Sunday, 12 April 2015

A week of Firsts'....and lots of photo's!

With the warm sunshine of the last few days, this last week has been a week of glorious firsts for the year.  The other morning I was wandering around Foxbury, our heathland restoration site, when suddenly a distant call came to me, carried on the dew fresh breeze: ‘cuckoo…cuckoo…cuckoo…’

Cuckoo!  Like a far off echo of childhood, the cry of the cuckoo always takes me back through the years and almost brings a tear to my eye as the arrival of these birds is a true indicator that we are hurtling headlong through Spring and towards the lively months.  Surrounded by coconut smelling bright yellow Gorse flowers, I stood on the top of Foxbury Hill and looked down at the landscape which was finally starting to revive after Winter and listened to the backing track of bird song and cuckoo call and decided that this was not a bad way to start the day at all.

A Foxbury Common Lizard I spotted enjoying the morning sun.

April Fool’s Day also saw the beginning of butterfly season, that long awaited annual scientific survey of these colourful invertebrates which runs from April until September every year.  Across our countryside department at Mottisfont we have several transects; One on Stockbridge Down, three across different woodlands on the estate and a new one that I have just set up in the parks, wetlands and gardens of Mottisfont.  This latter one is new this year and whilst I created the route I have enlisted the help of the Outdoor Guides who roam the pay zone, to carry out the weekly surveys.  This hardy band of volunteers all came and had a training session with me about transect walking and butterfly ID and armed with this they have gone forth willingly to see what results flutter by on their weekly walks.  And it was whilst doing our Cadbury Wood transect this last week that I spotted my first Orange Tip of the year – a handsome male, his orange coloured wing tips glowing like embers in the sun as he emerged, brand shiny new, into the world.  Orange Tips are the first species to emerge in Spring that do not overwinter as adults – so they come out later than the Brimstones and Peacocks who are already adult formed over the winter months – but when they do finally finish their transformation and emerge, you know that winter is gone for good.

Warm weather also marks the start of another invertebrate related task: Fly strike prevention of our sheep flock.  As you will have read from last year’s blog posts, fly strike can be a messy and potentially fatal business.  Flies that are attracted to the soiled fleece or wounds on a sheep will lay their eggs in the fleece, which will then hatch into maggots.  The maggots then eat through the soiled fleece or flesh wound and just keep eating and eating and eating, burrowing into the healthy flesh and causing horrific wounds and death by toxic shock within days if not caught.
To help reduce this happening, we treat our sheep flock with a preventative spray called Clik.  You spray the dosage along their backs and around their back end and it infuses into the wool and spreads across the whole animal.  Being Wiltshire Horn, our flock are naturally less prone to fly strike anyway as they shed their fleeces themselves (so they don’t have to sweat it out waiting to be sheared) and they have a naturally very short wool which doesn’t tend to get too soiled.  Still, I don’t like to leave it to chance – especially after the Nasal Botfly horror I suffered last year as a result of cleaning a fly strike wound – so I enlisted the help of a couple of volunteers and we went and rounded up the flock and began the treatment; the first of the year.  It all went swimmingly and I noticed that the wool was already beginning to rise and come loose from their necks and legs, ready for shedding. 
You can see the way the wool is rising off the neck like a fluffy ridge, as it begins to shed.
 I also noticed a few tick’s on some of the sheep which I plucked off – some of them were so disgustingly bloated and full that they fell off into my hand without any effort at all.  I looked at this hideously obese creature with distaste.  Whilst I appreciate invertebrates have a huge and pivotal role to play in the world’s ecosystem – indeed they are the basis for food chains and habitats and without them everything would perish – yet I cannot disguise my hatred of ticks.  The way they crawl their fat, blood swollen bodies along, having sucked their fill out of a creature makes my skin creep.  Add to that their habit of spreading Lyme's disease to humans, a rather nasty illness that can lead to all sorts of debilitating and you will be hard pressed to find a countryside worker who doesn’t loathe the sight of them.  


Having worked the Easter weekend at our Foxbury Easter trail – which was a huge success – I took a day off in the week and chose to go for a New Forest ramble.  It may be perceived as a bit of a busman’s holiday but when your workplace is a stunning as the countryside of Mottisfont and the New Forest; this is one bus that is a pleasure to ride.  I wandered up through plantation woodland and onto Ibsley, one of our Commons, which stretched out vast and empty before me. 
Wandering across empty plains...

