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 Remembered
Many and complicated are the schemes and instructions that now affect our farmers and their activities. None are spared. As a young farmer said to me the other day “When my old father was farming this place ‘Brussels” meant brussel sprouts!” Now, to the farming community and many others, the name has quite a different connotation. It is often synonymous with complicated rules and regulations, conditions and forms. During WW11 the government of the time established what became known as The War Ag. They could, for example, compel a farmer to plough up grassland to grow wheat instead. However, their authority seemed as nothing compared with “Brussels“as now empowered. However it would be foolish to suggest that all is aggravation from the bureaucrats. One scheme that would be welcomed by the critics of modern farming systems is called “The Countryside Stewardship Scheme”. A farmer elects to sow a 6 meter wide strip of land adjoining the field boundary with a special grass and wild flower mixture. This will be left for 10 years. The adjoining hedgerow will be managed to preserve it. Coppicing will take place. In some cases even ponds will be restored. For removing that part of the field from producing, say, wheat for sale, a modest management fee is paid. Therefore, if from a 30 acre field, 1 acre was given over to this scheme, it would provide a strip of grassland etc. over ½ a mile long. Where some arable fields have “set aside” strips, it is very evident the resultant herbage supports flora and fauna not previously seen. Regularly walking along such a field by Kings Hill, which also has a footpath, I am delighted to see yellow hammers, greenfinches and chaffinches feeding on the seeds in the sward.
March and April in the countryside are months of much regeneration. All energy seems dedicated towards the massive job of growth and reproduction, nothing more so than the arrival of lambs. The flock of Scotch half-bred ewes that are such a welcome feature in Earl Soham parish produced their first lambs in early March. The lambs whose sires are Suffolk pure bred rams, so beloved of flock masters, will thrive nicely in their meadow during the coming weeks. They will continue the old tradition that has been a feature of the East Anglian farming scene for centuries past.
Just over the hill where the ewes and lambs are, another “regeneration” is eagerly awaited. Towards April’s end Salome, a much loved mare, will give birth to a foal. For eleven long months her progress has been carefully monitored. A great sigh of relief from her owner when the newly born creature staggers onto its ungainly legs for the first time is likely to be heard throughout the Parish!
Rabbits hopping about in our fields and hedgerows are part and parcel of our daily country scene. You cannot travel far without seeing them. Even if you don’t see any, it is very evident where they have recently been. Hedge bottoms and scooped out burrows in grass fields will reveal their entrances. Grass as well as crops will be grazed within a wide area to finish up looking like a lawn surrounding their burrows. In meadows “scrapes” will have been dug which effectively kills the sward. Left entirely to their own life style within months an elaborate warren will develop, the residents of which will take some moving on! Richard Adams in his wonderful book ”Watership Down” gave human attributes to a colony of rabbits. Many people, usually of an urban persuasion, see only cuteness and fluffy bobtails. The realism is that without a measure of human control, the recent proliferation of Richard Adam’s “Hazel, Thumper, Dandelion and friends” will, as previously in Australia, become a menace to the countryside. They will convert large areas to barren heartland. Unlike some of our wild life species, which have fallen victim to modern farming practice, rabbits seem to thrive on it. There is a theory that the fox and rabbit population go hand in hand. Large numbers of rabbits means a good food supply for the fox. Mr. Reynard thrives and breeds, so more foxes require more rabbits! Consequently the rabbit population declines so with the food supply dwindling, so do the number of foxes. I wonder? Acting on that principle that “enough is enough” some local farmers has had a blitz on the proliferating hordes during the quieter winter months. Consequently where this has taken place, the rabbit population will have markedly diminished. Notices warning dog walkers of the “campaign” would have been appreciated! There is no pleasant aspect to these necessary culls. I think there is a fortune waiting for anyone who can introduce a form of “birth control” into the warrens of our “Watership Down”.
