Wednesday, 10 September 2014

Hamble, Hay and Harvest time



 “Summer afternoon—summer afternoon; to me those have always been the two most beautiful words in the English language.” 

                                                                       - Henry James

There is a distinct nip in the air these mornings which, combined with the first hints of autumn colour in the Acer trees tells us that Summer is fading.  The ‘Fire tree’ as I call it, outside our staff carpark is beginning to turn its vivid red, looking like someone has lit the flame from the top of the canopy, which will slowly engulf the whole tree over the coming months. 
My butterfly surveys on Stockbridge are getting quieter week by week – the Skippers, Marbled Whites and Fritillaries are long gone, with Meadow Browns, Small Coppers, Blues, Brimstones and Speckled Woods the last soldiers holding the fort and fluttering on; however the decreasing numbers seen each week signals that they are one by one dying with the season.

Whilst this time of year marks the approaching end of summer, it does signal the beginning of something else – harvest time!  Everywhere you look at the minute, the trees and bushes are heavily laden with fruits and nuts, again looking like a bumper year for autumn foraging – last year was also superb.  The hazel nuts are beginning to ripen and fall, and the Blackthorn bushes are already absolutely stuffed with fat looking Sloe’s that whisper ‘gin…giiiiiiin’ in your ear.
But the winner this year for impressive produce has to be – blackberries.  Normally, bramble bushes are something I despise.  As a conservationist I shouldn’t say that as they are a brilliant source of nectar and food for insects, birds and small mammals but: I hate them.  All year round they torture and maim you, they scratch and cut and claw at your skin with their little backwards hooking thorns that tear through your clothes.  They trip you up with their sinuous tendrils and capture your hair in a thorny embrace all year round.  They untie your laces constantly, and then dig in a couple of thorns into your fingers for good measure when you tie them back up.  You are left with the endless rotation of scratches and scars on your arms and legs from their touch, thorns in your scalp and under your nails as well as nearly losing an eye to them on a regular basis.



Blackberry glut - and Comma butterfly enjoying the nectar
 
However, this time of year they present their one redeeming feature (in my eyes); blackberries.  And boy, have they outdone themselves this year!  The bushes are absolutely heaving with blackberries, hundreds of shiny, juicy, globules of deep purple fruits hanging off the stems, tempting you to brave the clutches of the thorns and pluck them.  The New Forest, Stockbridge, Mottisfont – all our sites are just crammed full with these fruits at the moment and I have been taking full advantage and getting my own back for the pain they usually cause for the rest of the year.  Laura and I picked a haul of blackberries at Foxbury and I then couldn’t resist picking more in our Mottisfont woodland the other day – they were just so plump and shiny that I couldn’t resist.  I took my bandana (I wear one on my wrist or neck most days as they really are the most useful thing at work; they can be headbands, sweat rags, nose/face masks, small critter catchers and so on) and with a few knots here and there I had fashioned into a small collecting bag, in which I proceeded to place blackberries.  From these I have so far made Blackberry whisky – an old favourite – and am in the process of making Blackberry wine – a first attempt, so fingers crossed.  If you get the chance, get out and pick some and make something – booze, crumble, blackberry fool, anything!  They are too good to miss.

 
A bandana of blackberries - new collective noun

 
I also got back from holiday last week and found my vegetable crop in the garden had finally borne fruit (haha).  I had actually managed to grow a couple of cucumbers that resembled cucumbers – all the previous ones had grown in interesting bendy, curly shapes – and my tomatoes have at last decided to put on their red coats and throw away their green summer vests.  Unfortunately the slugs have also been enjoying the glut and I found them savaging a couple of fallen tomatoey victims – damn them!
 
Straight cucumbers - hooray!

Slug attack


























So have a go and see what you can create from the summer and autumn goodies – so far this year I have done Elderflower champagne, pickled cucumbers and chillies, honey roast tomatoes, chutney, rhubarb crumble, blackberry whisky and blackberry wine…and the best is yet to come, with Sloe gin, cider, sweet chestnuts, walnuts and much more still on the menu – yum!

Gluttony aside, we have been finishing our summer tasks at work and planning ahead to winter.

