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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 January 1999

posted 28 Dec 2018, 01:49 by Chris Hoare

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

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

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

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

Roger Sykes

The Countryside About Us December 1998

posted 29 Nov 2018, 08:44 by Chris Hoare

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

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

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

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

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

Roger Sykes

The Countryside About Us November 1998

posted 29 Nov 2018, 08:37 by Chris Hoare   [ updated 29 Nov 2018, 08:46 ]

Enthusiasm for any particular activity is much to be admired, and even envied! Such was the case recently. I had the opportunity to visit someone within our parish whose particular enthusiasm is for Shetland sheep. Probably half the size of our County breed, the Suffolk, they are a hardy breed by virtue of their origins in the Northern islands which are on the same latitude as Norway. They are adept at thriving on very little food. This means they require little more than grazing and some hay in the winter time to feed them. Another benefit of this breed is that because their tails are short they do not require “docking” which is the routine for most other breeds. They produce quality wool, which is “pulled” and not “clipped”. As they mature slowly their meat is very “toothsome”! In these worrying times when lambs are being exported live from England to places all over Europe, it was exceedingly good to see the care and expertise devoted to this small flock. At the same time it has kept in focus the purpose of wool and meat production. This year’s lambing time, in April, produced several sets of twins, with mostly the ewe lambs being retained for breeding, and the ram lambs for meat production. My visit to see and admire this small flock on a lovely autumn morning was an occasion to file away in the “library” of my country memories.

On pasture that receives no attention from chemical sprays and especially where selective grazing animals, like horses, spend their time, thistles thrive. Such fields border the river Ken. Large patches of spear thistles, aptly named I think, provide an attractive sea of light purple in late summer. Once the flower heads go to seed, what a feast the seed heads provide for that most attractive bird, the goldfinch. Quite large flocks are invariably found feeding there in October. When they are disturbed they “bounce away” into the nearest tree, only to rapidly settle back on to the thistle heads when the commotion has passed by.

No friend of any nesting birds is the grey squirrel. They seem to be increasing in numbers and are predators of eggs during the nesting season. They are sometimes referred too as “tree rats”, which I think rather an unfair description. One cannot help but admire their attractive antics and appearance. Perhaps their propensity to being run over by cars will prevent them from becoming too numerous!

Roger Sykes

The Countryside About Us October 1998

posted 2 Oct 2018, 01:11 by Chris Hoare

By October many of the arable fields have already taken on their winter cloaks of brown. It seems that no sooner are the fields golden with the pending cereal harvest than they convert once again to the brown newly turned soil. Much like everything in modern agriculture be it beast or, to a lesser extent, field, a barren period means eventually lost profits. Therefore it is vital to achieve a quick turn around. No sooner has a sow given birth to her litter, probably less than only 60 days later arrangements are put in hand for the process to begin all over again.  The broilers chickens, that provide those chicken breasts you enjoy, were less than 50 days old when they were “harvested”. This means the house in which the birds were reared can produce 6 batches in one year.  Wheat is no sooner combined and the straw bales cleared off the fields, than the next crop is drilled.  If it is to be oil seed rape, within a few days it will be direct drilled into the wheat stubble.  Even some of the traditional spring crops, such as peas, are being trialed with winter sowing. Of course in China two crops of rice are harvested in one season so one can conclude the urgency is truly international.

Your thoughts may just be turning about now, to that age old country pursuit of blackberrying. Of course supermarkets seem to have taken the “season” out of fruit altogether. If you would like “fresh” strawberries on Christmas Day, so be it. Plums of one variety or another are available year round.   It is understandable therefore that gathering blackberries with all the scratchy hazards that go with this activity, might just lose the appeal it once had. However, if there are those amongst us, and I confess to being one, who still enjoys the quietness of a Suffolk hedgerow and the satisfaction of gathering a rather tasty dessert, then now is the time! The early indications suggest a good crop. In fact the freedom from late frosts this year, coupled with rain at the right time, has produced an abundance of various fruits. Not least the old fashioned yellow Marabelle plum which is Victoria plum like in taste. Our tree was laden this year, the first time for ages.
On the way to Brandeston, just beyond the Cretingham turn, there is a paddock in which lives Susie, a very ancient donkey. Her field is bounded on the roadside by that attractive shrub, the snowberry. This small white berry, appearing in August, is in such contrast to everything else along the   way, so they readily catch the eye.

