A right Royal time of it…

I’ve been having a right Royal time of it recently and have been lucky enough to attend three of this years Royal Agricultural Shows.

NFU Countryside magazine invited me and a few of my chickens along to join them at the Royal Bath & West show at the very beginning of the month after we’d had such a successful Edible Garden Show working together and the event was excellent fun.

Next they teamed up with the Rare Breeds Survival Trust and I was invited along (again with chickens) to the newly appointed “Royal”, the Royal Three Counties. Another fantastic event and it was brilliant to be surrounded by a number of Britains rarest breeds of livestock. It was also an honour to be involved with such an important agricultural & conservation charity, founded by Joe Henson and now heavily involving his son Adam (probably better known for being a presenter on BBC Countryfile), as it began celebrating its 40th Aniversary

MartinAdamAndy

It was a particular honour too to have the opportunity to spend a few minutes talking to the Countess Of Darnley JP who was this years Show President. Her interest in understanding the importance of utility breeds and the value they have to the small scale keeper provided us both with plenty to talk about, in particular the value of the Sussex and Ixworth.

3CPresident

Next up came the Royal Norfolk. Now it’s quite a drive from North Shropshire to Norwich but after being invited once again to join the RBST on their stand (along with the NFU Countryside crew) and being told that this particular time the stand would have 40 examples of rare livestock breeds of cattle, horse, goat, sheep, pigs and poultry currently under threat, the distance was no obstacle at all!

It was not only a fantastic opportunity to see such an excellent collection of beasts (all kindly donated for the duration of the show by RBST members around the country) but also a superb chance to be part of the celebration of some the best things about our heritage livestock breeds (and natter on about chickens to anyone wanting to listen).

The RBST Facebook page has a ruck of photos on it if you want to have a closer look

Finally to cap off what has been a fantastic month talking about & promoting British rare breed poultry for me, along came BBC Countryfile who shoved a camera in my face (actually they politely asked) giving me the chance to put them squarely in your living room…. so look out, one Sunday evening you might end up getting close up & personal with an Ixworth pullet!

Norfolkfilming

April: always a mixed month weather-wise

April in many ways represents a mid-point in the change from winter to summer. Its weather is well known for its April showers, it’s also well known for its changeability. I recall one day many years back when all four seasons occurred on one April day, from glorious sunshine through to snow. It particularly sticks in my mind as it was the day I was married! As such it’s a month that you make the most of the good weather and don’t grumble about the bad. With the dry winters we have had recently almost all rain is useful rain at this stage of the year.

4th April 2012. The snow started to fall. The previous week I'd been sitting in that chair in that exact spot in 23c sunshine

 

Four days later... 8th April 2012... sunshine & blooms

 

 

As the seasons turn, so does the wildlife in the garden. Bees and butterflies will be seen more frequently, warming themselves in the rays of sunshine. The resident birds will be well on the way to making nests and the females will soon begin to brood. Most of the winter migrants will have left leaving behind a few stragglers who will catch up later. New birds will be reaching our shores as the summer migration begins in earnest.

 

The vegetable garden will seem empty as most of the winter crops will have been used and without the aid of a greenhouse it’s unlikely that there will be anything to new to harvest but no matter, abundance will soon return. Around the garden there will be a flush of colour with daffodils fritillaries and tulips are bursting into flower. In the shrubbery flowering currants put on a show whilst forsythia and magnolia compliment them with dainty yellows and bold, creamy whites. As the month wears on the weather continues to improve and the intensity of colour within the garden shines through to meet the warmer, longer days.

Six days after the covering of snow and the garden bursts into life, the white snow replaced by white blossom

 

(If you are wondering what the chicken house is in the middle of the shot is a recycled plastic coop from Solway Recycling Limited – rather discreet and handy for the free range garden gang)

But remember the opening comment… the weather can and will change as April plays host to the contest between the seasons, taking two steps to the right looking out across the field and winter was dinging the bell for Round 2…..

A hail storm readies itself in the grey corner....

 

Build a bird box!

