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17 September 2014
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Farmland | The Old Country Farm

The Holly and the Ivy

Bird

The Old Country Farm in Malvern used to be an arable farm, grazing sheep and growing apples for sale to the thriving Herefordshire cider industry. Now it's a mecca for winter wildlife especially birds.

 

Bird spectacle in the winter orchard


Traditional orchards are great for wildlife - even small orchards can support more than 1,400 species of animals, plants and fungi, including 70 species of birds.

But they're fast becoming a relatively rare habitat in the UK - in the last 50 years alone we've lost more than half our orchards.

In Kent and Devon they've all but disappeared, but there are two farms dedicated to preserving their orchard habitats.

The Old Country Farm is one exception - of its 220 acres spanning the Worcestershire countryside, 45 acres of the old farm are dedicated to orchards which produce enough spare fruit to sustain a wide range of wildlife.

If you're in the neighbourhood, the nearby Tillington Fruit Farm, three miles north of Hereford, is another great site for wildlife watching.

Part-owned by the Co-op supermarket chain (thanks to a rare breed of apple which grows there and is used in their own brand cider), the orchards are home to numerous species of birds, insects and plant life.

Robin red breasts


RobinNamed our national bird in 1960, the red-breasted Robin is a woodland favourite.

Typically associated with Christmas, Robins sing all year round apart from a brief spell in summer during moulting season when they become much more retiring.

But despite its loveable persona, the Robin is actually fiercely territorial and the male will be aggressive to any other Robin which intrudes on his space, even a female.

It's thought that this is where the poem "Who killed Cock Robin" came from, although the poem depicts a Robin fighting with a sparrow rather than another of its own.

It's very difficult to tell the sexes apart as both are small and plump with a white belly and an orangey-red breast, face, throat and cheeks and brown bill and legs.

However it has been suggested that their brown forehead is shaped like a V in females and like a U in males, but this isn't 100 per cent reliable and can be hard to spot.

Woodpecker territory

Orchard in SummerWoodpeckers perch on the sides of trees away from the observer, but are often given away by the repetitive drumming of their beaks on the trunk.

As parts of the trees rot, the holes which develop become full of insects and grubs, which attract Woodpeckers who feast on whatever is crawling around inside.

Like the cartoon "Woody the Woodpecker", these birds can be recognised from their striking black and white plumage, while the males have a distinctive red patch on the back of the head.

Blackbirds are often seen in winter when they fly over from Scandinavia to roost in shrubs, trees and hedges, all of which harbour insects, worms and berries for them to feed on.

They're often found in orchards, hopping along the ground turning over leaf litter with their bills and snatching up worms from underneath.

Blackbirds were once considered a delicacy, which is where the popular children's rhyme about the King eating "four-and-twenty blackbirds baked in a pie" comes from.

As their name suggests, they're entirely black, although the female is a brown colour with rusty spots and streaks on the breast.

The male of the species is also much bigger, with a bright orangey-yellow beak and a ring around the eye in a similar colour.

Fabulous Fieldfares

BirdLike Blackbirds, most of the Fieldfares that arrive in Britain in winter come from Scandinavia and other areas of Europe.

Some of the birds that arrive here use us as a stopover before flying on to Ireland or Eastern France, where they return to breed in Spring.

The majority don't return to the UK every year - in fact only Fieldfares from Norway remain faithful to our British winters.

Fieldfare are easily spotted by their contrasting grey head and rump, with white underwings clearly visible in flight.

Redwing: Another Scandinavian tourist are Redwing, which are commonly spotted in gardens and parks during winter as they go into urban areas to search for food.

They're easily distinguished from other birds by a white stripe above their eye and a flash of red underneath their wings, which is where they get their name,

There is also a distinct population from Iceland which looks different from the others - it is darker, larger and with bolder streaks on its chest.

The Blackcap only recently started wintering in the UK, where it feeds on mistletoe.

Unlike the thrush, Blackcaps actually wipe their beaks on the bark after eating, which is now to be the most effective way of spreading the sticky seed of this plant.

The species is so-called because the male, predominantly grey, has a black cap, while the female's is more of a chestnut colour.

Often referred to as "the northern Nightingale", this woodland bird has a fluting song, which is contract to its call which is a shorter, more staccato sound.

