Abso-newtly lovely at the wildlife pond

A newt from the Wheatland Farm wildlife pondHere’s a pic of one of the newts we found when dipping the pond. Isn’t it splendid! The wildlife pond is heaving with ‘damsels’ and ‘dragons’ right now. You can sit on the bench and hear the dragonflies clash in their aerial territorial battles. The more delicate damselflies are busy depositing eggs on waterweed – but that makes them easy targets for the birds, who perch in the reeds and nip out to snatch a tasty morsel for themselves and their young.

The turbine room – great for a rainy Devon day!

After some lovely sunny weather it’s now turned to ‘soft rain’. So it could be a good day to take a coffee to the new ‘turbine room’. Once the farm’s dairy (back in the 1940s – you can still see the date on the trough) it went through a storage phase and has re-emerged as a dry garden, with succulents ferns and even herbs. Continue reading “The turbine room – great for a rainy Devon day!”

A revolution in people power

Sunday Times, May 2016It always feels good when the Sunday Times reports on something you’re part of. OK, it’s last week’s paper (left by guests as we don’t buy ’em). But it’s still worth noting. In a piece entitled ‘Will the last energy giant to leave your home please turn off the lights!’ Danny Forston talks about a life or death crisis for the big energy supplies, brought about by 3 factors:
climate change rules closing dirty power station,
oil prices have fallen,
and so too has the price of installing renewables.

Some renewables are finally becoming cheap enough to not necessarily need subsidies – solar panel costs for example have fallen 70% in five years.
This shake up in assets and demand, coupled with a more distributed system of power generation that’s emerging as individuals plug their renewables into the national grid, looks like it might be squeezing the big six in the power production game. We’re in there! Thanks to the turbine and solar panels we’re a power station, and still a net exporter to the grid (just about – despite rising occupancy and better use of our own power).

And web savy supply-only companies are heaping the pressure on the big six by luring away the energy giants’ customers with better deals.
In 2012 less than 1% of UK homes had non-big six power supplies, now that’s nearly 15%.

We’ve been avoiding the big six for a decade. Back in 2006 we had Biz Energy (who had a green tarrif). Briefly we were forced to use British Gas who bought Biz Energy – and our contract – but as soon as possible we switched to Good Energy (who only supply renewable power), and have been with them for over six years.

But things are set to change further. There’s research, driven by the electric car industry, that has halved costs of lithium batteries in three years. Soon, if you generate power at home, you’ll be able to store it at home too – good news for everyone with solar panels who goes out to work. (In the meantime, why not get an iboost and divert that exported power into your hot water supply?)

Better storage also means we’ll need less back up conventional power stations in future because the intermittent nature of renewables won’t matter so much if storage and smart grids can smooth demand. And that doesn’t favour the status quo.
The article reports a former CEO of Npower as saying “The energy supply business is facing a life-or-death moment” and describes how the power companies are reinventing themselves.

Bike Week UK 2016

Bikeman at Wheatland FarmBike Week UK 2016 starts today. We hope you’re not feeling this rusty! We’re offering a prize to help you get Devon into cycling, via Love to Ride. It’s a weekend in our Nuthatch Lodge at the beginning of October. Hopefully it’ll still be good weather for biking Devon’s lovely lanes and taking a breather at country pubs. Register with Love to Ride for a chance to win this and other great prizes. You can use their app to record your rides this week and set yourself challenges.

And what will Wheatland Farm be up to this week? We’ll be upping our usual cycling quota:

We’ll be biking Euan to school on the tandem – something we usually do in the summer.
Maggie will be biking for exercise as well – maybe we can blog our 45 min route.
Ian is going to build himself a road bike from old bike bits we’ve got lying around – and take it for a ride.
George will join Maggie on a Sunday cycle… “but you always go so far… I’ll just go up and down the drive…” OK so we’ll have to work on that one. But at least he can bike to judo and back.

What will you do?

An evening walk with Winkleigh’s green group

A walk around with Winkleigh's green groupOn Friday the Winkleigh ‘Green group’ came for an evening wander around the farm. It’s an informal set up where anyone can drop by, and about 12 people turned up. We took a walk around and explained how we manage the land for wildlife rather than food, and how the holiday accommodation finances that, then all sat around for a bowl of soup and a chat. Summer flowers are coming out, and we found one heath spotted orchid, but not carpets of them yet!

