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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 February 2000

posted 30 Jan 2020, 02:12 by Earl Soham Web Admin

Most sounds heard whilst walking in the countryside are readily identified. The noisy “cawing” of a large flock of rooks which share our parish, a distant tractor working in the fields and the sudden “squawk” of a disturbed cock pheasant. Even the distant “drumming” of a fast approaching Army Air Corp Gazelle helicopter is quickly recognized. Consequently I was somewhat mystified one afternoon recently, to hear a loud “honking” noise coming from I knew not where. The sound grew louder and then, looking skywards, I had my answer. What I at first thought to be a distant formation or “skein” of Canada geese gradually evolved into something quite different. Two “V” formations of about 50 swans, “honking” to assist keeping in touch with each other, flew magnificently almost immediately overhead. They were probably searching for a suitable stretch of water on which to touch down and settle for the night. I confirmed later on they were “Berwick” swans. These are the smallest of the three species, the other two being”whooper” and “mute”. They visit us in the winter time after breeding in the Arctic during the summer (brrr!) months.

The saying “nothing is forever” I really thought would be disproved by the tall Scots pine that leaned at an angel of 70 degrees on the edge of the tennis court, beside Earl Soham Street. Nothing, it would seem, could affect its survival. Even the great storm of ’87 left it still leaning, may be a few degrees more to starboard, but still there. However, it took the gales of Christmas Eve to maintain that “nothing is for ever”. Happily, it had the consideration to fall parallel to the tennis court fencing.

Agriculture has always shaped the face of the countryside about us. That, in its turn, is shaped by Government support and its policies and the matters that influence them. In East Anglia the past several decades have seen financial emphasis behind the efficient production of arable crops, and the removal of anything that competes with that objective. Now, those who influence such matters have decreed that a redirection of incentive is required. Subsidies will now be directed towards encouraging farmers to adopt “stewardship” schemes (already started in the UK), ie leaving field boundaries uncultivated and growing “energy” and “organic” crops. Like a huge oil tanker changing direction it is a slow process, but gradually we will see, I hope, the benefits of this policy making for a countryside where agribusiness and the natural world are more comfortable bedfellows.

As a last look back to 1999, the rainfall totalled in my raingauge was 23 inches (58.5 cm) being much the amount expected in this region. Equally likely, I suppose, August and September were the wettest months of the year!

Roger Sykes

The Countryside About Us January 2000

posted 31 Dec 2019, 04:36 by Earl Soham Web Admin

You could count on the fingers of one hand the really basic crops that are grown to feed the worldwide masses of people. Wheat, maize and rice are the principal crops that supply our carbohydrates. Vegetable protein is provided by even fewer varieties. The soya bean, either as a source of oil or meal is by far and away the most widely produced. The processed soya bean is used in a great many products; witness the listed ingredients on many of the “convenience” foods available in our supermarkets. There is even “Soya milk”! However, until recently, the soya bean could not be successfully grown on British farms. The climate here compared with the U.S.A and South America, where much of the soya bean is grown, has not allowed British farmers to introduce it into the rotation. However, recently, because plant breeders have succeeded in producing new varieties that will thrive in our climate, trials have begun in Hampshire and elsewhere to see if it can be established as a viable crop. One of the attractions of growing it would certainly be the fact that it can be drilled in the springtime. One of the detractions is that combining the soya beans is, like the familiar field bean, much later than the cereal harvest. A wet autumn would bring harvesting problems. Nevertheless, before too many more seasons have passed the white or purple flowers of this leguminous crop might well be seen in the fields of the countryside about us.

One cannot fail to notice the number of new trees planted locally. The number appears to far exceed those lost over the previous few decades because of old age, disease and gales. Thanks to the enthusiasm of a few people coupled with the provision of saplings by an enlightened District Council, many suitable verges and public spaces have been utilized in this way. I was delighted to see, as I wended my way along Dial Lane recently in my pony and cart, a good many newly planted young trees. Planting an oak, ash or other deciduous variety is very much an act of faith. It will be future generations who will, I trust, offer up a silent “Thank you” to those who had the vision of creating peaceful tree lined lanes in our parishes.

January is a time for looking forward to that best of all English seasons, spring. Even in January clues to its perennial arrival are never far away. Move some dead leaves in a sheltered corner of the garden and green tips of early bulbs can be found. Honeysuckle leaves will begin to emerge and aconites will already add a touch of colour to drab surroundings.

Roger Sykes

The Countryside About Us December 1999

posted 4 Dec 2019, 02:03 by Earl Soham Web Admin

Artistry in the essential activities of everyday farming tasks has not been entirely sacrificed on the altar of mechanization, massive machinery and air conditioned tractor cabs. The ploughman in the autumn time illustrates this most of all. It gave me particular pleasure , therefore, to watch a young man and his four furrow plough changing the face of a stubble field, mysteriously named “Christlings”. With his one way plough, not the easiest of implements to “set up” he was producing an evenness of furrow that defied seeing where one pass of the plough ended and the next began. No “trash” remained unburied on the newly turned furrows. Ploughing matches are still held. On one occasion recently there were classes for both tractor and horse drawn ploughs. It came as no surprise that whilst the tractor men were demonstrating their skills, most spectators were watching the horseman at work! Oh the latent power of nostalgia! 

Many folk from the countryside are on the march. There seems a great variety of causes which need defending. I cannot remember a time when the usual placid face of our country parishes had such a scowl upon it. The agenda ranges widely, from defending the right to hunt with hounds, to persuading the public to eat only produce labelled with a Union Jack. I rather fancy the views of the former are too entrenched to change attitudes. The latter cause suggests a better hope of success. 

