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HomeNewsNotes from the Sticks: Caring, sharing long-tailed tits

Notes from the Sticks: Caring, sharing long-tailed tits

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ONE of the many joys of our bird feeder is a visit from a flock of long-tailed tits (Aegithalos caudatus). You usually hear them before you see them with their high-pitched ‘zee-zee-zee’ calls to each other. This year we have seen more than usual so I think they have had a good breeding season.

It is a tiny bird, with the tail forming more than half of its 5-6in length. It is widespread throughout Europe and Asia.

The nest is a little miracle, constructed over several weeks from lichen and moss woven together with spiders’ webs and animal hairs, then lined with feathers. The result is an elastic dome which expands as the brood, usually eight to 12 but sometimes as many as 15, grow. Here’s a video of the process:

Unfortunately the nests are highly vulnerable to predators, such as woodpeckers. (You might prefer not to watch this video.)

One study estimated that only 17 per cent of nests survive. If parents lose their brood they often become helpers at another nest, and chicks have a higher survival rate from nests with helpers. After the breeding season the family and helpers stay together, roving through woodland in search of insects (often in a flock with blue tits, coal tits and great tits) and roosting in a huddle to keep warm.

Here is a lovely video of a party on a feeder.

Now here’s a funny thing – until about 30 years ago they never came near our bird feeders in south London. Suddenly they seemed to cotton on that they were an easy source of food. I mentioned this to a friend and she had noticed the same thing, and so had her sister in Leicestershire.

Other people are not so aware of wildlife. One early winter evening we were in Burnley town centre, which has a paved area with ornamental trees. We could see by the street lights that one particular tree outside a building society, apparently identical to all the others, was festooned with long-tailed tits calling to each other. There must have been hundreds – an extraordinary sight and sound. As we watched, it turned 5pm and the staff of the building society promptly issued forth. We showed them the wildlife spectacle on their doorstep and said how lucky they were. They hadn’t noticed and furthermore weren’t particularly interested.

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THE bumper harvest of blackberries I forecast with this picture in July 

has failed miserably. This the same patch yesterday, almost every berry shrivelled away and the leaves half dead.

I don’t know what has gone wrong – we had a bone-dry June, but I took my picture after that and as you can see they looked fine. We had a very wet July and an average August, plus a glorious start to this month. This time last year I picked loads at the same spot for blackberry and apple crumble but I doubt if I could find more than half a dozen this year. I think it must be some kind of blight but I have failed to pin it down with my internet searches.

As if to compensate, the plants are putting out new shoots and flowers, but it must be too late for them to come to anything.

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Sheep of the Week

Marc Dejardin

THIS rather fearsome fellow is a Beltex ram.

The breed originated in Belgium from the Dutch Texel breed which I wrote about here, the name being a typically imaginative combination of ‘Belgian’ and ‘Texel’. The Belgians selected and bred individuals with double muscles at the hindquarters, hence the distinctive large rump which with the sloping pelvis gives a wedge-shaped appearance.

The first Beltex sheep arrived in Britain in 1989. The Beltex Sheep Society says: ‘The initial reaction from UK farmers was amusement, then amazement that so much meat could be packed into such a small-framed sheep, especially when Beltex lambs started to monopolise the silverware in prime lamb and carcase competitions. In 1994, just five years after the breed’s arrival in the UK, Beltex lifted the “triple crown” of supreme carcase championships with Robert Smith’s triumph at Smithfield, Matthew Hamilton at the Scottish Winter Fair and D & A Bishop at the Welsh Winter Fair, not to mention the Bishop’s Supreme live championship at the same event. Engravers have been kept busy ever since, adding the names of Beltex exhibitors to the silverware from all the major prime lamb and carcase competitions.’

The main use of the Beltex is to sire crossbred lambs for the meat market. You can read more at the website of the Beltex Sheep Society, which uses the catchy slogan ‘Breed Belters with Beltex’.

Here is a video:

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Wheels of the Week

Continuing our series on steam locomotives by TCW writer JOHN ELLWOOD. This is Part Five; you can read the previous parts by clicking on the numbers: 1,  2,  3 and 4. 

ALTHOUGH Preston was the most favoured location for the number and variety of locomotives, I also managed to visit Lancaster Castle Station on several occasions. Sometimes my journey would be by bus from Knott End (the train from Fleetwood was far too expensive), and sometimes by bicycle via the Knott End ferry. As was the case on most stations, train spotters were tolerated for the price of a platform ticket.

Lancaster Castle, despite the terrible state of the canopy, was a photogenic station. One engine I distinctly remember seeing there was 45552 Silver Jubilee. As the locomotive waited there, the fireman took it upon himself to stick his knife into the numbers which unusually protruded from the cab sides!

When I first visited, Lancaster Castle was a terminus for some peculiar electric trains. The line from there to Heysham had been electrified as an experiment by the Midland Railway in 1908. It was the first single-phase electric railway in the country. The trains, which had a distinctive ‘ding ding’ sound when departing, were scrapped when services to Heysham via Lancaster Green Ayre Station were terminated in 1966. A once per day service to and from Heysham Port survives to link with the Isle of Man ferry.

As readers will be aware, the UK was one of the slowest industrialised countries to electrify and adopt diesel traction. While this was good news for us steam enthusiasts, it was a harbinger of some later disastrous investment decisions, the most calamitous being HS2.

Because of my age and lack of funds, I did not have the chance to visit other regions. Before I became a serious train spotter I do recall seeing some Great Western engines around Chester when I was taken to North Wales by my aunt for a holiday on her cousin’s husband’s farm. I remember being highly impressed by the first sight of one of Charles Collett’s 4-6-0 ‘Castle’ Class locomotives. The engine in question was the spotless 5063, ‘Earl Baldwin’, which sat shimmering and simmering in a bay platform at Chester General Station in or around August 1959 or 60. 

My older friend Howard was more fortunate in his ability to travel. On a trip with a Blackpool Trainspotters’ Club he was able to visit sheds in Scotland and Crewe Works when the latter was still busy refitting steam locomotives.

The photographs shown were taken by my good friend and fellow steam enthusiast Howard Leach.

Our semi-autobiographical experiences of trainspotting are recorded in Steam Dreams, available from Amazon Kindle

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Margaret Ashworth
Margaret Ashworth
Margaret Ashworth is a retired national newspaper journalist. She runs the Subbing Clinic in a hopeless attempt to keep up standards, and co-runs A & M Records where she indulges her passion for 60s pop.

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