The tractorman comes by closer now, flailing at the rich vegetation below my canopy. The heat, the slight glimmer of sun and he sweats, luring the carnivores from the shade. Jim Carruthers, our resident gardener at Battleby, looks at the good, the bad and the ugly of summer biodiversity close to home.
“Will you be going to Rewind?” a colleague joked on Friday afternoon. “No I’m going to unwind instead”, I retorted. It wasn’t working. That evening Rewind came to me. From 5 miles away across the Tay, the drone of bass and drums thumped around the house. Rewind is a nostalgic music festival for the middle-aged where tutus and wellies are de rigeur. What the women wear is even worse.
Nonetheless high summer is here and the trees at Battleby have turned an anonymous green, boring and homogenized, lacking any real verdancy and interest. After the hectic jolt of spring, it is holiday time for trees, they put down some wood and let the seeds ripen, don’t fret about the pests, the leaves have peaked, the living is easy and there’s nothing to worry about bar a lightning strike.
The meadow is lingering on, not quite going over, the rich display of orchids gone to seed. Interest persists here though, bees prosper on the leguminous clover and bird’s foot trefoil. Meadow sweet is in full bloom, the rattle is ripe in some spots but only coming into flower elsewhere. The wood betony has formed four new clumps and the scabious has moved 30 metres east. Come the gloaming, well past bedtime these blithe days, moths gather on the campions, bats sweep along the lines the martins took during the day. All feeding on the cornucopia of insects that have come with the summer.
The weather has changed. Springs now tend to be dry, summers damp, autumns braw and winters, well, blashie. This summer has been wet enough now for insects to thrive. Birds that struggled for food in the early part of the breeding season now have food galore. Vegetation has also thickened in this dampness and I exercise the tractor regularly to control this lushness in the necessary places. But the beasties wait for me. From the tiny berry bugs to the Heinkel-sized clegs, the throngs come to claim their all-you-can-eat all-day dinner. Voracious, incessant. I try not breathing. I am assured that this is the only fool-proof method of avoiding these attacks. But I just can’t manage the technique. Just when I think I have it cracked… I wear thick clothes, thin hair, long sleeves, tuck troosers into socks. Still they come, still they get through, the annoyance persists but I survive, bloody but unbowed.
The one thing that does get me down though is not midges, ants, wasps, ticks, clegs, no it’s sticky willy. It’s one of the target weeds alongside nettles, thistles, brambles and rasps. Of these others some are good here, some tolerable there, each of them capable of sustaining birds, mammals and butterflies. The rasps are wee and wormy, few ripening without mould. Blackbirds gorge on them, flitting off into the trees while a tractor or dog passes by. But sticky willy I go for wherever. It will bring down fences, I warn you. It is near the end of its vulnerable period, i.e. before it sets seed. These form in pairs, dry hard and persist for years in the soil. They are able to step in and out of dormancy but won’t germinate unless conditions are favourable. This year I have slaughtered them in their thousands, using machete, hedge trimmer and tractor. This fight has been waged annually for over 20 years. Every one of these has been a partial victory, never emphatic, always Pyrrhic.
The rain sets in, a far cry from the threat of brightness in the afternoon. The curse of Rewind, with its unseemly acreage of flesh, has struck again. Pick-your-own fruit farms will again despair. A wet Friday night and few will visit them over the whole weekend.
I retreat home, the drone follows. I think of cast kye and consider turning vegetarian. Home alone, the troops are away in a quiet and midge-free St. Andrews. I go to bed, the drone follows. Instead of picking up Tove Jansson’s Summer Book, I check under the bed for sticky willy and place as many pillows over my head as possible. It is hot and humid.
For what feels like hours, I thrash about trying to get comfortable enough for sleep. The pillows scatter and to my surprise and relief the drums have stopped.
A quick check under the bed just to make sure and I’m off to sleep. Sigh.