Friday, 28 June 2013

Waders of the Lost Ark....

Apologies for the prolonged absence; I have been away exploring the beaches, mountains and ruined cities of Turkey, a country which is a fantastic example of a bridge between the ancient Western and Eastern Empires.

Back in England, you know the summer season has really kicked in when Mottisfont gardens are absolutely full to bursting with visitors admiring the world renowned rose garden which has, at the peak of Midsummer, burst into glorious bloom (check out, written by senior gardener Johnny, which details all the beauty of the garden).

And with June also comes another major event for our countryside estate…the annual weed-cut of the rivers.  This is something that is carried out 3 times a year – June, July and August – all the way up the River Test and its tributaries for 2 weeks each time.  This is a form of fishery management, which involves trimming the Ranunculus weed (Water Crowsfoot) that grows so well in the chalk stream waters of the Test.  This weed is a vital part of the ecosystem here as it provides habitat for Trout and other fish which like to shelter in its fronds.  The weed is also home to the tiny invertebrate larvae of the Black Fly collectively known as Simulium.  These larvae cling onto the weed and eat the silt particles in the water.  They then excrete the silt as heavier particles which sink to the bottom thus leaving the water itself clearer.  This is partly what makes the chalk stream so clear flowing. 
You may ask that with the Ranunculus doing such a good job why do we cut at all?  Well as with all ecosystems that have had anthropogenic influences, we have to continue with management to some degree.  By trimming the weed it prevents the river from becoming too choked up and clogged with weed which in turn would contribute to a higher content of silt being caught up which would begin to fill in and vegetate the channel and continue into habitat succession as well as causing flooding as the water would have no channel to flow through. Also as well as some weedy growth, trout and salmon require bare gravel patches in which to lay their eggs, so by cutting the weed you allow gravel patches to remain clear.
As with all habitat management it is a case of balancing the impact to benefit the habitat and its flora and fauna as a whole.

Swans graze on the Ranunculus weed and in some areas, can cause a problem if there are too many swans overgrazing and causing loss of weed habitat. 

This was my first weed cut at Mottisfont and also the first for our new river keeper Neil so it was quite an initiation.  We have four stretches of river here which equates to about 4 miles of managed bankside, 2 and a half miles of actual river – and a fair amount of weed to trim and push through.  On my first day back after my holiday, I got an in-depth introduction to the weed cut after it was reported that part of our garden dog walk was under 4 feet of water….
Countryside staff and volunteers came flooding back (geddit!?) from all corners of the estate to help and, armed with waders, bowsaws, loppers and rakes we found the source of the problem and dived in.  The Abbey stream, which runs through our garden here at Mottisfont, also has several side ditches which flow off it further up in the parkland.  One of these ditches had become so overgrown with vegetation and two large fallen trees that when all the weed had flowed into the side ditch from the main stream, it had just caught up on all the vegetation and clogged.  The water flow then found itself a new channel to follow which inevitably took it out into the riverside path in the gardens where hundreds of happy visitors were merrily going about their day before being washed away in the Great Mottisfont Flood of ’13.  (I could be slightly prone to exaggeration, but its spinning the yarn).
8 of us spent an afternoon hacking through trees and scrub and heaving out tonnes of weed on to the bank before finally, the channel was cleared and the water level dropped in a matter of minutes as it found its old course again.  We all looked like we had spent days in the wilderness as we emerged, soaking wet, scratched and bleeding with weed dreadlocks and silty skin but triumphant!  And that was just a side ditch…

River Keeper Neil (Left) and Volunteer Keith work at pushing a large weed mat down the river.

The remainder of the weedcut was fairly uneventful – 9 hours a day spent cutting and pushing weed down the river like some kind of band of Shepherd water nymphs, whilst watching Moorhen and Coot chicks scatter before us, using the weed as a raft.  Neil willingly showed new countryside staff how to cut and push weed, whilst old hands like Dylan, who was once river keeper himself, took to it like a Trout to a Mayfly.  We exchanged fishy puns and film titles to keep moral high during the long hours of being wet, cold and having blistered hands (What’s the fastest thing in the river? A Motor Pike and Side Carp!  Have you seen that film – the Codfather? Yes it got worse).

