Posts filed under 'Tales from Pond Cottage'
The Red Gateway leads to an almost unimaginable world. Yet it models the prospects for a future very like the one we are sleepwalking towards at present. We will arrive there if we do nothing to turn away from business as usual.
On a misty, moisty Sunday morning there is not much chance of doing useful work in the garden..Another weekend’s work undone. I’m now so late getting seeds in the ground, our vegetables may not see the light of day this year and the fields around Pond Cottage are not doing any better. So I’ve been digging out old documents on climate change instead.
That quote above is from Stephen Blackmore’s chapter on the different scenarios presented by a warming planet. Gardening the Earth – Gateways to a Sustainable Future, published four years ago, is an ultimately optimistic book offering hope as long as we learn to treat the environment with the care and understanding of a good gardener. But Professor Blackmore, Regius Keeper of the Royal Botanic Garden Edinburgh, also issues a chilling message: “Business as usual” will cause catastrophic climate change and the greatest mass extinction of species since the disappearance of the dinosaurs.
With the thermometer struggling to get into two figures, an extra two degrees upwards sounds quite pleasant. But of course it’s not that simple. Besides (on a roller-coaster of extreme variations) we’re now hurtling towards a rise of 4°C with those unimaginable consequences. Not just for polar bears on the melted north pole, not just for far-away islands drowned at sea, but also for cities like London, New York, Hong Kong, Mumbai, Tokyo – ever-growing centres of civilisation as we know it – facing inundation from oceans which could rise by 40 metres.
Who cares? Who believes it will happen? I listened with exasperation as BBC Today’s Caroline Quinn questioned James Hansen, former NASA climate change campaigner, on the ‘confusion’ of climate change evidence. No confusion, he firmly replied. Among the overwhelming majority of scientists there is no doubt: human behaviour is causing climate change; the planet is warming fast, and climate change predictions are based on hard evidence of what happened the last time Earth’s atmosphere contained such a high concentration of carbon dioxide. Hansen is now busy campaigning against the dash for oil from tar sands which would enable us to pump out even more CO2.
Business as usual, warns Lord Stern in another report, propels us towards an Earth which cannot feed or shelter its growing population. But business as usual is all politicians really understand. They seem unable or unwilling to inspire disillusioned voters with alternatives which could create a properly sustainable economy. Building affordable energy efficient houses on public transport routes would be a good start; building hope, employment and homes at the same time! But our ‘swivel-eyed’ British government is far too busy fighting internal battles to bother about securing the environment: fiddling with Europe while the planet burns.
May 19th, 2013
Ray is steaming ahead. Literally. In this cold air breath comes in cloudy puffs as wind whips flurries of snow off the verges and plucks a mourneful chord on the telegraph wires. G Minor I reckon but I really wouldn’t know. Whatever, it’s cold, bleak and very unseasonal.
Welcome to Spring, said the sign at the RSPB’s Loch Leven reserve with no hint of irony. We had stopped off on our way here to buy food for the birds, but it looks as if the sack will have to stay in the back of the car.
Welcome to Pond Cottage? We’ve seen snow in March before but this is heavier than we remember. The snow plough has cleared the road creating high and icy walls on either side. Just to make sure we can’t get the car into the gateway, the wind has piled a drift of snow at least three feet deep.
Arriving at Dr Zhivago’s hide-out. Pond Cottage in Varykino mode. We had a magical New Year three years ago when Ray had to bring the tractor to unload the car, carrying two bewildered cats along with the booze and food for a week’s holiday warmed by the woodburning stove inside and a sense of a big adventure outside. But this is Easter. Two weeks ago we were pruning hedges, burning great bonfires, planning to dig the ground.
The swans are very pleased to see us. They have been here for a couple of months now and started building a nest a few weeks back. Ducks have been coming and going for a few weeks too. Testosterone was definitely rising among the drakes. I hope their attempts at mating have been unproductive. Ducklings wouldn’t stand a chance in this weather.
All right for some. The witch hazel has had a very good winter and the cold snap seems to be giving it a new lease of life. Heartbreaking though for farmers and food growers battling for lives and livelihoods against killer temperatures. This is the harsh reality of climate change for all of us.
But spring can’t be long now? I posted that Welcome to Spring picture from Loch Leven on Twitter. Two days later there was a nice tweet back from the RSPB: “Haha we put that up a couple of weeks ago when it was warm & sunny! Seems like admitting defeat to take it down. spring WILL come!” Happy Easter one and all.
