Thursday, 14 May 2015

This Fairytale World we live in.

The other day, when I had a rare moment to spare, I took a wander into Herless Copse, which is one of our smaller woodlands which lies just off the village cricket pitch.  Throughout the winter months (and detailed in my blog post last November) the volunteers had cleared back four cross rides in here, North-South and East-West, in order to encourage biodiversity of woodland margins, and encourage ground flora, butterflies, bees as well as create corridor habitats for creatures such as the Barbastelle bats to use as a route to their feeding grounds.  This work was carried out mostly under the lead of Geoff, one of our Monday volunteers who has led the group on a lot of ride work across the estate and helped us swipe, cut and bring our woodland rides back into rotation.  Having not visited the site since the winter months I made an effort to go in there and see how it was looking…..

As I stepped into the woodland the first thing that hit me was the smell; not a bad smell, but a gorgeous heavy scent that could only mean one thing – bluebells!  As I walked further in I started to glimpse between the greenery, a purple haze ahead and suddenly, I burst out of the trees and onto the cross rides and into a whole new world of colour and light. Bluebells grew thickly across all the newly cleared areas, creating a visual display that instantly leapfrogged itself into first place for bluebell displays on our estate.  The scene must have looked like a huge blue cross from above and the warmth of the sun enhanced the smell to a dizzying heady perfume.   Butterflies and bee’s hummed and fluttered around happily feasting on the floral buffet and overhead a buzzard circled lazily on the thermals seemingly admiring the spectacle below.  I wandered gobsmacked into the middle of the rides, completely blown away by the sheer intensity of colour, all the more so because of the short space of time in which it had occurred; we cleared the rides by the end of December and here we are, 5 months later and a hidden seed bank has exploded into light and life – superb!

...everywhere... look!

As I drifted through a movement in the corner of my eye made me pause.  I peered into the trees and spotted the herd of Fallow deer that tend to frequent these woods, their tails and ears constantly twitching and flicking against the flies, which is what had drawn my attention.  What made me double take was that for a brief instant, one of them stepped into an open bluebell glade looking partly like something out of a fairy tale but mostly like a very lost sheep – for it was a pure white doe.  We gazed at each other for a minute before her instincts over took her and she melted back into the safety of the herd, who all began to bound away further into the wood and away from human eyes.

Can you spot her?

It was like a completely separate world in there, like something out of a Brother’s Grimm tale, where pure white deer skipped among the trees and the ground was a magic carpet of orchids and bluebells.  The only sound was of birdsong and bee buzzing and for a moment it was like the outside world didn’t exist.  Once I’d had my fill of this wondrous place I stepped back out into the sunshine of the cricket pitch and returned to my truck chuffed with the results of our winter work and content in the knowledge that if I ever needed a place to revive my spirits, the bluebells of Herless were waiting, hidden within.

And bluebells are not the only floral display to be taking off as we enter the late spring/early summer months.  Stockbridge Down is beginning to spout out an array of wildflowers, whose colour all tantalizingly hint at the spectacle to come, just around the corner.  Milkwort, Horseshoe Vetch, Rock Rose, Wild Strawberry, Herb Robert, Red Campion, Speedwells, Forget Me Not – all have erupted with the warm weather and are littering the slopes and the herb rich glades in amongst the scrub patches.  And this is only the beginning – in another few weeks the yellow/orange tinted flower of the Birds Foot Trefoil will be in full force, and indeed I saw the very first one just newly opened yesterday.  Wild Thyme will pop up, Eyebright, Marjoram, Harebells, Ah! A whole host of colour is yet to reveal itself but we are nearly there!   Just a little while longer….

