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 - December 1997

posted 1 Dec 2017, 02:52 by Chris Hoare

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

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

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

Roger Sykes

The Countryside About Us November 1997

posted 31 Oct 2017, 07:32 by Chris Hoare

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

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

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

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

Roger Sykes

The Countryside About Us - October 1997

posted 1 Oct 2017, 11:07 by Chris Hoare

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

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

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

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

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

Roger Sykes

The Countryside About Us - September 1997

posted 4 Sep 2017, 08:49 by Chris Hoare

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

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

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

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

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

Roger Sykes

The Countryside About Us August 1997

posted 31 Jul 2017, 00:25 by Chris Hoare

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

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

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

Roger Sykes

The Countryside About Us July 1997

posted 27 Jun 2017, 08:38 by Chris Hoare

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

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

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

Roger Sykes

The Countryside About Us June 1997

posted 26 May 2017, 00:49 by Chris Hoare

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

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

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

Roger Sykes         

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





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