Tuesday, 24 March 2015

Birds, Barrows and the Birth of a Woodland

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

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

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

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

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

A willing team of volunteers...

And you can rebuild history!

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

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

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

Wednesday, 11 March 2015

The Awakening

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Harvester power!

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

In the beginning there were mulch piles....

A team of willing workers...

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

End of day one

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

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

Looking like a fluffy puffball mushroom!

Monday, 23 February 2015

Winter's End

 'February is merely as long as is needed, to pass the time until March'

February has almost blown itself out with its bitter winds and March will be creeping in as of next week, bringing with it the promise of warmer sunshine and longer days.  Last week in Oakley copse Ryan, myself and Tony spotted our first butterfly of the year; a Red Admiral that must have been woken up from hibernation by the warmth of the sun that day and was dozily fluttering around us, probably slightly shell shocked after such a long nap.  It flitted right past my face (probably attracted to how sweaty I was after chainsawing, like a human salt lick) and seeing that jerky flight movement that is so characteristic of butterflies felt vaguely surreal; although you may see butterflies from March to October or beyond, so most of the year, the months when you are without them seem to feel like such a long time that when they do start reappearing, it’s like discovering a new species all over again!

In preparation for other small things waking up, Sparsholt students have been out with me for a tour of our woodlands and to help in setting up a new Dormouse survey grid.  As I have mentioned before, we have dormouse boxes in a couple of woodlands across our estate, in the hunt for these elusive little creatures.  They only went up last year and so it was unsurprising that no dormice were found using them last summer as it can often take a few years for them to move into the boxes. 
Sparsholt putting up Dormouse boxes
I have constantly found myself baffled though, at the lack of known dormice presence in our woodlands as we have everything they need (which, despite their name suggesting it, is not just Hazel).   However back in December, our deer stalker who works across our estate mentioned to me that he had seen a dormouse a few weeks previously, running along a fallen tree and down into a Hazel stool!  I resisted the urge to throttle him for not telling me sooner, as by the time I found out all dormice would have been tucked deep into hibernation – in fact that is likely to be what the one he saw was doing, looking for a spot to hibernate down in the roots of a hazel stool. So!  A first time sighting for the estate and one which I instantly set to work utilizing – I placed 50 nest tubes throughout this area of woodland and then Sparsholt have come out with handmade nest boxes and placed the beginnings of a new next box grid throughout the woodland too.  All I can do now, is sit back on impatient heels and wait for spring to come and for any dormice to start waking up and revealing themselves to me…unfortunately, patience is a virtue I am not renowned for!
Nest tube
Now, every other Sunday across our Mottisfont, Stockbridge and New Forest estates we work with SHNTV (South Hampshire National Trust Volunteers) doing various tasks throughout the year.  Last Sunday it was my turn to lead the day and we had the joyous task of removing old tree protection tubes and stakes from hedgerows around the estate that no longer required them.  If you drive round Mottisfont you will see hundreds of these tubes in the hedgerow, encasing a tree that has long outgrown it and doesn’t need protecting from rabbit damage anymore.  The plastic tubes are supposedly ‘biodegradable’ but I am yet to come across any that do in fact biodegrade within the life span of any human or tree – I reckon some will take hundreds of years to fall apart which isn’t much good as the tree inside will either be long dead or have grown over it!
So in order to rid our hedgerows of these plastic tubes – which don’t get me wrong are essential for newly planted trees, to avoid them being damaged by grazing animals – myself and the Sunday group set to work armed with penknives, Stanley knives, secateurs and eye goggles and, quite literally – dove in.  I found the best technique was to crawl into the centre of the hedge (which naturally had a good amount of thorn and friggin’ bramble within) and then crawl through the middle corridor slicing open the tubes with my knife and chucking them out through the branches.  I can see the appeal to wildlife in using the hedgerow as a corridor – it was quite cosy once you got inside!

Lurking in the hedgerow...

 The weather was cold but kind and we had a very successful day, clearing tubes from about 1.5km of hedgerow.  We stash the tubes until we have a big enough amount to take to a special recycling unit that will mash them up and reuse them – far more sustainable then letting them biodegrade for a thousand years in a hedgerow I reckon.

