Thursday, 9 October 2014

Hidden history - the eagles of Mottisfont

We have come sadly, inevitably and all too quickly for my liking, to the end of the butterfly season.  With the final week of September faded and October wet and windy in our present, butterfly surveys across the land have stopped until April comes again on multi-coloured wings.  I hate the end of butterfly season as it always heralds the beginning of the cold wet weather and the end of summer: Everything I love; reptiles, butterflies, warmth, wild flowers, tree’s in full leaf, all go to ground and sleep the winter away out of sight but always in the back of my mind acting like a talisman that burns throughout the dark months, reminding me that all these wonders will come again with the rebirth of the seasons. 
Dew soaked cobwebs - a sure sign of autumn

However I must sweep away the melancholy that I get with the summer-autumn changeover; once we are into the season properly I feel better as I also enjoy the cold, frosty blue days, where the sun shines like burnt diamond and glistens off frost covered leaves, or howling gales where you can stand on top of Stockbridge Down and barely breathe as you face into the wind which rips the oxygen from your lungs and pelts you with hail that makes your skin bleed.  

Anyway, I feel that with the close of the butterfly season I must nominate one species in particular that has been the Olympian torch bearer of butterflies this year; the Brimstone.  One of the first to emerge in the early months, this species is always a forerunner for the start of the warm weather.  They overwinter as adults and so often come out of hibernation on warm winter days, before emerging properly anytime from February/March onwards.  The emerging adults will then mate, lay eggs and die, leaving the eggs to hatch, pupate and become adults in turn in the same season – and then it is these new adults which hibernate through the next winter.   This cycle means that they are often seen most of the year but for some reason to me, they just seemed to be present every single week of this year so far, since their first emergence.  Normally there is a lull between the two broods but this year with the warm weather they must have overlapped significantly as they have been with me every step of the way since I saw my first trio of Golden males on the Down back in March.  Every task I have done this spring and summer they have fluttered past, be it Juniper work, river restoration, hay making, spraying, guided walks, survey work, chasing sheep, student placements and all the rest – a Brimstone has been present, like some kind of spirit guide.  So now, as they begin to creep into their leafy retreats to dream of spring I say: sleep well, come back soon – and see you next year.

October means felling season is upon us and as a result we have begun our coppicing work.  Each winter we fell a section of hazel in our working coppice and use the produce from this to make charcoal, chimnea wood, kindling, faggots, besom broom handles, bean sticks and chippings.  I talked about our coppicing work in my blog this time last year so I won’t repeat it all again, but for those who don’t know, it is a very sustainable way of getting an endless cycle of wood; by cutting sections on a 7-10 year rotation you can keep yourself stocked up with product for hundreds of years.  Whilst every conceivable product was being made from most of the fallen hazel, the leftover stuff is to be chipped and taken to the tree planting site for mulch – so even the rubbish gets recycled!


Bean sticks and broom handles

Charcoal pile

Faggot making

Nearly chainsawed this little fella who crept up out of the base of the hazel

Mottisfont village is full of hidden bits of history and features that have a tale to tell.  From the abandoned ice house which is full of bats to the large dug out pits that hide in some of our woodlands and hint of the quarrying and mining of lime, peat and chalk of years past, you can always spot something that hides in plain sight among the modern day aspects of the village.  Having worked here for two years now it seemed massively amiss that I hadn’t ever ventured into the church grounds so, at Dylan’s insistence that it was somewhere everyone should go and take note of, I crept through the little wooden gate one day last week and found myself in the old graveyard. The church itself was locked so I wasn’t able to see the inside unfortunately – it is a very old church and contains some of the oldest stained glass in Hampshire.  