In 1995 two small grass fields leading off from the Barn Meadow in Earl Soham, were planted out under a tree planting scheme with a good variety of young saplings. Now 4 years later, they are thriving. In particular the spindle trees with their most attractive orangy fruit and wild cherry caught my eye this summer time. What a pleasant walk it makes along the footpath amongst them. 

This century of great change, now draws to a close. Our individual memories of it will vary according to our own experiences, be they long or brief. If the natural world about us can be given credit for just one benefit then it must be the unchanging reassurance of nature herself. Recently, when the full moon illuminated a misty and silent night, I paused to look out of our bedroom window at the scene. From a nearby oak tree a tawny owl hooted into the stillness. From the mystical distance came an answering call. 100 years ago, from a cottage window in our village a similar simple scene was probably enjoyed. It is my fervent hope that someone in our village in December 2099 will still be able to hear a tawny owl on a still moonlit night.

Roger Sykes

The Countryside About Us November 1999

posted 31 Oct 2019, 06:30 by Chris Hoare

The excessively wet weather of recent times has been something of a problem for farmers trying to get their autumn cultivations and sowing done in good time. Nearly 4” inches (180cm) of rain fell in September. This represents some 17% of what East Suffolk would normally expect in a year. Some farmers have already brought their cattle in off low lying and wet pasture on to higher ground or even into yards. I suspect in other parts of our County where many sows are now kept outdoors under the “welfare friendly” system, it will not seem so “welfare friendly” to either the pigs or those looking after them! To paraphrase a well known song it is more a case of “mud glorious mud”! Wet autumns also provide ideal conditions for slugs to thrive. Whilst the black slug is larger and more obvious, it is the field slug that is the greatest threat to newly emerging wheat and oilseed rape plants. You may well have noticed ATV’s or adapted farm trucks travelling quite fast over newly sown fields distributing from a rear mounted hopper small blue pellets. These cereal pellets contain a low percentage of “metaldehyde” which, when consumed by the slugs, causes rapid dehydration. 

The slug does of course have its natural predators. The one we are most often aware of in the garden is the toad. Some folk are more aware of this useful garden ally than others. If you possess a cat or more likely, a cat possesses you, a puss flap will be its means of coming and going. What about a “toad flap?” A farmers wife in Earl Soham equally fond of cats and most living things (with the possible exception of squirrels who strip bare their walnut tree each year) has a nightly visitation into her kitchen by a toad. She tells me it arrives principally to share the food provided for her cats. Its only means of entrance into her kitchen is through the “puss flap” which is in the back door. This toad will even eat pieces of cat food offered from her hand! How quickly normally wild creatures not associated with human contact will become trusting with the incentive of food. My own “live” squirrel trap illustrates the point. Any marauding squirrel has to be very quick off the mark to beat a resident hedgehog to the bait. He (she) seems quite content to wait until morning to be released not once, but nightly! 

Dark evenings and time to read? “Hodge And His Masters” by Richard Jefferies will transport you back to C19th rural England with a unique realism. It is available at Framlingham library. 

Roger Sykes

The Countryside About Us October 1999

posted 30 Sep 2019, 08:14 by Chris Hoare   [ updated 30 Sep 2019, 08:20 ]

The last oil seed rape and cereal harvest of this century ( I prefer the time span “century” to “Millennium” as I have lived through a fair chunk of the former and therefore it is more meaningful) has been gathered in. In the rural villages of our fair and pleasant land the “harvest home” will continue to be celebrated by the age old harvest supper and festival. Nowadays, most who come to wine and dine in village halls will not have laboured in the hot and dusty fields. However, the strong desire to keep the tradition alive brings us all together. Thomas Hardy encapsulates for me the “harvest home” in his novel “Far From The Madding Crowd”. You will recall farmer Bathsheba sits by her open window, the loyal shepherd Oak presiding at the other end of the laden table. The home spun entertainment became more ribald as the evening went on. Nothing has changed in that respect either, as we that gather in our local village halls can testify! There was much merriment that night, and so the festival continues now.

There was a time when a plentiful harvest had a real significance that in these days of plenty is lost. Now the question is what to do with the surplus production? In Hardy’s day, wheat yields of not much more than ½ ton an acre (measured in bushels) was normal. This year, some 125 years later on, yields have exceeded 4 tonnes per acre, I am told, such has been the progress with plant breeding and the control of problems, especially mildews. This has been especially important in a wet summertime, such as this year. Just as we now compare the progress made with years past, so future generations will be making comparisons with the late 20th century. Slowly, I hope, but inevitably I am sure, the plant and animal scientists will continue research and improvement. Previously the technique was one of improvement through breeding from the selection of the best. Now, as most of us have become aware, the genetically modification of plants and to a small extent, animals, rightly or wrongly, suggests the way forward. It is both exciting for its beneficial possibilities, but rather frightening for such big steps into previously uncharted fields.

One of the pleasures of walking along our good network of footpaths is meeting other folk similarly engaged or someone leaning over a fence to chat to and compare the success or failures of our gardens. By Little Green recently I was told that a convolvulus (bind weed) root had been carefully extracted from the ground unbroken and measured over 8½ feet long! That is one record I am content to leave unbroken!

Roger Sykes

The Countryside about Us September 1999

posted 4 Sep 2019, 03:43 by Earl Soham Web Admin

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 Web Admin

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 Web Admin

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

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