Popehouse Moor SSSI management progress recognised

Lower Newland Moor, Wheatland Farm Devon Eco Lodges, May 16Our recent visit by Natural England has produced a good report for Popehouse Moor’s management, saying it’s still in ‘favourable’ condition and that all that scrub bashing and grazing is paying off. Lower Newland Moor, where the turbine is, is also improving with our advisors noting better plant diversity including ragged robin and bog stitchwort. The visit has meant we can apply for a derogation to weed wipe the rushes that are becoming more dominant – but that won’t be until next year. This year we need to graze, then cut the rushes in late September. Next spring, assuming the rushes get away before the grass and the ground isn’t too wet, we can ‘wipe’ the new shoots with a herbicide and leave the grasses and flowers untouched.

If you’re interested in the full report, it’s here

Thanks Alexis!

Alexis wwoofing at Wheatland Farm's Devon Eco LodgesThanks to Alexis – our French wwoofer who volunteered with us for 2 weeks and left last Friday. Here he is adding a new washing line to our vast collection! He also helped us check over the fences on Popehouse Moor and Lower Newland Moor and mowed the path to the turbine view, where we hope to put some seating later in the year.
We brought in and stacked fire wood from hedgerows we’d managed in the winter, and he also found a couple of days to help at Fiona’s farm shop up the road.

Thanks all round!

Trees are meant to be climbed…

Climbing the oak tree at Wheatland Farm Eco Lodges“Because they’re there!”
The boys can’t see something without wanting to climb it. I do worry about broken necks (and roof slates – I’ve told them to stay off those) but on the other hand if you don’t climb a tree when you’re a kid when will you? And I so want them to remember growing up with trees and space and wayside flowers. George said the view was pretty good from high up and he wished he’d taken the camera, but I wasn’t about to go up there after him to hand it up. My favourite tree interaction is lying underneath them and looking up.

Bluebells in full flower

The bluebells are in flower in Popehouse Moor’s wood and along all the local verges. Gorgeous! They make a bike ride to the pub a real treat. Ours are always a little later than some places in Devon, like the Tarka Trail. I think often they come out earliest along steep banks that catch some sun, whereas ours are in deep shade.

George, our new chief video contributor, has made a little clip… There are some lovely local walks too – there will be a wash of blue in Timbridge woods.

Meanwhile, we continue to try to rid ourselves of the invasive Spanish bluebells previous families planted by the farmhouse. Luckily, those do tend to flower earlier, so there isn’t much overlap for cross pollination and hybridisation. But all the same we’d rather wait for the real thing in the woods.

Nesting nuthatches

Nuthatches are nesting at Wheatland Farm. They’re using a nestbox made by a guest who stayed in the eco lodges – Nuthatch Lodge actually. How appropriate! Thanks Huw!

Nuthatches are interesting as they usually nest in holes, which they partially wall in with mud to keep predators out. In this case they’ve ‘mudded up’ the crack under the lid. So there’s no looking inside for a peek. But hopefully that’ll keep the resident stoat out as well as curious people. The birds are frantically busy right now, hunting for grubs and caterpillars to feed their young. We see both adults fossicking along the windowsills looking for spiders. May is such a fabulous time – new life abounds.

Land management and conservation, May 2016

May land management 2016, Wheatland Farm eco lodgesWheatland Farm is a conservation project in action. Our land management happens all year round, so while there should always be something lovely to look at, sometimes there’s something going on that looks a bit more messy, or even destructive. But it’s happening for a reason. Here’s a bit more about what we’re doing this month and why it helps to manage our Devon farm for wildlife.

What? Establish a new reed bed
Where? in the ‘puddle’ and the wet ditch below Balebarn and in the ‘corner pond’ in the eco lodge field.
Why? Well, ‘establishing’ might be piling it on a bit thick. All we’ve done is move a few phragmites rhizomes from the patch in the edge of the wildlife pond into a scrape we had made below Balebarn Eco Lodge and into the gated wet corner of the lodge field. The scrape below Balebarn is in the ditch system that takes any excess water from the biorock digester that deals with Balebarn’s sewage. And although that water is clean enough to discharge to a ditch, reedbeds are often used to clean water and we’d love to have a bit more wildlife habitat. We didn’t go for a reedbed sewage treatment system initially because they can freeze over in winter, and then – well you’re up the proverbial without a paddle. So this is just a bit extra. And while we’re about it, why not turn the ‘seasonal pond’ in the corner of the lodge field into a reedbed too – it tends to dry out in summer and be a bit of a mess, and the wagtails would love reeds to roost in in winter.

