Residents old and new: Garden wildlife in lockdown

In amongst the ‘madness’ that has been learning to minister in lockdown, we’ve discovered that the local wildlife is no respecter of social isolation rules!

2020-03-26 hedgehogFirstly we discovered that the Hedgehog we’ve been encouraging for two years had over-wintered! Great excitement, especially as my husband snuck a peek in our hog-houses late one afternoon to confirm that ‘the Hogfather’ as I’ve knick-named him or her, was truly resident – apparently with a preference for the left hand of our two hog-houses. There is a short video of it’s nocturnal wanderings HERE. We do have a hedghog-diner which it likes, but it’s also rather partial to the remains of the sunflower hearts left by the Goldfinches!

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Cock House Sparrow taking nesting material into the swift-box 10th April 2020

 

Then this Holy Week, as we’ve been pottering around the garden trying to make the most of our limited growing space and a collection of out-of-date seeds (anything to get away from the video and computer screen) we heard scrabbling above us. In 2018 we’d also had members of the Blackwater Valley Swift group install a 4 story swift box on our expansive north wall, as we knew that in summer we get a small group calling near the house, and lodging in the neighbouring street. Despite using the ‘swift-caller’ they lent us near the swift-box, we’ve had no joy at attracting returning juvenilles (which is what the idea was) nor any other resident Swifts. However, on looking up this week, we noted that whilst the ‘flats’ as I call them had warped a little, blocking one entrance completely, the scrabbling I heard Good Friday proved to be…. House Sparrows! There are edited highlights HERE of some (fairly shoddy) video and stills, including an extended view of sparrows doing ‘what comes naturally’ when it’s nesting season!

[It was also a chance to practice some very basic video editing skills for ministry, so please excuse the naff header/footer etc.]

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Blue-Tit bringing moss to our Birch nest-box 12th April 2020

 

2018 must have been a good year for our intentions toward wildlife, as we were also given and installed by the north-facing kitchen window, a Birch nest-box – that has likewise remained empty until now. We’d been aware from inside our kitchen over the last few days of an irregular tap-tap-tapping that we couldn’t attribute to anything inside. Yesterday, we discovered that we’ve also got Blue-tits nesting. This morning before our online service, they proved a little camera-shy, so no video to accompany the photos yet! Creation it seems believes in generating the new life of the Easter Season.

So all in all, we’re delighted to have other couples moving in to share our social isolation. In fact, couldn’t be happier… unless the Swifts move in, but they could find it crowded!

Big Garden Birdwatch 2020

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Greenfinch catching the sunlight – yes, there was some!

This morning I took the annual hour out to count the garden birds for the Big Garden Birdwatch.

Now obviously I watch the garden birds more often than once year, possibly a little too much, especially when I have other things I ought to be doing! But doing it for citizen science can bring surprises, as it did with last year’s Redpolls.

Sadly however, there wasn’t so much to excitement me this year – though it was good to get our local Dunnocks on the list. As yet there are no Redpolls, nor the Siskin, but the latter don’t usually materialise until late February, for reasons I don’t know.

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A split second of peace between squabbling Greenfinch and Goldfinch – probably because they’ve both got their mouths full! 

Anyway, this years list is as follows with some notes – as always the numbers are the maximum number of birds viewed at any one time within the hour:
Goldfinches 13 (quarrelsome bunch)
Greenfinches 3 (don’t always win their battles with the Goldfinches despite their relative bulk!)
Dunnock 2 (I think there’s a romance going on, they follow each other faithfully)
Blue Tit 2 (I really wish they’d use the lovely birch bird-box on their regular flight-path at the corner of the house.)
Wood Pigeon 2 (who spent most the hour at either end of the fence, like bookends.)
Feral Pigeon 4 (about a third of the actual number, which continually rises.)
Robin 1 (as territorial as always, and particularly fond of seeing off the Dunnocks.)

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A very poor photo of the resident love-birds – sorry Dunnocks. They are also one of the best songsters in the garden which might be why our Robin doesn’t like the competition!

Blackbird 1 (briefly, high in his vantage point in the apple tree)
Chaffinch 1 (briefly identifiable among the Goldfinches but didn’t fight for space to feed, which is sad when they used to be far the most numerous finch in the garden.)
Starling 2 (numbers are down locally, they used to be almost a nuisance on the fat balls.)

The best bit of bird-watching in the day came immediately after I stopped watching the feeders – as I washed up yesterday’s dishes I watched the corvids mobbing a Sparrowhawk over the houses opposite! Typical.

