Friday, 31 January 2014

Whilst Shepherds watched their flocks....

Its stiiiiill raining….We have opened every sluice gate and every side ditch here at Mottisfont and still the river Test and the Abbey stream are full to capacity and breaching the banks into the fields and the meadows.  The Duck Grounds has now taken up its name in that you have to be a duck or other water bird to survive it and even on the highest hilltop of Stockbridge Down you are squelching through boggy mud littered with pools of water.

We are due the highest tide of the year this weekend which, with the combined floodwaters will make our Hamble site potentially underwater and we can only wait to see the state of the place come Monday.

Now in one of my earlier posts in October I told you about the arrival of our sheep flock, which we bought to graze Stockbridge Down.  I talked then about our reasons for having them and the important role they play in chalk grassland management so I won’t repeat it all now.  However, I have since recruited and trained a host of volunteer community ‘shepherds’ to assist with the checking of the sheep on a daily basis.  These wonderful people each have an allocated day of the week, on which they go out, count the sheep and visually assess them (i.e. are they upright and healthy and not staggering around with bite marks or something) check they have ear tags and that fence lines are sound, gates are shut and water troughs are full.  I will check the animals as well when I can, but it is invaluable having a team of people whom I can rely on to do this every day – it means I can have weekends and holidays!  And they have been worth their weight in gold as we have had a variety of incidents over the winter – a Houdini style escapee (I still can’t figure how she got into next door), a near broken sheep leg trapped in a tree stem and a huge yew tree crashing through the fence line this weekend to name a few but the volunteers have taken it all in their stride.

This Yew tree came down last weekend over the sheep fence - and after we cut it up into pieces, the removal of the weight of its canopy meant it suddenly rose gracefully back skywards, being pulled back upright by its heavy rootball!
And so it is well deserved that the story of the volunteer shepherds has been taken up by the local media – this last week we have had an article on the National Trust intranet (an internal news engine), an interview on BBC Radio Solent on Thursday 30th January with the Julian Clegg breakfast show and an article in the Romsey Advertiser.

The radio show can be found on the following link: and the shepherd story is from 2hrs and 11 minutes on the timeline bar.

If you are interested in joining in with the sheep checking then please contact me at   It is basically taking a walk in a stunning piece of countryside with some very friendly (and greedy) sheep!

Now a few blog posts ago I also mentioned my home made cider which I had recently started to make.  The last picture you saw was of 4 demi johns full of turgid looking brown juice which was the beginning of a beautiful dream….this week it was ready for bottling, having fermented itself into a clear golden sparkling liquid that hinted of warm summer evenings.  I first had to find a way to sterilise all my empty bottles and, with the use of the oil spill kit box and the Henry Hoover tube, I was able to cunningly devise a water filled container into which I could throw some sterilising tablets and soak all my bottles.
Hows that for ingenuity - hoover tube tap attachment!

 After sterilising them all I then took them home and proceeded with the task of uncorking the demi johns and taking the first furtive sniff to see if they had turned sour – but they smelt and tasted pretty good!

Bottling commenced and I ended up with 39 bottles of the stuff, which I then returned to the workshop at work to sit in a cool place for the next few weeks whilst the fermentation finishes off….they should be worth drinking just as Spring arrives and will be at their peak in the summer – cheers!
Liquid Gold....

Thursday, 23 January 2014

What's in a name?

Have you ever felt like the Universe is trying to tell you something?  Over the last few weeks I have started to feel like I have the wrong name….I have received no fewer than 5 emails, all from unrelated people on unrelated subjects who, having written in my email address (which has my name in it) have then gone on to start the email ‘Dear Caroline…’.  If this wasn’t bizarre enough I also received a Christmas card through my letter box from ‘neighbour’ (no name given) also wishing ‘Caroline’ a happy Christmas.  So what to do? Find Caroline?  I can only continue to sign my name Catherine in large letters and hope the universe backs off in its quest to rename me.

Now back in October, some students from Southampton University came to film a bushcraft event I was doing with children, for a film they were making about the National Trust’s scheme of ’50 Things to do before you’re 11 ¾’.  If you haven’t heard of this scheme, look it up as its great fun and basically all about getting kids out the house and enjoying everything the outdoors has to offer – all free things that only require enthusiasm and imagination.  I've found the adults seem to enjoy it just as much too.
Anyway the finished film was put up on YouTube this week and if you paste the following link into your internet address bar you can watch it.  Myself and my colleague Ryan both feature in it from minute 6 onwards – we watched it between our fingers as I hate hearing what my voice sounds like and Ryan thinks he has a face for Crimewatch!