Horseshoe Vetch

Naturally I cannot talk about the wild flowers of the Down, or indeed the Down itself without updating you on the butterfly activity.  This last week has really spoilt me for butterflies up there as each passing week sees a new species emerge, fresh and new into the world for me to observe and delight in.  This week I have seen more Orange Tips, Pearl Bordered Fritillaries, Duke of Burgundy and Grizzled Skipper, Holly Blues, as reported in my last blog.  New to the show this week has been the Dingy Skippers, which I have never seen in such high numbers up there, Green Veined Whites, Small Heaths, Small Coppers showing off their beautiful orange hue which suits their feisty temperament perfectly and Green Hairstreak – seen a lot on the Down by other people, but not usually by me.  However I spotted four on two visits this week so I think they have paid their long overdue visual debt to me – they really are the most incredible colour butterfly, a shimmering emerald green underwing that can often be spotted resting on gorse bushes.  This one however fluttered past my knees and rested in the grass, allowing me to take this photo.  
A glittering jewel in the grass
Just take a moment to wander through the shorter turf glades on the Down, where flowers dominate over grasses and you will undoubtedly spot the tiny Grizzled Skipper, its larger cousin the Dingy Skipper, Small Coppers and many more all fluttering from hummock to hummock like perfect tiny clockwork toys.

Also, in my last post I wrote about the success of our clearance work for the Duke of Burgundy on the site.  I am pleased to report further triumph as I was on the Down yesterday, at the completely opposite end of the site to the Duke of Burgundy area and what did I spot?  A Duke of Burgundy!  This means they are either spreading across the site or we have a second colony – either way, a fantastic result!

Duke of Burgundy
Another fantastic result has to be that of our sheep grazing.  The Wiltshire Horn flock, which I currently have grazing on the furthest slope of the Down are all getting fat bellies and dirty back ends as they gorge on the spring flush.  They are also going through their seasonal wool shedding and as a consequence of the itchiness of the shedding wool, they are a bit more irritable with each other of late.  When I go to see them, there is wool on every branch and the corral fence is lined with it.  They are all rubbing their heads, flanks, and bums on tree trunks to remove the hot winter clothing and their patience with each other is so thin that when they come to the corral for sheep nuts there is a lot of head butting going on!  

The wool lined corral

Walter the Wether itching his back end on the Elder


Watching the pecking order establish is amusing; two sheep will suddenly give each other the evil eye, walk through the flock towards each other whilst rippling their shoulder blades in a sort of ‘come on then, come on then!’ motion.  Then they stand and have a stare off and, if neither backs down they suddenly leap and head-butt each other full in the face – a sight which always makes me wince and my nose twinge as I remember one of them head-butting me in the face last year.  Sometimes one head-butt is enough and one backs down meekly, sometimes they carry on for a few more, shaking their heads after each collision to try and get the dazed stars out their eyes no doubt.  In the end, they all get sheep nuts so I’m not really sure what the point of it is…but I’m not going to intervene.
Eyeing each other up for a challenge...

Meanwhile, the section of slope they grazed last year, which had been under grazed for a few years before hand, is now looking stunning.  The grass growth is lush and green and the flower species seem to have catapulted – I walked there a few weeks ago and already Violets, Speedwells, Cowslips, Forget Me Nots and many more were popping up, now that they were not being dominated by grasses and their seedbank could germinate.  It shows how vital grazing is for a chalk grassland site and the sheep will do the same job on their current slope this summer, bringing both sections back into a grazing rotation that will benefit the site hugely.
Zzzz....dozing in the sun after a tough morning shedding wool and eating.

I stood on the top of the sheep slope the other day and looked down and across to the neighbouring arable land where the silage had been freshly cut and lay in neat rows ready for baling.  Like the fading Rapeseed fields that dominate the arable landscape, this view of the silage harvest acted like a constant reminder of time passing, the seasons moving on.  It is not only the natural world that demonstrates the seasons, in every tree leaf bud, every new wild flower or butterfly species that emerges, but the manmade landscape too, as the fields turn from brown to green with crop and the tractors come out of hibernation to march up and down the fields with sprayers on their backs.  Even now, with the sight of the silage cut, I know that time will fly round all too quickly to the hay cutting season and beyond.

Another area that is worth a visit now is the Mottisfont orchard on Hatt Lane.  Lovingly pruned, mowed and tended by our volunteer Keith (and lovingly scrumped for apples for cider by myself) the orchard is looking idyllic right now.  The trees are full of blossom and wildflowers including an impressive cowslip display litter the ground beneath them.  If you are walking past on our estate trail then it is a perfect place to go and have lunch in or to take a doze in the sun.

