Wise words on owls…

It’s not everyday you see a photo of someone cuddling three large and fluffy baby barn owls! But that’s what my partner in crime writing, Julia, saw on her Facebook feed recently. Interest piqued, she phoned her old school friend Lynn (the owl cuddler!) and asked her what the story was behind the photo…

Top to bottom: Lynn and her gorgeous fluffy owl chicks, the owl nest box, and owl man, Steven Piotrowski, ringing one of the chicks.Lynn and her husband Colin, live in the wilds of Suffolk. Colin loves birds and is extremely knowledgeable about them. As a child, his family lived near the RSPB Minsmere Nature Reserve and the local Rector, a keen and knowledgeable birder, would often take the local children to visit, and Colin got the bug!

The decline in the barn owl population has been well publicised and, while many of us were concerned about it, Colin and Lynn decided to do something practical to help. For his birthday in March a couple of years ago, Lynn presented Colin with an owl nest box. They put the nest box in a suitable tree and waited… and waited… 

Exactly a year later, on Colin’s birthday, they saw a barn owl enter the nest box and were thrilled when the pair laid eggs and the young owls fledged. Sadly, the youngsters did not make it through the following hard winter. 

This year has been exceptionally good for birds and many people have reported garden birds producing two and even three broods. But barn owls tend to nest only in the spring, and this year, there had been no activity in their nest box. So, when Lynn saw a barn owl fly into the box in September, she didn’t hold out much hope. But it seems the young pair checking out the nest site were keen to produce their second family of the year and, to Colin and Lynn’s amazement, they spotted six eggs in the box. This resulted in the three gorgeous fluffy female chicks in the photo.

Local Suffolk owl expert, Steven Piotrowski, has given help and advice to Colin and Lynn, and he recently came along to ring the chicks. He also weighed and measured them to help monitor how they get along in adult life.

It’s not all plain sailing for the owls, or for the anxious nest box owners! Jackdaws, well known for their habit of gathering sticks, often pile them up inside nest boxes which can trap the parent owls and youngsters. Colin keeps a close eye on the box and, in the first year had to empty it of sticks no less than 23 days running – a fact regularly quoted by Steven Piotrowski when giving talks about the trials of protecting barn owls!

Lynn reports that the largest chick is just about ready to fly, so fingers crossed they all mature and go on to breed and keep these beautiful birds in our countryside.



Putting on a bit of a show…

July and August are busy times down here in Devon. Of course, the tourism industry is huge in this area – we are blessed with beautiful countryside and a dramatic coastline – but it’s the strong sense of community and tradition in the countryside that also come to the fore at this time of year.

The rural community is still closely aligned with the farming world and country shows, town carnivals and village fetes are all still important (and popular) events on the social calendar.

Growing giant vegetables, showing your best breeding ram or entering your dog in the agility class are all part of the fun,­ although some people take it very seriously indeed! People go to enormous lengths to build carnival floats, groom and polish their ponies and traps and produce flower arrangements of great ingenuity. It is heartening to see such ‘traditional’ ways of life still carrying on so strongly in this technological age.

My partner in crime writing, Julia Wherrell, took the afternoon off to wander around a show local to her up on Dartmoor, the Chagford Show, and took some fun photos to give you a real feel for what goes on. She spent quite a lot of her afternoon in the produce and craft tents and when not in there, she was admiring the prize sheep and cattle, oh, and chickens of course. She says she most definitely did not go near the beer tent(!), but might have swung by the cream teas!

They always say ‘write about what you know’, so if you happen to be a fan of our Swaddlecome Mysteries series, this sort of rural entertainment will be well known to you! 


Memories of Mrs Tiggywinkle!

When she created Mrs Tiggywinkle, Beatrix Potter secured a place in our hearts for this funny little prickly creature. For all us children who read about her, the hedgehog will forever be something cute and special.

Just down the road from where I live is a lovely children’s attraction called Prickly Ball Farm – can you guess what that’s all about? Yup, hedgehogs! In fact, they have a hedgehog hospital where you can go and see the fantastic work the staff do to rehabilitate sick and injured hedgehogs to bring them back to health before releasing them back into the wild. They often care for up to 80 of the prickly little beasts at any one time and it takes a lot of time and love to nurse these little creatures.