I’ve always thought of graveyards as places where time seems to stand still.  Ancient Yew trees often border their boundaries, silent guardians of the dead which have seen the centuries come and go and the land around them change dramatically.  The graveyard here is a pleasant spot, with tombstones so old and weathered by the elements that you can no longer read the inscriptions on them, the names of those that lie below are now lost from living memory, engulfed by the ravages of time.   
Walking round I found, in the far corner under a gently drooping Hazel, the graves of the Meinertzhagens.  The Meinertzhagens were a family who lived in Mottisfont Abbey from 1884 until the turn of the Century and in the graveyard lies the two parents Daniel and Georgina, and their eldest son Dan.  Their children had the run of the estate as their playground and the two eldest sons; Dan and Richard, especially became avid ornithologists and created huge aviaries in the grounds where they kept African sea eagles, huge owls, peregrines, Black Kites, a raven named Jacob and many other birds (you could buy anything at a market back then!).  These birds were their pride and joy and a feature of Mottisfont history that I find fascinating.  There are many old black and white pictures of the men and their birds in our archives and I have read some brilliant stories about them.  For instance Jacob the raven was bought from a market as a chick by Dan and was so intelligent and devoted to his master that he would become very jealous of any other animal that Dan showed affection to.  He would peck the tails of dogs Dan petted and when Dan once fed Belinda the Black Kite on the front lawn of the abbey Jacob was so jealous at the attention she was getting that he managed to drag her into the abbey stream and drown her!  
The grave of Dan Meinertzhagen - eldest son.

They had Lobengula the African Sea Eagle who claimed the Test river valley as his domain. Upon hearing his call, Livingstone wrote ‘Once heard, his weird unearthly voice can never be forgotten…it sticks to one through life…as if he were calling to someone in the other world...’.  
Lobengula would also, upon sighting a fisherman landing a juicy fish, swoop down and steal the fish away leaving a very nonplussed fisherman – before repeating the whole episode again with the next catch.
There were also the two sea eagles that took up residence in the Great plane tree on the abbey lawn and would prey upon the chickens, dogs and cats of the village.  One of these eagles flew to Salisbury where it was shot, and the other was caught and kept in the aviary permanently for fear that it would begin to try and attack small children.
So these birds and their owners formed a very interesting and eccentric part of Mottisfont history until 1898 when Dan died aged 23 of untreated appendicitis whilst exploring and bird watching in the Arctic Circle.  The death of their eldest child, son and heir, led to the breakup of the aviaries; the selling of all the birds and the family’s eventual departure from Mottisfont in 1900.  With the Meinertzhagens gone and the birds sold and dispersed, the abbey grounds and the Test valley fell silent; the cry of the eagles of Mottisfont became another piece of its fascinating history and moved from the present into the past.  

Sometimes when I’m walking by the river or through the estate and I hear the keen piercing call of buzzards and kites I like to fancy that it is one of the Meinertzhagens’ eagles, once again claiming the valley for their own.

Tuesday, 30 September 2014

'Wake me up when September Ends'

The morning mists have begun to creep across the river meadows here as a signal of approaching autumn.  Things are on the move with the season; Ospreys have been seen several times over the last few weeks, flying over Mottisfont on their long journey back to Africa – I was lucky enough to see one myself wheeling over Long Lash last week – and I watched a V formation of at least 30 geese fly over the village honking directions loudly to each other.  For some reason this time of year seems to be peak spider time – every time I have wandered the woodlands or fields I emerge looking like Old Father Time with a wispy white beard and hair from all the cobwebs I’ve walked into.

A busy spider in my garden - it was interesting to watch it weave its web and see how the silk emerges from its body.

The fields next to the river as you drive into Mottisfont have had five Devon Red (also known as Ruby Reds or Rubies) cattle in them, all of which are pregnant and counting the days until they pop forth a miniature version of themselves.  These beautiful cattle are part of a much larger herd that belongs to one of our tenant farms on the estate which also grows crops as well as having animals.  I knew the cows were due to give birth in September time so every time I have driven passed that field I have slowed down and cruised along to get a good look and see if I could spot any sign of the action.  Finally, last week my curb crawling was rewarded when I spotted a small reddish brown blob next to one of the cows.  I pulled over and snuck into the field for a closer look and there lying in the long grass, its wet fur steaming slightly in the September sunshine, was a tousled looking calf, no more than a couple of hours old.  I didn’t get too close as I didn’t want to disturb them or anger the mother but she seemed content enough with grazing nearby and uttering soft ‘moo’s’ to let her calf know where she was.  I watched the female calf (despite the umbilical cord tuft which people often mistake for male genitalia, I couldn’t spot a ball-sack so I could see she was female) wobble onto its hooves and stagger over to its mother, obviously feeling the impact of being folded up for 9 months – must have had some wicked pins and needles to stretch out!  The remaining four cows are still to calve, so fingers crossed for the rest.
Whats that in the grass....

