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The Pin and Thrum of Nature; Spring wildflowers on the farm

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Lesser Celandine

Native Daffodil 

Sweet Violet

British Bluebell

Ancient Bluebell Woodland

Blackthorn Blossom

Viv Geen
Monitoring Officer (Herefordshire)
Countryside Restoration Trust

Take a walk around any woodland at the moment and you will be confronted with a colourful spectacle of spring flowers.

First to emerge is the Lesser Celandine or Pilewort.  Take a look at the roots and you will see how it gets its name.  It has nitrogen fixing nodules on the roots for nutrient uptake. (It may also have been used to treat haemorrhoids).  Many gardeners believe these to be weeds but to me they are a sign of the onset of spring as their cheerful yellow faces open and face the sun in all their glory.

My favourite flower is the Native Daffodil. These delicate natives have no need for brash colours or different petal and trumpet arrangements; they are simply perfection in my eyes.

And indeed were popular with the city dwellers of London who purchased these valuable commodities from the rural areas of Herefordshire and Gloucestershire via the daffodil railway line in Edwardian times.  There is an annual native daffodil event in the parishes of Kempley, Much Marcle (Awnells Farm), Oxenhall, and Dymock, where you can see fields full of native daffodils.

The lovely scented Sweet Violet is also an early flower; and can be all colours between white and blue. 

The native primrose; a subtle shade of yellow is a very interesting flower as it has two different arrangements to allow pollination by different insect and bees.

In “pin” flowers the stigma is positioned at the top of the tube with the anthers positioned halfway down. In “thrum” flowers the stigma is instead positioned halfway down the tube with the anthers at the top.

Take a look next time you see a primrose.

Very similar to the primrose is the cowslip, which gets its name because it was usually found growing next to cow pats in unimproved meadows.  The Green Lane at Turnastone Farm always puts on a good display of cowslips every year.

All these early flowers are very important for honey bees which need to forage before they can to build cells in which the queen bee can lay her eggs.  You may also see the very large bumble bees flying around in early spring and these are usually the queen bumblebees foraging and looking for a site to nest.

Turnastone Court Farm has a lovely swaithe of bluebells in May.  These are the native Bluebell Hyacinthoides non-scripta; our lovely delicate British native species with its one- sided sky blue drooping flowers with cream anthers.

You may see the escaped Spanish bluebell Hyacinthoides hispanica growing along our verges.  This is a garden escape and can be identified with its erect flower and robust stem.

Unfortunately these species of bluebell are able to cross pollinate and hybridise to produce the hybrid bluebell H. massartiana, also seen in gardens.  This species has anthers of blue (or cream in its white form).

Wood Anemones or windflowers, thimbleweed or smell fox (because of the musky scent of its leaves) can also be seen growing in our native woodlands; flowers open and turned towards the sun; but closing as soon as the sun has disappeared.

Other woodland flowers to look out for include the Wood Geum, Yellow Archangel, and Red Campion.

The Dog-violet; which is a different plant to the sweet violet’ can also be found along woodland edges and amongst bracken.  This is an important caterpillar food plant for many butterfly species including fritillaries.

Many of these spring flowers such as primrose and bluebell are known as Ancient Woodland Indicator Species and are used by ecologists to assess the woodland flora.

Why does the bluebell grow in ancient woodland?

The ancient woodland ecology is defined by soils containing seeds that are primarily associated with ancient habitats.  The bluebell is also a relatively sedentary plant species and does not spread readily.

Ancient uses of bluebell

Gummy bluebell sap was used to bind pages into the spines of books. Bronze Age people used bluebell to set feathers upon arrows, known as fletching (Woodland Trust).

Why is ancient woodland important?

Ancient woodland supports a unique biodiversity including many rare native species including the hazel dormouse and several species of fritillary butterfly.

Overall, only 1,193 square miles (308,000 hectares) of ancient woodland survive in Britain.

