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The Countryside Remembered

The articles below appeared in the Parish Magazine 20 years ago. Each month we will be re-publishing the article entitled " The Countryside About Us", written by Roger Sykes, beginning with one written for the August 1991 edition of the magazine. It is our hope that these will present an interesting comparison of now and then, and constitute a useful historical archive. 

The Countryside About Us March 1998

posted 5 Mar 2018, 00:40 by Chris Hoare

Mad as a March hare” will probably have to be rewritten as “Mad as a December hare” I was looking across a field of winter wheat near Church Lane. This field is the boundary between Earl Soham parish and Brandeston,. Two hares were having a great time. It was only a few days after Christmas, but they were “boxing” and “chasing” as if it were March. There are reports of blackbirds nest building in January. At the same time quite large flocks of fieldfares and redwings were still foraging in the fields with apparently no thoughts of returning to their Scandinavian home. Such happenings made for confusion in what was the unchanging order of the seasons. Will it next be swallows arriving in early March ? Will we hear the cuckoo on St. Valentine’s day ? In the meantime however, how encouraging it is to be told that tree creepers are seen on our village trees. Even small groups of long tailed tits are copying their cousins by feeding from the winter bird tables. Of all the birds’ nests that are so cleverly constructed that of the long tailed tit is probably the most delicate. It is doom shaped and woven from moss and cobwebs.

For those of us with the time and inclination to wander about the countryside, the unexpected should come as no surprise! As I quietly approached a massive oak tree I caught a glimpse of a bird slipping away, alarmed at my approach. At the same time something dropped to the ground almost at my feet. Black feathers and a pair of feet was all that remained of a newly killed blackbird. A glance in the direction where the disturbed bird had gone revealed a sparrow hawk winging away at speed. A predator of quite a different kind and rather more unusual had also been reliably sighted in this area. Driving from Cretingham towards Earl Soham one evening, a local farmer and his daughter both saw quite distinctly a mink by the roadside. It was distinguished by its white markings. A mink it most certainly was. I am now peering with a greater concentration at the exposed mud banks by the river looking for tell tale “hand like” prints of this visitor.

Living in any community for harmony to exist, a little and indeed sometimes a lot,of understanding and tolerance of another’s activities is essential. Not least in a rural area. Those whose business it is to gain a living from the “scenery” find stray dogs, tresspace, gates left open and litter, causes of annoyance. The irritation and frustration of the non farming sector is following slow moving wide agricultural machinery on narrow roads, explosive gas guns and slurry odour on a hot summer evening. A local farmer thinks he may have found a remedy to the latter by adding, albeit an expensive concoction, to the slurry tanker before spreading the contents. Early trials suggest the all pervading aroma is neutralized. Maybe that will be one irritation to cross off the list!

Roger Sykes

The Countryside About Us - February 1998

posted 1 Feb 2018, 09:49 by Earl Soham Parish Council

On a journey in December, which took me through the vast agricultural plains of Worlingworth, I witnessed “seed time and harvest” all on the same day in the same field! Certainly it involved a lot of high tech. machinery but there it was for all to see. The harvest time was the lifting of the sugarbeet. This involved a six row harvester and a tractor and trailer carting the beet away. The land, so cleared, then received, at high speed, a generous coating of farmyard manure. That involved tractor number three. Following closely behind (but not TOO closely!) came tractor number four ploughing in the muck. Tractor number five was equipped with a powerharrow to “force” a seedbed and the sixth tractor drilled, what I thought to be, seed wheat, to be combined in September 1998! Obviously such a “tour de force” is not the normal procedure but so much happening in such a short space of time was truly astonishing.