The frosts and snow of January brought into our garden and on to our bird feeders the usual blue tits, chaffinches, starlings, blackbirds and robins.. It is at this time I am always on the lookout for any unusual species, made bold by the cold weather and need to find food. Sadly this year I have seen nothing exciting. No blackcaps, nuthatches or tree creepers. Neither have I seen a song thrush... However, there have been plenty of visiting redwings and fieldfares in the meadow behind our garden, coming for the winter from Scandinavian countries. Have you cleared out the old nests from your garden nest boxes, I wonder? It is truly amazing the amount of moss, feathers and so on, that go towards making a blue tits nest. but they do prefer a fresh start each year.
As fascinating as it is to travel far and wide, as many of our parishioners know, not far from your own back door there can be some quite interesting revelations. All through the winter months I have watched gathered in the narrow gap between a gate and its post, a colony of twenty two spot ladybirds. Each just a few millimeters long, it is a delight to view and marvel at their perfection through a magnifying glass.
The global warming about which we are cautioned did not have much effect hereabouts during the last few days of the old year and neither the early days of the new one. Up on the high (relatively speaking) ground above Earl Soham it felt much more like “global freezing”. How those NE winds sliced across the fields from the Saxtead direction! The fine snow billowed through every gap in the hedgerows and gateways causing mini drifts. Glancing upwards into the boughs of an ash tree a cock pheasant was perched. He was in silhouette against the darkening early evening sky. I thought the night temperatures would be a severe test for the insulation that his feathers would provide. In the hedgerow a group of biennial teasels looked rather grand in their winter tan coloured prickly heads leaning away from the wind. Every few yards my four legged companion was obliged to stop and de-ice her feet. How welcoming it was to get down into the comparative windless shelter of Earl Soham village, well away from our own version of Siberia! As I passed by the chestnut trees which edge Earl Soham green, what I took to be a tawny owl slipped away from its perch. It flew towards the old oak tree in the centre of the meadow. For several mornings recently, when I have braced myself to go outside to feed my pony, hens and garden birds, the temperature reads on my outside thermometer 22 degrees F (or -7 C). Spare a thought for the farmers who, in some cases, are obliged to resort to a pick axe to smash the thick ice on the water troughs which quickly froze over again. At times like this I console myself with the thought that the countryside would benefit from a good hard frost, but now we have had it I hope it knows when to stop!
Well, February is here again and with it the need for some action in the garden and on the farm. Now is the time to sow some early cauliflower and cabbage seed in a small propagator or place in a seed tray in some warm part of the house. These will then have a head start when the weather allows them to be transplanted outside. June should see some nice cauliflowers to add to your dinner. Seed potatoes will be available to buy now. I am going to purchase a few of the new variety Saxon. By all accounts their flavour is good and they can be dug quite early. One of the earliest varieties is Rocket. for which I will find some space for a few rows. On the land the first activity you will notice is the spreading of nitrogen on the oil seed rape. This crop, like grass, requires a lot of nitrogenous fertilizer to feed it. Probably three or four small applications will be spread between now and April. Also, if the weather permits, comes the working of the land to make a seed bed for the spring sown crops. These will include peas, barley and sugar beet. Once again the time honoured “Countryside About Us” be it in the garden or on the farm slips into that seasonal routine so beloved by the countryman.
“Like a mighty river flowing” is the first line of a popular modern hymn. Whilst we have no “mighty” rivers flowing through our Parishes, at least the waterways we do have are at last producing more than a trickle. It is good to see the Canadian pond weed and milfoil bending with the water flow again. Ponds will also need much more rainfall to get them to their previous levels. But at least there is mud on our boots again and water running out of field drains. The tree enthusiasts have been busy planting alder, ash, oak, and field maple, witness the roadside verge towards Saxtead and elsewhere. Replacing trees that failed to survive last summer’s drought has been a very necessary task.
The water pump that now stands proudly on Earl Soham village green has been reinstated after an altercation with a vehicle. Years past it assumed a much greater importance than now. A friend who was born in the village tells me it was a vital part of the water supply for Little Green residents until just before WW11 began. The water came from an underground reservoir. Whether it ever ran dry I know not, but it must have been a good spot to meet and exchange village gossip, whilst you pumped up the water to fill your buckets. Certainly I am confident there was no need to look out for fast moving traffic as you made your way back to Little Green! Another pump still stands on the Townlands Trust allotment field by the tennis court. They make a nice link with yesteryear, especially for those folk who remember them from their childhood days. Elsewhere wells provide the domestic water needs of the villagers.
