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News Archive - 2011

Winter solstice 2010 to autumn equinox 2011


Straw equinox

The autumn equinox in September, the 23rd this year, usually sees heightened activity in the fields due to cutting and baling of the straw from the cereal crops. The winter crops, sown last autumn, are cut and harvested first, then the spring crops, sown six months ago. A bout of intense wet suspended baling for a time, but the fine weather predicted for the end of the month should see the back of it. The large round or oblong straw bales, sometimes piled to form great walls or towers, create transient patterns in the arable landscape. This is work for big machines - the small bales that could be carried on a person's back are long gone in most of the croplands. 



The photographs above, taken in the east Perthshire croplands, show, from bottom left clockwise, wheat cut and remaining in the field after harvest, lines of cut straw in a field, large oblong bales, a 'wall' of bales and tractor marks in mud. The unharvested cereal ears or loose grain, the gleanings, were once picked from the fields, but now sustain parts of the arable food web of microorganisms, invertebrates, birds and mammals. The traffic of big machines leads to serious compaction followed by waterlogging and generally poor soil conditions for root growth. The effect of excessive traffic on soil is one of the main reasons why many fields are unable to support maximum yields.



The blue flowers of the harebell or bluebell Campanula rotundifolia have mostly withered by the autumn equinox in the second half of September. Botanical surveys show it grows over most of Britain, but it is now uncommon in the lower, intensely agricultural regions of east Scotland.  It is a surprisingly tough perennial, taking a battering in the gales but soon opening new buds when in its flowering phase. It can also take a reasonable amount of competition from other plants, but is best seen alone or with lady's bedstraw on old walls and dry banks. The plants in the photographs, taken in August by a bridge over the River Nairn, were untypically vigorous.



Corn paddy

Early August passed under a deluge into mid-August. The late summer cross-quarter day was only just visible and, unlike the other cross-quarter days this year, did not tell much about the state of cropping, other than that crops were still there. So what's the photograph below - a typical summer day on the Carse of Gowrie, the long flat croplands, the Sidlaw hills rising into limitless cloud?



No, it's the stunning rice fields of Luang Nam Tha in Laos, not long planted and still bright green. In contrast,  the wheat and barley in the carse were a dull brown and nearing harvest in mid-August. But like the rice, the wheat in some flat fields was submerged, its stems only a foot high and with few tillers. And even if most fields did not having standing water like the one below, their soil would have been saturated, offering little comfort to wheat roots. In anticipation of years like this when there's too much wet and others when it's too dry, and still others when the conditions are not extreme but the soils are too well compacted, the Institute has begun long term research to find crop varieties whose roots do well in poor conditions.  In this we can learn from both rice and the dryland cereals.




Living Field CD goes global

We were aware that the Living Field CD had been used in some other countries, but a recent story shows that its content is valued and still much appreciated. The CD, produced several years ago, aligned with the 5-14 curriculum in Scottish schools, aimed to cover aspects of biology and environmental science that were not freely available.  It can be downloaded without charge from this web site, but the Parents-Teachers Association of one school in the Philippines was unable to achieve a complete download due to a slow internet connection. They wrote asking if there were any hard copies left.  A couple of discs were duly sent by post and we hear they have been safely received. If anyone else is in a similar positon and wants a hard copy, please get in touch with Gladys Wright (see the Home page).



Plans to remove Rhododendron ponticum from the landscape have aroused more than usual botanical interest in the national press in recent weeks and stimulated letters and enlightened articles on the state of the habitat and on invasions in particular. But the ponty (as it is known affectionally by some foresters) is not alone in both spreading and being of little use to humans.  The farm now has first-hand experience of japanese knotweed and himalayan balsam! Most such plants are recent introductions but some other recent spreaders are natives, such as the rosebay willowherb Chamerion angustifolium pictured below in late July (Living Field collection).



The rosebay willowherb is a native, at one time mostly living among rocks and screes, and was also taken into gardens, probably as a cultivated variant, but it started spreading about 150 years ago. It is now common throughout the country and grows in profusion, along roadsides and in building sites, often together with Weeds Act weeds such as ragwort and thistle. In the croplands, it likes the strips of land between the hedgeless margins of fields, from which it often gets a high dose of fertiliser, and mown road verges. It is also found on tilled arable land where it rarely gets the chance to flower, and on poor, grazed pasture, thriving within thorny patches of whin Ulex europaeus where sheep and cattle cannot get to it. Invasions are complex and rarely the result of the plant alone. People change the environment, maybe hundreds or thousands of years ago, and the plant at some point takes advantage. It may have adapted genetically, but in the UK at least, some previous effect of people on the environment is the root cause of most invasions.


