Tuesday, 30 April 2013

A little bird told me...

Another week, another set of corpses for the skull collection.  Volunteers and colleagues have hit the jackpot recently, bringing me a barn owl, tawny owl, water vole and something so long dead we can only guess that it was a young fox (all found dead I hasten to add).
Work wise we have been welcoming the warmer weather and the start of a new time of year; everything is catching my eye now as the colours’ start to emerge in the sunlight.  I took this photo of my favourite flower, the Daffodil, with our magnificent veteran Plane tree in the background.  I’ve always thought the fantastic lemon yellow of the Daffodil just trumpets vibrancy and is a soothing balm to the eyes after a winters worth of greys and browns.  And talking of flowers in bloom you may have seen me on ITV Meridian recently, talking about the impact of the late Spring on our Bluebell population.

The blooming of the Daffodils is also a signal that the beginning of the fly fishing season is upon us.  Myself and volunteers have spent the last couple of weeks getting our river beats up to scratch; cleaning the fishing huts, trimming branches from over hanging trees (to allow fishing lines to drift underneath) pulling out old rotten river boarding, taking down old fences and gates and erecting new ones where required and a variety of other jobs to ensure that everything is ready in time.  There really is something to be said for working alongside the beautifully clear water of the Test, with the sun sparkling off the surface and the deep greens of the ranunculus weed rippling in the current below – if the temperature had been hotter it would have been hard to resist a swim…
Now in my last couple of posts I have mentioned some of the array of wildlife to be found around our estate.  I’d like to introduce you to one more which inhabits the gardens and who I take a small amount of pleasure from seeing flitting around Visitor Reception; Goldie, the aptly named Goldfinch (Full name is Goldie-lookin’-finch, a link to musical trivia).
Goldie was found out cold on the garden path at Mottisfont by a visitor back in October with a damaged and bleeding wing.  He (I say ‘he’ but Goldfinches are pretty hard to sex as they are one of those bird species where both sexes are almost identical, however I think it is a ‘he’) was  handed in at visitor reception like a lost child and the women there put him in a box and gave me a call and after testing whether or not he could fly and therefore survive – turns out he couldn’t – I took him back to the office, much to my colleagues disbelief, and then home with me to try and recuperate him.   I’d done some work with small birds before so I knew the correct handling technique to hold him and see to his wing without causing him further damage.  The wing had a wound and a swollen lump of blood under the skin up near the join of wing to body and so I cleaned it with cotton buds, applied antiseptic and then gave Goldie free reign of the house to see if it would heal.  With a plate of bird seed, fat balls and a water dip he seemed happy enough hopping round, pooing on my furniture and investigating every nook and cranny.  However my concern lay in the injury – wings are very hard to treat on birds this size as you cant bandage them up to let it heal – and if it didn’t heal, what to do?  No wild bird should live inside forever; perhaps I was just delaying the inevitable.

Goldie tucked up asleep in a corner of my lounge.

For a time there wasn’t much change, the wound would bleed occasionally and the odd feather would fall out of it.  Soon after I got hold of my old hamster cage and confined him to that, in order to prevent him from trying to use his damaged wing too much when he kept trying to flutter (and fail) around the room.

After a few weeks of wing tending and confinement I noticed improvement – when I’d open the cage he would first hop out, then flutter out wonkily and crash land, then flutter out straight and when the day came when he flew straight out, round the room and bounced off my lamp shade, I knew it was time for the Born Free moment.  I didn’t want to shock him with immediate freezing temperatures after being in the warmth of my house for a month or so, so I waited for the very cold spell to fade out and milder weather to come in and, about a week after his first flight with his healed wing, I took Goldie back to the bird feeders by visitor reception and let him go.  He hopped out and flew straight up into a Yew tree where he sat blinking for a while, then flew off into the gardens.

I was concerned as to whether he would survive the winter and the snow that came later, or if he would find a feeding flock as his own flock of Goldfinches may have moved on, or if his wing would give him problems in the cold or be too weak to fly around properly and find food.  However, a few weeks later, the Visitor Reception gang spotted him on the bird feeder outside their window, alive and well.  He is easily recognizable because he still holds his damaged right wing at a slight angle – when the wings are folded, the left one tucks into the tail whilst the dodgy right one is held slightly lower.

