A full house of martins


IN the ten years or so we have lived in Lancashire I don’t recall seeing any house martins locally, but this year there are many. I know of at least two colonies in eaves a few hundred yards apart, and now the young are on the wing the sky is alive with their chattering calls. (On the downside, and there always seems to be one, this summer I have seen fewer swifts, sand martins and swallows than usual.)

House martins (Delichon urbicum) are closely related and similar to sand martins, but are distinguishable by their white rump,

plain white front,

and steel-blue and black upper parts, while the sand martin (Riparia riparia) is brown above, has a brown bar on the breast and does not have a white rump. Both have forked tails, but not with the long streamers of the swallow. Here’s a lovely video of house martins flying.

They spend the winter in sub-Saharan Africa and arrive in Britain in March and April. Over the development of human civilisation they have moved from nesting in caves and on cliffs to man-made structures where they can use the junction of a vertical and a horizontal surface to attach a strong nest. Often they refurbish last year’s nest, but if that has gone either through the weather or by human action (I find it hard to imagine what sort of person would deliberately destroy one, but it happens) both sexes build a new nest from pellets of mud over several days, and line it with grass or other soft materials. Here is a time-lapse video of the process (I can’t understand why they started building it so wide then changed the spec).

Apparently house sparrows often try to take over the nest during construction, but when it is finished the entrance hole is too small for the would-be invaders. There are normally two broods of four or five each summer, with the older siblings sometimes helping to feed the younger ones.

Here is a video of the parents feeding the chicks, and here is a great slow-motion film.

They depart for Africa in late September or early October after a few days congregating on roofs or telephone wires.


Last weekend it rained heavily so I togged up in waterproofs and went out. You can see all sorts of different things when it is wet and as a snail fan I was pleased to find these two:

The one in the foreground is a Cepaea nemoralis. It has a brown lip at the front edge of the shell, so it is usually (and imaginatively) known as the brown-lipped snail. Other names it goes by are the grove or lemon snail.

The one behind is its close cousin Cepaea hortensis. Both kinds are very variable in colour and stripes (in fact you will struggle to find two the same), but C hortensis has a white lip so it is known as (can you guess?) the white-lipped snail, or the garden banded snail. Here is a slightly clearer picture of it.


Sheep of the Week

This is a Vendéen sheep.


As the name suggests, the breed originated in the Vendée department of western France. It is said to owe some of its blood to sheep rescued from wrecked Spanish galleons at the time of the Armada in the 16th century. It was developed in the early 19th century by crossing local ewes with imported English Southdown rams. I wrote about Southdowns last year and here is a picture.

As you can see, in the crossbreeding process the Southdown’s woolly face has been neatly shaved to mutton-chops.

The breed was introduced to Britain in the 20th century. The sheep are popular in Ireland because of the similarity of the climate to that of the Vendée, being wet and windy.

It is raised mainly as a meat breed and it is known for its muscularity and ability to produce large litters of high-quality lean lambs which grow rapidly. It also produces good wool, which is used for hand knitting and fabrics such as dress fabrics and flannel.

You can read more at the Irish Vendéen Sheep Society website.

If, like me, you do not use Facebook, you won’t get much out of the British Vendéen Sheep Society, but here is the site. 

Here is a video of some rams.

and here are a pair of cute lambs (but what is the creature walking towards the camera at the end?)

As often happens, while I was looking round YouTube I found an amusing clip


Alan spotted this extraordinary caterpillar in our garden last week.

It was no trouble to identify as there is nothing else remotely like it. It is the larva of the Vapourer moth (Orgyia antiqua), also known as the rusty tussock moth. The adult males and females are quite different. This is a male, with splendid fringed antennae:

This is a female, which has only vestigial wings and cannot fly.

The caterpillars feed on all sorts of tree leaves and are not a pest, so you can enjoy watching it if you find one.


It is still only July but the plants are already preparing for next year. Look at the ferocious thorns on these new branches of wild rose and bramble, which seem to have grown several feet in days.


Wheels of the Week

This is the second in a series on steam locomotives by JOHN ELLWOOD. You can read the first part here. 

AS I noted in my previous report, Fleetwood engine shed (‘sheds’) (Code 24F) was a relatively humble depot housing workaday engines. In addition to tank locomotives its allocation consisted of freight and mixed traffic engines.

For about four years from 1960, I was a regular visitor. I would travel there by bicycle from the other side of town, and wander around unchallenged. As long as I didn’t stray towards the coaling station and kept away from the reservoir behind the sheds nobody bothered me.

Apart from the tanks the common locomotives were ‘Crabs’, ‘Mickeys’ (Black Fives),‘48ers’, and ‘DubDees’ (so called because they were commissioned by the War Department’s Ministry of Supply, hence the WD. Perhaps we should have called them WubDees!) Other trainspotters no doubt had their own preferred names for these engines.

From what I have heard and read, the Fleetwood Hughes 2-6-0 ‘Crabs’, designed by George Hughes and built at nearby Horwich and at Crewe, were popular with drivers and firemen. As you can see they had distinctive cylinders and footplates and an unusual chimney. They were equally at home hauling passengers or freight. One of the Fleetwood ‘Crabs’, 42765, evaded the cutter’s torch and is to be found at the East Lancashire Railway in Bury. 

Fleetwood had a regular sprinkling of the 842 Stanier Class 5 4-6-0, mixed traffic (from which ‘Mickeys’) engines. Eighteen have survived into preservation including ex-Fleetwood’s 45212. I was a passenger behind this engine on August 3, 1968, when it took the packed 20:48 from Preston to Blackpool South before returning with the 21:24 to Liverpool Exchange. Those were the last scheduled steam workings on British Railways.

Trainspotters are generally amenable, if sometimes solitary, individuals but I did have a mini-confrontation at the end of this journey. As the train arrived in Blackpool the squashed throng attempted to leave as quickly as possible to photograph the engine before it detached and reversed to take the train to Liverpool. On the platform I was nearly knocked over by one desperado in a new beige jacket, eager to get his snap in the fading light. I caught up with him moments later. Noticing a patch of sticky black gunge on 45212’s cylinder I scraped off a large dollop which soon found its way on to the back of the jacket of the aforesaid pusher. If you are reading this I offer my insincere apologies.

The powerful Stanier 8F 2-8-0 freight locomotives were also familiar sights not just in the North West but throughout the network. Because they were common and none had names I often did not bother to record them in my Ian Allen guide. A total of 852 were built and several found their way abroad to such places as Turkey and Iraq. 

It was also the case that I noted very few of the 935 DubDees (184 were exported to the Netherlands and 12 to Hong Kong). They were built in Glasgow, and at the Vulcan foundry in Newton-le-Willows, Lancashire. They were bulky, nameless (bar one) engines mostly unloved by spotters. They worked coal trains to Fleetwood power station and took chemicals to the large ICI works in nearby Thornton.

The photographs shown were taken by my good friend and fellow steam enthusiast Howard Leach.

Our semi-autobiographical experiences of trainspotting are recorded in Steam Dreams, available from Amazon Kindle. 


Notes from the Sticks is going on holiday during August but I hope to be back at the beginning of September with the next instalment of John Ellwood’s steam loco series. 


One Reply to “A full house of martins”

  1. I don’t think I’ve ever seen a house martin but earlier this year I saw a mistle thrush for the first time, a beautiful sight. It is known for singing in stormy weather and snow.

    Caterpillars! Also this year I’ve been plagued by the box caterpillar and moth, they have caused much destruction and can only be eradicated by hand picking, which I have been doing. I hope they are all gone!

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