Welsh botanical gardens

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Ok…in the interests of ‘transparency’ and ‘honesty’, this post comes with a disclaimer. Day 14 actually happened on Day 1 of 30 Days Wild (collective sharp intake of breath from readership). I know, I know, that’s cheating. But I have a gap in my posts. I don’t like gaps. I also really want to share my bioluminescence story. Therefore day 14, written on day 30, experienced on day 1, is about Fungi. And I suppose it’s not really cheating. I can put a spin on it…yes, Day 14: Reminiscing on a wild day out.

The National Botanical Gardens of Wales is a real gardeners delight. And for a cactus killing, not-green-fingered person like me it is still a treat.  It is fantastic for families (the new adventure playground has a trampoline!!!)  and those in need of easy access as most of the paths are flat.

The massive dome glasshouse (reminds me of the Eden project) at the top of the garden houses an impressive collection of Mediterranean plants. It is also home to the a touring exhibition (from Edinburgh) about Fungi.

Fungi are neither plants, nor animals. They belong to a whole separate kingdom, hence the title of the exhibit. Like plants they are stationary and have cell walls, but like animals they get energy from digesting matter.

 

The exhibition space is dark and had an earthy, damp soil smell to it. We were immediately confronted by a towering Toadstool. I felt as if we had become Alice and’gone down the rabbit hole’ to Wonderland.

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Behind the Toadstools something was giving off a faint green glow. We went in for a closer look and found tanks full of these bioluminescent fungi.

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This process occurs due to a chemical reaction (the oxidisation of Luciferin) creating energy which is converted to and emitted as light without causing any heat to be produced. It is a common phenomenon amongst marine life, but on land is restricted to Fungi and invertebrates.The resultant eerie glow may function to attract prey or warn off predators. Neat!DSC_0307

 

 

 

 

I love interactive exhibits. I can’t stand stuffy cases full of dusty objects that are virtually impossible to identify due to poor labelling or tiny writing. Boring. Fortunately this exhibit was all about putting the FUN into Fungi (yes, I really did just write that.). I enjoyed fiddling about with the light up ‘Russian roulette’ good and bad fungi exhibit, very helpful for anyone wishing to rustle up a mushroom based snack.

 

If you are thinking of doing a bit of ‘foraging’ make sure you follow this advice

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The exhibition space was not very big but the exhibitors have managed to cram in a lot of stuff. Quantity with no loss of quality, I hasten to add.Around the corner from this was a light box and stack of ‘x rays’ and CT scan images to explore. They had been taken from patients suffering from Aspergillosis, a respiratory disease caused by mould spores. The disease also affects other species, including dogs, chickens and parrots. Once I’d managed to figure out which way up the radiographs were supposed to hang (i’m a vet,not a medic…thankfully) it was interesting to see how the fungal spores affected humans.

 

I was being dragged about by my whirling dervish toddler (fortunately JoJo was having a snooze) so I didn’t manage to see everything. Some times I just grabbed a quick photo before moving on. I’m glad I did.

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I have walked past the sign for this exhibit on several previous visits,  always thinking that one day I will make it across the threshold to explore its offerings. I’m glad that participating in  30 Days Wild made me finally go in!

Day 19- A change of perspective

Age 5. It’s the early 90’s and I’m in the playground at primary school. We are looking for stones along the pavement beside the nursery. Something shiny catches my eye, caught between the cracks in the concrete slabs . I crouch down and carefully poke a stick into the crevice to retrieve my treasure. A gold bracelet. I scoop it up and run to the teacher, expecting praise for handing in my find. “Why do you spend so much time looking down?” she says, scornfully”Look up, look up at the world. Don’t you know how much you will miss if you spend all your time looking down?” Slightly ironic telling a 3 foot child to ‘look up at the world’ but never mind.

Despite her warning, looking at the ground is a habit that has stuck. Sometimes it is handy. As a very broke student I found a trail of £5 and £10 notes in the city centre that nobody else had spotted. All because I was looking down. Anyway, I digress. Todays random act of wildness challenged me to change my perspective for the day.

I decided to ‘look up’.

