The summer passed hot, dry and very arid in the normally green riches of the North Yorkshire pasture fields. The earth cracked, some trees died from drought, and moles hid deep down in the clay soil, searching for worms that go deep when the soil is baked dry.
Endlessly dry summer days
Eight weeks without rain in June and July and our nerves on edge. Fears of grassland fires grew, not helped by flames leaping across TV screens from Scotland to Italy and Greece. But the water still flowed within our incredible limestone underground aqueducts and this supply fed the vegetables and plants in the garden, using trickle irrigation hosing at a rate of four litres an hour.
The fields got by as they always do; thick swards of grass held micro-amounts of water at the stem bases of plants, trees and shrubs, helping them to manage this dry time. Holding minimal water content, the leaves dried and thickened and became crispier! The scrapes slowly evaporated, and yet the steady trickle of spring water sustained them. No wonder the deer and hares came to see and drink.
Rain at last and a spurt of growth
When rains came, a wet August meant a rapid over-response by most shrubs and trees. They grew quickly, often gaining 1–1.5 metres in height in August or September alone! This growth has continued into mid-November due to warm weather, and hedges have doubled in height and width. Some shrubs flowered again and some rowan trees formed both berries and flowers at the same time. The wildflowers were perplexed too, with two seasons of flowering by the yellow rattle, so we were still collecting its seed over a 12-week period, rather than the normal four.
The balance of rain, sun and temperatures just kept vegetation growth steadily expanding. Wild clematis made a late fling of flowering into early October, with field scabious aiming to be the last ‘dirty stop-out’ in terms of late flowering. Purple flowers are still in bloom in the third week of November, and yellow toad flax proved a ‘blooming success’ all through October.
Tree planting plans come to fruition
The plan for a high density of berry fruit trees that would be the bountiful autumn and winter larder has come to fruition. The berries on hawthorn, rowan and field maple and other berry bushes were well formed in late July, but small, hard and discoloured due to drought. Sloe berries were diseased and distorted and certainly not on the way to the bottom of the gin bottle! So – initial hiccups halfway through the year.
But since then, the rains of October and November have filled the berries, which are now bright orange, red and almost sparkly with their shiny skins. Now the fields are packed with redwings, fieldfares and mistle thrushes eating their way through the ‘tapas’ of berries and of course their number one favourite – rowan berries. The trees are so full of berries that the branches with their fruit bend over and reach the ground. A convenience for the wood mice, field voles and ground feeding birds who relish them, too, and carry them away to their winter stores even though the temperature is 12C.
A bird-friendly discovery in the hedges
The hedges grew wide and too tall, making decisions about their management became very tricky – the most difficult aspect of re-wilding for nature. There were surprises in the hedges, as they filled out unevenly in places, with the variable widths of the shrubs, from elder to holly to field maple, hazel and climbing clematis.
Our hedges are the A1 highway of four lanes and are loved by the birds, including those from Africa who migrate, like willow warbles, chiffchaffs and lesser whitethroat. A community of birds of different species, sizes and ages all live alongside each other, creating an incredible range of song, calls and activity.
Letting the hedge expand in some areas has meant a discovery of ‘old’ damson trees. These had so often been cut back annually they never flowered or fruited – until 2023, when no hedge had been cut for five years. The result was too many damsons to be picked, of course, which is as it should be, and along with the apples and plums left unpicked, the tiny bird bills pricked into the flesh and ate their fill. The ripe plums would have a taster bite from a small bill and then the wasps would gain access to the juicy, sweet flesh. These then became vulnerable to insect-eating birds including spotted flycatchers. A sweet cycle of nature, perfectly organised and executed.
Birds challenged by the heat but singing and flourishing
Mistle and song thrushes left the fields in late August after their weeks of symphonic medleys from the top of the old apple tree. One concert lasted ten hours in late July with almost no intervals. The range of notes and trills was sustained over the whole day from 9am until early evening. The ground was too hard to extract snails or worms with their bills, so singing festivals took over instead before they disappeared to hide and moult in hedgerows in August.
Foraging for birds in late July was becoming a challenge and every area soaked with spring water was the next feed point for late-nesting blackbirds and wrens. The wrens bred yet again, discretely hidden in the wood stores and four fledglings emerged to explore on their first day the world of chopped ash logs and their insect horde. A special moment to see was the three wrens perched in a row on the horizontal bamboo cane supporting outdoor tomatoes, inquisitive and ready to take on the world. Within four hours they had flown, leaving behind their nest of moss and feathers as a thing of craftmanship and beauty.
Diversity brings joy
Our records this year show we have 12 red-listed birds and nine amber-listed birds using the site amongst the many, currently 60, species that visit or live in the ten acres. We also have a whole range of mammals, including the European protected species the otter. Our pleasure was crowned at the end of October, when from the field edge in a wet area a shout went up from our conservation naturalist: “It’s a water shrew!” Another ‘wow with nature’.
If you give her space, she shares her joys.