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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 September 1999

posted 4 Sep 2019, 03:43 by Earl Soham Parish Council

Impressions one gets locally concerning whether or not there are more or less numbers of certain birds need not necessarily reflect the true wider state of affairs. Nevertheless, observations from interested people I speak to certainly suggest that the number of swallows and house martins are certainly down on a few year’s past. The annual visitation of a pair of swallows that regularly nest in my pony’s stable however, again successfully reared 3 youngsters. It is almost a privilege to clear up the mess the droppings make beneath the nest. If the parents intend producing a second brood I hope they will soon get on with it. Otherwise the youngsters will be too young to make their first migratory trip to Africa in October. Nesting house martins are also unpopular because of the evidence they leave on paintwork and window sills. On the other hand those restless creatures the swifts are rather more visible. Elsewhere I have been told of finding, in their garden, the dome like nest of a pair of long tailed tits and also sightings of the acrobatic flycatcher. What I think I miss most of all nowadays in the spring and summertime, are the skylarks. Some localities seem more fortunate than others, but as the RSPB reports skylarks and lapwings amongst other species of farmland birds, are in serious decline. During August the mountain ash or, as it is sometimes called, the rowan berry tree, will be stripped of its berries by the industrious blackbirds and thrushes. How important it is for them to build up their body condition to enable them to survive the hard winter days that lay ahead. Hence the importance of delaying hedge cutting until their “harvest” is also “gathered in”.

Knowledge of “The birds and bees” in a more subtle age, provided an introduction and education into the basic reproduction process! At Moat Farm recently the phase, in its literal meaning, was delightfully illustrated. Of course in that idyllic location, birds abound. Even a pair of barn owls has been sighted. And the bees? Well during some excavations a bumble bee nest was disturbed. Rather bravely, I thought, they were gathered up and relocated under a box, complete with suitable entrance. They must have approved as they quickly settled down in their new quarters.

I read somewhere that ants would not venture near copper. The cavity underneath a step leading into our house has always supported a colony which I would have preferred elsewhere. I decided to put the theory to the test. Sacrificing the spending power of 10 new pence I placed the 2p coins by the entrance to their domain. For several days not an ant appeared. The theory looked like being proven. Well at least until a particular humid evening when the biggest swarm of ants I have seen for some time, congregated both inside and outside the room. The words “don’t panic” spring to mind. Within the hour, left to their own complex community arrangements, not an ant was to be seen. But so much for the copper!

Roger Sykes

The Countryside About Us August 1999

posted 2 Aug 2019, 06:31 by Chris Hoare

Even the most “non agriculturist” who chooses to live in our part of the world cannot fail to notice quite large fields, some with wide headlands which appear to have nothing much growing on them except a variety of weeds. Their unkempt appearance stands out rather amongst the acres of well ordered, wall to wall, oil seed rape, wheat, sugar beet and so on. The barren land decreed by our EU masters in Brussels is commonly designated as “set aside”. That is to say, a farmer, if he wishes to benefit from EU subsidies, must remove from his arable acres at least 10% of the land which would normally produce an arable crop. This arrangement is to help prevent big surpluses of these commodities. The “set aside” policy is due to continue into the foreseeable future. However, rather than leave the land totally bare, I understand “industrial” oil seed rape can be grown. The oil seed thus produced would be crushed as usual but utilised for industrial lubricants etc. rather than in cooking oils or “spreads”. Uncropped set aside land does provide a refuge for our beleaguered wild life.

Changes in agriculture are also happening quite dramatically in the livestock sector. The first calves have been born in this country which had their gender determined at conception! Three cows were inseminated with the certainty that each would produce a heifer calf. It will, of course, be some time before the technique will be common place. One of the main benefits will be to reduce the number of unwanted and worthless bull calves from the dairy herd.

It is almost with some relief that I can revert back to writing about more understandable things. The every day mallard, will I predict, never be an endangered species! Their ingenuity ensures they prosper. In a garden in Earl Soham Street, a mallard has reared amongst the garden’s vegetation 12 ducklings! As with any species that produces excessive numbers of young, high mortality can be expected. Now, although down to 5 youngsters, she comes and goes at will. Soon I expect they will all leave this refuge in The Old Stores garden. They may even join another family of ducks I spotted cruising along on the small river Ken. A delightful flotilla of 12 ducklings, proceeding in an orderly fashion, line astern. Sadly I expect some will fall foul of a predator. The grey heron that frequents that stretch of the river is a likely suspect.