Every now and then somebody flatters me by relating how they spotted an unusual bird and what did I think it was! One of the attractions of ornithology is seeing the unexpected and putting a name to it. How difficult it is, however, to retain the colour, shape and characteristics in one’s mind until a reference book can be opened. Then the head scratching begins because, for example, a chiffchaff is not dissimilar to a willow warbler, and so on. It is as well to bear in mind also, that nature can produce its “freaks” like the albino pheasant or a blackbird with white flight feathers. There are many reference books to choose from but my favorite is a book I inherited from my grandfather. It was published in 1917 entitled “A Bird Book For The Pocket” by Edmund Sanders. The illustrations and text are superb.

The short days of wintertime are now slowly giving way to that perennial anticipation of springtime, and all the activity of farm and garden that goes with it. Somehow the sapped enthusiasms of dreary dull winter days are quickly forgotten in the expectancy of fulfilling plans to do much better than last season. I daresay moles, caterpillars, aphids and miscellaneous problems will still dent our gardening and farming hopes but for now “let the battle commence!” At least we have had handsome rainfall over the winter months, with December producing a creditable 3½”. It was good to see water flowing through the ditches and field drains again.

Roger Sykes

The Countryside About Us - January 1998

posted 1 Jan 2018, 07:52 by Earl Soham Parish Council   [ updated 2 Jan 2018, 02:27 ]

When you patiently, and sometimes not so patiently, follow a lorry along theA1120 laden with sugarbeet, remember when you place a 

packet of sugar in your shopping basket , where the sugar come from ! The grower of your pound or kilo of sugar would welcome the very wet weekend towards the end of November. The 1.5” (38mm) rain which fell in those couple of days, will have made lifting the beet a much easier task for the machinery. A farmer a few miles north of Framlingham told me that before the rains came to soften up the ground, lifting the beet created much wear and tear on the blades to the extent that the shares were replaced daily. However, such is the march of progress that tungsten coated lifting blades are now available. They will last a whole season regardless of the abrasive nature of the rock hard ground. During the growing season, with the hours of uninterrupted sunshine, the sugar content of the beet is well above the average of 17%. This helped to make up the revenue for the lighter weight of the crop because of the lack of rain. After the sugarbeet has been cleared from the field, the ground will be given over to “set aside” or possible drilled in early spring with oil seed rape, maybe to finish up as bio fuel. All of that is a far cry from the time when a farm labourer, legs encased in sacking, back bent and a beet hook in his hand, deftly cut off the leafy crown of the root and threw the trimmed beet into a heap. From there it would be forked into a horse drawn tumbrel, tipped at the field headland awaiting a 10 ton maximum capacity lorry, to transport it to the factory! 

You may have noticed in a meadow during November whilst going up Mill Hill out of Earl Soham, some lambs. They were the offspring of Jacob ewes, crossed with a Texel ram. These rams originate from the Netherlands “Isle of Texel” and are world famous for their muscle development and lean meat. Eventually the lambs will be sold under the “Organic” label, their care and feeding complying with the strict requirements to qualify for the premium their meat will command. 

It is strange that whilst we see so many wild birds and that their life span is relatively short. they mostly seem to vanish when they die. Not so a barn owl that was found near Moat Farm, whose allotted span was either up or the victim of some other cause of death. Not long afterwards I spotted another one very much alive in the same area, but maybe mourning for its mate. It drifted about the meadows in the gathering November dusk.

 Roger Sykes

The Countryside About Us - December 1997

posted 1 Dec 2017, 02:52 by Chris Hoare

Before long the great Christian festival and feast of Christmas will be celebrated. Symbolically, and actually, birds play a big part in this festivity. I daresay the robin cares very little how it is portrayed on a greetings card. Indeed some are shown more “impressionist” than real which offends my naturalist eye immensely! As for the birds that pay their part in actuality, well that is another story. Only recently I learnt that the bridle way leading off Kenton Road was formerly known as “Waddle Lane”. Flocks of geese and turkeys were traditionally driven along the lane to Earl Soham fair. Even now the “gobbling” can be heard coming from the shed not far from the same road. I daresay it will be rather quieter come Boxing Day!