They are always happy to receive donations of old fleeces, blankets, towels, hot water bottles and food bowls. They also ask for any unwanted newspapers, shredded paper, sawdust or straw to help with the daily clean out of all the hedgehogs. And while you are there, you can learn more about hedgehogs and their habitat from one of their daily hedgehog talks.

Of course, as with all such attractions these days, they have to offer a whole range of interesting things for visitors to see and do and Prickly Ball Farm has grown to become a very popular attraction. They have a wide variety of animals including ferrets, pigs, chickens, ducks, pygmy goats, ponies, donkeys, rabbits, guinea pigs and even foxes! As well as getting to see all the animals, they run activities throughout the day so visitors can get a real ‘hands on’ experience with everything from pony grooming to walking a ferret and feeding the goats.

Spike’s Farm Shop sells everything from fresh fruit and vegetables to home made products from the café, local produce plus a range of prickly gifts and souvenirs. And just as the adults are starting to flag, there’s a very nice café with an excellent range of home made cakes! It’s a sweet day out and just a little bit different. Once my granddaughter Grace is old enough to appreciate it, Granny Joanna will be using her as an excuse to visit!

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Meet Robert Giordano of Giordano Studios

Robert GiordanoYou’ll know their names and their wonderful designs, but what do you know about their backgrounds and sources of inspiration? Joanna has been chatting to some of the top artists whose original stunning artwork is transformed into craft products and featured on her website.

In this blog Joanna talks to Robert Giordano, of Giordano Studios, the artist behind many popular design Joanna has featured on her website.

1. Where do you get your ideas from – what inspires you?

Inspiration can come from so many areas. My family inspires me, through their interest, support and love. Nature is also a great inspiration. Each Spring I marvel at the activity of songbirds in my yard, how hard they work looking for nesting material. As my wife and I prepare the garden after a long winter, among the many other Spring commitments like trade shows and family celebrations, I think of the birds and realize we are all part of the same world, each busy in our own way. The budding flowers and the world becoming green again inspire me to create.

2. What do you enjoy most about your career?

The day-to-day changes. One day I might be asked to develop a new Kitten design, the next it might be Santa on a rooftop. It could be July and 100 degrees but inside the studio clients are putting together lines for a year to 18 months down the road so they just might be needing winter and snow. Being self-employed allows me to attend daily family events be it in the afternoon or during school hours. However as the principle in the company, I know discipline is a very important word and sometimes the business of the day never ends. I also enjoy seeing our art bring joy to others, sometimes we take that for granted as we’re so focused on business, our fans and consumers remind me of that and I’m grateful to hear they like what we do.

3. What do you like the least?

Being dependent on the state of retail and consumer spending. It’s getting difficult for retailers to keep the same business model and so much of our world has changed. It’s important to build good relationships with manufactures who look to our studio to keep their lines fresh.

4. Are you a night owl or a morning person?

That depends on the season! In the summer I’m definitely a morning person. I love to fish and find solace in being on the water well before sunrise. My wife also gets up rather early for work so the days of sleeping in are few and far between for us. 

5. If you could go back in time, what would you do differently?

I would have liked to go away to school for college. I went to the School of Visual Arts in NYC about ten miles from where I was raised and, although I loved the education, it lacked a social and campus-like lifestyle and I’m a social person. No regrets, but I think it would have added a different perspective to my formative years.

6. What is your favourite childhood memory?

One of Giordano Studios charming snowman designsGrowing up in a wonderful family I’m fortunate to have so many. Sunday dinner with my extended Italian-American family, averaging 22 to 28 people, all in a smallish dining room in my Grandparent’s apartment. Sketching with my Dad and brother Greg at the Museum of Natural History or one of the city’s Zoos and myy Dad stepping in when we were finished to critique in a positive way.

