At this time of uncertainty, when the human world is fearful and closing in, the daffodils are at their most beautiful. Bright with sunshine and such serenity, they dance in the breeze, welcoming the first of the big bumblebees.
Wild Daffodils around a Mulched Sapling
With their soft creamy petals and bright lemon yellow trumpets, these are the native English species, not garden cultivars. We buy them in as bulbs each October for families to plant. You’ll see in this photo how they show up beside the rich composted bark that surrounds the memorial tree behind.
Last weekend we mulched three quarters of the young trees onsite, helped by a marvellous team of volunteers. You can find photographs on our Instagram feed. With the stronger folk shovelling the composted bark into bulk bags, then shifting the bags around the site, others were filling trugs from the bulk bags and encircling each little sapling. Not only the memorial trees, but many of the structural planting was mulched as well, helping to suppress competing vegetation (mostly grass) and keeping precious moisture in the soil. Of course, at times it was a matter of tiptoeing amongst the daffodils …
Many thanks to all the wonderful volunteers. Thanks too to the daffodils and all those who have planted them each autumn over the past ten years or more. Their sunlight lifts our hearts every spring, and this spring we really need their beauty, perhaps more than ever.
This last six months have been the wettest we’ve experienced since Sun Rising opened in 2006. There have been puddles of water in the meadows for weeks, paths have grown muddy in places, and some areas are still pretty squelchy underfoot, but as I frown with anxiety I am also aware that climate change has brought crises to others on a totally different scale.
The snowdrops are now going over and spring is beckoning. Our little native daffodils, the Narcissus pseudonarcissus, are coming into their peak, blooming with a beautiful lemon yellow in the meadow and woodland. When the snow arrived the other day, they too seemed to frown, but today they are once again sweetly vibrant.
Wild Daffodils in the Snow
Who knows what the weather will be this year. Yesterday I sat in the cabin, a rich bright blue sky above, when hailstones began to fall. With another weather-inspired frown, I poked my head out to see a small but intensely dark cloud passing overhead. To be fair, such erratic events are not unusual for an English spring! The skylarks are beginning to fill the skies with melody, the dunnocks are up on the hedge tops singing their hearts out too, and the robins are scrapping: spring is coming.
Perhaps all we can hope for this year is that the dark clouds, both literal and metaphorical, pass over us quickly, and clear blue skies help to dry our drenched landscape just a little.
The beautiful little tree sparrow used to numerous in Britain. It is now on our Red List, its population having seen a drastic reduction in the last forty years.
At Sun Rising, however, there is a small but (we believe) viable population. And when it comes to the environment, each small action makes a difference. We have now teamed up with the Banbury Ornithological Society and the RSPB in an attempt to bolster this population, perhaps to the point where it will begin to spread.
Adding to the 6 tree sparrow boxes that were already being used onsite, we have now added another twelve. We’ve also installed two large ‘farmland birds’ feeders, with seed specifically for the tree sparrows. Here’s a photo of the team, with a new nest box and seed feeder.
Tree Sparrow Team, Nest Box and Feeder
It’ll take a while for the tree sparrows to start using the feeders: they are particularly wary of change and slow to trust. But once they get used to them, we hope our little extra help will make a significant difference. We’ll let you know.
Every winter has its challenges. This year, the grey skies and rain have felt utterly relentless. The earth is saturated and rain is puddling easily. The winds of the last few days have been exhausting.
Yet there are moments of beauty all around us, nature glowing in splashes of golden winter sunshine. This photograph of hazel catkins, dancing in the breeze, the rich blue sky behind, reminds to us how limited is our human perspective. The cycle of the year is turning. Indeed, yesterday I found the first snowdrops in flower at Sun Rising …
Hazel Catkins in the Breeze
There are a few pockets of snowdrops planted ‘in the green’, already in flower, but the ones I found were the first of the year to flower from bulbs planted. As snowdrops don’t like wet soil, I suspect this year there may not be as many as we would hope – which made it all more delightful to see these little ones, still low in the grass, hiding from the cold.
