Category: Activities

2014 Open Day

Following the popularity of our first Open Day last year, we have decided to offer another opportunity for folk to visit. This year it will be on Saturday, 19th July from 12-5pm. As last year, James Newcome, Bishop of Carlisle, should be with us all afternoon.

The involvement of our local community is an extremely important component of what we are attempting to do. So hopefully there will be lots of craft activities to see and try, including basket-weaving, peg-loom weaving, spinning, blacksmithying, organic cheese, stained-glass crafting, hand-thrown pottery. There will also be music to listen to or play (so bring an instrument along), face-painting, free food and beer, and a short, informal open-air service (weather permitting) for those who wish to participate.

This is an opportunity to explore the site and discuss the exploration and development of permaculture-based practices on our 6-acre smallholding, including experiments in no-dig grain and potato growing, aquaculture, willow forage and biomass, reed beds, forest garden etc. There are also pigs to romp with, chickens to feed, a horse, guinea pigs and a dog! Plus talks on the Met Office weather station and bees a year on.

Entry is free (it is, after all, an open day!) and all are VERY welcome!

‘Zoomable’ map to find us is here.

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We never seem to hear politicians or mainstream economists challenging the mantra of economic growth, even though it is clear the planet is already suffering its devastating consequences.

In June 2010 the first Steady State Economy conference was hosted at Leeds University. A brief personal summary can be read here.

The organisers of the conference have recently published a book deriving from it titled Enough Is Enough, and this video giving an overview and summarising three aspects: debt, inequality, and unemployment. It is a message we need to hear and act upon.

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Gentle Grain – 1st Attempt

Native Americans had an abhorrence of ‘ploughing’, declaring it to be a barbaric assault on our ‘mother’ who sustains us:

You ask me to plough the ground. Shall I take a knife and tear my mother’s breast? Then when I die she will not take me to her bosom to rest. (Smohalla, Nez Perce Indian, c.1850)

This attitude is reflected in other sayings where the earth is recognised as the life-nurturer:

[The Lakota] loved the earth and all things of the earth, the attachment growing with age. The old people came literally to love the soil and they sat or reclined on the ground with a feeling of being close to a mothering power. It was good for the skin to touch the earth and the old people liked to remove their moccasins and walk with bare feet on the sacred earth. (Chief Luther Standing Bear, Lakota Indian, c.1900)


The Great Spirit is our Father, but the Earth is our Mother. She nourishes us; that which we put into the ground she returns to us, and healing plants she gives us likewise. (Big Thunder, Wabanakis Nation, c.1900)

The quotations are taken from Touch The Earth: A Self-Portrait of Indian Existence. It is tempting to think there is a degree of Romanticism in such views, but it is difficult to see how Native Americans would have come under that movement’s influence. It is much more likely they are genuine reflections of this ancient, aboriginal culture.

However, it is not difficult to reconcile these attitudes with the creation stories of Genesis 1 and 2, or Moses having to take off his sandals because he was standing on holy ground in Exodus 3. Nor with the realisation that Christ is the second Adam, the ‘gardener’ discovered by Mary Magdalene in Jesus’ first resurrection appearance in John’s Gospel. In particular, the thorny issue of the meaning of ‘dominion over creation’ in Genesis 2, that has taxed Christians over the centuries, when understood with reference to the nature of ‘lordship’ exercised by Christ, himself, that of sacrifice and service, is startlingly illuminated in them. It seems we have something profound to learn from them.

The idea, therefore, seemed a good one – to grow grain gently, without digging or using machinery to prepare the ground for planting, by suppressing grass growth through mulching. Our approach was an adaptation of a method pioneered and used very successfully by the late Japanese farmer, Masanobu Fukuoka, which he describes in his book One Straw Revolution. It is an inspiring read.

Like the Native Americans, but on the other side of the globe, Fukuoka (who died in 2008) lived by the premise that we can learn all we need to know from carefully listening to creation. If we are attentive, we will see the natural forces of life and some of the myriad interactions that are a living ecosystem. Then, with trepidation, we can begin to join the dance, encouraging this, redirecting that. It took him many years, but he became an inspiration for several generations of people who wanted to relearn how to grow food naturally.