A bright shiny new Ruby!

 Now I mentioned in my last post that hay was being cut off an area of Stockbridge Down, in order to improve the diversity of this stretch and also provide some winter feed for our flock of Wiltshire Horn sheep.  I had envisaged a moderate number of bales, being that I thought the grass was quite thin and of fairly poor quality, so I was guessing maybe up to a hundred if that.  However the result blew my guess out the water, when the contractor rung me to let me know how many bales were on their way to Mottisfont – 348. I frantically started dragging my colleagues and volunteers into a pledge to help me unload and so it was that as the sun began to sink one evening, two huge hay trailers and tractors chuntered into Mottisfont, looking like they had the ramparts of a castle made of hay on the back.   

We led them to the barn we were to keep it in and began the monster task of unloading by hand which actually proved quite enjoyable and much quicker than I feared, with 9 of us working at it.  Dave and Dylan took the job of placing the hay and stacking it correctly, whilst myself, Laura and the contractor were chucking it down from the top of the hay trailer to the rest of the team who waited below in a human chain style to grab a bale and pass it on to the next person.  The bales were of much better quality than I had hoped for – they were packed tight with thick grass and smelt lovely and sweet and dry which, being that it was a late cut and the morning dew had been heavy, I hadn’t thought we would get.  It was so dry in fact that the dust being thrown up was unbelievable – I had my bandana across my face as I think we were all getting a healthy dose of farmers lung – and you can see from the photo’s how much was in the air.  However I am sure the sheep will appreciate the effort involved in this task when the time comes – and when they get hungry!

Unloading in the blizzard of hay dust

The re-enactment of the building of the Pyramids

All in, safe and dry.

 In one of my blog posts last year, entitled ‘Waders of the Lost Ark’ I mentioned how we all had to jump in and clear the backlog of weed that had got choked in an overgrown side stream of the river, and had consequently flooded the gardens.  Well ever since then this stream has needed to be cleared back completely, have all the overgrown shrubs cut back and have the fallen trees removed and for the last few weeks Ryan, myself and the volunteers have been working on this.  The volunteers did a sterling job of cutting it all back both sides of the bank so that we could actually see the stream clearly and see our next problem; there were several very large, old fallen trees spanning the width of the ditch that were going to require sawing up and winching out.  So whilst Dave took the timber trailer and removed the log piles, Ryan and some volunteers chipped up all the brash and myself and a couple of other volunteers began the task of removing these fallen titans from where they had lain quite happily for the last decade or more.  The chippings that Ryan created from the brash were to go to an area on the estate where we will be planting trees this winter and so they will act as a good mulch mat to prevent weeds growing around the new saplings.


Putting my chainsaw trousers on again I felt the perceptible shift of the seasons slot into place – chainsaw trousers meant felling season was almost upon us!  Or it could have been due to the sawdust and leaves that remained stuck to my trousers from the last time I used them….
A job I had hoped would be simple and take a day inevitably was much more complicated and more time consuming.  Some of the stems were so old and rotten that when the winch cable pulled tight, the chains around them would just smash through the rotten wood and lose their tension.  Stems on top of stems meant we had to laboriously winch them out one at a time instead of pulling two or three in one go which took longer time- but you just cannot rush winching.  I set up a diverted pull for the first day, to enable us to pull the trees onto the opposite bank to the tractor – by running the cable from the tractor and winch, across the stream to a pulley and strop which we put around a sturdy tree on the other side and then attaching it to the fallen trees, I could winch them onto the bank into the undergrowth instead of out into the parklands where we had the tractor and where we would then have to remove them offsite.  However due to the nature of the job with the rotten stems and the crowd of deadwood to pull through, the cable sometimes lost its tension and jumped and this meant that at one point it jumped off the pulley wheel and wedged itself down the side of the wheel and the metal outer casing – which stopped play completely.  However with the aid of a hammer and vice, Tony soon had it released and bent back into shape and the show could go on.

