Friday, 20 December 2013

Winter Solstice

Farewell O Sun! Disappear O radiant Orb!

So spoke Captain Nemo as he watched the sun vanish under the horizon at the South Pole on the day of the Equinox.  Whilst we don’t have 6 months of 24 hour darkness to cope with as they do at the poles, it is however Longest Night and the Winter Solstice tomorrow – which means that once this is over we are oh so slowly and inexorably creeping out the other side and towards the distant glimmer of earlier dawns and later sunsets….

But not yet! I get ahead of myself; in fact it has only really felt properly wintery in the last few days with the frost on the ground and the ice on the windscreen of a morning.

These last few weeks have felt slightly detached to me as we have all been fitting in our allotted holiday days before the end of the year (use it or lose it) and so there has been a lot of us in and out of work.  Whilst nice to have the time off, it does make trying to fit all the tasks in around our schedules a bit challenging.  We have also had absences for other positive and negative reasons; Our New forest estate rangers Dave and Mike each have their own news – Dave has recently welcomed the birth of his son and has consequently been on paternity leave, whilst poor Mike managed to dislocate his shoulder cliff jumping and so won’t be back with us for a few weeks.

However in between such frivolities work has gone on and we are making good progress towards our winter targets.

Now I want to tell you about a certain tree we had, a tree that bore a rather fabulous prize….in our Wood Yard there is a tree where, in previous years, the deer stalkers would hang the heads of deer they had culled to allow nature to dispose of the flesh naturally.  This does sound gross and when I first found this tree last year it looked like something out of a horror film.  However all the skulls that were hanging in it were clean of flesh and seemed too good to leave hidden in the woods.  I found good homes for two of them – one went into a room in Mottisfont House as part of an exhibit, one went to a very talented taxidermist friend in return for her taxidermy services….and the finest specimen, a magnificent Fallow Stag skull with antlers about 3 feet across, I took into my humble care.
Shelf of Death

 I have in the office, an educational ‘shelf of Death’.  On this shelf is a collection of skulls I have acquired through my time here (all natural deaths) and I use them in bushcraft sessions to educate children about different types of teeth, why a barn owl has smaller eye sockets than a tawny (barn owls hunt at dusk when there is more light, hence smaller eyes) and other things.  This mighty Fallow skull would not fit on the shelf and I thought it too fine to leave hidden in the loft space.  So with the begrudging agreement from Dylan I decided to have it mounted on the wall of our office – the only condition being that I cleaned it first.  The volunteer DIY man Ken set to work designing and making a wooden bracket for it whilst I set to work making it more presentable.

Not wanting to use up work time in such a manner (I was pushing my luck already with the skull thing!) I took it home to clean.  A big bottle of bleach was acquired, having chosen one with a ‘spring meadow’ scent, in the hope of somehow transferring this scent to the skull, and a large pair of marigold gloves.  Unfortunately, there is only one container in my house big enough to soak a skull of this size….and so it was with great reluctance and mild disgust on my part that I lowered the skull into a big bleach-bubbled bath tub.  Trying to console myself with the thought that the great naturalists like Gerald Durrell and David Attenborough must surely have suffered for the cause in similar ways; I took an old toothbrush and started scrubbing.  I then left it to soak for a few hours whilst trying not to think of what my landlord would say if he could see the use to which I was putting his bathroom.
Radox bleach bubble bath!

After hours of soaking, and some scrubbing and topping up with bleach, I took it out and left it to dry on a bin bag overnight.  I will spare you the details of how I had to try and detach the last bits of nose skin and clean out the head cavity and instead cut to the chase – cleaned and smelling of roses, I gave it back to Ken and one fine winter morning I walked into the office to see it adorning our doorway and looking magnificent!  

Proper countryside office - i have since hung Mistletoe off the antlers in honour of the season.

I will leave you with the festive feeling that I felt walking round the grounds first thing this morning.  Mottisfont gardens were wreathed in a fine mist and the sun shone bright and clear through it, making everything glisten and sparkle – from the hoarfrost on the trees to the droplets of water on this swan’s beak.


 I walked past Visitor Reception where the wreaths for sale were looking beautiful in the sun and made my way to the Duck Grounds, our area of wet peat woodland.  The light coming through the trees here, the mist rising off the ponds and the frost gleaming on the plants made this a breathtakingly stunning stroll and made me again appreciate how lucky I am to be in a job where I can take in such sights all in a day’s work.


Misty Duck Grounds

And so, with Longest Night looming tomorrow and with the final few sleeps until Christmas beckoning, let me wish you a very Merry Christmas and an inspiring New Year.  2014 will be our first full year with a fully staffed countryside team for us and so I personally think this will be our year to really shine, grow and show people what we are about – bring it on!

Monday, 2 December 2013

A Rabble of Rangers

‘You came and looked and loved the view, long known and loved by me.  Green Sussex fading into blue, with one grey glimpse of sea’.