Last week we performed the final bat survey of the year across our Mottisfont woodlands.  We conduct these surveys in July, August and September each year to monitor the Barbastelle population we have here.  I have mentioned before about our Barbastelle and how rare they are, so it is important we keep monitoring how they are doing in conjunction with our woodland management work.  Maintenance of wide rides (which they use as flight corridors) protection and recording of tree roost areas and thinning of plantations and regeneration of broadleaves all contribute into the woodland management plan, and the bat populations are one aspect of this.
So Ryan, Dylan and I each walked our individual transect routes through separate woodlands, recording the bats heard on the bat detector on a sound recorder, as well as tallying off heard bats on a survey form.  You always hear interesting noises when walking alone through the woodlands at this time of night – large shufflings of heavy mammals, the screeches and hoots of Barn and Tawny owls and, once, the sudden squawk of a pheasant that burst up out of the bushes in the dark straight at me and made me shriek like a banshee – all recorded, doh!  On the last survey the owls were going wild – they were shrieking and crying and there was a lot of hooting and calling noises from one area in particular, and sounds of bustle in the branches – possibly young tawnies trying to compete for territories?  The cry of an owl always sends a shiver down my spine – there is something so ethereal about it, something that makes you think of haw frost covered lands overlooked by star-ridden night skies….or maybe that’s just me.

Back to the light and daytime, and with the saying ‘make hay whilst the sun shines’ dancing through my head, I have got a hay cut being taken off of Stockbridge Down this week.  It is on an area of particularly tough grass that is near the entrance to the Down and consequently is of fairly poor quality.  The cows do not graze that area particularly and so by taking a hay cut we can remove the dominant grasses and nutrients which will allow a greater diversity of grasses and flora to grow and seed next year.  The hay can be used to feed our sheep flock should they require any extra help over the winter and so we kill two birds with one stone – benefitting the grassland habitat as well as the sheep flock.  We are lucky that the dry weather has continued this far – there are still many farmers still cutting hay and straw whilst they have the chance and the gutter sides of all the roads are littered with bits of hay from where bales have been transported in mass loads – fingers crossed the dryness keeps up until we get the hay in.



Cut hay on the Down


Last week Ryan and I went to our site at Curbridge Nature Reserve, alongside the river Hamble.  This is one of our furthest sites, lying an approximately 40 minute drive from Mottisfont, but is a beautiful stretch of ancient woodland, running alongside the River Hamble estuary.  Mature Oaks and Ash stand tall in this woodland, with an understorey of hazel, field maple, holly, crab apple and even Wild Service tree, to name but a few.  The bluebells here in April and May are fantastic and there are many other ancient woodland indicators to be found here too, including Dogs Mercury and Solomon’s seal.  It is a lovely place to take a walk and when you get to the end of the woodland you come out onto an open field that I hope to turn into a wildflower meadow, by taking a late hay cut each year.  Adjacent to this field is the river estuary itself where you can watch the tide turn and chase itself in and out, revealing wooden structures sticking up out of the mud flats when the tide is low.  On the other side of the bank are the remains of a roman villa that lies on the confluence of the rivers Hamble and Cur and must have made a very pretty summer house in its time.
 
Running through this woodland are stretches of boardwalk to take people over the wetter areas and the creeks and it was these boardwalks we were attending to.  The Sunday Volunteer group spent a very productive day with Ryan a few weeks ago, replacing broken/missing steps and repairing rotten bits of boardwalk.  Ryan and I went back to finish the last few bits and replace some old rusty chicken wire that was coming loose – by the way, if anyone knows of a low cost alternative to chicken wire for providing grip on boardwalks, do share, because chicken wire is so terrible for coming loose, breaking and rusting and causing trip hazards, and it’s like painting the Forth bridge – by the time you replace it all, the beginning needs doing again.
Whilst there we also removed some old rotten sections of old boardwalk that had been left rotting in the bushes for a decade and took them back with us to be burnt.

Hamble Boardwalkin'


Before we left we stood on the banks of the river looking out.  The tide was low and the sun was warm on the back of our necks, with the air smelling of heat but with that tiny touch of freshness that hints at impending seasonal change.  The trees on the other bank were reflected in the water perfectly, their autumnal colours just beginning to show and the only noise was the egrets and other estuary birds calling softly across the water.  Then we became aware of another noise…a sort of snap crackle and pop! noise that rice crispies make.  We wandered around listening before ascertaining that it was coming from the mud below our feet – mud that was usually covered at high tide, and now had hundreds of tiny air bubbles escaping and popping in the suns warmth making a very pleasant – if unusual - soundtrack to such a peaceful view.