Day two saw us doing a straight winch of wood up the bank we were on and into the park fields which should have been straightforward enough.  However they gave us some good challenges in that I was crosscutting the massive stems to separate them from their root plate, with my chainsaw which was essentially too small.  After cutting from the top and both sides and what I could reach underneath, we would then attach the winch chain and winch on an angle in order to try and snap the remaining holding wood.  This worked for three of them but the biggest one wasn’t giving up without a fight and we had to keep winching it from back and forth angles to try and snap the middle hinge and I kept nibbling away with a chainsaw each time the trunk shifted position and I could reach uncut wood.  After several good attempts where I had to resist the urge to push the winch beyond what it could do, and the entire stem and root plate was in danger of being pulled fully into the ditch and blocking it completely, we stopped for a tea break and pondered the situation.
Handy use of scaffold bridge to span the ditch and allow us to work on the tree stem without sinking in the silt...

 Approaching it with tea filled fresh eyes, we decided to give it one more go from another angle.  I repositioned the tractor and revved up the PTO, jumped out and pulled on the winch rope to retract the cable with my fingers crossed….the slack reeled in, it tensed, pulled, held, aaaaand CRACK! With a snap and a crack the stem finally broke off from where I had cut it and came thundering up the bank like some titanic wooden tsunami, before coming to rest on the field. Yeeees! Job done.  Looking at the snapped off bit, we could see that the heartwood that had been holding it together and which I hadn’t been able to cut with my saw was barely 5% of the whole width and was partially rotten – but it had still held firm for many attempts, showing how tenacious Beech can be.
Winching out the Beechy Bu**er at last!

Some of the stems that came out the ditch.

And finally the late summer warmth has combined with the harvest time and produced a fair apple crop in our orchard at Mottisfont this year – and this can mean only one thing; its cider time!  I spent a couple of evenings after work gathering fallen apples from the orchard and knocking some down with the help of a long stick (I did get the odd funny look from passer’s by.  I climbed up the apple tree in the staff carpark and shook it vigorously like some kind of apple scrumping school boy and listened with delight to all the heavy thuds as the apples fell around me and hit the ground. Between the orchard and the carpark tree I had a very good mix of apple varieties, which always helps add depth of flavour and body to the cider.  All I needed now was a small proportion of crab apples which do the job of adding tannins to the juice.  Ryan told me of some crab apple trees in Oakley copse on our estate and so I drove there and to my glee there were two trees absolutely heaving with crab apples.  I stood on the roof of the truck and shook them down and they fell like pale green hailstones, bouncing off my bonnet, my windscreen and my head – I’m still finding some inside the truck that must have snuck in through the open windows.  

Mottisfont Orchard apples - lovely mix.

Loaded Crab apple trees!

Loaded with my lot of apples and a load from the apple tree in Matt’s garden, we used the scratter and cider press where Matt works to create a fabulous 16 gallons of apple juice – and it tasted stunning.  Matt tested the ABV (alcohol by volume) potential of the juice and it came out at around 6%.  By the time it has gone through the entire process and had sugar added, it will have gained around 2.5%, so it is looking to be some killer stuff.  It is all now in demi-johns just starting to froth up and begin the fermenting process, the first stage of a long but very worthwhile journey – watch this space…
Pressing the apple pulp and producing beautiful juuuuuicce.

Wednesday, 10 September 2014

Hamble, Hay and Harvest time

 “Summer afternoon—summer afternoon; to me those have always been the two most beautiful words in the English language.” 

                                                                       - Henry James

There is a distinct nip in the air these mornings which, combined with the first hints of autumn colour in the Acer trees tells us that Summer is fading.  The ‘Fire tree’ as I call it, outside our staff carpark is beginning to turn its vivid red, looking like someone has lit the flame from the top of the canopy, which will slowly engulf the whole tree over the coming months. 
My butterfly surveys on Stockbridge are getting quieter week by week – the Skippers, Marbled Whites and Fritillaries are long gone, with Meadow Browns, Small Coppers, Blues, Brimstones and Speckled Woods the last soldiers holding the fort and fluttering on; however the decreasing numbers seen each week signals that they are one by one dying with the season.