The Cowslips in the orchard

Finally, as always with the warmer months, I am constantly on the lookout for reptiles.  More often than not, my reptile encounters are the sound of a sudden scuffle of a lizard darting into the undergrowth, or the slithery rustle of a snake I haven’t even seen sliding away out of sight.  However every now and then I get lucky and this week was no exception.  I took an early morning stroll through the Duck Grounds, before the property opened and enjoyed the buzz and hum of wetland life as everything went about its morning business before the sun got too hot and the visitors came in.  I knew of a stretch of boardwalk where I had spotted the tail end of a grass snake last week (tail end as it was typically quick and was off before I really saw it) and so I crept along this stretch softly and quietly, hoping to spot one basking in the early sun.  Nothing revealed itself in that stretch but then, as I walked further on I came to an abrupt halt; there, in the middle of a clearing on a nice mossy log pile for all to see, was a beauty of a grass snake, basking flat out in full view.  I held my breath as I tentatively got my camera and took photos.  
See her flattened body for basking?

Right from the start she (I don’t know for sure but it was big enough to suggest female…but you can’t really tell unless you count the scales from its vent to its tail, as the males typically have longer tails) had her tongue out, scenting the air for the sudden new scent that announced my arrival.  The scent was obviously bad as within 20 seconds she slithered back into the log pile.   I passed back that way ten minutes later, keeping low so as not to be a blot on the skyline that might alert her to my presence, and I spotted her head just poking out of the log pile.   However even crouched low and standing downwind, her incredibly acute senses meant that once again, unhappy at my presence, she withdrew back into the shadows, where I couldn’t follow.

Thats it, I'm off!

Thrilled that I had finally tracked down a grass snake in this area, I left her in peace and ambled on, with the morning soundtrack of birdlife trilling all around me, as the first butterflies of the day started fluttering out to play.

Wednesday, 29 April 2015

Green light means GO!

Green! Shades of green, lime green, emerald green, moss green are everywhere, dappled in the sunlight.  This is the time of year when you look around and suddenly see the change from dormancy into life.  In an almost blink-and-you-miss-it timeframe, the brown, grey dead looking winter landscape has exploded with colour as all the hedgerows, tree’s and fields pop their swollen buds and burst into leaf.  Field upon field of Rapeseed stretch away to the horizon, like a golden yellow cloak and wild flowers such as Wood Anemone, Celandine and of course Bluebell are decorating our woodland floors with a beautiful display of colour and scent.  I always think Wood Anemones’ look like hundreds of tiny stars scattered across the ground flora, whilst Celandines resemble bright, glowing suns.  And then of course, we have the Bluebell, another fantastic indicator of ancient woodland (ancient woodland being defined as woodland that has existed on a site since AD1600 or before) and one of our most recognised wild flowers.  Both our Mottisfont estate and our stretch of woodland at Curbridge Nature Reserve, on the River Hamble, produce stunning Bluebell displays, and this year has been no exception.  Wild flowers that are considered ancient woodland indicators are considered so for several reasons, including the fact that they are slow colonisers and therefore if they are present, then their seedbank must have been present for a long time, and also that they are generally only found in woodland.

Starry Wood Anemones

And glowing sun-like Celandines

As I stood on top of Stockbridge hill fort a few weeks ago, looking down across the site I also noticed that it was a perfect time to distinguish two of our main thorn species.  Whilst I can ID Hawthorn and Blackthorn both from a winter twig and in leaf, some people may not.  That day, in early April, the site was a patchwork of white blossom covered bushes and lime green ones; the Blackthorn, which flowers before the leaves bud, was displaying its blossom, whilst the Hawthorn, which produces leaves before flowers, was bursting with green buds.  It made for a very pretty sight – so if you are ever unsure if a bush is Blackthorn or Hawthorn, wait until early April and see if it produces flowers or leaves first.  Failing that, you could also prick yourself on a thorn from the bush and if it goes septic, it is likely Blackthorn, as it has a tendency to infect wounds via a fungus found under its bark that causes the body to react to it – but I would not recommend this as a way of getting an ID….

See the two different bushes? White blossomed Blackthorn and Green leaved Hawthorn...

