Tuesday, 15 July 2014

The Jewel in the Crown – and baby pandas’.

Now this time of year brings our site of Stockbridge Down, into its own.  On these warm, clear sunny days it is the Jewel in our Crown, with stunning views across Hampshire and Wiltshire, wildflowers smothering the slopes and butterflies fluttering thick and fast around your feet, your heads, everywhere you look.

If you walk the slopes and the glades you will find large areas of shorter turf in which wild flowers have exploded, with Wild Thyme, Birds Foot Trefoil, Harebells, Salad Burnets, Eyebright, Rock Rose, Vetches, Marjoram, Centaury, Ground Ivy, Bugle, Wild Strawberry, Speedwells and many more all creating the annual technicoloured cloak of Stockbridge Down.  I have watched the areas I had cleared of scrub, two winters ago, blossom and bloom with a new layer of ground flora, the seed bank of which lay hidden under the mossy turf and degenerate canopy of the scrub that was there before, just waiting the chance to be brought out into the light.  
So many colours...Wild Thyme

...Rock Rose (a personal favourite)...

...and Eyebright; a gorgeous little flower that is used in eye washes and eye drops.

With this incredible array of flora comes, of course, the butterfly spectacle.  I realise I mention Stockbridge butterflies in most of the summer months but that is because they really are just too fantastic not to.  My weekly butterfly surveys have shown the numbers to be soaring up as we hit into midsummer, from 64 one week, to over a hundred the next, to 264 this week and still climbing.  The Marbled Whites are covering the longer grasses and thistles in their hundreds, closely followed by the Dark Green Fritillaries and the Skippers in all their orangey buzzing glory.  And this very week has bought out the first of the Gatekeepers and the onset of the Chalkhill Blues.  The Chalkhill blue butterflies will peak around late July into early August and are just phenomenal – thousands of silvery blue butterflies floating like vapour across the slopes and, quite often, on dog turds from which they like to take the salt.

A Marbled White - wings like a Magic Eye picture.

17 Chalkhill Blues and 1 Peacock on a single turd - could it be a record!?

 I am giving a guided walk of Stockbridge Down on the 18th of July, so if you want to come and see these wonders for yourself and hear about the history, archaeology, habitat and management of the Down then ring Mottisfont Abbey and book yourself a place.  If you don’t want to come on the walk, then go and visit the Down anyway I urge you- you might even be lucky enough to hear the elusive Turtle Dove as I did, in the scrub on the lower slopes recently.  It has a beautiful deep ‘purring’ coo, much deeper than a pigeon and much rarer.  Stockbridge Down is a stronghold for these summer visitors and as I didn’t get to hear one last year (although others did) I was very chuffed to hear one this summer.

The sheep flock are doing well on the Down and are looking superbly sleek and bright now that they have finished shedding their ratty, dreadlocked, winter coats.  This breed shears themselves (thank god) and I must say they do a far neater job than I ever could.  They have plumped up with the summer flush of grass growth and are looking very healthy.  The two new lambs that we bought back in May have been added to the main flock and after some initial nose touching and bottom sniffing of the newbies, they all happily settled down together without any apparent need to settle the hierarchy.  The lone male was a bit sheepish at first (snigger) and let his sister take the lead which was unusual for him as he is normally very bolshie and first in line, but as Ryan said – ‘he’s a bloke that has just been chucked in a room with 28 women; of course he looks terrified!’.  Fair point.
Summer fleeces - very sleek.

Now as I have mentioned before that we have a population of ageing Juniper trees, those Giant Pandas’ of the plant world.  I have written before about their struggle to survive and reproduce as a species (see Winter Hymnal blog post), which is due to a number of factors such as being dioecious, lack of seed viability, seed vulnerability to predation by small mammals and mites, their need for completely bare soil on which to germinate as even grass will shade out and kill any emergent seedlings and so on.  All in all, a rather difficult species to try and preserve but one which, as one of only three conifers native to Britain (the other two being Scots Pine and Yew), it is important to do so.  There is also a whole host of life that relies on Juniper alone for survival, such as Juniper Shield Bug, Juniper Carpet Moth and of course – our gin and tonics.

