Checking dormouse boxes in Devon

Jan Whittington checking dormouse boxes
[Maggie] I’m working towards my dormouse handling licence, so we can join the national monitoring scheme.
I’ve done the theory part of the course, now for the practical: checking boxes with experienced Devon dormouse expert Janice Whittington. I won’t say where exactly as this woodland, though private, is bordered by a bridlepath. Unfortunately, many of Jan’s boxes, put up a good few years ago, have now gone – presumably vandalised, so she is no longer adding more. But we did find two occupied nests, and also, rather sadly, a dead dormouse. No clues as to why it died, but Jan will send it for analysis…
hazel dormouse

A guided walk around our nature reserve for the U3A

Early autumn flowers on Popehouse Moor Site of Special Scientific Interest, Devon
[Maggie] On Friday I took a group from the Tiverton branch of the University of the Third Age around Popehouse Moor, our SSSI nature reserve.
Early autumn flowers on Popehouse Moor Site of Special Scientific Interest, DevonInitially there were going to be twelve people, which is about as many as we can take at a time, but the pouring rain of the early morning slimmed that down to five.

Yet the weather was kind – clearing up to a sunny morning.

We don’t charge for walks and always offer free guided walks to guests at our eco lodges and cottage, but we do ask for a donation, to be passed on to the Devon Wildlife Trust, for outside groups.

So a big thank you to the U3A group, whose whip round generated £35, which I know the Trust will put to good use.

If anyone else would like to arrange a walk, please feel free to get in touch. There’s something to be seen all year round – though May is probably the highlight for flowers.

Buying a reconditioned phone

Ian has bought a refurbished / reconditioned phone. The scroll buttons on his old one finally wore out and he could no-longer read more than the first couple of lines of a message. So we had to change it.

The good-as-new ERI 200i came from Dextra solutions, ordered online and delivered to the door for £22.51 all in.

Ian’s old phone will go for recycling too – once we’ve managed to get all the numbers off it!

DIY tips for installing solar panels

Last January we finished putting solar hot water panels on our Devon eco lodges. Lots of people have asked about them, so here are a few tips for other DIY-ers

The panels mean Honeysuckle Nuthatch and Beech Lodges all their hot water from solar panels (with immersion top up). Honeysuckle and Nuthatch Lodges have a single west facing panel each. Our large Beech Lodge has two – one on each of the east and west facing slopes. The control system (all part of the kit) chooses which is producing the hottest water and switches the pump to that panel on.

The shower in Beech Lodge is still electric, but this will be switched in autumn 09. We also plan solar panels for Otter Cottage [update – done now]. The delay, though not ideal, also means we’ll have more time to gather comparative data – so we should be able to report back later on the economics and pay back times.

Meanwhile, we’ve been really impressed with how good the panels are. We ended up doing the installation ourselves (well, Ian did it and Maggie made the tea). We were eligible for a grant from Renewable Energy for Devon (RE4D), but we would have had to use one of their recognised installers, and that pushed the price up much higher than the grant was worth – so we went DIY. So to spread the word, here’s some of what we’ve learnt. If you’ve got other questions, gives Ian a ring or email us at

Ian’s tips

Evacuated tube solar collectors are said to be the most efficient at converting solar energy to heat water. Navitron came top in my list of suppliers for their no-nonsense approach and competitive prices, so I went with their kits.

I bought the Solarkit1 comprising a 20 tube solar collector, a 175l thermal store (hot water tank), the TDC3 controller, an expansion tank, the circulation pump and extras such as the anti-freeze, the filling pump and some valves.

Extras you will need to buy: This amounts to more than you first think. It is essentially the copper pipes to connect up the water in and out, the solar circuit and the expansion tank. You also need drain valves, immersion heater element and a blank cover for the alternative immersion heater hole.

However, when you try and squeeze this into an airing cupboard in a way that allows you to then get the tank in and cater for the possibility of one day taking it out again, you find you need a lot of copper elbows, compression fittings, reducers from 22mm to 15mm and so on.

Plan it as best you can before starting or you will be up and down to the plumbers merchant (Screwfix is handy for next day delivery) throughout the job.

Getting started… I won’t repeat anything on the instructions – they are clear and easy to follow. These are just a few observations from my 3 installs that might make life easier.

When you get the Navitron kit (or any other)the most exciting part is the Solar collector or solar panel. By all means have a look at it, but remember that it is really the last thing to install and the easiest part.

So, out with the old and in with the new. The new is a ‘thermal store’ rather than a hot water tank. Basically, the tank is filled with water that stays in there. Cold water passes through a coil in the store and picks up heat from the tank, exiting as hot water. The 2 advantages of this are:

1 – you get mains pressure hot water
2 – the hot water from the taps never stands around in a tank, so there is no legionnaires risk. Mainly of relevance to us as a commercial establishment where steps have otherwise to be taken to avoid this problem.