Up at the clouds.

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Up at a sycamore leaf

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Up at an oak leaf.

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Up at the roof.

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Up at the horizon.

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I guess that teacher had a point.

Day 30- Au naturelle

DSC_0420 (2).JPGI can’t believe 30 days have passed. For the final day of 30 Days Wild we had a go at making natural dye, following the Wildlife Trusts instructions, which you can download here.

How to make a leaf or petal based dye:

Take one baby muslin, a handful of pansies, a posy of roses, a sting of nettles, a glass full of buttercups and a fistful of grass. Boil with some water…ta dah, natural dye! ok, ok so it is a little more technical than that.

  1. Fill a bowl with cold water.
  2. Add 1 cup vinegar to 4 of cold water.
  3. Immerse your chosen white fabric (I sacrificed one of the many, many white muslins we have. White is not a good colour for mopping up baby stains. I know this now).
  4. Leave for about 2 hours. If you want to be fancy, tie knots in it or tie string around it. This will create patterns when dyed.
  5. Add chosen leaves/petals to a pan, cover with cold water and simmer for an hour. Make sure to stir occasionally.
  6. Drain, retain liquid.
  7. Take fabric and rinse in cold water.
  8. Add to dye, completely submerging it.
  9. Leave overnight
  10. Air dry and admire!

For berry dyes (e.g.rosehip, elderberry) you will need to add salt in step one. See the Wildlife Trusts instructions for more info.

Fortunately the rain had stopped long enough for us to  wander round our very damp garden and collect a variety of materials. Initially I thought we could create a rainbow of dyes.One look at a very black clouds gathering on the horizon and I shelved our ambitious plans, choosing just 3 colours.

Green: Nettle and Grass.

Purple: Pansy and Hedge Rose. This mix produced my favourite dye. Not only did it smell divine (think Turkish delight, rose water, soft floral perfume) but the colour was quite impressive.

Yellow: Buttercup (This looked very pale when simmering so I cheated and added ginger.)

 

Having read blogs from people who do this sort of thing routinely, I expected the colours of dye to be rather muted colours. However the purple is really quite strong, sitting somewhere between lilac and buddleia on the colour wheel.

 

The green and yellow are unfortunately rather insipid! In fact, I think the green may turn out to be a rather ‘weak tea’ shade of brown. The yellow looks a bit like elderly cat pee. At least it smells nice, thanks to the ginger!

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The next steps ,drying and turning it into bunting, will have to wait till tomorrow. Guess that means I’ll have to continue the random acts of wildness!

Day 28- Showcase on a nature table

During the whole month of June we have been collecting, sorting, storing and growing our treasure trove of nature finds.  The nature table takes pride of place in our little Montesori inspired corner of the kitchen.

 

The tally so far includes : Sensory box, wormery, Ladybird ‘viewarium’, Insect guides from the bug farm, Wildlife trust guides and our Go Find It cards (a fantastic nature based card game for families) .

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Decoration includes our 30 Days wild poster, stickers (lots of stickers) and a cool Ladybird lamp that happened to be here already!

 

I couldn’t fit all of the childrens nature books on, so we’ve had to have a second nature table in the living room! I’ll post about this later.

I am enjoying watching the girls being able to explore and learn about nature at any point in their day. C enjoys pulling a chair over to check out the finds on top of the table and to see if anything new has been added. This morning I watched as she ran her hand along the top of the unit until her fingers bumped into the cold, hard snail shell. She stood, with her face turned away towards me, running her fingertips over her find, tracing the outline of the coiled carapace. A slow smile crossed her face. ‘Ooh, smooth’ she exclaimed, before skipping off to take an important phone call from the Teletubbies .

She has started to learn the names of garden birds, and yesterday flapped across the living room, pretending to be a Blue Tit. When I asked her what colour feathers she had, she looked at me with a mix of disgust and disbelief and said ‘ Blue of course, you can stroke them if you like.’ Gosh, how wonderful it would be to be two again!

 

Day 27 -Jumping in muddy puddles!

Me: ” What are you doing?”