Dickens began his famous novel “A Tale of Two Cities” with the line “It was the best of times, it was the worst of times”. It seems entirely appropriate for me to borrow these words to summarise a couple of recent avian experiences. Birds lovers are always hoping to see something out of the ordinary. A few days ago I trundled my barrow into Dolly’s paddock to perform my daily task with a shovel. A solitary bird, smaller than a thrush, was hunting insects on the ground. Its jerky movements distinguished it as being “different”. Cautiously I approached it and noticed in particular a distinguishing feature – a white ‘rump’. It also had a “bobbing” head action. It seemed unbothered by my intrusion as it vigorously probed for insects. After a few minutes, and with my increasing boldness of approach it decided I was close enough and flew up into a nearby oak tree and away. However, I was now certain that this visitor was a wheatear, later confirmed by reference to an illustration in my RSPB book. Now another species could be added to my list of birds seen in our parish. Not long after this, I found on a step leading to our patio doors, what appeared, at first casual sight, to be a dead leaf from the grape vine. A second glance revealed rather more. Lying stunned, but not dead was a tree creeper, not entirely unknown hereabouts but nevertheless quite rare. This tiny mouse like bird has a curved beak like a curved needle, for probing into bark crevices for insects. It had collided with the reflective glass of the door and was stunned. Happily, after a few moments in my cupped hand, when I was able to marvel at its delicacy, it flew off into the protection of a nearby tree. I hoped it lived on to survive the winter as they are highly vulnerable to the prolonged cold winter days and nights. So what were the “worst of times”? That was finding, on the verge along Brandeston Road, a beautiful tawny owl, killed possibly by receiving a glancing blow from a passing vehicle. I noticed congealed blood from a wound to its head.

The drama of our countryside is all around us for those with the curiosity to observe it. I would be delighted to hear of your own observations. Oh, and by the way, October rainfall totalled 1.67” (25mm).

Roger Sykes

The Countryside About Us November 1997

posted 31 Oct 2017, 07:32 by Chris Hoare

It has been a good year for thistles! Land that remains uncultivated for crops or ungrazed by animals quickly produces a good establishment of Scotland’s national emblem. There are of course a good many varieties of this plant. The most aptly named, I suggest, is “spear thistle”! Like most things in the natural world, even thistles, so hostile to bare legs and unwary hands, provide a rich source of food in their downy seed heads. Sometimes they quickly disperse on a brisk autumn wind. However, this September with many windless days the thistle heads were there for which ever bird wished to feed off them. The thistle flower has already provided nectar for a good number of butterflies. Now it was the turn of the birds. Walking along the footpath that links Kings Hill with Swan Lane through the meadows that is the summer home of some fine horses, one can see large areas of thistles. Nothing unusual about that you might think, BUT what I saw was quite the largest flock of goldfinches I had seen for many a year. A rough estimate suggested at least 50 birds, a real “charm” this being their collective noun. It is a nervous bird which is difficult to approach over open ground but easily identified. The yellow flash of their wings in flight, and a glimpse of their red and white heads is unmistakably “goldfinch”. They flew over the thistle heads like a gaggle of excited school children on an outing!

Nothing is more reminiscent of autumn days than the distinctive smell of stubble fields being ploughed. Quite often long before the damp “earthy” smell reaches your nostrils the evidence of ploughing is in the air. Walking towards Windwhistle along the footpath by the mere, and well ahead of me, I could both see and hear a great assembly of gulls. Newly turned furrows provide a rich picking for these squabbly flocks. A field that had previously produced a crop of oil seed rape was being ploughed. How dry even the newly turned furrows were, but it still yielded a good feed of worms for the gulls. I have known of a particularly bold bird get itself partly ploughed under the turning furrow such is their anxiety to be first in the queue.

