Ellisfield - Click here to display the HOME page (including News & Events) ... Home

Home Amenities Groups Parish Council Local Information
Ellisfield Village, Hampshire

Website Contact: Paul Turner, Editor (01256 381269)                                                                        Ellisfield’s Community Website

HOME PAGE (and News & Events) Ellisfield's History Fast Broadband In The Fields ... Ellisfield Drainage



Published in the September 2021 Edition

Summer Weather, Quite Contrary, How Does The Harvest Go?

Just when you can see the finish line, a final obstacle comes into view which you did not want to see, which was not wanted, needed or expected, but was always a possibility. And this is just what has happened this year. Prolonged damp conditions are a significant cause of harvest delays and, while the combines are held off, the crop quality can deteriorate. The costs of drying the crop in store will also rise as gas, oil or electricity are needed to blow warm air through the heaps.

Despite the delays, it is worth looking for any advantages of the season, such as warm, moist soil for the next crop to get a good start when it is sown. If a cover crop is going straight in after harvest to collect fertilizer that might otherwise be leached, to protect the soil from erosion, or maybe create a better soil structure and improve soil organic matter, then the damp seedbed is a great advantage, and the cover can be expected to get a quick start. Fodder crops of stubble turnips for sheep or cattle flourish for the same reasons.


September is when the first signs of autumn are there to be seen, smelled and felt. There could be low lying mist in the morning, fungi, or a chill in the evening, some colour in the leaves of trees, all hinting at the seasonal change. Geosmin is an evocative smell, and is the name given to the main odour component given off by newly disturbed soil. But early autumn can be just as variable as any other season, we may yet have a drought to balance the wet of July and August, and prediction is easy with hindsight!

Wasps- Fascinating Insects

In mid August I noticed that a wasp nest had started under the eaves of house roof, just behind the gutter and down pipe. What I could see of the papery structure was not very big, about half the size of a tennis ball, but there was lots of activity with more or less non-stop incoming and outgoing wasps. It was a warm day and so we could expect the wasps to be in top gear. There was so much activity that I did wonder if the visible papery entrance was hiding a hole they had found behind the sofit and maybe inside they had already built a much bigger nest.

There are a lot of wasps in the UK, an estimate of 9,000 species, most you will not see or notice as they can be very specialised and not striped yellow and black. Garden wasps - Vespula vulgaris – are social and live in nests, and do not bother us for most of the year. As the queen lays eggs, the workers collect insects for the carnivorous larvae which they chew up for the larvae, and get a sugary reward from the larvae by a process known as trophallaxis (no, me neither!).

As the colony builds up, the queen, which mated in the previous autumn, will lay fertilised eggs that develop into queens and male for next year. As the wasps reach maturity and leave the nest the workers are left with nothing to do and start to become troublesome as they look for a sugar hit, maybe from our picnics. This switch tends to happen at about the same time each year – mid August. They tend to sting at this time of year as a means of protecting themselves if they are disturbed. It is best to ignore them and avoid swatting wildly at them.

The nest can stay, although I will be vigilant for queen wasps looking for a place to hibernate in the house in October.

Seumas Foster


Published in the August 2021 Edition

Dog Days and Harvest

August – a great time for holidays, and harvest, well maybe not such a good time this year for holidays, but harvest will not be denied!

When you read this quite a lot of the harvest will have already been done, with the early ripening crops like winter barley having been combined, oilseeds are likely to have also been cut, and maybe even some sowing of next year’s oilseed crop into the winter barley stubbles will have been done.

Don’t Put Waterproofs Away

June turned out to be a wet month here, I measured 107mm, which is nearly double the rainfall in June 2020, however I should say that 53mm fell over a couple of days in the middle of the month. This pattern seems to be happening more frequently, summer rain comes now more often in heavy bursts, and weather forecasts warns of ‘local flooding’ more often.

There has been a late germination of grass weeds in cereal crops, which often happens after a wet spring. The herbicides are likely to have controlled the winter/early spring weeds, but the damp conditions persisting in the soil surface have allowed more seeds to chit and grow late. These latecomers poke up above the crop very late in the season and control is not possible, however the result may be a return of some viable seed.

Solar Power

Harvest depends on the crop ripening, and rain clouds lead to dull days, resulting in lower solar radiation reaching the vegetation. There have been wet years of low summer sunshine which correlated with lower yields.


Has anyone thought that nettles are growing so much better this year? The nettle patches are much taller and thicker as they take advantage of the conditions.


Hedge cutting may start in August, but only if the farm has got a derogation clearance to start early, for the purpose of planting Oilseeds or temporary grass during August. The usual start date is the beginning of September.

The first of August is also the start of the closed period for spreading organic manures with a high available Nitrogen content on shallow or sandy soils unless a crop is being sown before September 15. This is part of the Nitrate Vulnerable Zone (NVZ) code which is in place to reduce the loss of nitrogen for water protection.


Despite the restrictions that Covid has brought there have been some field trials and Agricultural show visits to see new varieties and technology that are on the horizon. One reason to go is to see what has been happening over the hedge, to see if neighbours have been experiencing the same trials and tribulations and how they have been able to cope, and what could be done next year.

There has also been the possibility to spot stars of ‘Clarkson’s Farm’ out and about at the national events. (Great show by the way).

So August is when the moisture content of ripening crops drops, and you may soon see some dust behind the combines (see image right).

Seumas Foster


Published in the July 2021 Edition

Rain and Sun

This year May was a wet month, we had about twice the annual average at 126mm, but compared with last year when only 2.5 mm of rain fell, well below average, this year is a 50X increase! June has brought fair winds and sunshine as the jet stream shifted and the low temperatures gave way to better conditions. July is traditionally the hay month so if all goes well we can expect some good haymaking sunshine. The long term forecast (or guesswork perhaps) promises good weather, but it may be a plan to get us all to pitch a tent for our holidays!

Growth Explosion

Growth of all the vegetation in the countryside really got going after the rain started, supplied with a good supply of water and warmth. The work load on farms that had backed up during the wet weather was there to be attacked and, after some intensive work, was caught up.

The grass in the fields was reluctant to get going in the dry cold weather, but did react quickly to the improved conditions, and although silage making was possibly two weeks later than usual, it did get done quickly, and the yields were good. My lawn was showing the same reluctance to grow, then it took off like a rocket and cutting has been a chore.

The crops come into flower in June, the ears of the cereals emerge and bean crops smell terrific. Oil seed rape flowered well with plenty of sulphur yellow flowers, now the pods will be filling as seeds grow.

Winter barley is usually the first crop to ripen and normally is ready to harvest about six weeks after the ears emerge, which means that from the middle of July the combine drivers will be under starters orders. Oil seed crops should be second in line for harvest, spring barley and wheat coming along in August.

New Pests  To Look Out For

There has been a new pest around this year called the Alder Beetle (see right), which is an eye catching metallic blue beetle about 5mm long. I first heard about it when someone rang me to ask if I had come across it, so I quickly brought myself up to speed and once I had done my homework I started to see adults and signs of damage in the countryside.

The adults emerge from the soil in late spring having spent the winter underground, and then climb up host plants like Alder trees, hazel, birch and beech are other host species, although they will probably have a go at others.  The adults and larvae eats the leaf surface leaving a netting effect in the leaf. This is not to be confused with the caterpillars that cause silk ‘netting’ seen in hedgerows caused by the caterpillar of the Ermine Moth. The numbers of Alder Beetle really have exploded in the last two years.

The effects are not likely to be fatal to the host. They are often seen near water, the worst infestations I have seen have been next to the rivers Test and the Wey. You may well see a few beetles in your gardens, they are very easy to spot, the colour really stands out.

On the plus side Lilly Beetle have not caused me much trouble this year, speaking as a gardener!

Butterflies To Come

At the beginning of June I found the first caterpillars in young stinging nettles, nests of small black prickly caterpillars that, with luck, will be the first generation this year of Peacock, Red Admiral  or Tortoiseshell butterflies, I will have to wait to find out.   

Questions and Observations

If you have any questions, observations or comments about anything you see in your area please let me know (at seumas@cropfosters.co.uk or 07768 443 658) as such information is always of interest.

Seumas Foster


Published in the June 2021 Edition

May brought a change of weather

As some low pressure systems blew rain bearing fronts towards us, the water was very welcome. Rainfall in April was only 17mm, of which 16mm fell on the 28th, before that nothing since March 26. The frosty nights of April also became a thing of the past, but wary gardeners and growers are always scanning the forecasts for clear skies at night which can point to a frost risk.

The crops in the fields had been pinned down by the lack of moisture and it wasn’t until soils had dampened that growth got into its stride, helped by the warmth.

June is the period when the flowering and fruiting of crops occurs, when grass seed heads push through and grains (seeds) begin to fill. This can be a rotten time for anyone who is sensitive to grass pollen and suffers with hay fever.

Pests can be a problem as they are at their most active too. The converse is that beneficial insects are also very busy, and this is the time to look out for ladybirds, lace wings, and hover flies, as well as the larvae of all three which are mopping up pests as fast as they can. Out of obvious sight at ground level but working just as hard are the beetles that hunt slugs.

This year fungal diseases have not been as active so far as they can be. This has reduced the amount of fungicide which has been used, each season needs its own programme tailored to fit with crop need.

‘New’ Crops

Not new at all, but new uses and revivals for old and useful crops. Some oat crops in the area are being grown for the new market that is developing for ‘Oat Milk’ drinks, and one of the major producers has plans to open a new manufacturing plant in Peterborough, a great opportunity for growers within range of the plant, and we are included.

Another great development is the increasing use of Spelt flour (see image right), spelt (or dinkel wheat) is a specialist crop grown in our area. Spelt is a very old species of ‘heritage’ wheat, not least with biblical references, that makes great flour and a good loaf, and I speak from experience. Growing Spelt needs special skills to get the best from it.

Feeding young birds

The rainfall softened the soils so starlings can feed easily on worms and leatherjackets from grass fields and lawns. Flocks sweep in with the lighter grey/brown young birds, the purple/black glossy adults strut about digging with long orange beaks in the grass, and having caught a grub turn to push it into the gape of the following fledgling, and so on ad infinitum. The noisy conversation in the flock is raucously loud, probably like a post covid party will be!

Seumas Foster


Published in the May 2021 Edition

Temperatures Slow To Rise

Last month lambs and lions were mentioned, the lamb seemed to be in charge as April Fools day came and went, but the lion was not far behind with some strong cold winds and sharp frosts. If a camel is a horse designed by a committee then April was a camel month, with something for everyone!

I measured only 42mm of rain in March, easily the lowest March total for several years. The dry weather has meant that the spring sowing went ahead into good seedbeds and the spring cereals germinated and emerged quite quickly.

Crop growth has been slow because of the cold, but growth has still been happening with crops and grass moving on, albeit slowly. The hedges have had a good show of Blackthorn flowers this year, maybe the Hawthorn and Elderflower blossom will also put on a good display.

Crop Growth

The best way to check on the development of the crops is to dissect the stems and have look at the way the stems are changing. Cereals grow from the bottom of the stem where the meristematic cells divide to create new cells, and as they do they push up the leaves. The push is given by the new cells extending, getting bigger and longer with thickening cell walls to give the stem strength. Each section is topped and tailed with a node which is where a leaf will grow from. Right in the middle at the top of this mass of cells will be the embryonic ear waiting at the top of the stem to eventually flower. The ears of the crops should be emerging towards the end of May, winter barley will be the first to show, with wheat at the beginning of June.

The dry cold weather tends to cause the growth to be rather shorter than would be the case in a warm damp time, which encourages lush, sappy crops. It’s all to do with cell extension, which can be influenced with some chemical growth regulators if required.

Growth will be patchy in a field where better soil and differences in nutrient availability will show up. Variations of the microclimates exert subtle influence on growth and the aim of the farm will be to limit these differences and encourage the beneficial conditions that assist the crop to reach potential.

EDITOR: Seumas’s photo (right) is of a dissected stem of barley.

Wayside Flowers

Wild flowers show very well especially on sunny days, the number of different flowering plants grows daily. The timing of each species has a seasonality the plants have developed to make the best of the timing. Yellow Celandine has been great, however top of the spring list must be the Bluebells, flowering in the woods before the leaves of the trees steal the light, with patches of wood anenomes and stitchwort as white splashes. Where bluebells are still growing on road verges you can be sure that the surrounding fields will have historically been woodland and the road was once a path or track. Soon Cow parsley will be covering the verges where it seems to flourish, and I for one really look forward to the white heads of Cow Parsley with all the insects that feed and hunt there.

(Note to self. Put some cat food out for hedgehogs.)

Seumas Foster


Published in the April 2021 Edition

March is ‘In Like a Lamb, Out Like a Lion’, but ‘April showers bring forth May flowers’

Whatever you can see growing in the fields now is the result of previous environmental conditions, maybe only recently, say, a few days, or it could be last year, or even further back. Growth is a sort of  ‘reactive imperative’ of the plant, more usually called a reaction to stimuli!

In early April the plant growth will be driven by daylight, temperature, moisture, with a helping hand from the farmers and the soil, but the stage and quality of growth should reflect the spell of warm dry weather in early March building on establishment of the crops last winter.

Growth at this time can be quite quick, but is not yet at full speed, that will come a bit later when the temperature has risen a bit more. The roots will be growing out, searching more and more soil to find the essential nutrients, and it is at this stage that the plant roots might encounter problems such as stones, shallow soils, compacted areas or wet patches, all  which can restrict growth.


The crops growing away now are winter sown cereals, with bread making wheat and biscuit quality wheats dominating. The Winter barley is mainly Maris Otter for brewing and the Spring barley is Laureate for distilling, in fact destined to go to Bimber distillery in London for whisky. On the Bimber website is a photo of a crop of barley and I recognise the background as a field above Cliddesden.

The other spring crops, sown in March and April, will be Spring Beans, Maize and a field of potatoes grown for the crisp market.


For wildlife early April is a difficult time because the larder is empty and new growth is not likely to provide much food. Seed eaters will find very little, and for insect eaters spring activity of prey has only just started. This is probably the most significant time for survival but wildlife can be very adaptive and will change diet to suit conditions. At this time it is not unusual to find an oak seedling out in a field, and it will probably have been put there by a clever jay or squirrel, following instinct to create a store the previous autumn. You might find them on your lawn. By the time birds eggs hatch and the young need feeding, insects will be frequent enough to meet demands (hopefully).

Farm livestock and wild grazing animals are much better supplied. By early/mid April grass will have grown enough fresh grass for grazing. Some supplementary feeding may still be needed but as long as soil conditions will allow, they can be out in the fields, so look out for the lambs in the sunshine.

I hope the frogs get on with spawning soon, some people have reported lots of good spawn already but my pond is still spawnless in mid March. Previously by now they will have been very busy, why are they later this year?

EDITOR: Seumas’s picture (right) is of a Red Kite in an Oak tree in the Spring.

Seumas Foster


Published in the March 2021 Edition
A guest article by Louise Cooke (née Allen) about the lambing at Hill Farm

What a strange and difficult year it has been for us all - when COVID and the first lockdown struck last March we were in the middle of lambing at Hill Farm. We were definitely in a bit of a bubble and it wasn’t until lambing was over that reality really hit. We had a very successful lambing and we were very fortunate that our veterinary student who had come to do her placement with us decided to stay on and help us out.

Our lambs grew really well during the spring and summer and all were sold by the end of September. A huge thank you to everyone who purchased our boxed lambs, we sold over three times as many as the previous year with lots of repeat customers. There seems to be growing support for both local and British produce and we have noted some new trends emerging such as ‘Regenuary’ and ‘Eat Balanced’. We continue to try and finish as many lambs as possible off grass alone and we are constantly striving for the best welfare for our sheep and preventing disease rather than curing. It is more important now than ever that people support British farmers - we must not lose out to cheap imports from countries with lower welfare standards.

A big challenge for us this year has been the wet weather which has led to a constant battle against foot rot. We have started a vaccination program for the flock which will cost us a lot in time and money but will be well worth it long term.

What a relief when we finally heard the news that we have a Brexit deal - sheep farmers would have been hit hard with high tariffs on lamb exports, making it almost unprofitable. We are hearing that there are hold ups at the borders due to new checks and paperwork so there may still be turbulent times ahead but we are hopeful that eventually things will settle down and normal trade can resume.

Lambing this year begins around March 10 and we have lots of lambs on the way after a bumper scanning percentage - a career all time record for Tim!
EDITOR: See the picture (right) of the first of the 2021 lambs.

We shall be filling up the fields behind Hill Farm that run from The Fox pub down to the church early on - we politely ask that dogs are kept on leads whilst walking through the sheep and that owners clean up after them. We have had two incidents of sheep worrying in the last 6 months - one ewe sadly died and another sustained severe bite wounds to her front leg. She is recovering but it will be a slow process. We know that generally the villagers are very careful with their dogs but an influx of people to the countryside during the lockdown has definitely led to more problems. It is sad to see so many footpaths being trodden so much that they are expanding into the crops and causing a great deal of damage. The countryside can be enjoyed by everyone but this must be done responsibly.

We are not sure what the COVID restrictions will be in March but we welcome any visitors to the lambing shed if allowed. We hope to be selling boxed lambs again in the autumn and we will soon be offering our first beef boxes. Our Hereford Cross cows can be seen grazing in the spring up by the dairy on Grammarsham Lane. They really do lead a lovely quiet life, grazing with their calves all summer and munching on our homemade hay and silage during the wet winter months.

(Any enquires regarding beef and lamb to Tim and Louise Cooke louiseelizabethallen@hotmail.co.uk)

Published in the February 2021 Edition

Brexit And Other Paperwork

Come February there will probably going to be the first glimmering of chances to start field work again, although some ploughing has been done since Christmas. Days are a bit longer and the soils will be starting to be workable. The lighter chalky free draining soils, of which we have in a lot of the area, are very suitable for an early start, and spring barley is a crop that usually reacts well to the opportunities afforded by the luxury of time, and a bit of luck.

In The Office (And Out Of The Cold)

In the meanwhile, fertiliser plans need to be made. These Nutrient Management Plans are to work out how much Nitrogen, Phosphate and Potash, Sulphur and maybe Magnesium will be needed for the crops, including grass, this season.

Total nutrient needs for the crops’ estimated yield are well established, so the plans are designed to establish the difference between nutrients available naturally from the soil and how much will be needed to be added as organic materials like muck, or manufactured out of a bag. These plans are a condition of claiming the Basic Payment and are legally required in a Nitrate Vulnerable Zone, and so  need to be in place before any fertiliser is applied, so now is the time to do it.

The  objective is to grow a crop without wastage and avoid contamination of the rest of the environment. Water and air quality protection is high on the list of the environment measures now and for the future, as well as avoiding wasted resources and cost for the grower. It seems that more research is being done to cut losses and from recent reports is showing that improvements will come soon.

(Seumas’s photo, right, taken in January is of Frosted Hogweed.)

Berxit? Brexit!

Now an agreement has been reached (Hooray!), details of the future can be contemplated. It will take a while for the good bits and the bad bits to show themselves. The wise heads are starting to query the balance between Agricultural production post-Brexit and food supply, set against the new Agriculture Act and Agricultural Transition Plan which say almost nothing about food production, but a lot about increased Environment protection. The plans look like a disincentive to produce, meanwhile European countries are increasing agricultural production as preparation to meet demand.

Farmers and land owners are certainly not against the Environmental changes, and are the best placed to deliver change, but as always these benefits and changes are best paid for out of agricultural profit. The ability to invest in the farm and countryside will deliver the benefits.

Rain And Pheasants

The total rainfall for 2020 here was 1,108mm, up from 925mm for 2019, and that was with a very dry April and May. October was the wettest month and February the runner up.

I am sure we are not the only garden to be invaded by pheasants, and although they are technically a non-native species, for me they are not a problem. It is fascinating watching as familiarity relaxes their natural wariness and they get bolder.

Seumas Foster


Published in the January 2021 edition

In The Bleak Midwinter

The Winter Solstice has just passed, the days are getting longer, but it doesn’t feel like it, and the cold bites a bit more. I always noticed that soil temperatures fall below that needed for plant growth  after Christmas. The potential of crops sown in the autumn is made up to Christmas, after the turn of the New Year it is a question of encouraging and protecting that potential.

Homage To The Boot

Visits to the fields in January are likely to be for pleasure, a good walk on a sunny day perhaps or a day out in search of a pheasant or pigeon, or maybe doing a bit of ‘wooding’. If the weather is not so good then clothing to keep you dry and warm is essential. A draught up a sleeve or a wet collar can get very uncomfortable in an irritating way, but wet and/or cold feet is the worst!

A good Wellington Boot is the first line of defence against almost anything. Start with a good boot and then build from there. Without a good boot all efforts to stay comfortable and functioning in the winter are going to fail ultimately. Rubber, Leather, Neoprene, even plastic will suffice.

Hands can be stuffed into pockets, heads can be wrapped in a beanie or scarf but there is only one place for your feet. Of course a good boot sock should be chosen to go with your boots. The modern way is to use an insert called a ‘Footbed’, which seems to be rather technical but once pushed into your boots can give very comfortable support for your feet and will keep the cold out. (Does this make me an ‘influencer’?!!). The more expensive the wellington then all these details will be included, my daughter has what I call ‘land agents wellies’ which are very well equipped.

Keeping Up The Strain

During the winter, fencing is a job that is needs to be done, ready for the turn out of livestock in the spring. I look forward to seeing more hedge laying in the countryside as a consequence of the new environment management proposals. A nicely laid hedge is a delight to look at.

Seumas Foster


Published in the December 2020 edition

The Turn Of The Year

As the 2020 calendar year closes and 2021 starts, the countryside stands by and watches the days change. Autumn has been becoming steadily autumnal, with rainfall increasing and soils getting wetter, winds and storms more frequent and leaves blowing off the trees. The poplar leaves seem to go first, the oak can hang on into December, with the other species somewhere in between, until all the skyline is sharp, high-contrast twiggy outlines. Frost loosens the leaves but so far there have been few frosts, are we in for another mild winter?

Bird Food

There are a few evergreen splashes in hedgerows, particularly yew and holly, and at the end of November the first flights of fieldfares have arrived chattering away to each other to pick off berries they can find. However they will have to compete with the pigeons (there are lots of them!) and any other birds that forage for food when there isn’t much about. It would be good if the flail hedge trimmers could hold off until late February or March next year and the roadside verges weren’t so aggressively skinned in September and October. On the roadsides trim 2 or 3 feet yes, but not yards back up to the bottom of hedges. If the new Agriculture Act that will come into force post Brexit is able to get away from the unreasonable compromise requirements currently in place which restricts options at present, then this should recognise the real situation and reduce damage to wild life.

Time For The Changes To Create Next Year

In the fields crops at first glance are more or less at a standstill, but short days and cool weather are causing changes at molecular level within the young plants to create enzymes which will affect spring growth patterns, preparing the ground for growth and seed production next year. The rams have been having the annual meeting with the ewes. The saying which highlights the importance of looking after your stock is something like this; ‘No Feet, no Tup, No Tup, No Lambs’. A well maintained ram will be the basis of the flock.