C: “Jumping in muddy puddles”

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Me “Right. Where are your wellies?”

C “I can’t see them anywhere.”

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Me: “But you had them on your feet just a second ago.”

C: “No. Can’t see them. I cannot find them anywhere”.

Me: “They are there, right behind you.”

C: “Oh YEEEESSS.” She places a sponge that we used to clean the outdoor toys into the puddle. “Look, its a trampoliiiiiiiiine”

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Splash. Squelch.Splosh.

C “Look at meeeeeeee….”

Me, sighing:”Yes, I’m looking at yoooooouuuu”.

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C,noticing she is being watched by a four legged friend:”Oh, Hello Cow! How are you today?”

 

Day 25- Mapping it out.

I have wanted to map out the fields for a while now.  I have only lived here for 3 years and have not yet become acquainted with the farm’s nooks and crannies. Today’s  Random Act of Wildness offered me the perfect chance to do just that. Not exactly OS standard of map drawing, and it is most definitely NOT to scale, but hey ho…it’ll do!

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F is always saying ‘I’m going to move the fence in such and such field’ and I nod along as if I know exactly where he is headed. In reality I only ever remember about 3 of the fields by name.

 

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The Cow Park is a great expanse (in my mind anyway) of relatively flat ground, which proves how plant life can still coexist with modern farming methods. On a quiet evening walk around the perimeter I have encountered Docks, nettles, bramble, clover, gorse, Chickweed, thistle, buttercup,Blackthorn, Hawthorn, ash, sycamore, Red Campion, Dandelion, vetch, speedwell…the list goes on.

The farmyard itself provides homes for many wild beast and fowl. We live on a farm….rodents are everywhere! Brown rat , field and house mice are often spotted dashing from hiding spot to hiding spot, trying not to be seen. Bats roost in the 200 year old barns and whizz around the yard at dusk, snapping up insects that multiply in the manure pile.  Pheasants stalk in the grass behind the heifer shed. A flock of wild pigeons settle down noisily each night on the roof of the cow shed. Occasionally a Sparrowhawk takes a pigeon , which is amusing to watch as they are much bigger than him!

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Summertime sees the Swallows return, the air filling with their clicking and whirring calls. Starlings arrive in late October, gorging themselves on the barley used to feed the cows. Buzzard and red kite are frequently seen soaring overhead, especially over winter months and after hay is cut.  Little owls during the Spring to screech outside the farmhouse in the small hours. We suspect they nest in the old ash trees that occupy the Meadow and Ox Park hedges. Barn owls are also seen later in the summer, hunting along the hedgerows and calling to each other across the fields. Their shrill cry sends a shiver down my spine.

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As I found out by doing the bioblitz that our garden and the sheds around the farmhouse are home to many creatures. We have seen great tits, blue tits, chaffinches, robin and sparrows on the feeders. Dunnock and wren fight over the spillage from the bird table. Collared doves are currently nesting in the hedge behind the immature oak.Thanks to our first attempt with the camera trap we know that there is a family of magpie, with two fledglings, here too.

 

Jackdaw are everywhere on the farm at the moment, the nest in the feathering loft has fledged at long last.

The log pile is our mini beast ‘Hilton hotel’. The meadow patch is wilder than ever at the moment, thanks to the recent wet and humid weather.

Business at the bee café is swift, and the ‘menu’ has expanded since the Scabious has finally flowered. Over the past month I have also become aware of (and showered curses upon) the large slug and snail populations residing in the garden.

Thanks to the 30 Days Wild project, I have finally had a chance to take stock of what coexists with us on the farm. It has also made me realise I know the farmland a lot less intimately than I would like to! Hopefully this will be the start of getting well acquainted with the rhythms of the wildlife that live on our patch of Wales.

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Day 24- Escapism.

Ever have one of those days when you want the world to stop rotating just long enough for you to escape the madness? Or when you wish Narnia was really at the back of your wardrobe so you could slip through the fur coats and stay there (the good time Narnia, not the Narnia that is always winter, that would suck.) Today was one of those days.

