Tuesday, 9 December 2014

Winter sunsets

For the first time this morning I finally had to scrape the ice off my truck windscreen – something which seems to have been a long time in coming.  But Orion the Hunter is walking our winter night sky once more and the leaves have finally all fallen in the Mottisfont woodlands, having hung on in the mild weather with no frost to encourage them to wither and drop off.  This did mean we were treated to an extended display of autumnal colour but now the winds have changed and the flocks of avian winter visitors have arrived on our shores and once again the seasons have begun to merge into one another.
Talking of avian visitors, this little chap joined me in the fencing store the other day and, with that intent nosiness that Robins display, he watched me quizzically as I shuffled through the fence posts and reams of wire trying to find what I was looking for.

"What 'choo doin'?"

 We do a lot of work with students from Sparsholt Agricultural College, who come out to get experience of working on different sites and habitats, doing different conservation work, which gives us lots of hands on work in exchange for us giving them some knowledge and case studies to go away with.  This winter so far they have already helped us with felling, scrub clearing, gorse burning, tree planting, fishing surveys and juniper saving.  They came out on Stockbridge the other week to carry on the Juniper work, clearing away the endless tide of encroaching scrub that is swallowing up the population.  We had a big fire, cleared a good amount and discovered and released even more Juniper trees into the light.  At the end of the day there was just time to walk them up to the top of the hillfort at the very top of Stockbridge Down so they could get a better perspective of the site as a whole – when you are down in the scrubby lower end, it can be hard to imagine the grassy plains and herb rich areas that dominate the top half of the site and make it the chalk grassland site that it is.  We hiked up the slope, through scrub and woodland, up the Celtic field systems and the final steep ramparts of the ancient fort and reached the top where the county lay spread out before us, all aglow.  The sun was low, the light golden; the shadows of every tree and hillock stretched out before it like a long black twin.  The whole land was bathed in a gleaming winter sunset and it looked astounding; as each group of students puffed up the hill and made the top, each one fell silent as they turned round and took in the view.  To the west, Danebury stood tall, silhouetted black against the amber sky, a permanent reminder of the history that once dominated this landscape, ancient hillforts rising up out of a sea of what is now mostly arable land.
After drinking our fill of the sight, we made our way back down the embankment our ancestors made and on down the hill.

Our Stockbridge flock of sheep have been making themselves at home on their new winter pasture, further round the slopes of the hillfort.  This new enclosure neighbours their old one, which makes it easier as we can just run them through the gate in the fenceline (although even this took several days to get every one of them through, but Sparsholt students came to the rescue and helped flock the remaining three refusniks though the gate after a week of exile).  Their new patch is similar in size, another 4 hectares or so of grassland and scrubby woodland habitat so plenty for them to get their teeth into.  They have responded well by fattening up on the new grazing and the old slope has benefited from having some time off their endlessly munching mouths.  I hope to use both these compartments to balance out the grazing impact on each – such as timings for wild flower seed settings – whilst also keeping to our HLS terms of having sheep grazing to benefit the sward height.  By having two differing areas I can move the flock between each, allowing each slope to rest and flower, or spread the numbers across both sites and thus reduce the livestock units which again will reduce pressure on the vegetation should we wish it.
However for now, they are finding their new hideouts and highways through the woodland and keeping a watchful eye for the sheep lookers - Bringers of the Nut Bucket….

Trying to nose into the Nut box!
Now at our Foxbury site in Wellow, we are 5 years into a huge landscape restoration project.  What was once solid plantation is being slowly reverted back to heathland, with areas of broadleaved woodland.  Cleared of 150 hectares of plantation woodland and rhododendron (although rhodi is ongoing) Gorse and heather species are returning to the sight along with heathland creatures such as Adders and, for the first time ever, a Dartford Warbler which was spotted a few weeks ago. 
To go with this heathland interior, areas of Foxbury along the fringes are being planted up with mixed deciduous woodland to create a good ecotone (transition between two ecosystems) and provide habitat diversity.  Alder, Sweet Chestnut and Sessile Oak are being planted in their thousands and Laura is heading up this planting work by having community planting days, volunteer groups, corporate days with different companies and Sparsholt students all organised to come and plant trees over the winter dormancy period.  The overall aim is to plant 20,000 trees in four years and last week, being National Tree week, she blazed ahead with the help of all the above groups and got 1850 trees planted in one week alone!