We have spent two winters clearing the scrub from around the mature Juniper trees in order to save them from being shaded out (detailed in past blog posts).  I have spent the following summers spraying the scrub regrowth to kill it off and prevent it from returning, a job which I did again last week in the sweaty heat of spraying overalls and welly boots.  This is helping to preserve the mature Juniper trees which are welcoming the chance to be free of shading scrub.  However what we really also need is for the Juniper to regenerate which is very difficult to get it to do in the wild down in the South.  Whether it’s the lack of suitably viable trees and gene pools, attacks of mites and parasites or the conditions of the surrounding site, it has always been an ongoing project for agencies like Plantlife (see their ‘Juniper; Breaking New Ground’ online article for a good scope on the challenges of preserving this species) and landowners of any Juniper sites.   
One of our countryside volunteers Tony took a special interest in the Juniper, having spent many a day helping clear the scrub from round it (which seemed to put most people off it, but Tony was hooked!) and together we visited another nearby National Trust site called Pepperbox Hill, where they have similar issues with scrub and Juniper, and where they have tried a number of seed cage designs.  Tony took one of these designs, created by Plantlife and made ten sturdy seed cages.  The aim of these cages is for them to be placed beneath a berry bearing female Juniper with bare soil left within.  The area around it may grow up with grasses or other plants, but the soil within the cage would be kept bare and clear of weeds.  This would give the potential for any berry that fell into this soil from the tree above, to be able to germinate successfully in the soil (uneaten by rodents as they would not get into the cage) and begin to grow (without being shaded and out-competed by grasses or weeds as we would keep the soil clear of them). We could also potentially sow seeds into them from trees on the site, to try and help kick start the process. We installed these cages across the site a few months back with the aim to weed them throughout the summer and hope that in a couple of years’ time, they would bear fruit.  
Installing the cages

In place beneath a berry filled female

 Tony and I came to weed them this week, for the first time since their installation.  Some had barely any grass or weeds at all; others were deeply surrounded by bramble which we hacked back.  We worked our way round them, expecting only to be weeding and clearing when suddenly…..there, poking up out the ground just below my weed clearing fingers…there grew a baby Juniper.  I choked slightly, uttered an expletive and pointed it to Tony.  We looked and saw another one…and then a third!  Three! Three baby ‘panda’s’ in one seed cage, a first for the site and a rare occurrence in Hampshire – natural Juniper regeneration!  These little blue green, spikey seedlings stood only about an inch high, all too fragile and vulnerable but there – against all the odds and to my complete astonishment as I honestly hadn’t thought we would get any seedlings in the cages within the first few months - these babies take years to ripen and germinate, and yet here they were, the first of their kind to be born onto the site (that we know of) in many, many years, possibly since the original, mature trees themselves.

We whooped and hollered and I ran full pelt back to the truck to get my camera to record the evidence.  We cleared the few weeds from the cage – oh so carefully, so as not to disturb the children – and just stared and gawped for a while more at these little things which I hadn’t imagined we would succeed in getting after so short a time.  Then we carefully replaced the lid, tucked them in, and crept away.

We shall weed the cages again towards the end of summer and see what the others bring us.  I now feel the burden of parenthood, with three rare youngsters in my charge and the fear that some calamity may befall them before they reach adulthood. There will be a long way to go but it has shown us that we have viable seed trees and thus the potential to save our Juniper population here – may these three be the first of many.

Hope for the future - viva la Juniper!

Thursday, 10 July 2014

Life Aquatic

Greetings!  And a long time it has been; I have been off-blog for a good few weeks due to events such as holidays, moving house and the hectic workload that June bought us.  Weeks of warm breezes and sunlit hours also ensured that our working time was spent on outdoor jobs, leaving the office stuff for a rainy day – a plan that never works well in winter but comes into its own in summer.

