Sunday, July 22, 2018

Summertime and easy living

Who needs alpine meadows when there is this kind of a show near to home?

 At the end of May the plat was looking particularly flowery with buttercups, vetch, lesser stitchwort and speedwell carpeting the ground.

June 10th was Open Farm Sunday at Mote Farm.  Tractor-loads of children trundled around the fields and farm machinery of all descriptions, old and new, was on display.

A jaunt around the farm

Serious discussion and an old friend

Naturally cobnut products were on display, alongside  a plentiful supply of strawberries on
the Manor Farm, Oldbury stand and apple and pear juice courtesy of Robert Mitchell and his team.  My thanks to the friends and volunteers who helped out and took a turn on the stall.

In my last blog I posted a photo of this delightful creature, taken by Pam Hardeman of the North West Red Squirrel Group in Northern Ireland. Later in June I decided to take a trip across the water and visit some of my customers there.

My trip took in Tyrone and Fermanagh to visit relatives, both having small populations of reds whilst trying their best to keep out the greys.  While I didn't get as far as Derry to visit Pam's group I did get to see a flourishing colony in county Down.   Mount Stewart must be the 'Jewel in the Crown' of the  National Trust in Northern Ireland: a magnificent house and estate, situated on the peninsular between Strangford Lough and the sea.That location makes it easier to control the grey squirrels, allowing the reds to flourish.

On the shores of Strangford Lough, the Mountains of Mourne in the distance

Magnificent Mount Stewart

Picture-postcard lake with woodland beyond

Toby Edwards, the head ranger brims over with enthusiasm for the little creatures which have made their home in the forested part of the estate.  He and his team have built a hide from which visitors, if they come at the right time of day, can watch the squirrels feeding from several boxes placed among the trees and fallen branches.  

It's hard to catch them on camera!

Maybe you can see the tail?

The little creatures tip up the lid and dive inside to feed on the mix of maize and peanuts and our own Kentish cobnuts. I was interested to know why our cobnuts are so good for them and learned it is because the squirrels' teeth never stop growing, so gnawing through the hard shells of the cobnuts is exactly what is needed to keep them in good shape. You can read more about the red squirrels of Mount Stewart here: Toby's red squirrels :  (click on the link and then scroll down to 'Wildlife' and choose Squirrels).

My final squirrel stop was Belfast Zoo  where I hoped to meet Michael Corscadden, the Head of Stores and a customer for Kentish cobnuts.  

The correct entrance for business visitors.

Michael and one of his team took me up to visit the breeding programme

Belfast Zoo has a breeding programme for red squirrels. They are keen to educate the public as to why the reds are endangered and how it is that the greys pose such a threat.

The greys carry a virus which is deadly to the reds

Belfast Zoo is on a wooded hillside overlooking the city below so the squirrels could not roam freely here. Instead the keepers have cleverly constructed several large cages interlinked by aerial tunnels of strong mesh where the creatures can run and chase and scamper around almost like in the wild.  Here families have bred and at the right time the young are taken to the various conservation groups in the six counties. 

To the right is the caged area and top left an 'aerial runway'.

  I couldn't leave the zoo without taking a look at some other
occupants such as.... flamingos and elegant giraffes. 

But then it was time to head back home. 
It is mid July and on the plat mallow and ragwort are the dominant wild flowers: the latter poisonous to cattle and horses but loved by the bees.


In the dry area at the top of the plat some trees are feeling the stress of the hot weather,

But in general the nuts have reached a considerable size now. 

However if you crack one open the kernel is still only about the size of a pea.

That doesn't deter the grey squirrels which have already started to help themselves.  

We learn that pine martens predate grey squirrels (whilst the reds are too quick and light to be caught).  I wish we could import some here!

Monday, March 19, 2018

Winter 2017 - 18

We welcomed students from Hadlow College to plant up little nut trees in gaps in the rows - it's called 'gapping up'. They made light work of planting ten trees, in ground which was already moist from the October rains. But when it was time to leave, to everyone's dismay the college minibuses were unable to get a grip and churned up the grass of the pathway making deep ruts. They were stuck! A call for help was not in vain and soon arrived in the shape of a heavy-weight tractor, with driver and helper.  It soon had the buses moving and the students were safely on their way.  They seemed to have enjoyed that part of the day best of all.

The Gilly Jones brand of cobnut products expanded in the run-up to Christmas into local outlets, including Ide Hill Community shop and Plaxtol Village Stores. As well as cobnuts in shell, there were packets of roasted cobnuts, chocolate bars with roasted cobnuts and, of course, the original Granola-muesli.

The view from Ide Hill Community Shop

Cobnut products on display

Plaxtol Village Stores

Its New Year and already the main bloc of nut trees have been pruned.  Between the rows lie twigs, wands and branches which have to be cleared away before the grass begins to grow. February saw the return of the Hadlow students to help with this task.  They set to work with energy and enthusiasm, dragging piles of prunings on tarpaulin 'sledges', down to an open patch where a bonfire was already burning.
Collecting prunings

Bonfire is going nicely
Potatoes which had been pre-baked just had to go in the embers for 20 minutes and were so hot that the butter melted on contact.

spuds ready to go in the ashes

Very tasty!