Fukuoka, however, was not starting with a field full of Cumbrian ‘reshes’ and creeping buttercup! His field was already cultivated – he merely changed his method of continuing the cultivation from one year to the next.

In April 2009, in a field loaned to us by a local church-member and farmer, we attempted an experiment, consciously trying to learn from his approach. We laid three strips of woodchip on pasture, each about 6m x 2m x 5cm thick. This was to suppress the grass underneath, without digging it over, provide a water retentive matrix on which to grow, and yet allow the roots of seedlings to reach down to find the soil. Scattered on top of these we spread seed mixed with moistened compost and bonemeal. One strip had wheat, one oats, one barley, with fuego beans mixed in to all three, as nitrogen fixing legumes. Fukuoka developed the seed-ball method to stop birds eating the seeds, since he wasn’t ploughing them in or covering them in any way, and to provide a growing medium for them when they germinated. Our attempt at making them into mud or clay balls didn’t work, and the broadcast turned out fairly lumpy.

Each week we inspected our beds to see if the seeds had germinated. Would the experiment work? Was that blade an oat seedling poking through, or something else?

We discovered three unfortunate facts as the summer progressed:

  1. wind dried out the woodchip matrix relatively quickly, frequently leaving the young plants drought-stricken
  2. the woodchip mulch wasn’t thick enough to suppress the very vigorous grass beneath
  3. the farmer’s in-breaking sheep preferred young grain grass to the surrounding rye grass and sheep’s sorrel

This combination meant we were going to struggle with anything resembling a harvest. In the early stages it looked a complete disaster. Oats, wheat and barley are all forms of grass, so it was impossible for us to tell whether any of our seeds were growing.

The middle strip, containing oats, swamped by emergent grass growing through the mulch.

The middle strip, containing oats, swamped by emergent grass growing through the mulch. The mounds either side are of potatoes planted in gathered mole-hill soil. June 2009

Nevertheless, the plants grew up in among the grass that forged through the mulch and, towards the end of the summer, fruited, at last becoming visible.

Barley in among the grass. A lone fuego bean plant also lifts her head. August 2009.

Barley in among the grass. A lone fuego bean plant also lifts her head. August 2009.

Come harvest, however, there was little to do. We gathered a few oats, no wheat, no barley and no beans. The wheat had not taken, the beans turned black, and the barley vanished. (We were only able to be on site 2 or 3 times a week). Was it the sheep that kept breaking in?

Disappointing as failure is, that was an experiment. We know mulch needs to be serious enough to suppress grass, that woodchip is not an ideal medium for growing seed, drying out too quickly in the wind, and that sheep can be a real pain! It also helps to be close to your land, which we weren’t.

So in 2012, our first year at Greenholme, we had a second go…

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Beef or…Willow? Part 2

A recent episode of the BBC programme ‘Countryfile’ (26 January, 2014) saw our local MP criticising certain intellectuals for wanting to impose their ‘fantasies’ on the uplands in restoring them to natural woodlands, or ‘re-wilding’ as it has become known. His claim was that the hills had been in their present, treeless condition for 3000 years, and sheep farming is the business of the uplands. Unsurprisingly he made a lot of sense to our farmers. The same programme also showed our local Geltsdale RSPB reserve, and the apparently successful results from trying to combine sheep grazing with wildlife habitat restoration.

The argument was primarily about sheep grazing, although most upland farms also run cattle for beef as well. But as far as farming communities are concerned, stock rearing is the only method of land management in this area that yields a living. Without it, people can see no hope for the local community. Indeed, there are very few of the upcoming generation showing any interest in following their parents and taking on the family farm. At stake is a real worry about the future.

The idea that upland farming yields a living, of course, is itself a fantasy, and only tenable so long as the EU continues to pay generous CAP subsidies to our farmers. As soon as they cease, so would any form of ‘traditional’ upland farming in the UK. One wonders what would happen if the UK were to leave the EU.