The summer solstice has been and gone already, and it is almost inconceivable to me that we are halfway through the year and heading back into the shorter days of winter - however, I won’t dwell on that for now as we are still enjoying the heat in which to get our work done.  And with the onset of June came, of course, the first of the three annual weed cuts on our river stretches.  Our river keeper Neil dove (haha) back into action and spent every waking minute for 2 weeks in the river trimming the Ranunculus whilst obtaining a small population of ticks on his various body parts as he went – he is one of those useful people to have around as he draws ticks towards him before anybody else.  I did my part where I could and helped him push on the weed down the River Dun which, in the hot weather was a delightful task, even when we had to start over again due to more weed coming down from the upper stretches.
Salute of the weed Cutters

The weed cut period has also allowed me to begin a project that has been years in coming and will be ongoing for years more.
Stockbridge Common Marsh is a site of ours that lies in the village of Stockbridge, just down the hill from Stockbridge Down.  It is a 23 hectare site alongside which runs a tributary of the River Test, called Marsh Court River.  Now this site has some valuable fen and marsh habitat as well as important chalk stream habitat, both of which serve to class the marsh itself as a Site of Special Scientific Interest, and the river tributary as a separate SSSI.  Consequently these designations as well as the beauty and tranquillity of the habitat for both humans and wildlife alike, mean we have to do our best to protect and preserve them both.
If you have ever walked on the Marsh you will have noticed the badly eroded river bank on the Marsh side.  Now any river bank that is made of peat, as this one is, is going to suffer some erosion from natural river processes as it is a soft substance that the current of the river is able to wear away.  However this process is usually buffered by a marginal fringe of bank side vegetation of rushes and reeds, water parsnip and so on, all of which help stabilize and protect the banks and provide brilliant habitat for water voles, damsel and dragonflies and water birds found here.

The bank side of Stockbridge Marsh is almost entirely devoid of vegetation due to river erosion and the pressure of livestock, people and dogs climbing in and out and breaking off the overhanging turf which has suffered river erosion beneath it.  There have been many plans over the years to try and improve this bank and save it as the erosion evidence is plain to see – you can see chunks of bankside turf that have fallen in over the last few months, just lying in the river. 
In order to re-stabilize and allow the bank to regenerate I have worked with Natural England and the Environment Agency to come up with a plan of action.  Consent was then sought from both agencies and gained, and I was finally able to begin the first phase of work during the June weed cut.
We have erected a fence along the first 200M of the river, which contains some of the worst eroded stretches.  This fence will remain in place until the bankside vegetation has grown up enough and the bank has recovered enough to allow it to better stand the pressure that is put upon it.  A fence was erected some years ago along the top part of the river and the vegetation that has grown up there has proven how beneficial it has been in keeping it protected until it has recovered.
The new fence

So the fence went up and then come the weed cut (when the fisheries downstream would not be disturbed by work we would be doing) I started installing a geotextile material, with the help of work experience students and our countryside volunteers.
This geotextile material is essentially an engineered form of faggoting, but one that is more durable than faggots and better for long-term works.  We installed it by post banging down some specially treated stakes that came with the material, designed to be used in rivers.  These were hammered down into the river bed and the geotextile contains ‘pockets’ through which you slide the stake before hammering it so that you can then pull the fabric tight along to the next stake and so on.  You end up with a long edge of geotextile that will basically serve as the new bank side whilst the area behind it begins to grow in.  This was very hard, hot work as we had to do it all manually due to the sensitive nature of the bank – no post banging machine would have been able to be sat on the bank edge as its weight would have collapsed it.  So, waders were dug out from the sheds where they had sat since last year, and we jumped in the river and worked from the waterside.  

The geotextile in place
The geotextile in place


The geotextile was finished in June and now, with the July weed cut looming, we can begin the next step, which is to work on the banks themselves.  The bank will be manually dug out under their overhanging edges; just enough so that the top layer of turf can be folded down to create a shallow slope.  This will slope down into the water behind the geotextile and the remaining area will be filled in using peat dug out from the bank and vegetation transplanted from other areas of the site, to help it begin the regenerative process.  By creating this shallow sloping margin, you are making a far more natural habitat than the current steep sheer sided banks that erosion has created.  Different plants, invertebrates and other wildlife utilise different areas of the bank based on the different gradients and provides far more diversity than the sheer faced eroded bank side.
The stretch that we are working on contains the shallower part of the channel.  There are some parts of the channel that are much deeper and would require the river bed raising before we could do bank works.  However this first step will enable us to gauge the success of the bank work on the shallow channel (and I believe it will look fantastic in a growing season or two) and thus plan our next step.