Weather Stats

October was a very wet month, my gauge recorded 236mm, which is 100mm more than October last year. That’s wet for us here , but it did follow a dry September.

Something To Look Forward To?

Not long now to the shortest day (EDITOR: Monday, December 21), after which the cold is likely to become more frequent. Maybe some snow this year to look forward to? The saying is that a snow fall is worth a dose of fertiliser, crops always seem to emerge at the thaw greener and stronger than before the snow. As snow is a great insulation, slugs can get quite busy under a good cover of snow, in that case the crops emerge rather battered and bruised!

Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year to everyone.

Seumas Foster


Published in the November 2020 edition

The Power of Green

Warm soil and a bit of rain is all that is needed to get the autumn sown seeds (see picture right) to germinate, push through the soil and into the autumn air. Actually good seed/soil contact is another important requirement, if the seed isn’t tight up against the soil it will probably dry out and could be more prone to pests like slugs, and the seedling developing roots need to touch soil to get started gathering moisture and nutrients.

The shoot, or plumule, pushing upwards is negatively geotropic, that is it grows away from gravity, while the root, or radicle, is the opposite. Energy for germination, which is a period of rapid cell division, comes from oil or starch stored in the seed, there is also some protein in seeds to provide amino acids for the new growth. The moisture content of a seed is about 10% compared with the growing crop of 90%, which is how the seed will survive in its dormant state.

The shoot is protected by a white or translucent sheath called a coleoptile which splits open at the soil surface and the green photosynthetic first leaf emerges through.

Green as a colour is associated with nature, but also with harmony, freshness, fertility, safety, envy(?) and luck, used to calm waiting patients in surgeries. Apparently the wrong shade of green can induce boredom!! The fields of the parishes will have as many hues of green as anyone could want.


The crops will not need much nitrogen until the spring when demand for nutrients is greatest and the crops are at peak productivity. Through the winter nitrogen need is easily met naturally from the soil, the shortfall will come next year which is when nitrogen can be supplemented.

Until the beginning of the 20th century the biggest limiting factor to plant growth was shortage of nitrogen, while manures could be used to recycle nitrogen and imported guano and bat droppings were found to be a great nutrient because of the nitrogen they provided. It was not until 1909 that a German scientist, Fritz Haber, developed a process to recover nitrogen from the atmosphere, which is 78% nonreactive nitrogen. This started the first ‘Green Revolution’.

Once you have nitrogen you can follow different chemical routes to get to fertilser as Ammonium nitrate or Urea. One route makes Ammonium Nitrate (NH4NO3), the other to Urea (CH4N2O). Ammonium Nitrate has an advantage for the types of temperate crops we grow, Urea is preferred for maize, soya and others.

Both have advantages and disadvantages, urea is more concentrated but is less dense and can be more easily lost to volatilisation, Ammonium Nitrate is better as a nutrient, easier to handle and store.

It seems probable that as the world production tends to favour Urea, in the future the production of ammonium nitrate will reduce and be replaced by urea on farms, but that is speculation on my part!!

Final Feed for Flies

Ivy in the autumn is a very valuable source of pollen for insects.

At the moment the last of the season’s wasps are all over the flowers (see picture right) hoping to survive a bit longer.

Seumas Foster


Published in the October 2020 edition

The Start of Meteorological Autumn

September 1st is the nominal start of autumn, and despite it being simply a calendar date the behaviour of the climate does seem to shift into the:

‘Season of mists and mellow fruitfulness, Close bosom friend of the maturing sun’
(‘o Autumn’ by John Keats)

Although August turned from heat to heavy rain, we had a surprising total of 162 mm in the second half, however the rain soaks into the ground and/or evaporates quickly in August. September with shorter days and cooler nights and misty mornings seems to see the start of the build up of the dampness that will become late autumn and winter, bringing puddles and soggy soil.

However the moisture now is an essential input for seeds to germinate, and the soil is summer warm and perfect for growth.

But all that is still to come. Harvest has been completed, not record breaking but a mixture of good and bad results. The optimistic view is that harvest is the opportunity to sweep away anything you would rather not be reminded of and start again.

Field Work

Grass and cover crops will have been sown (see image, right) soon after harvest, stubbles cleared and cultivated as part of the beginning of integrated weed control.

Oil Seed Rape crops will be missing from the fields this autumn, the area sown has been greatly reduced as attempt to escape Cabbage Stem Flea Beetle (other Flea Beetles are available), so alternative break crops will be chosen to maintain a good crop rotation.

Winter sown beans and winter linseed are strong contenders, so are Countryside Stewardship options.

There may well be a reaction to last autumn, which you will remember was wet from the start, and sowing plans were drastically changed, so this year sowing might be starting early particularly on the heavier soils. The carry-over on farm of seed from last year and readily available will make this more tempting and possibly worth the risk of more autumn weeds or disease.

Heavy Hedgerows

Hedgehogs, it seems, have had a bit of a surge, local reports are of more sightings. We have seen one in the garden quite often this summer for the first time for a year or two.

A report of the best crops of blackberries, hazel, spindles, sloes, acorns and beech mast that can be recalled reached me. I have seen some walnut trees smothered with fruit, and the early conkers brought down by the wind are very well filled this year. The apples and plums here have been excellent although some fruit trees got caught by the frost in the spring, highlighting the fact that the likely cause of a good crop is a reflection of growing conditions, and luck, when the crop was flowering and growing.

I did think that the swallows left a bit earlier this year, perhaps to avoid quarantine when they arrive Africa, or maybe to enjoy a holiday in the south of France on the way.

The benefit of Spring Lockdown has become apparent now as all the garden vegetables are ripening and maturing, is anyone else wondering how to deal with a tomato mountain?

Seumas Foster


Published in the September 2020 edition (no May, June, July or August editions published)

Out With the Old and in With the New

At last harvest has come and the trials and tribulations of the past 12 months can be sifted and sorted into the good, the surprising, the average, the bad, and the outright disastrous. Wet weather, dry weather, hot weather and lack of cold weather, made life for crops in the fields a bit problematic.

I don’t think many were expecting too much from the crops, growth has been variable in the fields so predicting results has been a problem.

Autumn sowing was cut short by continuous heavy rain in the autumn so there is still seed in barns to be carried over for this year, some fields were sown much later than planned with the loss of potential that comes with delayed establishment. Cropping plans had to be re-jigged several times, weed control could not be done, and spring seed needed to be procured in a frantic market. We were lucky, some parts of the country where the soils are heavier didn’t get any crops sown at all.

In March the rain slowed and finally stopped, the fields started to dry enough to start spring sowing following the revised cropping plans. The soils went from wet to dry very quickly and the later sowings began to feel the effects of lack of moisture in the sown zone. In April and May we had fantastic warm weather but in dry soils crops didn’t fill out as they would do lush conditions, they started to shoot upwards and race through growth stages.  In the dry weather spring weeds did not germinate, a bonus here, but only for the time being! Any spraying and fertiliser spreading had to be done when it could, but was reasonably timely.

Silage and hay was cut in good conditions, good quality but not lower yield. Regrowth was slow, there is a chance however now for late cuts to make up the difference.

There was reasonable average rainfall in June and July and harvest started early, and the sun came out again!

The Oil Seed Rape (OSR) really was a disaster, Cabbage Stem Flea Beetle ruined most crops and because of the damage this pest is capable of I do not expect there will be any OSR grown in the area for a few years now. The pest has had a plentiful food supply and been able to take advantage, because of the withdrawal of neonicotinoids control is no longer possible. Nationally sugar beet is a crop also seriously threatened by the loss of this insecticide seed dressing, and will result in the importation of continental and cane sugar to replace the UK crop, and the same will apply for OSR oil, the shortage of which is threatening biodiesel production.


Winter barley has done well, the yield has been acceptable and the quality for malting and distilling acceptable, low moisture. Winter wheat mostly reasonable, no record breakers though, the yields quite variable according to soil type with free draining, moisture retentive soils doing well, as you would expect. The very hot days of August helped.

The showers in July did encourage late shoots to develop from the crop, and late germination of weeds did occur.

By mid August there are a few crops to harvest, field beans and spring sown wheat still to ripen while they put up with some thunder storms and very localised heavy downpours.

New Start

The wonderful thing is that the slate is wiped clean, and another chance to grow the best crop ever is just about to start.

Seumas Foster


Published in the April 2020 edition

It’s A Long Wait

February went right through with the wet and windy weather and continued into March. Storms and low pressure depressions kept clouds, rain, and wind  lashing the UK, courtesy of the Jet Stream. My total for February was 133.5mm, following 112mm for January. Last January and February (2019) were 23mm and 64mm respectively. The water table levels have risen now so they are just above the levels at which flood impact can be expected, a more normal winter level. The Winterbournes in the Hampshire chalk valleys are running now. That might explain some of the puddles.

Field Work Still Mostly Waiting

Needless to say not much work has been possible in the fields. There have been a few dry interludes, not long enough to move any ground and sow crops, but briefly enabling some fertiliser applications. The crops are beginning to need fertiliser, the soil temperatures are just about high enough to encourage a little growth as your lawns will have shown you, so a small dose has been put on most crops. The main doses will not be due until April when appetites will be much greater.

In fact this year, after the late sowing of crops last autumn, crops are in need of careful nurturing if anything like a reasonable yield can be achieved. Probably the majority of crops have not produced enough tillers (aka side shoots), to give enough ears at harvest. The game now is to make sure losses are kept to a minimum, and if the tillers need nutrition to maintain the optimum grain sites then the farm can make sure the crops do not go short. It is a careful tightrope, too much Nitrogen too early will be wasted, and yet we don’t want the crop to go a deficient situation.

For the spring sowing a surprising amount of nitrogen fertiliser can be spread on the fields before the crop is planted, saving a job to do later, and for the best malting quality barley, which we do well here, the total dressing of nitrogen should be on the field by the time the crop has grown 3 leaves.

Different Year, Different Set Of Problems

The delayed planting in the autumn has some other effects on the growth of the plants, in particular the susceptibility to fungal diseases is different. While there is a general reduction in the incidence of Septoria, a leaf blotch, there is an increased risk of Mildew on the later developing tillers. Rust diseases can be a problem, Yellow rust is a particular threat to some varieties, and brown rust can also rapidly get established as the season progresses. A late wet, mild winter could encourage stem base diseases like Fusarium and eyespots, they are not usually vigorous pathogens and a strong crop is often the best defence.

Taking Away Options

One special challenge to face is the withdrawal of Chlorothalonil, a very useful multisite fungicide for both wheat and barley, which has been used for a long time, it must not be sprayed after May 20th and will not be available for future use. We are on the lookout for an alternative.

Lots Of Beaks To Feed

The countryside birds are in the middle of a dangerous period as food sources are at the lowest ebb in early spring, the ‘Hungry Gap’ as last year’s supplies run out and the new crop becomes available. The mild winter has ensured the survival of larger numbers of the small birds and they are keeping a busy eye out for food as there are territories to establish and defend, and eggs to lay.

At least two of us have found that mice have shown they are expert at undermining celeriac and leaving a shell as a surprise in the veg patch when we have gone out to get some for the pot. The kestrels are welcome to help themselves to our mice!

Seumas Foster


Published in the March 2020 edition

This month our thanks go to Louise and Tim Cooke who have written an update on the progress with the sheep flock at Hill Farm. The sheep lamb indoors and they are housed now, ready for the lambing to start.
Seumas Foster.

Longer Days And The Start Of A New Cycle

A new lambing season is almost upon us and all our pregnant ewes are now inside the sheds getting some extra TLC. We are hoping for another good lamb crop this year and we continue to grow the size of the flock - next year we shall be up to around 500 ewes.

Our goal is to produce strong, fast growing lambs reared to the highest welfare standards and to minimise our use of antibiotics. This will be the first year lambing our 50 Lleyns (the ewes with the solid white faces). They are a bit of an experiment, the hope being that we can breed our own replacement ewes from them.

2019 was a bumper year for grass growth and we managed to sell all our lambs by the autumn. So far this year the rain has been a big challenge for us - the fields are water logged and this has increased the risk of foot rot (a bacterial infection) in the flock. Prevention is better than cure so the ewes have been through the foot bath several times and we have started our rams on a foot rot vaccination programme.

January can be a challenging month for livestock farmers due to the recent trend of 'Veganuary'. The type of food that we are producing and how it is produced is very much in the spotlight and gets heavily scrutinised. We recently attended a regional meeting organised by the National Sheep Association where we discussed important issues such as climate change and welfare at shearing time. We came away with some very positive messages to spread about the sheep industry including the role of grazing sheep in maintaining soil health and biodiversity. Pasture has the ability to act as a vast sink for carbon and we really do feel that grass fed British lamb should still keep its place on the dinner plates of our growing population.

We have had some great feedback from the locals who bought our lamb last year. We have certainly enjoyed several delicious roasts with our own friends and family! We hope to be offering the same again later on in the year. Once again we welcome any locals who would like to come and have a look around the lambing shed (bring the children or grandchildren - just no pregnant ladies please!). As always, we politely ask that dogs are kept on leads whilst in the fields with the sheep and that owners clean up after them in order to reduce the spread of tapeworms.

Published in the February 2020 edition

Wet Autumn, Looking Forward To A New Year

A bit of a statement of the obvious perhaps, but for the record I measured 541mm rainfall in September, October, November and December with the total for the year being 952mm. January this year has started with some very wet days of over 25mm. The fields managed to absorb the rainfall well until the middle of December when the soil finally became saturated, and then what fell quickly ran off or puddled.

December rainfall was 153mm, which was the wettest month of the year, when I checked back the wettest month recently turned out to be July 2017 with 190mm, which must have been a lot of local showers and thunderstorms. At least in the summer the moisture is quickly evaporates or is mopped up by the vegetation, not the case in the winter months.

It has been very noticeable this winter that we have had very few frosts - yet! The winter has been very mild by normal standards, but we should not expect to have the same weather year to year.

In The Fields

The mild weather has helped crops and grass to stay green and keep a very slow, but discernible, rate of growth. Sheep are out and finding something to nibble at. Lambing will be starting in a month or two. There are fields that were destined for winter sowing, but didn’t get done, and there are fields of stubble which are part of the overwintered stubble for Mid Tier Stewardship agreements or maybe part of a cover crop agreement as part of the BPS, although a cover crop will have had a more interesting and beneficial seed mixture sown last autumn. These agreements come to an end for this season in mid January for cover crops or mid February for the stubble in Mid Tier agreements. If the spring is anything like normal the fields that are planned for crops should get sown. This region is a good area for spring crops generally, spring malting barley is a crop that has traditionally done well in this area.

I mention the land management and ecological measures that farms already have in place, so to the casual observer of the publicity coming with the new Agriculture Bill doesn’t get the sense that farms are not already heavily involved in contributing to the ‘Public Good’ called for by the new legislation.

Looking Forward

Some blackbirds are already singing in my garden at dawn, particularly when the day starts well with some sunshine, and maybe in the evening as the sun sets. Two male robins have been doing territorial battle all winter it seems with song and the occasional fight. No winner as yet, hopefully there will be enough room for them to establish their own territories. The bird feeders are very busy and have been all winter, I expect that following a successful breeding season the young birds are surviving in higher numbers than might be the case in a harsher winter.

The B Word

At last at the end of January part one is over, now we move onwards to the next rounds and all the fun and games they are going to bring with them!

As an old boss of mine used to say, “Ah well, it all brings Friday”.

Seumas Foster


Published in the December 2019 / January 2020 edition

EDITOR: The following report repeats most of the November 2019 report because that report was not published in Hill and Dale.

Warm And Wet, Then Wet And Cold

September has been a lovely ‘average’ month, the problem is that an average does not let you know what the extremes were like. Warm and dry to start with, in fact rather too dry as the soils desiccated in the planting zone on the surface. The autumn sown crops were struggling to grow without a drink.

And then in mid September the rain started and a month later it is still falling, so now soils are saturated and most farms have the autumn cereal seed still in the bag in the barn.  I measured 140mm of rain in 13 wet days of September. Most of October was wet, totalling 132mm. November looks like adding the same again, 62mm by mid month. The soil temperatures have also dropped quickly this autumn, already down to 6’C by mid November.

How Much In The Rain Gauge?

1mm of rain in a rain gauge is equivalent to 1 litre of water/square metre of land, so 1 hectare (10,000 sq/m) is 10,000 litres of water for each 1mm in the gauge, or 10 tonnes of water! It  soon becomes clear that even 1 mm of rain is a LOT of water to soak away.

Adapt And Adjust But Don’t Forget Nature

A wet autumn will happen every so often, plans may need to be adjusted, anything from a tweak to drastic, to get crops of some sort sown to grow. We shall have to wait and see if there is an opportunity to before the end of the safe sowing period, winter varieties of cereal need a vernalisation period, or spell of cold weather, to ensure the plant produces a seed next year. Without it the seed may germinate and grow but it will stay vegetative and produce lots of leaf but no ears. The sowing methods may also be adapted, moving from minimum tillage to ploughing and power harrow drilling, slower and more costly but can be a bit more weather proof.  

Persistent Pest

The Cabbage Stem Flea Beetle scourge continues as they munch through all the Oil Seed Rape (OSR) crops they can find. Only a good spell of cold weather will slow them down, otherwise they will remain active well into the autumn. The serious damage to large plants is done by the maggot-like larvae burrowing through the leaf stalks down into the stems, which may not be apparent until mid-winter or early spring, so there may be more crops written off early spring.

The acreage of OSR is falling as farms stop growing it because of this pest, beekeepers have begun to take notice as the source of early pollen and nectar disappears.

I think the best way to control the pest without a suitable, acceptable and effective insecticide is to stop growing the crop for at least one year, preferably two. This will reduce the numbers of the pest and a new crop sown after this period will have a better chance of getting established without the ravages of large numbers of the pest.

The question is ‘What can we grow instead?’


Hedgerows look good this autumn, a good supply of blackberries, sloes, crab apples and other seeds and shelter are a good omen for mice, voles and birds. I have seen more voles about and they are the base of the food chain for predatory wildlife.

It looks good for the predatory birds and animals, BUT first they will have to catch them …

Merry Christmas and Happy New Year to everyone.

Seumas Foster


Unpublished in the November 2019 edition

Warm And Wet

September has been a lovely ‘average’ month, the problem is that an average does not let you know what the extremes were like. Warm and dry to start with, in fact rather too dry as the soils desiccated in the planting zone on the surface. The autumn sown crops were struggling to grow without a drink.

And then, in mid September, the rain started and a month later it is still falling, so now soils are saturated and most farms have the autumn cereal seed still in the bag in the barn. I measured 140mm of rain in 13 wet days of September. Most of October so far has been wet days.

A wet autumn will happen every so often. Plans may need to be adjusted, anything from a tweak to drastic, to get crops of some sort sown to grow. We shall have to wait and see if there is an opportunity to catch up later this autumn. The sowing methods may also be adapted, moving from minimum tillage to ploughing and power harrow drilling, slower and more costly but can be a bit more weather proof.

Persistent Pest

The Cabbage Stem Flea Beetle scourge continues as they munch through all the Oil Seed Rape crops they can find. Only a good spell of cold weather will slow them down, otherwise they will remain active well into the autumn. The serious damage to large plants is done by the maggot-like larvae burrowing through the leaf stalks down into the stems, which may not be apparent until mid-winter or early spring, so there may be more crops written off early spring.

The acreage of OSR is falling as farms stop growing it because of this pest, beekeepers have begun to take notice as the source of early pollen and nectar disappears.

I think the best way to control the pest without a suitable, acceptable and effective insecticide is to stop growing the crop for at least one year, preferably two, this will reduce the numbers of the pest and a new crop sown after this period will have a better chance of getting established without the ravages of large numbers of the pest.


Hedgerows look good this autumn, a good supply of blackberries, sloes, crab apples and other seeds and shelter are a good omen for mice, voles and birds. I have seen more voles about and they are the base of the food chain for predatory wildlife.

It looks good for the predatory birds and animals, BUT first they will have to catch them …

Seumas Foster


Published in the October 2019 edition (there was no September edition)

As one farm year closes with the harvest complete, a new year starts as the first of the autumn crops are sown. Farm activity will get frantic soon as windows of opportunity are hustled and grabbed to get the seed in the soil, new crops are established for the winter.

The sporting season changes, frost begin again and just at the moment squirrels are putting in long days to take advantage of the wonderful nut year we are having.

EDITOR: Seumas has sent in a number of photos and these will be published in this month’s Hill & Dale.

Published in the August 2019 edition

This spring it was clear Ash trees were very late coming into leaf, much later than the Oak, and this led to a lot of speculation, not only about the likelihood of a 'splash or a soak' of rain this summer but also to the spread of Ash Dieback disease and its consequences. As we have an expert within our parish boundary in Julian Evans, I asked him if he could put some information together for us. My thanks to Julian for doing this and I hope you find it of interest.

Seumas Foster.

Ash Dieback And Other Woes (by Julian Evans of Ellisfield)

The spread of ash dieback caused by the fungus Hymenoscyphus fraxineus (formerly Chalara) is well in evidence in the village. By no means every tree is affected or infected (yet), but many are as thinning crowns and dead branches show.

The symptoms are first seen in June when a tender new shoot 'flops' over and withers (see picture left).

The shoot itself dies back some distance and in the following year a bunch of new foliage emerges just below the dieback point. This clumpiness is very characteristic (see picture right). Then the dieback spreads farther down the twig or branch such that in a few years the whole tree is dead. In my own wood near Steventon I have everything from young seedlings showing the first signs to dead 70 ft high trees.

What can we do?

  1. There is little we can do to prevent spread of the disease, but good hygiene helps. Make sure shoes and boots are thoroughly cleaned before going into a wood and afterwards when you get home. This will reduce the risk of spread by inadvertent transfer of spore infected soil.
  2. Of equal concern is what to do about dead ash trees, especially if they are near a public road or path. Once dead, ash limbs soon become brittle and fall. So as soon as disease is well established invite a tree expert (not me because I am retired and not now insured to give advice!) to examine the tree and recommend a competent tree surgeon or forestry contractor such as one on the list of Institute of Chartered Foresters. (Ash wood is, of course, an excellent firewood and some large logs will be attractive to sawmillers.)
  3. What trees can we plant in place of ash? Ellisfield is blessed with many and varied soils though calcareous ones are common. All of the following natives are well worth considering: aspen (Populus tremula), beech (Fagus sylvatica), black poplar (Populus nigra), cherry (Prunus avium), English oak (Quercus robur), field maple (Acer campestre), holly (Ilex aquifolium), hornbeam (Carpinus betulus), whitebeam (Sorbus aria), wild service tree (Sorbus torminalis ), and yew (Taxus baccata) to which I would definitely add two 'honorary' natives, sycamore (Acer pseudoplatanus) and, provided the soil is acid, sweet chestnut (Castanea sativa).

Unfortunately ash is not the only tree species suffering at the moment. We are all familiar with the loss of mature elms, though our hedgerows are still full of young ones which dieback once they get to about 25 ft high only to shoot again for another cycle while dutch elm disease is prevalent. Oaks are challenged by a range of new nasties. OPM – oak processionary moth – is spreading along the Thames Valley from its first hold in and around Kew, and various oak declines, some slow and some rapid, are occurring where, unusually, bacteria are implicated as one of the causal agents.