Pond management at Wheatland Farm Eco LodgesWhat? Removing blanket weed, some bullrushes (Typha), and Canadian pond weed
Where? From the wildlife pond
Why? The open water is starting to close, becoming overgrown with invasive Canadian pondweed that a relative threw in in a well meaning attempt to oxygenate the water. Enough said about that really. So now we have to pull some of the weed out. We can’t do it all at once as it’s home to lots of lovely invertebrates – dragonfly larvae, newts and tadpoles etc. So little by little. The ‘bullrushes’ also need controlling. They put themselves all around the edge of the pond, moving in as seeds. But we’d rather have phragmites (reeds) so we routinely pull some bullrushes out. It doesn’t seem to slow them down much.

Moving ferns What? Moving ferns
Where? From below the fishing pond to the wet ‘corner pond’ in the eco lodge field.
Why? We’re planning to restore a hidden pond below the fishing pond and it will mean diggers and some mess. So we’re moving some of the plants we want to save.

What? Site visit with Natural England, Tues 10 may.
Where? Through the lodge field, Lower Newland Moor, Popehouse Moor, back up past the widlife pond and to the orchard.
Why? Routine check and advice visit to ensure we are doing the work specified in our agreement and help sort out any problems. The main discussion points were to plan a late cut for the rushes on Lower Newland Moor (September) followed by weed wiping in early spring. The agreement will also be adjusted to say we can graze with ponies as well as cows if needed.

Planned for this month…
Dig out the hidden pond below the fishing pond – it’s still full of tyres from previous farming owners!
We hope the cows will come back for their summer grazing.
Mowing will continue
Bramble bashing below the wildlife pond early in the month – so long as we can still see there are no birds’ nests.
Bramble bashing along the fence line in Lower Newland Moor

You helped us raise £280 for the Devon Wildlife Trust. Thanks.

Cheque for the Devon Wildife TrustThis cheque is in the post to the Devon Wildlife Trust – and it’s come from all our guests. Many thanks. When you book we let you know that if you pay the balance of your holiday cost by BACS we will give £5 to the Devon Wildlife Trust. And lots of you do. So you can be sure that you’re not just helping look after the wildlife on our 21 acre smallholding, but also contributing to wider conservation work in Devon. And for us, it’s a way to say thanks to the Trust, whose staff have given us help and advice over the past ten years.

Boys try parkour at Wheatland Farm

George is getting into Parkour – can you tell? Euan’s keen to have a go too. I’m not sure we’re up to the professional standard yet, and obviously they filmed this on a day when not all the lodges were full of guests…but it looks like they had fun.

Balebarn eco lodge becomes a recording studio!

Balebarn Eco Lodge becomes a recording studio!
Morning Ian,

I’ve been meaning to thank you for a lovely few days – and especially for letting us use Balebarn eco lodge for recording. I’ll send you over what we recorded when I’ve edited them down. We didn’t get as much done as we’d hoped for – amazing how unproductive a few G&Ts make you! We did get some good stuff down though.

The guys were blown away by the place and said they’d bring their families back – so you have some repeat business there!

I hope Will came down with the keys (or left them somewhere obvious).

All the best

A world away from Whirlpool

Yuck fom WhirlpoolTop marketing drivel from Whirlpool!
[Maggie] Recycling day brings an opportunity to read other people’s papers… Sometimes it’s handy to keep up to date with ideas and trends – free training.

This time the Super Brands 2016 supplement from the Guardian’s 5th March edition caught our eye. Any top tips there for building a successful business? There were some pertinent comments from the Global Head of Marketing at Investec about focusing on the culture and behaviour of the organisation and good people ‘who are good at what they do and are fundamentally interesting to be around’.

But dear oh dear. Now I know how and why we are fundamentally different from Whirlpool, who seem to be priding themselves in being at the forefront of planned obsolescence – the idea that you must have some new slightly improved ‘thing’ all the time whether or not the old one is still working.

Bad for the consumers who have to keep working to afford the new shiny thing.
And bad for the planet that has to keep coughing up the raw materials.

Reminds me of Dr. Seuss’s Lorax:

I meant no harm. I most truly did not.
But I had to grow bigger. So bigger I got.
I biggered my factory. I biggered my roads.
I biggered my wagons. I biggered the loads
of the Thneeds I shipped out. I was shipping them forth
to the South! To the East! To the West! To the North!
I went right on biggering…selling more Thneeds.
And I biggered my money, which everyone needs.

I’d like to think we’re the polar opposite of Whirlpool’s attitude. Wheatland Farm is about long-lasting quality and comfort that doesn’t need constant consumption to maintain its appeal. That’s why we re-use, re-purpose and recycle, not just in ‘not-at-all-brand-new’ Balebarn Ecolodge but in all our Devon accommodation.