...and through hidden valleys.


Ambling along quietly, a mere speck on the landscape, I was rewarded during the day by getting a good look at Stonechats, Lapwings and the first Swallow I had seen return to us.  I also roamed onto Rockford and got a good 5 minute viewing of a Dartford Warbler, that sweet, spiky haired heathland specialist of a bird.  Red deer herds wandered through the bogs and i could see the heads of Fallow deer popping up from where they lay in the heather.

Male Stonechat

Lapwing in the Bog - not a very good photo but the nearest i could get without risking death in the Mire!

Whilst I was enjoying spotting all these mammal and avian aspects there was one thing in particular I was hoping to spot.  I trod slowly and quietly along the track on Ibsley, keeping my eyes peeled at the edge of the heather I walked alongside, on which the sun shone directly.  Within 20 minutes, a synapse pinged in my brain, a tiny signal that made me stop and re-look at the patch I had just walked past.  And there, basking on the moss in amongst the heather was my reward and what I had hoped to find; a beautiful Adder, a large male in this case, his zigzag dorsal pattern a deep shiny black and his lidless eyes a burnished dark red.  

What a beaut!
My first Adder of the season!  I was thrilled as they can be difficult to find as they often slip away when they hear you coming and more often are so well camouflaged and tucked away that you don’t see them at all.  For this reason I was immodestly pleased with myself for spotting him.  Whilst my eyes had not visually recognised the pattern of the Adder, something in my brain had: a tiny signal that made me look twice.  It was good to know that after a winter’s dormancy, this signal still triggered itself when something in the undergrowth sparked it; the glint of sunlight off shiny scales which marked itself a different texture to the heather around it.  It so happened that I passed that way again 2 days later and once more I managed to spot him – and to my joy he had just finished his first post hibernation slough and was now dressed in his fine silver breeding colours.  As he slithered off through the moss I saw his fresh slough, in near perfect condition as it was so freshly shed, hanging in the heather.  I picked it out carefully and examined it – it was a good size, over 50cm long although they can stretch a bit as the snake wriggles out of them.  As I listened to this male slip away, almost silent apart from the odd rustle of leaves under-belly, I wished him a good breeding season, and hoped there was a healthy female somewhere nearby for him to woo.

His fresh slough - in such good condition even the eye lenses are intact.

Meanwhile, back at Mottisfont there is another creature that can be elusive and hard to spot; the Water Vole.  This small, plump, furry little mammal thrives along our river banks at Mottisfont and we have them on all our sections of river, along with Otter.  Recently two Sparsholt College students - Phil (with us on work experience) and Sue (of sheep looker fame) undertook a Water Vole presence survey along the top of the Oakley beat and I was fortunate enough to join them and observe how it works.  Phil donned a hilarious – I mean professional – looking yellow and black dry suit that ballooned around him in the water and made him resemble a large bee.  In this suit he plunged into the river and began the detailed task of looking through the bankside vegetation for signs of Water Vole presence.  

Bumble Man!

Examining the bank side

Sue stood on the bank with me recording down everything he found onto a map.  On a regular basis Phil was shouting ‘latrine!’, ‘burrow!’ and ‘a run!’ as well as finding feeding sites all of which were mapped, and all of which demonstrated a very healthy population of Water Vole here.  

A burrow

The tell tale 45 degree angle of a chewed reed - Water Voles cut them off at this angle.

So if you are ever walking along the banks of the river at Mottisfont, or at Stockbridge Marsh for that matter, keep quiet and keep your eyes keen; you may be lucky enough to spot a fat little furry figure swimming through the rushes, or hear the ‘plop!’ as one emerges out a burrow and into the water and out of view.
Four hours of river walking later!

I took ten minutes myself before work the other day to wander along our stretch of the main River Test, just beyond the Duck Grounds.  Although it was still early, the sky was azure blue with a faint wisp of Cirrus cloud way up high.  The sun shone bright as it began its daily climb and it glittered and sparkled off the river water like precious stones.  