Whilst this time of year marks the approaching end of summer, it does signal the beginning of something else – harvest time!  Everywhere you look at the minute, the trees and bushes are heavily laden with fruits and nuts, again looking like a bumper year for autumn foraging – last year was also superb.  The hazel nuts are beginning to ripen and fall, and the Blackthorn bushes are already absolutely stuffed with fat looking Sloe’s that whisper ‘gin…giiiiiiin’ in your ear.
But the winner this year for impressive produce has to be – blackberries.  Normally, bramble bushes are something I despise.  As a conservationist I shouldn’t say that as they are a brilliant source of nectar and food for insects, birds and small mammals but: I hate them.  All year round they torture and maim you, they scratch and cut and claw at your skin with their little backwards hooking thorns that tear through your clothes.  They trip you up with their sinuous tendrils and capture your hair in a thorny embrace all year round.  They untie your laces constantly, and then dig in a couple of thorns into your fingers for good measure when you tie them back up.  You are left with the endless rotation of scratches and scars on your arms and legs from their touch, thorns in your scalp and under your nails as well as nearly losing an eye to them on a regular basis.

Blackberry glut - and Comma butterfly enjoying the nectar
However, this time of year they present their one redeeming feature (in my eyes); blackberries.  And boy, have they outdone themselves this year!  The bushes are absolutely heaving with blackberries, hundreds of shiny, juicy, globules of deep purple fruits hanging off the stems, tempting you to brave the clutches of the thorns and pluck them.  The New Forest, Stockbridge, Mottisfont – all our sites are just crammed full with these fruits at the moment and I have been taking full advantage and getting my own back for the pain they usually cause for the rest of the year.  Laura and I picked a haul of blackberries at Foxbury and I then couldn’t resist picking more in our Mottisfont woodland the other day – they were just so plump and shiny that I couldn’t resist.  I took my bandana (I wear one on my wrist or neck most days as they really are the most useful thing at work; they can be headbands, sweat rags, nose/face masks, small critter catchers and so on) and with a few knots here and there I had fashioned into a small collecting bag, in which I proceeded to place blackberries.  From these I have so far made Blackberry whisky – an old favourite – and am in the process of making Blackberry wine – a first attempt, so fingers crossed.  If you get the chance, get out and pick some and make something – booze, crumble, blackberry fool, anything!  They are too good to miss.

A bandana of blackberries - new collective noun

I also got back from holiday last week and found my vegetable crop in the garden had finally borne fruit (haha).  I had actually managed to grow a couple of cucumbers that resembled cucumbers – all the previous ones had grown in interesting bendy, curly shapes – and my tomatoes have at last decided to put on their red coats and throw away their green summer vests.  Unfortunately the slugs have also been enjoying the glut and I found them savaging a couple of fallen tomatoey victims – damn them!
Straight cucumbers - hooray!

Slug attack

So have a go and see what you can create from the summer and autumn goodies – so far this year I have done Elderflower champagne, pickled cucumbers and chillies, honey roast tomatoes, chutney, rhubarb crumble, blackberry whisky and blackberry wine…and the best is yet to come, with Sloe gin, cider, sweet chestnuts, walnuts and much more still on the menu – yum!

Gluttony aside, we have been finishing our summer tasks at work and planning ahead to winter.