We now live in an age when new schemes, new methods and new terms to describe them, is almost a daily occurrence. Agriculture isn’t spared from the revolution. One of the biggest schemes affecting food production is collectively known as “traceability”. It would not surprise me that the day will dawn that the cow that produced the milk you drink for breakfast could be identified! We have come a long way since the cows were milked by hand. When machines were first introduced it was claimed that the main benefit, because the bucket had a lid, was keeping the cowman’s cigarette ash out of the milk!

Earl Soham’s rainfall was a meagre .29” (7.5mm) in September.

Roger Sykes

The Countryside About Us - October 1997

posted 1 Oct 2017, 11:07 by Chris Hoare

The passing years can play tricks upon the memory of us all. Nevertheless, many years ago when I was a boy, I clearly recall, on a walk through any meadow, grasshoppers were a common sight. Rest on a grassy bank and one was certain to hear their chirping. In recent years I have even stopped looking for them, such is their scarcity. This year however, they seem to have returned, or did they ever go away? There are several varieties of grasshoppers or crickets but the common meadow grasshopper (whose Latin name is Chortippus Brunneus which to a non-Latin scholar, like myself, even sounds like the noise they make) is the species most in evidence this year. In fact, in this very dry year, we are having (and that statement alone should guarantee a wet autumn!) the whole massive world of insect life has flourished, not least the common house fly!

Long hot days and dry periods have this summertime caused exceptional problems with many diverse living things. A farmer friend, with a herd of cows at nearby Rendham, had the first ever case of heat stroke in one of them. Being an almost white cow, like fair skinned people, she was rather more susceptible than her black and white sisters. Fortunately she survived but only just. Many mature trees are shedding their leaves. This is partly a defence mechanism to prevent excessive moisture loss through the leaf surface and partly the leaves drying out and dying.

Various “harvests” in the garden or on the farm have either been gathered in or about to be. The farmer’s speculation about his cereal harvest can now be replaced by actuality. As far as the all important wheat and barley crops are concerned “all was safely gathered in “a few days earlier than last year. Good yields of wheat in excess of 3½ tonnes per acre were recorded. However, the price it can be sold for is 25% less than a year ago! Those bright yellow acres of the late May countryside also produced good weights well over 1½tonnes per acre of rape seed. Runner beans, courgettes and potatoes have been my harvest and very good they are too.

The harvest of the hedgerows, in particular blackberries, looks promising, a bounty that will be willingly shared by man and birds alike. Mostly the hedgerows around here have been left to yield their harvest, but sadly not all.

A while ago I was chatting about the weather (what else!) to a neighbour who expressed surprise that I did not record rainfall. I was, upon reflection, grateful to him for highlighting my omission which I rectified within days. Hence, the new gauge by my pond has already recorded in August 1.65” (42mm)

Roger Sykes

The Countryside About Us - September 1997

posted 4 Sep 2017, 08:49 by Chris Hoare

Vivant, Brigadier, Cantata and Rialto combined by Claas, Massey Ferguson and John Deere sounds almost, to the uninitiated, like a romantic combination of possibly chorus and trio. Instead, with all credits due to the imagination of the plant breeders in particular, the former are wheat varieties and the latter the machines that harvest them. Ponder then, the next time you casually glance towards that dusty task, that there is still a romance in the harvest operation but you have to dig a little deeper to realize it.

A walk along one of the many delightful footpaths that interlace our parishes, preferably at a slow pace to give one time to “stand and stare” a little, can often reveal the unexpected. What is that black seething mass that clings to the rather nasty leaves of those stinging nettles by the side of the ditch? Closer examination revealed many hundreds of one inch long black caterpillars intertwining with each other like some caterpillar disco! I confess to resorting to my reference book to establish their true identity. It would seem they are the caterpillar of the small tortoiseshell butterfly. The nettle is a much favoured host on which the eggs are laid. Then emerge the black and rather hairy caterpillars which eventually form a chrysalis. Finally the familiar small tortoishell butterfly emerges next year to begin its short life.