Since then he has survived the winter, is a regular visitor to the bird feeders, has got in with a new flock of finches and even appears to have a mate – I’m keeping my fingers crossed for a new generation of Goldie’s this Spring.  Alan Snook, our in house bird expert took this photo of him on the bird feeder – you can see the right hand wing being held at a funny angle whilst the left hand wing is tucked into the tail.

Goldie ruling the roost at the feeders
One of the quirks of conservation – you never quite know what you’ll end up being involved with day to day, and small bird first aid certainly wasn’t on my CV prior to this job!

Friday, 26 April 2013

Winter Hymnal

Well the warmth of the breeze and the sounds of the cuckoo are heralds that spring is upon us – better late than never – but before I talk about our springtime work, let me update you on some of the stuff we’ve been doing over the winter.
Winter is of course prime tree felling and scrub clearance time.  Flora and fauna are hibernating below ground and nature lies dormant, making it the ideal time to do any habitat alteration or restoration that may be needed.
We completed a range of projects throughout the winter, all with the help of our countryside volunteers who unfailingly, unflinchingly (well, some flinching when knee deep in icy water) toiled through the snow, wind and rain to get the job done.
In the Long Lash field at Mottisfont we cleared overgrown wet meadow ditches that are a vital habitat for our Biodiversity Action Plan Priority species, the Southern Damselfly.  Up to 25% of the global population of Southern Damselflies occurs in the UK and it is classed as a category 3 Rare species on the Red Data Book list.  These damselflies require the shallow and slow flowing water of wet meadow ditches and streams in order to breed and their numbers have been dramatically reduced in the past by cessation of grazing (grazing animals help keep the water courses open), water abstraction and loss  due to agriculture and forestry practices and nutrient enrichment from agricultural land.
Our work in Long Lash consisted of clearing the overgrown rushes and reeds from alternating 20m sections of bank to halfway across the ditch.  The vegetation was beginning to overgrow the ditches, which results in silt build up and then more vegetation taking root – eventually stopping the flow of water and filling in the ditch.  By clearing alternating sections it meant we allowed the water flow to remain steady and yet left plenty of bankside vegetation for other creatures that thrive here such as water voles.  Cattle will graze the field in order to help keep the ditches open.   After spending snowy winter days in waders in these ditches, I hope the Damselflies reap the benefits!
One of the Long Lash ditches with alternating 20m reed clearance - thats a nice water flow!

Another task we tackled over winter was enhancing and creating wide rides in our woodlands in order to benefit butterfly species as well as contributing to the overall biodiversity of the woodland.  Following a Woodland Management Plan and under the guidance of Geoff our trusty Butterfly Conservation Trust volunteer, we cleared scrub, felled certain trees and swiped out undergrowth to maintain and extend linear rides throughout the woodlands of the estate.  By clearing out some of the undergrowth and canopy of woodland, you allow sun to reach the woodland floor and a resulting carpet of wild flowers and other flora bursts from the soil, where they have lain dormant under the shadow of the canopy.  These sunny, floral rides allow butterflies and other insects to meander through the woodland feasting on light and nectar and so helps spread the range of a species and join up connecting habitats where such species may be found.  An example is that there are Pearl Bordered Fritillaries very near to our woodland estate and such ride work may help tempt them into our woodland.
The rides also benefit other woodland creatures such as our various bat species – the Barbestelle bats use the rides as flight corridors en route to their feeding grounds on the River Test.

One of the rides we opened up in Winter - and check out the explosion of Bluebell foliage!

We have been fighting the good fight against invasive Cherry Laurel and Rhododendron Ponticum by felling the plants, burning them on the spot and chemically treating the stumps to prevent regrowth.  These plants are majorly invasive and incredibly voracious once they take hold in a habitat, as they have nothing to keep them in check – no disease that affects them and no native plant that shades them out.   They grow and spread very quickly via a suckering technique; if you were to cut a stump it would resprout and if you cut a branch and left it lying on the ground it would take root itself and grow another plant.  They shade out all the native flora they grow up around, creating a dead and bare undercanopy that has no wildlife value as no native flora is able to grow and the associated animal species such as caterpillars and Dormice cannot survive without them.   Rhododendron has also been found to carry and spread Phytophthora Ramoran, which causes Sudden Oak Death and is a threat to our native tree species.
Whilst we have won the battle in clearing it from some areas of our woodland this winter, we have yet to win the war and wipe it out completely.  However  Tony, one of our volunteers, is currently mapping all the laurel and rhodi on the estate in order to fix a battle plan for the coming winter….