With the airing cupboard empty I fitted the expansion vessel. This is needed because the fluid that runs around through the coil in the tank and up through the solar collector is pressurised. The pipe is the old hot water pipe that will be used again as it is already hooked up to taps round the lodge. All I need to do is fit it to the hot water outlet of the thermal store…

Assembling and fitting the solar collector :
1/ Do what you can on the ground. Make the frame up and be sure that it is square (measure the diagonals) before tightening up. It is important or the tubes will not lie straight and you will struggle to fit them at an angle – glass does not like being bent!
2/ Loosely fit all the jubilee clips to the bottom of the frame. Easier now than on the roof.
3/ Make sure all the rubber boots for the tubes have holes in the end. They often are not quite punched out in manufacturing, so poke a screwdriver through them or they will not slide onto the tubes properly. Wet the end of the tube to make it easier.
The frame is now ready to take up on the roof, and the tubes with boots on ready to be passed up.

Wind Turbine?

site survey for a wind turbine at our Devon eco lodges and cottage Wind – when the wind blows…. we could be generating our own energy…

site survey for a wind turbine at our Devon eco lodges and cottage We’re looking into a Gaia 11kw wind turbine for the big cow field. It’ll need planning permission of course – and wind. But the databases put us safely inside the ‘doable’ range of wind speeds. We reckon, very roughly, that we (and the business) use about 28,000 kWh a year, and that a 18m high (to the centre of the blades) turbine might produce about 31,000 kWh a year.

It wouldn’t get rid of our entire electricity bill though. Here’s how it works. You get paid 23p per kWh ‘feed in tarrif’ (from April 2010) whether or not you use the juice – but on a still day we’d still be drawing power from the National Grid, and paying for it.

At first I thought this meant there was no incentive for being frugal – just turn up the heating when it’s windy – which seemed a shame. But thinking about it, it would make us much more aware of our Energy use patterns, trying not to exceed our own generating capacity and therefore incurring a bill, especially as it’s not going to be windy all the time.

I know there are lots of voices against wind power, but we have to throw everything we’ve got at cutting our fossil energy use – renewables, energy efficiencey, maybe even nuclear though I hate the thought. Personally, I think they are very elegant, unlike pylons, which no-body ever seems to raise an eyebrow about.

I think David Attenborough had it right when he spoke at the public enquiry into a wind turbine for Glyndebourne opera house in Sussex last year: “there’s always a good reason for somebody else to do something else somewhere else.”

Well, we’ve had the full site survey (from Greenthinking, a Devon firm). Now we have to do the maths and think about taking the leap. It will be a big investment with an unknown pay-back time.

But I would love to have a wind turbine…

Himalayan Balsam bashing

Maggie has been Himalayan balsam bashing – not here though. Thankfully there’s none on the farm. But it’s in the nearby Halsdon Nature reserve, run by the Devon Wildlife Trust…

Today they had a volunteers’ day pulling the stuff up by the roots and loading it onto a tractor.

The trust have helped us a lot with advice about our culm grassland sssi, so we like to turn up and help them out sometimes too.

Himalayan Balsam is a pretty flower, also sometimes called ‘policeman’s helmet’ because of it’s shape. But it’s invasive and grows in vast stands over 6ft high that shade out everything else. It’s not native to Britain – it was introduced in 1839. It has explosive seeds that can shoot themselves up to 7m away, and it loves damp soil so it spreads along the banks of rivers.

Perhaps it’s saving grace is that it’s easy to pull up – it seems odd that such a giant plant can have such a feeble root system – but then if it falls over it just roots again from the leaf nodes.

So controlling it is an ongoing battle that has to be fought pretty much every year once the plant has got a foothold. Still, it was a beautiful day to be out there….

here are a few Himalayan Balsam links:

Winkleigh Primary School Visit

Today the reception class from Winkleigh Primary School came, on a combined visit to Higher Punchardon Farm.

I showed them around the lake and we looked for the ducklings, but unfortunately these were too shy… We talked about swallows, wildflowers, and guessed how long it took to fill the pond from empty (range of guesses 100-300 days, answer 6 last summer!)

Hopefully the children will come back again soon and explore more of our wildlife.

Energy saving switches for the lodge immersion heaters

We’ve fitted these energy saving switches in the lodges. They mean that if it’s cloudy and guests need to turn on the immersion heater for hot water they can chose how long to boost it for: 30 mins or up to 2 hours. But there’s no risk of leaving the power on accidentally when the sun comes back out as after the set time the power cuts off automatically.

Recycled water butts

Our latest water butts – recycled mango chutney drums bought through the country store in Okehampton for a tenner…

So not just recycled but also far better value than a garden centre buy. And that’s a recycled tap on the bottom, from when we replaced a bath in one of the lodges. We did have to buy the downpipe kit – that came from the ‘everything’ shop on Winkleigh’s old airfield.

We’ve got several now – including this one near the biodigesters on the gravel – for washing off wellies and dogs!