Solstice barley

Almost all fields are green by the summer solstice. The contrasts of the May cross quarter day have gone. The winter cereals have been filling their heads for a month, and except for a few late fields, the spring cereals are in full leaf and most of them are flowering. The weeks around the solstice have been wet and dull this year, and this itself will cut the yields, but not so much as will the lengthy drought in the south east of the UK. The average yields in the north east are high because the cooler temperature encourages a longer filling period for the grains and the wet ensures in most years that their filling is not stopped short.



The photographs above (Living Field collection) show left, a barley field in the foreground and cereal fields, mostly barley and wheat, extending several miles towards the Tay; right, a flowering head or ear of spring barley, of which there are hundreds of millions in the fields to the left; and inset, the male parts or anthers (each about 1 mm long) hung from the flower by their filaments.  Barley gets swept by rain and storms, but rarely breaks at this stage of its life. The fine filaments can twine in the wind, but stay attached long enough to do their job.


Solstice bird

Something the cat brought in late at night. Put in a shoe box and found alive next morning, this young chaffinch held on to life against the odds. Cats take a heavy toll of garden birds this time of year. If you get to a caught bird and prise it from the cat in time, it might survive. This one comfortably sat on an outstretched finger, took its food and appeared unbothered by the people around it. Reminds you of lines from a the Lal Waterson song: 'At first she starts then she's startled /  I see that light in her eyes / Didn't you realise you were a bird at dawn when you woke with air in your throat."


Close up wild plant colour

Five or six years ago, the viper's bugloss Echium vulgare established itself in the new meadow in the Living Field garden, and following its success there, it was one of the first species to be introduced to the land around the reconstructed pond at Balruddery Farm. In flower, from a distance, it looks a pale wishy-washy blue, but look closer to find an intricacy of form, colour and texture in the flowering stems. The photographs show, right, a length of the flowering stem; upper left, a flowering branch off the main stem, viewed from the front; and lower left, the stamens, the male parts, emerging from the flower tube. Each blue flower is about 1 cm wide.


The viper's bugloss is not a weed of the fields, but has sometimes moved into barren and generally unkempt and neglected corners of the croplands. It stays for a few years where it is sown or planted, but then, to avoid the dominant perennials, moves out to stony or sandy ground which it prefers. It always seems to have bees and other insects on it. Viewed from the side, its branches in mid-flower can resemble a feeding bee. It shares membership of that most useful plant family, the borages, with the lungwort, comfrey and alkanet.  


Plague, pestilence ...

It's rare in the croplands to see a field or copse stripped bare by insects, but the sight of a spindle tree Euonymus europaeus made leafless and covered in a shroud of white silk is a reminder of the power of the insect world. The spindle trees shown below were just inland from the coast near Crail in Fife and by early June had been defoliated by larvae, or caterpillars, of (what is probably) the spindle ermine moth. Photographs show: lower left, one of the trees, which is not much more than at big shrub at about 3 m tall, defoliated and covered in 'silk' by the caterpillars; upper, a part of the tree with only branches and twigs remaining; and lower right, a cluster of caterpillars eating the last leaf.




The spindle is native, but this far north was probably planted. It is easy to miss except when attacked by the moth. It's a reminder that insects on the march routinely lay waste to the land in some parts of the globe.  Chemical insectices have helped keep fields in the maritime croplands free from massive insect damage, but the long term solution to managing crop pests here is through deploying a range of non-chemical control measures, such as encouraging the pests' natural enemies.


Wild plant colour at Balruddery Farm

The plan to reintroduce a diversity of wild plants to the Balruddery Farm is starting to give results. The photographs below show (top right then clockwise) foxglove Digitalis purpurea, cornflower Centauria cyanus with oxeye daisy and a patch of oxeye daisy Leucanthemum vulgare all in mid June. They were put in last year by the farm and the Living Field team. 



Why reintroduce such plants? They add colour and interest to the croplands. Most have medicinal properties. None of them are weeds of modern crops. Many of them support beneficial insects such as pollinators and natural enemies of crop pests.  Both the plants and insects provide food for farmland birds and mammals. They are a heritage that will disappear from the croplands unless we act to keep them.