March 30th, 2013
‘You know those ducks in that lagoon by Central Park South? That little lake? By any chance do you happen to know where they go, the ducks, when it gets all frozen over?’
I blew the dust off my old copy of The Catcher in the Rye to find that quote. Rather eerily it fell open at exactly the right page. But never mind those ducks in Central Park, Holden Caulfield. What I want to know is where do the swans go when they leave Pond Cottage? Long before it is in any danger of freezing over.
Who knows what is in a swan’s head. We can’t find a bird book that comes close to explaining the behaviour of swans that come to breed at Pond Cottage.But we have learned not to believe that stuff about mating for life.
We first began to get a glimpse of the murky world of swan relationships when that bad boy AJA did a bunk having fathered three cygnets (well, six actually but only three survived).
We knew he was AJA because we could see the letters on a ring on his leg. What we didn’t know was that he had left his first mate (his mother no less) after fathering a brood on the Town Loch in Dunfermline in 1995. That is we didn’t know it until (thanks to Google) we found two expert and dedicated swan handlers, Allan and Lyndesey Brown, who were able to tell us AJA’s story by decoding the letters on his ring.
Then they came and performed a little magic on the banks of the pond, coaxing AJA’s abandoned mate and her three cygnets out of the water with some white sliced bread. They were gentle and deft and knew just what they were doing. It was an amazing experience which we had given up hope of repeating until this year.
I contacted Allan and Lyndesey again last month to ask if they might be able to come and ring this year’s family of nine swans. Sadly, Lyndesey told me, they have decided to call it a day after years of catching and ringing hundreds of swans in the Fife area. Still, thanks to Allan and Lydesey, we know what it feels like to stroke a swan’s chest (they seem to find it soothing when they are being trussed, weighed and measured) and we have the pictures to prove it.
And though AJA never showed up again we know quite a lot about his movements until that summer of 2004 – he came and went between Lochgelly, Loch Leven and Town Loch. Part of me wishes we didn’t know what happened to his son, less charismatically ringed as ILS in September 2004.
The mother swan flew off as soon as her new feathers grew leaving her three offspring to winter on the pond. They pottered about quite happily coming up to the bank to be fed every time we appeared. One misty February morning we arrived to find the pond empty and a few days later I got an email with the subject line: mute swan ILS. It was a message from Allan.
We have received a report that cygnet ILS was found dead below power lines at Milnathort (NO131047) on 6th February 2005. Was this its first flight? A not untypical cause of death for cygnets but a great pity all the same – especially after the food you have given it!
Holden Caulfield never does find out about the ducks. Maybe sometimes it’s a happier ending not to know.
Flashback to Spring 2004.
[I wrote this three winters ago but decided to republish partly because it is one of the stories that attracts most visitors to my blog – or maybe it is the handsome swan's head – and partly because a pair of swans appeared on the pond yesterday morning. Who knows how long they will stay.]
January 5th, 2013
What to do with an orphan duckling? The internet is not helpful. We better be prepared for two months of hard work. Ducklings take a lot of looking after, they are messy and time-consuming. They need a diet rich in protein – plenty of slugs and worms – and ideally, a specialist ‘duckling mash’. In short, we should find ‘a licensed wildlife rehabilitator’.
It’s 10.30pm on Saturday night. Licensed wildlife rehabilitators are thin on the ground. So Ray and I spend the night with Daffy Duckling in a corner of the bedroom, cheeping forlornly in a washing up bowl with an old face cloth for bedding and a mesh covering to prevent it jumping out. Our cat is shut in the living room.
What would you do?
Well, what would you do? Earlier in the day there were three fluffy little ducklings. They emerged from the butterbur leaves on the side of the pond, looking lost. It was tempting to pick them up and put them in a box right away (and we had a houseful of streetwise young people who wanted to do just that) but the expert advice is usually to leave young birds alone so that the parents can come and retrieve them.
Three hours later there is only one little duckling. It’s getting dark and there is no sign of mother duck. Whatever got the other two is out there somewhere. Yes, of course, you would do the same. But what do we do in the morning?
I’ve had better nights sleep. The duckling is surprisingly quiet until dawn and then it joins the chorus. For a tiny creature it makes a very loud noise. From 8 am I’m out looking under stones for slugs which Daffy gobbles up but am I really doing the right thing? Another website says crushed Cheerios are acceptable in an emergency. We are fresh out of Cheerios.