Not all is doom and gloom. Beech bark disease, a menace in the 1970s and 80s is rarely if ever seen today, inspections of timber imports at dockside and monitoring new outbreaks are all pursued with what resources the Forestry Commission has available, and in the case of ash itself there is tentative evidence that about 1 tree in 50 shows some tolerance to dieback. If there is a take home message then (a) diversify tree species when planting and (b) help by not importing any plant material ever – this is the means of entry of foreign nasties that our pitifully limited tree flora are most at risk from. Never bring back any live vegetable matter from an overseas holiday.

We live in a lovely village, and we can keep it so.

May I take this opportunity in writing in Hill and Dale to thank Edna for all her many, many years of hard work as our excellent editor.

Julian Evans
(Owner of a 30 acre woodland and, until recently, chair of the Forestry Commissions' Expert Committee on Forest Science)

Published in the July 2019 edition

‘Let’s Hear it for the Jet Stream’

A trapped low is not good for ‘Flaming June’. Here we are, caught the wrong side of the convoluted jet stream which is sweeping rain fronts and wind across the country. Harvest is probably not far away now, the first crops of winter barley could be ready to cut in about mid July, so some warm bright weather would be ideal. The sunshine fills the grains, dull weather is the enemy of good yields of quality grain. There should be time now to get the grain stores ready for harvest, cleaned out and checked that everything is working before the onslaught.

At first the rain was very welcome for crops and gardens, at least at this time of the year the ground soaks up the rain and vegetation and roads quickly dry up, the air is warm and will hold large amount of water vapour. The winds can dry everything very fast, although leggings are needed to walk through anything taller than your wellies if you don’t want soaked knees.

Crop Response

The crops have responded to the warmth and rain by growing rapidly. There has been a lot of nitrogen in the rooting zones, both applied and natural for the roots to absorb. The nitrogen is a building block for the plant, together with the energy of the sun.

I did notice that some of my garden plants slowed down for a few days when the temperature slumped, they seemed to stand still until warmth returned.

Looking Ahead to Game Cover

Game cover plots of maize, and some more exotic mixes to give food and shelter later in the year, were sown into very dry soil and have responded to the rain very well. The outlook is good for cover crops this year, although all that green leaf will no doubt attract some pests and diseases to be on the lookout for. Silver Y moth is a good one, the caterpillar feeds quickly, and Cabbage White is always found at some stage on brassicas, for example kale.


Grass has been cut for silage in May, and for hay and haylage in June. The summer regrowth may be able to be cut a second time, it will certainly be good grazing for the livestock. The lambs have grown well and look good in the fields.

Nature or Nurture?

Wild orchids (see left and right) seem to be having a good year, there are more bee orchids than usual, and in the right places spotted and pyramidal orchids have sprung up in good numbers. Maybe this is because of the weather we had last summer which matured the plants so they produced plenty of flower primordia. So often the potential of a plant is actually a product of the previous season, not only a response to the current season, unless of course the plant is an annual.

Seumas Foster


Published in the June 2019 edition

Guest Article by David Miller Nsch, Wheatsheaf Farming Company, North Waltham

2019 is turning into another drier than average Spring. Winter sown crops of wheat and barley look well because of their better developed root structures which are more able to source moisture deeper in the soil profile. Winter Oil Seed Rape has had many challenges and nationally 15-20% of the crop has failed. The main culprit is cabbage stem flea beetle. At sowing time, the adults fly in and eat the emerging crop and later in the season the larvae left in the plants continue to eat the stems from the inside out. Control is difficult and often chemicals are ineffective. More cultural methods of control are being tried with varying levels of success. Companion cropping is one of these new methods using such species as Buckwheat, various clovers and even beans are all being tried. These are aimed at distracting the flea beetles.

Our own journey into Conservation Agriculture with cover crops and no till establishment of crops is continuing and the immense learning curve continues although our five years of experience is proving invaluable. No soil movement for five years has meant an incredible increase in the number of worms in the soil (see right), this can be seen by the number of worm casts and small straw heaps called Middens evident in the fields. Our aim of using no insecticides is progressing but proving more difficult to accomplish after 40 years of chemical farming. It is all about redressing the balance of predator vs prey in the soil invertebrates.

Our cover crops established in the Autumn and left over Winter before drilling Spring crops, are now known to increase many invertebrate predators such as Harvestmen Spiders (Daddy Longlegs) and Carabid Beetles, which eat slugs and aphids amongst other things. This is because we are providing a habitat for them rather than leaving bare stubble or ploughed fields. We are now able to use less inorganic fertiliser as the soil is able to function better with less chemical and mechanical interference from ourselves. The system is allowing us to reduce our fuel usage and also our CO2 emissions.

The new system has attracted a lot of interest and we have welcomed groups from DEFRA, Natural England, Reading University and a group of Agricultural Advisors from The Nigerian Government. All interested in seeing first hand the progress we are making.

Conservation Agriculture gives the countryside a different appearance from the cosmetically pleasing brown ploughed fields to what may be perceived as scruffy and untended BUT the biodiversity within these fields are much greater than we have ever seen before.

David Miller


Published in the May 2019 edition

April and May – Time to Grow

The time has come for growth to be almost fast enough to see, it is certainly the time when, after a few days away, you can really see the difference.


It has been a dry winter and spring (so far) so water availability might be the limiting factor later.

This year to date; January 23mm, February 64mm, March 79mm and, up to mid April, 27mm. These are really quite small amounts for months that should be wetter than this, and follows a relatively dry autumn.

In the early days of April the last spring crops have been sown, the last one in that I know of was a crop of spring beans (see picture right).

Cabbage Stem Flea Beetle

The Oil Seed rape is struggling this year with serious infestations of a pest called Cabbage Stem Flea Beetle, or CSFB. In previous years the adult has been a problem soon after the crop emerges in the autumn, eating the seedlings which have not made enough bulk to cope at that stage. When the crop has 3-4 leaves it has been able to survive a bit of nibbling. The adults lay eggs which hatch and a grub burrows into the leaf stems (petioles) and maybe eventually into the plant stem. The crop might be wounded but recovered and was rarely finished off.

This year the beetle has been active much later and in much larger numbers than normal. CSFB activity at the usual time was apparently low, however the spring brought evidence of large grub activity in the stems, to the point of killing off the growing points The mild autumn may have kept the beetle active later than usual, grubs hatched and migrated into the stems in large numbers where they are still feeding in April. They are immune to any available sprays from the egg stage, so are safe to feed without hindrance. The CSFB damage seems to be very random, as yet it has been impossible to pin down the reasons why or where the pest is significant, it does not seem to be a function of variety, cultivation, management, except this pest has been increasing since the withdrawal of neonicotinoids, with the pest tending to spread westwards over the past 3 -4 years, and now it has reached us. The search is on to see if there is a way CSFB can be distracted from the intended crop by eg., companion planting, or if there is any natural resistance to be utilised, or other changes in management that may be of use, eg., natural CSFB predators.

Field Symptoms

The feeding in the stems has really damaged the spring growth, resulting in slow, patchy and delayed flowering of the rape crops. Most fields locally are showing the patchy effect of CSFB. Yields will be seriously affected, and so next year the area of Oil Seeds sown may be well down and be replaced by a different break crop in the rotation. The early pollen opportunity for bees and insects from OSR will be lost, an unintended consequence of the change in permitted sprays. Hay fever and Asthma sufferers, and race horses and their owners will probably be pleased though.

Still European Crops

So we didn’t become ‘Brexited’ after all. Maybe another time then, but quite when …

Seumas Foster


Published in the April 2019 edition

‘March Many Weathers’

The last days of February were dry, the light chalk soils were dry enough to sow spring barley, and quite a proportion of the planned acreage was sown then. March has, so far, been wet and/or windy so the seed drills have stayed in the sheds.

The crops have been growing slowly, getting taller, thicker, greener as new leaves are expanding as the sun gains more strength and gets a bit warmer. The Spring or Vernal Equinox occurred on March 20th, the day when the sun is directly over the Equator, spring begins in the northern hemisphere and the days lengthen to become longer than the nights.

The end of March sees the clocks go forward an hour to British Summer Time, and Easter is late with Easter Sunday on April 21st.

Timely Sowing of Spring Seeds

Sowing of the rest of the spring crops will have to wait until soils are in the right condition, hopefully in the ground before the end of March and this edition of Hill and Dale hitting the lanes of the parishes. Last year sowing could not be finished until well into April which is really too late to give the poor plants a reasonable chance to do a good job. Results last year for the late sowings could have been worse but the timely plantings did do better, the summer worked in our favour to reduce losses.

The majority of fields in the Parishes are planted with winter sown crops. Oil seed rape, if it hasn’t struggled with Cabbage Stem Flea Beetle, is now in yellow flower, early pollen for insects and a useful contribution for working honey bees. Temperature is the key, so much happens when the warmth is strong and consistent enough to get activity in insects. Winter wheat (pictured right is “var Cordiale”, a variety of winter wheat with bread making potential, mid tillering growth stage with the main stem and two tillers all of which could produce an ear of wheat) and barley are mostly tall and thick enough to clean your boots when you walk through them, and approaching Growth Stage 30-31, which is stem extension.

Of course these crops will be the first to grow up ‘post Brexit’, pioneers in a sense, going forward to the brave new future - perhaps!!

Hedgerow Hawthorn

The buds of hedgerow plants are swelling, in some cases the leaves have already burst and splodges of bright green stand out. This is usually in hedges which are quite young, always hawthorn,  implying that the stock is variable in habit, early strains have been selected. At least this gives a range of leaf emergence. It is always interesting to see how different parts of the country vary with leaf emergence, for example the Vale of Evesham always seems to be about a week or maybe more ahead of us in Hampshire.

I have had a Siskin feeding with the goldfinches in my garden. At first I thought it might be a Yellow Hammer but then the chaffinch like wing bars confirmed the sighting, as did a photo sent to a friend who knows about these things!

Seumas Foster


Published in the March 2019 edition

Spring Beckons and Weather Changes

There was not much rain in January, less than an inch at 23 mm, certainly not enough to fill the ditches. February started cold, and straight away we had a big fall of snow, which seemed to be localised to this area. There were terrible tales of people struggling to get home on Friday afternoon and evening, reported on national and local news, as the problems experienced by drivers on the M3 became clear. We had over a foot of snow which only lasted a day or two before a quick thaw set in, and suddenly there was lot of water heading for lower ground. The soils in the fields soaked up a lot of the melt water, which will be used by the crops later in the year.

As February days lengthen, the jet stream is bringing us dry warm weather. Soils have dried out enough so work has started on the fields and crops.

The First Field Work

Fertiliser top dressing (see picture right: February Top Dressing of the far field and AB15 Countryside Stewardship Grass and Clover mix in the foreground) has begun on the Oil Seed Rape crops, with a small ‘Kick-off’ dose of nitrogen to get growth started. The crop establishment during the winter has been generally good, so the plants have put down a good root system. The spreaders can move through to other crops of winter wheat and winter barley with a similar ‘wake-up’ dose. There is still time for the weather to turn cold and miserable again, so slow and cautious is the best approach until the plants have woken up properly and we can have more confidence that ‘spring has sprung’. Grass also needs a feed at this time to get some early bite for the livestock and get growth for forage.

Some of the spring barley fields have had a pre-sowing clean-up before the barley seedbeds are prepared to knock out the weeds that have germinated over winter. The main culprit is blackgrass, which has to be targeted as it can be very competitive. The problematic fields were lightly cultivated during late autumn, instead of ploughing, which has encouraged the seed to germinate so it can be dealt with. This is an effective stale seedbed technique and part of the strategy to keep the weed contained and controlled.

Weighty Snow

The snow was very destructive as it clung, wet and heavy to the twigs and leaves, dragging down the branches of hedgerow trees and shrubs, overgrown with ivy or grown too big. Field maple seems to be a very brittle tree, perfect as a youthful bough, but prone to snap under pressure when it gets older. This needs to be coppiced or trimmed to maintain young growth. Ivy covered hawthorn also puts a great pressure on the tree it is growing through as it collects snow, so older branches break under the weight. This is a reminder to think about how hedges are looked after to avoid the worst of these winter problems.

The snowdrops are flowering very well this year. Now we can look forward to the daffodils and bluebells!

Seumas Foster


Published in the February 2019 edition (there was no January edition)

Since the dairy herd at Ellisfield and Farleigh Wallop was sold, Chris and Caroline Allen, son-in-law Tim Cooke and daughter Louise Cooke have restocked with sheep. Louise has written this report to give more detail about how this change is progressing.

Brexit has caused a huge amount of uncertainty in the farming community over the last two years and we still have no clear idea of what the future of farming in this country will be. Since selling the dairy herd last year we decided to do what we are passionate about and start a sheep flock here at Hill Farm. Tim has over twenty years of shepherding experience so it seemed the obvious choice to make best use of our grassland.

The majority of the sheep that you will have seen in the fields are North Country Mules (grey and white speckled faces). These are the offspring of a Blue Faced Leicester ram (chosen for milk production and prolificacy) and a Swaledale ewe (chosen for hardiness and strong mothering ability). The Mules make excellent mothers and they were running with Texel and Suffolk rams for six weeks since October, at one ram to fifty ewes. Both these breeds of ram are good terminal sires and produce fast growing lambs with desirable carcass conformation.

The ewes all have had an ultrasound scan in January (see picture right) so that we know how many lambs that they are each expecting. This enables us to manage them better during the winter housing and ensures that they get the correct amount of feed. It is also important to know if any ewes are carrying single lambs as they can potentially become foster mothers to any orphaned lambs.

Lambing will begin in Mid March and it will be all hands on deck – with all the ewes being first time mothers it will be an exciting but busy time. The ewes will be brought into housing about 6 weeks before lambing is due to start, this helps with good shepherding and gives the grass a rest, and ewes and lambs will be out in the fields again about 48 hours after birth, weather permitting. Our emphasis is on high welfare and ethically produced meat and we will be aiming to finish as many lambs off the grass as possible.

We welcome any enquiries from any locals who would like to visit us in the lambing shed!

Dog Walkers

Finally, a very polite request for dog walkers to please keep their dogs on a lead whilst in any fields with the sheep. Not only can dogs attack livestock but just chasing them around can cause them to abort their lambs. It is also extremely important to clean up after your dog as dog faeces can cause parasitic problems in both ewes and lambs.

Louise Cooke


Published in the December 2018 edition

‘Tis The Season To Be Jolly……

October rainfall totals came to 67mm, about two and a half inches, which was really quite modest compared with the average. November has already delivered a similar amount in the first 13 days so we should see some of the wet:dry balance restored as winter progresses.

The crops in the fields have continued to establish well, but growth has inevitably slowed down as the days shorten and cooler days and nights are more frequent. Weed control has been good, probably the dry conditions for most of September has not encouraged germination of the weed seeds, although they should have been ripened well in the hot dry summer. Some seeds will need a spell of cold weather for vernalisation to occur, after which the seed will germinate. Presumably this ensures that the seed will lie dormant until conditions are favourable. It could be an extreme event like fire that breaks dormancy in some plants, and some seeds are protected by a mucilaginous coat which needs to be washed away by enough rain to remove the constraint on germination. It also ensures that the seed will germinate at the same time, in a seasonal way, which may be the default for our temperate climate.

Maize And New Pests

The maize crops, forage and game cover, have pollinated and set seed very well. The cobs are full of seed but recently I have found some cobs with a caterpillar lodged inside, so I sent a photo off to a friend who specialises in maize husbandry.
He replied quickly to confirm that I was looking at a prime example of the European Corn Borer (
see right). This pest will overwinter in the stalk and pupate in spring, the adult emerges and lays eggs on next year’s crop. As the name implies it is a borer and eats into all parts of the crop, and can have two generations in a season. Control is not easy, no insectides seem to be effective because of the problem getting the spray to its target, the best control is actually achieved by growing a genetically modified maize variety known as a “Bt” maize. This is not an option we can look at here, so we need to rely on cultural methods, such as smashing up the stem when the crop is destroyed in the autumn after harvest so the caterpillars are left exposed for birds to find them. The UK is on the edge of the Stem Borer range, warm weather may give it a leg up, as will increasing acreage of maize.

Colour Coded Sheep

If you notice that the sheep are sporting coloured marks on their back ends, it will be the mark left by the ram when they mated, usually called a raddle mark. When the rams are put into the ewes, around the beginning of November, they are wearing a harness with a colour block or have a coloured wax smeared on their chest, which leaves a tell-tale mark on the ewe after mating. Every 17 days or so the colour is changed so the shepherd can have a good idea that the ram has been effective and when to expect the lambs, given the gestation of sheep is about 150 days.

Live As Though You Are Going To Die Tomorrow, But Farm As Though You Are Going To Live Forever

November has seen the 100th anniversary of the end of the 1914-1918 war, and I was thinking while walking crops in the sunshine of the lines from ‘The Soldier’ by Rupert Brooke;

‘That there’s some corner of a foreign field, That is forever England.’

That corner was there 100 years ago, and whatever happens in the next 100 years, it will still be there for the 200th anniversary celebration but we will have to leave that to future generations, like the first 100 were left to us.

Merry Christmas and Happy New Year to all.

Seumas Foster


Published in the November 2018 edition

Indian Summer

The work rate in the fields during the last two months has been turned ‘up to 11’, the early autumn weather has presented the opportunity to get the sowing of winter crops completed. This year sowing has been finished well ahead of the average date.

There may be very good reasons to hold back, for example to reduce weed or pest problems, but only if the urge to get on with sowing while the window is open can be resisted. However ‘once bitten, twice shy’ is the priority when, if in previous years, a gamble on delaying sowing has not paid off. It’s all about experience, skill and judgement.

Dry Soils

The soils are in excellent condition, the past week or two has found me soil sampling and this year it is great to see such good soil tilth. The dry summer has caused the subsoils to crack as they have dried out, which has helped restructured the soils. The rainfall for the summer has been low. August was 52mm, about half the average, and September only 42mm, of which more than half fell on one day, and again below the average. October so far has been dry (although today, the 14th, is wet, which is why I am at the keyboard!) While out sampling I have found the soil in grass fields has been dust dry below about 4 inches, so it will take quite a lot of rainfall to bring the soils back to field capacity (Google ‘Soil Moisture Deficit’ for details).

The temperatures have been unusually high, shirt sleeve conditions so far, as warm air sweeps up from Africa. We have been lucky to be in central southern England, not too far to the west and north the winds, cloud and rain from the autumn storms have been causing serious problems.

Crop Report – ‘Well Sown Is Half Grown’

The oil seed rape crops have continued to grow and get established, the main autumn disease threat now is a fungus called Phoma which causes necrotic patches on the leaves which develops into cankers on the stems if it isn’t controlled. It spreads by rain splash so this year has not become a problem yet.

The winter barley and wheat has germinated well, grown 2 leaves and plenty of root already, and not bothered by slugs yet. Grass and clover sown in August and early September as part of our environment improvement plans have grown really well and already the clover has nitrogen fixing nodules on the roots.

Burst Of Entymological Activity

As ivy (see right) comes into flower late, maybe the last flowers of the year, insects have enjoyed the banquet on the hedges.

All manner of insects have come for the pollen.

Harlequin ladybirds swarmed and invaded, wasps made headlines, I feel that hornet numbers are up too.

The Ploughing Match

Date for your diary;

The Hampshire County Ploughing Match

Sunday, 18th November

Magdelen Hill
Alresford Road
SO21 1HF

Seumas Foster


Published in the October 2018 edition


Sometimes the conclusion that can be drawn from phenological studies is that the seasons are shifting. However the change from August to September seems to me to be always to the day, in terms of the feel of the air and temperature, a softening of the air and a stretching of the gap between max and min.

This year the rain refused to play ball, stayed away except for a few scuds to tease. Drought was the topic of conversation.

The Oil seed rape went in during August and emerged to battalions of starving Cabbage Stem Flea Beetle which caused a lot of damage. Pleased to report that most crops have survived and recovered and are taking advantage of the small amount of rain and warm soils to get established.

Grass has also recovered, growing slow but steady in the autumn warmth.

The winter cereals, wheat and barley, sowing has started and should continue until November all being well. The need to use some cultural control to help with difficult weeds will mean some fields will be left until quite late by usual standards, but every year plots give clear guidance that delay really reduces the grass weed problem.  

During August the cover crops were sown, mixtures of legumes and grasses or cereals like black oats, sometimes with Phacelia, to catch residual nutrients, bind the soil and encourage the natural flora and fauna.

Credit Where It Is Due

There has been some coverage of the future of agriculture as proposed by Mr Gove and he has been able to secure mostly favourable comment.

However, the presentation of support and environmental measures implies that there is absolutely nothing being done at present. This denies the years of hedge planting, cover crops, overwintered stubbles, reduced fertiliser use changes in hedge cutting, field margins management changes, Nitrate Vulnerable Zones, water protection, minimum tillage and non-inversion, etc., that is already done under all the schemes farms and landowners have worked with for 15 years or more, such as ELS, HLS, Country Stewardship, to name a few, not forgetting work done without any subsidies or compulsion but simply to maintain the countryside.

Mr Gove should acknowledge that he is proposing to build on existing land management and not starting from scratch, and give credit to farms that have adapted and changed to meet public opinion and given him the platform he needs to work from.


Some predict an early winter, some predict a hard winter, some predict both. All I can say at this stage is ….


Seumas Foster


Published in the September 2018 edition (there was no August 2018 edition)

It Turned Out To Be An Early Harvest After All

As usual the weather had the last word, a long hot dry spell of hot weather ripened the crops quickly so harvest started in mid July and finished in mid August, a gain of 2-3 weeks on previous ‘normal’ years.


I am pleased to report that the yields held up well, maybe not record breakers but still reasonable given the conditions. The quality of the grain was also good, the barley mostly made malting and wheat with bread potential mostly met the required standards. The crops were dry when they came into store so a lot less energy has been needed to dry them, indeed some of the oilseed rape was nearly too dry at 5-6% moisture content, which really is very low.

Another Season Starts

Mid August sees the start of the sowing on the Oil Seed crop for harvest next year, usually following a winter barley crop which gives the best early opportunity to sow at this time. Quick establishment is important to get the crop growing strongly and get to be big enough by the end of October to go through next winter.

Also being sown now are cover crops, sown straight after harvest to protect the soil, conserve nutrients and encourage soil ‘micro biota’. Some new Countryside Stewardship agreements will get underway now.

Because of the  weather there has been a severe shortage of forage across the UK, so a lot of straw is being baled locally and either stored for sale later or shipped out now to livestock areas of the UK. In some places farms have already needed to start feeding this years forage to keep livestock going, and will continue to do so until the grass starts to grows again.


The rainfall here for the last two months reads like this: June was 7mm and July was 39mm (half of this fell one day at the end of the month). Last year, the respective totals were 43.5mm and 190mm. The rain has been patchy with some areas getting heavy downpours and then the next parish staying dry, with the opposite the next day.