August Hedgehog update

Since early July we’ve been monitoring the hedgehogs using the garden more regularly, and discovered that at best we now have 3 hedgehogs in the garden – which could be a mother and a couple of babies. Typically the only night we had a photo of three, we’d knocked the settings on the trail-cam and there were no videos triggered! (Grrrr…)

A conversation with a new neighbour (next-door but one changed hands around Easter) produced the news that she has a family of three under the wooden playhouse in the garden. Apparently they steal the food left for her two cats… which might be why the cats were stealing the hedgehog food in our garden when we weren’t using the feeding box as a way of monitoring how many hedgehogs we actually had!

It also explains why our hedgehog houses never got used over the winter – they were hidden under the playhouse two-doors up!

For those who don’t see what we post on the ‘book of face’ and want to see more, I’ve included a couple of photos, and there’s a video here for you to enjoy.

If you look really carefully, there’s a small hog top right of ‘Mum’ and another further away top left of here, near the herbaceous border!
‘Mum’ and one hoglet

Hog-news – First Contact 2019!

 

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Hedgehog poo! (Hand for scale)

I get excited about some strange things I guess – they include Hedgehog poo!

A couple of mornings ago (13th April to be precise), I found (and of course we then photographed) what I thought was Hedgehog droppings in 2 places in the garden. It certainly wasn’t the local moggies – they dig up my plants rather than fertilise the lawn! Graham then found a third lot.

I checked with the lovely Jayne at Happy Hedgehog Rescue in Yateley, and she confirmed it was indeed the poo of a healthy Hedgehog.

So of course we put the trail cameras out that night….. Nothing.

So we put them out again last night (14th – 15th April 2019)….. Success!!
We have a Hedgehog in our garden again. Couldn’t be more delighted. Simple things.

STC_0011cLooking at the photographs more closely, I’m thinking it has the same ‘roughed up’ bit on it’s left rump as last years, so I’m wondering if it’s the same Hedgehog?

We’ve had two hog-houses in the garden over the winter, and I’d sort of convinced myself that neither had been used. But this chap disappeared toward the opening of the left hand one twice last night, under the second trail-cam. So, now I’m not so sure on that either.

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Can you see the little rosette of ruffled prickles on it’s left buttock?

We will re-site and re-set the cameras over the next few nights, and see what we discover.

First video clip of 2019 is here.

The last video clip of the night, which I’ve entitled ‘Hedgehog at the Gates of Dawn’ because it also features the dawn chorus, is here.

The next task is to make our Hedgehog a proper feeding station as per the instructions Jayne sent me last year!

More news when we have some.

Redpolls on poll-day #BigGardenBirdwatch2019

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Goldfinch and (male) Lesser Redpoll #BigGardenBirdwatch2019

OK, so I’m a bit behind the curve but I wanted to log this for posterity.

I always try and take part in the Big Garden Birdwatch, and some years I’ve managed to blog about it – usually when something notable happens. Which it did this year. In fact it’s still happening.

The usual suspects visited the garden in my hour on the morning of Sun 27th Jan (9am-10am before I took service) – see the list below. I wasn’t at all surprised to see increasing numbers of Goldfinches – they love the fact we’ve gone over to feeding sunflower hearts as the mixed birdseed was causing too much waste and weeds. What I hadn’t stopped long enough to notice up until that morning was that some of the flock of 20+ Goldfinches were in fact Lesser Redpolls!

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Lesser Redpoll – surprisingly stripey – and a little less pink on it’s front so female?

We’ve had Siskin in the past (though not yet this year) but I’d never seen a Redpoll before, anywhere, ever, even though a near neighbour had said she’d had them about 10+ years ago. So a ‘lifer’ for me and a new ‘tick’ for our little suburban garden.

What’s more they’ve stayed among the flock of Goldfinches who arrive several times a day. I may therefore have spent more time watching the garden birds than I might normally do!

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Lesser Redpoll – tricky to photograph away from the feeders as they don’t stop still!

Big Garden Birdwarch 2019 – list

Goldfinch 21 (!!!)
Robin 1
Chaffinch 2
Bluetit 2
Greenfinch 1
Redpoll 3
Woodpidgeon 2
Collard Dove 4 (on the increase)
Crow 1
Feral Pidgeon (another, less welcome addition to the list)

In other garden wildlife news, the little pond is now 6 months old, some the fish we never put in are still alives, and so is one of the backswimmers! Roll on spring-time.

Creating a small pond

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Lunch with a view – a wonderful addition to the garden!

I’ve been sitting on the patio for lunch in the lovely autumn sun this week, admiring our new pond and watching the creatures already living around it.

