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Cousins working together on our family owned farm with the aim of running a commercial modern farm producing high yielding, high standard crops while maximising wildlife diversity. Brian is said to be the farmer and conservationist, whereas Patrick is a conservationist and farmer. This mix has given a new direction for the farm, building upon the work that our fathers and grandfather has done to improve the overall success of the farm business. The farm has gone from strength to strength with the farm being recognised at a national level winning the coveted National FWAG’s Silver Lapwing Award for farming and conservation in 2009 and then Patrick and Brian were named Countryside Farmer of the Year by the Farmers Weekly in 2010.

Wednesday, 29 August 2012

A treat of a hobby.

Young Hobby in Westhorpe in 2011 taken by Mike Rae (www.mikerae.com)
The opportunities for watching wildlife at this time of year can be somewhat limited from the tractor cab. As the combine works it's way up and down the fields I am always pleased to see how many different species are taking cover in the oil seed rape and wheat crops and it reminds us that we still needs to leave cover once the fields are completely clear of crops to give them somewhere to hide from predators. The numbers of young pheasants and partridges we have seen this year have been especially pleasing given the difficulties they had with the wet weather earlier in the summer.

The highlight of the harvest so far though has come in front of the mower rather than the combine. Nick was mowing the grass seed stubble to remove the long dead grass and as he was driving up and down the field he was disturbing the skylarks taking refuge in the long(ish) grass. A hobby had realised this and was sitting on the ground waiting for Nick to drive past before making its move after the skylarks. The skylarks knowing the hobby was gunning for them were waiting until the tractor was almost upon them before they flew as short a distance as possible before dropping back in the grass. Because of how close the skylarks were to the tractor, trying to evade the Hobby, Nick and I (who by now had rushed up to see the show) were treated to the spectacle of the agile Hobby flying around the tractor cab in an attempt to catch the skylarks. At times the Hobby was no more than 5 metres from the cab and provided a tremendous display. This went on for over half an hour before the Hobby gave up and left to hunt somewhere else empty talloned It will not be long until the Hobbys are making their way back to Sub Saharan Africa so it was a real treat to witness one at such close quarters. PB

Tuesday, 21 August 2012

Barn Owl Success in Westhorpe

In May I wrote about the increased Barn Owl activity around one of our Barn Owl boxes ( Click Here to View) and here is the update...

Barn Owl hunting in Westhorpe - Mike Rae (www.mikerae.com)

Barn Owl breeding has been more a tale of heartache than success in recent years with only one chick fledging from a brood of 3 that hatched last year from 5 eggs. The two chicks that died were both good sizes and the only explanation I can think of for it is that one of the adults vanished and the two chicks starved to death. The most common cause of death for Barn Owls is being hit on the road and the female (I know this as I had the opportunity to ring her in the winter) was left to do all of the hunting on her own. The single chick did fledge which was our first successful breeding since I have been on the farm. Also at our Great Ashfield farm a pair of Barn Owls abandoned a single egg in 2011.

I was quietly optimistic when I saw two birds together on film around the box, one with a ring on which I am hoping is last winter's female and a new male which is unringed.  On 17th April I checked the box for the first time and there was a Barn Owl sitting on 5 eggs that I could see. I was very careful not to scare the Owl out of the box and made sure that she was not disturbed off the eggs. By blocking the entrance hole and using the inspection hatch and a torch I was able to have a good look in the box and then quietly left the area. I should add that Barn Owls are a schedule 1 species, I am an accredited agent of a schedule 1 license holder and it is a criminal offence to disturb a schedule 1 species without a license.

Knowing that the incubation period of Barn Owls is 32 days and they are 53 days from hatching to fledging I had a nervous wait for seven weeks not knowing whether there would be healthy chicks or cold eggs in the box. I was able to see Barn Owls hunting on our grassland and over our neighbours paddocks most evenings so I was fairly optimistic that the news would be good.

I revisited the box on the 9th June to find...


..three good sized, healthy chicks were huddled up in the corner of the box. On the 11h June I ringed the 3 chicks so they are now individuals. I was also able to determine their ages by measuring the 7th primary feather, which is a technique devised by Colin Shawyer and was demonstrated on Springwatch this year. The chicks were as follows - Chick 1 -Ring number -  GC92390, 7th primary feather - 42mm = 36 days old, Chick 2 - GC92391, P7=70mm = 42 days old and Chick 3, P7= 85mm = 45 days old. At the time I was ringing the chicks, the adults were both waiting to bring food into the box so we got them back in as soon as possible and got out of the way so they could be fed whilst the weather was good. I had my worries about the chicks not getting enough food as we had a great deal of heavy rain through June and July as Barn Owls will not hunt in the rain.