So we are continuing our exploration of what the land can yield productively, that is not monocultural, that is rich in biodiversity, and that works with the land, rather than against it.

Last year, with the help of an extremely generous discount from Trees Please in Hexham (because they knew we were a church-related project), we planted over 1000 willow and poplar hybrid saplings in a ratio of 3:1. Permaculture principles suggest each element in a design must have more than one function, so the purpose of the planting was fourfold:

  1. Increase biodiversity. Willow hosts the second largest diversity of insects of any native tree in the UK (after oak). This in turn provides a rich and diverse food source, as well as popular shelter, for many different species of passerines. We are using a mixture of willow and poplar to ensure it is not a monoculture.
  2. Provide shelter. Quick growing willow and poplar planted along the southern and western borders of our land will soon provide a wind break from the sometimes strong south-westerlies coming in from the Solway.
  3. Soak up water and out-compete the soft rushes and creeping buttercup. We need a plant that, with the minimum of input from us, will grow well on waterlogged soil, help lower soil water content, and provide an alternative habitat to the juncus effusus that dominates unmanaged grassland.
  4. Biomass. Every 3 to 4 years, through a programme of short-rotation-coppicing (SRC), the willow and poplar will yield a highly productive, valuable, and sustainable, crop of biomass for use in heating.

Planting happened late in the season, and there was a risk that many wouldn’t take.

Planting willow and poplar saplings, May 2013

Planting willow (middle) and poplar (foreground) saplings, May 2013

We experimented with a couple of different mulches: cut and dried rushes; rotted manure; nothing.

Planted saplings with manure mulch, May 2013

Planted saplings with manure mulch, May 2013

Mulch of dried rushes, May 2013

Mulch of dried rushes, May 2013

As it turned out, the worry during the summer was a lack of water! But willow, like Christ, is difficult to put down. It is one of those plants that wants to live, and if it sees a chance of life, it will reach out and grab it. Almost all the willow, and much of the poplar, survived.

The saplings have taken root and are flourishing, June 2013.

The saplings have taken root and are flourishing, June 2013.

The plants that didn’t survive were those trampled by the horse, and even many of them tried to keep going. We carried out no ground preparation before planting, and mulching seems to have had no discernible effect.

End of the first growing season, October 2013.

End of the first growing season, October 2013.

The willow grew by around half its height again during its first season, and required no maintenance from us, other than protection from the horse.

We have now (January 2014) coppiced almost all this first crop to provide setts for a second round of planting, which will double our stock. These are being planted in horseshoe patterns in our top field to create four, smaller, rounded enclosures, possibly for sheltered grazing by a small flock of something, as yet undecided. Solar(!)-powered electric tape fencing is being used to keep the horse from trampling them. The coppiced willows and poplars will now be left for up to three-four years before being coppiced again, this time to provide the biomass harvest.

So willow appears to be a success. It likes the land, out-competes the rushes on their own territory, improves biodiversity, is very low maintenance, requires no ground or soil-preparation or fertiliser, acts as a carbon sink, is easy to multiply, and will yield a valuable harvest. We’ll have to see how many of this year’s setts take, but we’re hopeful most of them will.

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Beef or What – Part 1?

Without exception, every farm in the Bewcastle and Stapleton parishes raises beef and lamb. This requires the conversion, and the maintenance, of the land to grass.

We have been at Greenholme now for almost a year. The one thing we can say is that this land does not want to be grass! It is continually trying to revert back to woodland via scrub and bog. Our land is covered in thick juncus effusus (soft rush), with saplings of alder springing up at every opportunity around the edges:

Soft rushes as far as the eye can see!

Soft rushes as far as the eye can see!

Only a few years ago there was barely a rush to be seen.

Areal picture of Greenholme in around 2009

Areal picture of Greenholme in around 2009

Why is this?

Our land, typical of that around us, consists of a thin (12-24ins) layer of topsoil over heavy clay, but field drainage was installed across all of it around 15 years ago. Nevertheless, drainage is still a serious issue and the soil becomes waterlogged after a few days of heavy rain – a common occurrence here. Soil conditions then become anaerobic and most life within it struggles to survive.

