Friday, 31 October 2014

'October; when the trees are stripped bare, of all they wear...'

Happy Halloween! ‘ Tis All Hallows Eve in ‘ye olde speake’ and the time of year when the veil between the worlds grows thin and spirits can break through - it wouldn’t surprise me to see the ghosts of past inhabitants wandering the halls and gardens of Mottisfont as the nights draw in and the river mists rise up and creep over the lawns…

But back in the land of the living and the daylight and we are speeding on through our variety of autumnal works, increasingly surprised at the ongoing warmth of the weather – I am still seeing butterflies around (especially Brimstone!) and some members of staff here are still sporting shorts to work.

The sheep flock have no doubt been similarly confused, in having thickened up their fleeces for the winter weather, they now spend the days in mild sunshine that wouldn’t have been out of place a few months ago.  And talking of the sheep, I am very pleased to report that Maggot Neck, the ewe who got fly strike back in July has finally rejoined her mates up on Stockbridge Down.  She took 3 months to heal fully, based on the hideous gaping holes in her neck and complicated by an abscess that developed near the wound area which I took to be a lump of scar tissue under the wool….it was only after 2 and a half months, when it suddenly erupted with all the puss filled passion of a mini volcano (I nicknamed it ‘Pusspeii’) that I realised it for what it was and consequently endured the hideous task of squeezing the abscess and draining it for the next week or more until it healed.  I won’t go into details but this thing breathed. I would squeeze it, it would emit a horrible raspberry sound, a lot of creamy thick pus and then when I took the pressure off, it would inhale with a squeaky whistling noise…..bleurgh!

The Pusspeii eruption

 However, Maggot Neck has proved herself a resilient fighter, never seemingly bothered by the state of her neck and certainly never losing her appetite!  And so it was that, one October day myself and Ryan shifted her and her sick field companion into our new purpose built sheep trailer (our normal little trailer that our volunteer Tony cunningly adapted for purpose) and made the journey up onto the Down and set them free – and they could not get out quick enough, as the photo shows!  It was a ‘Free Willy’ moment with the heroic leap over the hay bale to freedom (narrowly missing head-butting Ryan in the process).
The two ewes loaded up in their new trailer - heads down noshing sheep nuts.


Stockbridge of course is also home to our Juniper trees which I have been talking about recently, due to the success of our scrub clearance work and the natural regeneration of Juniper seedlings that we had.  Volunteers and I have been continuing the clearance of scrub around the Juniper over the last few weeks and I anticipate that this winter we shall have finally finished clearing around all the Juniper stands, which will allow us to manage the scrub regrowth by spraying and swiping in future.  The ‘children’ as I call the successful seedlings, are doing well, 4 out of the 5 have survived the dry summer and there is a distinct difference between the two sets of siblings.  The twins from one tree are much bigger and stronger looking than the twins from another tree which are small and single stemmed in comparison – interesting to study as it may be due to the quality of the seed, or the location of the seedling. 
One of the sturdy twins

To further our Juniper project, myself and Tony went berry harvesting from the female trees back in September.  This involves taking berries off the females (recording which came from which tree) and then trying a variety of different methods to see if you can get them to germinate.  We sowed some berries within the seed cages to see if they would regenerate naturally like the others did.  Then we spilt the remainder to each try our own thing based on research.  After reading various papers about the subject, I put mine in the warm drying room for a couple of weeks and then decided to half mine into seeds that have been taken out of the berry pulp itself (something which has been found to double germination rates as the berry pulp can actually contain something which inhibits germination!) and half that were just the intact berries.  I then soaked all of them in a 1% citric acid solution for 4 days as this is meant to replicate the digestive system of a bird.  Then I halved them all again and sowed one half in individual pots labelled according to the tree from which they came and if they were bare seed or full berry, and the other half were put into a fridge for 30 weeks again labelled up by tree.  The potted ones are now residing outside in my garden to see if they may germinate in a year or two, whilst the fridge ones will be potted after their allotted cold spell… an interesting mix of scientific experiment, trial and error and a hefty dose of gin soaked luck – we got 5 seedlings this summer though work and luck so who knows what the next year or two may bring?  Fingers crossed!
Juicy Juniper berries to harvest

Ongoing clearance around the Juniper

In between all the projects we are working on, our countryside team also had a week of forestry training last week, to get us certificated up on the forestry machines we use – forestry tractor, winch and forwarder (timber crane).  We spent the week in Blackpits, which is an area in the back of our Spearywell woodland that I have mentioned before as we did a big felling project there last winter, clearing a huge slope side of plantation woodland.  With the storms of last winter whistling through the cleared area, it resulted in many windblown trees falling crisscrossed over each other and which were then covered over by a summer’s worth of bramble growth….so a perfect place to practice our winching; steep, wet slope, brash, big stumps and dips everywhere hidden in bramble, crisscrossed tangled fallen trees – if we could pass our winching exam here, we could probably winch anywhere!  Even on the day when Britain was being hit by the tail end of a hurricane and we had trees snapping out and falling over around us, we kept out from under the trees and soldiered on.  It was a good week, the assessor and the examiner were down to earth people of the industry and we managed to have a laugh whilst getting a lot of work done.  We all passed our tests and managed to get a lot of work done in clearing the area at the same time – and I had forgotten how much fun a Valtra forestry tractor is to drive as it will go almost anywhere; up and down big slopes, over huge stumps, through scrub and brash, over log piles – it just keeps on plodding like a faithful donkey, providing you drive it in the right gear and cling on to the steering wheel so you don’t get bounced around to kingdom come.
Taken from my vantage point inside the tractor - our winching worksite!

 The Plane trees in the Mottisfont gardens are dropping their leaves at a rapid rate, creating thick golden carpets that children are delighting in running through and kicking up.  And in Spearywell, among another thick golden carpet of leaves, I know of a patch of hedgehog fungus that grows here every year, on a cut-and-come-again basis and I have been utilising this facility over the last month or so.  Hedgehog fungus is one of the best edible fungi in my opinion; it doesn’t have the slimy texture of other fungi and tastes good fried in butter, in risotto or almost anything.  I also like it because it is one of the very few that I will let myself pick and eat based on its almost unmistakeable appearance – under the caps of the fungi, instead of gills or spores, it has spines (hence the name hedgehog) and there are only 2 or 3 other species in the UK that have spines like this – but they are all rare except for this hedgehog fungi.  The spines brush off easily with a spoon or knife and then you can use the fungi for whatever recipe you please.  So if you are wandering around a Beech filled woodland, take a look among the leaf strewn floor and see if you can spot the creamy buff colour of clusters of hedgehog fungus…but do take a book along to ID them, don’t just take my description as gospel!


See the spines they have?

 Finally, the latest stage of the Cider Saga – I have racked it all off into its second stage of demi-johns, with sugar added in order to kick start a secondary fermentation.  The kitchen tends to become a bit of a brewery bombsite when I have to do this, with tubes, airlocks, yeasty demi johns and sugar everywhere – Laura came home in the middle of it all but managed to remain un-phased by her housemate’s concocting workshop.  Next stage will be bottling with more sugar and then the hardest part – leaving it alone for a few months until it reaches its peak…

 I shall leave you with a photo taken by one of my volunteers Steve, when we were clearing footpaths back on the Down yesterday – we came across this little fella who was most indignant at me scooping him up, but I couldn’t resist a proper look as they are one of my favourite small mammals (not a rodent though, its an insectivore – that fact might win you a quiz one day). Enjoy!
Feeling shrewish?

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.