Monday, 2 November 2015

Tongues of Fire

'Steady thy laden head across a brook;
Or by a cider-press, with patient look,
Thou watchest the last oozings hours by hours.'

                                                                                               - Keats

Greetings!  It has been several weeks since my last post and during this time autumn has swooped in on wings of glorious technicolour; golds, crimsons, ambers, the turning of the leaves this year seems more vibrant than I have ever seen it.  The gardens of Mottisfont are adorned with a copper coloured carpet and our woodlands are a shimmering haze of rich fiery hues.  When the sun shines through the leaves it is like they glow from within and the Cherry trees especially look like they are aflame in the rays of the sinking sun.  Combine this with the mists that have begun to lie in the fields first thing in the morning and last thing in the evening, creeping off the river, and you have a truly stunning picture to behold as you enter into Mottisfont.

Colours everywhere! My favourite, the Cherry tree outside the staff carpark

Whilst I always mourn the passing of summer and its associated vibrancy of life, autumn does bring us many wonders.  Whilst kicking through the leaves, you can find the shiny conkers and sweet chestnuts, plump and looking like they have been polished, with their intricate swirly designs ingrained upon them.  Fungi has popped up everywhere providing splashes of colour where you least expect it; Fly Agaric red, Amethyst Deceiver purple, the creamy white blob of the puffball – or the giant puffball if you are very lucky!

And of course with summers end and autumn’s beginning, comes the time of ‘mellow fruitfulness’ which, in my personal annual schedule means: cider time.   
This year has been kind to us in terms of bounty and I have already made good with blackberry whisky and brandy, elderberry and blackberry wine, pickled walnuts, pickled ash keys, elderflower champagne, jams, chutneys and sloe gin.  But of course, the most important yearly creation comes in the form of my home made cider – and what a year for it!  The apple trees have been absolutely full to bursting this year, in all our orchards, hedgerows and woodlands and I have taken full advantage of this fact.  I started my usual scrumping and harvesting of apples throughout august as they began to fall and ripen and due to the sheer mass of fruit around I got a bit carried away and kept on collecting.  After a few weeks my patio at home was covered in apples.  Laid out on a tarp, they looked like some brightly coloured art installation and I dutifully turned them with a broom every day to spot any rotters that needed to be picked out and chucked in the compost (quite what the neighbours thought I don’t know!).  
An apple a day....

Then, having secured the Mottisfont cider press for use, as well as a borrowed scratter, I lured my team mates to my help with bribes of how much cider they will get to drink next year (as well as guilt trips of how much of my home brew they have had this year!) and they dutifully came round one sunny Saturday and helped me turn apples into liquid gold.

Washin' choppin'


And pressin'!

 Four and a half hours of washing, chopping, scratting and pressing and we had 14 demi johns – 70 litres – of juice ready to begin the long and beautiful journey into cider…they are currently bubbling away happily in my kitchen, having been racked off once already and thankfully passed the slightly sulfuric eggy smelling stage that was being burped out of the air locks at double speed as the first fermentation kicked in vigorously.  The journey continues….


Meanwhile, with the onset of autumn we are already headlong into various winter projects across our sites as time seems to be flying by already; we have passed All Hallows Eve and are creeping ever closer to the Winter Solstice, the day after which I look to the East and know that the light will begin to return to us bit by bit and in a few short weeks the natural world will begin to awaken. 
A belated Halloween!
Up on Stockbridge Down we have begun a winter long project of hedgelaying.  The roadside hedge here, which runs along the B3049 was once laid about 20 years ago and has been flailed ever since.  It is slowly turning into a line of bottom thin trees which does not equate to a wildlife beneficial hedgerow so I decided to get it re-laid again, using a specialist contractor who was confident he can do the whole length in one winter.  Hedgelaying is basically a way of improving the health of a hedge and increasing its use as a habitat for wildlife.  To lay a hedge you cut through each individual stem, but not all the way, just enough that you can bend it over and weave it into line, whilst remaining attached to its growing base.  New shoots will then grow up from the cut area at the base thus thickening up the lower bit of the hedge which was previously just a stem.  Laying also allows more light to come in which in turn encourages the new growth and aids in the regeneration of the new shoots.  Hedgerows are vital as wildlife corridors for birds, mammals, reptiles, invertebrates and all sorts and they are more likely to use them and nest in them when the hedge is thick and bushy as it provides better cover for them to travel through.  Stockbridge Down is surrounded largely by arable land, but there are pockets of estates and copses nearby and it is so important that wildlife can have a chance to travel between such areas under cover using the wildlife corridors of hedgerows and not the open arable land where they are far more vulnerable to predators.  The first 100m barrier of hedge has been laid; I look forward to seeing the rest!