We’ve dreamt of having a wildlife pond for some years. However, in effectively twelve years of ministry training, it wasn’t a priority, and there was always the significant likelihood that we’d rent the house out and move on. However God had other ideas, and having discovered this year that we’re staying put for the foreseeable future, it seemed right that a few home improvements were in order. Ponds are so much more interesting than new bathrooms (though we’ve done that too)!

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16th July 2018

We only have a small garden, so it had to be a small pond. We also know the ground we’re on well enough that layers of builders rubble lie under our garden, and with a gravel-bed geology, digging even a small pond was going to be very hard work. So, I’m afraid we found someone younger and fitter than us for that bit. The lovely Matt (son of a friend and colleague in ministry locally) even provided a pre-formed liner he and his father had never used!

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18th July 2018

However, we wanted a pond that hedgehogs could live with, without drowning, that insects could drink at, that might encourage damselflies and dragonflies, and host interesting creatures. So it needed a shallow-end of gravel. So we sunk the preformed liner an additional 3 inches below ground level, under the edge of the house near the patio, and not directly under the trees. It was dug and filled with tap water on 16th July, and allowed to settle for a couple of days.

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Bumblebee drinking 18th July 2018

This was I guess the other part of our wedding anniversary present to ourselves – the first bit being a trail-cam to video the hedgehogs! So, on 18th July we were able to add plants, gravel and pebbles, and start to see what happened. On that very first day, we had a bumble-bee drinking on the gravel, and I was a kid at Christmas… the project was looking like it was going to be a success.

Over the next two months, various things have been added. Some plants came home from a holiday visit to RHS Rosemoor. The collection of rocks was added to with fossils we’d collected on visits to beaches, favourite hills, and other significant places in years passed. Tidying out the shed allowed us to use our son’s cast-off wood (he carves greenwood spoons) to create a small woodpile that was accidentally positioned under a drip from the guttering where it will rot nicely we hope. Effectively it’s a pond of memories as well as for the future.

PLANTS:

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Rat-tailed maggot – the lavae of some hoverfly

Yellow water iris Iris pseudacorus – put on the shelf of the pond one end; the wind kept blowing it over, so eventually it was weighted into place by having some ‘fairy-stones’ wired to it. Chosen for the lava of dragon- and damselflies to crawl up to hatch.

Water mint Mentha aquatica – very attractive to insects, and should give shade, nooks and crannies for the water creatures to hide in.
Purple Loosestrife Lythrum salicaria – initially put on the shelf the other end, but it regularly got blown over too, and was really too close to the Water Mint. Dad has a plant in his flowerbed that has flowered endlessly this year, so we moved ours out into the ground surrounding to the pond.
Frogbit Hydrocharis morsus-ranae – went in initially floating on the surface, as a native oxygenator, but very quickly looked like it would take over in our small pond, and became home to a lot of snail eggs (see below) so that went after about a month.
Water-lily (for which the label is still in the pond!) A small specimen recommended by the lovely lady at Maidenhead Aquatics for our size of pond. Initially on a shelf, and then moved down onto an old roof tile in the bottom – the tile is curvy so will also provide a home for water-creatures that need to hide.
Lampranthus brownii, Coreopsis rosea ‘American Dream’, Dianthus ‘Whetmans Stars Supernova’, Agastache ‘Kudos Silver Blue’ and Ajuga reptans ‘Braunherz’ were all planted around the pond to attract insects.

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Greater-pond skater or Back-swimmer 27th September 2018

PONDLIFE:
We also imported some pondweed from a neighbours small pond, complete with two Great Pond Snails, from whence the snail-eggs came we guess. As it transpires, the weed (which has since vanished interestingly) may have contained fish-eggs. Another friend donated us some nymphs from their much larger pond, a couple of Common Pond-skaters, a Great Water-boatman (otherwise known as Back-swimmers), and one small fish that crept into their net.

As I’ve sat by the pond for my lunch this week, I’ve watched not one, but eight small fish (and no more mosquito lavae)!!! Our friends swear blind they’ve not been surreptitiously filling our pond with creatures, so we’re assuming there were eggs in the weed from the neighbour who also reputedly has fish. They will have to take their chance as we’ve not added a pump, as it’s not advised if you want dragonfly lavae – they tend to get stuck in it!

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European Hornet drinking 27th September 2018

Water-boatmen apparently fly at night and are attracted to light, which is why we put four cheap solar-lights round the pond; this seems to have worked as we now have three water-boatman! A dragonfly did a circuit of the pond but didn’t stop, but a Hornet has been a regular visitor, joining the hoverflies that sit in the sun on the pebbles.