 

As neither of these two things are likely to happen anytime soon, I decided to take a walk along the cow track, down to the stream, just to escape the endless torent of political rhetoric coming from the radio, TV and internet. ‘Switch off and tune out’ said the #30DaysWild random act card. So I did.

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It would have been easier to ‘tune out’ if I didn’t have a 22 pound baby strapped to my back, pulling my hair, whilst a toddler swung off my wrist. We made our way slowly down the track, C moaning that she had mud on her wellies (yes, that is what wellies are for) and that the track was too ‘sloppy’ (This is word of the week, apparently). I paused to take a quick photo. Bramble blossoms have suddenly exploded out, along with Dog roses, both scrambling along the hedgerow adding a new layer of wildness. Flies droned about the hawthorn, which is still covered in pungent white flowers.  Bees buzzed passed us, as we meandered down to meet the stream.

Half way down, our path was blocked by this little creature. ‘Oh look, a beeeeuuuuatiful Caterpillar Mummy’, exclaimed C. And it really was. Orange and yellow speckles adorned a thick, black sausage shaped abdomen. Short orange fuzz covered its whole body, with tufts of white hairs between the legs (Or prolegs, if we are being anatomically correct).

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I later discovered that it will eventually become one of these;

The Drinker Euthrix potatoria

The Drinker Euthrix potatoria

Drinker moth (Euthrix potatoria), photos from UK moths.org

We inspected the moth caterpillar before gently scooping it onto the jam jar lid and placing it safely in amongst the brambles, lest it got squashed under ‘muddy’ toddler wellies.

A few more steps down the track and I spied this beauty, dangling from a leaf.

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Daring to pause to photograph said creature elicited much screaming, wailing and pulling of (my) hair by JoJo. Off we went again.

The stream nestles at the bottom of a small valley created by the farms ‘Near property’ field and the ‘Cow’s field’. The slope down is a gradual gradient, until the very last few metres when it drops sharply. C decide that this was the perfect spot to ‘Practice running Mummy’. Not ideal. Sure enough the inevitable toddler face plant soon followed, with more screaming and wailing.

I picked her up, dusted her down and we set off again. Now, finally we were at our destination. The stream bubbled along peacefully, washing away my worries from the mornings political turmoil. Sunlight dappled down upon us through the greenery. The water was crystal clear, though I expect this is not the case when the cows are traipsing through. In the soft silt around the water I noticed tracks. Distinctly Vulpine tracks.

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C’s complaining had now reached fever pitch. She had become hysterical as her left boot was ‘full of mud and soaking’. This was entirely due to the fact that she had deliberately kicked it off, mid stream, and was now standing ankle deep in the water. Tears and snot were flowing liberally. I picked her up, hoicked her under my arm and set off back up the slope. You would think by now I would have twigged that suitable footwear should be worn at all times. Crocs are not suitable footwear when crossing fields full of cow manure. Especially not gates where the mud is calf deep (my calf, not a bovine calf, that would be serious.) . Most definitely when you are liable to loose said crocs when trying to unhook the electric fence, and end up going barefoot. Sigh. Ah well, it distracted me from Brexit for a bit anyway!

Day 23 – Mr Phes.

Down behind the cow shed, in amongst the tall grass and gorse bushes lives a pheasant and his mate. I have affectionately (and imaginatively) named them Mr and Mrs Phes.

Mr Phes is a loud and gaudy specimen. I have to admit, with a bright red wattle, bottle green head feathers and a white ‘collar’ he does look very fine. He struts and shouts across the fields, ‘chuck chucking’ and squawking as he patrols his territory. Mrs Phes is a much shyer creature, her subtle gold and brown plumage affording her excellent camouflage as she slinks amongst the grass.

 

Pheasants are quite common in the fields and woodland around us, and they are often to be found running along the country lanes, usually into the path of oncoming vehicles. I thought pheasants were a rather recent introduction to the UK, but it turns out that they came over with the Romans. Its ‘original’ homeland is 2000 miles away, in eastern Asia. Over the centuries they have spread across farmland and woodland habitats, becoming a ‘quintessential’ member of countryside fauna. Pheasants are also farmed for shoots, with necessary management practices playing a role in shaping the landscape.