A female duck appears on the pond but seems utterly unmoved by the sight or sound of the duckling – and oddly the wee bird goes quiet when we approach the edge of the water.
No sign of mother duck
Time to seek expert advice. The RSPB helpline says we should contact the SSPCA. When Ray calls in person at Vane Farm, the RSPB reserve just down the road from Pond Cottage, the staff there say the same. It’s 11 am, it’s Sunday. Without much hope, Ray calls the SSPCA.
Amazingly, within an hour a smart 4×4 rolls up the lane and an equally smart uniformed man jumps out. Most people have difficulty finding Pond Cottage first time. The SSPCA duty officer knew just where to come because he’s been here on a rescue mission before; 25 years ago (long before we arrived) he was called to liberate a swan trapped among debris in what was then a sadly silted up pond. Our hero had to retreat to the village and return with an inflatable boat so he could reach the swan, cut the wing feathers free from the barbed wire and watch the bird fly off without so much as a thank you.
Daffy is a much easier job. He goes with barely a squeak into a little plastic box placed in the boot alongside a cat basket containing three very small kittens – orphaned by a road accident. The SSPCA man smilingly assures us the duckling has a good chance of survival – most likely the mother was a young bird, a first time mother abandoning her brood because she didn’t know any better. Once the duckling joins others at the Dundee sanctuary they will form a brood and teach each other how to survive.
So it’s a happy ending, with any luck. But whatever happens to Daffy I think it is nothing short of wonderful that on a Sunday (or any day of the week) there is an SSPCA driver touring the countryside rescuing abandoned and abused animals, picking up nature’s waifs and strays and taking them all to a place of safety where they stand a fair chance of living happily. Writing this has reminded me to make that online donation we said we would make to SSPCA. Well, what would you do?
Happier days on the pond
July 8th, 2012
Two red squirrels, the third was camera shy
Early morning and it looks idyllic out there. Buttering my toast I watch a scene Walt Disney would be proud of. Two – no three! – red squirrels, frisky as kittens, chasing each other round the bird feeder.
Before breakfast Ray saw a brown hare in the field, long ears alert for dog walkers and other dangers. And now around the pond, randy mallard drakes are pursuing loudly protesting females while two swans finish their mating ritual with elegant finesse, making a heart shape with long necks. Spring has sprung at Pond Cottage. But don’t be deceived, it’s a jungle out there.
We watch that beautifully choreographed mating dance with mixed feelings. Every year there’s a magic moment when the young ones appear but we have learned that those fluffy bundles paddling after their mother can suddenly disappear. Nature has no time for frail or foolish young things.
“Survival of the fittest” on the pond depends on building nests well out of reach of marauding mink or other predators lurking in the undergrowth. This week a crow found the clutch of ducks eggs in a ferny hollow near the back door. Empty shells now lie scattered on the ground.
Then there’s the weather. A sudden cold spell wipes out weaklings in the brood, flash floods wash away nests. One year, after heavy rain destroyed the swans’ woody platform, we watched the female transporting her young to safety, the smallest cygnet snuggled between her wings.
Every year we marvel at the instincts that drive such determined hard work. It’s a tough life, feeding, keeping warm and perpetuating the species. And it’s no softer in the city. Back at home this week Ray watched a sparrowhawk sweeping through the back garden, perching on the bird bath with a small dead bird in its talons before retiring to a tree to finish the meal with gusto. All within full view of the kitchen window. As a friend commented, it’s the sign of a healthy songbird population. Our overgrown garden is obviously now on the raptor list of recommended eating places.
But back to red squirrels. In the last three years they have become one of the great treats of staying at Pond Cottage. At first we wondered if they would be harmed by contact with pox-carrying greys but oddly the greys seem to have given way to the smaller, more photogenic reds.
Last week I spotted a notice at the farm shop, asking people to inform the local Squirrel Watch group of any sightings, red or grey, ending ominously “We Will Do The Rest”. Our greys seem to have scarpered but even if they hadn’t I would be keeping quiet. There’s quite enough killing in our back yard.
April 23rd, 2012
That’s what I get for waiting. Just a week ago I took this picture to show the dramatic contrast with the same weekend exactly a year ago.