Talking of Stockbridge, of course I have to update you on the butterflies that are popping out, with every passing week.  The last couple of weeks of warm sunny weather have produced this year’s fresh crop of early emerging species; I have seen Grizzled Skippers fighting with each other on my butterfly transect, Small and Large Whites fluttering by trying to confuse themselves with female Orange tips and even the first Holly Blues are adding a welcome splash of azure to the show.
Grizzled Skipper

 But, best of all, best of ALL, is the evidence emerging that our clearance work we undertook by the Down, in conjunction with the Butterfly Conservation Trust, has come up a triumph:  Duke of Burgundies and Pearl Bordered Fritillaries have been dancing and mating on the site already, spotted by myself and several other keen butterfly enthusiasts – how my heart warmed to see a shiny, perfect, Pearl Bordered Fritillary, basking in the sun in our cleared area.  I was delighted with such success so early on in the season and can only again thank our volunteers who helped with the work, and the BCT who helped fund further works.
A beauty of a Pearl Bordered, taking in a bit of shade

The Handsome Duke of Burgundy.

From Stockbridge, let us fly back to Hamble, where I have carried out a couple of guided walks for staff and volunteers over the last week.  These were a great success with everyone very enthusiastic and complimentary about the site – most people had not been to Hamble before as it is our furthest out site, a good 45 minutes from Mottisfont, and therefore often overlooked by people who do not realise it exists.  However, if you do make an effort to find it, you are rewarded by the rich stretch of ancient woodland with its displays of wild flowers.  The Bluebells here are fabulous, and along with the other ground flora, Fairy Clocks and the Fairy Tree, the whole woodland has a mystical air about it.  Solomon ’s seal, Dogs Mercury, Wild Garlic and Jack by the Hedge, all were out in force showing themselves off to the visitors – I took some of the Wild Garlic leaves home to make oil and pesto out of, and to add to meals.  The downside was that it has stunk my truck out so completely, that I can still smell garlic in there today and, no doubt, for ever more…

As I took the group out onto Hard Field, the field at the end of the woodland which I have started having cut for hay late each year in  order to encourage a wild flower meadow, they were dazzled by a huge cloud of pinkish white flowers in the middle of the meadow; Ladies Smock.  Also known as the fairy flower (another hint at Hamble’s fairy woodland) and the Cuckoo flower, as it flowers around the time you first hear the Cuckoo’s call, it is also one of the egg laying plants of the Orange tip butterfly.  I had everyone peering under the flowers to try and spot an orange tip egg but all we found were St Marks Flies, which were droning around hanging their long black legs down, in honour of the following day which was their name day.  The presence of such a large area of Ladies Smock made me feel that our late hay cut had done a good job in removing dominant vegetation and allowing a wider diversity of species to come through – I shall be interested to see what the rest of the summer brings in terms of flora, to this meadow.   

Peering under a Ladies Smock....

To find an Orange Tip egg - see it?

Walking back through the woodland, getting tantalising glimpses of the estuary, we also found a group of Wild Service trees that I knew to exist on site, but hadn’t yet located.  Once a common tree found often along track ways and old roads (hence its nickname of wayfaring tree), it is now fairly rare and found predominantly in ancient woodland and hedges.  This and the added combination of huge Ash and Field Maple stools that stand on the boundary banks like guardians of this ancient place all, once again, point to a woodland that has been present here for hundreds of years, a silent sentry,  watching the endless rising and falling of the estuary tide.


Sunday, 12 April 2015

A week of Firsts'....and lots of photo's!

With the warm sunshine of the last few days, this last week has been a week of glorious firsts for the year.  The other morning I was wandering around Foxbury, our heathland restoration site, when suddenly a distant call came to me, carried on the dew fresh breeze: ‘cuckoo…cuckoo…cuckoo…’

Cuckoo!  Like a far off echo of childhood, the cry of the cuckoo always takes me back through the years and almost brings a tear to my eye as the arrival of these birds is a true indicator that we are hurtling headlong through Spring and towards the lively months.  Surrounded by coconut smelling bright yellow Gorse flowers, I stood on the top of Foxbury Hill and looked down at the landscape which was finally starting to revive after Winter and listened to the backing track of bird song and cuckoo call and decided that this was not a bad way to start the day at all.

A Foxbury Common Lizard I spotted enjoying the morning sun.

