Monday, 8 February 2016

Wild is the Wind

Wild is the Wind – a small tribute to the recently departed genius of David Bowie and also a pretty accurate summary of the weather battering us today.  I sit writing this from my own sofa as the Mottisfont estate has been closed to the public and staff today due to the high winds of Storm Imogen which is currently howling and screaming over the South of Britain – I’ve just heard another of the recycling bins go flying across the road outside and the neighbours fence has decided to relocate itself to someone else’s garden…whilst we are all very used to working out in all weathers and have done so many times, it would be pretty foolish to be out in the woods and open countryside today so we remain hunkered down and tucked up and wait for the storm to pass, as it always does.

The last few weeks have seen us bungee between icy, frosty days and back to the mild, wet days which make our winter works more difficult to complete as sites are just too wet to access with vehicles or machinery.  My truck has obtained an interesting damp smell reminiscent of fungal growths and gym changing rooms as every time I clean it out, it simply gets disgusting again within days as I squelch into it in sodden waterproofs and muddy wellies.  However not everyone is fed up of the wet weather – I caught this little fellow taking an energetic bath in a puddle the other day, giving himself a good fluff up and shake down, possibly making himself look his best for the upcoming breeding season.
'This will make me look good for the ladies!'

 The sheep at Stockbridge are taking it all in their stride as ever, seemingly unruffled by storms or frost and just tucking themselves deeper into their scrubby kingdom for shelter – emerging in one woolly tide to flow down the hill to the corral for the daily nut handout.  During the frosty period the other week I visited them to top up the nuts and deliver some mineral licks.  The frost lay thick on the ground, making the shady sections of the slope appear almost white, and the water trough needed an inch of ice smashed off the surface.  

The frosty shade and the thawed sunlit grass

All but one of the sheep appeared for nuts, with the missing one being one of our old girls, usually first in line….which made little alarm bells go off in my head; was she lying dead somewhere, victim to dog attack or harsh weather?  I looked around, trying to think like a sheep and decided to head off to the North end, up to the Higher Meadows which were in the sunlight and consequently had thawed out a bit; if I were a hungry sheep I would head there.  I hiked along and up the slope, keeping my eyes peeled for any sheepy shapes in the scrub and kept shaking the nut bucket, but no answering reply came.  Finally I crested the rise of the hill into the Higher Meadow and there, in the sun thoroughly enjoying herself gobbling the thawed out grass was our missing ewe. Clever old girl! Whilst the others were down in the frosty shadows, she was basking in the winter sunlight and happily eating her way through the meadow. Phew!  I couldn’t help but be relieved as the last two times I’ve had to search for a missing one; it had ended in a dog attack victim – but thankfully, not today.  One whistle and she finally heard me, her head shot up and she came charging over for her own personal supply of nuts whilst I stopped to enjoy the view and get my breath back.

Our missing ewe - sunbathing happily higher up the hill.

One very plump sheep enjoying the sun - check out the double chin!

The grounds of Mottisfont are also looking stunning in the winter sunrise’s and ambling down the drive on my way in to the office is a pleasure on such days; the font looked especially magical, with the early morning mist steaming off of the water surface making it almost look like an inviting warm bath – pass the Radox!  

Bath, anyone?

Our work at this time of year isn’t all about felling trees and clearing scrub.  We have also been doing one of my favourite tasks of winter – tree planting.  We have several projects going on across our countryside portfolio for tree plantings including woodland creation, hedgerow planting up and coppice planting.  I find it very satisfying to put a tree in the ground, tuck its roots in and wish it well and know that this tree is likely to outlive me and, in the case of species like Oak and Beech, it will live out many future generations of my family.  There is something very therapeutic about looking at veteran trees and knowing they have stood tall through all that has gone on around them over the centuries; wars, development, storms, changing land practices, disease and so on – they have survived it all and are some of the few fixed points in a changing age.  