 
River Hamble
Peace!





Friday, 22 August 2014

There was an old lady who swallowed a fly....



In my last post I told you about the wiggly beasties in my eye and I also mentioned that Laura telling me she saw living things in my eye was a sentence I never wanted to hear again.

Well, I can now add to this with another sentence I never want to hear again in my entire life, which was when I got the results of my eye tests back yesterday as to what the creatures where, and the missing link as to why my sinuses have been a sneezing, running, blocked and irritated mess ever since the eye incident.

Oestrus Ovis: Sheep Nasal Botfly larvae. 
Oh. The. Horror.  

I had sheep botfly larvae (or the after effects of) in my eye and hiding out in my sinuses which was why I’ve felt so rough for 3 and a half weeks and been sneezing and snotting like I was suffering from the worst hayfever ever…aaarrrrrrggggghhhhh it is beyond gross, hideous and just downright bizarre.  However, I have had cameras put up my nose and through my sinuses now (horrible) and had it all washed out and am already feeling much better today and best of all – my sense of smell and taste is returning – hooray!  Hopefully that was an element of the job I will never suffer again…botfly, I mean, just EW.  (When I had the phone call I spent about ten minutes sitting at my desk staring blankly at the screen in silence, and just occasionally uttering the word ‘botfly…’ in whispered horrified tones, until Laura told me to stop repeating it as it will not help.  Googling it didn't help either as it was just full of horror stories.).

Anyway, so all seems well again and I can focus on the job without feeling like my sinuses are about to explode anymore.  So let me move on to nicer things and talk about the Marsh project

I mentioned a couple of posts ago, about the river bank restoration work that we have started undertaking on Stockbridge Common Marsh this Summer.  The last I wrote, we had installed a fence and put in the geotextile edging into the river following the line of where the bank should be, before it got so eroded.


The geotextile in place in June

 Well following on from this in July, I had contractors working in the river to plant up the backfill area and try and fold down the bank turf to create a sloping margin.
There were a few teething issues; turns out that instead of a peat bank, the bank in this particular area was two thirds chalk, from previous years of bank repairs and track installations dating back decades.   This meant the bottom third of the bank was peat, and this was what was getting washed out by the river until the top two thirds of chalk were so overcut that they collapsed in.  This gave our contractors a problem in that they couldn’t dig out and slope the bank as planned because the chalk would just crumble and give way.  So they ended up managing it in some areas, and in others where the chalk had already cracked and fallen, this was made into sloping areas.  Plants were taken from the other side of the river and planted in between the bank and the geotextile – again, more difficult than planned as they should have had more peat backfill from the bank to plant into.  But as the bank turned out to be chalk, the plants had to be planted direct into the silty edges of the river bed.  This will still result in sedimentation and stabilization, but will take longer than if there had been peat backfill to put in with it to begin with.

However, they planted up all along the area and will do two more days of planting in autumn once things have silted up a bit more.  The visual difference after they finished was brilliant and when I went back there a few weeks later to add some more faggots across inlet areas, I could see even more growth of vegetation.  Fleabane, water forget-me-knot and water parsnip were thriving on the bank side already, a marked difference to the eroded wasteland that it had been only 2 months earlier. 
 
From this....
...to this - see the water forget-me knot...



...and this!  Within a month, you can see the amount os peaty silt that has begun to fill in this inlet section.


Planted up.




















So it is ongoing but the early results are promising.  We cannot possibly foretell the future – this winter will obviously have an impact as if we had flood levels like last year it may pose a risk to the planted vegetation.  We also know now that the re-profiling of the bank is not something that can be done with picks and spades if chalk is present so we will potentially have to plan something else for further stretches.
Still, I am sure you agree that from these photos this stretch of bank is looking healthier than it has in many years – so all we can do now throughout winter and into the next growth season is watch and wait and hope.  Grow nature, grow!

I leave you on a nicer note than the one i began with - took this shot in the Mottisfont rose garden of my favourite butterfly species.  Butterfly season is almost over - enjoy them whilst you can!