This is a part of an old article I wrote some years back but on the request of a twitter friend Heather Wilde of @KidsNorthWest I’m uploading it here as she’s holding a bird box building party soon so hopefully she’ll find this timely and useful 🙂

Birds are an integral part of any garden, be it an urban one or one out in the sticks. More and more people are feeding birds (click for a novel bird feeder idea) and enjoying this doorstep wildlife spectacle, and what better way to further enhance it than to provide some simple accommodation for them to raise young in.

 

I’ve been a keen bird watcher since I was a child when my mother gave me a collection of children’s “Things to Do” cards she had received by collecting Batchelor’s soups labels. Within the pack was a card about bird watching and how to start a field note book, and I thought I would give it a go. We only had a small back garden on an estate in a village near Leeds, but having spent many an hour at the kitchen window I’d recorded in excess of 30 species of birds there in my first year of ‘watching’. I was hooked and still am to this day, be it rarity turning up locally, the first swallow of the year or a house sparrow feeding her brood on the window ledge.

 

Over the years I’ve lived in both urban and rural settings, and for some reason that escapes me I’ve developed a habit of making and putting up a bird box at the beginning of each year. Winter is a good time of year too, it gives the box a chance to weather and settle before the breeding season starts in earnest. It’s an extremely simple and cheap thing to do. It requires minimal woodworking skills and is perfect for getting the kids involved in something that might just have the same impact as the cards my mum gave me all those years back.

On top of that it’s a great idea for new and unestablished gardens that may not have the natural nest sites for birds. Of course you could just buy one ready made however different birds have different housing requirements just like people.

 

This design alone can be modified to attract around 7 different species of bird by simply changing the size of the entrance hole – 25mm for coal, blue and marsh tit, 28mm for great tits and tree sparrows, or 32mm for house sparrow and nuthatches.

 

Many garden bird species are declining in numbers year on year, yet they are an essential element for the success of our garden ecosystem, so why not spend a couple of pounds and a winter hour knocking up some accommodation for them, you’ll be repaid by the bucket load when you see the first young appearing at the entrance hole.

 

And just to prove I’ts not beyond anyone’s reach to build, my youngest son (with some assistance from his older brother) performed almost the entire build himself. I built one myself at the same time and I have to declare, his was better!

 

 

What you will need

Tools:

  • Saw
  • Hammer
  • Measuring tape
  • Galvanised nails (3cm)
  • Drill
  • Hole saw or large drill bit
  • Bored teenager or enthusiastic youngster ‘optional’

Materials

  • 15cm x 2cm x 142cm tanalised plank
  • 15cm x 5cm rubber strip (car inner tube, pond liner etc)
  • Small hook and eye fitting

 

 

Step 1

Using the template below, measure out the cuts to be made on the plank. Most hand saws have 90 and 45 degree guides built into the handle these days, or alternative use a set square. Then cut the sections out.

 

 

Step 2

Having decided on the entrance hole size, drill the entrance hole. It needs to be at least 125mm from the base. This means the nest will be low enough within the box to minimise the possibility of predation by cats.

 

Step 3

Attach the side panels to the back piece using the hammer and nails. Be sure to check the sides are positioned directly opposite each other or the rest of the build will be out of line!

 

Step 4

Side the base into position between the two side pieces and nail it to the sides. Drill a few small drain holes in the base. This is precautionary measure as the completed box should remain dry inside.

 

Step 5

Making sure that you have the entrance hole nearest the top, place the front section on and nail it to the sides and base.

 

 

Step 6

Nail the rubber strip to the roof section first,  and then nail the flap to the back section. Hinging the lid in this way means you can easily access the box to clean it out at the end of the season should it be required.

 

 

Step 7

As a further precaution against predation, add the hook and eye to the lid. It will also stop any gusts of wind flipping the lid up.

 

Step 8

Decide on the location for your new nest box choosing a sheltered spot 2 metres or more above the ground. Face it between northeast and southeast so it avoids the worst of the weather and is not exposed to too much sun.

 

Wine Bottle Bird Feeder

I’ve always had a bit of a passion for birdwatching which stems from my childhood sitting by the kitchen window recording and drawing all the bird species that visited our little semi detached garden. One of the best ways to attract birds into the garden is to feed them, and feeding them is equally essential during the harsh winter months.