Roger Sykes


The Countryside About Us - July 1999

posted 1 Jul 2019, 05:35 by Chris Hoare

The green freshness of the countryside which is re-established every spring time continues to hold well into July. Well timed showers help tremendously. This year we avoided a late frost which, in 1998, did so much damage in early May to the apple and plum blossom. Trees especially are at their most splendid with their display of leaves. This makes their recognition so much easier, by the shape of their leaves. A local walk almost anywhere will ensure you pass by a variety of deciduous trees. Crack willows, oak, ash, hazel, hornbeam, beech, field maple, sycamore and, less frequently, the spindle tree with its fleshy orange fruit, are all to be found. To identify what we are looking at always makes a walk more interesting. In early June several of our villages’ gardens were open for us to have a wander around. Many fine trees, some of great age, could be admired .These included walnut and a variegated maple.

The thatchers who have been busy for some time in Earl Soham, have now moved on, But what a testimony to their supreme skills they have left behind them. The lovely old house near St. Mary’s Church, newly thatched, is well protected now from all that the elements can throw at it. The skills of those craftsmen however have been in that particular family for 400 years I have been told. Modern harvesting methods crush the wheat straw. This coupled with varieties of wheat that produce a very short straw make it impossible for it to be used for thatching. Consequently, some farmers, including one at Badingham, grow the older varieties of wheat, like Huntsman, especially to supply the thatchers with suitable straw. It is harvested with the old fashioned binder. The grain produced is of secondary importance, which is just as well as the yields are rather inferior to those of modern varieties.

The word “harvest” tends to conjure up a vision of wheat or barley being “safety gathered in”. In fact the process of gathering in begins much sooner. Probably the first “harvest” for the livestock farmer is cutting young grass to ensile for winter feed. The large mounds of black or while plastic bags that can be seen in farmyards, filled wit young fermenting grass will provide a succulent winter diet for all ruminants, and even horses, Hay, weather permitting, will be baled by now. A good crop will produce over 1¾tonnes per acre. If you would like to read about or even recall harvests and farming of a bygone era, I recommend you read Tony Harman’s “Seventy Summers”.

Roger Sykes

The Countryside About Us June 1999

posted 28 May 2019, 08:37 by Earl Soham Parish Council

Summer visitors to our part of the world come from a great variety of places. Some can be seen carefully studying maps, picnicking on the village green or having an inquisitive wander. As welcome as they are other visitors of quite a different genetic group are even more welcome. They have heralded the arrival of early summertime for centuries past. They arrive, not by sea ferry, jet aircraft or through the channel tunnel, but by courtesy of favourable winds. They are encouraged to travel by a sun that rises daily higher in our Northern hemisphere to chase away the chilly days of the early year. Yes, the swallows are back again. A pair has already begun to swoop in and out of my pony’s stable to check out their usual nesting site and that it is still available. The cuckoo’s penetrating call was loud and clear about the same time near to Windwhistle Farm. By Moat Farm even that most delicate of birds, the spotted flycatcher, had arrived 2 weeks earlier than usual and was busily catching insects from a perch provided by the tall stem of an oil seed rape plant. Blackcaps, willow warblers and white throats, if not readily seen, can be heard if a quiet walk is taken along some track or footpath bounded by an all concealing dense hedgerow.

On the farms sprayers, with their wide booms and operators dressed for the occasion, have been much in evidence. It should not be automatically assumed that they are always dispensing death to all creatures great and small. Warm and damp weather quickly encourages mildew to form on green leaf surfaces. This requires a fungicide to be sprayed on the crop. Having encouraged rapid growth of cereals, they can outgrow their own strength. The crop can be sprayed with straw stiffener to prevent it keeling over when the grain is ripening, with the resultant yield loss. Of course insecticides are also applied but usually only when the potential yield of the crop is in danger by a high infestation of aphids. Oil seed rape requires the pollination of its flowers by bees and other insects, to produce seed A heavy infestation of the pollen flea beetle needs controlling. It is believed the spray does not harm bees. Spraying can also be done very early and late in the day when bee activity is at its lowest.