Last week saw our team travel to the far shores of Purbeck, to go and spend a day with the rangers at Studland clearing gorse from the sand dune heathland ecosystem.  The weather was truly glorious, with blue skies blazing and the sun beaming down – enough so that I was hoping to spot the first adders out basking, however I think we were making too much noise!  The Purbeck team came up to the New Forest a couple of months ago and did a day working with us, so this was our way of returning the favour.  

Waiting for the chain ferry - look at that blue, blue sky!

We took a minibus of volunteers with us, with Lee at the wheel (hence the fact they got lost around Ringwood and Poole) whilst Laura and I drove another truck down with more volunteers and all our tools.  When we got to the site the team gave us a brief talk about the habitat and the ecosystem – it’s not just any heathland site, but a sand dune heathland site which makes it that bit extra special.  Also interesting to learn was that elements such as the concrete pillar boxes which were onsite during the war and have since been blown up have meant that lime from the concrete blocks have, over many years, leached into the soil around it, changing its PH and thus allowing a wider diversity of species to grow here (heathlands are generally acidic, but the lime reduces this acidity which in turns allows different niche species to come in).  The site is also home to all six native British reptiles – much to my delight, I made a note to return here in spring and hunt them out.   

Our task was to assist in the cutting and clearing of degenerate, overgrown gorse.  Gorse is a brilliant habitat for reptiles on heathlands but it can get rather out of control and swallow up the heather and other species.  Due to the steeply undulating dune landscape the team here are unable to use machines to clear the gorse (and it would be too damaging to the dune habitat) so they can only cut and clear by hand.  So in we went, armed with chainsaws and bow saws and, having plotted out the area they wanted work doing, we attacked.  I found a great satisfaction in chainsawing my way across a swathe of hillside, piling up the cut gorse as I went, and looking back to see the trail we were carving. 
Ploughing our way through the gorse (photo credits: David Jones, NT)

 As well as the sandy soil the presence of hidden blocks of blown up concrete meant we had to be careful not to wreck our chainsaws by catching them which would inevitably blunt the teeth.  However I managed to avoid doing so until the very last moment, when I saw the sparks fly as a concrete lump leapt out of the gorse at me and just caught my saw.  The Purbeck team kept us well fed and watered throughout the day and we all had a great time – I couldn’t get over the beauty of the place and everytime I reached the top of a dune I would stand there gawping for a minute, at the rolling heathland, with the sandy beach beyond and Old Harry and his Wife standing guard out in the blue sea.  So a big thanks to the Purbeck team for having us and to our volunteers who risked Lee’s minibus driving to come and assist and when the weather turns truly warmer – I will be heading back to enjoy the site at its summer peak, with the coconut scent of gorse in my nostrils…
The devastation we left behind - an ocean of cut Gorse for burning...(photo credit; David Jones NT)

Finally, take note of our avian friends as winter draws to a close – I keep seeing a good number of birds on the lawns of Mottisfont that at a casual glance may be mistaken for Song Thrushes, with their speckled breasts.  However if you stop and look you will spot the beautiful russet red feathers on their sides which identify them as Redwings, our smallest UK Thrush and a winter visitor from the North.  They will be leaving soon, throughout March and April, so enjoy them whilst you can as they are a delightful bird.

Redwings on the lawns of Mottisfont

And talking of feathered friends, if any of you have read my blog long enough to remember the tale of ‘Goldie’ the Goldfinch I rescued back in April 2013, then I am delighted to report that according to the Mottisfont Bird Report 2014 (compiled by Alan Snook) Goldie was spotted again in 2014 at the bird feeders at Visitor Reception.  Goldie was found unconscious with a damaged wing in the grounds of Mottisfont and I took on the task of taking him home, sorting his wing out and keeping him for a month until it healed.  Once he was able to fly again I released him back where he was found and he was seen later that year with a flock of finches, recognisable by his wonky wing which although healed, is now always held at a slight angle to the other.  The last I heard of him was at the end of 2013 so I was thrilled when I read Alan’s report that showed he had been seen again in 2014 in a winter flock – gives you a real glow of pride!   And fingers crossed that Jasper, the Nuthatch I reared last year will make an appearance this Spring back at his birth tree, as I would love to see him again and know how he is getting on – although this isn’t some modern day Snow White story where all the small birds I’ve saved will flutter round me singing sweet ballads, so I will probably never know their fate – but it doesn’t stop me keeping my ears open for the call of a hungry Nuthatch or my eyes peeled for a wonky winged Goldfinch and a familiar feathered face.