April Fool’s Day also saw the beginning of butterfly season, that long awaited annual scientific survey of these colourful invertebrates which runs from April until September every year.  Across our countryside department at Mottisfont we have several transects; One on Stockbridge Down, three across different woodlands on the estate and a new one that I have just set up in the parks, wetlands and gardens of Mottisfont.  This latter one is new this year and whilst I created the route I have enlisted the help of the Outdoor Guides who roam the pay zone, to carry out the weekly surveys.  This hardy band of volunteers all came and had a training session with me about transect walking and butterfly ID and armed with this they have gone forth willingly to see what results flutter by on their weekly walks.  And it was whilst doing our Cadbury Wood transect this last week that I spotted my first Orange Tip of the year – a handsome male, his orange coloured wing tips glowing like embers in the sun as he emerged, brand shiny new, into the world.  Orange Tips are the first species to emerge in Spring that do not overwinter as adults – so they come out later than the Brimstones and Peacocks who are already adult formed over the winter months – but when they do finally finish their transformation and emerge, you know that winter is gone for good.

Warm weather also marks the start of another invertebrate related task: Fly strike prevention of our sheep flock.  As you will have read from last year’s blog posts, fly strike can be a messy and potentially fatal business.  Flies that are attracted to the soiled fleece or wounds on a sheep will lay their eggs in the fleece, which will then hatch into maggots.  The maggots then eat through the soiled fleece or flesh wound and just keep eating and eating and eating, burrowing into the healthy flesh and causing horrific wounds and death by toxic shock within days if not caught.
To help reduce this happening, we treat our sheep flock with a preventative spray called Clik.  You spray the dosage along their backs and around their back end and it infuses into the wool and spreads across the whole animal.  Being Wiltshire Horn, our flock are naturally less prone to fly strike anyway as they shed their fleeces themselves (so they don’t have to sweat it out waiting to be sheared) and they have a naturally very short wool which doesn’t tend to get too soiled.  Still, I don’t like to leave it to chance – especially after the Nasal Botfly horror I suffered last year as a result of cleaning a fly strike wound – so I enlisted the help of a couple of volunteers and we went and rounded up the flock and began the treatment; the first of the year.  It all went swimmingly and I noticed that the wool was already beginning to rise and come loose from their necks and legs, ready for shedding. 
You can see the way the wool is rising off the neck like a fluffy ridge, as it begins to shed.
 I also noticed a few tick’s on some of the sheep which I plucked off – some of them were so disgustingly bloated and full that they fell off into my hand without any effort at all.  I looked at this hideously obese creature with distaste.  Whilst I appreciate invertebrates have a huge and pivotal role to play in the world’s ecosystem – indeed they are the basis for food chains and habitats and without them everything would perish – yet I cannot disguise my hatred of ticks.  The way they crawl their fat, blood swollen bodies along, having sucked their fill out of a creature makes my skin creep.  Add to that their habit of spreading Lyme's disease to humans, a rather nasty illness that can lead to all sorts of debilitating and you will be hard pressed to find a countryside worker who doesn’t loathe the sight of them.  


Having worked the Easter weekend at our Foxbury Easter trail – which was a huge success – I took a day off in the week and chose to go for a New Forest ramble.  It may be perceived as a bit of a busman’s holiday but when your workplace is a stunning as the countryside of Mottisfont and the New Forest; this is one bus that is a pleasure to ride.  I wandered up through plantation woodland and onto Ibsley, one of our Commons, which stretched out vast and empty before me. 
Wandering across empty plains...

...and through hidden valleys.


Ambling along quietly, a mere speck on the landscape, I was rewarded during the day by getting a good look at Stonechats, Lapwings and the first Swallow I had seen return to us.  I also roamed onto Rockford and got a good 5 minute viewing of a Dartford Warbler, that sweet, spiky haired heathland specialist of a bird.  Red deer herds wandered through the bogs and i could see the heads of Fallow deer popping up from where they lay in the heather.

Male Stonechat

Lapwing in the Bog - not a very good photo but the nearest i could get without risking death in the Mire!

Whilst I was enjoying spotting all these mammal and avian aspects there was one thing in particular I was hoping to spot.  I trod slowly and quietly along the track on Ibsley, keeping my eyes peeled at the edge of the heather I walked alongside, on which the sun shone directly.  Within 20 minutes, a synapse pinged in my brain, a tiny signal that made me stop and re-look at the patch I had just walked past.  And there, basking on the moss in amongst the heather was my reward and what I had hoped to find; a beautiful Adder, a large male in this case, his zigzag dorsal pattern a deep shiny black and his lidless eyes a burnished dark red.  