Roger Sykes

The Countryside About Us September 1998

posted 3 Sep 2018, 05:03 by Chris Hoare

The countryside about us provides, almost every day, sights and events some of which lift your spirits and, just as effectively, cast them down. Examples of both came our way in Earl Soham parish recently. Quite a large proportion of the arable acres are farmed by one farming company. Consequently the style of their husbandry would bound to have an impact on the fields around us, and the flora and fauna this land supports. What good news it was then when the Suffolk Farming & Advisory Group award the 1998 first prize in the Countryside Stewardship Scheme to this farm. It is judged how the business of farming is carried on alongside the protection of the non commercial aspect of the farm such as unsprayed grass margins around arable fields ponds and their maintenance, hedge and tree management and so on. In other words a system that provides good farming practice coupled with enabling the natural world of the countryside to also flourish. On the other side of the coin development has decreed the need to change the character of the arboreal nave of deciduous trees from Earl Soham to Framlingham. The tree fellers and hedge grubbers have paid a visit. As Hardy so eloquently wrote “…. And change has marked the face of all things…..”

If your poultry has fallen victim to a marauding fox you would tend to curse rather than admire them. Sometimes however, one cannot fail to be impressed by their character. A friend of mine who works on a farm in Monk Soham parish tells me of such a one. Walking along the tractor wheel marks between the tall rows of winter beans in early summer, there some few yards in front of him was a vixen and three cubs. He continued forward and the cubs vanished into the jungle of beans. However the vixen stood her ground snarling at his approach. He thought she seemed rather menacing so he decided to slowly retreat along the track. To his surprise the vixen followed him for some way before deciding her cubs were no longer under threat. The story does not end there. Having reached the gateway he bent down to tie his boot lace, and virtually under the nose rushed a dog fox, which also vanished into bean field. A few days later my friend had what must be quite a unique “foxy” experience. Much in the same area he came upon the vixen lying on a sunny bankside suckling her cubs!

On a hot and breezy early August day, congregating on the wires over what was called Broad Meadow or Low Meadows nowadays, were upwards of 60 house martins, a mixture of newly flying youngsters and their parents. Far too early for migratory thoughts, it mystified me why they were holding such a convention.

Roger Sykes

The Countryside About Us August 1998

posted 29 Jul 2018, 09:01 by Earl Soham Parish Council

The rather insignificant River Ken, that trundles its way via the parishes of Kenton, Earl Soham (marking part of the boundary with Cretingham) and Brandeston. to join up with its superior partner the River Deben, is being managed! Those of you who have wells in your garden will know, and many others may have read, that a bore hole, not yet in use, has been sunk at the pumping station near the Low Meadows in Earl Soham. Now, if you take a walk along Swan Lane and look to your right by the bridge over this river you might be surprised to see constructed what looks like a small dam. I had to satisfy my curiosity (and I was also anxious to establish that our peaceful parish was not on the verge of some vast hydro electric scheme!) so eventually my enquiries led me to the Environmental Agency. They patiently explained that the “dam” was in fact a temporary weir structure. This, when the bore hole commences to add water to the Ken (and thereby the Deben) will enable them to measure the height of the water passing through the weir, and hence the flow. This is logged every 15 minutes on a device contained in a mysterious padlocked box beside the weir. However, as we have had 7½(190.5 mm) of rainfall during the last 3 months it has not been necessary to start up the bore hole. Another temporary weir structure can be seen from the bridge on the road to Cretingham from Brandeston. It is where the river Ken meets the upper reaches of the Deben.

Any doubts that may have lingered in my mind as to the wisdom of feeding wild birds throughout the year, rather than just in the winter months, have now been finally dismissed. I am quite convinced that, apart from the entertainment value, a supplement to their natural food is much appreciated. From my observations there is a constant coming and going to the feed stations throughout the daylight hours. A great tit daily brought her newly flying youngsters to be fed until they learnt to forage for themselves. To my great surprise a whitethroat even alighted on the peanut container and probed the contents. Peanuts of course, must never be offered whole, but always fed through the familiar wire mesh tube feeders. Try to suspend the feeders in a sheltered spot, which helps to protect the birds from the swift attention of a sparrow hawk. These predators have quickly learnt that bird tables are good sources of a quick ”non vegetarian meal“. A shallow water supply is equally important. Another form of help for our garden birds is provision of nest boxes, both for blue or great tits and robins. Less usual but equally welcome is the siting of artificial nests placed under the eaves of houses for the rather beleaguered house martin. I was pleased to see such a box installed on a house in Bedfield. 