In addition, heavy rainfall and the ensuing saturation means nutrients are continually being leached out of the soil, which then has great difficulty in growing and retaining fertility.

Without constant input of care, attention, energy and fertility the farmland here degenerates rapidly to the state of our land, which has been neglected for about three years. This care and attention takes several forms, the most  important of which are:

  • grazing by animals
  • installation and continual refurbishment of field drains
  • addition of fertiliser (organic or otherwise)
  • cutting of rushes

In addition, some farmers advocate liming every 5 or 6 years. Many also use herbicide to suppress the growth of rushes and docks. Cutting for silage (or, in good years, like this one, for hay) replaces grazing for meadows.

Most of this requires the use of heavy, and very expensive, machinery to be carried out on a large scale (anything over a couple of acres), particularly the drainage, spreading slurry, ‘topping’ rushes, cutting silage and applying fertilisers and herbicides.

In other words, farmers are waging a continual battle, spending enormous amounts of energy and money, to subdue the land into a prescribed pattern that is alien to its natural ecology.

At Greenholme, we are attempting to minimise our use of imported energy (including fossil fuels) on our small patch of 6 acres. But scything rushes is jolly hard work! It takes around 8-10 man hours to scythe one acre of them, not including gathering up the cuttings. And once cut, they grow back again, faster than grass, unless grazed.

Most farmers take pride in their animal husbandry. They are in continual contact with their creatures and it is rare that one of them has an ailment that goes unnoticed.

Traditionally, an intimate knowledge of the soil was also an integral part of their ken. However, in a conversation earlier this year, a farmer admitted he knew very little about the soil. He didn’t know its type, pH, nutrient levels, mineral or humus content. Nor was he particularly concerned. The reason? It was now part of the service offered by the fertiliser company. A sales ‘rep’ comes round every year who tests for the pH, levels of nitrogen, phosphorus and potassium (NPK), and then tells them what they need to put onto the land. In fact, he doesn’t even do that – he just orders whatever he deems necessary for them. When asked if the rep didn’t have a vested interested in making money for his company, the issue came down to trust and the long-standing personal relationship between him and the rep.

The ‘outsourcing’ of this whole dimension of farming and knowledge is a worrying state of affairs. It means that the care of the soil, those vital few inches of topsoil that sustain life on this planet, is actually now in the hands of the multi-national chemical companies. And who would be willing to knowingly trust the petro-chemical industry with the ‘care of creation’, or even with our lives?

For farmers here, the additional problem with raising beef is that cattle cannot stay outside for most of the year. The amount of rainfall we receive means that, once the growing season has slowed down, the cattle have to be moved indoors otherwise they poach the land so badly it will not yield the precious grass next year.

This year, despite the very late start to the growing season, the cattle are only now being brought in (end of October). So they have been out for about 5 months. Last year was awful and they were only out for about 4 months. That means they are indoors for 7-8 months, while the land stands empty, and have to be fed from the silage or hay cut during the year. But both cattle and sheep also require feed from concentrates during the long winter months. This, of course, has to be paid for, as well as shipped in from, and grown on land in some other part of the country. So the actual amount of land used by our farmers to grow their produce is significantly larger than the land they actually farm, even though much of their own land stands devoid at least of ‘beasts’ for most of the year.

Particularly in the case of beef, the question of whether this is the best, or only use of land in these parts is rarely, if ever, asked. But it is a question that needs answering. Few of our farmers are ‘well-off’, in the sense of having significant expendable income, and most only survive because of the Common Agricultural Policy subsidy – the Single Farm Payment. We don’t need to discuss the gross injustice of this payment system to the wealthy at the moment, but it is the only thing standing between many farming families and starvation. If, and when, this subsidy is withdrawn from hill farms on ‘severely disadvantaged land’, which it all is around Bewcastle, most of the families farming here will have to sell up and move out. Of course, if the price of land was to remain as high as it is this would be a very attractive option for those who own their farms. For tenant farmers it would be a disaster. But if the CAP subsidy was removed and raising beef and cattle alone could not provide a living, what would then happen to land prices?