It can be a somber business walking the footpaths in late December and early January. Yet there is much to see. A few hips and haws linger on providing feed for the resident blackbirds and visiting redwings which fly away as I approach. Tits are busily searching the willow trees for insect life. The set aside headlands are a useful source of small seeds for the finches. It is not unusual, to startle from the river side a lanky legged heron and sometimes a snipe will rocket away at great speed. A barn owl continues to make his dignified patrols appearing almost luminous as dusk approaches. The various winter drilled crops seem to be off to a good start, in particular oil seed rape. It is quite lush and small areas, usually near trees will be grazed by appreciative pigeons who pay little regards to the noisy gas guns that are lined up against them. Cattle that have been grazing the meadows are now housed in their yards to save the grass from being ruined by their cloven hooves. Ewes continue to graze their pastures but require some supplementary feeding with hay to keep their condition for a successful lambing time in the early spring. Now that IS something to look forward too.
When I was a young man I had my dreams and ambitions. There was nothing else for me than to be a farmer! Being the only son of a shop keeper it would have been more appropriate had I wished to compete with Sainsburys! Anyway my early steps towards fulfilling this desire was at a time of great change in agricultural practice. At the end of WW11 horses were still very much in evidence on the farms. I had to learn how to plough, drill and perform other tasks using them, but not for long. At the end of the 40’s decade the Fordson and the little grey Ferguson tractors began to be a familiar sight on the farms. A task that would take all day with a team of Shires or Suffolks could be done in an hour aboard a noisy, and exposed to the elements, tractor. The march of agricultural progress had begun. Farewell to Whitefoot, Beauty and Blossom. Greetings to the mechanized age. Since then if you have lived in the countryside, you cannot fail to have noticed the radical changes mechanization has achieved. This year the machines have reached the maximum size possible, I imagine, if they are to negotiate our narrow country lanes. Sugarbeet harvesters, combine harvesters and tractors with wide flotation wheels take up all available space. In those far off days, ploughing with two horses and a single furrow plough, turning over a nine inch wide furrow would result in walking, by the ploughman, 11 miles to plough one acre! This was replaced to begin with by a tractor pulling a two furrow plough and you jolted your way through the day on iron spade lugged wheels. Recently I watched what could be the ultimate in ploughing. One of those huge green tractors pulled with apparent ease an eleven furrow plough as well as a furrow leveler. To move from one field to the next the plough, by way of an hydraulic system, merely folded itself in half! When the operator was not listening to BBC Radio Suffolk, he was either adjusting the air conditioning in his cab or talking to “base”on his communication system. I have not worked out how far he travelled to plough one acre. I will leave that to the mathematicians amongst you to calculate.
Christmas Day must be the quietest day of the year. If you venture forth to walk off that roast turkey and Christmas pudding you are unlikely to meet a living soul. If, on my own post luncheon stroll, I spot the kingfishers a farmer friend has recently seen on the River Ken, it will make it even more of a really special day.
Memories of late summer and autumn linger on in these short lit days of November. The impatience for next springtime has not yet begun. Rather the prospect of a peaceful evening as curtains are drawn by late afternoon against the gathering darkness of a long winter night. By now some of the hedgerow and garden fruits have been cleared by marauding flocks of birds. Visiting fieldfares and redwings, not to mention our own blackbirds and thrushes have already been feasting on the berries. The rowan tree and blackthorn have been especially prolific this year. Under the crab apple trees lies a carpet of fruit. I rather think, however, blackberries have not been as prolific as last year. Maybe the dry summer and autumn can be held responsible? Unusually what did seem to be much in evidence was the damsel fly. There are two main species, blue and red. Their appearance and then disappearance is so swift it was impossible to note which is which! By no means as common, I was delighted to find a goodly sized area of common toadflax. This perennial yellow or orange plant growing over three feet high makes a nice contrast of colour in a green hedge bottom.
