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 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         

The Countryside About Us - May 1997

posted 5 May 2017, 04:10 by Chris Hoare

Judging the year as far as April it hasn’t been a bad spring at all. Farms and gardens would benefit from more rain. Nevertheless even with so little moisture, generally speaking, wheat, oil seed rape and winter beans are thriving. Meadows destined for a hay crop have been top dressed with a few units of nitrogen. The warmer days we will see the grass grow apace. In the garden the early potatoes are just pushing through and onions and parsnips are well away.

Did you notice how splendid the sallow or pussy willows showed up early this year. There are some good specimens around by the various streams. Their oval bright yellow catkins appear in March and make a splash of welcome bright yellow colours at a time when even the white flowers of the blackthorn blossom have not reached their best. Along Church Lane, a road used more frequently just lately whilst the more normal route to Framlingham remains barricaded, the hedgerow immediately on the right, viewed from the field side, was a solid wall of blackthorn flowers for almost 100 yards. During late March it was quite magnificent. Further along and in the shelter of a woodside, white violets offered a more shy and subtle hint of springtime. The countryside about us even overflowed into the doctor’s waiting room in March! Outside the sunshine warmed up a chilly early morning. Four of us waited patiently for the doctor whose arrival had been delayed. The conversation quickly turned to things of an ornithological nature. “I found a dead thrush the other morning with no sign of any injury” a lady declared. We speculated as to the reason for its demise. Maybe a glancing blow from a passing vehicle had been the cause, which is a pity as thrushes seem in short supply. “My husband goes into the garden after dark sometimes and imitates the hoot of an owl, and even gets a reply sometimes, so he must be good!” declared another. This prompted me to try it there and then but I fear no owl will respond to my call. Much advice was offered to another whose bird table seemed to attract a marauding sparrow hawk. He could so easily catch small bird’s intent on feeding. We felt the best solution was to move the bird table to a less exposed position in the garden.

Of course, especially in the springtime, when much is being born and new life begins, so the sadness of death can often be in close attendance. The calf’s birth had been quite normal and unaided by the owner. Its mother was possessive and concerned with plenty of that all important colostrum for the creature’s first feeds. For some reason the little chap had no desire to partake of that first most essential feed of colostrum or “beestings” from his mum. We gently put him in a wheelbarrow and moved him into “intensive care” which was a nest of soft hay under an infra red lamp. Artificial feeding was tried but all to no avail. During the second night of his life he died and a new life was lost.

Roger Sykes

Countryside AboutUs April 1997

posted 3 Apr 2017, 09:57 by Chris Hoare

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!

Roger Sykes

The Countryside About Us March 1997

posted 27 Feb 2017, 05:40 by Chris Hoare

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.  

Roger Sykes





The Countryside About Us - February 1997

posted 6 Feb 2017, 08:21 by Earl Soham Parish Council

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.

Roger Sykes

The Countryside About Us - January 1997

posted 4 Jan 2017, 06:26 by Chris Hoare

“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.

Roger Sykes

The Countryside About Us - December 1996

posted 4 Dec 2016, 05:41 by Chris Hoare

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.

Roger Sykes

The Countryside About Us - November 1996

posted 1 Nov 2016, 07:00 by Chris Hoare   [ updated 1 Nov 2016, 07:07 ]

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.

Roger Sykes

The Countryside About Us October 1996

posted 1 Oct 2016, 09:57 by Chris Hoare

During the last week of August it seemed almost as if a curtain was pulled down on Act 1 of the hot and dry dusty days of previous weeks. Act 11 then came on stage with thunder and lightning, squally rain and more equitable temperatures. Farm and garden will benefit greatly from a decent rainfall except where combining wheat has still to be done. Without taking into account last year’s rainfall deficit we were, for this part of Suffolk, some 12” short of what is expected! Preparing the stubble fields for drilling is an expensive business on diesel with the ground so hard. Rain helps to create a good “tilth”. As you may have noticed, especially via your nose, it is also the time for spreading farmyard manure. If the product comes from straw based sources it is not in the least bit offensive to your olfactory nerves. However, the product of broiler sheds, sludge and other insalubrious sources, can encourage a quick closing of car windows as you pass by! Once incorporated in the soil unpleasant aromas vanish and much benefit to the fertility of the soil is the eventual result.

Swallows and house martins were congregating on power lines during the last few days of August as if planning the best route to the south. A small brown green coloured bird you may have noticed in your garden, probably a chiffchaff, will also soon be compelled to begin its journey, along with many other species, to warmer climes for the winter. A pair of herons leisurely flew over the low meadows following the course of the river, which had little sustenance to offer them until recently. It is encouraging to hear various people report sightings of both the greater spotted woodpeckers and the green woodpeckers. Their numbers do seem to be on the increase.

Farm grain stores were emptied well before this year’s harvest began both here and in Europe so the “set aside” acreage has been reduced to 5%. This will allow for bigger acreages of cereals to be sown this autumn to meet both the home demand and especially the requirements of countries overseas. This amendment was made before the 1996 harvest was gathered in. The wheat tonnage in particular throughout the EEC has been very good so this could mean an increase in the “set aside” next year! Wandering along the footpaths it is easy to see the benefits of “set aside” to the flora and fauna. It is rather strange to see a big expanse of thistles, mayweed, ragwort, meadow grass and so forth on set aside areas but it does provide a wonderful source of food for the “birds and the bees”. Goldfinches especially love the seed heads of the thistles. The cover it provides is also a benefit for partridge and hares. I watched a hare accelerate away from me. The power in their long hind legs is truly amazing.

Roger Sykes

The Countryside About Us - September 1996

posted 1 Sep 2016, 08:34 by Chris Hoare

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.

Roger Sykes

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