What a beaut!
My first Adder of the season!  I was thrilled as they can be difficult to find as they often slip away when they hear you coming and more often are so well camouflaged and tucked away that you don’t see them at all.  For this reason I was immodestly pleased with myself for spotting him.  Whilst my eyes had not visually recognised the pattern of the Adder, something in my brain had: a tiny signal that made me look twice.  It was good to know that after a winter’s dormancy, this signal still triggered itself when something in the undergrowth sparked it; the glint of sunlight off shiny scales which marked itself a different texture to the heather around it.  It so happened that I passed that way again 2 days later and once more I managed to spot him – and to my joy he had just finished his first post hibernation slough and was now dressed in his fine silver breeding colours.  As he slithered off through the moss I saw his fresh slough, in near perfect condition as it was so freshly shed, hanging in the heather.  I picked it out carefully and examined it – it was a good size, over 50cm long although they can stretch a bit as the snake wriggles out of them.  As I listened to this male slip away, almost silent apart from the odd rustle of leaves under-belly, I wished him a good breeding season, and hoped there was a healthy female somewhere nearby for him to woo.

His fresh slough - in such good condition even the eye lenses are intact.

Meanwhile, back at Mottisfont there is another creature that can be elusive and hard to spot; the Water Vole.  This small, plump, furry little mammal thrives along our river banks at Mottisfont and we have them on all our sections of river, along with Otter.  Recently two Sparsholt College students - Phil (with us on work experience) and Sue (of sheep looker fame) undertook a Water Vole presence survey along the top of the Oakley beat and I was fortunate enough to join them and observe how it works.  Phil donned a hilarious – I mean professional – looking yellow and black dry suit that ballooned around him in the water and made him resemble a large bee.  In this suit he plunged into the river and began the detailed task of looking through the bankside vegetation for signs of Water Vole presence.  

Bumble Man!

Examining the bank side

Sue stood on the bank with me recording down everything he found onto a map.  On a regular basis Phil was shouting ‘latrine!’, ‘burrow!’ and ‘a run!’ as well as finding feeding sites all of which were mapped, and all of which demonstrated a very healthy population of Water Vole here.  

A burrow

The tell tale 45 degree angle of a chewed reed - Water Voles cut them off at this angle.

So if you are ever walking along the banks of the river at Mottisfont, or at Stockbridge Marsh for that matter, keep quiet and keep your eyes keen; you may be lucky enough to spot a fat little furry figure swimming through the rushes, or hear the ‘plop!’ as one emerges out a burrow and into the water and out of view.
Four hours of river walking later!

I took ten minutes myself before work the other day to wander along our stretch of the main River Test, just beyond the Duck Grounds.  Although it was still early, the sky was azure blue with a faint wisp of Cirrus cloud way up high.  The sun shone bright as it began its daily climb and it glittered and sparkled off the river water like precious stones.  

The River.  Crystal clear, its timeless currents eddying and flowing, always flowing, onwards towards the end of the world.  Sitting on the bank and gazing into its clear depths, I felt myself being mentally tugged by those currents and began to lose myself in it.  The river Test is, and always has been the heart of Mottisfont; the font which springs up within the grounds gave the place its name and Saxon monks used the river to transport the stone for which they built the Abbey, and the foundations of its history.  And yet it goes back beyond that, beyond all human endeavours, on geological timescales we can only just fathom.  Carving out its path through the rock and peat of the valley, through ancient wooded lands all the way from source to sea, from prehistory to the modern day.   The same sun that warmed my back as I sat there now, once shone upon this river when it was brand new, when the water first began to flow and both elements had continued on ever since.  In comparison to such agelessness we were such a small, tiny part of the whole, a brief flicker that is there one minute, gone the next, whilst the river flows on and life endlessly endures, dies and is reborn.
Sunlit waters...

glitter like a cascade of diamonds

The sudden call of a Little Grebe startled me out of my reverie and I blinked and pulled my thoughts out of the river’s whisperings and out of Time.  Feeling refreshed and thinking now of the day’s work ahead and of making my miniscule mark on the history of this landscape, I stood up and meandered back into the Abbey grounds and to the present day.