One down....Laura planting


And finally, the update on my Mottisfont Orchard cider….I spent 3 happy hours racking off the liquid, which was now sparkling gold and clear, into bottles, adding a spoonful of sugar to each to aid in a secondary fermentation.  Racking off 7 demi johns gave me over 70 bottles of cider and I tasted each demi john as I racked it (to check there was no taint of course) and it all tasted like it would be a winning batch once it was ready.  With the kitchen looking like a bombsite, I transferred the bottles to a colder area to allow for a final slow steady fermentation and they should be ready for drinking in a month or two – just the thing to liven up the gloom of January.
The new brewery in town...

Roll on New Year!

Thursday, 13 November 2014

The big wheel, keeps on turning...

'Summer ends, and Autumn comes, and he who would have it otherwise would have high tide always and a full moon every night; and thus he would never know the rhythms that are at the heart of life'
                             - Hal Borland

The wheel of seasonality is ever turning and I often mark the passing of time and seasons by what I observe on my walk from the staff carpark, through the grounds of the Abbey to my office.  In winter it can be hoarfrost covered cobwebs, winking at me from the statues, in summer it can be steaming dew lifting off the lawns as the new day heats up, and at this time of year, it is unequivocally the glorious display of the Chestnut and Plane leaves.  Gold, green, yellow, amber, red, the leaves lie like a fiery rug encompassing the ground around their parent tree in an almost perfect circle shape. Plump squirrels sit among the chestnut leaves scoffing on fallen nuts and come evening, on the walk back to my car, the rook and jackdaw colony that inhabit the tree tops along the roadside are often swooping and riding the wind, whilst cawing and calling and attempting to settle down into their treetop roosts for the night.
The Carpet of Plane leaves

Whilst everything is beginning to settle down into its dormancy period, we have started doing some work in the woodlands of Mottisfont to improve and encourage certain species distribution and population increase come the start of a new life cycle in spring.  Many of our woodlands contain what we call ‘wide rides’, essentially a wide track through the wood (unsurfaced) which breaks up the continuous canopy cover of the bigger trees like Ash and Oak.  By creating a wide ride, the sunlight can reach the forest floor in these areas and this in turn creates an explosion of ground flora such as Orchids, Violets, Sorrel and Bluebells which then provide food and nectar for species such as butterflies.  The edges of the wide ride will be able to grow a shrub layer of smaller trees such as Hazel and so you will end up with a pleasing graduated margin of canopy to shrub layer to ground flora which provides great structural diversity which benefits the habitat and the creatures that use it.  

One of our volunteers Geoff also works for the Butterfly Conservation Group and with his knowledge and expertise he has planned and carried out a series of wide rides in our woodlands.  These are in conjunction with our Woodland Management plan which features all our plantation felling work, open glade and ride creation and natural broadleaved regeneration/planting.  There are rides which we have to tractor-swipe on a rotational basis to keep the woodland from encroaching back in and by doing this on a rotation, we keep a good diversity of habitat.  Geoff has been doing a lot of this ride swiping for us this year and has also organised our Monday volunteer group into carrying out required ride work every other week under his command.  As well as maintaining these existing rides, Geoff and the volunteers have been creating new rides that were displayed on maps and no longer existed.  One of these is in a small woodland of ours called Herless copse.  
the finished Northern ride in Herless

volunteers clearing the rides

 Last Monday saw Geoff, the Monday gang, myself and our General Manager Paul, working on clearing through the new cross ride that Geoff had planned out.  Despite the odd rain shower we had a fantastic day and by the end we had completed the North, South and West ride, with just the Eastern ride to finish at a later date.  The difference was incredible, with the woodland really opened up and I cannot wait to see what it entices through it come spring.  