The plume of tropical heat stretching right through Europe into Scandinavia, flicked at us by the twists of the jet stream, has been great, not only for us, but also good for the insect life of the parishes. Horses flies were biting well, and butterflies and beetles quickly settled into active lives. Slugs and worms dug deeper to get out of the heat and stayed down in moisture, although there was enough activity at night time to leave signs on the vegetation. Don’t forget how cold and wet it was in March and April.

Apples seem to be good, plums, damsons and sloes not so good, but blackberries (see picture right) in the hedges are fantastic! There seems to be a wonderful crop of berries which will supply the birds and mice with plenty of good grub. My dogs really like them too!

Seumas Foster


Published in the July 2018 edition

Summer is Here!

Long warm days, buzzing insects, waving barley, smell of hay, orange squash, cyclists everywhere, muck stacked in fields, harvest anticipation ...

The crops are looking quite good, however estimating the harvest outcome can never be a precise pastime. The winter crops look well and should do well, although there are areas where the soils were waterlogged at some stage during the previous 11 months and growth has suffered. The spring crops were sown later than ideal, and were then hit by cold weather so establishment was clipped back and the crops have been playing catch-up since. Although the crops seemed to  make a rapid recovery, and now look very respectable from a distance, once we are in the field there seems to be a lot of ground showing between the crop rows, in other words they haven’t made enough leaf and tillers. At one stage all crops were about 7-10 days behind average but they have caught up, however that rapid development has probably been at the expense of yield potential.

The grains can compensate if conditions are good from now to harvest, but only the combine will reveal the actual result. Fingers crossed for full stores and good quality.

Countryside Colour

So many have enjoyed the poppies in the oil seed rape fields, sometimes herbicides are not as effective as hoped for.

Some Cranesbill is also easily found in the fields.

Enjoy the spectacle while you can, we can’t promise the same show next year!

Seumas Foster


Published in the June 2018 edition

Deadlines and Big Changes

The deadline refers to the 15th of May which is the last day to submit the BPS (Basic payment Scheme) paperwork, and also the application to confirm next year’s Countryside Stewardship options. All this involves a lot of paperwork, even if the forms are completed and finally submitted ‘on line’. The whole country has been remapped digitally by satellite in the last few months as a requirement of the EU and if you guessed that there might be a lot of mistakes which need to be corrected then you will have guessed right. Each and every change, no matter how small, has to be dealt with an RLE1 form individually. Some farms have had pages of mapping errors to cope with.

Meanwhile, on the real ground, the weather has finally improved and field work has been priority. Most crops have grown on well and May really is the best month for farming. The green explosion of field and countryside is always an amazing event when everything changes to soft fresh greens, the warm weather  brings out the insects and swallows arrive looking for good nesting sites.

June is the time when the ears of the cereal crops push through and grains start to fill. Harvest can’t be far behind!

The Chalvington Herd Dispersal, or ‘Between a Rock and a Hard Place

On May 8th, 200 cows of the pedigree Chalvington herd of Holstein Friesian black and white milking cows owned by Chris and Caroline Allen and milked at the dairy at Farleigh Wallop was dispersed at a sale at Sedgemoor in Somerset.

The herd was started by Caroline’s father, Bob Fordham, in Chalvington in East Sussex and was brought to Farleigh in 1965, and it is very sad to see the herd split up after many years of a dairy herd at Farleigh, but pressures have built up which could not be resisted any longer.
Substantial improvements were needed to the buildings to meet mounting pressure from the Environment Agency for measures to handle muck, and also improvements were needed to the milking parlour.

Another pressure on the herd is the increasing incidence of TB reactors in the area. The Chalvington Herd was never affected by TB but the risk has got worse. Once a herd has a reactor then cattle cannot be moved on or off the farm except to slaughter, all the new calves must be kept and fed and looked after, and then all the animals on the farm will need to be retested regularly until there are two clear tests.
This is a very stressful for animals and staff alike as well as almost shutting down the herd. This problem has been happening all over the country, especially in the west country and west where livestock numbers are high and rural economies rely on the cattle. Badgers may or may not be implicated but there is a lot of coincidental evidence, badgers have certainly increased numbers and territory since they received protection and are known to be able to transmit TB between themselves and cattle.

The sale seemed to happen very quickly but as the herd is TB free there are only 60 days after a clear test when a sale can take place, so it did seem to all take place in a short time scale but it needed to be done swiftly. The loss of the cattle has been a very traumatic time for the farm and staff, and the full implications are yet to be realised.

A farm with a livestock enterprise is better for it, grass and manure make for better balance in the countryside to support a much richer diversity of plants, animals and insects and, of course, people.

There are still 30 milking cows and some young stock on the farm but they will be going to new homes in the next month or so. The grass will be made into silage and hay for sale this year.

Seumas Foster


Published in the May 2018 edition

Long Days – Early Starts and Late Nights

The weather forecasters seem to have moved on from simply forecasting the weather, now they are much more concerned about building our expectations with anticipation of an improving lifestyle, linked to the good, that should be ‘fantastic’ weather which is just about to envelop us with  summery joy. Well maybe it will, maybe it won’t, meanwhile in the fields here is the promise of long working days until the backlog of jobs gets caught up. Not a mention though of the high winds that play havoc with fertiliser and spraying plans, but they do dry the soil, so we can take that as the silver lining.


For anyone interested, my rain gauge has provided the following information (millimetres).

           January   February    March     April
2016:       146           88          70         52
2017:        94            70          57          8
2018:        92            34        107 *      63 (the first 17 days)

* This March there were two lots of heavy snow!

Full Steam Ahead

The crops are growing away now. May is the time when the first ears will appear, firstly on the winter barley crops, and maybe at the end of the month some wheat ears will show. In June spring barley and oats will produce ears. Oil Seed rape crops are flowering much later than most years, reflecting the cool weather this spring. When the flowers do emerge the temperatures should be a bit more consistently higher which will help pollinating insects.

The rate of development will be faster than some years as the crop plants make up for lost time.

I am pleased to say that the crops sown last autumn look very well at the moment, they have benefited from the good growing weather in the autumn. Soil temperatures have risen reasonably well this Spring so maize can be sown soon including forage maize for silage and for game cover, subject to all the other jobs with a higher priority having been completed.

Pigeons Eggs

Mid April and already pigeon egg shells after the chick has hatched can easily be found,  jettisoned from the nest by nest proud parents. May will see most birds hatching eggs and rearing young, even starting a second clutch if all has gone well.

Wood Anemones

There has been a fantastic show of Wood Anemones along the verges and woodland edges this year.


It looks as if the damp conditions could bring a cloud of midges. Already I have seen midges emerging on grasses by hedges and wood side edges, when the temperature has risen into the mid teens. Plenty of food for birds and bats in prospect.

Good Friday Weather

Last month I passed on the old prediction that the Weather on Good Friday ‘foreshows a fruitful year’. My gauge measured 21mm, so this year looks good in terms of fruitfulness if it’s water that does the trick!!

Spring Lambs

Seumas Foster


Published in the April 2018 edition

Spring Will Be Here Soon – Promise!

It’s April and Easter is early, right at the beginning of the month, so I thought that while the snow is on the ground (I’m writing this in the middle of March) I would see when Easter Sunday will fall in the next few years. It turns out that this year is early but not as early as it can be. The way Easter is calculated looks to be a complicated process involving full moons and day counting, so I called up a list via good old Google and found that the next Easter Sunday on the 1st April will be in 2029. The earliest Easter Sunday I found was 2035 when Easter Sunday is 1st March. The next earliest will be 28th March in both 2027 and 2032 and then 31st March in 2024. Bunnies and chocolate should be aware.

Meanwhile, Back In The Fields ...

March has been rather inactive in terms of field work, the weather has not been helpful. The March Snow Lion roared, and then roared again. In between the snow the clouds damped us down after some brief teasing from warmer days and drying winds. By the end of the 3rd week we would expect to have finished the first ‘wake up’ dose of nitrogen fertiliser and the spring crops would be sown and germinating, if not already emerged.  Some spreading has been done and some soil cultivation, but we are now getting a bit behind schedule. Farms are equipped and organised now to be able to complete huge amounts of work in a short period of time if necessary, taking advantage of a ‘window’ is part of the skill that is husbandry, so when you read this dust may be flying, seedbags may be empty and crops and grassland could be greening the fields.

The delay also means that the livestock may not be able to get out as soon as planned, stocks of forage will be running low so turn out may be delayed. The condition of the soil will dictate when it will be possible to allow hooves to tread out on the fields. Damaging the soils is not in the plan.

Ducks and Coots and Tadpoles and Audience Participation

I have seen more ducks as Spring (sic) gets underway, on the ponds in the parishes. Pairs of Mallard are often seen taking flight when disturbed by walkers and/or dogs. Some ponds seem to get a whole flock in and around at the moment. Moorhens (red facial shield) and coots (white facial shield) are also back, they may  have been  just lying low overwinter, but now they are getting busy.

Fieldfares have been vocal, and more people have told me they have seen thrushes about. In the evening as the sun is almost setting the blackbird calls are getting more persistent. Where there are street lights in Basingstoke I don’t think they ever go quiet.

Frogs spawned in my pond on 10th and 11th of March, which is much later than some other reports I have heard in the area, maybe we are later because of our height above sea level and that bit colder. Someone even told me they had tadpoles by early March,  but they are from the warm south near Sutton Scotney!

Wise Old Weather Lore: “Rain on Good Friday foreshows a fruitful year’”  Q. Well, did it rain?

Seumas Foster


Published in the March 2018 edition

March - Lamb or Lion?

Whatever turns out to be the case, March will be greener and brighter as winter recedes, drier and warmer but not without reminders that we live in a country which experiences a wide range of weather! Not for us the relentless sunshine of a California.

March is the best time to start sowing spring crops Some crops like maize need to wait until soil temperatures have reached at least 8 ‘C consistently, but the main spring crop barley can start as soon as the soils are suitable. Sometimes a bit of patience is helpful, a short spell of good weather followed by weeks of cold wet weather is not good, go too early and the seed will struggle and losses will be high. Some recent studies had looked at sowing dates and concluded mid March sowing was the most consistently successful.

Although the seed drill is poised on the headland waiting for the green light, fertiliser spreaders will be  busy at every opportunity. The winter sown crops of wheat, barley and oil seed rape will need feeding for spring growth, and grass will also need fertiliser. There could even be a few days when sprayers venture out to tidy up the winter crops but the spring rush starts at the middle to end of March when crops need early help to evade any pest and diseases that might be threatening.  

Going Greener with a ‘Do Not Disturb’  sign

There will be a bit more land preparation to do for new Countryside Stewardship Schemes, for example field corners and edges to plant up with Pollen and Nectar mixes, grass margins or maybe wild bird winter food cover. There are quite a few planned in our area as agreements are made between farmers and Natural England as part of the environmental protection  we hear so much about.

The agreements are very clear about creating and looking after these areas, the management rules are very strict, in particular the grass margins set out between hedges and crop are not to be driven or walked on as this destroys the cover created and disturbs wildlife. It is tempting to use them as another path, but should be resisted by everyone, please. The best way to appreciate these areas is to stand and watch for a while on a sunny day.

Red Kites – are they the new Seagulls?

Not many years ago seagulls would always appear as soon as any soil was moved, and can still sometimes been seen following the plough. These days you are much more likely to see Red Kites wheeling and swooping after a machine. As opportunists they have quickly learnt that the disturbance is going to get a few voles to bolt which is the chance the kites want. Buzzards love worms so will also grab a meal if they can.

The Bluebell Prospect

Looks good this year, plenty of shoots coming up now in the woods, so another fantastic scene is anticipated as the woodland floor is carpeted with bluebell blue. A treat in store!

Seumas Foster


Published in the February 2018 edition (there was no January edition)

Happy New Year

At first glance during the shortest days of the winter season there is not much happening in the fields, and indeed that turns out for most activities to be the case. While shooting is in season, muck needs to be carted and spread and cultivations completed, growth and any crop related work is firmly on hold. That flurry of spring work can’t start until the weather improves and soil temperatures rise, frosts get less frequent, and growth once again seems a possibility. There is a fine balance to ensure that seeds are in the ground in good conditions and will quickly get established rather than to sit in cold wet soils and rot.

Food and Farming Quality- The Red Tractor Symbol

This scheme will probably be familiar to you, it has been re-launched in 2017 so time is right to give it a bit of publicity.

“Field to Fork”, “Paddock to Plate” and several other Quality Assurance schemes are in place to keep food and farming operating at the highest quality so, as consumers, we can be sure our food comes from quality ingredients grown to highest standards, prepared properly and, above all, safe to eat.

The Red Tractor is a broad scheme operated independently since 2000, set up to cover animal welfare, food safety, traceability, and environmental protection. Checks are made by independent experts to make sure standards are maintained. There are currently 59,079 members covering £12 billion worth of food each year.

The Union Jack flag in the Red Tractor logo confirms your food has been born, grown, prepared and packed in the UK. That logo is on all the food that has reached the quality required. The web site www.redtractor.org.uk has plenty more information.

There are several other quality assurance schemes, for example “RSPCA Assured” covering animal welfare, “LEAF” for environmental protection, “The Soil Association” for organic production and Quality Standards for English Beef and Lamb. All these schemes are protecting our food safety and production.

An Historic Day In The Fields

January 16 was a bright sunny clear morning and, at about 9.25am, the last flight of 4 Mark 7 Lynx helicopters passed over our fields in transit from RAF Odiham to Middle Wallop, at the start of a final tour around bases that the Lynx has been associated during its 40 years of service. This helicopter has been a regular sight in this part of the country as the armed forces went through their training over the years. The Lynx is still the fastest helicopter at 324kph and will be replaced by the Wildcat. I was on Garlic Lane between Farleigh Wallop and Hatch Warren when I saw them fly overhead. I  look forward to seeing the Wildcat, as well as the twin rotor Chinooks, above our heads next year.

January Flowers

Catkins and snowdrops are looking very good, Hellebores in the garden and even some Coltsfoot have been spotted so far.

Seumas Foster


Published in the December 2017 edition

Will it Snow This Year?

I do hope so. it’s time we had a good spell of snow to cover the ground and despite the disruption it might cause the change of routine will do us good! While some will curse the consequences, I will be pleased to have the protection of a white blanket for the fields, knowing the thaw will come and when it does the slow release of moisture is the best way to replenish the soil water table ready for growth in the spring. Heavy rain is often too much too quick and that is when there could be a problem of run-off, flooding and erosion. Some sharp frosts are always welcome, frosty mornings are times when you can get the best of both worlds, maybe stay snug inside or be outside in clear air, wrapped up warm and walking on hard mud!

The Crops

Sowing has finished until the spring when spring barley will go in and there may be a bit of tidying up if there are patches, maybe whole fields, that need to be re sown because of some pest or disease disaster, fortunately this is very unlikely. The autumn establishment has generally been good.

Office Time – European Claims and The Basic Payment Scheme(BPS)

January the 1st is the start of the 2018 BPS year, so by that date claimants will have to have got all the requirements and conditions in place although the forms don’t need to be sent off until April. The rules have been modified again this year so plans are being adapted to cope.

Will ‘Brexit’ simplify the situation? It seems unlikely, it is too good an opportunity to further complicate the process!

Glyphosate and Neonicotinoids: ‘Dose makes the Poison’

This subject is very topical at the moment. There are many natural substances that are more toxic than Glyphosate, for example Baking Soda, Caffeine, Table salt, and vitamin D which is as toxic as cyanide! There has been a series of votes in the EU to get Glyphosate banned and the latest was close as 14 countries voted to keep it, 9 said no, and incredibly 5 abstained. It seems the science is being ignored in favour of politics. Neonics insecticides are another case of chemicals being demonised without taking the science or unintended consequences into account.

Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year to you and yours as we all look forward to 2018.

Seumas Foster


Published in the November 2017 edition

Short Days

By the time you see this the clocks will have been wound back an hour and as the autumnal equinox has passed there will be more darkness than daylight over the twenty four hour diurnal cycle. Daily temperatures are dropping as the Autumn gives way to Winter. The worst thing to me about the second half of autumn are the gales that come in November ripping leaves off, maybe still attached to branches if the winds are fierce.

Soil Ribbons

Autumn sowing so far this autumn has been a “catch it as you can” event because the seedbeds have been variable, and lack of sun has meant that soils have not dried out after the mist and rain. So often a field has cultivated up in reasonable condition but before the drill can get there a damp morning has left the surface too sticky for machinery. When it is going well there is a mesmeric calmness seeing a fresh brown soil strip unwinding like a ribbon behind the tractor and cultivator.

The earlier sown winter barley and wheat has got away very well, nice green fields with a good plant population. Later or delayed sowing is gaining favour as one of a number of a cultural methods of reducing the weed burden in some fields, as generally if you sow early then you always get blackgrass, which is a very common pernicious weed to deal with. The risk is that sowing weather also disappears with the day length, as does some of the yield potential.

Plant diseases

This autumn has been a favourable season for some plant diseases. The fungal disease ‘Phoma’ in Oil Seed Rape (see right) is appearing early, encouraged by the damp conditions. The leaf lesions appear first and the fungus then spreads through the plant and settles in the stem, leading eventually to a ‘canker’.

Next year this canker can destroy the stem, at worst killing the plant and at least reducing yield potential. Earlier measures this autumn seem to be in order to keep this disease under control.

Deer and Pheasants

I have recently seen a Muntjac deer crossing the road up by the dairy buildings, head down scuttling rapidly from one side to another into the shelter of the trees. It seems lots of other people have seen these deer, some regularly spotting them in or near the gardens and local fields. Some people have also commented on the strange barking noise they make.

The ubiquitous pheasant also seems to feature in every  garden in the villages, attracted usually by the leftovers from bird feeders where they mop up wheat and other seeds flicked out by the feeding tits and finches. The yellow beak of a blackbird is also a very effective implement to scatter seed far and wide. The pheasants (and partridge sometimes) seem to follow a pattern and slink into the garden at the same time each day. They creep carefully into the garden, across the ground using cover and watching for any activity, gauging risk vs food. The click of the back door stops them in their tracks for a look around, and a sudden appearance around the corner of the house has them up in the air and away. Other people tell me they have been able to get them hand feeding tame.

Seumas Foster


Published in the October 2017 edition

Autumn Tentacles

Harvest finished at the end of August, a few dry days were just enough to get the last fields cut, and the straw baled if it had not been chopped by the combine. The straw has a high locked up fertiliser content and is usually better to be returned to the soil, unless the livestock need it more. Either way, the straw will make its way back to the field, either straight away or as manure after the livestock have used it. Whatever happens, the soil gets back some organic matter.

The Ploughing Match, College Farm Ellisfield 7th October

This year the Basingstoke and District Agricultural Society Ploughing Match will be held at College Farm, Ellisfield. If you have some offspring to entertain and/or you all need some fresh air, then visitors are welcome. Ploughing takes place in the morning, and there will be a wide range of equipment and skills on show. Worth a visit!

Autumn Sowing

Planting the autumn cereals started in the middle of September. Oil seed rape went in at the end of August and is establishing quickly with the residual warmth of summer and the nutrients still available in the soil. October is a very important time, maybe a critical time would be more appropriate, as it is now that the roots, which are the basis of future cropping success, get the start which will determine how much success is achieved.

I have a rule of thumb that up to Christmas is the time when yield is made, after Christmas yield is lost to pests, nutrient shortages, weather etc.

‘Well sown is Half grown’.

Blackberries By the Basket Full

It has been a fantastic year for blackberries this year, at least around here. Quantity and quality have been excellent and despite the rain they have been lasting very well.

The horse chestnut trees seem to also have had a vintage conker year, the first shiny conkers (see right) have fallen. I expect the best of them are yet to come.

The Jubilee Oak tree has a good crop of acorns this year too. I have seen (and heard) jays looking for acorns to stash for the winter around all the woodland edges.

Seumas Foster


Published in the September 2017 edition

If it was that easy we would all be doing it

As harvest began the sun shone and the first crops cut were quite encouraging, both in terms of yield and quality. But then the weather began to behave rather badly, I recorded just under 8 inches rainfall in July, and that after an extremely hot start to the month. Over half of that rain fell as very heavy bursts. The great thing about rain at this time of the year is that the soil quickly absorbs it and the warm air dries the foliage quickly. It is not until the autumn when the dampness can start to accumulate.

The showers continued into August and have delayed harvest, to the extent of some of the crops, wheat and spring barley in particular, have lost quality and yield. Some of the spring barley has brackled, that is the stems weaken and the ears hang down, drooping lower as they are battered down with each shower or gust of wind, until they either touch the ground or are so low that the combine can’t pick them up, so the heads are lost. The wheat runs the risk of starting to germinate in the standing crop, and if this happens milling wheats in particular are no longer useable for that purpose, and feed wheats are shrivelled and low quality. Malting barley has to germinate to be used for malt production, so the consequences of a delayed harvest is obvious.

Onwards and upwards

The first crop for next year is poised to be planted in August, the new Oilseed rape seed is ready in the barn, and the rain will give the crop a good start in the warm soil, which will be useful to fend off  potential damage  from pests, in particular slugs and Cabbage Stem Flea Beetle (CSFB), now that ‘neo-nic ‘seed dressings are no longer used. Quick, vigorous establishment is the best technique for good  protection now, but not a guarantee of success. I have noticed that there is already a large population of adult CSFB hopping around this summer.

A new crop year is the opportunity to try a new variety or two to use the improvements the breeders have brought to the crop, unfortunately resistance to CSFB is not one they have been able to achieve, not yet anyway!

Also time to get a bit of lime spread on the soils when they get a bit acidic, the chalk soils are fine but some of the darker soils with a good clay content do need regular checking.


There has been a good flush of fungi with the warm soil and rain, it is fascinating to think that all year round  the mycelium is growing in the soil, feeding and waiting for the moment of perfect conditions to suddenly throw up the fruiting bodies.       

Spotted Woodpecker and the Hazel nuts

I have a cob nut in my garden that has a very good crop this year, however I also have a spotted woodpecker that has worked out that it likes nuts too. It has already dug out leaf cutter bee nests which had been made in the trunk of an old plum tree to get at the grubs, and has now started to wedge cob nuts into the gaps to hold them tight so it can open them to get at the nut inside. I have watched it flying into the cob nut tree and then back to the plum, I hope there will be a few nuts left for me this autumn.

Seumas Foster


Published in the July/August 2017 edition

Post Flowering Grain Filling period and the ‘Machine Fest’ that is Harvest

Click to display larger image ...July is the final throw of the dice before harvest. It might be that some crops will be cut during July, winter barley will be first to mature, next will be the winter sown oil seed rape. The crops appear to be ripening quickly and, depending on the weather, might be ready earlier than the average. However there will create a gap in the harvest schedule which will test patience. If the weather is good for harvest then extreme strength of will is needed to avoid rushing in before the crop is ready.

At the moment I guess the winter crops should perform well, the ear count is a bit low after being thinned out by the prolonged dry spell in April and May but the compensation will come from grain size if this favourable weather continues. The memory of 2012 harvest when we had a very dull overcast summer, causing poor grain fill, is still fresh.

Oil seed rape, or Canola (Colza in French) as the rest of the world calls the crop, is filling very well. The pods are a good length and bulging like arthritic knuckles as the seeds inside expand. The sharp frost at the end of April, -5’c, did kill a few flowers on the raceme in frost pockets, but again the crop will compensate.