What a year it has been for cowslips! Quite the best display of this wild flower, so synonymous with the English countryside, could be seen as you travel between Forward Green and Earl Stonham. In fact, dare I say, the farm and gardens are thriving as we slowly approach the last harvest of this century.

Roger Sykes

The Countryside About Us May 1999

posted 30 Apr 2019, 10:06 by Earl Soham Parish Council

At last the “Merry month of May” has come around again. For many it is the favourite month of the year. There is already much to see in the countryside about us. The fresh mantle of a well established spring cloaks our surroundings. Is it your habit to lie in bed until the absolute needs of your day demand you emerge? If so, may I recommend that just once you rise with the sun. Stand facing East and experience the freshness of a May morning. Accompanied by the overture of bird song as the “sun curtain” rises, your feelings of well being will be measurably increased!

Usually at the end of this month, all roads lead to Bucklesham for the wonderful annual Suffolk Show. However, the calendar dictates that this year it falls on June 2nd and 3rd. For countrymen and townsfolk who wish they were, it is an occasion much anticipated. Even when the weather creates an unexpected flurry in the sale of umbrellas and plastic macs, it detracts little from the spectacle. From many far flung country parishes and not least our own, come exhibitors of all varieties. We from this parish are well represented by our farmers, equine exhibitors, dog breeders, the WI and many others. What reflected pride we feel when we see a massive Charollais sporting a winning rosette, led by a familiar figure, or an exquisite flower arrangement labelled with a name we all know. Mix all this with some fine main ring displays, and the pleasure of unexpectedly meeting old friends and it will all add up to a perfect day.

Fishing and country walks have one thing in common. Sometimes, when fishing, nothing happens. You can be lulled into a soporific state of mind. A walk along a familiar route can be equally hypnotic. But like the float on the end of a fishing line that reacts to a nibble, so does the nose of your dog react instantly to different stimuli. Such was the case recently. I was plodding along a footpath by Earl Soham mere. My dog was ahead of me by a few yards, equally plodding along. Her attention was drawn to a rough piece of grass bordering the route. Normally a quick “sniff” is enough to dismiss the source as “ordinary” and continue the “plod”. Not this time. The reaction to the initial “sniff” was if she had been stung. She continued to”sniff” like a yoyo but quickly withdrew her nose each time. I cautiously peered into a clump of grass. To my surprise, as well, a large reptile rapidly uncoiled itself and slid away down the bank side. It was a grass snake fully 3’ long and that is not a fisherman’s story.

Roger Sykes

The Countryside About Us April 1999

posted 1 Apr 2019, 06:44 by Earl Soham Parish Council

Living in our parishes there are, naturally, folk who have been resident for many years. Indeed, some were born and continue to live their lives in this same locality. Their memories are rich in recollections of yesteryear. Recently I have been recording some of their memories and quite fascinating it has been. How amazing it is to hear stories of the countryside about us which was in rather a different guise than we see it today. 80 years ago there were several farms within this parish, most of whom had dairy herds (not even one remains) and milk was collected from the farm dairy by the villagers. Suffolk horses provided the pulling power, and after a strenuous day, they waded into the horse pond where now stands a house in Brandeston Road. Cropping was much the same with the exception of no eye catching yellow fields of oil seed rape in May and June. Potatoes, sugarbeet, beans and cereals were part of a rotation which is now largely, but not entirely, replaced by wheat and rape. Children played on the small green at the foot of Mill Hill, which now would be in the middle of that precarious junction! In a cold winter the mere was deliberately flooded and skaters zoomed about on the ice. Candles in jars on the ice lit their way in the evenings. Everything villagers needed was to hand in the village. Forge, school, church, chapel, pub, shops (including a bicycle shop) and a cobbler. Oil lamps and well water were the norm. The doctor had a wooden leg which he removed each night when he went to bed. As a consequence he was reluctant to turn out during the night because it was a struggle to put his leg back on! How our lives have changed in so many respects. How many of us would like to return to those “good old days” I wonder? If only we could be selective what a perfect life it would be!

Our parish still supports quite a respectable number of sheep. Some are resident, whilst another flock that has lambed early, puts in an appearance on rented grass from time to time. Lambing is an anxious period for flock owners. However, the trauma of sorting out difficult births and bottle feeding orphan lambs is quickly forgotten when on a sunny April day ewes and mischievous lambs can be viewed as another lambing season well done. The financial rewards are quite another matter.