This week we cut the main car park hedge at Sun Rising. Although this removes most of its chance to flower, it’s essential to keep its shape and density. In the thick tangle of branches and twigs at its heart, tree sparrows, blue tits, dunnocks, great tits, greenfinches, wrens, chaffinches and yellowhammers are sheltering from the cold wind, fluffed up and chattering.
If you manage to visit, wrap up and wear boots that can cope with muddy soil. Make sure you’re warm enough to be able to pause. You may find one of our resident robins flies close. In this cold weather, with food scarce, they don’t mind the company of other robins around the hedgerows, trees and feeders, and they will often stop to sing. This is their secondary song – an expression of companionship, of sharing the news – and it’s quite unlike the springtime territorial concerto. A gentle and richly tuneful warble, it fills the cold air with hope and calm.
This year, with such a damp autumn, there have been some wonderful fungi at Sun Rising. Half hidden under fallen leaves, or in areas of longer wet grass, sometimes tucked up against the post of a tree plaque, there are so many different varieties. My ability to identify them barely begins, but perhaps that allows my wonder and delight to be undimmed by knowledge, to be childlike and free. There are tall shaggy white ones and big fat plate-shaped ones. There are deep russet-brown ones, dark chocolate-brown ones, pinky ones, and every hue from cream to yellow.
Yesterday, as we began our tree planting, with 42 new trees put in along the track beyond the cairn, we came across a wonderful display. Under the tarp covering our heap of composted bark we found mushrooms to make anyone pause.
Mushrooms on Composted Bark
Of course, we need to be using the composted bark: over the coming three weeks of tree planting, with each tree needing its doughnut of mulch, we’ll make a pretty big dent in the heap. But the mushrooms we see are only the ‘fruits’ of the fungi organism. The body of the fungi is underground, as a network of mycelium – in this case, it is spreading through the composted bark. The mushrooms will have shed their spores or ‘seeds’ into the bark. As we break it up, putting the bark around each little sapling, we’ll be spreading the fungi around the new woodland areas.
Having written that, my mind is now full of questions! There’s so much to learn. I’m off to dig out a book on fungi …
What inspires me to write a post for this blog is most often the simple beauty I come across at Sun Rising each and every day. The changes, brought by the turning of the seasons, the shift from dry to wet, from warm to cold, the effects of wind, the presence of the wildlife, all fill my mind as I walk around the site. When some image is captured in a photograph, it feels only fair to share it. I am aware too that many who read these words are not able to get to the natural burial ground often, and value the chance to see some of what I do each day.
Sometimes those beautiful moments are harder to find. Sometimes the days are long, the world seems to have gone mad, nature itself seems too harsh, and it takes an effort to find peace: my coat drenched with chilly rain, my boots heavy with mud, I shake myself, striving to dislodge the filters of tiredness, reaching to see clearly the beauty of nature around me.
Guelder Rose and Field Maple in Autumn Colours
The young woodland at Sun Rising is now coming into its richest autumn colours. This year, they aren’t brilliant. We’ve not had the deep frosts needed to destroy the chlorophyll and turn the leaves yellow and gold. Dry, bright, crisp-cold days are what bring out the reds, russets and purples; instead, the wet weather has meant many trees are losing leaves without much of an autumn display. Some of our younger trees are also still recovering from almost 18 dry months , from the start of summer 2018 through to this damp October, and as a result they have shed their leaves early.
But that doesn’t mean there aren’t moments of wonder. The blending colours in this photograph, from the field maple’s pale greens, yellows and gold, into the gorgeous reds of the guelder rose, caught my eye yesterday. Between trees with leaves still a dark matt-green, the ivory bark of the silver birch with tender leaves now yellowing, there is the guelder rose with its shamelessly rich burgundy. Its scarlet viburnum berries, the rose hips and deep red apples, all offer moments to pause and gaze, to breathe and remember: even in the madness of this world, there is beauty.