At this time I put up the remote camera and left it looking at the box to see if I could capture any good footage of the young owls and they got older, braver and eventually fledging.

After 3 weeks the batteries had run out out on the camera but I had over 300 15 second videos and this is my favourite one showing exactly how a short-tailed vole is eaten by an owlet.

One of the adults bringing food back to the young.

Since the videos were made I have watched the young owls flying around, gradually getting further away from the box but reassuringly the adults always seem to be on hand with food and teaching them how to hunt. Now that four out of five of the birds are ringed we will know if any are found at a later date and be able to trace them back to Westhorpe. PB

Saturday, 18 August 2012

The Dust Monster

Wheat harvest has started and we are covering about 25ha a day. The combine is working hard due to the oil conditions being soft as well as the straw being a little green. This is due to the wet weather in the build up to harvest. We are also chopping all the straw to incorporate it back into the soil to aid its structure and improve organic matter levels which causes more fuel to be burnt. We are filling up with about 800L of fuel a day @ 70p/L so the fuel bill will be massive, however in a hour we can combine 35-40t of Wheat so in a ten hour day we will bring back to the shed about 400t of Wheat which is worth about £70,000. So the most important thing while the Wheat is dry is to keep the combine moving and in top working order. It gets a full grease, oil and check each morning by Nick and then he makes sure all yesterdays dust is removed as this can cause a fire if it builds up on the engine. Long day, long hours but a good time of year. Hope to see you all out and about over the weekend while the sunshine continues! BWB

Thursday, 16 August 2012

More than One Kind of Mole

We all hate moles in our nicely manicured lawn, lifting great mounds of earth up into mole hills and digging tunnels along the surface so they can move about under the cover of soil and darkness. They can be a pain but down on the farm, we have a very large and loud ‘mole’ that is currently ripping through the grass crop land that will shortly be cultivated and put into winter wheat.
It’s a mole drainer out doing its job. So what is a mole drainer? This is a special piece of equipment that is used on heavy land farms to help drainage. You have to have a certain type of soil to use it correctly and you also need the right soil conditions to benefit from it.  It is the deepest-working, pulled cultivator found on the farm and it takes the most amount of power to pull it. Remember the general rule: the deeper you move the soil, the more horsepower is required; well, this is a prime example.
It looks small but it does stick it's heels in to make it hard to pull
The implement is relatively small and is dwarfed by the large ‘New’ Caterpillar tractor boasting 320hp but the mole’s unique design and depth it makes it the hardest implement to pull in our clay soils. The machine has wheels to turn and move it on the road but in the working position, the wheels are not in contact with the ground so the whole machine slides on the surface. Mounted on the back is a blade which is a long, thick, very strong piece of metal that is held low, below the frame. At the end of the blade, you have a bullet which pulls a ceramic expander. Those are the correct terms but I describe them as a leg and foot pulling a ball and chain!
The idea is to create a mole: a round tunnel formed in the clay subsoil just above the field drains. The field drains are permanently placed pipes and gravel that remove water from the field, working with the slope. The temporary mole is formed just above these, so not to break or damage the pipes and they are formed at ninety degrees to them. Therefore, over all our fields we have a lattice work of pipes to allow the water free movement out of the topsoil, making our fields easier to work and better for the plants to grow in. 
The leg sets the depth and then the foot starts to move the tightly compacted clay ready for the clay to be pushed back by the hard ceramic expander that creates a smeared clay channel. This smeared clay channel then hopefully dries out to create a natural clay pipe. This is repeated every four metres over the whole field and they normally last about 6-7 years before they collapse or fill with sediment, so it is a on-going rotation around the fields with clay soils. The conditions are very favourable this year to make the moles as the wet spring (and summer) means the clay is very receptive to being formed into the mole, as deep down it is very moist. It also means that the blade does not wear away very quickly as the top soil is not baked solid. The pressure on the foot, expander and blade is huge. The friction is massive and you can see flakes of metal peeling off them and they become very hot. The ceramic expander can get so hot that if you hold it with your bare hand your skin will burn!
The foot and expander hang under the frame.
The new tractor has had its first run out and the noise it makes sends goose bumps up my neck, that really deep throaty roar of the exhaust belting out power! We are looking forward to working it hard this autumn but first we need to clear the harvest, which is proving challenging with these showers and thunderstorms. I hope I am not making a mountain out of a mole hill! But if the sun does not come out soon we will be in a right muddle with crops being spoilt and ruined wheat sitting ripe on ear!
Sun would be most welcome to help with harvest and bake the newly formed moles deep in my clay! BWB