Our site at Foxbury, in the New Forest is part of a restoration site for heathland and fringing woodland.  Over the last few years the site has undergone radical change from a rhododendron covered conifer plantation, to being cleared and allowed to redevelop back to lowland heath like many of its neighbouring areas in the Forest.  Part of this restoration includes planting up of wet woodland fringe areas around the buffer edges, a project which I have talked about in previous blog posts.  This year’s winter planting sessions, undertaken by our Community Ranger Jake and involving many volunteers and members of the community, has now finished, with almost 6000 trees gone in to the ground this winter season.  This is a tremendous achievement and a brilliant milestone towards the end goal for the Foxbury site – already many species have been attracted back to the area since its conversion; Nightjar, Dartford Warbler, Woodcock, Adder and many more are making Foxbury their seasonal or all year round home.

Foxbury planting

And from one lot of tree planting to another, we whip back to the Mottisfont estate and the work here.  Under our Woodland Grant Scheme, we routinely clear fell areas of plantation, in order to sell the timber and then replant the area with broadleaf species alongside the natural regeneration.  We also have many kilometres of hedgerow around the estate some of which have thin/bare areas where the growth has died out and which require replanting to thicken up the hedgerow again.  Ryan and the volunteers have been planting up these hedgerow gaps with a mix of hedgerow species specific to the area and the soils, to ensure the best possible survival rate.  They have also been planting Hazel saplings in our working coppice area in Queen Meadow, alongside the layered stems from the current stools, all of which increases the number of Hazel trees growing in a coppiced section which in turn is important for product quality.  
Planting in the coppice - alongside some beautifully stacked charcoal piles!

 By increasing the density of the coppice, it encourages the stems to grow tall and straight in order to race upwards to the light away from the neighbouring stems and this results on good quality product, useful for stakes and binders, peasticks, walking sticks, charcoal and more, for use across our sites or for selling to wholesalers and our own shop.  I joined in with some of the planting in Queen Meadow last week and it was like a soothing balm to a winter weathered soul.  The air was still and mild, the sun finally held some warmth in it and all around us there were little signs of spring; Celandines gleaming gold, Snowdrops pure and white, birds singing heartily and best of all, best of ALL – butterflies!!  The first emergent of the year of those species who hibernate as adults (usually Peacocks, Red Admirals and Brimstones to name a few) and sometimes awaken on warm winter days – and how it warmed the frosty cockles of my heart to catch a glimpse, just for a brief second, of those fluttery, buttery loves of mine, which, alongside the fresh, warm breeze, gave a tantalising hint that spring was coming and nature was beginning to wake up.   
Which is why i know that, despite the raging weather today, we are almost there - Welcome back Spring – boy, have we missed you.

Wednesday, 20 January 2016

Jack Frost comes a' calling


‘Normality is an illusion. What is normal for the spider is chaos for the fly’
                                                                                      - Charles Addams


Happy New Year!  We are now well and truly into 2016 and the festive feasting seems like a distant memory. 

Jack Frost has finally put in an appearance this winter and has been dancing across the land spreading his icy affection and giving us a much needed cold snap in this otherwise remarkably mild season.  We have missed out on the snow this far south – the more inland counties have had the sledging fun whilst we remain snowless but chilly, with breathtakingly cold, clear nights resulting in everyone rooting around their trucks hunting for their long abandoned ice scrapers first thing in the morning. 
These kinds of days are the best of winter days, the Frosty Blue days I call them, when the sky is clear and blue and the winter sun blazes, causing the silvery frost to glisten and sparkle.  At Hamble the other day the reed beds were all intricately adorned with frost on their feathery flower heads, whilst their stems glowed gold in the sun creating as fine and pretty a picture as I have seen anywhere.  I stepped out onto my favourite vantage point of this site, along the stem of one of the large oaks that had fallen into the river and, standing among its fallen branches over the estuary, I could look up and down stream at the peaceful view.  Snow white Little Egrets stood hunched on skeleton trees on the far side of the river, basking in the winter sun; the reed beds whispered and rustled secrets to each other and the tide was creeping out on its journey to visit the sea, under an endless blue sky…unfortunately I was startled out of my dreamy reverie a few minutes later when I put my hand in dog crap as I worked on the boardwalk here – and the crisp, fine air was, for a few seconds, filled with expletives and horrified yelps as I ran to the water’s edge to wash it off.
Frosted Reeds
Glowing reed beds