Two years ago I was told of efforts to establish a wild flower meadow near Kittles Corner in Cretingham parish. The result was only partially successful. Nature rarely allows total achievement by man to come too easily. So it proved with this meadow. However, several hours of hand weeding to remove indigenous weeds for better establishment and greater varieties of wild flowers produced its reward. This year, in July, no fewer than 21 different species were identified! These included agrimony, ox eye daisy, and sorrel. When I had the privilege of seeing them one lovely sunny morning in mid July the colours and varieties were so well established. The meadow should prove, with reasonable weather conditions, a spectacle for many years to come.

With the recent mixture of rain and warm sunshine, growth has been vigorous. Church Lane in Earl Soham has a good display of the blue bush vetch. Cornflowers have appeared on a bank by a field side not far away. My fears about the disappearance of the heron, were, I am glad to record, short lived. A neighbour who is well placed to watch the comings and goings by the stream which has been their feeding place, reported seeing one recently.

A few days later a heron, calling out in protest, flew overhead mobbed by a rook.

Roger Sykes

The Countryside About Us August 1997

posted 31 Jul 2017, 00:25 by Chris Hoare

For sheer penetration of its sound the cuckoo must rival even a Brigade of Guards drill sergeant! “Early one morning” to quote the opening lines of an old ballad, a cuckoo called from the branches of a nearby oak tree. This call restored me from blissful sleep to “red alert” in no time, such was the penetration. I wish all birds were so easy to identify by their song. I once asked a cousin of mine who played the French Horn in the Hallé Orchestra, if when listening to a recording of a symphony could he say by whom it was being conducted! He replied “Not necessarily, but I certainly know who it is not!” It is the same with me recognizing bird song. I know which bird it is not, but not always which bird it is!

One Thursday afternoon in June I heard no bird song at all. This could easily be explained. I was escorting a lively group of youngsters from the Earl Soham After School Club on a nature ramble. Fortunately the lively chatter did not frighten away the trees, hedgerows and crops in the fields! As we wended our way along the footpaths their enthusiasm to identify the trees, bushes and herbage we saw, was encouraging. Along Church Lane as we walked under that lovely canopy of branches, we compared the leaves of the oak, ash and chestnut trees with the illustrations in our “Naturalist Guide” book . Thus began the list of “things seen and recognized”. On over the old railway sleeper bridge and along the footpath our 10 year old scribe was able to add to her list dog rose, blackthorn and hawthorn. The oil seed rape and sugarbeet crops were associated with fried breakfasts and sweetened cereals. We even identified a spindle tree on the woodside. Tiggy the foal was, I insisted, quietly admired. We distinguished between wheat and barley, and discovered grasses all had different names, like foxtail, timothy and cocksfoot. Maybe this ramble with a purpose might just sow the seeds that could germinate into “countryside about us” interests for some of those youngsters in the future.

Fledglings were appearing with regularity in June. Some, sadly, will succumb to the excessive wet weather that greeted their partly feathered and fragile bodies. Ground nesting birds like the partridge and pheasant in particular will have their numbers depleted in such wet conditions. On June 25th, in the rain three baby swallows emerged from their nest and perched alongside their parents on the nearby wire. They were not in the least perturbed by the pouring deluge. Neither was the farmer who managed to cut his hay, bale and cart home the bales, just before the heavens opened!

Roger Sykes

The Countryside About Us July 1997

posted 27 Jun 2017, 08:38 by Chris Hoare

The year is already half gone. The rape and the grain harvest are the next important events in the farming year. Thanks to well timed rain that interrupted an almost continuous drought, crops look “set fair” for good yields at harvest time. That statement alone should indicate the writer is not a farmer! It courts disaster to make such predictions even at this late stage. No farmer would dare to make any such suggestion but rather wait until “all is safely gathered in.” Remember what happened to early potatoes. A late vicious frost and they were early no more. Field and garden became the victims of that cruel night in early May. Some say the drive to being earlier every year has gone too far. Techniques such as covering potatoes with sheets of polythene and varieties bred to be more quickly maturing pays too little regard for what nature can so quickly do to cancel out the man-made advantage.