Bramblings and Mistlethrushes

A northern relative of the Chaffinch, Bramblings are a regular visitor to Britain every winter.

Distinguishable from the Chaffinch by its white rump and orange buff colour, the brambling takes it name from the world Brandling, meaning a brindled pattern.

In fact, its tortoiseshell colours make for ideal camouflage as it hops along the woodland floor.

The Mistlethrush is the Common Thrush's bolder relative, flying between the trees calling out to its flock with its distinctive dry, rattling call.

It's even been nicknamed a "stormcock" because they call out to each other loudly during bad weather.

Mistlethrushes are mostly greyish brown with pale buff breast and flanks covered in bold black spots.

When seen from a distance or in flight it's best to look at their wings, which have pale edges and are completely white on the underside.

Like the Robin, a Mistlethrush can also be territorial when feeding, defending its food source (usually bushes and trees bearing mistletoe and other berries) from other thrushes.

Mistletoe

Mistletoe c/o Getty ImagesWhat most people don't know about this popular seasonal plant is that it's actually semi-parasitic, extracting the minerals it needs to live from the trees on which it grows.

Preferring lime and apple trees with soft bark, Mistletoe is often found in orchards where its sticky seeds are spread by passing birds feeding on its berries.

In fact it's even been discovered that the plant grew on 34 per cent of the apple trees in Herefordshire in the mid-19th Century.

It's generally easier to spot in winter when the trees are bare as mistletoe grows high up on the tree, to avoid being rubbed off or eaten by grazing animals.

Mistletoe has two separate male and female plants, with the male having golden flowers in spring and the female white berries in winter.

The formation of white berries between inverted V-shaped sprigs is said to be a symbol of fertility, and throughout history women wishing to conceive would to tie a sprig around their waist or wrist to have a better chance of bearing a child.

We know Mistletoe as a Christmas tradition, bringing good luck to anyone who shares a kiss under a spring hanging from a doorway, but early Christians believed Mistletoe was banished to the tops of the trees when Jesus was crucified on a cross made from an apple tree on which it grew.

But in Herefordshire, Mistletoe is still considered to bring good luck, which is still observed on New Year's Eve when a bough is cut and hung on the door as the clock strikes midnight.

The Holly and the Ivy

HollyHolly is more common in Britain than anywhere else in the world and is displayed in wreaths at Christmas.

Like Mistletoe, Holly has its fair share of religious references, as it's believed the spikes of the leaves represent Jesus' crown of thorns, and the red berries his blood.

Holly is also thought to bring good luck, unless it's cut from the tree before Christmas Eve when it brings back luck to the bearer.

Another trait it shares with Mistletoe is having separate male and female plants, with the female having bright red berries nestling among glossy, deep green leaves.

Most commonly used as a boundary tree in bushes and hedges, Holly has two distinct leaf forms - spiny near the ground to protect itself from being eaten by animals, and spineless anywhere further up.

Both are covered in a strong, waxy cuticle to prevent water loss during times of drought. As such, Holly is evergreen and lasts throughout winter

The well-known partner of Holly, Ivy is a creeping plant, with an amazing array of adhesive suckers allowing it to wrap around trees and walls as sort of a scaffold for support during growth.

This plant provides a great source of food and shelter for small birds, bees and butterflies, who feed on its pollen, nectar and berries and nestle in among its numerous leaves.

Fungi and insects

Country farm treeIt's not uncommon to see mushrooms growing in an orchard, on the ground among the rotting fruit or even on the trees themselves.

A common misconception that that fungi feed on dead wood, but the truth is that when you see mushrooms growing on trees, they are only feeding on the dead tissue of the outer layers - the tree is usually alive and well inside.

One fungi - the honey fungus - which grows on trees is actually edible.

Orchards are also a wonderful breeding ground for insects, with plenty of rotting wood and fruit on the woodland floor for them to feed on and hide under.

Peer into any Woodpecker's hole to find Wood Lice, hibernating Snails, Mites, Weevils, Beetles and hibernating Wasps.

Two species of bugs worth looking out for are the noble Chafer Beetle, which can be found scuttling over leaves, and the Mistletoe Tortrix Moth.

The latter lays its eggs on apple blossoms, which develop into caterpillars which crawl inside the ripened fruit.

 

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