Wednesday, 13 August 2014

Rotting Flesh and crawling vision - the perks of the job...




Rarely a week goes by in the summer months when I am not chatting to someone, a visitor or office bound colleague, who remarks on how much I must love my job and how lucky I am to work outside at this time of year.  To which of course I reply, with a suntanned grin, that yes, spring and summer are the bee knees of working outdoors and I wouldn’t swap it for anything (needless to say, they do not make this comment in the depths of winter when they see me trudging into the office soaking wet and frozen to the bone).

However, I feel it is only right to share with you the aspects of the job that come this luxury of days spent working in the sunshine and fresh air, for with the peak growing and living season it is not only the nice plants and animals that emerge and thrive…



Our Wiltshire Horn sheep flock are a hardy breed that has the excellent quality of shearing themselves, by shedding their fleeces off in warmer weather.  This and the combined attribute of having a very short fleece means that they are generally not very prone to getting hits of Blowfly strike.  Blowfly strike is a hideous scenario that comes in in the warmer, wetter months of late Spring though to Autumn.  Sheep are very prone to it as are long haired pet rabbits (I’ve heard).  Flies will hover round areas of a sheep that are mucky and moist, such as very dirty back ends where the fleece is soiled with faeces or afterbirth and they will land and lay eggs on this soiled fleece.  The eggs hatch, and the maggots eat their way through the soiled fleece…and keep eating.  Eat, eat, eat they burrow their way down through the flesh, with more eggs being laid and hatched continuously.  If the problem is not caught quickly, it can lead to a horrible toxic death within only a few days.  With this cheerful thought in mind, I have been paranoid about fly strike this year and have trained the sheep lookers in the early signs to look for, which includes dark stains on the fleece, scratching, stamping and the sheep generally acting off colour.



We have treated the flock with a flystrike preventative since March this year and I had my fingers crossed we would get away with it…but a few weeks ago Mike, my Thursday looker rang me to say he was concerned about one sheep he had spotted with dark staining on her neck.  I went up to the Down and it didn’t take me long to find the ewe in question and even from a few metres away I could see, without a doubt that she had been hit with blowfly strike.  I coaxed her to me with a bucket of nuts, got the halter on her and commenced a 30 minute battle to get her to the holding pen – she may have had maggots in her neck but they obviously hadn’t weakened her yet as she kicked, jumped, bucked her way to the pen, sometimes lying flat on the floor and refusing to budge – and I defy anyone to try and drag a 70kg sheep by a nose halter if she doesn’t want to move.  However eventually with a mixture of nuts and tough love I got her in the pen, tied her halter to the fence and commenced the clean-up job.  And eeeuuuuurrrrrgh!  What a joyful hour I spent!  On closer inspection I found the poor thing had two holes in her neck both heaving with maggots.  Cracks radiated out from the holes showing where the smaller maggots were starting to spread outwards in fleshy highways and there was a lot of bloody fluid leaking out.  Bearing in mind that the lookers check the sheep daily, this must have been the result of only a day’s worth of hatched maggots which, in the high humidity and very hot weather had accelerated their devastating munching march.  As I scooped out maggots with my finger, reaching as far down into the neck wound as I could reach, I tried not to throw up at the stench that wafted up and around us.  Rotting flesh flavoured my nostrils and the incessant buzzing of more flies around my face had me muttering, swearing and retching at the maggots in equal turn even as I decimated them with the Finger of Death. 

After an hour’s worth of baby wiping, trimming away the blood stained, crusty fleece and ejecting maggots I quickly called Ryan to ask him to come up with suitable sheep transport so that we could take her to our Vet Field at Mottisfont for her recovery.  I poured in some Crovect fluid which did the very satisfying job of burning out all the remaining maggots that were lurking further down under the neck skin and which I couldn’t reach with my finger.  Out they came, wriggling in agony and shrieking their maggoty cries as they abandoned their fleshy ship and threw their grotesque plump bodies over the edge.  I watched with cold eyes and helped them on their way with more scooping actions.  Finally the poor girl was clear of maggots.  I applied various treatments to the holes in her neck including antibacterial and antiseptic spray and, when Ryan and the volunteers arrived we loaded her and one other lucky ewe (to keep her company) into the truck and took them back to Mottisfont.