Ancient woodland in Britain is being felled at a rate even faster than the Amazon rainforest, according to new research by the Woodland Trust. It shows that almost half of all woods in the UK that are more than 400 years old have been lost in the past 80 years and more than 600 ancient woods are now threatened by new roads, electricity pylons, housing, and airport expansion.

Not to forget all the lovely blossom in the hedgerows and the orchards.  Blackthorn is the first to show its beauty with clusters of small white flowers; very important to early pollinators.  The spikes on blackthorn are not thorns but adapted stems.  The Hawthorn or May is next in line, as its name suggest, blossoms in May.  One of the prettiest blossoms with starch white flowers and pink stamens; do take a closer look; it is well worth the effort, but be careful of the thorns!  The thorns make it an effective hedgerow plant and barrier to keep the livestock from straying.

In the orchards the pear and plum blossom are the first to emerge.  Honey bees are known not to favour pear blossom.  The apple blossom is not far behind and all fruit producers pray that the late frosts of April and May do not damage the precious blossom.

Enjoy the spring flowers in April and May as June usually brings what is known to beekeepers as the June gap when there is a decrease in the number of flowers available to bees.

Please do not pick wildflowers; leave them for the bees and for other people to enjoy. It is an offence under the Wildlife and Countryside Act to dig up wild plants in the wild.

April Nature Notes 2019

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Dr Vince Lea

Oak before Ash – summer’s a splash!

Well, it has certainly been very dry, after a very dry winter and a drought last summer, we really need a bit of rain. Leaf break of the two main trees of the countryside is actually linked to temperature, with oak being more influenced by warmth whereas ash is more influenced by the day length which doesn’t change much. It’s been a pretty early and very dry spring so far, which has moved some things ahead of schedule; while the weather was kind to migrating birds early in April and insects had a lovely time up to Easter, the second half of the month was cooler with some northerly winds which slowed things down and in particular the later arriving migrant birds were held up.


Butterflies started appearing well before April, but we formally start counting them on the 1st April, with counts every week till the end of September. This regular monitoring means we can see how different one year is from the next, or from the average. Last year we had the Beast from the East, which meant that the first 2 weeks of April were a write-off for butterflies, and we had only reached 5 species recorded by week 4. This year, we had 8 species on the wing by week 2 and orange tips and speckled woods seem to be having a good month.

Speckled wood

Birds on the farms

While the early arriving birds such as blackcap, chiffchaff and willow warbler were on course in early April, some of the more flexible resident species were nesting very early, with hatched blackbirds and long-tailed tits by mid-month. This means the resident birds are able to take advantage of the early insects, while by the time the migrants have got here, partnered up, built nests, laid eggs and then eventually hatched them, much of the first flush of caterpillars is over and they struggle to feed their chicks. Late April (after a scorching Easter) saw a slowdown of migration with northerly winds, and some second clutches of blackbird eggs were laid before the majority of migrant birds arrived. The early swallows were not joined by en masse arrivals, and later species like swift and turtle dove are still a few days behind schedule. The dry conditions probably dissuaded any lapwings from staying to nest, and we are already seeing problems with the Bourn Brook which is flowing very slowly and turning green as the warmth and slow flow allows the algae to grow. The lack of floods has helped our early nesting moorhens, however, which are now regularly nesting in the brook using reed cover to hide their nests from crows etc. and, thanks to the lack of mink, they are pretty safe unless we get a sudden downpour and flood!

Highlight of the Month

My highlight of the April monitoring was to find a large number of water vole signs on the last 500m of the Bourn Brook at Lark Rise; we had more signs here than the whole of the brook had in 2011 when we started mink control.

The disappointment of the month was spending a day looking for willow tits at Margaret Wood in Yorkshire. We had a record of this declining species there a few years ago, and 2019 is an official survey year for willow tits, so I searched the whole wood and all the surrounding woods, playing a sound recording of willow tit song to tempt any to come and say hello – but not a one was to be seen. It was nice to see the tree sparrows still doing well at Margaret Wood and I took some red millet to keep them happy, but willow tits are disappearing from the countryside without anyone really noticing them go. It is a difficult species to see and identify and most people have not heard about them, but they are an important species because the British ones are a unique race and they are one of only 2 species of tit which can dig out their own nesting hole in a rotten tree – the other being crested tit which only occurs in the north of Scotland. These ‘excavators’ help other species by providing used holes for future nests.