Obviously this is a very sensitive project as the Marsh is a beautiful and popular place for people to walk their dogs, enjoy a picnic or just come dip their feet on a hot day.  The work we are carrying out has had both supporters and opposition, mainly due to the presence of the fence.  Whilst another 500m or so of the river remain unfenced and therefore perfectly accessible, we appreciate that people may find the fence along the first bit visually disturbing and it may look like we are trying to bar people from being able to enjoy walking by the river.  This is obviously not the case as we do in fact want to try and preserve this stretch of river for the future so that more people can enjoy it, hence the work.  If we did not carry out this bank work, the bank would continue to fall and the river would become wider, deeper, and siltier and lose all the important features and aspects that are so valuable in the ecology and make up of a chalk stream.  

So, many thanks to the Stockbridge Court Leet who have funded the fence and geotextile materials for this work and thanks to those people who stopped to talk to me whilst I was working on the bank work and boosted us with their support – it means a lot when you realise that people know you are trying to do what is right for a habitat in order to preserve it – forever, for everyone, right?

Friday, 23 May 2014

Jasper: A little bird's tale.

Every once in a while life throws you something that you didn’t see coming but the experience of which will stay with you forever more.  Such an event happened to me last weekend in the form of this little chap.

Meet Jasper.

This is Jasper, a baby nuthatch which came into my care on the day of our country fair at Mottisfont, last Saturday.  The sun was shining and the day was going brilliantly with lots of people enjoying the different stands, from the cider tasting to the have a go tractor.  Michelle and I were manning the Caravan of Love and doing marshmallow toasting and bug hotel making (both of which were as much a hit with the adults as they were with the kids) when Dylan came over to ask me to come and see what a visitor had found.  I followed him to one of our big Sweet Chestnut tree’s which stand in the grounds and there, hunched into the bark at the bottom was a tiny, baby nuthatch, fallen from the nest hole. 

Now it is fairly common to find fledgling birds sitting in hedgerows at this time of year, looking like they have been abandoned or lost but that are in fact, still being cared for by its parents.  Blackbirds, Thrushes, Robins and many birds will keep feeding the young that fall out the nest as long as it is nearby.  However this is harder to do with high tree dwelling birds like woodpeckers and nuthatches that nest up in holes and cavities.  The likelihood of the chick being able to climb all the way back up to the nest is very low.  With this in mind, having looked around for any sign of its parents and seeing none and with the knowledge of just how many cats roam the gardens of Mottisfont I made the snap decision and scooped up the little chick (the whole human scent on the bird putting off its parents is actually a myth; birds have a very poor sense of smell).  

So there I was nuthatch in hand, partially bald and with feathers sticking out at funny angles (the bird, not me) and I was suddenly all it had to rely on.  I went immediately and found some earthworms and to my surprise and delight, the minute I dangled them over his beak he cheeped and opened wide and gobbled them all down, one after the other.

Good start! If a baby animal is willing to eat then it still has strong fight left in it.  I made a temporary nest for him (I say him, but you can’t tell with nuthatches) in a paper cup whilst I finished the country fair and then whizzed off to get a supply of mealworms.  

Mealworms soaked in water proved a hit and Jasper took as many as I could feed him, peeping loudly and baby beak open wide as if he still had to fight for food against his siblings.  I have a few old nests that I’ve collected over time and I chose the mud lined blackbirds nest, with some hamster bedding for warmth, as his new home.  He would sit in it quite happily, blinking at the world and waiting for the looming shadow that meant food was here. 
I fed him at hourly intervals, or more if he started calling for it and I witnessed the hilarious wonder of baby bird hygiene;  every time he was fed, he would then whip round, point his feathered bottom up over the side of the nest and out would shoot a little poo pellet, over the edge.  Chicks do this in order to make sure the nest stays clean of poo and the fact that he was doing it showed all his natural instincts were still strong within.  

