Written by Heather Elvidge
August is the height of summer, yet this harvest month carries hints of autumn. This year those signs are appearing earlier than usual.
Thanks to July’s heatwave, fruit is ripening almost a month early. Rowan trees are bright with bunches of scarlet berries - even the hawthorn’s fruit has flushes of dull red. The first blackberries are visible on bramble bushes, but there’s plenty of time to pick as the blackberry season continues into September.
Dog roses have a few scarlet hips and the ripe fruits of wild cherry are attracting blackbirds and thrushes. Most elderberries aren’t ripe yet, but that doesn’t stop wood pigeons and starlings from eating them.
Already, the first swifts are setting out on the long migration to Africa. Young swifts go first, leaving the adults behind to build up their strength. These remarkable birds live most of their life in the air, eating and sleeping on the wing.
Swallows and house martins are staying for now. When conditions are suitable house martins raise a second brood, helped by youngsters from the first brood. Those mud nests under the eaves can become quite crowded.
This is turning out to be a better year for butterflies, which are out in force now. Little brown ringlets flit among the bramble flowers. Red admirals visit the buddleia bushes. Small tortoiseshells sip nectar from lavender and red valerian. Few painted ladies as yet - these migrants fly in from the continent and so far there’s been no sign of a big influx.
Of the large butterflies, the comma is often the first we see. It’s easy to recognise as its mottled, russet wings have ragged edges.
There’s no mistaking the peacock either with its staring, misty blue eyespots. Peacock caterpillars dine on nettles and the adults emerge from the chrysalis during August, looking fresh and bright.
In folklore, this transformation from earthly caterpillar to winged beauty made butterflies and moths symbols of the soul.
The summer of sunshine and showers has made perfect growing weather, with stretches of dry, warm days to ripen the cereals. In Ryedale harvesting has been underway for around three weeks; on the coast it began last week. Farmers are reporting good yields of winter barley and winter wheat.
Today the best quality barley goes for brewing, the rest for animal feed. Nobody bakes bread with barley flour these days, although some of our forebears had no choice.
Heavy, dry barley loaves weren’t exactly popular.
But wheat is fussy about soil and in the past people had to eat the grain that would thrive in their area. So the Wolds grew mainly barley: Ryedale grew rye, oats, and wheat.
Dense, dark rye loaves were like today’s Scandinavian ryebread. Rye and wheat flour mixed made a lighter brown loaf known as maslin, but this was more expensive. Most folk couldn’t afford white bread made from wheat.
Fine oatmeal fermented with buttermilk made a soft oatcake, the traditional Ryedale havercake, although most oats went to feed the legions of working horses.