Last week we performed the final bat survey of the year across our Mottisfont woodlands.  We conduct these surveys in July, August and September each year to monitor the Barbastelle population we have here.  I have mentioned before about our Barbastelle and how rare they are, so it is important we keep monitoring how they are doing in conjunction with our woodland management work.  Maintenance of wide rides (which they use as flight corridors) protection and recording of tree roost areas and thinning of plantations and regeneration of broadleaves all contribute into the woodland management plan, and the bat populations are one aspect of this.
So Ryan, Dylan and I each walked our individual transect routes through separate woodlands, recording the bats heard on the bat detector on a sound recorder, as well as tallying off heard bats on a survey form.  You always hear interesting noises when walking alone through the woodlands at this time of night – large shufflings of heavy mammals, the screeches and hoots of Barn and Tawny owls and, once, the sudden squawk of a pheasant that burst up out of the bushes in the dark straight at me and made me shriek like a banshee – all recorded, doh!  On the last survey the owls were going wild – they were shrieking and crying and there was a lot of hooting and calling noises from one area in particular, and sounds of bustle in the branches – possibly young tawnies trying to compete for territories?  The cry of an owl always sends a shiver down my spine – there is something so ethereal about it, something that makes you think of haw frost covered lands overlooked by star-ridden night skies….or maybe that’s just me.

Back to the light and daytime, and with the saying ‘make hay whilst the sun shines’ dancing through my head, I have got a hay cut being taken off of Stockbridge Down this week.  It is on an area of particularly tough grass that is near the entrance to the Down and consequently is of fairly poor quality.  The cows do not graze that area particularly and so by taking a hay cut we can remove the dominant grasses and nutrients which will allow a greater diversity of grasses and flora to grow and seed next year.  The hay can be used to feed our sheep flock should they require any extra help over the winter and so we kill two birds with one stone – benefitting the grassland habitat as well as the sheep flock.  We are lucky that the dry weather has continued this far – there are still many farmers still cutting hay and straw whilst they have the chance and the gutter sides of all the roads are littered with bits of hay from where bales have been transported in mass loads – fingers crossed the dryness keeps up until we get the hay in.

Cut hay on the Down

Last week Ryan and I went to our site at Curbridge Nature Reserve, alongside the river Hamble.  This is one of our furthest sites, lying an approximately 40 minute drive from Mottisfont, but is a beautiful stretch of ancient woodland, running alongside the River Hamble estuary.  Mature Oaks and Ash stand tall in this woodland, with an understorey of hazel, field maple, holly, crab apple and even Wild Service tree, to name but a few.  The bluebells here in April and May are fantastic and there are many other ancient woodland indicators to be found here too, including Dogs Mercury and Solomon’s seal.  It is a lovely place to take a walk and when you get to the end of the woodland you come out onto an open field that I hope to turn into a wildflower meadow, by taking a late hay cut each year.  Adjacent to this field is the river estuary itself where you can watch the tide turn and chase itself in and out, revealing wooden structures sticking up out of the mud flats when the tide is low.  On the other side of the bank are the remains of a roman villa that lies on the confluence of the rivers Hamble and Cur and must have made a very pretty summer house in its time.
Running through this woodland are stretches of boardwalk to take people over the wetter areas and the creeks and it was these boardwalks we were attending to.  The Sunday Volunteer group spent a very productive day with Ryan a few weeks ago, replacing broken/missing steps and repairing rotten bits of boardwalk.  Ryan and I went back to finish the last few bits and replace some old rusty chicken wire that was coming loose – by the way, if anyone knows of a low cost alternative to chicken wire for providing grip on boardwalks, do share, because chicken wire is so terrible for coming loose, breaking and rusting and causing trip hazards, and it’s like painting the Forth bridge – by the time you replace it all, the beginning needs doing again.
Whilst there we also removed some old rotten sections of old boardwalk that had been left rotting in the bushes for a decade and took them back with us to be burnt.

Hamble Boardwalkin'

Before we left we stood on the banks of the river looking out.  The tide was low and the sun was warm on the back of our necks, with the air smelling of heat but with that tiny touch of freshness that hints at impending seasonal change.  The trees on the other bank were reflected in the water perfectly, their autumnal colours just beginning to show and the only noise was the egrets and other estuary birds calling softly across the water.  Then we became aware of another noise…a sort of snap crackle and pop! noise that rice crispies make.  We wandered around listening before ascertaining that it was coming from the mud below our feet – mud that was usually covered at high tide, and now had hundreds of tiny air bubbles escaping and popping in the suns warmth making a very pleasant – if unusual - soundtrack to such a peaceful view.

River Hamble