Permaculture start

An almond tree in the morning fog, the sun trying to break through. The view is from our veranda and is of the land going down to the river, which isn’t ours. The land we are working on is behind us but I’m not able to show it, for reasons explained below . . .


Our battle with the sparrows has escalated. The natural world is boss, but we’re not above a bit of engineering where we can. The sparrows are not going to squat the swallow nest, whatever they think. Their latest attempt was to push our cork barricade down into the nest since they couldn’t remove it – rather like we might do with a wine bottle we don’t have a corkscrew for but are desperate to get into. I positioned a stepladder under the nest, then reached in to retrieve the corks. The half of the tunnel entrance that had not been pecked away by the sparrows came away in my hands, so after filling the nest interior with a scrunched-up plastic bag I blocked the widened entrance with the broken-off bit of nest.

They breached the mud barricade in no time. It was in pieces on the veranda floor the next time I looked. The plastic bag was working, however. They couldn’t get round that. This time I returned the two nailed-together corks to the entrance and added a third for good measure. So far so good. I believe I get malevolent looks from the sparrows every time I go out but I’m up to that.

Land engineering is our other preoccupation. Our permaculture project has got under way: we are beginning to create swales on the hillside. ‘Swale’ is a little-used word, possibly east Anglian dialect but don’t quote me on that, meaning a damp or shady hollow in the landscape. Little used, that is, until taken up by the world of permaculture, where the swale is a favoured piece of landform technology. I think of a swale as like a swag, the soft, drooping curve of a piece of gathered fabric. We are taking the wrinkled, uneven material of the hillside and bunching it into smooth ridges and furrows that curve along its contours. The ridges and furrows will slow down and capture water run-off. The furrows will also be where organic material can gather and topsoil can build up, with a bit of help from compost and mulch. You can build swales painstakingly using a pick and a shovel if you have masses of time and good muscles but we are getting a machine in to dig them out.

The first step was to work out the contours using a large A frame from which a rock hung on a string like a plumb line. I got to spend a precious morning away from my desk marking out the swales as assistant to our permaculture advisor, which was heavenly, especially on the warm day we were blessed with. I moved across the face of the hill, swinging the A frame from point to point like a large pair of compasses, waiting for the rock plumb line to determine the exact position of the frame’s forward foot so that my companion could hammer in an iron stake there, fluttering with a red and white strip for visibility. We marked out four swales on our neglected hillside in this way.

The next day the digger arrived to start the work of carving out the furrows and building up the ridges following the marked-out routes. Rain stopped play, however. The red earth turned claggy and unworkable. We must wait until the sun shines again before continuing.

I took pictures to show you but the internet is not cooperating with me today. It might be the rain that’s slowed it down to an impossible degree. I hope to have progress to report on next week – but we are in the hands of the weather gods.



  1. BeckyB

    How exciting work has started….and hopefully your swallows will be back soon to start work too albeit what a home it would make for a quarrel of Sparrows!!

  2. Louise Cattrell

    This is so exciting! Will look forward to seeing what happens.

  3. Hazel

    Pesky little birds — I have to admire their dogged determination, though (and yours!). It’ll be so exciting when you can plant the new large patch! (And when you get the g–ts to help you with the mowing [if any]: that’s my last ref to them, promise! Because I’ve had another bright idea on the animal front!) We’ve got rain and blackish-brown (rather than red) mud here. Most of it ends up in this house on that greyhound’s paws. xx

  4. Fiona

    Shouldn’t you let nature take its course and leave the sparrows be?? 10/10 for effort on their part! And then the swallows can just build a new nest? xxx

    1. Edith (Post author)

      Hi Fiona. If the sparrows get their way, the swallows might never nest here again. They didn’t nest here the year before last because of the sparrows – which was why we took the old nest down, to stop the sparrows using it. We were so thrilled when the swallows built a new one last summer and we’re not letting the sparrows take it over again. (In spite of their recent decline in the UK, worldwide house sparrows are a dominant species. Along with man.) The sparrows can make themselves a nest, anywhere they like. There is so much choice around here! xxx

  5. Patricia Roberts

    Love the battle with the sparrows ,but hang on in there ,you are doing a grand job all round,you were always a determined young lady best wishes to you and Christian ,it will be lovely to see you soon ,love to you.

  6. fatma

    Love the picture you were able to post: most atmospheric! And information/ beginnings of the Permaculture Project, ‘swales’ and all, most interesting. I look forward to progress reports, and pictures, the heavenly atmosphere willing!


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