The first laid stretch...a long way to go!

Stockbridge Marsh has shown some great regrowth results on the bank that we fenced last year.  The array of vegetation that has come back in just one year is astonishing and really gives good hope for the future of this site, that if we can provide a well vegetated and stable bank it will prevent the erosion that occurs as a result of animal and people pressure on the bare bank.  It also gives hope to the stretch we have fenced this year; if that revegetates as well as last year’s stretch, the habitat will have improved dramatically.
Looking beautifully vegetated
Also an issue on the Marsh are the creeping inlets that have begun meandering their way across the marsh from the river.  Whilst the first inlet has dried out quite a bit since we fenced the bank and faggoted across it, which helped prevent the river from creeping in, the lower ones have got wider and deeper.  As a result, we have begun a project whereby we have had peat dug from the ditches in Long Lash at Mottisfont (where peat and vegetation requires clearing from the ditches on a rotation in order to keep the Southern Damselfly habitat in good condition) and this peat is being transported to the Marsh and being used to fill in the inlets and try and halt their crawl.  Essentially it is peat from the same river valley, just a few hundred years further down the river!  This is going on this week, so watch this space for results…

At our Hamble site, Curbridge Nature Reserve, we have started coppicing the understorey in a section of the woodland.  Mainly Hazel understorey over stood by Oaks and Ash, this stretch of ancient woodland and estuarine reedbed and saltmarsh is one of our little gems.  It has had some coppicing in areas of it in the past and this year I wanted to bring in the rotation again in order to improve the understorey of Hazel as well as bringing in more light for the ground flora species.

Hamble has also had another tree down in the river.  I have mentioned before about the titan Oaks that gradually get eroded under their rootplates by the tide and fall into the river where they lie, some skeletal, some still living, and provide a great perch for Egrets and habitat for water beasties.  However one tree went down right at the very top of the river where it is very narrow and consequently had to be removed to allow boats past.  After a very muddy hour working with the harbour master to remove part of the canopy so boats could squeeze through (we only had an hour because of the tide, which would turn and fall and leave the boat stranded otherwise) I then had a contractor complete the job as he had equipment I could only dream of.  One sludgy day, when the tide was out, the work gang proceeded to cut the tree up bit by bit, using plankways to walk over the ooze of the mudflats, and eventually, once all the limbs were completely removed, they used their truck and crane to heave the stem out over the bank to be taken away.  
Cutting up the tree

 And when I say truck, it was like a MONSTER truck.  I walked into the woodland and came face to face with Optimus Prime; the thing filled the entire woodland path area and looked vaguely out of place!  However it got the job done before the next turn of the tide and the river was once again made clear for day trippers to get to the Horse and Jockey pub.

Transformers come to Hamble river
Finally, since my last blog post, we have said good bye to Laura, our Area ranger for the New Forest.  Laura has moved on to another job back up in Hertfordshire, where she hails from and where her friends and family are so it couldn’t be more perfect for her.  I miss her to pieces, and every now and then look round for her to share something funny with only to realise she is no longer there but as always life moves on and we move with it, lest we get left high and dry when the tide goes out.  Therefore a fond farewell to Laura and thanks for all she has done for us and a warm welcome to Catherine, the new Area Ranger for the New Forest – I am waiting for the confusion of having two Catherine’s on one team, to inevitably begin!

Laura and her volunteer group, saying goodbye.

I leave you with a friendly goodbye from Walter our lone male in the sheep flock who discovered he had a fondness for looking at himself in the camera reflection – fathead!

What you lookin' at bub?