Over 3.6 inches (92mm) of rain by early March suggests the very wet soil will delay both gardener and farmer in their spring sowing plans. Nature seems to eventually strike her own balance. Does this mean a very dry summer? Only time will tell.

Roger Sykes

The Countryside About Us March 1999

posted 1 Mar 2019, 09:30 by Earl Soham Parish Council

Another mild winter in early February has encouraged many birds, especially blackbirds, to begin to pair off. They will commence the age old routine of ensuring the species continues. Great and blue tits are examining likely nesting sites and the pugnacious robin is declaring territorial rights with its distinctive song. It never fails to astound me that only 12 to 15 days elapse, with the smaller birds, from the time a fertile egg is laid to a new chick hatching out from its shell. Of course that is only the beginning of the survival process. Many and varied are the hazards that lie ahead for such fragile creatures. This year, around here at any rate, there is a new threat. the grey squirrel. It is very much in evidence. Not content with denuding our nut trees of their autumn crops they also consume the birds’ eggs layed in the springtime especially if layed in open nests. These include the greenfinch and blackbird whose eggs provide a tasty meal for these predators. Encouraged by the generous supply of peanuts intended for the birds, squirrels have prospered recently. I can only hope the four that populate our garden, and those of my neighbours, soon pack their bags and seek their fortunes elsewhere! Even the House of Lords recently devoted a debate to the growing menace of the grey squirrel!

Occasionally, during the winter months, the Easton Harriers are in evidence. The hounds ”giving tongue” can be heard from quite a distance away. The very wet and consequently muddy conditions give the riders problems with keeping up with the hounds. This was clearly demonstrated a short time ago. I was helping a farmer friend in the next parish transfer some cattle from one yard to another. We were aware that the Harriers were in the vicinity having spotted a few riders in the distance. Suddenly, and silently, the farm yard was invaded by some 12 couples (they are referred to as “couples”) of hounds, no huntsmen or followers, just hounds! They “flowed” through the yard, noses seemingly invisibly fixed to the ground. The resident black Labrador and Jack Russell shocked and greatly outnumbered by the sudden invasion of their territory, quickly vanished. Just as quickly the hounds were also gone. Sometime later a loan rider arrived enquiring “had we seen the hounds?”! Meanwhile we watched a couple of hares. They doubled back to their field having run on and then turned back using a waterway to break their scent.

A feature still in early March in the ditches and banks, especially with a warm southern aspect, are the five petalled primroses. It heralds, I suggest, all that is to come in those lovely spring and summer days that lie ahead.

Roger Sykes

The Countryside About Us - February 1999

posted 27 Jan 2019, 08:51 by Earl Soham Parish Council

There are some exceedingly pleasant tracks and countryside in the area that lies between the road to Brandeston from Earl Soham and the back road to Framlingham. Footprints I noticed in the mud suggest others occasionally pass that way, but to meet someone is unlikely. There are some good thick hedgerows hereabouts and as usual a dozen or more long tailed tits were making their chattering way amongst the top growth. Along a track bordering a field known as Home Mow on the 1841 tithe map, three roe deer, alerted by my approach, bounded into this field instead of running away. They turned, curious to see who or what was the intruder. My dog and I stood stock still! So did they. For what seemed an interminable age, we confronted each other without a twitch of a muscle from either group. Who was going to make the first move? Now certain a threat possibly presented itself to them they bounded away. Pausing for a final look from a safe distance they vanished into a nearby copse. Later we passed a field where a flock of Scotch half-bred ewes were grazing. They will lamb down in early March, the surest sign of all, when the lambs appear, that springtime has arrived at last.

There is certainly no deficit of soil moisture in early January 1999. Field drains and rivers are running freely. Water stands on the low parts of the arable fields to the detriment of the crop. The roots of winter sown cereals will not send down their roots in search of water. Consequently, if a dry period asserts itself later, shallow rooted winter wheat will suffer more readily. The total rainfall I recorded in 1998 in the gauge near my small pond was 22.5 inches (565mm). Other more exposed locations would have registered rather more.

In the January Parish magazine there was a fine tribute paid to the late Cyril Fisk of Cretingham. I regret I did not know him personally. However, reading the story of his rural life made it quite clear what a grand old countryman he was. How the farm workers’ skills of his day have changed from manual dexterity and local knowledge that he undoubtedly possessed to the different expertise required in this technological age. A.G.Street, that fine rural author of the 1930s wrote a novel entitled “Gentleman of the Party”. It is not difficult to transpose the character in this story to Cyril Fisk.