Looking up for his next meal to appear.
 It was the usual perfect timing that I was actually due to go to a party up near Bristol that first night so I packed up Jasper and his nest into a small box and took a supply of mealworms and off we went.  Needless to say he was a bit of a talking point, but I was able to tuck him away in a glass fronted cabinet (safe out the reach of cats and children) and feed him every hour during daylight.  When night came he put his head under his wing and went to sleep, leaving me free to party on….until I came to go to bed at dawn, when the rising sun awoke him just as I was going to sleep, and I ended up getting up every hour to feed him whilst trying to ignore the need for hungover unbroken sleep and quietness.  Throughout that day he would start to nestle in the nook of my arm and doze between feeds and his last feed of the evening saw him take only one mealworm and then close his eyes and lean his head on my thumb - it was obviously past his bed time!

By Monday he was getting more active and would happily run up and down my arm and my top, practicing clinging on with his skeletal, long toes which are what allows nuthatches to run up and down trees the way they do.  At work he would sit on my shoulder and back whilst I was at my desk or whilst I was out and about walking.  When I had physical work to do I put him back into his nest to avoid him being squashed.  
See his long grippy toes? Brilliant for tree climbing.
 Each day that passed I could see the changes, a few more feathers would appear, his tail started to bulk out and his colouring seemed to deepen. He developed more sounds, from just having a baby cheeping cry to a sort of annoyed 'tch tch tch!' which he would make when he was offered one mealworm too many and he would turn his head away from it.  He still had two funny fluffy baby feathers that stuck out his head like crazy Einstein hair, but which were firmly attached.

Tuesday and Wednesday saw Lee, Laura and I go to the Isle of Wight on a 2 day grassland forum hosted by the local National Trust and it was on this trip that Laura came up with the name Jasper for him. Of course this timing meant again, I had to take Jasper with me and so he swiftly became the most well-travelled nuthatch in all the land and made the crossing from the mainland.  
The forum was excellent, we had 2 days of walking around their different grassland sites being shown how they managed them, grazed them, things that worked and things that didn’t.  There were NT people there from all across the South of England and everyone shared ideas and opinions and experiences from their own sites.  For the first day, which was very windy up on the hills were we walked, Jasper kept himself tucked in under my fleece and jacket, nestling in against my collar bone.  I would unzip the coat and pop him a few mealworms when required, to keep him quiet and happy and in return he would stick his fuzzy bottom out and expel a poo onto the floor.  Then I would zip back up to keep the wind out and he was so quiet and content that no one knew he was there until the evening when he was out and sitting on my shoulder at the campsite. 
Still there? Just checking.

 As we drove around from site to site Jasper would sit up on my shoulder preening himself vigorously, shedding baby bird dandruff and feathers as he continued to grow plumage.  Watching him scratching his head with his foot, only to topple off the shoulder as he lost his balance and had to scrabble back up amused Lee, Laura and I no end.  He was a very bold and charismatic bird, seemingly quite content with his lot. When we turned the truck’s air con on full blast he would stand up straight and flap his wings, trying to fly but still unable to manage it. He would lean into the G-force as we went round corners like a pro rally driver and he would also start to peck at my shoulder or my head as if I were a juicy nut to crack, or a piece of bark that might expel a tasty bug.  If he hopped off around the truck exploring, a squeaking noise from my pursed lips would bring him back for his next meal.  I think he kept mistaking my earring for a mealworm as it has a long wooden tapered point that hangs down and Laura kept creasing up laughing as he tried to eat it. 
Laura was concerned that he wasn’t hearing enough nuthatch noise, so she played him the call of a nuthatch from an app on Lee’s phone – he didn’t seem to make too much of it, but did listen with his head cocked to one side, as if dredging up a memory.
Practicing his pecking - on my head.

On the second day of the trip the weather improved and he was able to sit out on my shoulder more as we went round the sites.  I was cautious though, that he shouldn’t fledge on the Island as I wanted him to go back to where he came from, but luckily he was still unable to fly.  Paul, one of the Isle of Wight team, gave me some tips on teaching him to hunt for himself, and many of the other visiting NT folk took photos of him – he became quite a celebrity!