7. If you had to choose just one of your designs as your absolute favourite, what would it be?

The one that has sold the most! Probably one of the teddy bear designs from our Bearhugs collection. It’s rather simple, a snowman holding a teddy bear in his arms while two others who look like the baby’s siblings build the snow around him.

8. Who do you think has had the most influence on you?

Hands down my father Joseph Giordano. Not only was he a great artist, he was a great father and husband as well. His influence on me is endless in so many positive ways. He started our licensing business in 1980 and I worked with him from 1984 until his passing in 2011. He was painting 24 hours before he passed on, doing what he loved all of his life. He worked out of his home studio and, where I mentioned having to be disciplined, that comes directly from him. He was always working, always trying to Robert, his father Joseph and brother Greg Giordano.design the next series to bring us success. He worked hard and played hard, enjoying the beach, the sun, his family and friends, not necessarily things that only come from financial success. Other influential artists are Winslow Homer, Frank Benson and John Singer Sargent. You can see their influence in my fine art, primarily seascapes and maritime in theme.

9. What was the last gift you gave someone?

I bought my son Luke a pair of white shrimp boots for our fishing ventures for his birthday. He’s 14 and growing like a weed so his old ones were too small. Our fishing boat is rather small and wet and it’s comfy keeping your feet dry. I wish I could say it was some fabulous gift for my wife Maureen for mother’s day, but hanging plants for our porch has become the norm the last few years. Note to self, sparkle her next year!

10. Do you have any future plans you’d like to share with us?

Just to continue bringing Joanna Sheen customers the Giordano brand be it Puppies and Kittens or some other lovable critters. It’s been great working with Joanna and the Joanna Sheen design team. I’m delighted with what they’ve done with our art applying it to the craft and made by hand industry.



Eat your greens!

As the sap rises and the garden blooms, hen pal, and partner in writing crime Julia Wherrell, has been pondering her chickens again…

Last year, we had a bit of a disaster. On a very windy May day, the gate to the chickens’ run blew open and they escaped. There was no road kill or fox massacre, they simply strolled into my veg patch and ate every pea, broad bean and lettuce in sight creating their very own version of carnage. I was not impressed, but the hens were chortling merrily and happily stuffed with greenery. My partner felt sage and onion might have been more appropriate, but I restrained him.

A typical bowl of chicken scraps with rotten bits of fruit, wilted rocket and ends of vegetables.Chickens are omnivores so they’ll eat, or at least try, just about anything and spend much of the day scratch the ground looking for insects and worms. Any large insect, like a butterfly, foolish enough to drift through their run will be hotly pursued with all sorts of acrobatics and excitement and generally not come out alive. They love cheese rind, pasta and they have slices of brown bread every day and yes, they are spoilt.

They are also exceedingly fond of their greens. Any scraps we have – the bits you cut off the end of your vegetables, corn on the cob husks, wilted lettuce – they fight over. For entertainment, my farmer friend Greg will eat an apple and then lob the core into the run and watch the ensuing rubgy match as chicken after chicken grabs the core, runs off chattering happily, puts it down to eat it, whereupon it is instantly stolen by another hen and off they go again… A kindly neighbour regularly gives us the discarded outer leaves and stalk of cauliflowers which, to the hens, is about as exciting as receiving a box of chocolates!

Cauliflower leaves – better than a box of chocs!Of course we give them ‘proper’ chicken feed, including corn and things called ‘layers pellets’ but, just as we do, they love a varied diet. But greenery seems to play an important part in making their yolks rich and yellow. As a result, our hens’ egg yolks are a stunning deep rich orange and taste delicious. I rarely eat eggs anywhere but at home as I find their paleness unappetising. Sponges and quiches all look gorgeous as they have a naturally golden hue and they really do taste wonderful.

Now that my veggies are well advanced, the hens will be getting even more treats. Bolted cabbages, rocket and lettuces disappear down their greedy beaks in seconds. They won’t thank you for an onion or a leek though. And this year, my partner has adapted the door to their run so that it swings shut, even in the strongest gale, so I can be sure the greens they get are the ones I decide to give them and not the ones they steal!