Spring flowers along the Tarka Trail

Yesterday we went biking – and the spring flowers are out in force along North Devon’s Tarka Trail. It was really lovely and refreshing to see carpets of primroses and wood anemones – and to get out for some gentle exercise. More on this section of the Tarka Trail here.

Staying in Nuthatch Ecolodge, April 2016

Thank you note for Nuthatch Eco Lodge, Wheatland Farm, Devon Holly and family left us this note when they left earlier in the week. It’s great to hear they had a good Easter holiday in Nuthatch Lodge. And Holly has already booked to come back to Devon at the other end of the summer. Brilliant. Looking forward to seeing you!

The Swallows are back again

2016's swallows return cake at Wheatland Farm

Yay! It’s that time of year. The annual ‘swallows return’ cake had been baked. Ian and our guest Sue in Otter Cottage spotted the first swallows swooping over the farm yard. Brilliant – the world is still turning and summer is on it’s way. Sue and Ian have been awarded their spotters slices!

Get me to the pond on time

Spring is in the air at Wheatland Farm and the wildlife knows it. Well, OK, the weather today isn’t quite what it was yesterday when George made us this video clip, but the toads won’t notice – they’ll be in the pond laying those long strings of toadspawn that usually produce an ‘almost-plague’ of little toad-lets in June.

George wants a job so he can finance is new freerunning habit. So I think we’ll be hearing (viewing?) more from him over the coming months. Might was well make use of the younger generation’s familiarity with tech and social media!

More evidence of dormice

Some more evidence of dormice around the cottage and lodges! On tidying up the garden in Otter Cottage we found a dormouse hibernation nest nestled in long grass. What to do…leave it? But would the next dog visitor find it before the occupant had a chance to wake up? With more dogs due at the weekend, and the nest partially revealed, we decided to relocate it over the fence to less disturbed undergrowth. But when we lifted out it was clearly empty.
Dormouse hibernation nest, Wheatland Farm eco lodges
We’re feeling partly relieved of the responsibility and partly worried – if it was this winter’s nest it is way too early for a dormouse to be out and about. But maybe it was from a previous winter? Hmmm. Time to schedule more frequent gardening…

And across the lodge field we’ve found other traces of dormice. A recent guest staying in Beech Lodge found this nibbled nut in the car park. She had had professional training on distinguishing nut nibbles by dormice from other mice and she was confident… though even a trained eye can get it wrong sometimes.
Nibbled nut, Wheatland Farm eco lodges
So overall, it’s encouraging news. Dormice should stay in hibernation for another month or so, but with spring on the way hopefully there will soon be abundant food when they do emerge. Apparently they are partial to a bit of blossom after waking up.

Building a new wormery for the lodges

Composting wormsWe’re busier than we’ve ever been, and our green cone digesters are over filling. What to do? Sure, we can remind people to slim the bin. But there’s still going to be food waste from the eco lodges.

So we’re hoping a new wormery will speed up the break down process. We’ll be decanting some of the semi-digested green cone waste into the new contraption near the bike shed. It’s been made (from the bottom up) out of an old farm tank we had knocking around, a recycled tap (for the worm waste), a good layer of stones, a sheet of plastic with holes in it, some garden compost, a thin scattering of kitchen scraps and, as a starter, 500g of worms from Wiggly Wigglers. On top of that goes a layer of wet tabloid papers (good use for them…) Finally, there’s a lid to keep the rain out but let the air in.

The worms were the expensive bit (over £20). And perhaps we could have got some from the cones. But we wanted to get ahead on the year and certainly ordinary earth worms aren’t much good – you need brandling or tiger worms. You can dig them out of a mature compost heap, buy them from a fishing shop, or order composting worms online.

There are lots of online resources on building wormeries, from tiny ones in a box to farm scale ‘vermiculture’. Here’s what seemed to stand out to us.

Build in a tap or holes at the bottom so you can drain off any ‘liquor’.
Cover the top of the compost with something damp – newspaper, a towel etc.
Put a lid on the whole thing to keep the rain out.
The worms eat the fungi that grow on the decomposing food, rather than getting stuck into a broccoli stalk on its own, so you need conditions that help things rot.
They come up to the top ‘scraps’ layer to feed, but otherwise they like to live a bit deeper in the compost they’re busy making.
Worms like most kitchen scraps, but not too much of any one thing, and particularly not lots of citrus, onions or garlic.
Your worm population could double every 3 months or so, given the right conditions…
…which are damp and dark and not too much over feeding. Get it wrong and they will either die or desert.
Leave air holes, but not vermin holes, and keep it in the shade in summer, adding water occasionally if it starts to look dry.