Dressed in more layers than an onion, I find myself waddling slightly these days due to the sheer mass of clothing I have on – makes climbing over gates a bit more challenging but my reptile like nature does not approve of being too cold.  And talking of waddling, our sheep flock have spent a month here at Mottisfont plumping up on the lush grass and allowing us to keep an easy eye on them over the festive period when staff numbers were fewer.  Having gorged themselves on the Mottisfont Menu, the time came last week to get them moved back up to Stockbridge where they belong and so once again I entered the Battle Royale ring and played the game of getting them penned up.  A few days of training them to enter a self-made pen of hurdles proved enough for most of them, but as usual 6 remained on the outside looking in and so the games of woman vs flock began.  In the end human evolution prevailed (just) and the final 6 fell prey to my many tricks of luring them in to the pen, tricks which included shaking the nut bucket and looking the other way so they think I’m not watching, scattering a nut trail into the pen, feeding the already penned up sheep to make the others jealous and shaking the nut bucket near an individual, luring them close enough to grab and wrestle into the pen (the latter being the only one that worked and had to be repeated for all 6 sheep).  Gareth our tenant farmer then arrived with his livestock trailer and we proceeded to shoo them in, pushing their fat, woolly behinds in an effort to get them to move forward and into the trailer, before locking them in and taking them on their journey to the Down and home.
They are now all safely back on the Down, doing their important habitat work of eating – which they fell to straight away, no slackers in this flock; they flooded out the trailer and threw themselves on the grass as if they had been half starved!  They seemed chuffed to be back on their Kingdom; they were soon trotting along their old scrub trails and standing nobly on top of the hills asserting their authority.  They will remain on this Leckford slope into spring before we move them back through to the NT side of the slope, thus giving each area a chance to rest and flower.  And if the sheep are returned, then that also means the wonderful sheep lookers are now back at their daily duties of checking the flock – and are enjoying the tattoos on their fleeces which make individuals more easily identifiable – especially the troublemakers! (Holly Leaf sheep was particularly naughty when trying to be penned up).
Back home!

Over the festive rota period, when the weather was still wet and mild, Neil and I were doing the rounds on the rivers and opening the sluice gates across the estate, in order to allow some of the excess water to drain out of the main channels and into the side ditches, thus reducing the risk of flooding.  The torrents of water that were flushing through these sluices was tremendous, like a mini version of Niagara Falls, and woe betide any beastie that got sucked in – they were in for a rapid ride!
The swan family taking a organized paddle up the river
The river Dun overflowing through the woods...

We also came across an otter kill on one of the river banks, of a huge salmon with the most impressive set of jaws I’ve seen on any fish that wasn’t a shark.  Neil said it is the male salmon that have these big hook like mouths but this was the biggest teeth he’d seen on one….and so how could I resist?  I donned disposable gloves (I actually had a pair in my coat pocket left over from a first aid course), Neil handed me a bin bag and, retching and gagging at the stench, I wrapped the squishy, gooey, carcass in the bag and we took it back to the farmyard and my Pet Cemetery rot pile, where I put skulls to rot down and lose their flesh, ready for cleaning and for taking their final place on the Shelf of Death (kind of like the Disney theme of taking their place in the Great Circle of Life…).  Got to admit though, the smell of rotting fish was almost too much even for me and I was glad to relinquish it to the pile and leave it for the next few months for nature to do her thing….I shall just claim ignorance when I see people wandering around that corner of the carpark wondering just what the hell that smell is!
Looks like a crocodile!

On the Rot Pile

The previous mild weather has also meant that we have been seeing things emerging that should have long stayed hidden.  Bluebells leaves are poking their way up through the soil at Hamble and Mottisfont, Daffodils are in bloom, Hazel is budding and I saw a Hawthorn with fresh, newly opened leaves in Oakley Copse – all much too early!  I also, when walking home the other night at 3am, heard a bird singing loud and clear in the middle of town – and this was 3am in January so there was no sign of the dawn or first light, so I can only assume the birds are a little bit out of sync also and are perhaps displaying their increased spring singing a bit early? Any bird experts let me know if winter night singing is normal…I would have recognised a nightingale but of course they are summer only. 
Bluebells popping up at Hamble...