Dr Vince Lea
(Head of Wildlife Monitoring)

Des res provided for Pied Flycatchers at Turnastone Court Farm

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Six lovely oak bird boxes have been put up in the oak wood pasture adjoining the farm; many thanks to the landowner Denise Lloyd for allowing us to carry out this important work. The boxes were made by CRT volunteer John Burns; a former joiner and skilled craftsman. I am sure any self-respecting PFC would relish the chance to nest in these boxes.

This work is in response to the recording of a male pied flycatcher on the farm in 2018. Breeding Bird Surveys (BBS) suggest that abundance has declined considerably since 1994 and climate change may be the reason for this decline.

Fingers crossed for the end of April/beginning of May (when the birds start to arrive back from sub-Saharan Africa) that we have a lovely Pied Flycatcher nest with bright blue eggs. I however do have to report that a blue tit has already taken up residence in one of the boxes and had one egg at the last nest box check!
Watch this space for further reports on these nest boxes and others on the farm.

Viv Geen
Monitoring Officer (Herefordshire)

Great British Spring Clean – Turnastone

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The litter pick went well on a lovely sunny day.  Two local people; John and Cynthia  took part and we got the job done.

Drivers travelling through the village were very kind and slowed down, and we even got a beep and thumbs up, waves, and even a lady clapping in response to what we were doing.  The majority of the litter was found along the road where unscrupulous drivers stop and empty their cars, or throw litter out of their window.

Four bags of rubbish were collected over a period of one and a half hours by three people.  The rubbish included 30 plastic bottles, 25 drinks cans, glass bottles, crisp packets, sweet wrappers and fast food packaging.  There was a very small amount of farm rubbish, and some builder’s rubble.  Along with being unsightly, this rubbish could cause considerable harm to wildlife and livestock on the farm.

Thank you to those who gave up their valuable time, and drivers please take your litter home!

Viv Geen

#GBSpringClean #LitterHeroes

New Look CRT

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New CRT Patron

Following the amazing year of silver jubilee celebrations, the wonderful, Dame Judi Dench has agreed to become the Official CRT Patron. What an amazing start to 2019!

Robin Page: “I am delighted that Dame Judi Dench has accepted the role of Patron for the Countryside Restoration Trust. She is and inspiration to all and follows in the footsteps of the great David Shepherd. Welcome Dame Judi and thank you so much for supporting the living countryside we all love”.
Dame Judi Dench: “The CRT is the pioneering charity in wildlife friendly farming and the biggest tribute to its success is the fact that so many other organisations have followed in its footsteps. I have been privileged to visit several of the Trust’s farms and the work being done is tremendous. We look to the future as farming, the countryside and Britain’s wildlife needs the pioneering work of the CRT more than ever before.”

New CRT Logo

Along with this, we have been working on revitalising the logo and the image of the CRT – but still keeping the beloved lark as the centrepiece. We want it to be full of the wonderful colours that you can see in the natural world around you. We want it to reflect the vibrant future of the Trust going forward!

RP said: “I am so happy with the refreshed logo. The skylark is our guiding spirit – the sound of a healthy countryside. The Skylark has inspired us for twenty five years – we are now following the skylark into the next twenty-five”.

We want to reach out to younger people with families and encourage them to support the work of the CRT. To do that, we feel this bright new branding will catch their attention! This change will be applied across the Trust throughout 2019!

With our new Turnastone Court Farm Education Centre and Lodge in Herefordshire, and the upcoming implementation of new educations officers for our Mayfields and Pierrepont farms as well as the ongoing visits with local schools across the country, 2019 is a year to engage with the next generation!