Now most of us enjoy a cool glass of Gin and Tonic every now and then, and this was in our minds as we carried out clearance work around our Juniper trees on Stockbridge down over the winter.  Juniper is one of only three conifer tree species that are native to Britain (the other 2 being Yew and Scots Pine) and it was one of the first trees to colonise Britain after the last Ice Age (no I don’t mean last winter).  However these days it is having a harder time to survive due to various reasons.  Firstly it is the Giant Panda of the tree world; it isn’t very good at reproducing as it is a dioecious species; meaning it has male and female trees (like Holly and Ash) and as the two sexes could grow distances apart from each other it makes successful pollination more difficult.   Trees have to be at least 8 years old to be mature enough to reproduce and once a seed is produced as berries on the female trees, they take 2 summers to ripen (during which birds will scoff some), up to 2 years to germinate in the ground (while insects and voles have a good gobble at them) and when a seedling does manage to sprout (for which they need bare soil as they are very easily shaded out by grasses) they are prone to being chewed by small mammals.  And if they by some miracle do get beyond infanthood and become a mature Juniper tree they are again at risk of being shaded out by much quicker growing scrub like privet, thorn and Dog wood.
Our Juniper trees on Stockbridge Down are all of a mature age and have been overtaken by scrubby growth that is rapidly shading them out and will kill them off without intervention.  Therefore we have spent time clearing out the privet and thorn by hand – obtaining impressive blackthorn bruising along the way – and I have also been going in amongst the trees with the tractor and swipe creating a ‘halo’ effect around them and free-ing them to the light.  (A swipe is a machine that consists of some heavy chains that spin round at high speed and essentially cut through anything at the ground level, brilliant for clearing scrub up to a certain size)  We have to be wary of clearing too much scrub too quickly from around the Juniper as they can get light shock if they are suddenly open to the light and the elements and this can cause bush collapse.  We have made a fantastic start this winter and I will be monitoring the area to see the effects and continuing the work next winter. (By the way, PlantLife is a fantastic resource to look up for info about Juniper if you want to know more).
Some of our Juniper trees enjoying the sun after our clearance work - this whole area was thorn and privet scrub before.

So there we have it.  A winters worth of work and I haven’t even mentioned the hedgerow restoration, tree planting, coppicing, log processing, scrub clearance on Stockbridge…. The list goes on and I don’t think people’s attention spans will hold for it all.
But if you’re walking through our woods or across Stockbridge Down then keep an eye open for the winter works we’ve done and the result they are having – nature is finally waking up.

Sunday, 14 April 2013

Plant the Seed....An Introduction

Greetings and welcome to my new blog; let me introduce myself.  My name is Catherine and I work as the Outdoor ranger for the National Trust at Mottisfont.  I should probably start this blog by telling you a bit about our sites that we manage and look after and my role in that.
So this is me, Catherine Hadler; Outdoors Ranger for Mottisfont Countryside.

