Autumn? Not quite

It felt strange seeing stubble in the fields in July. Every previous year we’ve lived here there’s been either winter wheat or oilseed rape in the fields behind the house, but this year I was pleased to see barley for the first time. There’s something special about a field of barley; the way the long-awned ears wave and flow in the breeze, the way it seems to reflect the light differently to wheat. More ‘silvery’, I always think. The possibility of hearing a Quail, which seem to prefer it to other crops. And then there’s the fact that it was one of the first crops to be grown by early farmers; a real connection to the past, even if it is now all modified, mechanised and drenched with chemicals in the name of increased yield.

But barley is a short-lived pleasure, and before the end of July it had been harvested, leaving only the golden stubble and a feeling of autumn that felt distinctly out of place in the recent heatwave. Now even the stubble is gone from many of the fields, ploughed-in these days rather than burnt. Stubble burning now seems like some heathen practice, totally alien to the modern world, but it’s not that long ago that it was a familiar and accepted part of the countryside. I have fond childhood memories of helping a neighbouring farmer set fire to his fields in the autumn – the rare joy of officially-sanctioned arson, even if it did make your clothes and hair stink of smoke.

I went for a walk across the fields this morning to see whether the wildlife I saw felt as autumnal as the land looked. And the answer? It depends what you mean by autumnal, I suppose. To me, autumn is primarily a time of migration, so finding some migrants would be a prerequisite. Something like a Redstart or a Whinchat, perhaps. But even though the hedges were full of rapidly ripening berries, tit flocks and warblers, the latter all seemed to be locally bred. I watched several families of recently-fledged Blackcaps and Whitethroats still being fed by parents, a juvenile Garden Warbler, a few Willow Warblers, and one scruffy, moulting Lesser Whitethroat, but nothing that I could say was definitely passing through.

The weather, too, is not yet quite autumnal. It’s certainly changed from the hot sunshine of most of July, but it’s still warm and muggy, if overcast. It’s a subtle thing, the change from late summer to early autumn, and of course it depends on where you are and what you’re doing (wader watchers will say it’s been autumn for weeks!), but in these arable fields and hedges today it was still late summer.

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