Sun and visitors at Open Farm Sunday 2011

Many visitors came to the Living Field and the other displays of machinery and science for Open Farm Sunday on a gloriously sunny 12 June 2011.  Children and parents were crowding round the 'make your own flower' event well after the closing time of 4 pm. The cereal trail game in the garden and the display of heritage cereals, flour, bread and biscuits were also well appreciated by visitors of all ages. With other events in the cabins and garden, the place was certainly buzzing. A summary of the science displays is available on the Open Farm Sunday page on this site, where we shall soon put some photographs taken on the day.



Stinging nettles are one of the commonest plants of the croplands. The perennial species Urtica dioica, thrives in fertilised field margins, pastures, woods and waysides, and is the one most of us will see and feel, but the annual species Urtica urens is the more abundant of the two in crops or fallow. Nettles have been among the most useful of plants for thousands of years, not always considered a nuisance or weed. Few other plants offer a nutritious food, the base for fermented drinks, a cure or palliative for a range of ailments and conditions, a dye for colouring cloth and a fibre for making rope and cloth. So if a nettle stings you, you can eat it or turn it into a piece of string or make compost out of it! The photographs right show (top) flowering plants and (lower) part of a flowering stem.

As a mark of their value to people through the ages, a Festival of Nettles was held on Monday 30 May 2011 at the Scottish Crannog Centre on Loch Tay. The Centre has 'found abundant quantities of nettle remains in our underwater excavations at the 2,500 year old site of Oakbank Crannog in Loch Tay. We are certain that our Iron Age ancestors exploited the weed to its maximum potential.' A textile artist specialising in nettle fibre gave demonstrations of how to extract the fibres from last year's dried stems, how to spin and weave with the yarn, and how to make decorated vessels from the outer stem fragments that are pulped much like papier mache. The Crannog team showed how to make nettle rope and string from fresh nettles, to colour wool using a dye made from them and offered tastes of home made nettle soup, vegetables, pasta and beer. 


Quarter day contrast

Nothing better shows the variety of the croplands than the state of fields in early May. The winter rapeseed Brassica napus is in full flower. It was sown last autumn, the earlier the better to lessen the chance of it being set back over the winter, and it should be capturing sunlight and nutrients at a maximum through May and June. The latest of the spring crops, the potato Solanum tuberosum, is just about  planted, the ground ridged and destoned, the first leaves soon poking through.  Between these extremes, the winter wheat Triticum aestivum and barley Hordeum vulgare, sown in autumn after the rapeseed, look all leaf, but have young ears growing inside the upper stem sheaths. Only crops so dense you can't see the soil will fill these ears to give the highest yields of grain in late summer.  The spring-sown cereals, mostly barley, are racing vainly to catch the others but will be too late to make the most of the sun's height.



The potato (upper) and winter rapeseed (lower), and most other modern crops, each need for their transition from germination to maturity huge investments of fossil energy in the form of fertiliser, pesticides and sheer mechanical force. Whether growing these crops can be sustained depends less on the crop species than the methods. The immense ingenuity and technical know-how that produces high yields year after year should now be be turned to safeguard the future. Otherwise, what's the market for piles of small stones?


May promise

Content with second place to the flowering trees in April, the lowland herbs begin to engage the eye in early May. Their rise coincides with the late-spring cross quarter day (6 May this year) that lies mid-way between the spring equinox and the summer solstice. It's a time of high solar income but still cool temperature - a 'make or break' time for the crops, since the highest cereal yields in August will only be achieved by fields that have enough leaf to take advantage of the sunshine now. The potential of the whole agricultural year often hinges on the state of fields in early May. Not so the cropland's perennial plants. They are ready for it, overwintering as bulbs or swollen roots or stems, then emerging early to take full advantage of the high sun to support their flowering and seeding. 



The photographs above, taken late April and early May in 2011, show (main then clockwise) wild daffodil, probably a long-naturalised cultivar of Narcissus pseudonarcisus, marsh marigold Caltha palustris, wild garlic Allium ursinum, bluebell Hyacinthoides non-spripta and red campion Silene dioica. These and many other long standing plants of the maritime croplands are well adapted to the climate of the region, but are being marginalised, squeezed between ploughs and verge-mowers, fertilisers and weedkillers. Their loss is no benefit to the profit of agriculture. 


Wild cherries

The flowering displays of the three common wild cherries set the mood of the landscape in April at the time when the leaves of most trees are just starting to unfurl. The wild cherries are found in hedges, copses, by waysides and sometimes in dense thickets, especially at the upper margins of the croplands.  They are easy to tell apart. The bird cherry Prunus padus has its flowers visibly on short side branches off the stems (photograph lower left). The wild cherry or gean Prunus avium  tends to have its flowers in tight clusters, often with some expanding leaves showing through the white (lower right). The blackthorn Prunus spinosa (top) has flowers that appear whiter and arranged in a less clustered way than the others, and as the name indicates, the branches are very thorny. From a distance a blackthorn thicket in flower can look like land covered in a deep frost.