So what are the possible alternatives?

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Met Office Climate Station

June and July were sweltering! Unfortunately we weren’t recording climate data until the second half of July, but we are now an official Met Office climate observation station. We have been up and running for a couple of months and most teething problems have been sorted.

Originally we approached the Met Office to see if either they had any old equipment they could give or sell us, or they were interested in having an observation station here. As it turned out, there was a gap in their network – just here in Bewcastle! That meant they would provide and maintain all the equipment if we would commit to undertaking daily readings – which is precisely what we wanted.

Tony Eastham, Regional Network Manager for the Met Office, installed the site once he had selected the exact location and we had erected the fencing. We selected the climate variables we wanted to record, with one of the main criteria being simplicity – we wanted no electronic gadgets. The only thing you can know for sure about anything electronic or electrical is that it WILL break – one day. We wanted equipment that will keep going and going, through all weathers and in all conditions, for tens and tens of years. We also wanted to record soil temperatures for growing purposes.

The installed Met Office station. Visible is the Stevenson Screen, the raingauge, and the sunshine recorder

The installed Met Office station. Visible are the Stevenson Screen, the raingauge, and the sunshine recorder. Also the top of the 100cm soil thermometer cap is just the other side of the fence. The view is towards  East (the Orient).

So all our equipment is ‘low tech’, but precision. Mainly thermometers – we have 8 of them: one ‘dry bulb’ (air temperature), ‘wet bulb’ (measures humidity when compared with dry bulb), maximum and minimum reset every morning, grass minimum, and soil at 10cm, 30cm, and 100cm.

Inside the Stevenson Screen: dry bulb (left), wet bulb (right), maximum (horizontal upper) and minimum (horizontal lower) thermometers

Inside the Stevenson Screen: dry bulb (left), wet bulb (right), maximum (horizontal upper) and minimum (horizontal lower) thermometers. Grass minimum can be seen on the grass in the background, just above and to the right of the raingauge.

We also record rainfall (24 hr), barometric pressure (both weekly charts and precise instantaneous), and have privately installed four tensiometers, recording soil moisture tension (the suction that plant roots have to exert in order to extract capillary water from the soil) at 20cm, 40cm, 60cm and 100cm. These latter are not reported to the Met Office but are for our own records.

In addition, at the time of the observation (9am GMT), we record visibility, wind speed and direction, ground state, snow depth (if any), and current (or recently ceased) weather.

However, the pièce de résistance is the sunshine recorder. Ours is the only one north of Morcambe Bay (in England). In this extraordinary instrument, the solar system can be seen at work.

Sunshine Recorder with an inverted image of Greenholme.

Sunshine Recorder with an inverted image of Greenholme.

It operates in much the same way as a sundial, except that, instead of casting a shadow, the sun’s rays are concentrated through the glass globe and brought to a focal point on the frame behind. The frame is fitted with a strip of paper marked with the hours of the day, and, as the earth rotates on its axis, the focussed beam from the sun burns a trace in the paper. We change the strip each day and measure the total length of time the sun has been strong enough to cause a burn on the paper. In clear skies it burns completely through and we are left with almost two separate pieces! You can observe the burn trace on the above picture, and see it was taken was just before 2pm (1pm GMT, where the burn has currently reached; the ’12’ of midday is visible on the paper).

The instrument required careful setting up, as it has to be aligned perfectly with polar south in order to burn an even trace throughout the day.

Tony Eastham of the Met Office setting up the sunshine recorder.

Tony Eastham of the Met Office setting up the sunshine recorder.

It is fascinating to observe the progress of the earth’s tilt away from the sun, which at the moment, is observable as a millimetre shift upwards in the trace each day (when we have sun!).

Our observations are uploaded daily (usually) onto the Met Office’s Weather Observations Website (WOW). You can view graphs and data there for the last month at any time.

(The beginning of wisdom is the most sincere desire for instruction, and concern for instruction is love of her. Wisdom of Solomon 6:17)

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The Open Day 2013

Well what an extraordinary day!