In the process of creating a nature reserve and natural burial ground, over a number of acres and a number of years, it is inevitable that ideas will change. The first design map, imagining what the site would look like, was drawn up in 2005: it was a beautiful possible landscape, with curves and loops, copses and parkland trees. Yet, immediately we started to work on the land, the land began to teach us. It didn’t take long before we were simplifying our ideas, learning every step of the way.
Since the first version was put in place by the main car park, in 2006, the interpretation board has been updated and replaced once, in 2012. However, over the past year or so, when showing visitors around the site, I’ve had to explain how its map was in fact sadly out of date. I was – I promised them – in the process of designing the new one. It is a relief to be able to announce that it is now in place.
New Interpretation Board at Sun Rising, 2019
The design, slightly altered, is just as simple, but the map shows more detail. You can now see just where the areas of wildflower meadow are, and will be, as you can with the woodland, hedgerows and copses. You can also see where we will be leaving a wide grassy ride. The cairn, Tyr’s stone, the butterfly stones and other features are identified. Some of the established paths are on there, although others will be added.
You’ll notice that the north-eastern corner is not complete. In years to come, what is now the top car park will become the main entrance, and we are still in the process of designing exactly how that will be. When our ideas are clearer, we’ll be showing you the plans and asking for your feedback. And when those plans start coming into being, of course, it’ll be time for a new interpretation board!
Until then, I look at the photograph above. The wildflower meadow is mown, but for small pockets for little creatures to hide in. The trees are a dark dull green, some leaves starting to turn and fall. The sky is pale. It’s a dreary autumn day in the heart of England, damp and chilly. But even on such a day, the map shows hope and promise: of wildflower meadows in full bloom, butterflies, bees, and the skylark in full song. It won’t be long – winter is before us, but summer will return …
The wild service tree is one of the really special trees we plant here at Sun Rising. Another of its common names is the checkers or chequers tree. Sorbus torminalis, it’s in the same genus as the rowan and the whitebeams, but it is quite a different creature. Although native to England, and particularly the heavy clay of South Warwickshire, many people have never heard of this magnificent species.
Wild Service Tree Berries
Its blossom in spring is not extraordinary: handfuls of little white flowers, often high in the canopy. The trees don’t start flowering until they reach around seven years old, and it takes another year or so of maturing for the tree to set its blossom, growing the equally insignificant berries. To me they look like tiny little apples, in a rich nut-brown. If the summer is hot enough to ripen them fully, apparently they can taste rather like dates – I’ve not yet tried one, but the birds seem to like them late in the year. When the tree really comes into its own is in the autumn when, more extravagantly than any of our native trees, its large palmate leaves can break into a thousand hues of gold, through bronze and maroon, to shameless scarlet.
More importantly, and fascinating as a history of this tree, before hops arrived from the continent, it was these little brown berries that were used to flavour our beer. There’s a debate as to whether the common name of checkers tree was taken from the name of old pubs, or if pubs were named after the checkers trees that were so integral to the beer: I like the latter. The patterning on the silvery bark can look wonderfully checkered as the tree matures.
Centuries ago, it was a common tree in this landscape, but as old woodlands were felled, it was one of the species that wasn’t readily replaced. It has a beautiful fine wood for timber, and can grow to 10m – 25m tall. But the truth is that it just didn’t grow as easily as the Warwickshire weed that was the English elm, nor as readily as ash, maple or oak. Across the continent, in warmer climes, the berries ripen sufficiently each summer to set their seed, but in England the wild service tends to spread through suckers. Once you’ve cleared the old wood, there’s no chance for those suckers to grow. With hops taking over its role in brewing, there weren’t enough reasons to keep replanting.
Its importance in Warwickshire, however, is now becoming clearer. With the large elms lost, and ash die-back killing these beautiful trees too, and with the oak under threat, some tree experts wonder if the wild service tree may be the next significant large tree of our countryside. It does need a little help to get going from seed, and it can look a little straggly in its first decade, getting its roots established in the soil. But we are hoping you agree, this tree is really worth the time and trouble: perhaps one day it will be bringing its glorious autumn colour to fields and hedgerows all over Warwickshire, and who knows, perhaps some small brewer will again try the little nut-brown berries to flavour a local beer …
The summer is over, harvest coming to its end and autumn most definitely creeping in. As the guelder rose leaves flush to scarlet and burgundy, and the silver birch pale to yellow, the meadow has been transformed – from a thick brown tangle of seedheads to fresh stubble.