To say we’re thrilled that all this has been achieved in a little over two months is an understatement. The big test will be whether we get frogs and toads in the spring, who hatches, and what more wildlife we’ve had visit by this time next year. I will of course, log all the excitement here.

 

 

Hog-news

With the end of the holidays we’re not being quite so regular in our setting of the trail-cam.

However, I’m pleased to report that the regular hedgehog (what we first thought were leaves stuck on it’s bottom may perhaps be scars but make good identifying marks) is apparently now using the hog-house that we cleaned out Bank Holiday weekend. Our first video of this was 4th September, but we had a second video last night 10th September, so we’re thinking the ‘hogfather’ may now be resident?

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Look closely – two hedgehogs again!

Last nights other exciting hog news was video of two hedgehogs, the ‘resident’ hogfather, and one other (on the left in the video). The first time this happened, the second hedgehog seemed much smaller than the other. On this occasion the second hedgehog seems of similar size?! Wondering if that means there are three hedgehogs using the garden?!

Planning additional protection for the hog-house from the elements – we need to prune a large bush out front, and think we’ll use some branches to cover it for the winter. However the question is, do we need another hog-house as well?

 

Diary of a Hogfather?

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First contact: 7th May 2018 11am

Back on a fairly toasty morning in early May I was gardening and heard a rustling sound. Since no bird flew away, I explored the source of the sound, and discovered a little mound of prickles under some ornamental Cuckoo Pint. We had…. our very own Hedgehog in the garden! Cue> much excitement.

Being a hot day this was a great excuse to down tools, as I didn’t want to disturb it so much that it got dehydrated. Gardening was carefully resumed late afternoon, and then late evening we stood watch. About 9.45pm we were not disappointed, and even managed a decent snap in the gloaming.

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First recorded evening visit: 7th May 2018 9:54pm

We had known there were hedgehogs in the area, and when the fence had been replaced a couple of years before had left a small unobtrusive gap between the front and the back, but had no idea that a hog was making use of it. Now, we hastily took further steps: by next evening we were the proud possessors of a hog-house and later in the week some hedgehog food!

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Hedgehog-house installed with fresh hay: 8th May 2018

There ensued many weeks which were acts of faith, that ‘Mrs Tiggywinkle’ was resident. We put out food, and it vanished. We guessed the local cats may have taken an interest in the food, but couldn’t be sure who was eating. There was also no way of telling if anyone was using the hog-house. There were other things going on in the garden, not least a small pond was dug in July (another story), but we made sure there was a shallow end so that our assumed resident could get out. We even arranged for a lovely local friend who had recently had Hedgehogs in her front garden to feed it whilst we were away on holiday!

On our return, there were found to be spider webs across the door of the hog-house. Daytime inspection confirmed that no-one was resident, and we feared the worst, but the hog-food was still disappearing. But, we had bought ourselves a wedding anniversary present of a trail-cam, so we pressed it into action.

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7th August 2018: trail-cam proof that we still have a Hedgehog!

The first night proved there were indeed cats in the garden. However, the following night brought great joy: we still had a hedgehog, and s/he was exploring the edge of the pond, and appearing to go to drink among other things! The first decent video is here!!

It looked like s/he was quite chunky from the stills we had and on it’s own, so by this stage we’re thinking it’s a male hedgehog and had re-‘named’ it The Hogfather! But another surprise was awaiting us.

We were intermittently at home, so not setting the trail-cam every night, but on 15th August, we were surprised to find not one, but two Hedgehogs!! One (with what we think is a bayleaf on it’s back – we’d moved the large potted bay-tree so we could see the pond and it had shed leaves!)

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Big hedgehog, smaller hedgehog! 15th August 2018

So, it appears there are two Hedgehogs frequenting the garden, though this video evidence currently suggests they are not necessarily that keen on each other! We plan plan to clean and put new hay in the hog-house this weekend, and will share more Hedgehog news when we have it.

Any wisdom from Hedgehog specialists would be greatly appreciated via the comments facility.

 

 

 

 

 

Nuthatch – a very close encounter

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I don’t think St. Frances had quite this much trouble! (Photo credit to my husband.)

Yesterday afternoon, I sat down for a spot of therapy in a busy Sunday. I needed to paint a stone for the Charles Kingsley School art installation commemorating 165 years since they were founded. It’s got a Brimstone butterfly on it, but that’s not the point of this post.

I became distracted when a bird flew in through the open french window. We hastily shut the internal doors and opened all the appropriate windows, hoping it would fly out, but no, it simply battered itself against the windows we couldn’t open and then perched panting on a picture frame.

