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.