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The RSPB illustrations for male and female pheasant.

 

Despite all his showiness my Mr Phes is rather camera shy. If I dare to get too close with my camera he explodes into the air in a flurry of feathers, madly beating his wings and clucking angrily until he can reach the safety of a hedge. Tonight, however, would be different. I had a cunning plan.

I decided to take a wander down to the cow shed in the evening, just as dusk was settling over the farm. I had planned on making a ‘surprise visit’ to Mr Phes, via the ‘back entrance’ to his abode. However, the large flock of wild pigeons that roost in one of the barns had other ideas. As soon as they saw me coming they rose into the air as one , and flew laps over the yard. They passed so close I could hear the whirring of their wing beats.

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The heifers in the shed were pleased to see me, and bounded over to the fence in an expectant fashion. Human means food. Once they realised I had nothing on me except my camera they went back to snoozing and mooching about in the straw.

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I sidled round the end of the shed, and paused, camera at the ready. Sure enough I could here a ‘chuck chuck chuck’ call  coming from the vegetation. Mr Phes had noticed me, and was trying to make a run for it. In pheasant terms, ‘making a run for it’ appears to mean ‘ walk as slowly as possible and pretend that everything is perfectly normal’.

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I followed Mr Phes at a respectful distance, as he retreated behind a trailer. He led me straight to his mate, who promptly shot into the undergrowth and disappeared from view. Mr Phes then continued his slow walk into the ‘Meadow’ field, where he stood crowing and beating his wings in a display of masculinity.  I decided to leave him to it. The dark was encroaching and the temperature was dropping, so I headed back into the farmhouse.

 

 

 

Day 21-A feast for the senses, part 2.

 

I love soup. I could wax lyrical about its good points for days. There is something particular delicious to be found in a steaming bowl of soup accompanied by crusty bread and maybe ‘un petit Morceau’ of cheese. There was a period during my student days when all I could afford was the ingredients for homemade lentil soup.

Nettle soup is something I’ve been wanting to try for ages, but have never found the time to do it. That’s the great thing I’m discovering about 30 Days Wild, it gives me an incentive to find time to spend in nature, doing things I love and enjoy. Seeing as the recent deluges and warm weather have blessed us with a bumper crop of nettles, I decided that tonight I would be dining on foraged goods.

I used this recipe from the Wildlife trust, which was very straight forward. One slight problem-no rubber gloves. I overcame this by wearing two pairs of latex gloves, which worked a treat. Then I set to work turning this

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Into this.

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C and JoJo were excused from tonight culinary experiment. Whilst they tucked in to pizza, I savoured my soup. It was delicious, if a little leafy! The nettles do taste similar to spinach, but with a less metallic flavour. It also smelled wonderful! I think a touch of garlic would have added something to the recipe, and I omitted the butter from my version. This recipe makes about 4 servings (big bowls, could stretch it to 6 if portion size is smaller). Next time I’m going to make a farmhouse loaf to accompany it.Give it a go and let me know what you think!

Day 18 – Red kite brings delight.

Red Kites are a frequent sight in the skies over Pembrokeshire. I have often stopped when out on my calls as a vet to watch one gliding over the fields. They often visit our farm, especially after the grass is cut at silage time. I guess it could be easy to become blasé about them but my years of city dwelling mean I get super excited over anything that isn’t a sparrow.

When F said we could go to the Red Kite centre, I felt like Christmas had come early. We had to get there by 3pm, which is when daily feeding occurs.A variety of meat is put out (Today’s menu included a rack of beef ribs!)which attracts buzzards, crow, ravens and magpies as well as the Red kites.   As per usual it was a bit of a battle to get everyone washed, dressed, fed and into the car, along with packing a picnic, baby changing bag, my camera and binoculars. We finally crammed everything in and set off.