The River.  Crystal clear, its timeless currents eddying and flowing, always flowing, onwards towards the end of the world.  Sitting on the bank and gazing into its clear depths, I felt myself being mentally tugged by those currents and began to lose myself in it.  The river Test is, and always has been the heart of Mottisfont; the font which springs up within the grounds gave the place its name and Saxon monks used the river to transport the stone for which they built the Abbey, and the foundations of its history.  And yet it goes back beyond that, beyond all human endeavours, on geological timescales we can only just fathom.  Carving out its path through the rock and peat of the valley, through ancient wooded lands all the way from source to sea, from prehistory to the modern day.   The same sun that warmed my back as I sat there now, once shone upon this river when it was brand new, when the water first began to flow and both elements had continued on ever since.  In comparison to such agelessness we were such a small, tiny part of the whole, a brief flicker that is there one minute, gone the next, whilst the river flows on and life endlessly endures, dies and is reborn.
Sunlit waters...

glitter like a cascade of diamonds

The sudden call of a Little Grebe startled me out of my reverie and I blinked and pulled my thoughts out of the river’s whisperings and out of Time.  Feeling refreshed and thinking now of the day’s work ahead and of making my miniscule mark on the history of this landscape, I stood up and meandered back into the Abbey grounds and to the present day.

Tuesday, 24 March 2015

Birds, Barrows and the Birth of a Woodland

Nuthatches! The Nuthatches are back!  Yes, once again in the large ornamental trees that line the driveway walk at Mottisfont, nuthatches can be seen, hopping up and down the trunks and collecting muddy bits and pieces to line their chosen nest hole with.  I have been keeping an eye on Jasper’s tree for a while now and so I was delighted when, last week I saw the first Nuthatches of spring have returned to it to build their nest inside a tiny hole, way up high.  These could be the original parents of Jasper, my Nuthatch chick of last year, or indeed, one of them could be Jasper himself -  having returned to his tree to start his own brood…I shall keep watch with interest.

All the birds are starting to make their nests at the moment, Corvids are flying around with beaks full of twigs, Woodpeckers are furiously drumming trees to advertise themselves to potential mates, the Ravens have been spotted around Oakley Copse and Pied Wagtails are showing an interest in our tractors – they are notorious for nesting in awkward places like in the arm of the timber crane!  The rookery in the tall Sycamore and Plane trees in the gardens is one vast, noisy mass of nests, Rooks and Jackdaws all constantly cawing and calling all day long.  Woe betide anyone who walks beneath without a hood or umbrella – chances are you will get a big old splat of bird poo to adorn your hair or clothing!

The Rookery in the making
March seems to have consisted of warmer days interspersed with chilly winds that have meant we have kept our fleeces and hats on for the time being.  This cool weather has however assisted with our tree planting, in that we have been able to complete the tree planting on the estate by Queen Meadow copse whilst the trees are all still in their cold winter dormancy state.  Our Monday and Thursday volunteers have had several days here and Ryan and myself have spent more time on the site planting, planting, planting until finally, yesterday we dug the last hole, put in the final tree and wheel barrowed the last load of mulch and boom! A new woodland was born.  May it grow, thrive and prosper, and grace our land for many decades to come, so that I can go and sit under the leafy boughs as a wizened crone and remember planting them all those years ago….
The final wheel barrow of mulch...
And us lot taking a well earned rest...(Photo credit: A.Robinson)

Talking of wizened crones and old things, we have been doing some work on Stockbridge Down to replace the hurdles that surround our Bronze Age Barrows on the site.  The barrows are Scheduled Ancient Monuments and are fenced off using wooden hurdles as it stops grazing livestock, people and dogs from trampling over them and causing them damage.  It also creates a feature of them visually and indeed the sight of the barrow on the highest point of the Down, standing out against the skyline makes a very recognisable image that stays in the mind.
One of our Barrows (Photo credit: NT archive)

 The original hurdles were put in place many years ago and as a result of weather, itchy cattle bottoms and the passage of time, many had become broken and worn so I had a brand new load made by a green wood worker in West Sussex.  He used his own Sweet Chestnut timber and enormous skill and handcrafted me 56 new hurdles which are absolutely stunning to behold.  The Court Leet of Stockbridge kindly funded the project and last week myself and the volunteers were finally able to rip out the remains of the old, broken hurdles (which were looking old enough to be classed as archaeology themselves) and installed the brand new ones and boy, do they look fantastic.  Perhaps it is just me, as someone who enjoys and appreciates green wood working and use of natural materials, but I think they look stunning and I am very, very pleased with them – may they stand for many more years.  Also whilst we were carrying out the work I found a shard of pot rim that had been dug up from a mole hill on the barrow – potentially Bronze Age?  
Take a trailer load of hurdles...