Back to work again and the bonfire is revived
After that it was time to get back to work and another hour of dragging and burning.

Tutors working hard too?
Thank you Hadlow students; you did a brilliant job and we hope you'll come again!

Meanwhile, back in the nut store, the mice have discovered the sacks and are feeling hungry....

Raiders have been at work!

Although the furry monsters have helped themselves to a lot of nuts, not all have been consumed.  That long green thing in the photo below is a rolled up mat and when I accidentally knocked against it, out poured a veritable waterfall of carefully cleaned and stored nuts  I scooped them up - about 20 kg in all - and shut them away in a mouse proof bin: three crates like the one below in all. The mice had taken off the outer husks - and possibly polished them with a duster, they were that clean; no bad or empty nuts were found as the mice can tell (by the weight) and they reject any non-viable cobnuts.  

cobnuts collected and sorted by mice.

Thank you mice; you did me a favour.  and there's a post script to the story.  In March when I inspected two pairs of Wellington boots kept in the same shed, they too were full of cleaned cobnuts. 

This year, encouraged by the National Trust at Ightham Mote, I entered for the 'Taste of Kent' Countryside Award which rewards countryside businesses who caring for the environment, the soil, wildlife and the community.  It was exciting to receive a visit from the judging panel and to  be one of the finalists. 

At a dinner at the County Showground, the winners were announced and although we did not come out on top I received this nice framed plaque.  It is a reminder of how far we have come since starting in 2012, thanks to so much hard work and support by volunteers, friends and local organisations.

At the middle of March there was till work to be done on the plat and the Hadlow students reappeared, ready for anything. We were fortunate with the weather and apart from a few showers the day turned out mostly sunny.  More hardwork, another bonfire and a picnic lunch with baked potatoes.  Thank you, Hadlow students and tutors alike!  
A fine blaze

Picnic time again

We were indeed lucky with the weather for the very next day the snow was back. 

What a difference a day can make!

The bonfire site!

And as I conclude this post snow is still falling outside my window and the biting East wind is whirling it around.  Roll on spring!

Friday, October 6, 2017

Cobnut Harvest 2017

This year all the local cobnut-growers predicted an early harvest and the crop looked promising.

Plenty of nuts on the trees
 While some had started picking by mid-August I preferred to have the nuts at a riper stage and we started in glorious sunshine on September 4th.

Perfect nut-picking weather
A week later three volunteer pickers, students from Germany, arrived to help with the crop.  They worked enthusiastically and carefully.  

Sorting and packing

Of course they had time off to visit places of interest including Ightham Mote.  Here they are on bicycles setting off to visit Old Soar Manor: an easy ride from the plat but uphill all the way on the return. 

Good luck for the return journey!

There was more help from friends and relations 
including the very young who were not deterred by 
a wet and windy day.

Young helpers eager to lend a hand

A bucketful of nuts between the two of us is not too heavy!

Next, pickers from Hurstwood Farm arrived to tackle the main bloc, coming rather later than I would have hoped when autumn gales had blown most of the nuts onto the ground.They gathered most of them up but found the going tough.  

Those nuts have been de-husked and I understand are destined for M & S stores this Christmas: do look out for them!

 *   *   *   

With the harvest done I have started baking muesli again. 

the new-look label features the National Trust logo
The label has changed to reflect the National Trust origin of the nuts and the Bramley apples this year are coming from a grower very near to the plat,  Robert Mitchell.  My granola-muesli can be found on sale at Shipbourne Farmers' Market and at a new deli in Tunbridge Wells, 'Foodies delicatessen'  at 40 Camden Road. Other outlets are in my sights and there is a website now for ordering online at

On the last weekend of September Ightham Mote holds its Apple Fair and we were there as usual, selling cobnut oil and muesli as well as cobnuts in bags. Thank you to the volunteers who helped on the stall!

Finally, I am sending cobnuts again this year to Northern Ireland, this time to Belfast Zoo.  You might wonder what kind of animals require cobnuts and it is somewhat ironic that while my number-one foe on the plat is grey squirrels, in Ireland the endangered red squirrel population is recovering; and guess what they prefer as a tasty treat?  Last year my nuts went to a woodland in county Tyrone and to the National Trust property of Mount Stewart in county Antrim.  Word gets around in that part of the world and I was pleased to receive an order this year from the red-squirrel breeding programme at Belfast Zoo.

Loading the boxes bound for Belfast Zoo

And that wraps it up for the 2016-17 season but work starts again and this month I'll be welcoming students from Hadlow College who are coming to dig holes and plant up young cobnut trees to fill some gaps in the rows. There will be more about that in due course.

Wrapped up and ready to go