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The centre is a 2 hour road trip away, so I had plenty of time to read up on the biology and conservation history of Red Kites, or to give them their ‘proper’ name, Milvus milvus. They belong to the Accipitridae family, along with Hawks and Raptors. A distinctive forked tail along with their red and grey plumage can help identify them. The bulk of their diet is formed from carrion and worms , but they can act opportunistically to take rodents and small birds. Breeding begins at 2, with both the male and female sharing nest building duties. I found it amusing that pairs will decorate the nest with found objects (including plastic bags, underwear and toys!) before eggs are laid. It reminds me of the ‘nesting’ phase I went through with both of my pregnancies, although my nursery decorations tend to come from Mothercare! It takes around 32 days for each egg to hatch, and as they are laid over a few days there is a slight age gap between the siblings. For the first fortnight females stay on the nest, with all food being provided by the male (human fathers take note, this is a GOOD move to win brownie points!). Once the birds fledge, they stick around for a short period before setting off for a while. They return home as adults, ready for breeding.

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I was also intrigued to learn that genetic studies have shown all welsh birds to be descended from a single female. There is a slight variation in genes noted between Northern and Southern populations, the divide running along the Towy valley. This shows that the birds have chosen to remain sedentary and breed where born.

Just outside Carmarthen I spotted a solitary Red kite hovering over a field. “Great, you’ve seen one, now we can go home” exclaimed F, gleefully. I glared at him from the passenger seat, and turned Radio 4 on to drown out his silliness. The countryside whizzed past as we journeyed east, the landscape gradually changing from relatively flat, green fields to rolling hills, green forests and eventually the moor covered mountains on the edge of the Brecon Beacons. By the time we reached Llandovery I was literally bouncing in my seat with excitement. F took a short cut, then missed our turning. “It’s fine” I said, through gritted teeth” We’ve still got 45 minutes to find it before feeding starts”. “Hmmph”replied F. This did not inspire confidence.

Fortunately the centre is well sign posted and it didn’t take us long to find it. We pulled up in the car park, and I got JoJo  settled into her sling. C was quite enthusiastic, as she got to carry the ‘noculars’.

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There were already kites gathering overhead as we walked up the lane to the hide. Twisting and turning they rode the thermals, whistling and mewing to each other noisily. I nearly fell over, tipping my head back to get a better view of their acrobatics. Not a good idea to lean backwards when carrying a 22lb baby on your hip!

This was the closest I have ever been to a Red kite. I could count the number of feathers on their beautifully forked tails, and see their golden irises glinting in the sunlight. We hadn’t even got to the hide yet, I was grinning with anticipation. Without a doubt, this was the most red kites I had ever seen.Once in, we settled the girls on the lowest bench overlooking the feeding area. I glanced around at the information posters  and my heart sunk “Children must be kept sat down and quiet during feeding.If they make too much noise, they will have to leave.””Shhhhh!” I’d stupidly left the bag full of distractions in the car, and C was already getting a bit antsy. How were we going to keep them still and quiet? I had a brainwave and managed  to keep C happy by building a ‘den’ with the sling. JoJo was happily gurgling at the 2 swallows that had built their  nest in the hide.

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I breathed a sigh of relief and got back to birdwatching. I counted 10 red kites perched in an oak tree about 150 yards away, and another dozen soaring over the sheep field next door. I stuck my head out of the hide and looked up. The sky above was thick with red-brown birds.

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About 20 juveniles, distinguished by their lighter plumage, mixed with fully grown adults. The odd buzzard hovered amongst them. Then it was time. Food was carried out onto the small field directly in front of us. Kites came in from every side, folding their wings behind them as they stooped to the ground. Chunks of meat were grabbed in curved talons and carried off to be devoured. Scuffles broke out occasionally, with birds tackling each other mid air. Meat was dropped, snatched, scooped back up then dropped again. Those of us in the hide jumped out of our skin as a huge piece of beef landed on the tin roof. I think I must have whispered ‘ this is amazing’ twenty times in the hour we were there.

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My bird watching reverie was broken by a distinctive aroma coming from about JoJo’s person. Uh -oh! Time to go. We made our exit as quietly as possible and headed back down the lane. From the car park I could still see the kites gliding around over the hills and fields of sheep. In the distance a shepherd on a quad bike gathered in his flock.

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