February is traditionally the month of heavy rainfall… ‘February fill dyke!’ Aided by storms Ciara and Dennis, the dykes have had their fill. A mild wet winter has kept soil temperatures high, the primroses are in flower and the snowdrops, now past their best. Hedges uncut, display racemes of yellow hazel catkins and, as the buds swell, the hawthorn shows purple against the horizon… the bark of the field maple, golden brown and patches of wild plum already in full blossom.
A quiet month on the farm, the cows are heavily pregnant, chilled out, serene, until that is the next storm tears across the open yards, moving the cows into perfect formation, heads down, tails windward like multiple weather-veins or boats moored in an incoming tide. During the last 6 weeks of gestation, the unborn calf can double its weight so, care has to be taken with the cows’ diet or calving problems may result.
Assorted crows (rooks, jackdaws and magpies) pick amongst the straw bedding for food, hopping over the backs of oblivious cows as they go. Although sometimes a problem, Rooks are, on balance, the farmers friend, feeding on soil borne grubs such as leather jackets. Rooks are intelligent, communicative and well organised. The rookery in Church Hanborough has remained constant since my childhood. The nests, in the top of the huge horse chestnut trees beside the church yard, are repaired in early winter and again in late February, ready to receive eggs laid in March. Few people will have looked into a rook’s nest of woven twigs, precariously perched amongst the flimsy upper branches to see four beautiful eggs: light blue, heavily speckled twig brown, for perfect camouflage.
If anything optimises our farm, it is the hedgerows. Over many decades, I have attempted to shape them in to interlinking networks of wildlife corridors. Some cut tight and dense, most cut in a three to four-year cycle. Other hedges, in appropriate locations, containing fruit bearing varieties (i.e. hawthorn, blackthorn, crab apple etc) are left to grow big and produce as much pollen, nectar and fruit as possible. When parts of these bigger hedges become unmanageable, they are cut and laid in the traditional way. This mixed approach to management gives great diversity of habitat and an interesting landscape. Hedges flailed annually may look tidy but produce little pollen, nectar or fruit. With more focus on biodiversity and carbon sequestration, it may be that the humble hedgerow will be elevated in importance and looked upon as a national treasure once again. 250,000 miles of hedges exist… most of them brutally overmanaged.
The flood water on our lower fields sparkles in a brief moment of sunshine. Looking south across City Farm, from the higher ground, I can see the sheep grazing my red clover crop, beside the A40 at Eynsham… and beyond, through the naked trees, the iridescent flooded meadows stretch to Oxford… a view of rural beauty. Flood meadows are meant to flood but, in the 1970’s and 80’s, many were drained and ploughed for arable production. They still flood, but drain too quickly, eroding the soil and silting up the rivers.
As climate change becomes reality, this is something that can be quickly remedied, returning and reinstating to erosion resistant pastures, biodiverse flood meadows.
February ends with light snow. It will be some time before the fields are dry enough for spring planting to commence. In the meantime, we await the arrival of our first calves… March beckons.