You probably have been supplying feed for the wild birds during this winter time. You may well continue to do this all the year round . Why not also provide a small container filled with moss, pieces of wool and so forth, which will be a source of nesting material for the garden birds, and a focus of entertainment for you.

Roger Sykes

The Countryside About Us January 1999

posted 28 Dec 2018, 01:49 by Chris Hoare

The daylight is perceptibly increasing now. Could it be the sombre greyness of winter is yielding to the brighter days of Springtime? The early small leaves of the honeysuckle suggest it, and so do the snowdrops. There is a great temptation in January both on the farm or in the garden (or even mother nature herself) to “get on”. But do make haste slowly! During the next few weeks harsh weather can descend upon us from the East! Better to get down to maintenance or some tidying up in those areas which you have promised yourself to tackle but somehow don’t get around to doing it. In the garden however, as impressive as a neat orderly appearance is, one small area left to itself undisturbed with perhaps a few logs for cover, can provide a good refuge for insect life and other small hibernating creatures. Newts, for example, leave their pond environment in late autumn and spend the next few months hidden under some friendly rotting debris. You might be lucky enough to provide shelter for a slow worm who also sleeps the winter away.

Not all the countryside about us slips into a lower gear. Indeed for some a much higher gear is engaged. Such was the case recently. I was alerted by my pony’s great interest in the activity in what is usually a peaceful and empty meadow nearby. She and I were both excited to see the horses owned by a local owner, whose animals’ winter season is spent jumping hurdles at race meetings all over the country, exercising with their jockeys “up”. I expect their usual “gallops “ at Worlingworth were rather too muddy and the need to keep horses fit for racing brought them to Earl Soham in what are their normal rest and grazing fields.

Something in a very much faster gear than those is not an infrequent visitor to our countryside albeit high above it. Making its presence felt by a ferocious sound but often invisible, the F15 Eagles piloted by our young American friends from Lakenheath, perform their war dance in the blue beyond. Such is the thunder of their jet engines, that I have heard cock pheasants “squawk” their alarm call, just in the same way as when they hear thunder.

Why not, I thought , utilize modern technology to benefit our indigenous wild life? The mobile telephone masts are often sited in quiet rural places. Fix an RSPB approved owl box on them and you would have an ideal home for a barn owl. This would compensate for the loss of the old barns they used to nest in, many of which are now converted for “nests” of another kind!

Roger Sykes

The Countryside About Us December 1998

posted 29 Nov 2018, 08:44 by Chris Hoare

The great Christian festival is almost upon us. Our minds are focused upon it for many differing reasons. But for the countryside about us it is not a time of any great significance, more a period of rest and survival. On the farm livestock are as demanding on Christmas Day as on any other, although much thought and planning is put into making that day’s work as brief as possible. The fields require little attention for a few weeks. It is often January that provides the biggest test of survival for the natural world with cold nights and maybe a covering of snow. 

If animals were aware of our festival then some pigs residing in this Parish might consider it their best Christmas ever! If you take a stroll towards the business park at The Lodge, you might be surprised to hear much grunting and barking (yes, pigs bark ) coming from the paddock on your right. It is now the happy home of a giddy bunch of females. The muddy wallows and churned up grass show you what a great time this bunch of gilts (females pigs retained for breeding) are having! I wonder if, when they are suckling their first litters next year of probably between 8 and 10 piglets, their thoughts will turn to those carefree paddock days? 

Are the lapwings or peewits making a return to the local fields, I wonder? In October I was delighted to see quite a large flock on some arable fields in Kent. Then a few weeks later not far from Stonham Barns a smaller gathering could be seen on newly ploughed land. Their contrasting colours against a backdrop of a cold blue winter sky as they wheeled around was so typical of our Suffolk winter scene. Maybe they are coming home?

At last the deficit of moisture in the soil is being put right. No longer do I find dry soil when digging just one spade depth down. So far this year my rain gauge has recorded 19.39” (494 mm) to early November.

Are you racking your brains for a Christmas gift idea? Then may I suggest a book entitled “A Suffolk Christmas” compiled by Humphrey Phelps. It is a fascinating account of country times long past.

Roger Sykes

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