These days the interest in feeding garden birds has expanded significantly since my younger years and there are a plethora of feeds and feeders available on the market but there’s no need to spend too much when this simple project can be put together for a fraction of the price. On top of that this particular project not only indulges my love of wildlife but also my love of wine, soI have to say that this is a favorite build project, though quite possibly fuelled by the fact I have an excuse to empty a bottle of wine in order to make it!

One plank and one plonk (emptied first of course) is all you need to create this bird feeder. The precise dimensions of some of the cuts, such as the neck hole, will be dictated by the size of the bottle used but the principle is fairly straight forward to follow and modify.

As a handy hint don’t fix the bottle holder permanently to a wall because when you come to refill the bottle it will be easier if you can insert the bottle into the holder in an upright position and then tip it over as you re-hang the holder. Also should the bottle become grubby then simply recycle it and replace it with a new one, obviously enjoying emptying the new bottle first.

One plank, one plonk bird feeder

(By the way, the Great Tit in the picture arrived to feed within 10minutes of hanging the feeder up, so there’s one happy customer.)

What you will need

Tools

  • Saw
  • Hammer
  • Drill with hole saw fitting
  • Tape measure
  • Rasp
  • Sandpaper

Materials

  • One wine bottle, enjoy emptying it the night before
  • One 1 metre 20cm thick plank, 40cm wider than your wine bottle
  • Screws and panel pins

Step 1

Measure out and cut the backboard (150mm longer than your bottle), table and neck supports (10mm wider than your bottle).

 

Step 2

Using a hole saw cut the neck hole in the centre of the neck support section. Smooth the neck hole for a snug fit using a rasp or sandpaper.

Step 3

Screw the table section to the bottom end of the back support

Step 4

Using 10mm wide lengths of plank (or some spare beading) pin three edges to the table. This will reduce the seed spillage.

Step 5

Insert the bottle into the neck support and position it approximately 20mm from the table. Mark the position and then screw the neck support to the backboard

Step 6

Cut 20mm wide lengths of plank, 20mm longer than the bottle width. Position these as the bottle base support and screw into position.

Step 7

Cut another 20mm length to act as the cross beam. Make sure the bottle fits snugly in place with a bit of give but not so it rattles.

Step 8

Screw the cross beam in place attaching it the two side supports to complete your base support

Step 9

Find a suitable location. Drill and attach the unit to the wall, shed or other relatively flat surface. Fill the bottle with seed and slot it into position.

Insect Hotel

Having once being a little boy who, by rights, was into all things creepy crawly, and then later in life becoming an avid ecologist and nature lover, I have come to understand the importance of food chains from beginning to end. As a gardener I’ve also come to appreciate that not all that flies, crawls or slithers is necessarily bad for the garden, in fact some are positively essential. Many insects in the garden are not only needed in terms of pollination but are most definitely a gardener’s best friend, acting as a predator to the many ‘nuisance’ pests that plague our crops throughout the growing season.

Whether you operate a spotless, regimented garden, or like me, head for the more naturalistic plantings in both flower beds and vegetable plots, there can never be enough hiding places and hibernation spots for our useful insects, and this is where this quick and easy project comes into play – a homebuilt insect hotel. Its also the ideal time of year to build one!

The project takes approximately an hour to knock together, and ‘knock together’ is the right term for it, the more rough and ready, the better. It’s made from materials you will find languishing in most potting sheds. Mine here is made of an old skirting board, some off cuts from the veg bed edging, old bamboo canes that had seen better days and a couple of roof slates that had come off the house during the recent windy days. And if you have children around, get them involved, my own daughter found a whole new interest when helping me and I wonder if there’s another ecologist in the making!

What you will need

Tools:

  • Saw
  • Drill
  • Screwdriver
  • Mallet
  • Chisel
  • Hammer

Materials

  • Old planks, skirting board, pallet wood 200cm x 15cm
  • Old bamboo canes
  • Straw
  • Old roof slates

Step 1

Cut the 4 box sides (30cm each) and drill both the ends of two pieces. I’m using an old skirting board I found in the workshop

Step 2

Screw the four sections together. Don’t worry if its looking a bit rough – the more ‘rustic’, the better!