Note that last month I was waiting to see if the Orange Wheat Blossom Midge would be a problem, and I am pleased to report it wasn’t. Although conditions of moisture and temperature were heading to favourable, the little beast didn’t appear in sufficient numbers to reach threshold.

We didn’t spray.

Danish Proverb – ‘The Harvest depends more on the year than the field.’

EDITOR: The image above (taken by Seumas) is of “Black Bean Aphid on Spring Beans”. Click on the image to see a (disgusting!) larger version.

Bat Rescue and Toad in a Hole

I was walking past a water trough at dusk and out of the corner of my eye noticed some small ripples on the surface of the water, but there was no wind and no other reason why the water might be disturbed. I quickly found a bat struggling in the water and lifted it out, mopped it with a paper tissue. It was a Pipistrelle, the most common species and after I put it on the trunk of a tree it climbed up and around and soon flew off.

An open manhole (bad), is always a hazard for wildlife and a death sentence if there is no escape route. Earlier while wandering about I found a toad in this situation. I came back with a pond net and fished it out, it then crawled off into long grass and I fixed some small mesh wire over the manhole so this didn’t happen again.

Shows and Trial Plots

This is the time when the opportunity to visit trail plots and shows to catch up on new varieties, machinery and techniques is here. It is a great opportunity to meet colleagues, catch up and exchange information, and maybe get a free pen!

Seumas Foster


Published in the June 2017 edition

The Day The Drought Broke

Wet weather has been an infrequent visitor for at least 6 weeks, lawn growth slowed right down, and some of the spring sown seeds didn’t have enough moisture to germinate, hence the patchy appearance of parts of a few fields, which I know some of you have spotted. Maize is probably the latest crop to be sown in the spring and is the main beneficiary of the rain now some has arrived.

One problem has been the supply of nutrients for the crops. Growth needs fuel and although nutrients are in the soil, unless they are available to the crop in a form suitable to be taken up in solution, the plant will struggle to cope with a shortage in a dry time.

Early fertilizer spreading applications has helped the crops get away while the nutrients was still readily available.

After rain the best sight is the washed fresh green of young beech leaves and the heads of cow parsley nodding on the roadsides.

Cereal Crops

In June the ears of cereal crops push out from the stems and then flowering takes place. There are no petals or bright colours as there is no need to attract insects to pollinate the crop, which is done by the pollen wafting around in air currents in the crop. The pollen is released from anthers in the wheat ears so it doesn’t have to travel far.

Orange Wheat Blossom Midge

This year we might get a flush of a pest called Orange Wheat Blossom Midge (see right), which needs warm weather and a good rain fall to trigger the pupae to hatch at around the time the ears emerge. We might have these conditions this year.

The midge is a tiny little fly, the abdomen is carrot colour and it has petrol blue wings. It swarms in the evening usually around 7.30-8.00pm but only if the air is warm and there is very little wind. You would be surprised how often the conditions are right for this pest! It will swarm up from the bottom of the crop and lay eggs into the space where the grain will develop later, so this activity has to take place before the crop flowers. The hatched maggot feeds on the developing grain causing shrivelled grains, effectively ruining the grain quality and yield, and the maggot is pretty much invulnerable in the middle of the ears so we need to get early warning of the egg laying adults on the move. If a crop is infested the pupae fall to the ground at harvest and will lie dormant until the next year.

This can be done by using a pheromone trap in the crop at risk, and catching the attracted adults (males) on a very sticky card, and counting over a period of time. The saving feature of this pest is that once the crop flowers it is no longer attractive to it, so the crop is safe from more egg laying.

There is also a variant called a Lemon Blossom Midge but it is not quite so common. The effect on the crop is the same.

Seumas Foster


Published in the May 2017 edition

Strength in the sun

A bulletin from the ‘Fields’ every month is not really frequent enough at this time of the year, spring moves so rapidly that this really is the ‘blink and you miss it’ time of year.

The sun is strong enough to quickly warm the soil and air by radiation, conduction and convection, important as plant growth is driven by temperature. Dry soil warms quicker, we have not had much rain at all this April.

Looking back at previous years, the all important leaf 3 in the cereal crops (third down from the ear) has emerged a few days earlier, so crop growth is further ahead. A ‘head start’ leads to speculation about when  harvest will ready, will it be early or not?

In typical farmer mode then, the more likely interpretation is that there will be an unforeseen disaster just around the corner, long before we get to a ripe crop!!

Ears Emerging

May is the time when the ears of the cereal crops emerge and grains start to form, after pollination. The Oil Seed Rape crops will have finished flowering, which this year has been quite intense with lovely strong, even yellow racemes (see right). They contrast beautifully with the bluebells.


Grass is in overdrive, so the time for silage and haylage making to conserve the excess for next winter feeding won’t be far away. Haylage for those who haven’t heard of it before is a halfway stage between silage and hay, a bit drier than silage, which gets about a day or so wilting before being picked up and put in the silage clamps, and hay which is dry enough to be baled and stored with no further protection. Haylage will have a lower moisture content than silage but needs to be wrapped in airtight cling film wrap so no further deterioration and nutrient loss takes place. Silage is made from the young grass when at a peak of digestibility and energy, haylage from grass that has got a bit older and stalky but still plenty of value, and hay when the dry matter content is probably at a peak, tougher stems maybe but valuable as part of a farm diet.


I saw and heard my first cuckoo on April 16. It was being mobbed by a small bird. I couldn’t see exactly what species of small bird, but it was very keen to move the cuckoo away. The first swallows flew around me on April 9, a good week earlier than my first sighting last year.

Fledglings will be out and about in May, blackbirds often first although I think robins have been brooding for sometime. The frantic activity to find enough food to satisfy the appetites of the next avian generation is without mercy for predator and prey. Wrens have had a good winter and are very active this spring.

Seumas Foster


Published in the April 2017 edition (first “In the Fields” article of 2017)

Full Blown Spring

Daffodils, frogs spawn, lambs, memories of the 6 Nations tussle. All these mean that the season of spring is here again, confirmed by the greening of the fields in the countryside. On any day in a year it must be spring somewhere in the world, just now it is our turn for renewal after the winter.

This winter seems to have been the wettest dry winter for a long time. Rainfall totals have been well below average, there is no water in the winterbourne streams (yet), and yet the soil surface is slippery, squelchy and muddy most of the time. March has not (as yet) provided the drying east winds needed to take the moisture out.

Cuckoo Barley

Spring sowing (see picture right of Barley - and weed - seedlings) has been delayed a bit this year, not enough to cause concern, but maybe a few weeks of potential growing time have slipped away. If sowing is delayed into late April or even May, the traditional terminology is to call the crop ‘Cuckoo barley’, the crop should have been sown by the time a cuckoo is calling. The old varieties could not cope with such a short growing period and yields suffered badly. Nowadays, crops might be considered lucky to hear a cuckoo at all now as they become rare visitors.

The winter crops have overwintered very well, last autumn the crop establishment was good even into November. Some of the last planted crops, I’m thinking of winter beans, have done well and look good.

Oil seed rape (see picture left) has not suffered much attention from pigeons and has started extending the stems to carry the seed heads up. The first flowers may have opened before this edition is due, so a few yellow highlights may be already visible.

Down to Close Detail

The cereal crops have had fertilizer, mainly nitrogen and sulphur so far, to feed the early growth and build the side shoots (aka tillers) and the embryonic ears which, if you have a microscope, can be found in the youngest tissue of the plant. Not long to go and the ear will be easily found when the leaves are peeled away and the growth stage of the crop can be accurately determined. This technique is important to judge the safe and optimum time for the inputs to the crop, like fertilizer, sprays, and micronutrients.

Wild Birds - The Territorial Imperative

The hedgerows and gardens are holding a good population of wild birds, large flocks of chaffinch, gold finches, long tailed tits, wrens, robins, blue tits and great tits, and this before the migrants arrive. There is a squabble for territory to get a nest site established, niches are being snapped up so that during April incubation and early fledgling hatches are all on time. After an apparently kind winter like this it will be interesting to see how the wildlife copes with the frantic demands of spring and just who the winners and losers will be.

Seumas Foster


Published in the December 2016 edition

The Winter Solstice

The Autumnal  Equinox (September 22) when the day and night are the same length has passed, the sun moves into the southern hemisphere and days are getting shorter and nights are getting longer.

This celestial progress of the sun continues south until mid-winter (the Winter Solstice) when we experience the shortest day, due this year on December 21. That is the time when the Earth’s orbit around the sun, combined with the ‘wobble’ of the planet, has the effect for us that the sun moves back towards the Equator. Before long we will reach the Spring Equinox (March 20) when the sun will be over the Equator, day and night are the same length again, and the sun is moving towards the northern hemisphere, so summer is coming!!

It’s encouraging to know that the winter will come and then give way to spring, when ‘hope springs eternal’ for another year, and not just in the human breast.

The subtle changes of day length are a variation picked up by plants and animals alike, causing changes which will help with survival. Birds don’t breed in winter and plants don’t grow, and not until the signs of spring and better conditions are picked up that preparation starts for a new season.

A Mild Dry Autumn

At the time of writing (November 16), this autumn is still quite mild so there might be late activity among the birds and beasts, although some predictions of a hard winter have been made, presumably based on seaweed or berries or some other ‘reliable’ factors. October rainfall was only 37mm, so the soil is still in a soil moisture deficit state.

Ladybirds and Other Animals

Ladybirds (see right) have clustered in large numbers indoors, that’s where I have noticed them, but also in dry shelter outside. Ladybirds seem to have changed from the usual red with black spots to very variable markings.

The crops have emerged well this autumn,  slugs have not been a serious problem although this may change, and should be putting down good roots for the spring.

I have heard of more reports of weasels being seen around, they must have had a good season with plenty to eat.

Seasons Greetings

Time to wish you all a Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year.

Seumas Foster


Published in the November 2016 edition (Seumas skipped the October edition!)


We find ourselves inexorably rolling through summer into autumn, hoping for a long lived high pressure system to hold off the Atlantic lows with their rain burden for long enough to get the autumn sowing finished.

As it happens that seems to be pretty much how the weather pattern has behaved, here in central southern England we have had a good mix of wet and dry, while the eastern counties have been very dry, so dry that early sown oil seed rape crops have not germinated and 6 weeks later are being cultivated up so an alternative break crop can be sown.

Adjusting Plans

In order to combat grass weeds, the start of sowing has been delayed in some places, allowing a bit more time for shed weed seed to germinate so the seedlings can be killed off before the crop is sown. This has been especially helpful when winter barley is sown as there are fewer post-sowing options for grass weed control in this crop. It is however a competitive crop as it grows so can be rather more aggressive against weeds.

The story so far...

So far the crops have established well and should go into winter in good order. The lesson of last year turns on the mild weather we had last winter which gave some pests a longer active window to infest and infect crops. This year it will be prudent to check for pest activity if temperatures stay up again this year.


The value of last harvest has risen as the £pound has fallen, this does not represent a real increase in value though. The cost of inputs like fuel will also be rising as a reaction to the market, putting some pressure on the budgets for harvest 2017. The exchange rate for the payment to BPS claimants (most farmers) from the EU is fixed at the end of September and this year will be 1 euro = 85 pence. Last year it was  1 euro =73 pence. The payment is made from the EU in euros and is converted to £pounds when paid to recipients. This payment is intended to replace income foregone by farmers and growers in exchange for accepting cross compliance requirements and constraints, such as Greening and EFA (Ecological Focus Areas). The payment arrives any time from the beginning of December, some predictions do not expect the final payments to be made until April next year which can put a lot of pressure on cash flow.

Noisy (in a nice way) visitors

A few late bumble bees have joined the Long Tailed tits flying through the garden and hedgerows.
I have not had Long Tailed tits visiting my feeders regularly before but in the last few months there do seem to be more about flitting around and noisily calling to each other. I always hear them before I see them.

Seumas Foster


Published in the September 2016 edition (these was no August edition)


Harvest time rolls around again, the inevitable and varied conclusion to another cycle of cropping. The event has been long anticipated with continuous speculation about the result, estimates and plans being frequently changed during the run up to the first ripe crop. Machinery is maintained and prepared, knowing the next two months or so will be flat out to get the harvest completed, bales cleared and the next crops sown before  winter comes. Cropping plans are made and seed bought, but mainly the lessons of last year are factored into the actions for next year. Slugs and snails have gone from potentially a serious pest to ‘not quite sure’ now in dry soils, although there are plenty in gardens and fields to take advantage of autumn rain.

During June solar radiation was well down on the annual average, almost as bad as 2012, so there was some speculation about the effect this would have on the harvest. The first crops cut were winter barley and winter oil seed rape, which did not do as well as they have done in previous years. Yield and quality was down, seed was small and although the crops were acceptable they were not record breakers. A cold wet April followed by a dull June is  not  a sequence that is ideal.

The winter wheat and spring barley have done much better, probably not up to the record yields achieved last year, but the quality and yield have been better than might have been. Fortunately the weather has also been kind with good temperatures and dry days at the right time. Just right for school holidays too.

The Ploughing Match

The Basingstoke Agricultural Society Ploughing Match is due to be held in the field along Garlic Lane next to the AD plant at the beginning of October. Watch out for more information.

Worm Counting, aka ‘EARTHWORM WATCH’

Charles Darwin was very impressed by worms, to him civilisation was probably founded on the industry of worms, so the importance of these invertebrates should not be underestimated.

The Natural History Museum are surveying worm populations and are setting up ‘Earthworm Watch’ (see earthwormwatch.org) and want us to get involved in September. Check the web site, it all looks suitably messy but straight forward, and they will supply the simple materials you will need.

The Final Harvest

Land use changes with time, and there is a field on the edge of the parishes which is being developed, so the ultimate harvest is being taken. Not long ago spring barley was the last crop grown there, now it will be streets and houses, and the wheel takes another turn.

The aerial photo (see right), taken by Phil Lyons of Videomachine Ltd (www.videomachine.co.uk), shows how the field - which is at the traffic lights at Kempshott (on the left coming from Junction 5 of the M3) - looks now.

Seumas Foster


Published in the July 2016 edition

Alternative Energy at Farleigh Wallop

Over the past five years you may have noticed a number of photovoltaic (solar) panels appearing on agricultural buildings around the Estate. Our smallest array is 5.98Kw at Home Farm going up to 149.91Kw at Manor Farm, Farleigh Wallop. An array over 30Kw has to have an export meter that measures the amount of energy that we are putting back onto the National Grid. This is the case for the sites on the grainstores at Hill Farm, Ellisfield and  Manor Farm, Farleigh Wallop and at Grammersham Dairy. With smaller arrays it is assumed that you use 50% of your production yourself and you are paid for the other 50%. The average price that we receive for the energy sold to the power suppliers is around 1/3 of the price per Kwh that we have to pay to purchase our energy. It therefore makes sense for us to use as much of the energy as we can ourselves. This is certainly the case for the solar on the roof of Grammersham Dairy and on the grainstores for drying during the harvest. In addition to this, we receive a grant from the Government called the Feed In Tariff. The earlier installations receive a much higher grant than those installed recently and part of this fall in the FIT reflects that the cost of the installations have fallen over the year. In the past year we produced a total of 220,000kwh of electricity which is sufficient to run approximately 45 homes.

During the summer of 2014 we installed a district heating network around Farleigh House, Coach House offices, Estate Club, two large houses and four cottages and the farm office. At times it looked like a battle ground as the pipes were installed approximately 1 metre deep connecting all the properties by trenching through gardens, under buildings and crossing The Avenue. It is a credit to Donald Cleave, digger driver from Farleigh, that there is little evidence now of where those pipe runs were installed.
The system is heated by two 200Kw wood chip boilers (
see picture right) that heat hot water held in large pressurised hot water tanks. The hot water is pumped around the system into heat exchange units in each property. The existing oil fired boilers and tanks were removed.

Approximately every two months during the winter months and 4 months during the summer we bring in contract chippers who chip 90 metres of softwood timber into 230m3 of wood chip that fills the old Dutch barn at Home Farm.

The wood chip (see picture left) in turn feeds into the boilers via augers. This huge volume of wood chip burns so efficiently that all that is left in the ashcan of the burners each month is a small bucket of ash.

There are piles of wood stacked all around the Estate drying (see picture right). It takes approximately two years for the timber to dry sufficiently, the final stage of its journey is to come to Pigeon House Lane for chipping by which stage it is between 21% - 26% moisture content. The Estate has 1,100 acres of woodland and by Spring 2017 we should be completely self -sufficient with timber from the Estate. This is from natural thinings with some small areas of clear felling and replanting with appropriate species. This is all part of the 20 year plan for the woodland at Farleigh.

Finally, you will have seen the signs and probably heard about the Anaerobic Digester (see picture right) located in the field on the left as you drive down the newly named ‘Garlic Lane’ to Hatch Warren. The plant was built a few years ago on the site of an old dairy. This AD plant takes in up to 45,000t of food waste destined for landfill, captures the methane gas and converts it to electricity via a CHP (combined heat & power) unit. As part of the works a new electricity feed was buried from the site down to a transformer on the edge of Cliddesden. The by-product, called digestate, is a fertiliser and is spread on the arable land on the Estate.
We are not the operators of the plant so do not have in depth details of the facility but believe that at full capacity it produces enough electricity for 1,500 homes.

Greta Iddeson, Estate Manager


Published in the June 2016 edition

Flaming June?

The sixth month of the year should be summer, July and August might be hotter, nevertheless the foundation of harvest is laid down now with the emergence of the ears of grain, the pods of oil seed rape and beans fill with seeds and potato roots start to swell and become a tuber. Grass is the crop that just keeps on giving, eat it or cut it and it shoots again so there will be a second or third bite to be had.

By June the last of the fertiliser has been applied, some fields this year have been adjusted for rate by considering the yield potential as determined by a series of satellite photos taken through the year which can show the parts of the field with the best growth. If the crop is doing well and needs feeding then using GPS control on the spreader the rate can be changed while the tractor is driving across the field. We will not be wasting nitrogen on those corners and banks where the crop potential will never be good.

By adopting improved control systems on the sprayer there has already been a saving of pesticides, the latest contribution to the environment and carbon reduction, and costs!

Decision Time: June 23rd Referendum Day – and how it affects the fields near you

PAUL TURNER, EDITOR: It’s been pointed out to me that it is now impossible for another resident to offer an alternative viewpoint in Hill & Dale prior to the Referendum on June 23. Therefore, as editor of this website, I’ve decided to respond to a number of points in Seumas’s article.

It is very tempting to want to vote for ‘Brexit’ from the EU. However I can remember the agonising over the decision whether to stay in the EU in 1975, after the UK had joined, together with Denmark and Ireland, in 1973. There were 9 member countries then, there are 28 member countries now.

EDITOR: In 1975 we voted to remain in or leave the European Economic Community (or Common Market), not the European Union. Thus, the decision to be made was entirely economic and, with inflation running at over 20% per annum and with the UK being in industrial strife, I did not hesitate to vote Remain.

Looking beyond the natural human desire to want to be in control, there is a naivety in thinking that we shall be able to do what we want ‘Post Brexit’ and ditch all the onerous rules and regulations that surround us.

EDITOR: Actually, as an independent country, we WILL be able to "do what we want". But, that does not mean that we will blindly "ditch all the onerous rules and regulations that surround us". It just gives us the democratic CHOICE to decide, rule by rule and regulation by regulation.

But remember the pressures of maintaining standards of production, taking into account environmental, welfare, legal and market forces, and the Common Agricultural Policy will not disappear, nor should they. However, EU regulations that give us the strength in numbers will be replaced by competing guidelines, all different and ramped up as each welfare body, environmental lobby or market force across the world tries to demonstrate superiority over its rivals. What a confusing mess to look forward to and it won’t help feed the world.

Agricultural production is a world market and this will not change, so while niche markets will always be available we will be outside the major trader of Europe.

EDITOR: This infers that if we choose to leave the EU then we will lose the ability to trade with EU countries. That is not so. If it was, then surely all the EU countries would also lose the ability to trade with the United Kingdom?

If, after negotiations, we can no longer belong to the EU’s free trade area, then we will probably have Tariffs applied to our exports to the EU. However, WE can then apply the equivalent Tariffs on imports from the EU and, as they (by value) sell a lot more to us than we sell to them, that would hurt them far more than us. It really would make no sense!
However, remember that a Tariff is a tax and that the UK government will therefore see increased revenue as EU imports enter the domestic market.

Better surely to stay within the EU so the UK Government can be more positive in accepting or rejecting the Commission’s edicts from within and be more positive for the benefit of the UK.

EDITOR: Here’s the problem! We CANNOT unilaterally reject "the Commission’s edicts".

What is needed in my view is a strong voice within the EU and some common sense to work with the EU, take control and start to have the strength to support the UK.

EDITOR: It does not matter how strong our voice will be, we are just one nation out of 28 (with more to come). We certainly cannot “take control” of the EU.

Why press the reset button when it is not necessary?

EDITOR: Because it IS necessary and because it’s the best thing to do for the future of this country and for its citizens? If the vote is for Leave, not much will change for a year or so. However, in the meantime, we can work on improving our commercial relationships with all the countries outside of the EU.

Quote of the month

‘Rust and farming never sleep’

Seumas Foster


Published in the May 2016 edition

Only 100 days to harvest (yes, seriously, only 100 days!)

Just how quickly can time go by? Well, if you have a lot to do then time will fly by!

It comes as a bit of a jolt to realise just how soon the year’s work will be there for the final reckoning, and all the lessons learned can be put into place for the next crop.

From the beginning of May cereal crops are well into stem extension as the ears are moving upwards. This is the time of maximum fertiliser uptake when fresh leaves are emerging one about every ten days, and the last three leaves at the top of the plant before the ear appears will be the main powerhouses to fill the grains.

The spring sown spring barley crops probably grow even quicker than autumn sown crops. Temperature and moisture are important, cold days and frosts at night are a nasty shock to fresh lush shoots and in a damaging case can scorch the leaves and kill tissue. Gardeners will be well aware of the problems a late frost can cause. Very rarely a late frost, just as the ears of the cereal crops are about to emerge in late May, will cause severe distortion and death of the grain sites. A few years ago there was a very early maturing variety called Soissons, no longer grown much, that took a big hit from a hard frost when yields were reduced by at least a third. The early bird didn’t get the worm that time.

Learn from Previous Experience

April and May are the keys to the year.

Mist in May, Heat in June, makes the harvest come right soon.

When a cow tries to scratch its ear, It means a shower is very near, When it thumps its ribs with its tail, Look out for thunder, lightning, hail.


Swallows first appeared in the sky above home on April 13, a bit earlier than previous years, which seems to be the same as reported by the more serious phenologists who carefully study these things. During April, wild birds are laying and incubating eggs, so May is the time when feeding young fledglings is taking up the time of the parents. It is not unusual to find a shell out in the open, it will have been dropped by a parent as it clears the nest after the egg has hatched. If the top of the egg looks fairly cleanly removed it will have been broken by the egg tooth on the beak of the chick chipping around from the inside to make enough room to wriggle out.