The Roundhouse across Betty’s Meadow, Mown
All the main areas we have planned to cut have now been cut. This includes the wildflower meadows and specific sections of grassland. There are short stretches of ruderal and tussock margin around the edges of the field which will be cut back to allow space for regeneration and fresh growth next year, and most of the woodland burial areas will be tidied up with another strim before winter. But otherwise we are done. It feels tidy and clear. The summer was wonderful, but there is a relief too in feeling its heavy growth lift and go.
A quick thank you to the sturdy volunteers who came – at very short notice – to rake the last of the hay off the wildflower meadows before this rain set in on Sunday. That was hugely appreciated!
If Sun Rising were a part of a mixed farming concern, all the grassland would have been cut back in July, producing a crop of hay or haylage that would have been fed to livestock through the winter. At the latest, the wildflower meadow could have been left until mid August: at that point, what we cut would have been of some value to horses, or (the extra chewy bits) donkeys. In previous years we have taken bales up to Redwings Horse Rescue Centre.
This year, however, we made a decision not to cut until September: we wanted to ensure the maximum seedfall. It means that what we have cut is too thin and dry to be fodder. A good deal of it we are composting onsite: it’s an experiment, to see if we might create a larger amount of compost than we do from tribute flowers in the compost bins. We’ll let you know how it gets on. You can certainly see the heap steaming on a cool day!
Back in the spring, a large wasp was seen buzzing around the cabin. A queen of our most common social wasp, Vespula vulgaris, she was looking for a place to start a nest. When she had made her decision – between the oak boards by the back door of the cabin – we debated whether we should let her stay. We decided to give her the benefit of the doubt.
They have such a bad reputation, but these social wasps really are wonderful! Along with many other insects that we civilized humans don’t like, they play a crucial role in our environment. The adult wasps only eat sugars, where possible wild sugars from flower nectar (but any sugars will do), and in their search for flowers they act as pollinators in the same way that bees and other insects do. They also capture a huge number of small spiders, greenfly, aphids, caterpillars and other insects, which they feed to their young in the nest. They play a crucial role in balancing our ecosystems: they are one of nature’s pest controllers.
So our busy queen laid her eggs, tucked away between the boards. Soon, the first young worker wasps (infertile females) were buzzing around, and as the summer grew warmer we had a happy stream of wasps to-ing and fro-ing from the cabin wall. Now and then they would buzz over, complaining about our proximity, but on the whole they got along perfectly well right beside us. If we didn’t pay them much attention, they didn’t pay us much either.
Yes, they do sting, but only if they feel threatened or confused, only in defence. We’ve been stung twice, and it’s irritating and itchy! When a wasp stings, it emits a scent that other wasps will smell, making them alert to the possible threat, so it’s important to step away. We may not understand why they feel threatened, but we have to accept when they do. We adjust our behaviour, giving them space to feel safe once again.
Mostly wasps sting in late summer and early autumn. This is because the nest’s social structure is changing. As summer nears its end, a small number of the eggs in the nest will develop into fertile males, called drones, and fertile females. The particular hormone that maintains the colony’s cohesion stops being produced, and these fertile wasps begin to swarm out of the nest. There’s a feel of uncertainty around the nest: they need more space to explore, more quiet to feel OK.
Once they’ve mated, the drones slip away to die, their work complete. In the nest, as autumn chills arrive, the worker wasps and the old queen also die. It is only the young pregnant females who survive: they will find somewhere quiet, alone, sheltered, to hibernate through the winter. Not all will make it – but those who do will emerge in the spring to look for somewhere new where they might set up their own nest.
Nature isn’t always easy, but learning how it works does help. I’ve enjoyed our summer, with our busy, curious, helpful, beautiful – albeit sometimes grumpy – housemates.