I am hoping this cold spell will put things back in cycle a little bit more as it would have a bad impact on flora and fauna if they start blooming and nesting thinking spring was here and then get caught out by a cold blast.  Despite these concerns, I also think that nature has a bit more of an idea of what it is doing then we do and it will continue to adapt and evolve to suit the current climate and play of the seasons – be they late, early, mild, extreme or whatever the latest weather report calls them – let’s face it; just what do we define as a ‘normal’ season anymore?  There isn’t a deadline date by which spring or summer or autumn or winter should know to be in place.  There is no list of designated characteristics that nature can read to know that ‘oh ok, winter should be this cold and autumn this wet, whilst summer wow! You’re meant to be pretty warm – better start heating up!’  The only list is that which we have recorded and defined in previous years and whilst there has undoubtedly been a global warming of temperatures – I refuse to use the word ‘normal’ anymore when talking seasons because I just don’t think there is a ‘normal’ season. They will come when they want and do what they want and we must work with them the best we can (this would be a good place to mention flood control policies, trees in upper river catchments, preventing buildings on floodplains etc. but I fear it would turn into a bit of a rant so I shall leave it to more educated people than I to comment on such matters….but do read up about it.  A lot of the flooding we have in this country is not always due to ‘abnormal’ rainfall, but catchment mismanagement).
Back to the frosty present and the Monday volunteers came to Hamble last week to help coppice and pollard some of the Holly understorey on the site.  The Holly has grown particularly thick in some areas in this woodland and this blocks most of the light to the woodland floor as well as prevents the Oaks putting on any epicormics growth on their stems (epicormic shoots are the cluster of little side shoots that you sometimes see growing out the main stem of species like Oak.  They are usually dormant whilst the growth hormones go to the main canopy but they help a tree to survive as, if the canopy is damaged, i.e. ripped out in the wind, the epicormic growth will be able to take over and grow and keep the tree alive.  It is not great for a timber crop but Hamble is not for timber production so the more we can do to keep the woodland here in survival mode, the better.  The Mottisfont Oak, our 1000 year old specimen has superb examples of epicormic growth).  So by clearing back some of the Holly understorey, we are allowing light to the floor for ground flora to spring up and to the stems of the Oaks, thus improving the health of the canopy trees.  We left enough holly to continue to provide shelter for birds such as Goldcrest and Firecrest which are both found here and I look forward to seeing the floral results on our work come springtime.  Whilst we were there the tide was peaking in the estuary and as we watched it, it crept in higher…and higher…and still higher until it was higher than I’d ever seen it there, having overtopped the platoon and had reached the first set of garden benches in the pub garden area.  According to one of the local volunteers the winter tides are often reaching this height here now and with the proposed housing development nearby likely to increase surface runoff, there is a serious danger of high tides and spring tides flooding the pub and the road.
High tide - see the handrail of the platoon?
Finally, I took a wander the other day to some Barn Owl boxes that myself and ornithologist Alan Snook put up back in April 2014 (you can read about it on the blog post for that month).  We put up a nest box and a roost box as once a Barn Owl pair have hatched owlets, the female likes the male to be out of the nest box but stay nearby at her beck and call so by putting up a roost box near to the nest box, the bloke has somewhere to go!  To my delight, for the first time since we put them up, I found some owl pellets underneath the boxes which implied a Barn Owl had used them recently – so we are keeping our eyes peeled and our fingers crossed that a pair may choose these boxes to nest and rear their young this year – but not quite yet – it’s not 'normal' spring time yet….

The barn owl pellets
Another pellet I found on a fence post on Stockbridge - see the red teeth of the skull? That means it belonged to a shrew...