Seumas Foster


Published in the April 2016 edition

Spring is Sprung, the Grass is Riz ...

There has been a slow start for the spring work on the farms, the weather has held up activities with wet soils keeping wheels off fields. The backlog of drilling, spreading, sowing and spraying was beginning to build up, but a few clear days and a dry easterly wind can quickly turn things around.

As the soil surface begins to dry out, air can get into the soil, aerating roots and all the other living organisms that live there. The soil also warms up a lot quicker when it isn’t waterlogged which quickens physiological processes in the crops.

Seed Rates

One adjustment that needs to be made this year is that the spring barley seed rate seems rather high, caused by the fact that last season the spring barley crop produces huge berries so they weigh a lot.

To get the best yield, crops need to be planted at the right density to make best use of the soil while not competing too much with each other. The plant population also has an effect on disease risks, crop standing power, and grain filling, so there is plenty of incentive to get it right at about 375 seeds per square metre. The optimum seed rate can also vary with the soil potential so thicker, deeper soils in a valley can grow better crops than thin soils on valley slopes, the farm can compensate by varying the seed rate.

Raucous or Melodic? … and Firsts

You can tell when spring is in the air because the birds are singing much more loudly in the mornings and evenings.

The sound of rooks building in the tall trees is a typical welcome spring ‘noise’.

As March turns into April the dawn chorus is getting stronger.

March 12 - First bumble bee out of hibernation spotted in my garden foraging the flowers and first Frog spawn appeared in the pond.

Is this a Ziggurat?

The mound spotted last autumn at Farleigh Wallop (and quickly christened ‘The Walnut Whip’) has grown an impressive grass cover and is already looking part of the landscape.

Maybe not quite a ziggurat, which perhaps should be rectangular, but it will certainly be a feature in the landscape in the parish.

One function of a ziggurat originally was as a place of safety when floods inundated the lowlands. Do they know something at Farleigh the rest of us should know?

Seumas Foster


Published in the March 2016 edition

Patience is a Virtue

After a long run of wet and windy months, there are occasional days when the clouds part and sunshine makes a few shadows, it is then that a feeling creeps in that spring might not forget us after all.

Soggy Fields

The fields are wet (obvious!), so any field work has been out of the question so far this year. If a week of dry weather had been available then some fertiliser might have been spread and maybe a bit of ground might have been cultivated, however that will have to wait for a bit longer.

Crops and Diseases

The crops have been growing slowly all winter. Although we have had plenty of rain, temperatures have been above normal. I cannot remember a year when the crops have been so green right through the winter. Frosts have been rare this year, so the soil temperatures have stayed above average.

The crops of wheat, barley, oil seed rape and oats established well. There is  a bit of water damage where water has briefly ponded but roots can cope with lack of oxygen for about 14 days before becoming damaged. Even after the water has gone there is a recovery by the plant which seems to be a proliferation of surface roots which minimise the downside of the floods.

Plant diseases attacking crops in the autumn usually get clobbered in winter by cold frosts as damaged leaves get killed off. This year the leaves have not been removed and are carrying a burden of Mildew, Septoria and Rust diseases in the cereals, Phoma and Light leaf Spot in the OSR, all lurking in the crops and ready to infect new spring growth. This burden of pathogens is a  high risk to the crops and brings a certain urgency to husbandry decisions for early spring.

Winter and Wildlife

The mild wet conditions will have had an effect on wildlife. Birds seems to have coped well, food has generally been easy to find, except perhaps for some owls who cannot hunt in wet weather. Maybe the big test is still to come as supplies get very short in the ‘Hungry Gap’ of March and April. Field mice seem to be numerous and active.

Insects would usually find a dry crevice and hibernate through winter, stilled by cold weather and surviving until warmed up in spring. This year the insects, upon which the rest of the food chain depends, having woken up and used food reserves, risk starvation before they can forage again next year. Some bumble bees were active in December which I would think is unusual.

Harvest mice have been found in the Selborne area in good numbers, so keep looking in hedges and long grass for the nests. Harvest mice may be more common than we thought.

Seumas Foster


Published in the February 2016 edition (there was no January edition)

To start 2016 ‘In The Fields’ has persuaded Andrew Ferguson of Dummer Down Farm to outline the changes that have taken place as they have diversified  Dummer Down Farm, and our thanks to Andrew for the following article.

Seumas Foster

From Mixed Farming to People Farming

In 1990 Dummer Down Farm was a busy mixed farm with a dairy herd and arable. Twenty five years later, the farm has moved on.

In 1991 the dairy cows were sold and we ceased milking. We carried on with arable farming in-house. However in 1998, we did our last harvest and now we are now in a contract farming agreement with The Wheatsheaf Farming Company.

New uses for Old Buildings

The farm has a variety of buildings that in the past were used for farming activities. Over the years we have been in the process of converting our buildings into different uses.

The building that housed the dairy is now the Dummer Cricket Centre that in 2015 celebrated twenty years in existence. The business employs some of the best cricket coaches in Hampshire and has an annual footfall of about 20,000 people. All ages play cricket from 5 to 70 year olds, male and female. There are indoor leagues that run throughout the winter for males and females and a variety of coaching courses take place. There is a busy shop and clothing business within the building. The standard of cricket in the area can be grateful for the service that the Cricket Centre has provided.

In other buildings we have a dance studio that has many uses from yoga to tap dancing. Where calves used to be reared you can find cricket bats being made, with a variety of customers from international level down to schoolboy cricket.

Grain Store to Garage

Where grain was stored there is now a garage servicing vehicles. In the old grain drier we have a theatre set designer doing a variety of shows from the Edinburgh Fringe to an exhibition at the Natural History Museum.

In the old hay barn, we have a joinery company doing jobs for clients all over the country. Where we used to store the seed, there is a business making chopping boards from reclaimed timber, having the claim that he was the only business to sell out at the Winchester Christmas market.

The latest addition to the farm is a coffee and sandwich shop located in the old machinery store, catering for local businesses and doing a good trade with the cyclists as we seem to be located on the latest cycle highway.

Where we used to house the bull, there is a company doing embroidery and printing on clothing. In the old farm office, we have a business repairing and washing horse rugs.

Finally we have a small livery yard of 14 horses. The family still live on the farm, we employ 2 people; we try our best to look after the farm and make it the best we can.

In a few words, that describes what happens at Dummer Down Farm in 2016 where now 40 people make a living from the farm. We will keep moving forward to assist the rural economy and manage the landscape to the best of our ability.

Andrew Ferguson


Published in the December 2015 edition


The next few weeks and months will be short on daylight, probably wet and windy some of the time, maybe some snow, certainly cold and frosty when a high pressure system passes over and the skies are clear. The clear skies will allow us to enjoy  winter sun and blue sky, the sight of which will keep us going for some time after the clouds have come back. It is a great time to get out and about to take in the views.

The crops are alive but not growing. They are in a state of almost zero metabolism, just ticking over while conditions are so unfavourable. The autumn has been kind for the third year in a row, which gives the new crop a good opportunity to get well established, which is the basis of a good yield next year.

The cattle are back in the barns now, off the wet soils and dining on the conserved grass silage and hay. Not long before the new year and the cycle starts all over again.

Quiz Questions (and answers!)

2015 has been the ‘UN International Year of the Soils’, as designated by the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) to raise awareness of why soils are important for food security and the ecosystem.

Previously, 2014 was the UN ‘International Year of Family Farming’ and they have put forward that 2016 will be ‘International Year of Pulses’, that is leguminous crops to you and me, so get ready with the peas, beans, lupins, clover and so on. Pulses are important, and everyone needs a pulse!

The Chinese Zodiac year for 2015 has been the year of the Sheep, which actually lasts until February 7th 2016, and then the Chinese Zodiac year will be the Year of the Monkey, fun loving, cheerful, energetic and clever. The monkey is also fond of snacking rather than having a regular meal!

Start a List

The mild weather has kept a few flowers going much later than might be expected. I have seen Dandelions, Herb Robert, Daisies, Speedwell, Scarlet Pimpernel and Thistle, to name a few. There are good strong signs of the winter bulbs now, daffodils are easily found just through the soil surface.

Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year

The weather forecast is beginning to sound much more seasonal so gloves, scarves and boots may soon be everyday warm wear. Best wishes to everyone and here's hoping for a smooth, well fed glide into the New Year.

Seumas Foster


Published in the November 2015 edition

Well Sown is Half Grown

After a few very wet days at the beginning of October, sowing continued without many holdups. The seeds are nearly through the soil surface from the second bout of sowing and already well established from the earlier September bout of drilling.

The maize and potatoes are harvested now, the fields cultivated and sown with the next crop.

Three in a Row and a Bonus Mark

The previous two autumns have been kind, so this year is the third that has given us good sowing conditions. I am sure this has contributed a big benefit to the final yields of the crops, after all if the crops get away to a good start they can cope with a lot during the rest of the year up to harvest, we just need an average summer.

Soil temperatures are falling at about the average rate this year, there is still a Soil Moisture Deficit (SMD) as there always is in the autumn, but the wet days mentioned earlier brought it down a lot. When the SMD is zero then the drains start to run. Not many fields in this part of Hampshire are drained because the chalk soils tend to be free draining, so ditches are not common, only where water collects, i.e. from roads.

One Swan doesn’t Make a Winter

The proverbial lone swallow is not bringing summer, and the single early migrating Siberian Bewick swan arriving 25 days early does not mean that we are going to get a hard winter.

There are plenty of berries, acorns and beech mast on the hedges and trees in the area, more an indication that we have had a good season for berries. Whatever the winter period brings there should be more food for the wildlife.

The effect of El Niño in the Pacific Ocean on the Jet Stream winds seems to be very important for the winter weather here. This year the El Niño is strong so it is expected that the Jet Stream will bring more rain across the Atlantic and this could end up as snow.

A good cover of snow will protect the fields from frosts. The Met Office have said that they will know more in November, however as experience tells us, long range forecasting is a mug's game, so keep looking out of the window!

Seumas Foster


Published in the October 2015 edition (there was no September edition)

Autumn Approaches

Days seem to get shorter quite quickly and uncannily the air takes on an autumnal feel at the first days of September.

August was wet, I measured 114.5mm for the month here, well above average. Other parts of Hampshire got a further 25 mm or so. There were quite a few days when the rainfall was negligible but the days were dull and overcast, so the crops did not dry out much, harvesting was held up for 11 consecutive days at one stage.


Harvest had started in July with the Winter Barley crop and the yields were very good. Oil Seed Rape next, and yields were better than expected, a good average but not quite up to the yields achieved last year. They didn’t look very promising in the field but came good.

Wheat started in good weather and the crops were a very pleasant surprise with excellent yields and quality, just what we hope for. Spring barley was also cut at about that time, again the yields were very good.

And then a shower of rain turned into two and then four as the days passed, clouds rolled in a bit too often to let harvest continue. A few crops were cut between rain, and the remaining crops slowly began to deteriorate. In the worst cases the grain was sprouting in the ears, so the quality was gone.

Despite the awful predictions, when harvest did get back underway, the crops still yielded well and although the quality was poor and the sample was weathered, the grain came in well. The grain has had to be dried, and if you are looking for a silver lining fuel prices are lower at the moment. World grain prices are down, so the value of the filled barns may not meet some budgets. The position may change.

‘Well sown is Half Grown’

Crops for harvest 2016 are going in the ground over the next month or so. The first is Oil Seed Rape, which is already in and away, although some fields have already been hit by Flea beetle, highlighting the extra pressure that the lack of neonicotinoid seed dressings bring to the party.

Out and About

The swallows are gathering on the wires and will be gone soon. Two broods have been reared in many nests, and what a good year for blackberries and sloes. Mushrooms have been plentiful in some places, but the maggots seem to get in and busy very quickly. A mushroom is very tasty but a mushroom with extra meat - no thanks, so check carefully!

A Hill and Dale reader tells me of finding a slow worm on the top of a Lonicera hedge. Finding a slow worm is good, but an arboreal version is unusual! Maybe just a sun seeking reptile, who thought it had found the perfect basking spot!

Seumas Foster


Published in the August/September 2015 edition

July and August for harvest, September and October for sowing

The summer months have been very dry in this part of the world, rain and thunderstorms scooting up to the left and right, but very little passing overhead. The crops on thinner or gravel soils are showing the effects of drought, as an agronomist the limiting factor to achieving the yield potential of the crops is painfully obvious.

Harvest looks as if it will be slightly early this year, but not especially hasty. Winter barley first, then Winter Oil Seed Rape, before the Spring Barley and Winter Wheat ripen in August. Statistically August is a wet month, but until September it takes a lot of rain to cause problems, the dry soils soak up the water and warm air hastens evaporation.

Late August will see the new Oil seed rape crops being sown, but this autumn the acreage will be down as farms cut back, the increased risk of Flea beetle and Aphids damage because of the ban on some seed dressings, and a low world price at the moment, reduces the attractiveness of the crop. August will also be the time to sow cover crops.

September and October will see the Winter wheat (see left, Anapolis, a high yielding hard feed winter wheat from Saaten Union) and Winter barley sowings get underway as fields are available.

There will be some harvest to finish in September, the Maize will need to be cut and  Potatoes will need to be lifted.

What's not to like about Potatoes, Spuds or Tatties?

Some ‘things’ on farms are so obviously right that you wonder how you managed before you had them. Quad bikes are an excellent example, JCB loaders are another, and a crop potatoes fits this particular bill, even in the stony soils of this area. Potatoes have been around for a long time in Europe, since they crossed the Atlantic from Peru and Bolivia. The rifle straight rows in the fields (see right) appeal to the eye, the growth is even and green, and the colour of the flowers make the crop great to watch. And then the versatile potato is so useful to call it a staple doesn’t seem to be quite good enough. There is a potato for every occasion! But don’t be tempted to try one from the field, they are all micro-chipped!

The Snail and the Thrush and the Strawberry

I have been so pleased to see a thrush working the snails in the garden and hedges around here, hearing the tap as they bash the snails on a stone, the road, even on the back doorstep to get the juicy snail out of its shell. Finding empty, broken snail shells all around is evidence of a great bit of biological control going on. The thrush will have survived the attentions of magpies and crows, and reared a brood, as well as singing those repeated phrases at the start and finish of the days. We need to see more of them.

Wild Strawberries growing on the roadsides are really tasty, and where they haven’t been thrashed into oblivion by the grass cutters they are a wonderful treat to find in the summer. Try them for yourself.

Seumas Foster


Published in the July 2015 edition

"This month the article has been contributed by David Miller, Farm Manager for Wheatsheaf Farming Company at Folly Farm, North Waltham. David has been putting the farm effort into improving the soils that they farm, and here is a snippet of the work and philosophy of that drive towards sustainability. This is based on what was said recently for a visit by North Waltham W.I. and our thanks to David for his work."

Seumas Foster

Soil, The Farmers Basic Asset

The area of the land in the world that is soil suitable for growing crops is only about 11% or only 3% of the surface area of the earth.

As farmers we are custodians of the soil. Soil is the main natural resource available to us along with sunlight and water.

We are reaching a tipping point where farmers will no longer be able to find answers to a crop’s agronomic problem from chemicals or other inorganic means.

The soil is a living thing. In a teaspoon of healthy soil there will be more living things than there are people on the earth. They range from the smallest bacteria and fungi up to the more familiar earthworms. It is a true ecosystem and must be kept in balance for a soil to be healthy enough to sustain our crops. Soil health is measured by its capacity to function without intervention.

To help our soils become healthier we are using cover crops in our rotation to keep living roots in our soils when the land would normally be bare (left: cover crops being grazed by sheep during the winter). The roots exude sugars which are the food for lots of soil life. Mycorrhizal fungi have a large part to play in soil fertility as, by attaching themselves to growing roots, they can increase the efficiency of the nutrient gathering capacity by up to 700% (right: drilling spring barley into cover crop residue).

70% of this biological activity takes place in the top 3cm of soil. This 3cm of soil does not like being disrupted and if it is cultivated or ploughed it takes some time before it starts functioning again. With these facts in mind, we are adopting a policy of zero-till and purchasing a direct drill from New Zealand to establish all our crops.

The end results we are aspiring to achieve are a soil that has a living root in for 12 months of the year, is covered with decaying crop residue at all times, has a variety of different species growing in it and is as undisturbed as possible.

We are confident this will regenerate our soils and we will then be less reliant on chemicals and inorganic fertilisers.

David Miller


Published in the June 2015 edition

Time Travellers

Well now summer has come, the cows are out in the fields, silage clamps are empty, cleaned and ready for the fresh grass crop and the crops are in ear or very close to it. The yellow fields of Oil Seed rape crops have gone as the petals fell, now the pods are filling as the seeds swell. Spring sown grass has come through and the maize for both forage and game cover should be emerging soon.

April was a very dry month with only 27mm, after a meagre 25mm in March. The first half of May has already brought 38mm which has kept the crops growing. What I find a surprise is how we underestimate the rate at which water is lost from the soil in the summer. Plants roots pull huge amounts of water from the soil during transpiration, up from the roots via the  stems and out of the stomata in the leaves after nutrients and some of the water has been photosynthesised to energy. The winds seem to blow more strongly and the relative humidity is lower so the air has much more capacity to hold moisture.

There are a few fields of potatoes around the parishes, being grown under contract for chips or crisps.

The planting operation is a ‘well oiled machine’, in fact lots of machines working in sequence to plant the seed potatoes sourced from Scotland quickly and efficiently. I counted 11 tractors with various machinery attached in one field this spring, an impressive sight.

Birds and Bees and Flowers

The hedgerows and verges are romping with plants, colour and activity. The first fledglings are out of the nest and being supplied by parents, and eyed up by the magpies and others who think of a fledgling as lunch.

Every buzzard that launches off in to the thermals seems to have a mobbing crow or rook wheeling around it, harassing the buzzard until it is a sufficient distance away from the territory that is being guarded.

Honey bees have been swarming this May, as the hives fill up with new bees so a queen will go off with part of the hive looking for establish a new colony, leaving the old colony to enjoy the space. Swarming bees are not aggressive, they will have filled up with honey before they left, and can be collected by a beekeeper and re-housed. Nevertheless I would keep a suitable distance away so as not to disturb them.

The peanut feeder in my garden has regular visits from a Greater Spotted Woodpecker that swoops across from the trees in a series of short hops until it arrives at the feeder. The sparrows and chaffinches have been paying attention and now know that while the woodpecker attacks the nuts through the mesh, some bits of peanut will fall under the feeder, so that is where they take up position. It is the quickest that get most, but the woodpecker is a good provider so there seems to be enough for all.

Seumas Foster


Published in the May 2015 edition

Exhaustion- Phew

Everyone knew it was coming and everyone was not to be disappointed. The work load has been intense as, finally, after what seemed like a long time, spring kicked in and the demands of animal and crop husbandry became intense.

An Early Lunch?

The spring crops sown in March have emerged well, the seedbeds were pretty good and so they had a great start. What did cause a bit of a surprise was the speed that Pea and Bean Weevils (Sitona lineatus) started to cause damage to the spring Bean crops. This small (up to 5mm) greyish weevil causes visual damage by ‘U‘ shaped notching the outside edge of the bean leaves, giving a very distinct symptom. The weevil then lays eggs on the soil surface around the bean and, when the eggs hatch, the larvae burrow down and live on the roots and nodules of the bean, which can be debilitating for the plant with a reduction in the yield potential of the crop. Spring crops are less able to compensate than winter crops.

This pest is ubiquitous, living in the countryside and living on clovers and making hay when the sun shines in the shape of a whole field of food. The clue is in the name, as they will feed on any legume crop, agriculturally beans, peas and clover are vulnerable.


Last month I was commenting on the fact that yellow seemed to be the most common colour for flowers in the spring. Well now I know why, and it is because it is the light that is left over when the plant has taken what it needs for photosynthesis. Visible light is made up of differing wavelengths and we can see them as Red, Orange, Yellow, Green, Blue, Indigo, and Violet. Light at each end of the spectrum are the most valuable to the plant, so they absorb these colours, leaving yellow and green to be reflected back, which is what we see.

How many leaves still to emerge?

There is an infallible way of checking on crop development and all that is needed is a steady hand, a sharp finger nail or pen knife, maybe a hand lens and a bit of concentration. The embryonic ear (shown far left in the picture) containing the grains sites, and all the leaves yet to emerge, are rolled up in the plant stem. The ear and the top leaves will be the most important for yield production and are the ones that must be fed and protected to get the best from the crop. Any crop protection or fertiliser can be deployed at the best time if you know what to expect of the crop. By carefully unrolling the leaves, each layer can be revealed until finally the ear can be found, and the grain sites can be checked with a lens, although they are still undifferentiated tissue at this stage. With a bit of practice you can get quite proficient at this field scale dissection.

Seumas Foster


Published in the April 2015 edition

Up Hill and Down Dale

“If you chase two rabbits, both will escape”

Field MeetingIt's that time of the year when everything has to be done at once. Fertilising, cultivating, sowing, rolling, harrowing, spraying, fencing, fetching, carrying, clearing up, repairs, loading, unloading, still a few meetings (see picture right) to go to, and this year registration for the new Basic Payment Scheme using the new computer system that the Government has nearly got into reliable working condition, but not quite!

The crops in the fields are slowly beginning to get going, but the nights have stayed quite cold, if not frosty. March is also dry, although what the rest of the month will be like we shall see. The spring crops of barley, beans and some others are going into good seedbeds, so will be emerged and growing fast in April.

The first spreadings of fertiliser can go on in March, but the main doses are scheduled for April when the rate of growth of the crop is fast enough to use the nutrients most efficiently. As in previous years, some of the Nitrogen will be spread using a very clever guidance system that allows us to automatically vary the rate according to the crop needs. The backward areas may get a bit more to encourage them, the forward areas can be cut back so they don’t get too lush - we  can now put the fertiliser accurately where it will do most good. The GPS control is getting so good now that the accuracy is reliable to a centimetre or two, ‘it’ knows where you are, which can be very useful because even the best drivers can get lost in a field! I don’t think it will be long before weed recognition systems coupled to a spray nozzle will be taking out weeds in crops one by one.

Frog Spawn, Early Bumbles and a Butterfly

The first frog spawn appeared in my pond on March 13 and only a few handfuls, so far. In previous years we have had much more spawn and frantic frog activity earlier in the year. Maybe more will come later, but clearly the season has not been right so far. It is most likely the cold nights which have discouraged the amphibians so far, perhaps the low rainfall has not helped. I think the adults are around because I found plenty during the winter at various times when out and about.

Bumble bees and a Brimstone butterfly made an appearance on a warm weekend when temperatures went up to 14c in the early afternoon. Spring is a stealthy and shy season.

I Hope You Like Yellow

Yellow is the colour of spring, so many flowers are yellow early in the year, daffodils and primroses and the yellow middles of daisies. The yellow flowers of Oil Seed Rape will be in full bloom in April, and attracting bees and other pollinators.

Seumas Foster


Published in the March 2015 edition

As the Days Grow Longer....

