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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 March 1999

posted 1 Mar 2019, 09:30 by Earl Soham Parish Council

Another mild winter in early February has encouraged many birds, especially blackbirds, to begin to pair off. They will commence the age old routine of ensuring the species continues. Great and blue tits are examining likely nesting sites and the pugnacious robin is declaring territorial rights with its distinctive song. It never fails to astound me that only 12 to 15 days elapse, with the smaller birds, from the time a fertile egg is laid to a new chick hatching out from its shell. Of course that is only the beginning of the survival process. Many and varied are the hazards that lie ahead for such fragile creatures. This year, around here at any rate, there is a new threat. the grey squirrel. It is very much in evidence. Not content with denuding our nut trees of their autumn crops they also consume the birds’ eggs layed in the springtime especially if layed in open nests. These include the greenfinch and blackbird whose eggs provide a tasty meal for these predators. Encouraged by the generous supply of peanuts intended for the birds, squirrels have prospered recently. I can only hope the four that populate our garden, and those of my neighbours, soon pack their bags and seek their fortunes elsewhere! Even the House of Lords recently devoted a debate to the growing menace of the grey squirrel!

Occasionally, during the winter months, the Easton Harriers are in evidence. The hounds ”giving tongue” can be heard from quite a distance away. The very wet and consequently muddy conditions give the riders problems with keeping up with the hounds. This was clearly demonstrated a short time ago. I was helping a farmer friend in the next parish transfer some cattle from one yard to another. We were aware that the Harriers were in the vicinity having spotted a few riders in the distance. Suddenly, and silently, the farm yard was invaded by some 12 couples (they are referred to as “couples”) of hounds, no huntsmen or followers, just hounds! They “flowed” through the yard, noses seemingly invisibly fixed to the ground. The resident black Labrador and Jack Russell shocked and greatly outnumbered by the sudden invasion of their territory, quickly vanished. Just as quickly the hounds were also gone. Sometime later a loan rider arrived enquiring “had we seen the hounds?”! Meanwhile we watched a couple of hares. They doubled back to their field having run on and then turned back using a waterway to break their scent.

A feature still in early March in the ditches and banks, especially with a warm southern aspect, are the five petalled primroses. It heralds, I suggest, all that is to come in those lovely spring and summer days that lie ahead.

Roger Sykes

The Countryside About Us - February 1999

posted 27 Jan 2019, 08:51 by Earl Soham Parish Council

There are some exceedingly pleasant tracks and countryside in the area that lies between the road to Brandeston from Earl Soham and the back road to Framlingham. Footprints I noticed in the mud suggest others occasionally pass that way, but to meet someone is unlikely. There are some good thick hedgerows hereabouts and as usual a dozen or more long tailed tits were making their chattering way amongst the top growth. Along a track bordering a field known as Home Mow on the 1841 tithe map, three roe deer, alerted by my approach, bounded into this field instead of running away. They turned, curious to see who or what was the intruder. My dog and I stood stock still! So did they. For what seemed an interminable age, we confronted each other without a twitch of a muscle from either group. Who was going to make the first move? Now certain a threat possibly presented itself to them they bounded away. Pausing for a final look from a safe distance they vanished into a nearby copse. Later we passed a field where a flock of Scotch half-bred ewes were grazing. They will lamb down in early March, the surest sign of all, when the lambs appear, that springtime has arrived at last.

There is certainly no deficit of soil moisture in early January 1999. Field drains and rivers are running freely. Water stands on the low parts of the arable fields to the detriment of the crop. The roots of winter sown cereals will not send down their roots in search of water. Consequently, if a dry period asserts itself later, shallow rooted winter wheat will suffer more readily. The total rainfall I recorded in 1998 in the gauge near my small pond was 22.5 inches (565mm). Other more exposed locations would have registered rather more.

In the January Parish magazine there was a fine tribute paid to the late Cyril Fisk of Cretingham. I regret I did not know him personally. However, reading the story of his rural life made it quite clear what a grand old countryman he was. How the farm workers’ skills of his day have changed from manual dexterity and local knowledge that he undoubtedly possessed to the different expertise required in this technological age. A.G.Street, that fine rural author of the 1930s wrote a novel entitled “Gentleman of the Party”. It is not difficult to transpose the character in this story to Cyril Fisk.

You probably have been supplying feed for the wild birds during this winter time. You may well continue to do this all the year round . Why not also provide a small container filled with moss, pieces of wool and so forth, which will be a source of nesting material for the garden birds, and a focus of entertainment for you.

Roger Sykes

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

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