Where do I start?  Our countryside department covers sites that stretch from Stockbridge in the North, the New Forest to the West, the River Hamble to the South and of course the Mottisfont estate itself which includes the world famous chalk stream that gave birth to the sport of fly fishing; the River Test.
At Stockbridge we have Stockbridge Down and Stockbridge Marsh.  The Down is a stunning chalk grassland and scrub habitat which lies upon several thousand years of history in the form of an Iron Age hill fort, Bronze Age burial mounds and ancient field systems.  The site is 65 hectares in size and we manage it under our Higher Level Stewardship (HLS) scheme in conjunction with Natural England.  The site boasts 32 species of the 59 UK butterflies (not bad for 65 hectares) and these thrive on the variety of flowering plants that grow here including Harebells, Eyebright and Kidney Vetch.  The Down also contains stands of the increasingly endangered Juniper tree as well as a mixed scrub habitat predominating in blackthorn, hawthorn, dogwood, privet and hazel.
Stockbridge Marsh is a serene wet grassland site that lies behind the town of Stockbridge.  A tributary of the Test runs through the marsh adding to the beauty and value of the area.  Water vole frolic in the stream whilst moorhen and swans glide along through the water and herb rich fen vegetation grows in the damper areas of the Marsh.  Also under an HLS scheme, Stockbridge Marsh is grazed by livestock each year in order to keep the vegetation structure diverse and encourage a diversity of flora and fauna. 
Alongside the river Hamble is a stretch of land called Curbridge.  Here we have a fantastic tidal estuarine habitat hand in hand with a stretch of ancient woodland and coppice.  Bluebells litter the woodland floor (a great ancient woodland indicator) and impressive mature oak trees stand guard at the waters edge.  These tree titans are slowly falling into the river one by one as the natural erosion processes of the bank occur and it is an interesting place to see the natural processes of habitat development at work – we learnt from King Canute; you can’t stop the tide.
In the New Forest we have several sites and Commons displaying pasture woodland, acid grassland and my favourite UK habitat of all – lowland heath.  Our sites here are managed by a mixture of grazing by stock belonging to Commoners (cattle, pigs and the well known New Forest ponies) and the conservation work we do in order to maintain the open heath land habitat, in itself a piece of history that tells the tale of human evolution from hunter gatherers to farming communities up until the modern day.
Finally, the Mottisfont estate.  Here we have tenanted farmland – arable and pastoral – a mix of ancient woodland, coppice, coniferous plantations and wet woodland, the riparian habitat of the Test and the chalk stream fed river itself.
All these habitats in close proximity have rewarded us with fauna and flora species that would tempt any naturalist worth their salt.  We have the rare Southern Damselfly which thrives in our flowing ditches and flood meadows, the Barbestelle bat; one of the rarest bats in the UK and of which we have one of only 6 maternity roost sites in England.  We have water vole and wild otter populations, brown trout and Pea lined mussel.  Barn owls, Tawny owls and Little owls haunt our trees and fields by night whilst buzzards, kestrels, goshawks and Red Kites fill the skies by day (as well as the occasional Osprey passing through).  Hares box each other in the fields, Dormice rustle secretly through the scrub and woodlands and Grass snakes bathe lazily at the edges of the rushes in the flood meadow.  Purple Emperor butterflies glide through the canopy as Roe and Fallow deer stalk beneath.  Stoat and weasels scurry along the hedgerows thankfully without any sign of their bigger brother the Mink.  We can show off an Oak tree that is close to millennia in age and a magnificent Plane tree that is a British champion of its kind.  And if anyone can guess how many of those species I’ve just named are UK BAP (Biodiversity Action Plan) species, they’ll appreciate just what a goldmine of nature we have here and how important our work is in order to conserve it. 
So my role; I joined the team here in August 2012, coming from another National Trust site up in Surrey.  My role here is a diverse one with so much variety and challenge that I’m certain I’ll never get bored!  I recruit and run our countryside volunteer teams who help us carry out the work we do.  I run countryside events and walks for the Mottisfont estate with the help of our Visitor Experience Team.  I assist with the management of the woodlands, grassland and river habitats we have – as well as helping out in the New Forest heath land side of things now and then.  I have come to take on the Stockbridge HLS’s (with a little help from my boss, can’t take all the credit) and so I am now in charge of the management of these sites as well as care of our Hamble site.  This is a very basic summary and encompasses everything from public engagement to chainsawing, trundling around in the tractor swiping scrub to revamping our estate trail and web cam nature room.  As I say, it keeps me busy. 
I also have a habit of collecting animal skulls for educational purposes (kids have loved them at events I’ve helped with) which has unfortunately earned me a bit of a reputation; anytime anyone now finds an animal corpse of some sort, it makes its way to my desk for me to use – which is brilliant for me, not so good for the other office dwellers who have started to despair at finding dead owls on the table or a deer skull soaking in the kitchen sink….
Anyway, that’s enough for a first blog post and an introduction.  I want to use this blog to write about my job in the Trust, who our countryside team is, what we’ve been up to on our sites and why we do it, all against the backdrop of the natural world and the passing seasons in which I’m lucky enough to experience every day of my work.