Friday, 18 September 2015

Autumnal musings

September has come upon us, fooling us with a glorious first week of warm sunshine and clear air reminding us that it was still summer.  And then week two blew in, wet and windy and grey and miserable and out went the shorts in exchange for waterproofs and wellies!  Branches snapped around us as the sudden blast of rain and wind grabbed tenaciously at their full leaved canopy and brought the weaker limbs to breaking point.  However today we have got a well-earned reprieve, the sun rose to a cloudless blue sky and a warm breeze and once again you could get a sense that we weren’t quite in the darker days yet.  If you ever stand on Stockbridge Down on a warm clear day, that has arrived after a run of windy wet ones, you will always see the Buzzards and Red Kites showing off their acrobatic skills with each other and floating lazily on the thermals as they enjoy the chance to just laze on the warm uprisings of air once more, without fighting against the elements.
Summer's end at Mottisfont...crops harvested, hay and straw cut, the fields returning to their brown winter hue.

We are just finishing off our summer works across our sites and planning into the winter and beyond.  As ever, our winter work schedule is jam packed with different projects across all our habitat types, from heathland to forestry to downland to mire and we are busily scheduling in our volunteer groups to help assist with it all.

Our sheep flock on Stockbridge have grown ever rounder as they graze down their new patch of slope.  They have reacquainted themselves with all their old trails and paths through the scrub and yew woodland, where they used to roam last year before I moved them.  Now I can stand at the corral, give a few bellows and far, far off in the distance I will see them emerge, like a white, woolly tide, flowing in a stream from under their favourite patch of Beech and Yew woodland and then gaining momentum like a breaking wave as they thunder along the slope to the corral and the sacred Nut Bucket.  They recently underwent a Freedom Foods inspection, as they do every year, and they showed themselves off to their finest, all coming when I called and looking so fit and healthy that the inspector actually exclaimed ‘Oh! Don’t they look good!?.’  This was one of the few shining moments with this flock when I can be slightly smug, instead of the usual moments of being trampled, kicked, head-butted, and run ragged trying to catch stubborn ones, so I basked in the praise of the inspector, as did the girls and Walter who stood by my side throughout it all having his nose scratched, the very image of a faithful and loyal companion (if only the inspector knew!).

The Kingdom of the Sheep; the flock nibbling their way along the slope.

Grazing of grassland helps ensure a short, herb rich sward which benefits species such as this Adonis Blue butterfly, which i found freshly emerged on Stockbridge a few weeks ago.  Electric blue!

One job that is an ongoing task all year round is the maintenance of areas like boardwalks.  Our site along the river Hamble, Curbridge Nature Reserve, is a long sinuous stretch of Ancient woodland alongside the tidal estuary.  Throughout this woodland runs stretches of boardwalk that was installed 9 years ago.  As is natural after time and the elements have taken their toll, every now and then the odd plank rots and snaps out and needs replacing.  Having made a note of how many planks were required this time round I rummaged around in our wood yard cutting bits to size until I had what was needed.  The next challenge was finding a way to get them all onsite – due to the nature of the site you can park a truck at either end of the 1.5km stretch of woodland but from there onwards you must walk in as it is not accessible by vehicle.  Naturally all the boardwalk pieces were scattered through the middle areas of the site so I figured I would have to carry everything in in bits…and then came my Bright Idea.  We have several large Ikea rucksack style bags that are meant to be for sorting recycling products that you can then put on your back and take to a recycling place.  They stand about 4 feet high and we bought some to use as forestry bags in felling season so we could have our sledgehammer, wedges, tool kit etc. all in a bag that we could move from tree to tree instead of running back and forth carrying stuff or lobbing it.  I figured I could use one of these bags, fill it with wooden planks and all the tools I needed and walk it all in to the site to where I needed it.

So off I went, got to the site, parked up and wedged nine 3ftx6inchx2inch planks into the bag, added hammers, drills, nails, tape measure etc. and was set to go….until I tried to lift it.  After a brief struggle I heaved the bag onto the back of the truck, turned around and put it on my back and then stood up straight…and promptly toppled to one side.  With a bit of readjustment I got the thing straight on my back and then wobbled off into the woodland, staggering slightly left and right.  I am not very good at doing things in small pieces.  I would rather heft everything in all at once under great strain, instead of doing lots of little journeys – an attitude which I fear will one day leave me either superhumanly strong or crippled.  I won’t go into huge detail but needless to say, walking around the woods for 3 hours, staggering up and down the hills with that almighty weight on my back, felt like some kind of boot camp torture – and I was the only person initiating it.  Each time I got to a plank that needed repair, I threw the bag down in relief, knowing that I would be making it lighter by getting rid of some of the contents into the boardwalk.  Inevitably, after hiking the length of the woodland on the bottom path and then back again on the top path (with many stops of various benches to try and recover) I was not in the best of tempers.  I sat on an open stretch of boardwalk to eat my lunch, ignore the bruises on my back and try and regain the feeling in my shoulders. 