These small trees, like many of the common weeds of fields, have been here long before farming, and have been put to use in many ways over the ages. The cherries are not much in the way of food but the fruit of the blackthorn, the sloe, is used to flavour gin. The flowers can be so sought by bumble bees in April that the droning can be heard metres away. They are all members of the rose family, as are the rowan and hawthorn that will flower after them. They have become more visible in recent years, being planted along road embankments, and by new roundabouts, sliproads and flyovers. The origin of these new plantings is not certain - some may be from mainland Europe - but if you want to grow these species, you may prefer to seek out certified local stock. To see a real blackthorn thicket, or a tall mature gean, you will need to look in old, unimproved farmland or on higher ground where tilled soil gives way to sheep grazings.


Tay Estuary Forum Annual Conference 2011

The Living Field is closely connected to the Tay. Rain falling on the garden and farmland runs into the Tay; birds from the marshes and flats fly over to feed inland; plants connect from the water's level to the high tops of the Angus Glens to the north. So it is timely that the James Hutton Institute should contribute to the activities of the Tay Estuary Forum - an active organisation promoting the life, industry, biodiversity and welfare of the communities that inhabit and work on and near the Tay. The recent Annual Conference of the TEF held in Dundee on 15 April 2011 was an example of successful regional integration. The Living Field hopes to contribute to the forum by showing how industry and nature can coexist in the maritime croplands to mutual benefit. Read more at the TEF page on this site.


April pilewort

The lesser celandine, also named the pilewort, Ranunculus ficaria populates the banks of lanes and ditches for a few bright weeks in late March and April. Of the buttercup family here, it is the earliest and shortest  in height, forming a carpet through which the bright yellow flowers rise (right, about 3 cm in diameter). In a few weeks, the plants will lose colour and fade quickly, just as tall grasses and ranker broadleaf weeds overtake them.  Among medicinals, the lungwort, nipplewort and woundwort have names that suggest a target or function, but the pilewort not only names but is reported to resemble the affliction it is said to relieve. Nothing above the ground gives a clue to its potency, but look in the soil to see the cluster of small root tubers, some blackened and shrivelled and probably last year's, but most a whitish brown. The tubers are squat and close, except a few that have elongated to look like a miniature baseball bat. The pilewort produces many potentially useful chemicals. It is found widely in prehistoric sites, but its uses then as food or medicinal are not known with any certainty. The pilewort will be a featured plant in the medicinals section of the 5000 years project.


Pale light of the spring equinox

Early spring on the Tay brings a pale, suffusing light to the estuary and its surrounding cropland. On higher ground above the estuary, larks begin their flight and song. In stubble, and by gates and margins, the field pansy and common speedwell flower. The great beech hedges on the Carse farm impose dark stripes on the rising slopes.



The winter crops, mostly cereals and rapeseed, planted last autumn, have begun to cover their fields with a dull green, yet most of the land still shows the brown and straw of soil and stubble. Not for long ... sowing of the spring crops is now in full swing.


March lungwort

The first flowering of the lungwort Pulmonaria officinalis in early March lets us know we'll soon be at the spring or vernal equinox. There are few other plants in flower in mid March, apart from the snowdrop, which begins earlier and is just about over by the third week. The pilewort has pushed itself through the remains of last year's dead herbage, ahead of the grass, nettles and docks that will later smother it, but is only just promising to flower; the cuckoo-pint Arum maculatum is strongly vegetative but not yet reproductive, while the wild garlic and bluebell are still clusters of deep green, expanding blades. No, the deep pink and blue flowers of the lungwort (right, flowers 7-10 mm across), introduced as a garden plant and medicinal, a member of the borage family, and now naturalised, is a timely reminder that the sun has reached half its full height in the sky and the sunrise and sunset are both racing northwards each day at their fastest. Despite the warming sun, the air is still cool, but the lungwort tempts the occasional early bumble bee.


Southern light

The past few weeks of January and February gave some memorable changes in colour  before and for some time after sunrise. The red, yellow and blue colours seen in the southern sky for a few minutes before sunrise, occurred only  when the 'right' kind of cloud was at the right altitude when viewed in a direction south to south east. These effects were absent during the very cold, cloudless weather of December and January.  A different phenomenon  occurred after sunrise when the light reflected off the Firth of Tay produced a blinding band of white that appeared to cut through trees in the middle distance (main photograph below).