Monday, 21 December 2015

Look to the East

We’ve done it! We’ve hit the winter solstice, the shortest, darkest day of the year and we are on the way through and out the other side!  I can now look, as I always do, to the Eastern horizon and know that the light will be dawning that bit sooner each and every day that passes.  I do wonder how many people feel this primeval urge to measure our days by the darkening hours up until the solstice and then by the longing for warmth and light that comes as we inch our way closer and closer to spring.  I suppose being that I work outdoors I feel it so much more, I record the passing of the year in every fallen leaf, every budding bloom, by the presence of the winter constellations in the night sky such as Orion the Hunter, by the harvest, by the smell of blossom, by the temperature of the wind, by the jerky fluttery flight of newly fledged, messily feathered young birds, by the gathering of swallows and swifts on phone lines and by their sudden, aching absence.

But this way of reading the natural rhythms of the earth and the countryside around us must be hidden deep within everyone, a prehistoric sense that has in many people been dimmed and overshadowed by our evolution into the modern world and its technology which can often blind us to what is all around.  So if you make only one resolution for the New Year make it this one – get yourself out and about every now and then and witness the awakening of the natural world as we head through the solstice and the darkness, on our way out to the light.

Meanwhile across our countryside properties we find ourselves flying through the winter works season at as fast a pace as ever.  The Marsh inlet works that I spoke about in my last post have taken well – I went there last week to see how it was faring and to my delight and despite the endless display of footprints that show that people are still not allowing it to rest and settle but are marching all over it, there was actually a few tiny signs of new growth emerging from the peaty mass of mud and root matter that was poured in.  Undoubtedly due to the ongoing warmth of the weather, things are still trying to grow and this is a good sign for this area when the proper growing season comes – if it can start shooting in December, it should have no problem properly growing and binding together come spring and summer, which will help firm up the whole inlet area.
The ford area, grass growing back bit by bit...

Our sheep flock have been taken out of their Kingdom and brought back to Mottisfont for the festive period, where they will be easier to keep a check on each day by the staff on rota.  This was a job that was easier said than done as it entailed dedicated training with the nut bucket by myself and the sheep lookers to lure all 25 into the corral each day.  By the time the allotted day came around they were all flocking in to the corral no problem and I had all 25 penned up inside awaiting their taxi within minutes of arriving. So far, so good.  Whilst we were waiting, a plump little Robin took it upon himself to hop around the corral tweeting at the sheep, probably wondering why they were all on his patch?  

'Oi you lot! State your business here!'

Keeping a beady eye on the proceedings...

Gareth Jenkins, one of our tenant farmers at Mottisfont arrived on the slope with his large livestock trailer and tractor and backed it into position by the corral.  We set up side hurdles to prevent escape, opened the corral gate and…..nothing. Not one animal moved and tumbleweed drifted by.  Hmmm.  I had thought getting them in the corral would be the hard bit, had somehow envisaged that they would from there flow smoothly into the trailer like a woolly stream….as usual I was wrong.  A bucket of nuts did little to lure them into the trailer and I realised that apart from the odd sick one who has come back to Mottisfont for TLC, the flock have not left Stockbridge in the two years they have been here and so they had no idea what the trailer held in store for them. Finally, with my promises of lush Mottisfont grass and both Gareth and I shooing and pushing their fat behinds, we got them all squidged into the trailer looking very out of place and befuddled, with a lot of loud complaining going on.

Walter and i having a chat about what was about to happen.  It did nothing to reassure them.

Back at Mottisfont I had a pen set up in their holiday field and when Gareth arrived with them we opened the trailer into the pen – I stood back expecting bodies to fly out like jumping beans but the first two that ran out stopped dead and threw their heads down and started gobbling the grass straight away – much to the annoyance of the rest of the flock who backed up behind them, unable to get out and making lots of sheep noises that I interpreted as ‘Oi! Get out the way! Move along!’   I then watched in amusement as the tide of fat sheep finally broke though the barrier of the first two animals and they all poured out in a rather undignified manner, into the pen.