A new event seems set to become a regular feature of our autumnal scene. In September the huntsman’s horn could be heard one evening. The skyline towards Cretingham showed up a group of riders at the gallop preceded by a pack of baying hounds. The quarry was well ahead but the hounds were obviously gaining ground. It was an exhilarating sight. Horses and hounds at speed down a long track hot on the scent. The “music” from the Master’s horn sounded out across the valley. I am glad to report that no death resulted from the hounds catching their “prey” for the hounds were bloodhounds and the quarry a breathless “scent”. They will run true to the trail he leaves behind. I understand, however, he does “underline” it occasionally by a certain means! I will leave that to the imagination of the reader! The hunt ended close by the bridge on the Cretingham Road out of Earl Soham. Light refreshments were provided for the riders. Encouraged by the Master, the hounds had a cooling drink in the river. Some of the horses were impatient to continue and obviously had thoroughly enjoyed the “action”. The ride took them from Kettleburgh and back via a circuitous route. Two of them particularly caught the eye. A pair of beautiful Friesland cobs contrasted nicely with the chestnuts and greys.
Now the principal harvest of the year is underway. Remember when you put a packet of caster sugar in your shopping basket that you could well have seen it go by in a lorry earlier, albeit in a different form, but maybe your sugar nevertheless.
The cereal harvest is a noisy affair. I daresay those far removed from what goes on in our rural parishes think of harvesting as a peaceful bucolic affair, if indeed they give the matter any thought at all. In August and September those of us either engaged in the activity of harvest or merely watching with interest from the touchlines know differently. The constant roar of those massive all consuming machines which began in mid July, during daylight hours, and often beyond into the night, is a constant companion to our lives for a short time. The empty grain trailers rattle along our narrow country roads. They are on their way to meet up with the combine and allow it to disgorge the threshed grain for transport back to the farm grain store. What blessed relief the operators must experience when finally they can switch off the great cacophony of noise and escape the dust that accompanies it. Harvests of days past were quiet “plodding” affairs. The noise came later and confined to the stack yard when the great event of threshing took place during later months. However overriding all of that is the satisfaction of getting the harvest in. There is something very primeval about filling up a store, giving a feeling of security against the dark and cold days of winter. The smallest of creatures right through to ourselves experience this basic urge to store up against lean times ahead.
The exceptional almost rain free year so far continues. At any rate it did to mid August after which I know not. In spite of low rain fall, oil seed rape crops locally yielded quite well, which means over 1.5 tonnes per acre of which about 40% will eventually become oil. Barley yields were not so encouraging and in particular the quality of the grain was poor. In the language of yesteryear, the bushel weight (i.e. the volume) was low. Mid August is too early to talk about wheat and who grows oats anymore? Already the ground is being prepared for crops that will be harvested in 1997.
The year is slowing the natural world down a little. Some garden birds seem to be nesting later then previous years. It was not until mid July that a pair of spotted flycatchers decided to build a nest in a most precarious spot; it was wedged between a box of dust masks and a block of wood on a shelf in our shed. Five eggs were laid in the moss-lined nest and four chicks hatched successfully. Each day I checked their progress much to the indignation of the parent birds. They flitted about nearby using the runner bean poles as a perch. Slowly the chicks outgrew the nest. First one suddenly ventured forth and sat on the wheelbarrow, to be followed the next day by the rest of the brood. A neat empty nest is all that remains to remind me of that charming little family.
By the way, do you know of a suitable piece of ground within the parish of Earl Soham, other than private gardens, where a tree or trees could be planted this autumn? If you do please let me know.
The new day in late June was but five hours old. The freshness of that particular early morning compelled me to be up and about. I wandered down to the boundary of our garden which edged on to a field of hay that had been winnowed into rows the previous day. The evidence of a sunny day to come was suggested by the misty haze over the hay which shortly would be quickly dispersed by the warmth of the sun. The newly cut sward was straw coloured and almost luminous, awaiting some rain to change the aspect to green. The only sounds were of wood pigeons cooing away close by. Above the layer of mist my eyes focused further on a gently sloping field of barley still to ripen. Above the field was a spinney already catching the rays of that morning’s sunrise. Words are quite inadequate to describe the ethereal moments we all, I hope, experience at some time or other. The scene, however, remains like a photograph in my mind.
