Wednesday, 30 October 2013

A little bit of Keats.

For some reason unbeknownst to my technophobic self, my blog page hasn't let me add an entry for the last week - so the following is a bit out of date!  However, here it is...

Seasons of mists and mellow fruitfulness!  It has certainly been so over the last few weeks, with an unbelievable display of autumn bounty.  I have taken full advantage of the goods that Mottisfont and our surrounding estate has to offer and now my kitchen contains candied walnuts, sweet chestnuts for roasting, blackberry jam and whisky, spiced apple cider jam (with some left over for cider making) as well as having had several helpings of Hedgehog fungi, field mushrooms and boletes. 
Even whilst all this fodder falls to the ground, we can still look forward to some later crops of things like rosehips (squeeze a juicy rosehip sometime in November when they have softened, and the bright orange paste that comes out has a brilliant orangey taste – very rich in vitamin C) and Sloes.

In between scrabbling around collecting fruits and nuts, there has also been a lot going on of late – hence the delayed blog post.  Our autumn/winter works are now starting to be put into force and I don’t think any job highlights the beginning of autumn better than starting a new coppice coupe. 
Here at Mottisfont we have a working coppice of hazel, called Queen Meadows Copse.  It is right on the estate trail, so do go for a walk and take a look.  We cut a different section of coppice each year in order to supply the wood produce to be sold at the abbey.  This includes charcoal and kindling and chimenea wood, as well as using the brash to make faggots for the river or else pea sticks and hedge laying stakes and binders.  By coppicing different sections on a cycle of around 7- 10 years, we can have an endless supply of wood produce, whilst keeping the coppice woodland in a healthy condition with varying age structure and diversity.
A few weeks ago, some Directors and Managers from our head office of Heelis came out on a corporate day to help us do some coppicing.  We gave them a tour of the site, a low down on how we make charcoal from the hazel and then threw them into the woodland armed with saws and loppers.  Despite an afternoon of heavy rain they did a great job and cleared a good swathe between them, contributing to the huge coupe we have to clear this year – so big thanks to Mark, Graham, Carmen, Robin and Howard, I hope you enjoyed it – although I reckon you enjoyed riding around in the Polaris a lot more!
The Heelis crew

As well as help from our own, we have had other hands out getting involved.  Sparsholt College has sent us several days’ worth of students to help us with various tasks in return for them gaining some knowledge and experience of different management required for different ecosystems.
One day saw a group of students diving into the ditches of Long Lash at Mottisfont, to help clear out the encroaching reed that was beginning to stop the water flow.  I have mentioned in earlier blog posts about why we clear these ditches (Winter Hymnal post I think) and so I won’t divulge in detail again, but essentially, the ditches must have some flow of water to them in order to be suitable for invertebrates such as the Southern Damselfly which we have there.  The students got stuck in (literally, as the ditch was very silty on the bottom!) and by the end of the day we had about half the length of a ditch cleared and a group of absolutely filthy students and one lecturer who would never wear a white top to Mottisfont again…
Beginning the ditch work....

...And the end result.

Another day has seen students help me begin clearing out scrub from around our Juniper trees on Stockbridge Down.  Again, you can read about why we do this in Winter Hymnal, but basically it is to prevent the Juniper from being shaded out by the faster growing scrub species and try to aid its survival.

Talking of Stockbridge, we spent last Tuesday getting the sheep from Mottisfont to Stockbridge, to their rightful place on the Western slope….and what a day it was.  It was one of those days where everything that could go wrong – did.  We had transport issues with nearly taking the wrong trailer and having to ‘borrow’ back our tractor off the gardeners (sorry Howard), before finding the right trailer to use.  We had great ‘fun’ running around the field like headless chickens trying to flock up the sheep into a pen whilst they took full advantage of the fact that 4 of us could not block every angle and therefore they could break through our ranks.  (By the way, cheers to the 3 gardeners I pinched for 10 minutes to help me flock up the sheep!)  A few sheep almost had themselves a new home in our woodlands when they managed to slip through the hurdles of the pen and escape out the gate…luckily they were able to be ushered back in the field before they headed for the hills.  32 sheep is also a lot of animals to individually turn over (have you ever tried to turn a sheep?  It is tough to do on little ones, let alone on long legged, horned animals that are as long as I am tall) and by the time I had had each one on its bottom whilst I trimmed hooves and condition scored I was black and blue with bruises, aching in every limb and seriously considering threatening them with mint sauce.  In a darkly hilarious moment one of the sheep managed to get its horn tip caught under my thumb ring and then proceeded to run across the pen – dragging me with it, trying to keep on my feet – you couldn’t make this stuff up, really. 
Two trailer journeys later saw us getting them onto the Down – only to find the gate we were to unload them through had a combination padlock on that nobody knew – I mean seriously, a year of working here and I’ve never noticed that padlock, nor used that gate…cue a quick ring round of people who might know the code, all the while the sheep laden trailer is sitting on a steep hill overlooking the rather sheer western slope and there is no way to drive the trailer back up the hill with sheep still in it.  Luckily, we got the code, opened the gate and unloaded the animals – phew!  For the next few days they ran in the opposite direction every time they saw me, but they are now starting to come to the bribery of a bucket again.  A huge thanks to Ryan, Dylan and Neil who helped me round up, turn over and transport the flock and shared each moment of pain!

I hope the sheep are finding a good shelter in the scrub, because as I write this post, we are all under a storm warning that is heading our way.  The winds are already starting to pick up and the rain is hammering down – we shall see what my next blog post has to report, after what is looking to be a gale of hurricane force proportions – better get the chainsaw ready….