Now that our highways authorities have begun to spare some of our roadside verges from the “short back and sides” treatment, wild flowers have been allowed to establish themselves again. The ox-eye daisy, vetch with its purple flower and black seed, poppy, red campion, ragged robin and now even oil seed rape has entrenched itself to brighten up the roadsides and lanes in our parishes. This in turn attracts many species of butterflies. A few weeks ago if you had taken a wander long the nearest “B” road they were there to admire. Those of us who are fortunate enough to live in the countryside may sometimes take for granted what surrounds us. Friends visiting us recently from a North London suburb were delighted by the” naturalness” of it all. They have to be content with manicured parks and regimented flower beds. Hopefully, hedgerows too will receive no attention from the flail until mid winter. This will then provide a harvest in the autumn for birds and small mammals. Next time you take the road to Ipswich via Helmingham admire the hedgerow care on that estate, from Framsden to almost Ashbocking.

The small river, running via Low Road, the Low Meadows and on to Brandeston described recently by our local newspaper as “unnamed” is known to us I think, as the River Ken. Very little water progresses along its way and sedge and reed is rampant. However, minnows are now plentiful in almost every art of the stream where the water runs a little deeper. This speaks well for its purity. These miniscule fish, usually facing the flow of the water to feed, dart for cover under the vegetation at the least disturbance. Even tadpoles in mid May were amongst them, showing no leg development at that stage. The occasional pair of mallard and moorhen frequent the waterways, but I have not disturbed a heron for sometime.

Roger Sykes

The Countryside About Us June 1997

posted 26 May 2017, 00:49 by Chris Hoare

The first time a swallow, newly arrived from Africa, appeared on our telephone wire this year was on April 12th, two weeks earlier than last year’s arrivals. Already, a pair, remarkably tame, was building a nest in my pony’s stable. I wish I could be certain that they were the same birds, or their offspring, as last year. A pair of house martins zoomed about the overhang of the eaves of our house, assessing the spot for a likely nest to be built. A cuckoo declared its arrival with a familiar call on May 4th. Now I am looking for the flycatchers. They usually appear a month after the swallows. On April 18th a newly fledged robin was receiving much attention from its anxious parents. How bold and trusting these “Christmas” birds are. This was nicely demonstrated to me recently when a friend who lives in Earl Soham Street opened his back door and held out his hand on which he had placed a tit bit. Within seconds this “tame” bird alighted on his outstretched palm snatched up the morsel and was away. 

You may hardly bother to give a second thought, or even first thought, glancing at the sugarbeet growing in fields near Saxtead Mill. However, I am sure if you were of the generation that laboured under a hot May sun “chopping out” and “singling” you could not help but reflect on the changing times. Now precision drilling has replaced hours of working with a hoe reducing the continuous rows of sugarbeet plants first to small groups and then to a single plant each to be about 9” from its neighbour. Even a 10 acre field looked like a vast plain when first the task began. Now the farm worker’s aching back and arms are but a memory. The Queen’s birthday parade could hardly look more precise than the sugarbeet fields of today. Precision drilling is now well established. The drill places each seed 9 inches from its neighbour, each row 27 inches apart.. Serried ranks of plants require no manual labour at all. The gossip of village news between the farm workers as they methodically progressed along the endless rows in echelon is no more. 

Do you remember the mare Selime ? She was due to have her foal towards the end of April. Long before the expected time of birh her owner checked her every day, early and late. A “full time” birth was expected. Imagine then the surprise and delight when one morning,, she was greeted by, not the usual friendly “whinney” from Seline in her stable, but a newly born healthy filly foal as well, lying in the straw ! Tiggy the foal, for that is now her name, had arrived two weeks early. The dark coloured filly never looked back. Although ”mum” had to have some veterinary attention, she is now well and proudly rearing her leggy energetic offspring in a grassy paddock.       

Roger Sykes         

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