A willing team of volunteers...

And you can rebuild history!

The volunteer team, whom a dog walker fondly referred to as 'barrow fairies'...snigger.

Finally last week myself, Laura and Michelle took a trip to the National Trust property of Stourhead in Wiltshire.  I’d never been before, and I hadn’t seen the clips of films like Pride and Prejudice that were filmed there (the classic Mr Darcy in the lake scene) so I was not expecting what I saw – what a PLACE.  An absolutely stunning place, a huge rounded valley of beautiful gardens and woodlands, which surrounds the central point of a large and beautiful lake which has its own little islands in the middle.  Temples, stone grottos and other structures are found in amongst the trees as you walk around the site and even better, there is a very nice pub within the grounds.   

We walked around the valley with the sun shining and the lake glittering like diamonds.  As we paused at the top of one path, at the site of a Grecian looking temple and looked out over the estate Laura commented about the things that have been filmed there; “Imagine if we bumped into Keira Knightley, right now, just walking round”.  Two ladies walking by heard this and piped up quickly – “I’d much rather bump into Colin Firth!”  Sitting in the sun and looking at that view I thought the place was beautiful enough, even without being adorned with good-looking Hollywood superstars – although that’s not to say I wouldn’t appreciate a glimpse of Johnny Depp if he happened to be passing by….
Poppy the dog enjoying basking in the sun - whilst Ryan works at tree felling in the background!

Wednesday, 11 March 2015

The Awakening

All around us right now is the slow but sure dawning of Spring, you can smell it on the breeze and feel it in the warmth of the sun and best of all; you can see evidence of it just about anywhere you look.  Wandering around our sites I have been thriving on the blue skies and warm winds that have blessed us for the last couple of weeks and the midge bites and freckles I have developed as a result are definite proof of seasonal flux.

Walking through the Duck Grounds on my birthday recently I was treated to my best ever sighting of a Kingfisher.  Like a silent jewel it sat on a twiggy perch gazing at the stream below it, its beady gimlet eyes watching for a tasty snack.  Normally I only see Kingfishers as passing streaks of sapphire so to actually get to watch one sitting still apparently oblivious of me was a treat indeed.  I also then spotted a Goldcrest hopping through the bramble and through my binoculars I could see the bright gleaming yellow crest on its head that makes this bird so distinctive.  The Goldcrest vies with the Firecrest for the title of the UK’s smallest bird, but Firecrests are far less common than Goldcrests.

I also admired the newly opened Hazel flowers on the trees, always a favourite Spring signal of mine; like a tiny fuchsia sea anemone, these iddy biddy flowers poke out the top of Hazel buds and are the ‘female’ part of the plant, to the ‘male’ catkins.

Whilst admiring all this in the Duck Grounds, I also had the added pleasure of Sparsholt students who were helping us to clear back the overgrown glade areas in time for the end of scrub cutting season.  These areas provide a good diversity within the peaty woodland habitat here and wild flowers and butterflies will benefit greatly from their re-opening.
Sparsholt have also been out on Stockbridge with me clearing back Sycamore.  Sycamore, like Birch, can be an ever advancing army which self-seeds and proliferates across a site and can take over and produce a very uniform, un-diverse one-type habitat if it is allowed to get too far.  Obviously I don’t want Stockbridge Down, a chalk grassland and mixed scrub habitat site to become taken over by Sycamore so we do clearance work to keep such species under control.  We had a great day in the sun and they did a brilliant job of clearing a patch of Sycamore that has been bugging me for a year or more.  We shall keep the regrowth sprayed with herbicide to kill it off completely and this should keep the tide back.