Keep your eyes peeled for the latest Lark magazine that will be dropping through your doors around Easter time! This new look edition of The Lark of the will still feature great articles reflecting projects that the CRT are involved with, updates from the farmers and CRT headquarters. There is also a new feature in which we ask our CRT Friends to get involved with!

What an exciting 26th year of the CRT it is turning out to be!

Big Farmland Bird Count 2019

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The Countryside Restoration Trust is taking part, once again in this year’s Big Farmland Bird Count 2019!

The winter bird survey which is organised by the Game and Wildlife Conservancy Trust is currently underway (8th – 17th Feb) across the UK.  The survey involves a count of the traditional farmland birds seen in one area of a farm during a 30 minute period.  Anyone can take part but will need to register to submit their results.

Head of Wildlife Monitoring, Vince Lea has completed the Lark Rise Farm Big Farmland Bird Count this morning and it seems like the Grey Partridge know it’s the most romantic day of the year! Normally, at this time of the year, the Grey Partridge would be seen in a large group noun as a covey. However, when Vince returned he reported back the Grey Partridge had already paired up!

Recently, tenant farmer, Tim Scott was awarded for the ‘Redlist Revival: Highest Density of Grey Partridge’ on Lark Rise Farm. However, there were many other red list species of conservation concern was seen on the farm including Song Thrush, Yellowhammer, Linnets and of course lots of Skylarks!

This ‘snapshot’ survey provides important data on the health of winter bird populations in the countryside, and also captures data on species which only visit this country in the winter months to feed and are not recorded as part of spring and summer bird surveys.  Large flocks of redwings and fieldfares; winter migrants, have been recorded by the wildlife monitoring staff on the CRT farm properties, along with large flocks of starlings; some of which are resident birds and some are passage migrants. In the UK the Starling is a red listed species because of the loss of suitable habitat including traditional pasture and suitable arable land.

Give it a go and take part in the Big Farmland Bird Count 2019!

This survey has been branded a ‘crucially important citizen science survey’ as it enters its sixth year. Farmers and landowners are being encouraged to take part in the survey when they have a few minutes to spare.  For such a short amount of time an important amount of data can be recorded on the state of farmland birds in this country, so please take time out and take part.

More information, including aids to bird identification, can be found on the Big Farmland Bird Count website

Love your birds by putting up boxes!

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Valentine’s Day sees the start of the BTO National nest box week.  Now’s the time to put up nest boxes in time for the start of the bird nesting season.

The Countryside Restoration Trust is encouraging landowners and farmers to put up bird boxes to encourage farmland birds.  Nesting sites have declined over recent years because of agricultural intensification and development old farm buildings, and by putting up a box you are providing an ideal breeding site for common and vulnerable species of farmland bird.  Even if you think you may have suitable sites on your land a few boxes could enhance the site by attracting additional farmland bird species.

The CRT has many bird monitoring projects underway on its farm properties and these include nest box schemes for birds such as Common Redstart and Barn Owl, but also to assess the breeding success of common species from year to year.

You can get your bird box by building one yourself, or buying one of a suitable design.

Buying a nest box

There are a range of boxes on the market some of which will not provide a suitable nesting site for birds.  Here are a few points to consider:

  • The box should be well insulated and made from suitable material such as wood or WoodcretePLUSTM. The walls should be at least 15 mm thick.  Only non-toxic wood preservative should be used on the outside of the box.
  • An entrance hole of 32mm is recommended to allow entry to small hole-nesting birds such as tits. If it is a wooden box a metal plate may be needed around the hole of the box to prevent woodpeckers from enlarging the hole.
  • Boxes should be easily accessed for cleaning and maintenance after the breeding season has finished (and monitoring purposes).
  • Boxes should not be too small; the internal floor area should be 130cm2, to allow enough room for a large clutch of eggs. Small holes or side slits should be present in the base of the box to allow drainage.
  • Ensure the outside of the box does not have any footholds for squirrels and woodpeckers to reach in through the hole. The deeper the box the better as this will make it difficult for predators to reach the nest.