Friday, 4 October 2013

New arrivals...

‘The Lord giveth and the Lord taketh away – next year I might be herding sheep’.

This is a line Elvis Presley once came out with and, in light or my new acquisitions, I think it’s quite suitable.
I am pleased to write that, as of today, we now have our very own flock of sheep here at Mottisfont to graze on Stockbridge Down!
This is the result of a lot of time and effort spent in looking into our grazing options in order to comply with our HLS (Higher Level Stewardship) for Stockbridge.  The Down is Common land, owned by the National Trust and, as stated in our agreement; it can only be grazed by Commoners livestock or National Trust livestock.
Whilst we have Commoner’s cattle on the Down currently, we had no sheep, and no commoners who owned sheep.  Therefore, after looking at all the angles we decided the only way to go ahead was to get our own sheep – and here they are.

The Ladies!
Grassland sites require active grazing in order to help create a varied vegetation sward and prevent dominant grasses from taking over.  This means there is a wide variety of different flowers, herbs and grasses all of differing height and structure, which provide fantastic habitat and food sources for invertebrates and so on up the food chain.  Habitats like grasslands and heathlands are remnants of a time when the first humans cleared expanses of woodland in order to build settlements and begin farming.  There were also some naturally cleared areas where large herds of herbivores used to roam and graze. Once humans started creating these large cleared sites, new flora and fauna species were able to take advantage and our southern lowland heaths and chalk grassland sites were born. 
Conservation work continues to this day to keep such sites open and prevent them from succeeding into woodland and this is an ongoing battle that every conservation organisation is continually fighting the good fight against.  I have very occasionally been asked why we bother, and why not let everything revert back to the wild wood habitat that existed thousands of years before grassland and heath land habitats developed.  Well I feel simply that if we have helped create a new ecosystem due to our ancient settlements and farms, and that ecosystem habitat has now existed for so many thousands of years that it has entirely dependant flora and fauna species which thrive there, then it is our responsibility to maintain that habitat for those species.  They are native to our country, have the most biodiversity and contain our rarest species of plants, reptiles and invertebrates.  Who are we to now turn our back on them and lose flora and fauna species that have existed for thousands of years?

And so, to this end, we have bought 32 Wiltshire Horn beauties to aid in the conservation of Stockbridge.  They are a traditional rare breed in this part of the country and have the added bonus of long legs (so good for running away from danger), horns (good self defence) and they are self shearing (not by going to the barber’s but by pulling their fleece out on vegetation, so they wont ever get tangled up and stuck.  This also means you won’t have the back breaking job of shearing 32 animals come summer).

They were due to arrive at Mottisfont on Monday, but due to some unforeseen issues at the departure end, they didn’t make it until Thursday.  I spent the morning pacing anxiously, like an expectant mother, waiting for them to arrive.  At the allocated hour I waited at the field site, wandering up and down the road and craning my neck to catch the first glimpse of a sheep laden trailer.  15 minutes passed…then 30…then 45…I finally gave the transporter a call and nearly had my ear blown off when he answered with a great bellow “IM IN THE PUB!”
“What!?” Visions of whiskey drinking sheep propped up at the bar popped into my head in a rush of comedic fear.  Fighting the panic I enquired as to why the hell he was at a pub, only to find he had pulled in at the pub down the road to ring me because he had missed the turn off for Mottisfont. Phew.  2 minutes later he rang again to say he was in the car park so I leapt back in the truck and flew down the road to the visitor car park and there, sitting out side Visitor Reception was a double decked trailer full of slightly disgruntled looking eyes and noses, peeping out the sides.  I drove back to the field site behind the Village Hall, with the sheep and transporter following and at last they were able to be unloaded and let loose on their new home.  As the trailer ramp went down there was a moment of startled silence where nothing moved – and then in one woolly rush, they all flooded out rushing over the grass to pee, poo and eat all at once.  The final sheep out expressed it best by leaping clear over the ramp, all four feet in the air with an exuberant ‘baaaaaa!’ of freedom!

They will be onsite here at Mottisfont for a couple of weeks whilst I get them bucket trained and get used to having them, and then they shall be moved up to Stockbridge Down to their real kingdom.  I am in the process of recruiting volunteer looker’s to help with checking them everyday and have currently picked up quite a few.  This basically involves just looking in on the flock to check they are all present, not lame or ill (or dead) and things like ear tags are in and water troughs are full.  This can be something that people do as part of their regular walk up there, and some of the volunteers are dog walkers who go on the Down every day anyway.  If you are interested in helping at all, even just once a month, then please contact me at for more details.

And finally, these next 2 pictures I took as real heralds of the season.  Can you guess what this first one is?


This is the first conker of Autumn.  I found it in one of our woodlands that is flooded with snowdrops in Spring and is now getting a carpet of conkers littering its soil.  I love the shiny swirling fingerprint patterns you see on conkers, like a beautiful grain that loops and swirls round and round until pffst! It disappears.  Next time you find a conker – and there are hundreds already this year – take a look at this natural work of art.
This next photo is of a tree that stands just across the road from our staff car park.  It has got the most incredible colour on its leaves at the moment giving the vivid impression that the whole tree is aflame.  The fallen leaves lie below like a carpet of fire and when you drive out the car park and see that tree glowing and burning in the evening sunlight it takes your breath away.
But with every passing day the leaves are falling, so try and see it soon!

Tongues of Fire