Roger Sykes

The Countryside About Us July 1998

posted 28 Jun 2018, 03:23 by Chris Hoare

What a difference a wet springtime makes to the appearance of the countryside. April’s unusually generous amounts of rainfall encouraged an explosion of greenery which imposed itself upon ones vision wherever one journeyed. Approaching Earl Soham along the A1120 just before descending Mill Hill, the hedgerows, trees and fields present a wonderful verdant vista towards Windwhistle. This was nicely complimented by the mighty oak tree in the field opposite Mill House (which was probably a sapling when Queen Elizabeth 1 was Queen). In fact viewing the village from anywhere from the surrounding higher ground gave the impression of it nestling almost in a wood. The wet conditions, which counteracted to a certain extent the exact opposite weather in May (until of course the two days devoted to our County Show when over night nearly ½ inch (12mm) of rain fell and the sandy soil became liquid mud!) have greatly favoured Earl Soham mere. Before the great areas of Russian comfrey, whose flowers can be white, mauve or pink, assert themselves, big areas of that delightful plant of wet places, the perennial ragged robin, presented an eye catching swarth of crimson. Ponds have regenerated in many places. My small “natural” pond, that is to say without ornamental fish, has a good population of the common smooth newt, usually lurking under the lilyleaves, but none of the crested variety that I can detect, A good population of pond snails ensures a healthy environment as does the milfoil and water mint. The numerous water bugs both surface and “submarine”” are rather anonymous as far as I am concerned!

The activity in the bird world is at its peak just now. By all accounts several folk get much pleasure from observing their goings on. A friend told me how surprised she was to watch a cock pheasant and a domestic hen square up to each other, much as two cock pheasants will. Another told me of a blue tit building a nest and rearing some chicks in the extractor fan in their bathroom. gaining access through the outside grill! A young house sparrow, just learning to fly, provided sadly, a meal for an enterprising magpie that scooped it up and away in seconds. Some of the activity can be rather intrusive. There is more than one thriving rookery hereabouts. Nothing sounds more raucous, in the quiet of an early morning, than a young rook demanding to be fed by its ever attendant parent.

July is upon us already. Drive carefully because soon you will be confronted by wide combine harvesters on our narrow country roads. The cereal harvest is about to begin.

Roger Sykes

The Countryside About Us June 1998

posted 4 Jun 2018, 00:41 by Chris Hoare

In early June when these notes are being written I am usually distracted by a pair of swallows zooming in and out of the nearby stable beginning to construct their nest. Sadly they have not yet arrived. I have seen swallows flying about the Parish on April 21st but passing through I imagine. I cannot recall summertime without my visiting swallows rearing usually two broods before Africa calls them back again. Maybe they are a little late this year. Other bird maternity units in our garden have already produced a clutch of baby robins, now independent of their parents. We have two lots of blackbird chicks, and both great and blue tit eggs likely to hatch out any day now. Greenfinch and chaffinch are also in evidence. The greater spotted woodpeckers still come for a regular feed of peanuts, but nest elsewhere. Mid May should soon herald the arrival of the spotted flycatcher. Even the cuckoo calls its unmelodious notes quite regularly, but sadly no swallows or house martins for that matter. Talking to friends who live in the centre of the village it is quite interesting to hear them refer to pied wagtails, tree creepers and sometimes a nuthatch. These I rarely see at my end of the village. The explanation must lie in the immediate environment being more favourable to those particular birds.

The countryside about us can sometimes echo to sounds other than those produced by the birds of the air, and the beasts of the fields and even machinery working in the fields. In mid April there was a gathering in our village, and many others, of music makers of a different kind. To borrow the well known harvest supper theme song, “The bells of St. Mary’s, I hear them a’calling, across the village…..” Indeed they were. From the church tower of St. Mary’s came, one sunny and fresh morning, that unique sound of bells. I always feel that to gain the most pleasure from them, like bag pipes, listening to them from a distance is the best way. It gives a mysterious and haunting feeling not knowing exactly the source of the sound, but just the effect. Anyway, on that morning it was a perfect accompaniment to my activities in the garden. I hope it was for you too.

Generally speaking the rainfall we have had recently has done much good. Had we gone into another year with a serious deficit of moisture many young trees, shrubs and the soil in general, would have been under great stress. As it is, according to my rain gauge, March produced 1.9” (50mm) and in April 3.9” (101mm). The total this year to date is 8.4”(215mm) . This is about 33% of the annual expectancy. Grass is lush, and lawn mowers are more active this year than last! On the farms good crops of hay and silage can be expected. Indeed most of the arable fields and the crops they contain look full of promise. But no farmer will “Count his chickens….” so soon. 