Land management and conservation, March 2016

Woodpile at Wheatland Farm Eco Lodges

Wheatland Farm is a conservation project in action. Our land management happens all year round, so while there should always be something lovely to look at, sometimes there’s something going on that looks a bit more messy, or even destructive. But it’s happening for a reason. Here’s a bit more about what we’re doing this month and why it helps to manage our Devon farm for wildlife.

What? Putting up a new owl box

Where? In the eco lodge field, on the south side


Barn owl box  at Wheatland Farm eco lodges This replaces an older box that rotted away. We hope we’ll get barn owls, but if we don’t maybe a tawny will take up residence next year (it’s a bit late for tawny owls this year – they nest early). Or maybe we’ll just get a family of stock doves! We know barn owls nest of a neighbouring farm, but they need a good year and a rising population to expand to a new nesting site, and sadly those have been few and far between recently. Wet winters are not the best news for barn owls.

What? Pollarding ash trees

Where? The east side of the eco lodge field


Pollarding ash at Wheatland Farm Eco Lodges We’re pollarding the other half of the ash trees here to thicken up the canopy and keep it low, to give more light to the larger chestnut trees, to provide managed and sustainable wood fuel, to keep the trees manageable on our small holding, and for aesthetic reasons. We did the first few ash trees a couple of years ago and they are developing well. Most trees will pollard so long as they’re reasonably young. These trees were planted 24 years ago – you can see in the rings. So that’s about the limit. We’re a bit worried about Ash die back, but there’s nothing we can do and it hasn’t happened yet. We’ve got our fingers crossed.  Have you spotted the little chair Ian carved? It’s from one tree we cut right down to the stump (because it was too close to the neighbouring more mature chestnut).

What? Establishing a wormery

Where? Next to the bike shed


Composting worms As our eco lodges have got busier, our green cone digesters are finding it difficult to cope with all the food waste. The wormery, once properly established, should help speed up the process and help keep food waste out of the waste collection and landfill.

What? Scything rushes around the wildlife pond

Where? The field below Balebarn eco lodge


We’re trying to control the rushes here – and it’s an ongoing battle. We are cutting some of those growing along the path that goes around the pond. They are all self seeded and since there’s no grazing here if we did nothing they’d take over and we’d lose the wild flowers on the bank. It’s not the right time of year to cut masses of rushes – there might still be dormice hibernating at the bottom of the clumps, but these few we can check before we cut. And there’s that old saying about omelettes and eggs.

What? Tackling a huge nettle patch

Where? Below the wildlife pond


This area used to be ablaze with birdsfoot trefoil in August, but it has become overloaded with nettles. So we’ve scythed the dead stalks and we’ve sprayed the nettles. We only use herbicides on nettles, creeping thistles and docks. Actually, nettles are generally the least troublesome of that trio, but here they have run riot. And if we spray now, before other plants emerge, there’ll be a chance of recovering those wildflowers. As our guests will know, there are still plenty of nettles about the place for small tortoise shell butterflies to breed on!

What? Hedgerow work

Where? Between Lower Newland Moor and Balebarn Lodge field


What was once a hedgerow has become a line of willows that are falling off the bank and establishing an invading frontier of nettles, brambles and new willow. We’ve cut the east side this year. Next year we’ll tackle the west. Larger branches are kept for our biomass boiler.

What? Spot spraying

Where? In front of the eco lodges


After ten years we’re still fighting the legacy of overgrazing by horses under the previous owners. This field is in long term management to return it to flower-rich grassland. It’s cut in patches on rotation. But in March and April when the nettles and creeping thistles emerge, and before everything else gets going, we spot spray with a herbicide so as to knock back the thugs and let the other plants thrive. Later in the year we pull these plants by hand if we need to.

New barn owl box goes up

Barn owl box  at Wheatland Farm eco lodges
We’ve replaced the old barn owl box in the eco lodge field with a new one. Well, actually, and in keeping with our usual ethos, it’s a re-built owl box given to us by Maggie’s dad, who runs a barn owl scheme in West Sussex. The old one had been up almost 10 years and finally gave way in the winter winds. Fingers crossed for some occupants – we often see the local barn owls but they need a good year and expanding population for them to need new nesting sites. And good winters have been few and far between recently. Still – here’s hoping. And if we don’t get barn owls perhaps we’ll get tawny owls rather than stock doves!