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Welcome back Jack Frost

Friday 12 Febuary 2010

Like everyone else in the Yorkshire Dales, our countryside commentator John Sheard is getting fed up with this long harsh winter. But here, he praises the work that Jack Frost is carrying out in his allotment and, hopefully, on our farms too

“SPRING is getting earlier,” shouted the headline in my newspaper. “Really?” I thought as I looked out over my allotment, where the top soil – or rather its covering of weeds – was frozen solid to the depth of two inches and that was lying under a half-inch scattering of snow.

I was taking my mid-morning break in my shed, reading the paper as I supped a cup of tepid coffee from my flask, as is my wont during a hard morning’s work. In normal circumstances, I wouldn’t have been there at all – it was far too cold for gardening – but I had come down on a very important mission: “my” birds.

Jack frost welcome

These, of course, are not mine at all, but the wild birds which flock to my feeding stations on the allotment. Like hundreds of thousands of English gardeners I have made a daily effort these past two months or so to feed and water them, taking a 2-litre bottle of hot water with me which, hopefully, will stay liquid for a few hours whilst the birds fill their beaks.

Bird seed sales have rocketed by some 40%, even at Tesco’s, it was reported a couple of weeks ago, one of he few bits of good news in this bleak mid-winter. And the people who are buying it – I reckon I am spending some £6 a week on bird seed – are doing sterling work because, without them, small song birds would be dying in their millions.

The smaller the bird, you see, the more energy is uses just to keep warm through the long winter nights. Wrens are particularly vulnerable but all species like robins, the various tits, sparrows and chaffinches need to eat early in the day.

“My” robin is, I am glad to say, as fat as the proverbial pig and more interested in a territorial war with another male from the far end of my plot than the food – once he has had his fill, that is. But I have not seen my wren for several days, which is worrying. However, I digress...

In reporting that spring is coming an average of 11 days earlier, the newspaper – which did add “not this year” – the newspaper was discussing research from the Centre for Ecology and Hydrology, an institute for which I have considerable respect – so far, it has not been caught out bending the global warning facts.

It says that crocus and daffodils are blooming a week earlier; swallows now arrive in southern England as early as mid-February rather than in mid-March when oaks now come into leaf now instead of mid-April; and aphids are coming to life earlier each year, a matter of considerable concern on the allotment.

But here’s the rub: many of those earlier plant observations come from Kew Gardens in south London and only a few dozen feet above sea level. Those early bird swallows were observed on the Isle of Wight, even further south than Kew. And my allotment lies some 350 feet above sea level in the Yorkshire Dales, some 250 miles further north. In other words, these observations - like so much English research - may have little meaning Up North.

and that, dear reader, is a massive cause for celebration...

And that takes me, somewhat belatedly, to the point of this article: although Jack Frost may be a lethal menace to my allotment birds, he is a valued ally in the veg patch and I have welcomed him back this winter with welcome arms.

For a start, when I have turned over my many weeds roots up, Cousin Jack kills them stone dead so that they break down and can be dug back into the soil to restore vital nutrients. And whilst I have been doing this, even though I have to crack through the top two inches of hard-frozen ground, there is never a slug to be seen – and that, dear reader, is a massive cause for celebration.

In some of the mild winters of recent years, slugs have continued to feed and breed virtually throughout the year: I have had super-tender runner beans on their vines at Christmas time, something unheard of even a decade ago. And if my beans were thriving in December, the slugs were having a ball.

I only use slug pellets under cloches, where the birds cannot get at them (my plot is also rabbit wired so that slug-pellet vulnerable hedgehogs can’t get in) so when slug production is in full swing by this time of the year, the summer is going to be nightmare of chewed, slimy, discoloured crops.

Much the same goes for aphids, which my wife has discovered in recent years in flower tubs in January. Given a thriving population of eggs at this time of the year, the summer is going to be an aphid hell. And if my wife’s precious flowers may seem a luxury in these hard times, I imaging that the midges which spread veterinary diseases like blue tongue and Equine infectious anaemia have been killed off in their billions by the harsh weather.

In other words, even if a harsh winter makes life difficult for those forced to get round on Yorkshire Dales roads, and sends fuel bills soaring through the roof – particular those folk with oil fired central heating away from the gas mains – it does have its advantages. So long as I can keep my birds fed and watered, I consider old Jack Frost a friend.

Feedback received on this subject:

Thought you would like to know of a brilliant Garden protector....

I like most gardeners suffer from slugs and snails in this damp weather and in fact now that the climate has changed all over the world we have the slug and snail problem all year round, I have tried beer traps, copper tape, and salt, egg shells, even throwing them in my neighbours garden ( Just kidding )etc,etc all these methods are not practical long lasting and are harmful to Children, pets , wildlife ,and our Environment.

A new device to control slugs and snails called the slugbell placed around flowers and vegetable garden , they use both Organic or Normal Metaldehyde bug pellets and that the small amount of pellets needed will last up to three months.!!! as they don’t dissolve in the soil and Brilliant for our environment , I will try anything to keep my garden looking how it should whilst protecting natures cycle.

Michael Walton on Thames

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