Food & Farming with the Jefferies: Spring Has Arrived

By John and Jenny Jefferies

3 weeks ago

Yellowhammers, owl boxes and more

In our column, husband-and-wife duo John and Jenny Jefferies will give us some insight into life on their south Cambridgeshire farm. John is a farmer, while Jenny is a food writer, having penned books like For The Love Of The Land. They’re both passionate about British farming, and will share their expertise with C&TH on a bi-monthly basis. This month, it’s all about the beginning of spring, and the new wildlife arriving on the farm.

A Spring Update From Fuller’s Hill Farm

Spring is here! The days are longer and warmer and the crops are beginning to grow. In the case of our oilseed rape, it is rapidly approaching late flower.

We decided to try growing two crops in a season last summer. We planted a small field with some surplus spring barley seed after I harvested the winter barley in early July. It was just an experiment, which we saw three possible outcomes:

  1. A good crop of good quality barley
  2. A crop of feed barley
  3. A failure of the crop

Right up to the end of October we were hopeful of the second outcome. Indeed, here is a photo of the crop about 10 days before we expected to be able to harvest it. It looked reasonable.

Spring on Fuller's Hill Farm

But then an unseasonably heavy storm swept in off the ocean. The wind and heavy rain from this storm simply battered the crop to the ground. There was nothing left standing that could be harvested. Outcome three was a great disappointment and we did then have one worry. We worried about the amount of barley now lying on the ground and how to deal with this in the next planned crop. But we need not have worried…

New Wildlife

What happened next was a pleasure to see. Over the winter, vast numbers of birds fed on the barley, particularly yellowhammers and corn bunting. The birds have sheltered in the adjacent thick hedgerow and cleared all the fallen barley. At least 200 yellowhammers took up residency and about 100 corn bunting joined them. Both species are on the RSPB ‘red list’ of farmland birds. A friend has ringed some of these birds, so maybe we might find out where they will go to next.

A yellowhammer bird

We also grow bird food strips that have also provided a huge amount of food for other species. We have observed up to 2000 linnets and in recent weeks, when walking around that part of the farm, the volume of bird song is quite incredible. These numbers are down on 2020/21 and we think this is due to bird flu. However, the numbers this winter are markedly up on last winter, so hopefully this indicates a recovery from bird flu.

One species of note which was observed was a male merlin hunting these flocks of small birds. I admit when I heard about this I had to resort to an internet search, only to find out that there are an estimated 100 breeding pairs in the country. I can’t imagine that would be the case, but it would be fantastic if we ended up with a breeding pair here at Fuller’s Hill Farm. 

Finally, we now have two owl boxes on the farm. My friend who helps me with all bird related things patiently nailed them to the oak trees on the farm and we are hopeful that the barn owls that we regularly see will make these boxes their homes. If we do attract owls, we are sure the fledglings will be ringed. Hopefully, a lot to look forward to.

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