The sunrise reaches its southerly limit each year at about south east, a direction which is over the widest extent of the Firth of Tay as viewed from the Institute's farms and field sites. The effects are now unlikely to recur (until the same time next year, weather permitting) since the sunrise is moving northwards anticlockwise, with increasing speed day by day. In about three weeks, at the spring equinox, sunrise will be due east.


Weeds in the dock

The troublesome nature of a few weed species has sometimes caused them to receive attention fom the legal profession, but it's their 'owners', not the weeds themselves that have been judged the wrongdoers. So an aggrieved party might have little to gain from thrashing a ragwort or stamping on a thistle, but might sue the owners of the land on which they are growing! Now, few people have any expert knowledge on this topic, but Colin Reid from Dundee University has recently provided the Living Field with a short article titled Weeds and the law from 1990 which afficionados of the arable field and pasture should find interesting - we at the Living Field certainly did, and were perversely gratified, for instance, that the now very rare corn marigold or gool (see lower down this page) was the cause of such courtly wrath several hundred years ago. The article can be downloaded at Weeds in the 5000 years pages on this web site: Colin Reid points out that the law has changed since 1990 and continues to change with regard to invasive species. We also hope to place on this site, later in the year, extracts on weeds from Colin Reid's book on Conservation Law. More to follow.


February hazel

Each year, the male catkins of the hazel Corylus avellana appear while most other plants in the hedgerow lie waiting for the warmth. Their strings of pale yellow coincide with the early February cross quarter day, half way between the winter solstice and the spring equinox. After two months of little change in the length of the day, the catkins remind us that the sun's warmth will soon be felt and and the days will noticeably lengthen (by about 4 minutes each day in February).

The catkins in the photograph (Living Field collection) are 7-8 cm long. Later, they will produce clouds of bright yellow pollen. If you collect hazel pollen, boil it and the decant the liquid, you have a vegetable dye of a subtle cream. The tree also produces female flowers, but they are very much smaller than the male and difficult to spot.


2011 in the Garden

Best wishes for 2011 to all our visitors. During the coming year, the Living Field garden plans to extend its exhibits on modern and heritage cereals, dyes and medicinals and to open a new display area in the west section  for wild and cultivated legumes (i.e. plants that fix nitrogen from the air). Many of the garden's perennial plants have survived the coldest winter for decades while others are back after an absence. We noted two or three rosettes of Onopordum acanthium, the Scotch thistle or cotton thistle. They must be descendents of the prime specimen that appeared and flowered in the year the garden was officially opened, 2005. The species had never been seen before on the farm. Where that particular individual came from is a mystery. It died after flowering (it's biennial) and while its seed gave rise to new plants for a year or two, all trace of it then vanished, and we'd omitted to keep any seed. So we were pleased to see late last year a few young plants. All being well, they should flower and set seed in the summer. The cotton thistle is an architecturally splendid member of the composite family, but uncommon in Scotland.


End of day, end of year 


Season's Greetings from all at the Living Field. A big thank you to all friends and helpers, to all visitors real and virtual, and to the trusts and donors that enabled us to develop and expand in 2010. See you in 2011 for another great year. P.s. the trees in the photograph, taken after sunset, can be seen from the path network on the Institute's Mylnefield Farm.


Winter solstice, lunar eclipse and the lengthening day


The shortest day, 21 December. It's not easy to know when it is, without  clocks and newspapers and the tele, since the length of day changes so slowly at this time of year. But once, it was one of the few essential things to know. And now in the big freeze of 2010, at least it helps to know that from today days will get longer and the sun's energy a bit stronger. Some of the first people to till the land in the Atlantic maritime croplands built their monuments to tell them when this day had arrived .... about 100 sleeps from this day to the first sowings of the spring crops. But why wait so long ... many of us have a party or celebration around this time and the people living 5000 years ago would have had their parties, perhaps in much the same way as we do.

The winter solstice is still watched and celebrated at neolithic buildings like Maeshowe on Orkney and Newgrange in Ireland. And to cap it all ... today, this year was special in displaying an eclipse of the moon. For information and some photographs on the rare coincidence of a lunar eclipse on the shortest day, follow this web link or this.

The Living Field's web article No life without the sun, which describes the daily and yearly changes in the sun's energy reaching the earth, is illustrated with photographs of neolithic or stone age sites, some reproduced in the panel above (originals by KM & GR Squire).

Content and contact this page: Geoff Squire