August is here and with it the approach of the cereal harvest. On the lighter land the barley has already been combined. I suspect yields have been poor. No rain for weeks has seriously affected this crop, especially the spring sown varieties. The main activity in our parishes will be the combining of wheat. Sown in the autumn the germinating seed has a better chance of sending its roots down to the moisture levels. Even so, the “Sahara” like spring and early summer has affected even this crop. Farmers’ thoughts and conversations as they go about their daily tasks are frequently centered at this time of year on what the likely yields will be. Early thoughts and predictions are rather modest this year. The fears that the oil seed rape yields would be affected because the all important pollination bee, a victim of a parasite, would be in short supply, have, I think, been largely unfounded. I have always liked the advice given about the time to combine oil seed rape. The overall appearance of the field should be the “colour” of a hare’s back, a lovely rustic brown.
In early July I was asked to identify a mass of black and brown marked caterpillars clinging to a web as big as a dinner plate. The web was draped over the branch of a bush not far from Earl Soham green. Not being much of a lepidopterist the spectacle had me and others puzzled. Subsequent research revealed them to be the larva of the brown tailed moth! These will rapidly defoliate the leaves of bushes and even trees. The advice was to destroy them. However, it was decided to adopt the principle “live and let live” so their lives still stretch before them.
For the first time this year, I have provided peanuts for the birds during the summer months. My reward was to watch a greater spotted woodpecker extract nuts from the container to feed its solitary offspring which was clinging, as only woodpeckers do, to the vertical side of a nearby branch.
Each year at the end of May, many country folk from parishes all over the County and beyond, converge on Bucklesham near Ipswich for the much looked forward to agricultural show. The organizers cater for all tastes. Some of the more senior visitors like to look again at implements and tractors of a bygone era. It reminds them of those dim and distant days when, with no protection from the elements, let alone entertainment by BBC Radio Suffolk in an air conditioned tractor cab, their Fordsons and Cases churned their way on unsprung iron wheels across smallish fields. Pulling a two or even a three furrow plough was the limit of their power. Others go to marvel at the latest monster tractor. Surely now they have reached the zenith of their growth! Anything larger will require Earl Soham street to be widened to enable them pass through! For me the Grand Parade of all the winning livestock is a sight to savour. The Suffolk Punch horses traditionally lead the cavalcade. Every now and then a prize winner proudly led by a familiar figure passes by in a convoy of those ahead and behind. Several once well known breeds of British cattle are now replaced by less well known bovines from across the Channel. For lovers of military displays, this year’s show excelled itself with the unforgettable dash and verve of The Kings Troop, Royal Horse Artillery. (Thomas Hardy enthusiasts will instantly be reminded of Sgt Troy!) I overheard an old soldier exchanging experiences with one of the young troopers who was polishing his harness and boots. They were saying how once the gun battery horses had grown past their useful army lives, generally speaking, it was kinder to put them down than try to rehabilitate them into retirement. They would miss their regimental lives too much.
Whilst no one wanted it really to rain on the two days of the Show, any rain before or after would have been most welcome. Can you remember such a dry period as the last few months? Cracks on the fields are more reminiscent of August time. In fact it is quite amazing how well the crops do look unassisted by an inch or so of rain. There are some very good looking fields of peas, destined for canning or stock feed. I was nevertheless surprised to see, on my way to the show, a field of wheat being irrigated! Oil seed rape, fully in flower now (early June) is giving cause for concern. Bees, so essential for pollination, are suffering parasitic disease, which in turn may well affect the final yield of the crop by causing a poor pod set. Time will soon tell how serious the effect on yields will be.
On the extreme northern edge of Earl Soham Parish there is a field called Black Dames. I was delighted to be told by the farmer to whom it belongs, that a pair of skylarks are frequently seen on the set aside section. One can only hope they will successfully nest and raise some chicks to help reverse what is now a serious decline in their numbers.