It gives me a good deal of satisfaction to stand on the top of Stockbridge Down, on the hillfort and look out across the site and be able to see the differences we have made.  I can spot the Juniper down the far end which are now not encased in scrub but stand out as the individual looking species that they are.  I can see the grassy glades in among the scrub areas which we keep open and which provide herb rich species for invertebrates including of course, butterflies.  I can see the rotation scrub work regrowing and providing differing habitat to the mature scrub.  I can see the sheep slope blooming green and fresh after they grazed it last year, and see the flock scattered like woolly blobs on the new slope area that they reside on this year.  And above it all I can always spot the fantastic array of avian life that thrives here; kestrels hovering above the grassland, Red Kites wheeling on the thermals, Skylarks trilling their beautiful twittering song that is so quintessential of English countryside and, the other day, I was treated to an aerial acrobat display by Buzzards.  I stood on the top of the hill and watched them fling themselves through the air, twisting and turning, tucking in their wings and plummeting headfirst to earth like a suicidal bullet before woooosh! They throw their wings out again and they are effortlessly borne aloft, seconds from death by impact, to ‘dance the skies on laughter silvered wings’ as the poem goes (High Flight, by John Gillespie Magee Jr, one of my favourite poems).  It was a warm sunny day with light winds and so who could blame them for making the most of their sky empire and rejoicing in the sun.  I felt rather land bound and heavy watching them and could only dream of what it must feel like to soar and swoop in such a way.
Swooping buzzards

Meanwhile, back at Mottisfont, Brimstones have been dancing through the staff carpark having emerged from the Ivy in which they had tucked down for the winter and their bright golden presence warms the cockles.  

We are finishing the winter works and the estate has been bustling with the last minute race to the finish line.  In Oakley copse and Spearywell woods we have had Harvester machines in, clear felling areas of softwood plantation which will be sold as timber, leaving the woodland to regenerate broadleaf native species.  Harvesters are AMAZING.  They are a huge machine which grabs a tree in its transformer like claws and ziiiing! A blade has nipped out and cut the tree at the base, detaching it from the roots. Then it turns it sideways and, using a spikey rolling mechanism the tree is rolled through the claws and snedded (side branches removed) in a few seconds whilst the blade ziiiing! -cross cuts the trunk at the same time.  In a matter of seconds you have gone from a standing tree to a pile of logs – a process which can take me about half an hour with a chainsaw, depending on how many side branches there are to remove!  I would like to bid for a harvester of our own but I think we are talking in the region of many tens of thousands of pounds, so I may have to start saving the pennies…

Harvester power!

And whilst we are doing all this felling in the last gasp of winter, we are also planning for the future and creating life; tree planting.  As part of our Woodland Grant Scheme we are planting up a section of land that runs round the back of our Hazel coppice and was previously arable field.  The idea is that it will increase connectivity between woodlands and provide a future Oak timber crop in years to come.  I find there is something very satisfying and therapeutic about planting a tree – perhaps because so much of our work involves felling and clearing stuff, that to actually be putting something back into the ground and nurturing it gives me a sense of wellbeing.  Ryan has plotted and organised the tree planting and using his nifty method of stakes and strings to mark the spacing, both Monday and Thursday volunteers flung themselves into the task and did a brilliant job.  In two days we had planted almost all of the Oak species (English and Sessile) and other species are then to follow, including Holly, Hazel and Field Maple.  The mulch which we piled round the base of each tree comes from the brash we chipped from the coppice over the winter and which will do a great job of blocking weeds from growing up round the bases of the tree, as well as providing a nutrient filled mulch mat for the new tree to feed off as it rots down. 

In the beginning there were mulch piles....

A team of willing workers...

A rare shot of riverkeeper Neil, doing something land based!

End of day one

Whilst we were planting up, there was a cry of ‘Frog! Frog!’ and a minute later two of the volunteers approached me, one of them with his hands clenched shut around something…not a frog as it turned out (this illusion was swiftly dispelled when they saw fur) but something that I had hoped to spot on our estate since I worked here….a teeny tiny harvest mouse!  It was most opportune as I had remarked to my friend only a few days before as we walked that field that it would be a perfect grassy verge for harvest mice in winter and so I was proved correct only two days later.  Harvest mice are our smallest UK mouse, weighing only 3-4g and with a fully prehensile tail which they use like a fifth limb to climb around in grasses and reeds.  In summer they frequent the reeds and grasses along ditches such as those we have in Long Lash and then in winter they move back a bit to drier ground.  I have always wanted to find a wild Harvest mouse as I love seeing things I haven’t found before and so I was jumping for joy over this tiny ball of ginger fluff.
The tiny Harvest mouse

Unfortunately wouldn't keep still for a good photo...
Finally I shall leave you with this picture of a very contented looking sheep, relaxing in the first warm sun of the year.  In a few weeks’ time they will start shedding their winter fleeces and we shall know that the warmer months have truly arrived.

Looking like a fluffy puffball mushroom!