Where to site a bird box

  • Ideally the box should be one to three metres from the ground on the trunk of a tree. The bird should have easy access into the entrance hole and not be inhibited by vegetation, where predators can also perch.
  • The box entrance should be sheltered from the weather including strong sunlight.
  • If erecting more than one box, do not place them close together because birds establish territories around their nesting sites.
  • Ensure that cats cannot access to the box, i.e. via a fence or other platform.
  • Use galvanised nails to attach the box to the tree.
  • Do not erect bird boxes close to feeding sites because nesting birds will not want other birds entering their territory.
  • Boxes can be put up any time of the year, but it is best to do so in the winter or early spring. Birds start to pair up to nest in February, and some birds; like blue tits, use nest boxes as roosting sites throughout the winter months.
  • Ensure that the box is sited so that it is visible to passing birds so that they can come and investigate it.

Details of bird box templates can be found on the BTO website.

You may also wish to consider erecting boxes for other species of birds such as the Swift and the House Martin.  The CRT farm at Pierrepoint had swift boxes erected into the new dairy building, and we are due to install swift and house martin boxes under the eaves of the new education centre at Turnastone Court Farm.   The CRT also has successful barn owl box schemes on several of its farm properties.

Viv Geen

Monitoring Officer (Herefordshire)

Tony Juniper is the preferred candidate for Chair of Natural England

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Last week, the Environment Secretary, Michael Gove announced that Tony Juniper CBE is the preferred candidate for Chair of Natural England. Natural England set up under the Natural Environment and Rural Communities Act 2006 to conserve, enhance and manage the natural environment for present and future generations through sustainable development.

The next stage will be for the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Select Committee to examine Tony Juniper’s suitability for the job. If it is decided after this scrutiny that he is suitable and meets the principles set out in the Governance Code on Public Appointments, only then will he be made Chair of Natural England.

Taking to the stage as the at the CRT’s 25th Anniversary Celebration at the Royal Geographical Society (RGS) in London last year, Tony Juniper highlighted “the sense of urgency we need to attach to the conservation story.”

For more than 30 years, this well-known British environmentalist, has had a multitude of roles influencing projects on local national and international levels, as an advocate for a more sustainable society. He is currently the Executive Director for Advocacy and Campaigns for WWF-UK. He was made President of the Wildlife Trusts in 2015 following from roles such as Special Adviser to the Prince of Wales’s International Sustainability Unit and Special Advisor with the Prince’s Rainforests Project. Tony Juniper is a Fellow and part of the teaching faculty at the University of Cambridge Institute for Sustainability Leadership (CISL).

With this wealth of experience as campaigner, sustainability adviser, author and teaching, Tony Juniper has the knowledge and understanding to make a real impact to the English countryside and the policies that govern.

Tony Juniper CBE talking at 25th Anniversary Celebration

In his speech, Tony Juniper described how is already involved in developing a “‘new agriculture policy’ that will replace the Common Agricultural Policy of the European Union” Over many decades the Common Agricultural Policy has splits billions across Europe, according to Tony Juniper “largely to the detriment of the environment and wildlife.” He aims that the new policy will feed money back into “the recovery of wildlife.”

At the RGS, he stated that part of the problem is the “way we feed ourselves”; mixed farming with a variety of habitats have declined into mono-culture to produce food in the most financially effective way – the “yields up, everything else down.” He discusses how the mono-culture is destroying rural communities and “the destruction of the wildlife is a symptom of the destruction of the system that sustains all of us… A healthy environment is essential for agriculture.”

Tony Juniper praised the work over the last 25 years, saying that the CRT “gives a sense of inspiration that things to do not have to be like this!” He recalled when he’d recently walked around Lark Rise Farm and was like he’d “stepped back in time”. He described the thriving abundance of butterflies in the meadows, birds in hedgerows, and even otters the have returned to the Bourne Brooke! “All of this coinciding with a thriving farm that produces food. So things can be done differently, jobs, food, and wildlife all together. Surely this is the kind of example we should embrace. And actually when I walk around that farm, I remind myself that this is not a glimpse back in time, some nostalgic remnant it’s the future, it has to be the future.”