And so two days passed and on our way home on Wednesday evening, Jasper preened himself more vigorously on my shoulder, kept stretching his wings and then started giving fluttery hops from me to the seat, to Laura, back to me.  He seemed to be achieving a bit of air as oppose to just plummeting straight down and I suspected he was beginning the first wing flaps to flight.  

That evening, back at home he favoured my head to sit on now, instead of my shoulder, possibly because it was higher. He also made some good attempts at flying, sometimes getting it right and landing on my head, sometimes missing and sailing over the top and crashing.  As I went around the house unpacking and sorting stuff out, he rode around, hopping between my head and my shoulder and still preening.  Then as I was hanging out my washing in a room he fluttered from me and onto the hat stand where he instantly nestled down in the fold of a scarf.  Ah ha! I thought – he is displaying his own nesting instinct, flying to the most tree like thing I own (hat stand) and finding a nook to sleep in.  This was a sure sign that he was maturing and I turned the light off and left him there.

Can you spot him nestled in the hat stand?

 Thursday morning I was awoken by his cheeping cry and found him standing on the very top of the hat stand calling.  I took him on my shoulder and as I made breakfast he flew from curtain to curtain confidently, clinging on and running downwards like a true nuthatch and I knew the day had come.

On the way to work he hopped from my shoulder onto the steering wheel and sat happily watching the road ahead (I do wonder if other driver’s noticed!) and enjoying clinging on with his toes as I turned the wheel to drive.  When I went round a roundabout he rode the wheel all the way round until the last bit when he lost his balance and flew off into the gear stick in a fluff of feathers and cheeping.  He soon scrambled up onto my arm and back up onto my head to assume a higher view and sense of authority.

Driving to work - i was unable to get a photo (road safety an' all) so had to draw it, as it was too amusing to miss!)

 We got to work where he was admired by the Thursday volunteers who were admittedly surprised to find a small bird sitting on my shoulder.  He seemed to be pecking at my shoulder more and more which I also took as a good sign that his instinct to hunt and peck at the bark of trees was ever growing.  I wasn’t entirely sure how to do this next bit.  Do I put him on the tree he came from and see if he ran up it?  Do I try putting mealworms on the bark to get him to feed from them?  Do I wait and see if his parents are still around and then see if they hear him call?  

With Jasper on my shoulder I walked towards the tree we found him under still pondering the best course of action.  The grounds were empty as we were not yet open and for the minute it was just us.  I stood in front of the towering Sweet Chestnut and, before I could decide what to do, Jasper peeped a last goodbye in my ear, left me one last poo on my shoulder, then hopped from my shoulder to my head and from there flew straight up into the tree of his birth.
Well!  He had made the decision for me, not even hesitating to know which tree was his and where he came from!  He ran up the trunk pecking at the bark all the way.  As he got higher, I saw several other nuthatches, including an adult, flying around the branches calling and he listened intently before flying to another branch of the tree.  He continued pecking the bark looking for food and started returning the call of the other nuthatches, which may very well have been his siblings, themselves just fledged.  I watched him until he flew into the next tree, a tall pine, and out of my sight, leaving me with a deep sense of satisfaction and happiness, a bird turd on my shoulder and a sudden sense of empty sound – no more cheeping in my ear.  I ambled down the path to my office with my fingers crossed and tried to ignore the sudden silence everywhere i went.

 Throughout the day, I walked past the tree several times and either saw no nuthatches at all, or else several of them all together preening themselves high up in the sun.  I felt a huge sense of relief that he was not sat alone and cheeping for me to feed him – he was obviously off with his family group and back home.  I have kept my eyes peeled again for him today but the weather is so foul that he and his mates must all be sheltering somewhere safe and hidden.  It was only last thing as the sun finally came out, that i spotted, high up in the pine, a group of nuthatches flitting from pine cone to pine cone, pecking out seeds and chattering to each other.

And so there we have it. A little bird’s tale, that blessed me with 6 days of being able to watch the character and instincts of the nuthatch grow and develop first hand and experience for myself the lively, bold quirkiness of this little bird.

So Jasper; live long, live well, remember what I told you about cats and if you ever see me walking by on my way to work –feel free to fly down and say hello.


Chilling on the Isle of Wight; Jasper and Me.