Jacket potatoes round the fire....
...a fire also enjoyed for its warmth by Sprocket the dog

One of the main reasons for these rides is to encourage the travel of butterflies, especially rare and declining species such as the Pearl Bordered Fritillary which inhabits woodland clearings and scrubby downland.  It was once very widespread but has declined rapidly by two thirds over the last 20 years as woodland management such as glade creation and coppicing has reduced.  With open areas growing in, their basking spots shaded out and their food plants of Violets being overtaken by canopy, habitats they were once found in became moribund for them and populations dipped.  On the Wiltshire border to the West of Mottisfont is an area called Tytherley Woods, in which BCT do a lot of work for the Pearl Bordered Fritillaries which reside there.  The work in our woodlands is part of trying to create an interconnected landscape of rides throughout woodlands across the counties to encourage the spread of Pearl Bordered Fritillaries and other species.  Fingers crossed for good results!
And of course these rides do not just benefit one species alone – bats such as the Barbastelle that inhabit our woods will be able to use them as flight corridors to make their way down to the river to feed and the diversity of vegetation layers that will be created will be good for birds and small mammals (dare I say dormice?) both for food sources (i.e. bramble berries) and home building sites.
Pearl Bordered Fritillary (NT archive)

Another large scale project we have started on with the coming of Autumn is taking place in our Duck Grounds.  This is the area of peaty wet woodland, floodplain meadows and reed beds that we have at Mottisfont, running parallel to the river.  The area is only accessible by guided tour and via a boardwalk, due to the danger of the peat bog terrain that can be lurking in the woodland here in the wetter months (if you haven’t done so already, read my blog post ‘A Tale of Two Tractors; August 2013) for full details of the habitat here.

Part of the Duck grounds consists of an area of reed beds that were starting to becoming overtaken by the wet woodland.  Both are valuable habitats, but the reed beds are the rarer and are home to Water Voles, Otter, Heron and potentially Bittern.  However as reed beds age they can build up a considerable thatch litter layer which then raises them above the water level, dries them out and allows scrub and woodland species to sneak in and colonise. So to prevent the woodland swallowing up the reeds for good, and in accordance with our Higher Level Stewardship, we have had contractors in to reduce the canopy cover of the reed bed area and allow the reeds to regenerate and flourish – and what a difference they have made so far!  They got started before the worst of the wet weather and are battling on regardless – hopefully it should be finished in a couple of weeks before it gets too wet and treacherous.  You can see from the photo’s what it looked like before and how it looks now – the area around the Otter pond in particular looks brilliant as all the trees that were beginning to take over it have gone from round half the pond, and the connecting reed beds have far more light.  By removing a certain percentage of the canopy cover we can create and maintain all the successional stages of the wetland habitat – from the wet meadows, to the reed beds to the wet woodland, without losing one of these stages altogether and the wildlife that goes with it.

Before: Area of reed bed enclosed by encroaching scrub

After: The opening up of the reed bed and pond from the scrub and woodland

 Now this year finally saw me achieving my New Year’s resolution of the last 4 years – which was to obtain my Dormouse Licence.  After several years of jumping on other people’s surveys and juggling dormice in all their life stages I have finally got my own licence and am able to survey for them alone.  As I have written before, I am still on the hunt for our own Dormice at Mottisfont, but I was surveying on another site recently and found, deep in torpor, a male Juvenile dormouse (torpor is the sleeping state that is a short term version of hibernation.  They usually go into torpor on cold days throughout autumn to conserve body fat and energy.  Hibernation is the extended form of torpor which they stay in throughout the winter).
I held the sleeping dormouse in my palm whilst I checked his gender (you do feel a bit rude peeking under their bed clothes whilst they sleep, but it is necessary for the survey) and suddenly the little creature stretched out his clenched little fists and feet in an almighty yawn, before curling up tightly again.  My heart popped and I almost threw up at the sweetness of it – no wonder so many people want to get their dormouse licence; they are just so damn cute!
Finally, there is a place I visited recently which, if you have not been to, I urge you to visit, especially now as the autumn leaves fall and the ground is a carpet of gold; Savernake Forest in Wiltshire.  Matt and I went there recently to walk and look for the ancient Oaks that dwell in the depths of the forest and we weren’t disappointed.  From the King of Limbs to the Spider Oak, there are some fantastic specimens in this forest all of which tell of hundreds of years of history; Savernake is the only ancient forest in Britain still in private hands; it has been passed down through 31 generations of father to son (or daughter on 4 occasions) in an unbroken line of ownership since it was first acquired by Richard Esturmy, one of the victorious knights at the Battle of Hastings.  This means it has never once been bought or sold in a thousand years, an entire millennia.  Not a bad family heirloom to inherit I reckon.

The King of Limbs - although some of them have now fallen

Red Admiral of Savernake (i can't take the credit for this photo; M.Bramich)

The Legendary Big Bellied Oak - the largest diameter of all the Savernake Oaks - what a fatty!

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…..so 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?