In October 1961 Eric and Dorothy Ennion moved from Northumberland to the Mill House in the Wiltshire village of Shalbourne. Behind the house (the left-hand building in this photograph taken in 1988) and the adjoining mill, watercress beds stretched up a small chalk-stream valley.
By Dr. E A R Ennion
By the time this Log appears in print we ought to have all the earlier spring migrants back with us again, busy sorting themselves out into pairs if not already breeding. So far, of the accepted company, I have seen only the sand martin – a singleton glimpsed out of the corner of an eye as I was traveling homeward fast along the A4 not far from Slough. It was in the late afternoon of March 23rd.
I say “of the accepted company” because, for all I know, the redshanks or the pied wagtail that arrived on March 25th, to prance about the lawn as neat as a new pin in his dazzling new spring livery, may be as genuine immigrants as sand or house martins or swallows when they come to take up summer residence. We cannot in the ordinary way tell them from others of their kind that spend the winter here. Ringing has shown that so many apparently stay-at-home British birds do, in fact, emigrate every autumn.
And I have no doubt, had I the time to go round and explore, I could have added others to the accepted score: wheatear, chiffchaff, stone curlew must certainly be back by now. But it so happened that everything has conspired to keep me in the garden: plants arriving from the nurserymen, trees, shrubs, roses, in exciting straw-covered bundles of odd shapes and sizes; peat, bone meal, pig manure; holes to dig and new lawns to level; turves to cut and rubbish to burn; and weather and soil at long last fit for working. At long last too we begin to see the shape of things to come: our labours have not been in vain. Moreover, if I'd spent hours playing truant, I might have missed some of the delights of our returning redshanks.
The first one turned up early on March 11th – although I feel sure I heard his whistle at least once late in the afternoon before. The doubt was a genuine one. Certain of the single notes of a mistle thrush which sang from a great ash tree higher up the valley were indistinguishable (to my unmusical ear) from the opening pipes of redshank song. That thrush had me on toast so many times that I decided it was best not to accept a redshank until I actually saw one. There was no shadow of a doubt on the eleventh. High overhead he came in piping down the valley, veering a little from side to side as he got his bearings, to pitch at last at the end of a long slanting glide on a mud patch in one of the watercress beds. After alighting he stood with his wings held at full-stretch over his back for a couple of seconds – a sign (I believe) associated with the claiming of breeding territory; and one which I took to imply that this wasn't his first acquaintance with the valley, that he was, in fact, the cock of last year's pair returning unto his own again.
I am fairly certain that none had been near the beds since last October when we moved in. In the September, on one of our fleeting preliminary surveys, I had noticed a redshank standing quietly but watchfully on a fence post. Any young of the year, by then, would have fledged long since and very possibly have departed for the nearest coastal mudflats. One, sometimes both, of the parents may however stay behind (and moult) if the place is suitable, still manning their chosen lookout stations as if from force of habit. It was sufficient to give confidence that Shalbourne possessed its breeding pair of redshanks and to give a credit to the “pros” as against the “cons” for buying the Mill – for what sound in early spring can compare with the courtship song of the redshank? The return of the male, therefore, was by no means unexpected; but none the less welcome for that.
Two days afterwards a second one arrived: on the next day four were present. Whether any of the newcomers was the previous years mate I could not determine but, with this competition, things began to liven up. Each bird took over some portion of the watercress beds as its feeding territory and loud the piping and swift the retaliation against trespassers. But by the fifth day the two territories nearest the Mill had become amalgamated and their owners – one of them the cock bird of last year – inseparably united as a breeding pair ready to take instant action to see interlopers off the premises. The full euphony of courtship song rang often, clearly and decisively in, above and around our Shalbourne valley. They had returned to nest in one of our own meadows.
By Dr. E A R Ennion
I have just returned from a flying visit to that part of the West Riding which felt the full impact of the great March storm. At this time of year – mid-May – the varied up-and-down countryside still left around the fringes of the big industrial towns usually looks at its best, before the fresh spring green of tree and field gets tarnished by its inevitable film of airborne grime.
The late spring, however, had held back the hedges and the thickets and the sapling thorns and beeches in the spinneys far beyond their normal opening time: it looked like mid-April rather than mid-May. And the great storm had left its mark, a trail of stricken and uprooted trees, of battered buildings, and walls and fences broken down, a desolation just beginning to be screened by the rising tide of leaf and climbing plants.
As always at this exuberant season of the year, the headway made in the garden during even such a short absence is alarming. The lawn, so closely shaven when one left, looks dishearteningly unkempt; the peas and beans have doubled their height and bulk. The roses, pruned nearly to the ground, have shot up their shoots almost into the semblance of the summer rosebed – even a few that one had as good as written-off have mustered a reluctant shoot or two. So too the shrubs, the phloxes and the delphiniums.
Nevertheless the changes are not entirely on the credit side. There are weeds and the lank and slatternly blades of the spring bulbs set a problem, to mow or not to mow. And there is a plot of small transplanted lettuces – as a household usually nowadays of two we can no longer contemplate lettuces in rows. This little plot, netted against birds, still seems to stay bedeviled by a plague of slugs, black slugs, brown slugs, mottled and grey slugs, despite our perimeter defences of sand and soot and less homely remedies. The lady of the cottage up the road strongly recommends a ring of broken eggshells. It is far more satisfying to make avenging torchlight visits after dark but the slugs just close their ranks and go on chewing up our lettuces.
Your true gardener (I imagine, for I garden of necessity) grumbles but must secretly enjoy this mid-May battle against pests and green exuberance, with its standing invitation to work overtime. Let's hope we settle down soon to a summer slow-down to give me the chance to get on with some more essential and congenial jobs.
Some young robins reared in a hole in the wooden wall of one of the sheds are just about ready to leave the nest. The parents, especially the cock, grew increasingly bold as the demand for food increased. He waits beside you bobbing with impatience for you to turn up little earthworms with the spade; although the really great occasion is the cutting of the lawn. The snortings and rattlings of the machine (a motor mower with a twenty-inch cut that we bought secondhand) worry them far less than they annoy me – I loath the noisy but invaluable brute – and the pair of them skip about over the new shorn grass, whisking round the corner to the shed and back again a dozen times to every round I make.
Photograph of Shalbourne Mill © Hugh Ennion
Introductory text © Bob Walthew
Redshanks in March – Shalbourne, 1976
250 x 345 mm
Eric travelled widely to give talks to bird clubs and natural history societies, illustrating them with his own art work, and he would often take along a selection of unframed small pictures for sale. A brief trip to Yorkshire in May 1962 may have been such an occasion. In any event, he was soon back home, writing the Log for the early June issue of Farm and Country. This is a short extract. The study of a robin dates from the 1970's.
At last, Eric had more time to paint. He did so prolifically and for the best part of the next twenty years he produced paintings for exhibitions and private commiss-ions, as well as undertaking book illustrations and producing artwork for advertisements, cards and calendars. He also lectured extensively on birds and natural history and ran his own private wildlife and landscape painting courses.
The early years at Shalbourne were chronicled in The Countryman's Log, Eric's fortnightly articles in the magazine Farm and Country. This extract appeared in April 1962.