did it get to our allotments site?

A real shame that the current committee didn’t look more closely at what they wre about to discard. The “entrenching tool” would have made an excellent addition (a “shed prop” maybe) in what was conceived as a “World war One Legacy Garden, meant to commemorate those from the parish whose lives were changed by service in the ’14 – ’18 war and any subsequent conflicts. In fact a couple of wooden D-handled forks that were also part of the clear out would have helped to set the scene, just stood in the plot.

I am sure the local historians*** would like to have a gleg at this, so take it along to their regular open morning. I – unfairly – permit myself a smug smile as they, speaking too soon, identify it as a potato hoe. They are, however, intrigued by the little research I have done and I leave it with them for a while. They may be able to add more to the knowledge …

… and, hopefully, it still has years of functional work left in it. They knew how to make things back in those days.


* WHS was also a brand mark: the piece-workers there referred to it, perhaps only jokingly  as “Work hard or Starve” (Trust me this’ll make more sense when you’ve read the whole piece!)

**especially the house directly next door where they have fake, plastic flowered globes suspended from a wall as hanging baskets and impossibly green artificial grass around their outbuildings.

**Cheslyn Hay and District Local Historical Society



We Don’t Know …

Back in the 1960s (if memory serves I could look … and, yes, dammit, I know I could probably look it up on the all-wise internettage but what the hell ?)

And, anyway that simple act would cause me to – entirely – lose my thread (“do you have something you wish to share with the rest of the class as any of my many teachers would have asked those grinning-wryly readers at this point. “No? I thought not!”

In the eager-beaver way of my rural youth I imagined all kinds of adventures on nearby Cannock Chase. Here was the Forestry Commission becoming public minded: involving said public, serving the public, allowing the public access to their land for the first time … indeed, actively encouraging participation. They had been engaged, their publicity machine said, in putting up nest boxes, bat boxes, trail markers and what-all else. So I was keen to be one of the first explorers of Forestry Commission wildlife trails ever; me, with my practical knowledge and my I-Spy badges for identification (not really but I saved the cards!)

Deer, red? Tick.

Deer, fallow: check.

Woodpeckers, green: yessir.

And I remember seeing what I thought – at the time – was a misguided (dying?) fat-assed bumble bee disappearing into a hole in the ground and asking why it wasn’t going home to a hive … Now I cannot remember whether I actually asked this question out loud, but I do definitely remember not getting an answer.

Cut to May, 2017.

Deer, once shy creatures rarely glimpsed on Cannock Chase are now, seemingly beyond control (if not yet beyond counting). They have been glimpsed in Walsall Town Centre and are residents now in the agricultural land around my mom’s house. Indeed last night she rang and informed me there had been a muntjac on the back lawn – first actual sighting down there but, of course, they must have been around for decades (shy etc.)

In our own garden, which I try to manage as wildlife friendly, we have, among other features, umpteen nest boxes for birds (the one placed high in the lime has blue tits present, the one on the house wall has, appropriately, house sparrows. Disappointingly the swallow decoy boxes have never been occupied. The purpose, I believe is to make other hirondelles think previous generations have built there, so encouraging new nests. Not so far, but I live in hope (also a small town in Texas).

There is a more ancient box by a Salix vitellina next to the packed-with-seedlings, lean-to cold-frame and, for a while it seemed a pair of robins were moving in. Clearly they had a change of mind and tried again in the wood pile.


About a week ago, strolling by, I noticed the moss, leaf skeletons and blades of dried grass seemed to have been rearranged; so, next time I wobbled down that way en route to shed I took a circumspect – but closer – look. And was surprised to find a trio of bumble bees marching around all over the surface of the material.

It seems they have taken over the site; after all, they weren’t to know I’d built the thing as an open fronted bird’s nest box were they? And I am pleased – and reminded about that little moment all of those years ago on Forestry Commission land.

Bumble bees are regular visitors to the garden, entertaining with their ought-to-be-impossible manoeuvres, that reassuringly deep buzzing flight and clownish ways of collecting nectar and pollen. Bumblebees are larger and hairier than their honey bee relatives. This means they can be about when the temperature is lower. This is, however important because they do not manage to build up a big stock of food in their smaller nests. They literally have to go out and forage – or starve. For this reason gardens (hopefully) like ours with a steady supply of nectar rich flowers and blossom are a god-send for bumbles.