Last week myself and the team had the chance to go back to an old site of mine.  Before I came to Mottisfont I worked for the National Trust up in Haslemere at a place called Swan Barn Farm and the ranger team here cover several sites one of which includes Black Down.  Black Down is a large and beautiful heathland site on the Surrey/Sussex border that was the subject of the above quoted poetry by Lord Tennyson who lived nearby.  The elegant lines describe it well as, on a clear day the view from Black Down is superb, being the second highest point in the South East of England (Leith Hill, another former worksite of mine, is the highest - I obviously like high places) and the night sky there is unrivalled with starry constellations stretching from horizon to horizon in a huge sparkling arc of splendour.
The slopes of Black Down in summer (hope you don't mind Dave, i borrowed your picture off the website!)

Black Down has had major work done in years past to clear fell the large pine plantations that had grown up on it and restore it to the important heathland site it is today.  Adders, grass snakes, sand lizards, Black Darter dragonfly, nightjar and many more rare and fascinating species inhabit the site and I was very lucky to have the chance to work there and fully indulge in my love of lowland heathland, my favourite habitat above any other.  Walking over a summer heathland on a hot day with splashes of purple heather dotted across the landscape and the coconut scent of the yellow gorse flower drifting past has got to be one of my favourite places to be and, like the reptiles that frequent it, I would happily bask the day away in a heather patch.

The reason I got to take my colleagues back to see my old haunts was one of ‘what goes around comes around’.  Dave Elliott, Head Ranger of Black Down had very kindly let us borrow their old forage harvester for a few months over winter so that we could use it on the bracken in the New Forest as well as Stockbridge Down.  This has made a huge difference to the bracken control in the forest with hectares of bracken now being foraged harvested in order to allow the heathland and grassland species underneath a chance to grow through.  In return for this favour, Dave requested that we come up to Black Down and do some felling and clearing of Pine and Birch as is the usual winter task for a heathland site.  He also had a few other favours to call in with other NT teams so the result was a brilliant 2 day scrub bash of NT rangers and volunteers from all corners of the South – Isle of Wight, Woolbeding, Slindon, Saddlescombe, Mottisfont and New Forest, Hindhead, Ludshott and more – all were summoned and it resulted in a workforce of around 100 people, nearly all chainsaw trained, who set about the clearing work and did an absolutely sterling job.

Everywhere you looked you saw an orange helmeted line of people steadily working their way up the slope through the falling ranks of pine, birch and gorse.  A bonfire took care of the cut scrub – and the inevitable items of clothing that got too close – with the tractor being employed to drag large brash piles to the fire.

Orange helmets poking up like toadstools!
Lunch was served to a hungry rabble of rangers in the form of Black Down beef burgers from their own herd of Belted Galloway cattle that they use for conservation grazing and meat.  As it turned out, the burgers being served came from the calf that I helped deliver back in April 2011 – I brought him into this world, seemed only fitting I should eat him out of it (RIP George, a mighty fine Steer).
A big thank-you to the Black Down team for inviting and hosting us, it was good to be back in a place I loved so much – and I promise you’ll get your forager back in one piece!

Tuesday, 26 November 2013


Is that woodland on fire!? Nope, its just the leaf colours catching the light of the sun – November is the winning month for Autumn colour and right now they are absolutely superb.  Beech, Chestnut, Acer’s, Birch – all look like they are aflame with glowing embers and sparks of fire and I urge people to take a walk through our woodlands round Mottisfont or up Stockbridge Down and see the carpet of reds, oranges, yellows and gold that is currently cloaking the landscape.

Talking of stunning views, I took this sunset picture from the top of Stockbridge Down looking across to Danebury hillfort and the fiery sky took my breath away.
Ancient View - no wonder Iron Age people built their fort here, with a sight like this to look out on!

We have caught up on ourselves after the destruction of the storm and are now busy with the usual Autumn tasks; volunteers have commenced scrub clearance on Stockbridge Down and have made a fantastic start in the clearance of scrub around the Juniper trees – looking at what was done last year and so far this year, I think we should get all the Juniper tree’s freed from the scrub this winter which is excellent news – next stop, regeneration!

Tree survey season is upon us again – so if you see me plunging into hedgerows armed with a clipboard you know I am doing the annual tree inspections – luckily for us the storm came before hand, so we don’t need to go round and re-check all the newly snapped limbs.

Deadly Saviour...Geoff and chainsaw lurk in the scrub around the Juniper (front branch).

Taking a breather under a newly cleared Juniper tree

Our firewood processing work has increased with the arrival of the cold weather – people have rushed to their woodburners to heat the house and realised they need logs!  We sell fire wood, kindling and charcoal here at Mottisfont Abbey in bags and in bulk truckloads so if you ever want some home grown quality firewood then contact - he even offers delivery, hows that for service!