The only way out the same time last year…behind a tractor
According to the weatherman 1 December was to be the start of the meteorological winter but although the temperature was dropping, after the warmest November on record, there was still an odd mix of seasons on show in the garden. Geraniums and roses, winter jasmine and butterflies, brambles and bluebell shoots.
Yesterday it changed dramatically. Which must have been a cruel shock for the wildlife. Although there was just a frosting of snow at Pond Cottage the M8 seized up and now the weather forecast sounds horribly like a repeat of last year. So far it is still possible to get up the lane without needing a tractor to sweep the snow away but will Ray get the shed finished before the winter blockade begins? He wants to stop diesel freezing in the tank like it did last January.
The snow just kept on falling
Strange to think I once wished to be snowed in. It used to seem fun. And so it can be in small doses, just enough to keep you in for a day or two. By the fire. With a good book. But last year the Scottish winter seemed to gain an almost sinister determination to be taken seriously. Once the snow started falling it just kept on falling. Beautiful to look at but deadly to drive or walk on.
Even the tractor gave up when the snow got this deep
December 6th, 2011
Snow has always been an adventure at Pond Cottage but this year it feels like an attack. Three weeks ago we only just managed to get away by digging a narrow track up the lane with the tractor. I followed Ray, King Wenceslas on a Kubota, as close as I dared, hanging on to the wheel while trees covered in snow leaned in to brush the screen, I could almost hear them muttering, “you’re bonkers trying to drive in this”.
The snow just kept on snowing. And when it stopped the temperature dropped and kept on dropping. Now the lane is so deep in hard packed ice the car has to be abandoned by the gate and even the tractor struggles to get past the house. The water is switched off at the road end to prevent pipes bursting. The house is only just above freezing but we never sit still long enough to notice.
Last New Year it was fun. Roaring wood fire inside, winter wonderland outside, every day a new ice sculpture hanging from the gutter by the back door. The snow was deep but soft and dry. This year it is maybe even more beautiful but the snow seems to have fallen harder and heavier on the trees. And it is not for melting any time soon.
It no longer feels like fun. In 17 winters at Pond Cottage we have never seen such damage. Branches snapped off or bent double and anchored to the ground by deep snow. One holly is laid across the path, leaves completely stripped by deer and rabbit. Oddly birches seem to be worst affected – sadly some young saplings have snapped in two – though you would think since they spread down from Scandinavia they would be equipped for this kind of weather. The Scots Pine look as if they are dressed for a walk on part in Lord of the Rings.
Back in Edinburgh streets have finally cleared just as a new arctic blast brings a fresh attack of white stuff across the rest of the country. Tonight’s news brings reports of chaos just about everywhere else. “Not a flake in Glasgow” says a phone message from Dougal . But what about Pond Cottage? I’m scouring the internet looking for the least threatening weather forecasts. BBC is about the best with light snow and lows of only minus 5 over the weekend. I’ll settle for that.
Soon we will be packing and preparing for another New Year and I am looking forward to bringing the cottage back to life. But I might never wish for a white Christmas again.
December 17th, 2010
What a difference a year makes. I’ve been wanting to post pictures of our Natural Progression to winter since, well, since we progressed to winter. Hard to believe it is a year to the day since Susie installed her bamboo sculpture on the edge of the pond.
Flashback to 22 February 2009 – a sunny Sunday warm enough to work in the woods without coats, hats and scarves
Twelve months of rain, wind, sun and snow later the bamboo is still cheering me up when I walk through the woods.
The odd winter storm has knocked it about a bit but as soon as the ground thaws enough we will soon knock it back into shape.
So happy birthday Natural Progression. One year old today. And happy birthday Bobby. Congratulations on naturally progressing to 24– come to think of it, February has some good points.
Full circle – winter, spring, summer, autumn and winter again
.This is a picture Dougal took in the big snow of January. That has melted but there was hard frost on the ground again yesterday and the ducks were skating on the pond.
February 22nd, 2010
[thanks to Dougal for the snow track picture]
You don’t have to be able to read the tracks. When we get to Pond Cottage, the signs of deer and rabbit are all round the garden. Deep snow protected the plants from frost but gave the animals a leg up above the tree guards. Apples, hollies, junipers and yew are all stripped bare. “I thought yew was poisonous,” says Ray.
A few hours later we get the answer. A dead deer is lying on the path not far from the yew. It was sniffed out by the friendly lurcher that comes for a daily walk through the woods and Mr Lurch (his friendly owner) points it out to us.