Roger Sykes

The Countryside About Us May 1998

posted 4 May 2018, 03:52 by Earl Soham Parish Council

During late March when springtime seemed to have arrived without a winter worthy of the name, you could be forgiven for thinking “God’s in his heaven and all’s right with the world!” There were some lovely quiet days, ideal for a walk along the footpaths now beginning to be lined by the fresh green leaves of the hedgerows. The first white blossom that caught our eyes was the bullac bushes which were closely followed by the blackthorn that always heralds springtime. By late March, this array of white was already well past its snowy prime. A walk along a woodside displayed some delicate patches of dog violets thriving in the shelter of a low bank. Cowslips, described as rare in some parts, are quite common hereabouts. They were much in evidence at the end of March and even earlier in sheltered places. Many bumblebees were active, encouraged by the warmth of early spring sunshine and increasing supplies of nectar. On the arable fields the rich green of winter wheat was very evident. However, some fields of winter barley which were also drilled in the late autumn were looking rather “pale”. The first application of nitrogen fertilizer will soon put some colour into its “cheeks!” On the way to Stowmarket a large field of oil seed rape could be noted which was well into its flowering by mid March. Most cattle will have spent their winter months in straw yards, but by the time these notes are read, will be enjoying their first taste of freedom and new grass. Like young children who are released from the classroom at playtime, even matronly cows go quite crazy when first liberated from their winter quarters. A comical sight indeed to see!

You could hardly have failed to notice that certain turbulence has disturbed the apparent calmness of the countryside about us. If you missed the media and newspaper headlines you may have noticed posters prominently displayed on farm gates and trees asking us to “Keep Britain Farming”. The countryside, we were told, had problems and was on the march. Indeed, one Sunday two months ago our parish and a good many others, was depleted of many country folk as they converged on London. Their causes were several, but the central theme was telling politicians not to interfere in countryside affairs. “Country matters should be left to country people” they proclaimed. Such demonstrations in rural Britain are quite rare but not unique. In 1816 the peasants around Littleport in Cambridgershire gathered to protest at the loss of common grazing rights. When farm workers saw the arrival of the first agricultural machines in the mid 19th Century, they marched from farm to farm smashing up the machines. The threat to their livelihood seemed as real to them as to those who marched in 1998. In the late 1830’s measures to keep corn prices artificially high by imposing import levies were repealed. Again there was much unrest and speakers toured the country opposing the plan which would reduce farm incomes. At least the seasons can be relied upon to keep a semblance of order during troubled times!

Roger Sykes

The Countryside About Us April 1998

posted 30 Mar 2018, 13:27 by Chris Hoare

The population of sheep in Earl Soham parish has increased markedly during mid February some early lambs being born. Sheep are excellent “lawn mowers” being non selective grazers. Horses on the other hand are very selective, so it makes sense to follow up with sheep on grassland which has had horses on it for some time. Sheep are also very good at escaping from where they should be to places where they are not supposed to be! Another skill they have is entangling themselves up in briars and wire. I am not alone in finding one helplessly waiting to be cut free from such a predicament. This particular flock has managed to explore much of the surrounding countryside! This lot seems a mixed bunch of breeds with a good number of black and off white Jacobs together with some cross bred Southdowns and black faced Suffolks. In late February a few new born lambs appeared amongst them, with the mild days suiting them nicely.

In the adjoining field there have been sometimes quite large flocks of fieldfares and redwings. Quite the most numerous I have seen for a long time. They descend quite suddenly and just as suddenly all take off to new feeding grounds. By now they will have all returned to Scandinavian countries to nest. Regrettably I no longer see any lapwings (pewits) in this area at all. They used to be such a feature of our winter landscapes hereabouts.

Lambs were not the only new arrivals. On a farm not far away some plastic guttering and a new born calf would see a rather unlikely combination. Nevertheless such was the case. A heifer calf was safely born, but it quickly became apparent that she could not stand unaided to suckle her mother. As sometimes happens, tight ligaments did not permit the straightening and use of her front feet. The vet, by carefully padding plastic guttering to use as splints for the front legs, enabled the calf to support itself and slowly “stretch” the tight ligaments. Quite soon she was able to stand unaided. A good example of improvisation I thought.

We are still experiencing a “stop start” rainfall. January produced a respectable 2” (51mm) but February was incredibly dry, just under ¼ inches (6mm). In fact during the second night of March we had as much rain as during the whole of February!

One of the best books I have read about a family farm during World War 11 is entitled “Heartbreak Farm” by Francis Mountford. Whilst the story concerns a particular farm, the situation was by no means unique. It is available from Framlingham library and a really good “read”.

Roger Sykes

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