He closed his speech thanking Robin and the Countryside Restoration Trust for the providing the “inspiration and hope that comes from a good example” that is Lark Rise Farm.

Watch Tony Juniper CBE speak at the CRT 25th Anniversary Conference

Re-Wilding and Wild Farming

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Awnells Dormouse

Changes on the land have always happened and are still happening. Some changes have been caused by biology, botany and technology – the advance of science – and some changes have been caused simply by changing farming fashions. In addition there are some people who have become totally detached from the land and nature and they want a sort of Disneyfied countryside where the whole of the natural kingdom lives in harmony while we eat various vegetarian delights. Sadly the latter is a total mirage; nature really is red in tooth and claw and if things were left with little human interference, two things would happen – we would all go hungry and wildlife would disappear at an even faster rate than it is disappearing now.

Re-wilding is given as an option and what is going on at Knepp Castle in West Sussex is given as a superb example. I have been there and I like the place and its rolling acres, as well as the owners Charlie Burrell and his wife Isabella Tree. But in my view it is not “rewilding”, it is “extensive farming” – the complete opposite of “intensive farming”. Yes, visitors like it, the free range meat produced there is delicious and some wildlife likes it – particularly the fantastic colony of purple emperor butterflies – but if the whole of Britain was farmed like it, what would happen? Well the most obvious answer is that Britain would have to import far more food and we must remember that in a hungry world the era of “cheap food” is quickly coming to an end. Already Britain produces less than 60% of its own food according to the experts. Unfortunately I believe the experts are being optimistic and we are producing less than 50% of our food with the figures for over-populated England being even worse.

Some people are now saying that our hill farmers and all their knowledge and culture has to go for rewilding and forestry – in my view that is pure nonsense. The Countryside Restoration Trust and I have not been “rewilding”, but we have been “wild farming” for the past twenty-five years; we have been producing quality food and quality wildlife. We have seen the return of the Grey Partridge, Barn Owl, Skylark, Water Vole, Otter, and Brown Hare and at Lark Rise Farm we have 26 resident species of butterfly – fantastic – my favourites being the Brimstone, the Orange Tip, the Marbled White and the White Letter Hairstreak.

But our work hasn’t stopped. The Turtle Dove needs desperate help as does the Dormouse and Lesser-spotted Woodpecker on one of our Herefordshire farms and the Curlew on our other one. But all I hear is we want “rewildling” we want “the lynx”, “the wolf”, and the “sea eagle”. Then from the same direction comes “predator control” must stop – “the raven must be allowed to breed unhindered like the buzzard” – and with every such wish the future for British wildlife declines.

Robin Page

Where has the time gone?

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How on earth is it 3 months since the National Hedgelaying Society was in Barton Village?!

On the 27thOctober last year– there was a frightfully cold southerly winds blowing a gust across the open fields of Lark Rise Farm. Up before the crack of dawn, this did not deter those prepping the hedges for the 40th Annual Hedge Laying Championship.

As the clock struck 9am, the horn was blown, and the fields were alive with the sounds of roaring chainsaws. 100 competitors from up and down the country had descended on the village to display their prowess in hedge-laying. Despite the very chilly winds, it was a gloriously sunny day and did not deter people from visiting the event! A full array of expertise and skills to view, it was a great day for all those who visited.

Since the National Hedge Laying Championship

The hedges have grown to become accustom to their new styles – Dorset, Derbyshire, Midlands and Southern just to name a few! Recently the CRT’s wildlife monitor took a walk down to the hedges and took a picture of their progress. Next year, and for many years more, these will be tidy gorgeous hedges that will continue to grow, creating wonderful habitats and wildlife corridors whilst also being a vital partitioning across the Lark Rise fields.

Recently, Roger Buisson sent us a time lapse video of Malcolm Johnson laying a hedge in the Midland style. Watch the video and see the skill involved!