Holding pen and vaccination pen set up and ready to go

For the next few hours Ryan, Alan our volunteer and I went through the laborious process of the annual vaccination and worming of the flock in order to keep them in good health – not that they are ever grateful!  Each sheep had to be manhandled into the handling pen and held still by one or two people whilst I injected the vaccination into their skin, dosed them with wormer and gave them once over health check.  Given that they weigh in at around 70kg, and did not enjoy being stuck with a needle, we were all rather stiff and achy by the time we nearly finished.  Each sheep got sprayed with a purple mark to show that it had been treated and I got a bit bored of doing tick marks and started being more creative.  Walter the lone male got a crown (King of the Flock), one got a festive holly leaf, another a sail boat and so on as the ideas took us.  I also consider it a security measure as no one is going to try sheep rustling animals with such individual markings as these!   
Showing off their tattoo's - Walter and his Crown

Just as we had almost finished, one of the last two sheep in the pen decided that she was not having any of it and after giving us a cool look, turned and leapt over the hurdles to freedom.  Arrrgh!  Resisting the urge to throttle them all, I went for the nut bucket and threw some around the field, luring our escapee close enough for me to then leap on.  In the ensuing tussle of being dragged around by a fat sheep that wanted to travel I got a smash to the nose and though I managed to keep hold of her, by the time Ryan and Alan were able to run and grab her off me I had a healthy stream of blood flowing from my nostrils – just another day working with the sheep!  Still whilst I mopped up the guys got her vaccinated and wormed and released and finally, the whole flock were done for another year.  We cleared the pen away and left them all to enjoy the new lush grass in their holiday field while we went for a well-deserved cup of tea and a bag of frozen peas.

In keeping with the festive season, Mottisfont village is usually the home of a nativity scene, previously set up in the garden of resident Betty Pragnell.  Since Betty passed away earlier this year, the church wanted to recreate the nativity in the middle of the village where people would drive by and see it and so they enlisted our help in locating and creating it.  The Woodyard orchard was chosen as it is roadside along the main village road and so will get a good audience passing through.  Lily, one of our Visitor Experience team, and her craft group volunteers set about creating the figurines and Ryan and myself were put to work building the stable.  At first, we set our sights a bit too small when we started building a frame to fit the original figures.  Then when we were shown the size of the New Improved figures we realised we were going to have to scale up a bit!  And so over the course of a weekend and half the week Ryan and I rummaged through the wood yard creating the main frame of the stable – Ryan was entirely behind the design and all the fancy joints, all I did was hit nails where he told me and saw wood where it was marked!  Roofing felt was obtained and over the course of a bright frosty day we slowly erected the stable in the orchard, piece by piece. 
From woodyard... orchard...

to stable...

...Completed nativity with the Thursday volunteers - the Not So Wise Men! (Joking guys...)

The roof was felted, the beams were tapped into place and the sides were staked to the ground to avoid the wind blowing it over – although the whole construction was heavy enough that it would have taken a hurricane to lift it.  I reckon if we had put a ‘To Let’ sign up, it may have got some offers!
We spread some hay down on the floor of the stable and the figurines were brought up from the Abbey, complete with Mary, Joseph, Shepherd (and sheep), Three Wise Men and the baby Jesus, and the stage was set.  The later addition of lights around the bushes and a lit up star in the nearby apple tree made the picture complete and when the village held a carol service there one moonlit evening, it made a very pretty picture – Betty’s family were thrilled with the nativity that was created in her memory and I am certain Betty herself would have been pretty chuffed with it too.  I was tempted to put one of our live sheep in as a touch of realism but I think it would have ended in disaster!

Silent Night

So here we stand, once again, at the Gates of the Year, ready to step forward into the unknown that lies ahead.  2015 has given us many things as a working team.  We have had illness and loss, glorious successes and dedicated people, new projects that will improve our habitats and ongoing ones that are bearing fruit.  We have had the pleasure of watching our sites blossom and thrive with the seasons and the inevitable yearning as we see them decline into winter slumber, appearing barren on the surface but we know, oh how we know the glory of life that lies beneath, awaiting its time.

I find this work and indeed life in general, is like riding a rushing torrent of rapids, being relentlessly pushed on through peaks and troughs and only through hard work and forward momentum do you make it out of the lower troughs and onto the top of those shining peaks while the flow thunders around you.  We have all had our peaks and troughs in 2015 – now we look to 2016 and a new set of rapids – so paddle hard, look to the sun and enjoy your ride, wherever it may take you.

Merry Christmas!

The Team