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Autumn Diary 2018

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If you told any farmer during our cold wet April to expect an early harvest, you would have been laughed at or dismissed as mad. But that is what happened. Who would have predicted that the cold wet spring would quickly turn into a long, hot summer and prolonged drought, resulting in an early harvest for most crops. The majority of cereals had been combined before mid- August and even most of the forage maize was harvested by the end of September. Although farmers enjoyed an early harvest and open autumn for drilling rape and cereals, yields in general were well below normal expectations. One farmer told me that his potatoes were contracted to a well known frozen chip manufacturer and if it had been a normal year his potatoes would have been rejected for being too small. However, this year all the potatoes are small, so when you get served skinny fries instead of chunky wedges you know why!

Most of the farmers local to me have invested in huge combine harvesters with massive reels that can gobble up hundreds of hectares of wheat in no time at all. Back in the day the cereal harvest would have gone on for many weeks; even months. Steam ploughing never really replaced the horse which only became properly redundant with the advent of paraffin, petrol and diesel tractors, but it did introduce the concept of mechanisation which has gathered apace, replacing people with machines. Today we have GPS guided tractors that can plough a furrow as straight as any ploughman.

Steam tractor from Lincoln

I got a taste of the old days when I visited the annual steam threshing day at Bicker in Lincolnshire.

Flour Mill built in Stamford
The highlight for me was a steam engine driving a belt that not only powered the threshing machine but also a baling machine fixed to the rear of the thresher that made perfect bales from the straw. I then witnessed the next stage in the process when I photographed a steam tractor made in Lincoln powering a milling machine built in Stamford, also in Lincolnshire, making flour from the wheat.

Spider's Webs

Autumn is a great time on the naturalist's calendar too. A dawn visit to your local patch might not always turn up a rare bird or animal, but it will nearly always reward you with some of the seasons' magic. You don't realise how many spiders there are until the spiders' webs are illuminated by an autumn dew.

Curlew at Rye Harbour

A visit to a coastal marsh or nature reserve will witness bird migration in one form or another. It might be thousands of wading birds calling in to feed on their passage south from their arctic breeding grounds or waders like our fast declining;

Juvenile Wheatear at Rye Harbour
Curlew which has possibly only travelled a hundred miles or so, to move from its breeding grounds on moors to coastal marshes, where it will spend the winter. Another moorland bird that turns up at the coast on passage is the Wheatear.

Fallow Deer at dawn

A dawn visit to a local wood will also pay dividends. As dawn is much later in the autumn than earlier in the year, you don't have to rise at an uncivilised hour to enjoy the time when many birds and animals are feeding, and closer approaches are possible.

Fallow Doe and Pheasant
The only downside is that the light is not great for photography, but I did manage to snap some fallow deer and a red-legged partridge on the edge of a wood.

Red-legged Partridge

Great White Egret

On any trip to the coast in southern Britain and indeed on many inland waters you are likely to encounter a Little Egret. These birds were very rare only 30 years ago but now breed widely in Britain, often in the company of Grey Herons and Great Cormorants.

Little Egret
Now it is worth checking out every white egret that you see, because the much larger cousin of the Little Egret; the Great White Egret is turning up regularly and has even nested in the UK. Might the individuals that we are now seeing, be the advanced guard of another species about to colonise these islands?

It seems as the climate changes and we are losing species which are probably at the northern tip of their breeding range, such as Red-backed Shrikes and Nightingales we are gaining species at a similar rate. Ray Kimber; the well- known resident ornithologist at the RSPB reserve of Titchwell Marsh and author of the highly readable "Titchwell Tales" told me that over more than forty years of walking around the reserve every Sunday morning he sees about the same number of species of bird, just different ones! The Willow Tits, Nightingales and Lesser Spotted Woodpeckers have long gone but forty years ago there were no Avocets, Egrets, Cetti's Warblers or Marsh Harriers. No doubt much of this is due to the many improvements to habitat that the RSPB have made, but it also illustrates the constant changes in nature that makes our hobby so enthralling.

Ian Misselbrook

October 2018

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