In return – and at the same time – they are important pollinators of our crops. The nest, started by an overwintering queen, may not survive longer than a few months (depending on the vigour of the queen, the weather, predation and – I guess – luck, so I take the opportunity to take a peek every now and then, absorbed by the simple pleasure, taken by the energy and altruistic activity I observe.

Often there are two or three, walking about on the top of the pile, which doesn’t seem to have been added to, and, after a while, one will stir its wings and hover gently away. In my mind something like a Chris Voss version of a Chinook leaving on a mission.

Chris Foss (5)

And my mind is taken back to that naïve query on the edge of a forest car park. We never know what we don’t know do we?

*Much more useful and interested information on bumble bees at this site

Weapons of Moss Destruction: Not!

Note from author: it’s happened again; I’ve been distracted by the plot, by real life and by apathy. I wrote this thirteen days ago, but it never got posted. Hope it still makes sense. Thanks for putting up with my tardiness.


It’s well into spring time now, blossom on the plum and damson trees up at the plot, the dessert pear tree that had all of the pears stolen on that point of perfect ripeness is also smothered with creamy white flowers, regularly visited by bumble bees. The last thing we need right now is a punishing frost … so, of course, that is what is being predicted by the Met. Office.

And, on BBC TV that old chestnut Gardener’s World is back to lighten up/disturb our Friday evenings (should we have pruned the apple back so harshly?). Always a harbinger of summer.

Sunny days, it seems, now stretch endlessly before us, although the air loses its warmth once the sun dips below the horizon. We have already had two fire pit evenings, down in the Dell at the bottom of the garden. Time, perhaps to dare to empty the crowded, disorganised shed, all furniture to be returned to its allotted place: on the lawn, on the patio… ?

“Hold those horses,” (a favourite phrase of my maternal grandfather). Why not, before we get all of the stuff strewn across the lawn give it a good going over, y’know: give it a first, high mow, scarify it, spike it, put some fertiliser down?

As an idea it sounded brilliant (as brilliant as any idea concerning a lawn can, but convincing enough: I hate lawns, you understand, and the fuss that is needed to maintain them; hence our part grass, mostly moss, clover and daisy expanse) but really?

Now I know that the perfect, flat, lined lawn with perfectly edged borders is the stereotypical image of an English garden, but not for me. I am not so formal, which may be why I can be mistaken for being idle.

So, out with the spring tined lawn rake, the made-for-children garden fork that we keep at home and a box of After Cut fertiliser (nothing in it to kill moss or weeds (a.k.a. wildflower species)). It’s a fairly big lawn, includes a patch that began life as a No-To-The-Mow concept, then became a wildflower patch and is now partly bark-chipped with ornamental grasses), a Beauty of Bath apple tree, the Woodland Edge with cowslips, Pasque flowers, blue bells and self-heal and is bordered by ill-defined edges. And, with that touch of laziness I can never be bothered to do more than simply follow the lawn mower over it every now and then, I believe that it is the burgeoning moss that gives it the carpet-of-green appearance. Get rid of the moss, end up with a straggly, untidy piece of ground: surely?


So I began scraping. Honestly though I have waved the rake at the lawn several times since we moved here, over thirty years ago, this is the first time the lawn has been seriously scarified. It isn’t easy work, raises a sweat and so I split the whole into three days work. Do the job properly rather than just – er – scratch the surface.

After the first day’s efforts I noticed a robin, hopping around, picking up scraps of material: moss, bits of thatch, the odd creepy crawly. It was taking the bits into a hole in the wood pile against the wall in the Dell. The place we store fuel for our fire pit … and surely enough, building a concealed nest. Robins are very imaginative when it comes to nesting. As a child I can remember one nesting in a discarded kettle, another in a paint tin without a lid at a factory where I was labouring. But this one, this year, is a bonus for me. We, hopefully have enough fuel elsewhere so can avoid disturbing this bit of the pile. And, equally hopefully the robins will not be disturbed by our using the Dell in summer evenings. There is, of course the problem of the patrolling neighbourhood cats, but who knows …?

Over the next three days my work is completed, some areas of the lawn re-seeded, with a little flower bed soil scattered on top. Most of the moss goes into the garden waste bin, to be collected by the council; but some is reserved to go into our hanging baskets. The work of the robin goes on parallel to mine: quietly, unobtrusively.

It does look satisfyingly rough – I can certainly tell where I have been – when I have completed it. So much so that I take a certain pride in it and the hard work that went into it: strange that hard work can make something look so, frankly, scruffy. But should settle down and thicken up, becoming a tidier lawn again in the next seven days or so, though it may need some additional raking. Here’s hoping.



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