I’m sad about the yew, it has been growing well for the last 10 years or so. The idea was to make a focal point at the end of the bird cherry lane and thanks to the run of mild winters the tree has been making good progress.
But I am sad about the deer too. Real foresters would not agree – deer cause a lot of damage – but the roe deer are a magical sight running through the trees on a winter evening (and once we found young twins curled up together in the long grass in the clearing which is enough to melt anyone’s heart). Until this year they haven’t caused us much trouble. They must have been really hungry to attack the yew. According to the DEFRA website death follows within two to three hours – animals are often found lying beside the yew or yew clippings – and it sounds a miserable way to die. But then, so is starvation.
On the other hand I am mad about the fruit trees. For the last few years we have had fantastic crops of apples, we’re even getting quite good at making juice (if pretty useless at cider). But the rabbits (the droppings give them away) managed to climb above the tree guards and munch their way round every tree. This happened to one flowering cherry the last time we had heavy snow and amazingly, despite being ring barked, the tree survived but we don’t have much hope for the fruit trees. Interestingly I just found a comment on Yahoo answers from a vet claiming that rabbits might be poisoned by the cyanide found in the bark of apple trees.
Taxine and taxol in yews, cyanide in apple trees; it’s a wonder trees ever die!
Ray buried the deer under the larch trees where the daffodils are just ready to burst through the ground. Larch, by the way, is full of medicinal and disinfecting properties but daffodils are poisonous in a half hearted kind of way – the bulbs cause stomach upsets if you mistake them for onions. Rabbits don’t.
January 18th, 2010
The pond taken by Dougal standing where he really shouldn’t ought to.
The night we arrive we have to abandon the car by the gate and carry the cats through snow so deep it comes right over our wellies. It’s so cold the cottage feels like a scene from Dr Zhivago.
“Diesel freezes at minus 15,” says Ray, matter of factly, remembering that winter when the generator didn’t work because the oil froze in the pipes. Outside the cottage, the windmill, blades blanketed in white, is facing resolutely north and standing absolutely still. Inside is obviously much warmer than it feels because oil and water are still flowing. That means we can light a fire and start the tractor. Ray makes tracks to retrieve our booze and food and clothes from the road end while I guard the fire willing the thermometer to rise ( a hard job but someone has to do it).
Like that scene in Dr Zhivago the icy, shrouded house slowly comes to life; candles burning, fire blazing, food cooking, steamed up glasses filling, cats purring on the sofa. I know it’s not quite like that in Varykino, in the midst of the Russian civil war, but in the absence of Omar Sharif and Julie Christie, Beth and Marley will just have to do. Besides, according to Wikipedia, the ‘ice palace’ scene was shot in Spain in a house with icicles made from beeswax. Huh.
Our snow is real and it keeps on coming for the four days of our holiday. Moon on snow, sun on sun, snow on snow and when the New Year’s day pheasant shoot starts in the neighbouring wood, blood on snow.
There are stalactytes and stalagmytes growing by the back door. A couple of Christmases ago, before recession set in, village houses were festooned with electronic icicles. Now we have the genuine articles hanging from anything that would drip.
Each new fall transforms every mundane object and turns every task into an endurance test: filling the log basket is an expedition to the North Pole. “I know it’s been said before,” says Ray, “But I am just going outside. I might be some time…”
We watch chaos on telly and wildlife through the window: crowds of birds visiting the feeders, one crow loads his beak so full of goose fat it is a wonder he can take off.
Last time we had snow this deep was 15 years ago (second thoughts, make that 17 years ago) in Aboyne where we built a fine igloo, big enough for the six footers in our company to stand upright inside. This year Dougal, Anny and I find it hard going.
“It’s the wrong kind of snow,” says Anny after an hour or so. And it really is. Too dry and powdery to stay together though we keep trying until our fingers and toes go on strike.
With an old biscuit tin (mine) and some rudimentary geometry (Dougal’s) we reach waist height (Anny’s) but when it’s time to start curving inwards for the dome the building material defeats us.
That was the holiday. We’re home again now and it’s still snowing. We left the cottage and the igloo and the ducks on the frozen pond a little wistfully thinking it would all be back to normal next time we come. Watching today’s weather forecast I am not so sure. We might manage to finish the igloo this weekend. As long as the anti freeze keeps the diesel flowing!
January 7th, 2010