Tuesday 30th July was forecast to be the worst day of the week. In the end it rained in the morning, but by 11.30am it had dried up. Then billowed away were the stratiform clouds and the rest of the day was warm, glorious sunshine.

Eric Hourn of Slackhouse Farm, Gilsland, making cheese over an open fire.

Eric Hourn of Slackhouse Farm, Gilsland, demonstrating cheese-making over an open fire.

We had such support from the local community as well as the churches in the ‘minster’ area, so many of whom brought food, demonstrated their crafts, and/or helped with the organisation. None of the food was ‘organised’ in the sense that everything given was offered – none of it asked for.

Xavi and Reuben, our two Spanish wwoofers, who cooked a paella over an open fire.

Xavi and Reuben, our two Spanish wwoofers, who cooked a paella over an open fire.

We had people from Bewcastle, Stapleton, and Heathersgill churches in our own benefice, and from Walton, Lanercost, Nether Denton, and Gilsland in the Lanercost parishes. Local farmers were represented as well as permaculturists from Newcastle. Others came from wider Cumbria, County Durham, and Northumberland, non-church as well as church, young as well as old, and even 7 priests.

In all, well over 100 people came through the afternoon, 77 of whom attended the open-air service, which we had in the field around the cheese-making fire, many of whom would never be seen near a church.

James Newcome, Bishop of Carlisle, speaking at the Service of Blessing

James Newcome, Bishop of Carlisle, speaking at the Service of Blessing

The pigs were probably the greatest hit, although the cheese-making and all the other crafts went down well.

Everyone enjoyed meeting Rosie and Ginger

Everyone enjoyed meeting Rosie and Ginger

The pigs seem to have been interested as well.

The pigs seem to have been interested as well.

Apart from the cheese-making activity, there was felt-making, peg-loom weaving, a potter’s wheel, bag-colouring, archery, basket-weaving and displays of hand-dipped candles and hand-forged blacksmith work, folk music and rhythym-making.

Lisa on the peg loom

Lisa on the peg loom

Valerie on the potter's wheel

Valerie on the potter’s wheel

Talks were given on the pigs, cheesemaking, beekeeping, herbal medicine and the meteorology station. And in the background, work started on re-instating the pond that used to exist in the river meadow.

A selection of Philip's baskets

A selection of Philip’s baskets

Several have said they want to come back (from Newcastle and County Durham, as well as locals) and help with the straw-bale build next year.

Have a look through the pictures of the Open Day in the Gallery, which were taken by (and copyrighted to) our photographer, Andy Norris.

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Pigs & Bees

At last we have some honey bees. We collected a package of black honey bees from Charles Austin in Barnsley on Monday, 8th July. They were shaken into a Langstroth hive on Tuesday morning after giving them the night to settle down. Not putting them into one of the Top Bar hives was a difficult decision, but as none of our colonies has survived longer than a year in a top bar hive so far, we felt duty bound to try an alternative. Hopefully our previous disappointments have been more due to weather and unfortunate circumstance, and we’ll eventually move back to the top bars. But for now its a Langstroth.

The Langstroth hive just after the bees had been shaken out of their travelling box.

The Langstroth hive just after the bees had been shaken out of their travelling box.

On Wednesday the queen’s cage, which until now had been sealed while the bees became used to her, was opened. It took the workers three days to eat through the fondant that still retained her, by which time it seems they accepted her. The first indication of this was on Friday morning, when workers were spotted bringing pollen back to the hive – an indication that the queen is laying.

Workers returning from foraging

Workers returning from foraging

Contrary to popular opinion, these black bees are exceptionally gentle. I was able to move the frames apart and remove the empty queen cage without wearing any protection or using any smoke or water, and without being stung! They are also good workers – out with the morning sun. Not like some of my more laid-back European bees that wouldn’t go out until midday!

On Friday 12th July we took delivery of two retired sows – one a Gloucester Old Spot with a touch of Tamworth, called ‘Ginger’. The other, an English Saddleback, previously called ‘Woopie’, now renamed ‘Rosie’. They are here for life, to turn the land, dig up the rushes, and help us prepare for sowing – sows to sow!