And then came the Last Day.
The last date of the weed push was the Monday the 24th of June.  All weed should have been cut up the river by the prior Friday, with the weekend and the Monday just used for pushing it on downstream.  Monday afternoon, having just finished the last stretch of river for the second time, we got a disturbing phone call – a lot more weed was coming down the River Dun.  After a lot of phoning around and heading upstream to check it out, we had almost thought it a mistake – and then we found it, a huge raft of snotty looking weed oozing round the bend into sight.  It reached our stretch of the Dun at 5pm and took 5 hours to push through the slow flowing, siltiness of the river.  At just gone 10pm it was passed on to the people on the next stretch of river to continue its journey and our own weedcut was finally finished…for this month.
Hats off to everyone in the team who got involved – and especially Neil who worked more hours in his first week than he would normally work in three, and who managed the unenviable achievement of getting a tick on his toe whilst wearing waders and being in the water all day – impressive!

Michelle emptying her waders of water after a day in the river...

Tuesday, 4 June 2013

Stockbridge Wonders

'Here comes the sun, little Darlin’...'

Its here!  Everywhere you look pasty legs are slowly turning shades of red and brown and there are ice cream covered children running all over the lawns of Mottisfont.

The last few weeks have seen the blossoming of Stockbridge Down, which has exploded into a miasma of colours.  Salad Burnet, Birds Foot Trefoil, Germander Speedwell and hundreds of other flowers now litter the grassy slopes of the Down and have turned it into the grassland equivalent of the Technicolor Dreamcoat. 

With the floral explosion and the recent sunny weather, the butterflies are finally out in force and making their presence known.  Males are speedily bouncing off each other with aggression, each trying to gain height on their rival, whilst male and female pairs can be seen in a gentler dance, flying around each other in tight circles.

I went up Stockbridge at the weekend for a spot of butterfly hunting in the good weather and finally saw the wonder that people had been telling me about throughout the cold, dark days of winter – butterflies everywhere!  More species than I’ve ever seen in a single place!  Green Hairstreaks, Dingy Skippers, Grizzled Skippers, Brown Argus, Small Blue, Common Blue, Small Heath, Brimstone, Orange Tip, Green Veined Whites, Speckled Wood….and, in a small coppiced clearing of ours across the road, the fabled Duke of Burgundy. 

Brown Argus on the Down
The Duke of Burgundy is a rare little butterfly that is found on scrubby chalk grassland or in coppiced areas and woodland glades which it used to frequent.  Hampshire Conservation Volunteers worked with us to coppice some of the hazel we have across the road from the Down as DofB’s were known to inhabit the field behind this.  By coppicing we were hoping to encourage them into that area and then across to the Down and, judging by the conversation I had with an enthusiastic couple on the Down yesterday who said they had seen one up there, I think we may have succeeded!  Watch this space…

The Duke Of Burgundy in our coppiced area.

Alongside this the Down has, after two years of absence, got cattle grazing again.  Grazing is essential for managing the grass and scrub of downland as they prevent weedy, dominant grasses from taking over and allow a more diverse grass and floral structure to compete evenly.  Grazing also helps prevent encroaching scrub as the cattle will eat saplings of trees such as Birch which would otherwise regenerate and spread quickly.  Cattle also provide bare, poached areas of soil where invertebrates and reptiles can bask in the sun.

The cows we now have on the Down belong to a local farmer and Commoner who agreed to take up his Common rights of grazing on Stockbridge.  This has the double whammy of being beneficial to us in getting our site grazed and being beneficial to Stockbridge as it keeps the Common rights alive and contributes to the community.
They are Aberdeen Angus cattle, a good, hardy breed that is particularly good at keeping newly growing scrub in check.  They are a very placid breed and don’t mind people or dogs (although dogs should be kept under close control when around the cattle) and I am so chuffed to have them on the Down at last.  Eat up ladies!

Some of the herd heading off to explore their new territory.