Mirror image on the Hamble

As I crossly chewed on my sandwich, cursing the site for its inaccessibility, I glared angrily out at the water that rippled gently before me.  Little Egrets sat perched in the fallen skeletons of trees that lay sideways in the river, where they had fallen long ago and a heron stalked the shallows looking for prey.  Somewhere in the reed beds Bitterns lurked, having already been seen and heard booming in the last few weeks and overhead Ospreys sometimes flew on their long migrations.  As I gazed out at that exquisite view I started to feel myself oh so slowly relaxing, the simmering anger began to dissipate into the estuary, to be carried away out to sea, and I began to fall back under the spell which this site always puts me under;  A complete sense of timelessness and detachment. 
You could be anywhere and anywhen, completely alone and yet not lonely, the modern world ceasing to exist with just an eternal, spiritual changelessness that captures you and soothes the weariest of minds and most aching of hearts.  As you look out at the diamond like glitter of the sun on the tide, with a vast blue sky above it, nothing in the view hints at the modern day.  It is easy enough to go back through the ages, the Romans, the Saxons and all who have come before to this site and stood in this spot and looked at this view and imagine yourself as one of them and when you finally come out of your reverie, you feel refreshed and reborn and you have fallen in love with the site all over again.

Such is the beauty, the magic, the purity of Hamble. 

Wednesday, 19 August 2015

There goes the Swallow....

'There goes the Swallow - could we but follow!  Hasty Swallow, stay; point us out the way'.

                                                                                        - Christina.G.Rossetti

Dare I say it?  I almost can’t bear to but there is no escaping it…the first few leaves are starting to fall here in the grounds of Mottisfont.  The Acer trees are beginning to turn from vibrant green to the deep, glowing tones of red and gold, which, along with the darker evenings and the vanishing of the Swifts, are signalling the first tiny hint of seasonal change that is to come.
But let’s keep focusing on summer for the time being as it is too soon to think yet of colder weather and darker days.

This tree in the grounds is just beginning to get its golden gleam of autumn leaves from the top down...almost looks lit up like a flame.
In our staff carpark we have many open barn style buildings, where vehicles or items are stored.  These classic style barns, with roof and rafters also make great homes for nesting birds – and I have spent the last couple of weeks keeping my eye on a nest of swallows that inhabited our ‘buggy’ barn.  I watched the nestlings grow from three beaks attached to three piles of fluff, into more defined Swallow like creatures.   
Grumpy looking chicks...

The parents would swoop in elegantly and at high speed, seemingly invincible to all the obstacles in their way and they would zoom up to their nest whereupon three yellow noisy mouths would all gape open and yell, until they were shoved full of food and whoosh! Off the parent bird would shoot, back out the barn into the open air and the insect buffet that floated around.  Eventually one day I noticed that the chicks had got so big they almost hung out the nest and I reckoned they must be very close to fledging. 

Definitely big enough to leave the nest now!

Each time I walked by I peered in and up to see if they had plucked up enough courage until finally, I saw that the bravest and biggest chick was fluttering around rather wobbly on its wings, from hanging ivy stem to rafter and back again.  The parents flew around calling and encouraging it (and probably shouting at the other two to get off their fat behinds and give it a go) but after a while of squatting on a beam blinking and looking rather fat and bemused, the chick fluttered back up into the nest and back to the safety of its siblings. 
Two days later, I looked in and saw the nest was empty – and the whole family were sat on the rafters together looking down before all leaping into space and soaring up and out the barn and away, the chicks in their slightly duller plumage and a bit wobbly on the wing, but learning fast.  Soon they will be gathering on the phone lines to chat about their long journey to Africa and, if we are lucky, this family will return next summer to the exact same barn – such an incredible migration.