I fully expected it to be one of the resident baby Blue Tits that clamour in the apple tree for their parents’ attention, but no, it was of all things, a Nuthatch, something we rarely see in the garden let alone in the house!

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Can you see the little ‘pillows’ of pale feathers on the underside of the Nuthatches tail? (Please ignore the cobwebs… I prefer wildlife encounters and ministry to housework!…. Photo credit to the husband again.)

My husband needless to say grabbed the camera, whilst I acted as bird-wrangler in chief.  In the end, after further capers round our dining room, I briefly caught it and steered it out the window, after which it sat panting on the pergola, recovering its equilibrium before flying off. Sadly it lost four feathers in the process but otherwise it seemed none the worse for its adventure.

Needless to say we now have some excellent photos of a Nuthatch that we wouldn’t otherwise have! In the process I noticed something that you don’t normally see when they’re pressed against a tree trunk… they have the most beautiful little pillowly clouds of pale feathers underneath.

Always grateful for these up close encounters with wild animals, even if they’re sometimes a little nerve-racking. Here’s to the next.

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I got the camera eventually, after all the excitement was over! This is the Nuthatch recovering on our pergola, and you can just make out the ‘pillows’ underneath the tail. I wonder if they have a purpose?

Peregrines at Winchester Cathedral

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Male Peregrine, Winchester Cathedral, 16th April 2018

I’ve been keeping a secret, and finally I can share it.

Back on 21st March, I had finished a meeting at Winchester Cathedral, and got in the car, when I heard an incredibly distinctive noise that had me behaving like a terrier on ‘point’. It was not a sound I’d expected to hear at the Cathedral, but it had me out car and over to the iron railings with the binoculars that live under the car seat, faster than you can “Church of England”!

There, sat on the roof of the north aisle, flying to the west and end and back, were two individuals of a species I’d only ever seen briefly and at great distance on Cornish cliffs, or in organised, camera assisted watches at Salisbury and Chichester Cathedrals. Peregrines. I only had my phone, pictures on which showed but specs on the roof, but the video of the distinctive calls were good enough to send to Keith Betton of Hampshire Ornothological Society (HOS), to check that I wasn’t going mad. Returning to my car, a passing bishop seemed rather bemused to see me peering at the architecture with binoculars, but thankfully didn’t query the behaviour of one of his junior clergy!

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Male Peregrine, Winchester Cathedral, 15th May 2018

Keith assured me I wasn’t bonkers, that a nesting tray had been freshly inserted into the (cathedral sized) gutter that had flooded in these birds 2017 attempt at nesting, and that fingers were crossed (and perhaps prayers being said). These were birds that HOS had been aware of for years, and which had been ousted from their previous site by the demolition of the old Hampshire Police HQ in winter 2016-17. The news that they were nesting on purpose built, hopefully flood proof, accommodation at the Cathedral this year, was however to be kept quiet at this stage, at the request of the Cathedral staff. So I stayed ‘stum’.

My camera has accompanied my two excursions to the cathedral since, nestled among my robes when arriving to volunteer as a Cathedral Chaplain. I’ve taken what photos I could: the male showing well on the first trip, male and female visible most recently. Quiet conversations with the birds guardians (the virgers) were had. I also reported in to Keith when I saw them.

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Female Peregrine, Winchester Cathedral, 15th May 2018

Last week Keith did me the courtesy of letting me know there were three chicks that needed ringing, and this was achieved on Monday 21st May. At that point the Cathedral staff also agreed the news could be made public, so you may have seen it on their Facebook feed, or on the local TV morning news on Tuesday 22nd May. I hope this success story might encourage Winchester Cathedral to work further towards become an Eco-cathedral as the diocese works on become and Eco-diocese.

To be able to photograph Peregrines on ‘my’ cathedral, in the city my father grew up in, and in which my grandmother lived all her life, was thrilling. Then I was offered the chance to be among a small group who could watch the chicks on a different nest in south Hampshire being ringed 22nd May, and the diary was flexed to make it possible. So this week I watched four chicks of these Schedule 1 species, having their ID fitted under license, so that they can be identified, and their future distribution and success tracked.

The population growth since the first Hampshire pair in the 1970s, is one of the success stories of conservation post WWII (when they were shot so as not to stop the passage of vital carrier pigeon messages to the resistance in continental Europe) and post-DDT. I’ve now witnessed two of the nineteen successful Peregrine sites in Hampshire this year!

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Three of the four Peregrine chicks I witnessed being ringed in south Hampshire, 22nd May 2018.