News from the Farm September 2022
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Earlier in the summer the thistle flowers provide a good nectar source for bumble bees and butterflies such as this peacock.
TI’ve developed a little bit of a habit this summer of sitting inside patches of thistles. When I first took on the farm here and started the conversion to organic methods, the creeping thistle was highlighted in my learning about organics as one of the hardest weeds to manage under organic conditions. In synthetic based farm systems, herbicides are the standard control treatment and I recall one farm consultant advising me to ‘blitz the farm’ with herbicide to kill off all the thistles prior to converting to organic. In the years that followed the creeping thistles did take hold in some areas and had I not have been committed to sticking with organic methods, herbicide sprays would have been a sore temptation. I did top them with the tractor mower to stop them seeding where and when I could and experimented with heavy grazing (our Hebridean sheep will eat them at certain stages and densities) and autumn subsoiling to slow them down. Where they grew in areas I couldn’t tackle by these approaches, I looked at them with anxiety.
They still cause me some anxiety, but it’s tempered now by a more nuanced eye. I have seen them grow explosively in some areas, in such dense masses that the ground is bare underneath and no farm animal nor farmer can enter. And I have seen the same patches peter out over subsequent years until few or no plants remain in that field. Ecologically speaking their niche seems to be as a mid stage opportunist coloniser; a rapid dominating expansion phase where the patch develops, followed by a slow decline to a limited endemic presence or an absence. As a farmer I am starting to learn to get along with this cycle and not stress so much; as a naturalist I’m finding it more and more absorbing to watch.
As a growth strategy it’s effective, but risky; rapid expansion means a highly effective defensive barrier against being eaten and limited competition with other plants for light, nutrients or water. It also means a monoculture, which leaves it vulnerable to anything that can beat its defences. Increasingly over the last few years it appears to be black aphids that have breached the fortress. From mid summer onwards in many of the densest patches black aphids appear on the upper stems in such profusion that the colour of the patch gets noticeably darker. Flowering stems seem particularly favoured and here no plant will be visible under their massed backs. With so many insect mouths sucking out so much sap, the patch visibly checks and the oomph goes out of it; the flowering stems wilt, flowers don’t open and seeds don’t develop. Black moulds appear over lower leaves, apparently on dripping honeydew from the aphids above, reducing the thistles ability to photosynthesise. All very interesting, but it gets better. Now we have another ‘monoculture', this time of aphids. Otherwise known as an 'all you can eat buffet' for ladybirds and all through the patches can be seen the adults and larvae of at least two species. Alongside the ladybirds are several species of parasitic wasps, presumably laying their eggs inside some stage of aphid life. And all over the patch is a buzzing, crawling and humming of fly life, attracted I think mainly by the honeydew, of too many species for me to get fully to grips with this side of retirement! And where there’s bugs the birds will follow and the meadow pipits in particular seem to like the thistle patches at this stage, often lifting from inside the clump once it begins to decline and open up. As the thistle empire grew, so it now declines.
And so sometimes I just sit inside a patch and watch, absorbed by the all the dimensions of life around me. I’m not going to go about encouraging thistles to grow but if they come, it no longer feels the fail it once did. I find much to learn and be taught in these clumps, all the ecological lessons, alongside - I think the age has come to get some glasses for close up observation! There’s also a great sense of escape and stepping away from my human life into another world; as we bump as a country through another change there’s much relief in that. I suspect our new monarch, who’s commitment to organic farming is well known and who we have happily supplied with our meats for many years now, may long for an occasional moment of peace in a thistle patch in the weeks and months ahead. I hope he finds it.
The September Order Form is now available online, link below. We have our full range of Belted Galloway Beef and Hebridean lamb/hogget available along with a limited range of bacon and a good range of pies.
As ever please get in touch if you have any queries.
Laurel & SaMSeptember 2022 Order Form