Our volunteers have been kept busy around our estate with the usual summer tasks of fence line maintenance.  It seems we have a constant battle to upkeep, install and maintain fence lines across our lands – once you have got them all up to scratch, the first lot have disappeared into the undergrowth again! There are also many fence lines that have been long swallowed by invading trees and scrub and brambles and need rescuing – the perfect summer task for large groups of eager volunteers!  The biggest field they have been tackling this year is Conservation field, a wetland field we have along the Test Way and one where the fence line was completely dilapidated and buried under overhanging, fallen trees and years of bramble and nettle growth.  Send in the volunteers! 
Days of chainsawing, brushcutting, bowsawing and loppering have gone into exposing the old fence, followed by days of pulling out the old, broken pieces of wire and rotten posts, all to be replaced with new ones.  Trees and scrub have been cut and processed – larger stuff will go into our log processing business, whilst the smaller stuff and scrub is being put through the chipper, the resulting chip mulch from which we will put around our young trees in the plantation areas, to act as a weed preventing mulch mat.  I helped Ryan do some chipping last week and was impressed at just how big a limb you could feed into the chipper – it takes up to about 8 inches diameter, and you watch it get sucked in by the rollers and crunched without any obvious effort apart from an increase in noise, before it all gets spat out the top chute as chipped mush.  I couldn’t help but keep thinking what a nasty way to go that would be for a person – a bit morbid, but best to be wary of these things!

A beautifully cleared ditch and fenceline in conservation field.

Another big summer project we have been doing is the next stage of our river bank restoration project on Stockbridge Marsh.  The marsh has a tributary of the river Test running along its Western boundary and being that the site is very popular with local dog walkers and also has livestock grazing it, the river bank gets put under a lot of pressure – more so than just the usual pressure of river flow alongside it.  Over the years the bank has been crumbling and falling away in great chunks, as dogs use it to climb out of the river and thus scrabble and erode at the bank, weakening it, which then in turn makes it more vulnerable when cattle graze along it and so on.  Last year saw the installation of a section of fence along the upper reaches of the river bank, as well as geotextile material and faggots be put in place along the river bank edge, to effectively form a new bank edge whilst the eroded bank grew some vegetation and restabilised.  The fence would prevent any pressure from dogs or livestock being put upon the bank whilst it recovered.  The results from last year have been very promising – the vegetation has thrived, with reeds, sedges, Fleabane, Water Mint, Water Parsnip and much more all taking root and taking off, which will all help in the long term, to bind the bank together and prevent it from constantly crumbling and falling away. 

2014: After the installation of the fence and geotextile.

Same spot 2015: Bank side vegetation has shot up.

Vegetation growing up around the faggots.

The results were so pleasing that the Court Leet of Stockbridge, with whom we regularly work with over issues on the common land of the Down and Marsh, asked us to install a further stretch of fencing down to the ford area in order to begin the recovery of the second stage of the bank.  This has now gone in and we are currently putting in more geotextile, faggots and vegetation to kick start the process, so fingers crossed this will be as successful.  Obviously with the fencing off of a beautiful area of river bank, there have been some unhappy comments from a few people.  Whilst I agree that it is a shame that it is no longer as accessible to children playing or dogs swimming, we have to understand that being a Site of Special Scientific Interest (SSSI) and common land we cannot just stand by and watch it continually erode away under the increased pressure it has become subjected to – we have a duty of care to preserve the site.   There are still areas where the river is accessible to people and dogs – by the top footbridge into the town and at the ford area which remains accessible.  Also the stretch of river below the ford remains unfenced, but obviously if we can encourage people to stick to the ford area it will prevent the remaining bank being hit hard.  As well as planting up the bank with vegetation to give it a head start, we are also looking into a project to try and bring some peat infill to the large inlets that have begun to crack and wind their way across the marsh from the river bank…watch this space.

I shall leave you with a couple of photos from Stockbridge Down – one of the last Dark Green Fritillaries of the year, showing off her lovely green underside for which the species is named, and a photo of a rare insect called the Hornet Robberfly that we have on Stockbridge that was recorded in the last bio survey back in 1998 – so it was brilliant to see that it is still present on site! 

Dark Green Lady

Hornet Robberfly feasting on an unfortunate victim...(Credit: M.Oates)