Our Wiltshire Horn flock are doing well, chomping their way through the winter grassland and taking great pleasure in hiding in the depths of the scrub where we can’t find them…until Tony and Peter carved a new path that winds through the upper reaches of the slope and reveals all the hidden grassy glades where the sheep are enjoying hiding out.
We now have a brilliant band of volunteer sheep lookers, one for each day of the week and some, who help us check the animals on a daily basis so we know that they are OK - these are mostly local people who are helping serve the needs of their common land by assisting with the grazing animals here.

I have made my last creations of the year using nature’s ample bounty – rosehip syrup and cider.  The cider (well its currently fermenting apple juice, but give it a few months) is at present bubbling away merrily under my table at home looking like disgusting turgid fizzy baby poo – but believe it or not, in a few months time it will be beautiful golden cider with a strong sting in its tail - its not for the faint hearted…

Lovely bubbly cider - no need to call the RSPCA, the dog is dozing, not drunk on cider fumes....

Monday, 4 November 2013

After the Storm.

"Come hither Sir, come hither my Lord, let down your locks, so long and flowing".

This is a Malayan incantation supposedly used to summon the wind – and after the battering Southern England has just taken, you can see why they used to address it so respectfully.
Well Mottisfont still stands as does the champion Plane Tree and the Millennia old Oakley Oak.  However, as the sun rose bright and clear the morning after the storm, we soon discovered that the winds had taken their toll.  Within the grounds of the Abbey stood a wonderful looking tree called an Indian Bean tree.  This tree had beans of about a foot long that drooped off its branches and gave a very exotic appearance.  Alas, however, it is no more; victim to the winds, our only bean tree has fallen. 
The fallen Indian Bean tree
The abbey fishing hut has had a narrow escape from fallen Beech limbs (this is the same hut that got crushed in the 1987 storm, you’d think its luck would change sometime) and the visitor car-park has many snapped out willow trees and broken Oak limbs lying around and is half underwater from the excess rainfall.
Across our countryside estate we had trees to clear up that had fallen throughout Mottisfont village and were blocking roads and I whizzed up to Stockbridge to check the fence line that ran round the Down and the Marsh.  Despite 4 fallen trees and limbs on the Western slope of the Down, all the fence lines remained intact and the sheep and cattle safely within.

Our biggest challenge lay in a series of large Beech and Oak trees that had gone down over the river and one of its side channels.  After wading across the flooded park-lands, we found that an entire Beech tree had snapped out in two large segments, which had gone down over the side channel and was consequently pushing the water flow into the park field.  There were also two larger specimens that had fallen right across the main channel and were acting as a very effective dam.  It has taken all week to clear through the debris and winch out the larger stems.
Me up the ladder attaching the winch chain - you can see the size of the limbs that have snapped out.
We did find some the name Hayley Williams carved into one of the fallen stems and I love to think how many years ago someone carved that in that tree, possibly some child climbing in the boughs on a make believe adventure  - so Hayley, if you ever read this, you should know your tree has fallen.

An absolutely stunning example of Beech 'spalting' in the stem of a fallen beech.   The patterns are beautiful, and make me imagine a map of the world.

Despite the debris everywhere, Monday also saw our fungi forays go ahead.  Our local fungi expert Roger Newton and his wife Jackie came and took groups out across our New Forest site at Bramshaw and then in Spearywell woods at Mottisfont, to see what they could find.  And it really is incredible how much you actually start to spot when you are looking for them.  Tiny Mycelium grew up from the leaf litter whilst Birch Polypore’s stuck out like dinner plates off rotten trunks.  Hedgehog fungus, Dog Stinkhorn, Amethyst Deceiver (a particularly pretty purple one), Coral fungus, King Alfred Cakes, Milk Cap, Sickener, White saddle, Pigs Ear and many more were found as we wandered only a very short way.  Roger and Jackie also showed me a Death Cap fungi just off from our visitor carpark – this is one mean little fungi because of the way it works.  Even eating a mere 50grams would be fatal, but the symptoms don’t show up for such a long period – 6-48hours after ingestion – that by the time you realize something is wrong, the damage is done.  It causes kidney and liver failure and, in one last nasty twist, you go through the process of feeling very ill and then actually feel much better- just before it causes complete organ shutdown and kills you.  This is a photo of a young Death cap – note the Olive green of the cap which is fairly unique.  Take note and hold a healthy respect for it as even Roman Emperors were murdered using this inconspicuous looking fungus.
The Death Cap - obviously doesn't kill slugs as it does us, judging by the bite marks...
Fungi are one of the most successful of all living organisms and it actually holds the title for largest living organism on Earth - previously thought to be the Great Barrier Reef.  The last decade has discovered some types of fungi (specific to America I believe) which spreads by tiny root matter underground and covers an absolutely vast expanse of area qualifying it as the largest living organism on our planet.  Something to ponder next time you eat some mushrooms on toast.