4 or 5 minutes a day of light makes all the difference, small daily change soon becomes obvious over a month or so, something commuters and farmers alike will notice. The birds are certainly quick off the mark and soon refurbishing old nests, building new ones and the songbirds are claiming territory by singing as much as possible. The crops are waking up and feeling ready for breakfast so a little something from the fertiliser menu will be offered as March gets going. The main course may not be needed until April when growth is approaching full speed. This winter has not been particularly cold or wet, although some days have been raw and unpleasant. As the sun gets higher the heat gets a bit stronger.


The early sown wheat and barley crops are well established but some plants have some shoots that are infested with a pest called Gout Fly. There are two generations of this fly in a year, the adults flying about in August and September will lay white eggs on the leaves of early emerging autumn cereal crops. These eggs are large for fly eggs, laid singly or sometime in pairs on leaves about a third of the leaf length from the soil, and are very easily seen once you get your eye in.

In The Fields - A Gouted TillerThe eggs hatch and the larvae burrows into the centre of one shoot of the plant where it stays until it pupates. The plant reacts by over-growing that shoot, so the appearance is of a big thickened shoot larger than others on the plant. Each shoot by the way is called a ‘tiller’ in farming circles, so the plant is described as having ‘Gouted Tillers’ (see right).

These tillers can be very scruffy and seem to be more attractive to slugs, certainly they are usually rather ragged as they get older.

In The Fields - A MaggotThe saving grace is that usually only one or two tillers get infested and the larvae or maggot (maggot because it is a fly larvae) does not move over into fresh tillers. When the maggot (see left) is ready, it pupates and eventually can either hatch in situ or fall onto the soil in the spring. The plant will compensate for the loss of the tiller by producing more, there are always a few spare to compensate for such damage, so actually spraying is really not worth while and rarely done, unless the infestation is very bad and spotted at the egg stage.

The second generation which emerges from these overwintered larvae are the destructive generation. They will lay eggs on backward crops and the larvae live in the stems just below the ears and will destroy the stems and cause real losses, BUT, they only attack backward stems so most plants in most crops are likely to be too advanced for them when they hatch looking for a suitable site to lay eggs.

So this very visual pest is part of the eco system of a cereal crop, an occasional problem and easily avoided by making sure the crops are established at the proper time.

2015 - International Year of Soils

2015 has officially been declared the International Year of Soils – a platform for raising awareness of the importance of soils for food security and essential eco-system services.

What would we do without it?

Seumas Foster


Published in the February 2015 edition (there wasn't a January 2015 edition)

A’ Dairy Diary’ - January 15, 2015
by Barrie, Rose and Glen at Grammarsham Dairy, home of the Chalvington Herd of pedigree Friesian Holsteins

In the Fields - Barrie at work in Grammersham Dairy04.00am  Barrie is milking today, but we take it in turns to spread the load. Get the parlour ready and bring the cows round from the yard. It's dark and cold, much nicer in summer when the cows are out. Check the dry cows that are due to calve to make sure they are OK.

04.30am  Start milking (see right). There are 185 today, by the end of March we shall be up to full numbers of 200 when all the cows have calved.

07.30am  Finished the morning milking.  Glen and Rose arrive and start to bed up the yards with straw and get the feed ready for the cows. This is a mix of concentrates, barley straw, grass and maize silage put into a huge mixer tub which stirs the lot up, and then food can be delivered out of a side chute into the feeding areas on the edge of the yards.
Meanwhile the diary parlour has to be washed down and the milking equipment and pipe work cleaned down. While the cleaning is in progress any cows that are ready for AI can be dealt with.

09.30am  The milk tanker arrives to collect the milk held in the bulk tank from last night and this morning, about 6,500 litres at the moment.
Start to scrape the yards to clean up the muck, and the calving boxes and holding pens are bedded up. The cows are back in their beds on clean straw and lots of food. It's like an hotel.
Note: Vet due next week for the fortnightly visit to check the cows and confirm they are in calf again. Also expect to have a visit from ‘Comfy Cow’, for foot checks and trimming (important)!!

In the Fields - Young stock at Hill Farm11.00am  Barrie can go home for Breakfast. Glen and Rose off to Hill Farm to bed up and feed the young stock (see right), where they are housed for the winter, and Rose will be rearing and looking after the calves. The 3 bulls (one Angus and two Hereford) are at Hill Farm for the purpose of getting the heifers in calf, and they need to be looked after too.

12.30pm  Lunch

02.00pm  Barrie comes back to milk again in the afternoon. There are plenty of other jobs to be done on the farm. If the pipework is frozen everything takes longer, but today we have mild weather.

06.00pm  Afternoon milking finishes. Wash down and leave it ready for the morning.

08.30pm  Barrie back again to check the cows at night. This is a good time to see if any are showing signs of calving tonight, if so they will need to be moved to the calving pens, or coming in heat and might be ready for AI tomorrow.

Looking forward to doing it all again tomorrow!

Barrie, Rose and Glen


Published in the December 2014 edition

Autumn turns to mid winter

Colourful leaves are still falling, soon the trees will be only left with bare branches, on the tips of which are the buds which will burst to new leaves next spring.

So far the autumn has been rather typical with lots of rain and a few sunny days, but also rather overcast dull days which seem to be really short, and although we have had a few frosts, nothing cold enough yet to ‘bear a duck’. We shall have to wait until after Christmas and seen what comes along then.

In the Fields

The autumn sown crops are settling down and growth is slowing, the crops are generally well established. Even the latest sowings are showing in the rows now and should be strong enough to cope until the spring. The livestock are back inside, the fields are too wet now for them to stay out without ‘poaching’ the ground, that is to say making areas a sea of mud. The hedge cutters are out and so are the ploughs when conditions permit. There is still a little spraying to complete the disease control in Oil Seed Rape (OSR)and weed control in OSR and cereals, but only if the conditions are good enough to get a good result.


The weather has encouraged an excellent crop of fungi in the hedges and woodland, and also out in the fields growing on the chopped stubbles. Some of the bracket fungi on fallen logs are spectacular so keep on the lookout for them when you are out and about.


A few flocks of Golden Plover have been seen out in the middle of stubbles or cultivated fields, and Fieldfares have turned up to eat all the hawthorn and holly berries. They make quite a noise as they call to each other down a hedge row. Every year the pigeons threaten crops, but they only eat OSR when they are hungry and can't find anything else, like acorns, to eat. Last year they hardly touched the field crops and stayed in woodland, but then it was a mild winter. This year there is some good beech mast so the pigeons could stay in the woods again this year.

Thoughts to Ponder;

‘Friday’s a day as’ll have his trick, The fairest or foulest day o’ the wik.’

‘A windy Christmas and a calm Candlemas are signs of a good year.’

Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year to all.

Seumas Foster


Published in the November 2014 edition

At last, a bit of MUD!!!

We are always pleased to see rain when there has been a dry spell, but rain always stays a bit too long at this time of year. My rainfall total for September was a meagre 9mm, less than half an inch, but October has started to redress the balance very effectively.

Autumn sowing has been completed, a few fields are waiting for maize to be cleared and will be the last sowings. Oil seed rape crops have mostly grow away well, there are also some large areas of ‘cover crops’ in the area, planted to protect and improve soils by mopping up nutrients and improving soil structure before sowing spring crops. The use of cover crops has taken a big up-turn in interest recently with new seed mixtures coming available to try, so now they need to show what advantage they have to make the expense worthwhile.

The new Countryside ‘Eco’  Support

Within the European political system there is a support for the countryside which protects/enhances wildlife and supports rural business. This has been in part the Single Farm Payment, but from the beginning of next year this will morph into the Basic Payment Scheme or ‘BPS’. The principles are still much the same but the opportunity is being taken to improve the whole bureaucratic system. Farms who apply will need to follow new guidelines on the number of crops grown each year, and this is called ‘Greening’ which means that the farm will have to have at least 3 different crops if they have more than 30 ha of arable land, so there are lots of hours being spent checking what is required. It is never quite as straight forward as you hope, not after the ministry have been at it.

As well as Greening, farms will also have to have 5% of the arable land in what is being called the ‘Ecological Focus Area’ (EFA), which will be similar to the old Set Aside system, but the new requirements need to be understood and integrated with existing ecological schemes, eg. ELS and HLS.

The deadline looms large so lots of head scratching and steaming calculators expected in the next two months.

Mice and Sloes

Mice, both Short Tailed Field Voles and Long Tailed Field Mice, seem to be very common this year, which should be good news for predators. Some parts of the country have been commenting on a shortage of Sloes, but I would say that our parishes have had a very good year for blackthorn fruit. Do we need to wait for a frost before using them to flavour gin? Probably not!

Seumas Foster


Published in the October 2014 edition

Seasonal Changes

The shorter days and cooling nights of autumn are nearly upon us as the colours change on the trees and hedgerows. September has been very warm and dry, probably breaking records somewhere, so the soil is a bit dusty and hard.


click to see larger image ...The last crops were ripe and ready to cut by the end of August and a dry week after the Bank Holiday saw the last crops combined. The yields have been good but prices are still very disappointing, so no sign yet of a pendulum swing in the markets towards a price increase.

Plenty of grain has moved off farm out of store to buyers storage or maybe onto a boat to be exported to Europe.

The new crops are going in the fields where the seedbeds are suitable, maybe there will be a delay until a bit more rain has softened the lumps. Localised thunder storms have been both cruel and kind this year.

Most fields are not ploughed these days, cultivations are enough to prepare a seedbed and should be quicker and cheaper as well as improving soil structure. However soil inversion techniques (jargon for ploughing!) still have a very valuable role because of the burying and levelling process.

Important Dates

This year the National Ploughing Match (click for more information and link to map) is taking place in the district on the weekend of October 11/12 and should be a spectacular ploughing festival, with old machinery, modern machinery and superbly skilled ploughmen, as well as horses ploughing and plenty of trade stands.
The venue is on fields of Manydown Farm and GB Foot of Monk Sherborne, just north of Basingstoke on the A339 Newbury Road.

Well Worth A Visit !!

Locally, the Basingstoke and District Agricultural Society Ploughing Match is due to take place on Saturday, October 4 (9.00am to Midday) at Preston Farms, Preston Candover RG25 2DS. Come and have a walk around on Saturday morning to see the local ploughmen showing what they can do!

Seumas Foster


Published in the September 2014 edition (there were no July or August articles)

Back to the Start

Another turn of the wheel and the next cycle of cropping has started. Although harvest has finished now, progress is not straightforward despite the optimistic prospects in July. The next arable year has already started, overlapping new crop with old crop on the farm.

Harvest started about a week earlier than last year and the first crops to ripen (winter barley and winter oil seed rape) were cut without too much hassle, and straw was quickly baled. The winter barley fields are going to grow the next winter oil seed rape crop and sowing in mid August is always a busy time.

TView across cultivated fieldhe barley did not disappoint, but the oil seed rape did not fulfil its potential. The yields were below expectations and so possible causes have been listed and weighted, with the intention to learn something for the next crop. I think the crop put a bit more into vegetative growth and not enough into seed production, plenty of rain and good temperatures kept the crop growing longer than was good for yield. The root system could have been trimmed by the wet conditions in the winter and early spring, the crop never compensated later because it didn’t need to go looking for water and nutrients in the summer and continued too long in the leafy stage. A bit of stress encourages good seed production. Fungal diseases also flared up and despite using a ‘robust‘ fungicide programme pressure was very high.
Pictures: Above left: Cultivator on White Hill / Above right: View across cultivated field.

The spring barley and wheat have done well although the showers and unsettled weather following the tail end of hurricane Bertha are very disruptive. The price of wheat has taken a huge tumble on the world market, and the effect is not good on budgets!  Agriculture commodities are ‘price takers’, the effect of multiple independent production in a market, however markets can change quickly as supply and demand balance varies according to predictions.   

Our cropping plans for the autumn are affected by the new E U directives that require 3 crops to be grown on each holding, and the areas of the crops is being controlled. Although the new rules do not officially start until 1st January 2015, sowing decisions this autumn need to take the rules into account.


Some traditional hedgerow species need regular cutting to keep them growing strongly, but the type and timing of cutting is important. Blackthorn and hawthorn and field maple need to be trimmed annually to maintain young growth. Hazel needs to be cut right down every 8 – 20 years (ie, coppiced), annual trimming spoils it.  Ash coppices beautifully, makes tall stems for firewood and will survive for hundreds of years if treated in this way. Field maple, although a lovely tree for autumn colour, is brittle and letting it grow tall in a hedge will result in branches being easily damaged by wind, so cutting will keep the growth vigorous. Other species like elder and wayfarer cope well with most conditions.

Seumas Foster


Published in the June 2014 edition

First you Speed Up, and then you Slow Down, and then you Speed Up Again

The crop development has slowed down after seemingly being in advance of the average, which is really what averages are all about.

Some field work has been seriously held up because of rain and wind, although the April showery rainfall has kept everything growing.

The ears of wheat and barley will be emerged by the end of May and Oil Seed rape will have finished flowering and the pods will be filling. This year has seen a very long and even flowering period, it seems that the side branches have flowered more than usual.

Silaging in EllisfieldSilage grass has just been cut (see picture right - click to see larger image) now that a good window of better weather is looming.

The AD plant digestate has been spread on a few fields and the prospect of good fertiliser produced after recycling appeals to me as a proper way to reduce using expensive, finite resources, meanwhile there is the prospect of learning how to use it to the benefit of all.

Territorial Blue Tit

While I was in a farmyard the other day a blue tit (see left) started to attack its reflection in my wing mirror, and it was not going to give up easily.

Then it saw another reflected bird in a mirror on a tractor and had to fend off two interlopers!!

Seumas Foster


Published in the May 2014 edition

Like a Well Oiled Machine

Once the weather conditions improve and the advancing spring has reached the point of no return, which is usually around the beginning of April, there is a lot of work to do in the fields, but no longer enough time to do it in. Somehow the jobs do get done, but only with a bit of luck if the weather holds and by working long hours.

Spring planting went in March and the new crop emerged quickly to get away to a good start. The acreage of spring crops is greatly reduced in comparison with last year, nevertheless there is a good area of spring barley, poppies and spring beans, and even a couple of fields of potatoes (see above right) which are being grown for the crisping market.

Variability that makes the Average

The crops are a bit forward on the seasonal average, although we have had a mild winter and few frosts the growth has been only slightly advanced. The winter barley will be in ear before the end of April, and Oil Seed Rape has been flowering well for a while. This season the Oil Seed Rape seems to have more side shoots, each bearing a raceme of flowers which will extend the flowering season. Not good news for some hay fever sufferers perhaps and, although the crop does not provide the best honey, the bees might do well.

The cows are out on grass now, all the winter stocks of fodder have been used up, but it won’t be long before the new season grass cutting gets going to stock up again for next winter.

Avian Observation

Buzzards and Red Kites are common, a thought that has been put up for consideration is that the success of these birds might be a reason why the kestrel population seems to have reduced, perhaps a good example of the shift in the dynamic equilibrium that is the balance of nature.

May should see an explosion of new bird life as eggs hatch and fledglings start to come out of the nests.

The swallows (left) arrived here around the 4th of April on a wave of warm air, and as ever it is great to see them back.

Many thanks to Ben for his contribution in April's Hill and Dale.

Seumas Foster


Published in the April 2014 edition

"From Farleigh Wallop fields to the Great Plains of America",
a guest appearance by Ben Licence

I worked for Chris Allen at Fordham & Allen for nearly 8 years around Farleigh Wallop. I came to the decision that I needed to experience the world of farming and decided to go to America and experience the 2000 mile harvest.

click to view larger image ...I headed out to Kansas in April last year to work for Schiltz Harvesting, where I trained on a 40 foot combine harvester ready to go on the road. Harvest began in May down in Vernon Texas. We took 4 combines, 6 lorries, 2 tractors and grain carts and various vehicles. We worked from Texas then moved to Oklahoma, Kansas, to South Dakota and finished the wheat in North Dakota.

After we had finished the wheat and some Canola (oil seed rape) we headed back to Kansas for the fall harvest where we harvested Corn (maize), Milo (Grain Sorghum) and Soya beans.

We supplied high moisture corn to a feed lot which needed $35 million worth of corn to feed the 68,000 head of cattle for the rest of the year, everything else went to the large grain elevators that dot the landscape.

click to view larger image ...Whiclick to view larger image ...le in the USA I experienced months of driving my personal combine, the large 18 wheel lorries moving equipment up and down the States, as well as some carting to the elevators.

It was an amazing experience that I will never forget and I would encourage anyone who wants to try to have the courage to experience the wider world in whatever industry they are in.

Photos (click on photo to view larger image):

The first photo (top right) is in South Dakota with our 4 combines and the farm's 2 in a 1600 acre field.
The second photo (
above left) is me posing for a photo on the combine that I drove while on harvest.
The third photo (
above right) is me harvesting, showing the beauty of North Dakota.

Ben Licence


Published in the March 2014 edition

Still Wet

Tumbling records, and wall to wall news programmes (or rather bank to bank) with reports of flooding across the country and intrepid reporters/politicians/Environment Agency officials paddling about like latter day King Canutes. Meanwhile the fields in our area flourish ...

There are a few pockets on water, particularly where a winter bourne has sprung up as the ground water levels have reached the surface and they will continue to run into the Spring and early Summer.

Hope Springs

The jet stream, bringer of the intense low pressure systems on the conveyor belt across the Atlantic. is beginning to straighten out and there is a prospect of better weather.

Well Sown is Half Grown

Spring sowing can start when the soil conditions are right, going too soon will lead to poor seedbeds and the chance of poor establishment. Spring crops need to hit the ground running, they don’t hang about like winter sowings, they have one chance so it pays not to jump the gun.

March will be a very busy month, but then it usually is as the new growth of the year starts to move. We will want to have spread a lot of fertiliser by the end of March to take advantage of the warming soils. The residue of nitrogen in the soil will be depleted by rain leaching it out, so this year we can assume that levels will be low.

Spy in the Sky

Technology helps by providing satellite pictures of fields and is able to measure the Green Area Index (GAI) of overwintered crops. This is an indication of the ground cover of the crop canopy which in turn can be taken as a guide of the amount of Nitrogen the crop has taken up to reach that stage. The final performance of the crop can be estimated, and we know how much nitrogen we shall need for that target yield, so knowing what the crop has already got allows a better assessment of what is needed in the Spring. This is all part of the drive to improve efficient use of Nitrogen and not waste any that could pollute the ground water. I have just been out sampling oil seed rape fields (see picture in the left hand column) to determine the growth of the crops over Winter and the weight of the canopy so far, and comparing it to satellite predictions.

I am pleased to report that both systems gave the same results!! This will be a very useful guide for working out our nitrogen application rate this Spring.

Return of the Flowers

The snowdrops have been very good. It looks as if daffodils will be early but the Cuckoo Pint and Cow Parsley are pushing on in the hedge bottoms. Hedgerow buds are swelling, tempting fate a bit perhaps because a frost in March can be sharp enough to set back this early growth.

Seumas Foster


Published in the February 2014 edition

Wow, Wet or What?

There are times when I am pleased to live on a hill and not on a flood plain as between December 17 and January 12 the rainfall has totalled 315mm (12.4ins), which probably qualifies as exceptional! I admit to being quite surprised when I first did the addition.

The wind strength has also caused some damage, a lot of older hedgerow trees covered in ivy have been blown out. A few big trees have been blown over, in Church Lane in Ellisfield an oak straddled the road making a bridge between the banks on either side, fortunately high enough for most traffic to pass underneath.

At least all this rain seems to have found its way into the soil around here, those suffering people in other parts who have been flooded and who have had to endure this deluge have had the short straw.

The temperatures have stayed above average so far, soil temperature is still at 5 degrees centigrade and the crops have been growing slowly all winter and generally are a good colour, which is quite different from last year. Snowdrops are showing bud in some places and catkins have plumped up a bit. There is still plenty of time for some frost and snow before spring, remember last March which was AWFUL!!

Fewer Spring Crops

There will be fewer spring crops sown this year because autumn sowing has gone well, so the area of spring barley will be reduced. Last year there was a lot of replacement sowing with spring beans, spring oil seed rape and poppies, which will not be needed this spring. The fields that are in an environment scheme are in stubble and will remain so until mid February. Spring barley suits the local soils, fits in well with the cropping and rotations, and most important – we like it!

Changes Ahead

In 2015 there will be new rules for the Common Agricultural Policy, one of which is shown below.       

Crop Diversification (2 crops over 10 ha, 3 crops over 30 ha)

Arable area Cropping requirement:

Under 10 ha - Exempt
10 ha to 30 ha - Two crops with any crop occupying no more than 75% of the area
Over 30 ha - Three crops with any crop as above and any two crops occupying no more than 95% of the area

Arable land is any land cultivated for crop production, fallow or set aside including land under glass.   It is assumed to include temporary grass.

Different genera, species of brassicas/solanacea/cucurbitacea, fallow, grasses and winter and spring crops qualify as different crops.

A few more calculations will need to be done to stay within the rules!

Fact of the day: Next week the days will be 19 minutes longer.

Seumas Foster


Published in the December 2013 / January 2014 edition

Quickly Into Winter

AS the leaves come off the trees, the oak is the last to loosen its grip and release them to the winds, so temperatures fall and daylight shrivels up, except for the occasional bright day when the low sun melts a bit of frost. These are the raisin days after the grapes of autumn.

The fields are generally quiet, crops are shutting down as the cold weather works its physiological effect and lays out the foundations for growth next spring. The last of the autumn drilling has been done , no more will attempted now, it has only been the opportunity created by a few dry days after a lot of rain that got these last fields finished. It is time to clean down and get the grease gun out and use the winter to maintain the kit and prepare for spring.

The cows are in, although sheep can stay out all winter if they have food and shelter.

The crops look well and are going into the winter in a good condition,  we shall look back on this autumn as one of the best for a long time.

Jobs To Do

There is quite a lot of time to be spent catching up with the latest thinking at meetings, reviewing the last season and picking up on any snippets that should be useful next year. The dreaded meetings take up a lot of time, and always seem to be scheduled for the only day in the week when the sun shines, however it is a rare meeting that does not yield something interesting.

The wild animals have food and shelter for the time being, however we still do not do enough for the help owls that need to catch voles by having some grass that is not hacked too short late in the year, which only destroys the habitat for the voles.

It will soon be time to put food and water out for wild birds as we get the inevitable bad weather.

And Finally For This Year...

As the weather forecasters always say, ‘Wrap up warm’, and for everyone in and around the fields, we wish you a Happy Christmas and Wonderful New Year and looking forward to see you carol singing.

Seumas Foster


Published in the November 2013 edition

The Big Green Tablecloth

September and October have been slightly damp and warm, so the autumn sowing process has been a bit of a joy for a change. The crops have emerged with unusual haste from text book seedbeds in an even and green condition. Not quite what we have had to cope with some years! The effect is of a big green table cloth shaken out between the hedges. It is a great start to the production cycle of next year's harvest.

There are still a few fields of maize to harvest as well as a few late fields to sow, maize has been late to mature in keeping with the trend this year for all crops. Autumn cultivations will be underway, turning the soil to start the preparation of the spring crop seedbeds, as the leaves fall and days get shorter.

Soils need to be sampled for nutrients, so the required amount of fertiliser can be calculated and so avoid unnecessary waste.