Gentle Ginger. A lovely lady!

Gentle Ginger. A lovely lady!

Rosy takes it easy!

Rosie takes it easy! And the hens seem quite taken as well.

And what amazingly friendly creatures they are! Once settled in they grunt away in conversation with whoever has the time to talk to them! They love being rubbed on their bellies and tickled behind the ears. But its the way they are silent until you talk to them that is so endearing. Ask any question, and you’ll get an instant series of grunts in answer!

Ginger's always pleased to 'see' us. Although how she does is anyone's guess!

Ginger’s always pleased to ‘see’ us. Although how she does is anyone’s guess!

So come along on the Open Day and meet the two of them. You could do a lot worse for a conversation partner!

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Open Day, 30th July

We are having an Open Day on Tuesday, 30th July from 12 noon to 5pm. The Bishop of Carlisle, the Rt Revd James Newcome, will be present to talk to and, during a service in the afternoon (either outdoors or in the polytunnel if wet), will bless the land and the House of Prayer project.

We are hoping there will be some activities to turn a hand to. Revd Philip Greenhalgh will be basket weaving. Revd Annie Gray will be talking about medical herbalism and alternative therapies. Eric from Slackhouse Farm will be demonstrating organic cheesemaking. There should be a potter’s wheel and some folk music to join in with (so bring an instrument!). Light refreshments will be on hand.

It will be an opportunity to ask questions, see what we’re trying to do, both in the long term, with low-impact buildings, and in our experiments with sustainable growing of food and permaculture. Or visit the Eighth Century Bewcastle Cross, just up the road at the church.

We have no idea if any of this will work, but we’re here to take the risk and give it a go!

So come along and join us for the afternoon. We’d love to see you, hear your ideas, and hopefully you’ll leave feeling inspired, or at least that you’ve enjoyed yourself!

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About Bees

Not Apis mellifera. Not honey bees. Same size, same general colouring, similar behaviour, not the same bee.

Despite the initial jubilation about possible feral honey bee colonies in the caravan walls, there were always nagging doubts concerning correct identification. There were a number of tell-tale signs.

The most unsettling was the observation that these bees did not carry pollen in ‘baskets’ on their hind legs, but dusted on the underside of their abdomens. Then there was the odd shape of the mouth, where some returning bees seemed to be carrying something in their mandibles.

A few other indicators also did not feel right. Although there was an abundance of bees returning to several of the vents in the caravan panels, there was never any ‘hive’ behaviour, such as ‘flight orientation’ swarms around the middle of the day, as one observes with honey bees, or a buzzing ‘roar’ when the wall of the caravan was tapped. Or even enough foraging activity to sustain a significant colony.

So the camera came out in order to study them more closely. The conclusion was that these are red mason bees, Osmia bicornis (previously Osmia rufa).

The ‘scopa’, or pollen-collecting apparatus on the underside of the abdomen of the females is a pale colour, and a distinguishing feature of these bees.

Female red mason bee (Osmia bicornis) with pollen on underside of her abdomnen - the pollen 'scopa'

Female red mason bee (Osmia bicornis) with pollen on underside of her abdomen – the pollen ‘scopa’

Female returning with mud ball

Female returning with mud ball in her mandibles

The female bees are the only ones in the UK that have two ‘horns’ protruding from their face. It is another distinguishing feature, used in the construction of their mud nests.

Female with mudball and 'horns' on face visible

Female with mudball and ‘horn’ on face visible

Female with mudball and another showing wing venation.

Female with mudball and another showing wing venation.

A further distinguishing feature on the males is white hair on the face.

Male red mason bee showing white hair on face

Male red mason bee showing white hair on face

These are solitary bees, although gregarious, very gentle and safe around children. They are excellent pollinators and easily encouraged to stay in ‘bee hotels‘.

They are very common throughout England, although not so common this far north or in Scotland. A sighting has been reported to BWARS (Bees, Wasps and Ants Recording Society).

So, no chance of these moving into one of the vacant top bar hives after all!


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