 
From this...

..to this...
























...to this!  Finally looking much better, only a week after the last photo was taken - amazing really.


It is now 3 weeks later and, after a daily routine of cleaning out pus, cleaning the wound and surrounding fleece (I tried several methods to get the blood stained fleece clean including shaving, trimming and a natural nettle shampoo which worked best) she is healing well.  The vet had to come and cut off two big chunks of over granulated gristle which had swelled up out the hole and was preventing it from healing over (I know, more bleurgh) but now she is looking like a much happier sheep again, with the surrounding flesh returned to a healthy pink, and the holes almost fully healed together.

Even now though, as the hot spell has let up slightly and some wetter weather has moved in, I keep my eyes anxiously peeled for any more cases of flystrike…



And talking of eyes, I had an interesting experience with another creepy crawly recently.  During one of my daily clean up visits to Maggot Face (as I fondly named my poor ewe) I was besieged by…well no one knows what.  I had just caught the sheep and was in the process of tying her halter to the gate when I felt and saw something land on the lower lashes of my right eye – and then the pain kicked in as it went in my eye.  Fumbling with the halter I finished tying up the sheep and then climbed over the gate and ran to the truck and looked in the wing mirror looking for the fly or whatever it was that had flown into my eye.  I looked and looked but couldn’t find anything and, blinking hard, I decided I must have blinked it away.  Well throughout the rest of that day, the pain returned off and on to my eye and each time I looked in a mirror and saw nothing, finally concluding that I must  have scratched the lens, or that a fly or a hair must be stuck at the back somewhere and would work its own way out.  I used an eye wash to try and flush it out and carried on with my day. 

However by evening, the pain was still off and on and when it did return it was getting more intense and my eye was more irritated.  My housemate Laura finally got tired of my yelping in pain and running from the kitchen to the mirror that she had me pinned down and peered in my eye with a torch, looking for the elusive hair or whatever it was.

After a few seconds she inhaled and then putting down the torch she put her hand on my arm and calmly said a sentence I never want to hear again in my life:

‘Now.  I don’t want you to panic….but...there is something crawling around in your eye.’

‘Oh very funny!’ I snapped, sure she was joking.

‘Noooo, seriously, I’m not kidding.’

Disbelievingly I looked in the mirror myself, holding the torch to my eyeball and there…at that exact moment…SOMETHING crawled across the black pupil of my eye and disappeared into the other side.

Cue Panic.

As I hopped up and down beating the side of my head and gibbering about staying calm but oh its soooooo gross, Laura grabbed her car keys and ushered me out the door (we realised later how rubbish we would be in a real emergency, as we both ran out the house without money, phones and barely even shoes).

As it was late evening and everything was shut, Laura drove me to the Eye Unit at A and E and I had to endure the disbelieving looks of the receptionists, nurses and eye doctors as I retold my tale.  However once the eye doctor had me strapped in the chair and examined my eye….he almost gave up looking when ‘aha!’ He extracted out the little wretched creepy thing, using the most sophisticated of tools, a wooden stick (very painful on the eye!).  I sighed in relief – until he picked up the stick again and went back into my eye…and again…and again!  After the fourth one he switched to tweezers as he assured me it would be less painful (gibber) and 7 alien beasties later, he washed my eye out and gave me some eye drops to prevent infection whilst assuring me that nothing in the UK lays eggs in eyes or can cause blindness….

Getting home to a ruined dinner and feeling slightly depressed at the whole situation, I shuddered with horror when I felt the familiar pain return…and consequently I plucked two more of the tiny things from my eyeball before finally feeling like they were all gone.  Argh! If they ever get the results back on what the things were, I will let you know – Dylan’s bet is on aliens, other people thought it was something that jumped off the sheep, but based on how they floated down into my eye and the way they wriggled more like some kind of water larvae I am not convinced. 



So the next time someone remarks on how lucky I am to work in the great outdoors, I will smile and nod in agreement, all the while remembering that after the nettles stings, bramble scratches and insect bites, we still have flesh eating maggots and eye dwelling beasties to contend with – but I will still be content, knowing these are only the slightly less desirable perks of the job.

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!