Crops to Watch: Ancient and Modern

The field in front of the school at Cliddesden on the other side of the road is a crop of Maris Otter, a winter barley which is grown to produce very high quality malt for the brewing trade, highly sought after for beers and ales by the specialist brewers. It is a very old variety first grown commercially in 1966, bred by breeders in Cambridge, and revived by a consortium of merchants in 1992, ‘to be grown by the best growers on the most suitable soils’. It may not have the yield potential of modern varieties but it is in high demand and worth growing. Check Wikipedia.

The field on the other side of the road in front of the school is Oil Seed Rape, a variety with the catchy name ‘PT229CL’, which is a very interesting because it is tolerant of a particular herbicide only available to use with these varieties which have been selected by breeding not genetic modification. It has been chosen to see if the weed control choices can be widened. The P in the name indicates the Breeders ‘DuPont Pioneer’, and the CL indicates it is a ‘Clear Field’ variety. It may give a better way to control weeds that are difficult or expensive conventionally.       

A Hard Winter to Come?

Who knows, but it is fun (?!) to speculate as to what we may have to look forward to. It will be a ‘season ‘, and tomatoes shipped into the supermarket will not be worth eating, not after tasting your own home grown produce this autumn.

There has been a huge crop of acorns this year, just as there has been an excellent fruit year, with lots of apples in orchards and crab apples in the hedgerows. If we do get hard weather at least there will be some food for wild birds and animals to forage. Perhaps this excess will attract more migrants from Scandinavia or Europe to visit. Keep a watch as you go about.

Seumas Foster


Published in the October 2013 edition

“Summer Extracts from the Farm Diary” or “What a Difference a Year Makes”

July 29: We finished cutting the winter barley but the winter OSR (oil seed rape) is late this year. Some of the barley straw has been baled and carted into the barns for the winter. Bit of rain last weekend but soon dried off and seems to help ripen the crops.

Aug 1 (National Day, Switzerland): Very hot today, it looks as if the summer could hang on a bit longer. Baler broke down - bearing failure - repairs took the rest of the day. Cutting OSR, yields reasonable but not as good as last year. Checked winter barley yields with yield maps from the combine, looks like good result and the quality is good so should get the malting premium. Moisture levels down below 12% by the evening.

Aug 9: Good day cutting wheat now, the first fields seem to be coming off better than expected. Straw clean and grain has a good specific weight (80+), what a difference from last year. No breakdowns on the combine (touch wood) but the headstock has been ripped off the topper so workshop has been busy rebuilding it.
Grass getting very short for the cattle, growth has slowed to nothing in the heat so we are moving them nearly every day. Got a cut of hay from the permanent pasture round the church.

Aug  15: Sowing new crop OSR after winter barley, two varieties we grew this year but the third variety we are growing is coming from Germany where the seed crop was grown, and they keep delaying delivery date. Not good for blood pressure. If it doesn’t come soon we will have to change the cropping plan.
Keep getting messages from the agronomist to spray herbicide straight after drilling and rolling. I need another tractor and driver to get all this done.
The maize is growing at last, about 2 inches a day in this heat. It may not be a disaster after all. Still need rain for the grass.
Cutting spring barley now, will go back to the wheat later. Barley is doing very well, seems to be crop of the year, neighbours also reporting good crops. Plenty of clean, dry straw to bale and cart.
First service today for new tractor.

Aug 26 (Late Summer Holiday): We all had w/end off, only a little bit of rain, much less than forecast. Back into the better wheat crop last week up the Avenue, and cut good yields/quality. Protein levels down but not a problem. Winter OSR has been shipped off the farm, we need the space in the stores.
Poppies cut by the contractor and in store. Alkaloids higher than last year because of the sun.
New crop OSR emerged and so is the volunteer barley, need to check recommendations to get early control.
Wheat still doing well, up to 11 tonnes/ha from Cordiale in Sullengers, and a very clean stubble.

Sept 1: Finished wheat two days ago, with spring wheat being last crops cut. Good crop, might try this variety (Mulika) again. Springs beans not the best crop, the top pods suffered with the heat and the seeds didn’t fill as well as they did last year. Still 1.5 to 2 days of work on the beans and then 26 acres of spring OSR in Long Broadmere and Mortimer Field to finish. Neighbours seem to be on about the same timetable. Pressured to get clear of the beans in time to avoid dusty conditions for Maggie’s party.

Jobs to do ...

1. Buy everyone a drink!
2. Start all over again!

Seumas Foster


Published in the August/September 2013 edition

Phew, What a Scorcher

As of today (I'm writing this article in mid July), days of sunshine and high temperatures stretch away forwards and backwards, but there is no complaining, because everyone prefers good weather like this rather than a repeat of last year. If last year's solar radiation was 20% below average, this year it looks set to be 20% above average! Some people tell me this is the first time in ten years they have had wall to wall sunshine on their Cornish holiday.

The crops are making the best of the weather, still growing into the ripening phase, although some thin and/or gravelly soils will run out of water reserves very soon. Harvesting will be underway before the end of July, although the bulk of it will be done during August. Generally speaking, crops might be a week later than average but if the sunshine stays around then it could be an easier job than the last wet years. Winter barley will be the first to ripen so the fields on Farleigh Hill and around Cliddesden should be the first off. These fields will also be the first to be re-sown, this time to autumn Oil Seed Rape, planned to be in the ground by the end of August, so the straw will be baled and moved quickly. We will be wanting a bit of rain by then to lay the dust and help the new seeds along.

Mending the Soil

Over the previous wet years some soils have been structurally damaged by tyres and cultivations, so a dry spell does give a good opportunity to repair some of that damage by breaking up the soils and getting some air into it. This will help restructure the soils, improve drainage and allow better root growth for the next crops. This compacted layer is often not too deep and so, as long as a cultivator can get under the damaged layer, a good repair is possible - this will usually be in the normal cultivation depth. Cracks and fissures in the subsoil are more or less permanent and are to be protected, so working too deep must be avoided. If they are damaged then it can take a long time, perhaps tens of years, to restore them.

Cropping Next Year

The rotation of crops by type and suitability according to good husbandry principles continues, and at the present time it is unlikely that we will be able to find new crops that fit our requirements in the near future. It should be possible to stick with crops that grow well in our local conditions and that have a good market so they can be sold for a Profit!!

Soporific Weather

It's not just warm days that might induce a little drowsiness. It seems to me a bit of a conundrum that although I can stay awake through any amount of news reports waiting for the weather forecast, as soon as it comes on I fall immediately into a deep sleep that lasts just until the end of the forecast. Conversely when I would like to be fast asleep, the shipping forecast has me bright eyed and bushy tailed on the first syllable at 5.20am, but not for long!    

Wishing all a Happy and Heavy harvest.

Seumas Foster


Published in the July 2013 edition

As the solstice approaches the time flies by, there is so much to do it brings a whole new meaning to the word busy.

The crops have really taken off in June and made fantastic growth to finally look as if they might not be too bad after all, but I never said that! Crop growth is still a bit behind the normal timings, but has made up a bit of time so harvest will not be delayed too long. What has become apparent is that the usual harvest sequences will be disrupted, progression from one crop to the next as they ripen will be uneven this time, particularly with oil seed rape because the flowering season has been so erratic this year. The combines will have to cut what is ready and come back when the rest has ripened, and move into another crop between.

Will harvest be later than usual? The answer at the moment is a non-committal ‘maybe-maybe not’, although I feel that the probability of a slight delay is the best bet. We shall have to wait and see.

‘Save The Bumble Bee’

Everyone will have heard of the 2 year ban on the use of some NEONICOTINOID insecticides, which will be implemented from 1st December 2013. This ban is designed to allow researchers  to determine if the insecticides as they are used now are actually harming wild bees. The ban will be reviewed  before the two year period ends.

The proposals restrict the use of three neonics, for seed treatment, soil application and foliar treatment on bee attractive plants and cereals. There are two neonics which are used in the horticulture sector which have a different chemistry to the banned materials and are significantly lower risk to bees and so are not restricted.

The biggest use for neonics is as seed dressings where they have become the default for insect control. As a treated seed germinates and grows, the chemical is taken into the growing plant and is able to control any biting or sucking pests that attack crops early, and also will prevent feeding by slugs. This has been very effective at controlling aphids which transmit viruses in Cereals, flea beetles and seed weevils in Cereals and Oil Seed Rape, insects in Sugar Beet and Linseed, and to some extent suppressing  wireworm, and so neonics have become very important in Maize. They are also important (essential?), in ornamental production for the control of vine weevil and sciaird fly, and will not be permitted for use in ‘Ornamentals flowering in the year of treatment’ during the ban period.

During this period it is expected that pests will have to be controlled by older chemistry applied through sprayers onto the growing crop, which is not the best way to control the pests.

Will Bees Benefit from the Ban?

Possibly, but the case against neonics does not seem to be proven, and the regression to older, less effective insecticides doesn’t seem like progress. Even commercial beekeepers would prefer to see crops treated with a neonic seed dressing than having lots of pyrethroids sprayed about. I feel that good weather during the ban period will have more beneficial effect for bees than lack of seed dressings, and perhaps a study to count bumble bees in the areas where the badger cull is taking place might show how many bumble bee nests are destroyed by badgers. Two years is not going to be long enough to satisfy all sides in this situation.

This month, as temperatures have risen, has seen a significant increase in bee activity, but like the rest of us they prefer the sun on their backs and plenty of flowers in the countryside.

Seumas Foster


Published in the June 2013 edition

Looking forward to June

The Summer Solstice, the longest day in terms of daylight, will be June 21, and if the skies are clear and cloud free we should be in for a long, hot, perfect summer.  No harm in wishing and hoping, and maybe wishes will come true.

There is a lot going on in June in the fields, as crops flower, set seed and any surplus is harvested to make forage such as silage or hay for the winter.

Adding up the Degrees

An enterprising colleague worked out the accumulated degree days for this year from Jan 1 and then compared it with the 20 year average, and the conclusion was that the plants were about 2-3 weeks behind the normal growth. This can be seen in the fields as winter barley would normally be fully in ear by mid May, showing the bright green whiskery awns above the crop, and winter wheat ears would be pushing up past the last leaf (called the flag leaf), firstly showing as patches of a waxier green in the sea of leaf green and then changing the view to a field of ears.

This year barley has been very slow, although it has every prospect of catching up so it is unlikely that harvest will be late, unless something dreadful happens between now and then. This is called ‘managing expectations’!

Soon to be Revealed

The trees are also only coming into leaf slowly, as usual beech looks good. The ash trees seem quite variable, perhaps that is a symptom of the ‘Ash Dieback disease’ that came into prominence last autumn. Some horse chestnut trees seem to be a long way behind flowering as I look at them.

Field beans (see right) look good in the fields now. Germination and emergence has been as well as we could have hoped for. Beans grew well last year and with luck could do well again this year.

Watch out for the Bumble

Bumble bees have been foraging on the blossoms, feeding the first of the worker bees that the overwintered queens nurture to build up the colony for the summer. The workers are smaller so the first bees flying will be queen bees, the workers should be busy in June in the hedge rows and verges, and gardens of course.

Reliable Cow Parsley

Quick and statuesque, excellent foamy flowers,
impervious to disappointing weather, elegant in
sunshine and the regular, reliable precursor for
summer. What’s not to like about Cow Parsley?

Seumas Foster


Published in the May 2013 edition

What Lovely Weather

The first swallows (see right) that I saw this year surfed in on the wave of warm air blowing in from the south on April 12, and they are setting about renovating old nests and building new ones straight away. A plentiful supply of mud is very useful. A few sharper eared people have reported hearing a cuckoo.

The crops, in common with all the vegetation in the parishes, needed the warmth to get away at last. The fields and the hedgerows are finally showing a welcome commitment to summer.

Cuckoo Barley

Sowing of the spring crops has been completed and, although soil temperatures have stayed in low single figures well into April, they are now on the up. If barley is sown in April it is called ‘Cuckoo barley’ and is not supposed to do any good. You will be pleased to hear that there are no such crops locally! The last crops to be sown have been pharmaceutical poppies and spring oil seed rape, and seedbeds are good after weathering by the frosts and rain.

Final Cropping Plans

Forward planning is essential in these days of cross compliance and tight margins, and usually the cropping plans made before the autumn sowing starts will be very close to the final actual cropping. This year started well last autumn but what with the weather and pigeons and so on, quite a few crops have had to be replaced, so the cropping template has been changing. It has been a nightmare getting materials ordered ahead and yet still having supplies on site ready for the day it is needed (which is, as usual, dictated by the weather).

Lesser Celandine and Wood Anemone

What a fantastic show from these two this year, Lesser Celandine (see left, with Cleaver and Dead Nettle) is a lovely yellow flower with the option of using as a food, if cooked or dried first. Look up the stroganoff recipe for inspiration! Coltsfoot is another early plant to flower and well documented uses can be found in any good herbarium, like all the early flowering plants it is a life line for the first insects after the winter. It seems that the Wood Anemone (see right, with Violet) prospers when the rhizomes can grow well during a wet summer, and although it is not a plant to eat (it’s poisonous!), woodland edges and roadside verges have some good patches on show this year.


Bluebells will be in flower when the Hill & Dale hits the mat (fingers crossed!!) and if the badgers are hungry they will eat the bulbs, along with almost anything else they can find; e.g. worms, birds eggs and bumble bee nests.

Seumas Foster


Published in the April 2013 edition

Slowly, Slowly, .....

Since January there have been signs that there is still life out there, down in the hedge bottoms the tips of the Cuckoo Pint (left) began to show and, now in March, they are getting quite big, in spite of the awful weather. In April they will be in flower. The leaves start green all over and then develop irregular black spots, rather like Pulmonaria.  Celandine is another early starter that is struggling to keep our spirits up, but could put up a good show as the yellow flowers brighten up the roadsides.  In mid-March the sun has got a bit of strength but this can only be appreciated if you are behind glass and sheltered from the wind.

The cold winds have been very persistent, and on more than one occasion has brought an icy blast from the Arctic. Soil temperatures have stayed around 4’C which is not conducive of growth, so even though the days are getting longer it looks as if the path to spring is long and tortuous this year.

Frog spawn was laid on 7th March and almost immediately frozen, I am curious to find out how many tadpoles eventually hatch. Usually the frogs make a lot of noise in the days and nights  prior to the spawning, and rain and some warm evenings encourage them. This time the croaking and spawn were almost simultaneous, coinciding with a little warmth and some rain.

Work In Progress

The spring sowing has started (right) as the soil surface has dried enough.  February actually turned out to be a dry month on average at 35mm, although March will be above average if this weather continues. Last year, March was like dust bowl!
The frost and drying winds have done a fantastic job at breaking up the soil so they did crumble easily to a good seedbed. It has not been a year to cultivate too deep because the medium and heavy soils were still very wet underneath, so staying on the surface has been the aim. The farmers working with what is called ‘boys land’ on the chalk don’t know they are born!

The spring beans are in (left) and so is the spring barley, there will be poppies later but they are best left until the soil is warm and they can germinate and get away quickly.

Although poppy seed is tiny it has remarkable ability to grow whatever the conditions, but for a good crop we do need the seeds  to germinate and grow away together so there is an even crop to look after.

And …

Good luck to Ben who is off to drive a combine harvester across the U S of A, following the harvest from south to north as the crops ripen. It is quite a change but I am sure he will enjoy the experience!

Seumas Foster


Published in the March 2013 edition

7 Consecutive Dry Days

It is just possible that we may look back at 7 consecutive dry days in February with a feeling of nostalgia and whimsy as brief respite in a wet year, or we could be counting the days of drought that started with the 7 consecutive dry days in February!

Prospects in the fields have improved now that spring is moving like an amoeba over the window sill, a bit more light as the sun climbs a little higher and the strength of the sun can be felt across your shoulders, if you are out of the wind!

A look at the crops now and, with some imagination, they are growing stronger. There is a big difference between the earlier sowings (good), and the later sown (backward) crops. One job this year for most farms has been making a decision about which fields will survive and those that are not going to make it and therefore need to be replaced. In March the axe will have fallen on the failures (no other word will do) and the bullets will have been bitten to replace those crops that do not have a reasonable harvest prospect.

March will be a very busy time in the fields as spraying, fertilising and sowing occupy all the available days. The grass will also be growing but March is perhaps a bit early for grazing, although if conditions are right then no doubt the livestock will take advantage. A few lambs might be seen in March.

Mad March Hares

March is a great time to see Brown Hares, as it is the peak month for mating and the crops have not grown up yet, so they are really visible. The best times to go out in search of them is the first two hours of light in the morning and the last two in the evening, as they are particularly active at these times. Find a spot where you can hide (or use a vehicle to sit in as Hares tend to ignore these) with a good view over open arable ground, making sure that the wind is blowing from the Hares to you - not the other way round, as they will scent you and ‘hare’ off.

The male hare (called a Jack) is very keen to mate with a female hare (called a Jill) at this time of year, so they will chase the Jill around. Sometimes, lots of Jacks will gather together and follow a single Jill but, if she is not ready to mate, she will turn around and fight them off with her front legs - this is known as ‘boxing’ and is a marvellous spectacle to watch.

If you walk across a field and disturb a Hare, take a look at the place where it sprung from and you will find a shallow scrape in the ground where it had been lying - this is known as a ‘form’. Each hare will have a number of forms dotted around the fields, all facing in slightly different directions and will choose one so it can lie facing into the wind and scent the air for any sign of danger. Because its eyes are situated on the side of its head the hare can also see directly behind itself, so there is no way you can sneak up on it as it has all directions covered. Actually nearly all directions - it does have a very narrow blind spot directly in front, resulting on occasion in it running into things when it is concentrating on the predator behind!

When you flush a hare make a note of which way it runs as it usually will turn and run uphill, as its big powerful hind legs and relatively short front legs mean it can actually run faster uphill! So, a good way to remember their names is ‘Jack and Jill ran up the hill’, and can do so at speeds of up to 35mph!

Seumas Foster


Published in the February 2013 edition

A New Year – A New Winter

I can just hear people saying how welcome a bit of cold weather is at last, and I do not disagree. The frost stiffens up the mud and at last walking down farm tracks and footpaths is a lot easier. As a bonus the countryside demands to be photographed as snow temporarily transforms the view. The crops are safe for a while, especially the small Oil Seed Rape plants that are now hidden from the pigeons under the snow. Snow is a wonderful heat insulator so the crops are also protected from the worst of the frost as well.

Frost has the magical ability to change cold wet soil into a friendly strong, stable, tilthy soil, which is that prized state that is the ideal medium for seeds and spring growth of crops. The drainage is restored and the soil is able to hold moisture and nutrients in the spaces between the soil particles for plants as they grow when the warm longer days come later. A frost tilth is undoubtedly ideal for farming, seedbeds need much less horse power because the soil has been already ‘worked’ by the weather, and the all important seed/soil contact is as good as it can be.

Some weeds are killed by prolonged frost, most weeds can withstand a day or two of frost, but a long period will usually be enough to do some good. On the other hand most seeds will need a period of cold weather before they will germinate, this is called the vernalisation period and is probably important to prevent seeds germinating too soon after ripening, maybe avoiding growth starting just as the winter is coming. This is part of the dormant phase of a seed.

After all the problems last autumn sowing the crops as planned, there is a chance that we can still sow some of the seeds bought last year, but they do need a period of cold (vernalisation) to grow and produce a seed (or grain) successfully. The period of time for vernalisation varies with variety so for example the end of January would be last date for Solstice winter wheat, however the latest for Invicta winter wheat would be the end of February. We will need a bit of luck and the right weather to carry on sowing winter wheats, it is more likely that spring wheat, spring barley and spring beans will be chosen to sow in the remaining fields.  

Most fields that did get sown will have to be checked carefully to see how well the crops have grown because after the combination of serious slug grazing and wet waterlogged fields last autumn there will be areas, and maybe whole fields, that need to be redrilled with another crop. This could lead to some interesting patterns in some fields as they are split, time will tell.

Wildlife is struggling to find food now, the feeders in my garden are very busy today and will need to be topped up more often. Already today I have seen what might be a linnet or a corn bunting, both are possible in this area but I do find it difficult sometimes to tell the difference between some of our native species as they flash by, and it’s not good weather to hear them sing! The main thing is they are here and I have been able to watch them along with all the other birds today. I must remember to put some water out for them.

Seumas Foster


Published in the December 2012 edition (combined December 2012 / January 2013 edition)

One To Forget- But It Won’t Be ...

It will not have escaped your notice that the fields are still wet, in fact very wet and muddy, and are looking very different from last year. The planned cropping carefully formulated according to good agronomic principles has been seriously disrupted, now it will be too late for successful autumn sowing and the fields will have to be planted with a spring alternative.

Several factors need to be considered when changing cropping. The economic considerations are important, but so is the need to get the best possible result and mitigate potential losses of growing a less valuable crop. The sourcing of new seed can be a problem because there may a severe shortage of suitable supplies, the seed suppliers cannot plan for such exceptional circumstances as we have endured this year. The crop rotation should be maintained as far as possible so plant pests and diseases do not get a free ticket. Storage requirements of replacement crops may be different from the planned crops, although most farms have sufficient flexibility to cope.

The most difficult problem is that spring sowing on some soils is not easy, heavy soils that can stay wet well into April are not much fun when it comes to sowing a spring barley into them and doing a job of which you are pleased.

Guidance From The Past

After looking back to last year to see what experience may have taught us and offer “a coping strategy” (farmers are notorious for a 12 month memory in most circumstances) and, if no solution is apparent, then asking the more wrinkled sons of the soil for a “‘living memory” review to check for similar circumstances could point up any lessons that can be drawn.

After this, then the only hope might be found in some of the wise old sayings:

By sowing in wet - is little to get:  Don’t waste your time and effort, be patient.

When frost will not suffer to dike and to hedge, Then get thee a heat with thy beetle and wedge: In other words get on with another job when you can’t do the one you wanted to do.

Sow four grains in a row, One for the pigeon, One for the crow, One to rot and One to grow: The well known old saying which recognises that if it’s not one thing then it’s another.

As the weather is in October, so it will be next March: We shall just have to wait and see!

Seagull, seagull, get thee on’t sand, ’Twill never be fine while thou’rt on land: After seeing the seagulls following the ploughs, this seemed appropriate.

And, bringing us up to date;   

It’s not easy being green - Kermit the Frog.

Happy Christmas and a Happy New Year to everyone.

Seumas Foster


Most can be clicked on to display a larger version


Here are the ruminations of agronomist and Ellisfield resident, Seumas Foster. These articles, on the vagaries of the seasons and its effects on farming and wildlife, first appeared in Hill & Dale, the monthly magazine of the United Benefice of Cliddesden, Dummer and Ellisfield with Farleigh Wallop.

Articles going back to December 2012 are held on this page. Just scroll down to read any of these articles.

click to view larger version ...



click to view larger version ...

Elder Flower

Dog Rose

click to view larger version ...


click to view larger version ...


click to view larger version ...


click to view larger version ...

Come Dancing?

click to view larger version ...

Guelder Rose berries
in the hedgerow

click to view larger version ...

Oil Seed Rape

click to view larger version

Silaging in Ellisfield

click to view larger version ...


click to view larger version ...

Frost on Wire