Step 3

Cut the centre inserts, one will be 30cm long, the other 30cm minus 2x the width of the wood you used for the outer box. Use a saw to cut the sides of the slot and a chisel to remove the waste

Step 4

Slot the two centre inserts together and insert them into the box frame. The fit should be snug and may need a mallet to knock it into place

Step 5

Hold the centre inserts in place by drilling and screwing through the outer box. Again don’t worry about how rough things might be looking

Step6

Cut lengths of bamboo approximately to the depth of the box and pack them into one of the sections. Use a mallet to ensure a tight fit

Step 7

Stuff the next door section with some straw before then filling the opposite cell with further bamboo off cuts

Step 8

Before filling the final section attach the box to a wall, fence or side of a shed. A hook or mirror fixing can be used

Step 9

Deploy a small person with a hammer to break up some roof slates (my kids loved this bit!). Keeping the pieces reasonably large, stack them into the remaining empty section

And there you are, one hour, one plank, one pile of rubbish, one fine insect hideaway.

Build a Bat Box!

One of the major attractions of gardening for me is seeing what wildlife your efforts can bring into the garden. One way to increase the wildlife diversity in the garden though is to provide roosts or safe havens for them.

 

If you are fortunate enough to have bats frequenting your garden or allotment then why not provide a roosting box or resting place for them. If you don’t believe you have bats this may be because the habitat doesn’t provide natural roosting spots such as holes in trees or dry outbuildings so why not try and attract some with this simple design.

The DIY Bat Box

 

It’s a quick and easy design that you can knock up in an hour and even get the kids involved. Be sure to get snug fits on all the joints as good insulation and the avoidance of draughts is essential in attracting bats to boxes. Also use untreated rough cut or sawn timber, the later means it provides something for the bats to cling and climb on and former because bats are very sensitive to timber treatment chemicals

 

 

What you will need

Tools:

  • Power drill
  • Hammer
  • Staple gun or small tacks
  • Set square
  • Tape Measure
  • Saw
  • Nails
  • Jigsaw (optional)

 

Materials

  • 120cm x 20cm x 2cm sawn untreated timber plank
  • A short piece of wheel inner tube or pond liner

Step 1

Measure out the plank according to the cutting plan

Cutting Plan

 

 

Step 2

Cut the sections out using a hand saw. If you have a jigsaw you may find that easier to use when cutting the side diagonal.

 

Step 3

Make a bevel cut on one of the roof section. This needs to be approximately 60o and will make a snug fit against the back and provide the correct angle for the front

Cutting the bevel

 

Step 4

Using a hand saw cut grooves across the width of the back section and for its full length to create a ‘bat ladder’. This is essential to give the bats something to climb up and hang from.

Making the bat ladder

 

Step 5

Cut an 8cm length off the acute angled end of the side pieces to provide easier access to entrance.

 

Step6

Nail the sides on to the back section. You may find it easier to drill pilot holes to reduce the risk of the wood splitting. Be sure to get them in exactly the same position on each side or it will throw the box out of shape.

 

Step 7

Slot the roof section into place and nail it to the side sections. Again drilling pilot holes if necessary to reduce the risk of the wood splitting

Assembling the box

 

Step 8

Staple or nail the pond liner or inner tube across the joint of the roof to the back section. This will reduce the likelihood of damp or draughts getting into the box

 

Step 9

Slide the front section in and nail it in place . There will need to be a ‘door gap’ of between 10-20mm to allow access. Any wider and predation could be a problem, any smaller and the bats may not be able to access the box.

Mind the Gap

 

The box should be located close to where you have seen or would see bats, close to the garden pond or near an outside light. It should be positioned as high as possible, sheltered from strong winds but exposed to as much sunlight as possible in order to maintain a good internal temperature.  Don’t be disappointed if the bats don’t take as readily to your box as perhaps the birds or insects have done to the other artificial roosts, they do so less readily, however after having a box up for three years,  this summer I’ve been regularly treated to a small hunting party of pipistrelle’s emerging for an dusk feast.