 But putting aside our own insecurities it is a nice bit of filming and the students have done a good job of getting the message across so thanks to them for including us.  One minor flaw – they got my name wrong!  Not Caroline this time, but they have put me as Catherine Hadley (not Hadler) so now everywhere I go at work people are singing Spandau Ballet tracks at me….but hey, what’s in a name?

Now, on February 16th,17th, 22nd and 23rd, we are hosting a wild snowdrop walk, from the grounds here at Mottisfont.  This walk takes people across our parkland and fields and into a private woodland off the beaten track where a beautiful secret lies hidden within.  This woodland hosts a sea of wild snowdrops that carpet the floor and make you feel like you’ve wandered into Narnia.  I walked the route the other day to check for any problems or tree damage after the storms and I was struck by artistic looking remains of this tree that I came across – it is literally the very outer shell of a tree, all that is left after years of decay and it has been smoothed by the wind and the rain until it resembles a undulating, flowing river of wood and bark. 

I spent last weekend in the Isle of Wight doing Dormouse habitat work with PTES (People’s Trust for Endangered Species).  This is an annual event and always good fun and a chance to see old faces again.  This year managed to bring me a first for my adulthood, in the form of a real live wild red squirrel – the first I had seen since I was a child.  We got a good look at it as it pirouetted its way through the trees above our heads and I was struck by how much lighter they move than their chubby grey counterparts.  This red squirrel barely seemed to touch a branch when it skipped between them, whilst when you watch a grey leap into a branch it sways and wobbles.
The Isle of Wight has no grey squirrels, no deer (so no deer protection needed on coppiced woodland) and, due to their dislike of crossing water, no Tawny Owls!  Now there’s a fact that might win you a pub quiz one day.
Pretty Squirrel Nutkin (photo sourced from NT archive)

Thursday, 9 January 2014

'And rain fell on the Earth for 40 days and 40 nights...'

Happy New Year!  2014 is upon us, and what an entrance it made – gale force winds heavy deluges of rain and wide reaching power failures left people all across the country wallowing in watery despair over Christmas and New Year.  Whilst I lost power from the 23rd to the evening of the 24th, we were lucky enough to get it back on for Christmas – far luckier than some others including my poor volunteers the Floyds’, who spent Christmas in their New Forest home in darkness and chill!

We had a rota of rangers in every day over Christmas and new year and as a result we all witnessed the carnage first hand in one way or another; whether it was winching trees out the river, cutting them up by boat, clearing huge oaks from the road, unblocking the access to the sheep which was blocked by a fallen tree or clearing ditches to try and prevent the river from flooding houses and gardens, everyone got involved.
The river Dun - much of river keeper Neil's watery kingdom has now doubled in size and spread!

The Abbey stream at Mottisfont breached into the river garden which has now taken literal ownership of it's title.
I spent New Year’s Day doing the rounds which involved slipping and sliding head over toe in the rain and mud of the sheer escarpment at Stockbridge checking the animals and then driving round checking our carparks in the New Forest for any problems or flytipping.  I have never seen the Forest so saturated with water; looking over the vast expanse of bleak, desolate heathland, there were swollen arteries and veins of water flowing through the landscape every few metres.  The rivers were all breached and flooded, and I got to test the sturdiness of the truck out by braving (brave or stupid?) the rushing torrent of Rockford Ford where the waves lapped the bonnet and negotiating the streets of Hightown which were, ironically enough, under water for a good few hundred metres.

We are all back at work this week and are still clearing up the aftermath.  Our estate has suffered a lot of tree damage from our Hamble site, to Stockbridge, to the New Forest and that’s without even mentioning the Mottisfont woodlands where there will be fallen trees in situ for months to come.

However, life goes on, the winds have abated and the water levels are slowly beginning to creep down – although every burst of rain produces so much groundwater that the flood risk won’t be truly reduced for many days yet.  The property has remained open where it can and we shall continue the clear up effort – there are some interesting challenges to work out, with regards to the positioning of some of the hung up and fallen trees over stretches of river – too damp to get a tractor and winch onsite, yet they are in too perilous a position (next to a railway) to fell out right without any kind of winch force pull on them…any ideas or solutions please post to us!
Life does go on - no amount of atrocious weather stops this lot; Monday volunteers out on Stockbridge this week.

 The wet conditions also caused us to nearly lose one of the sheep over the weekend – although not by being crushed from a fallen tree, but by slipping in the mud on the slope, onto its back where it slid and managed to catch its foreleg in between 2 hazel stems – the chances are about a billion to one of it managing to do that, but as people say, sheep will try their damn best to hurt themselves!

My sheep looker found her – fortunately we think it was very soon after it had happened – and managed to free the leg whilst I phoned the vet and sent her down there.  Long story short – what looked like a broken leg (which would be game over) then looked like severe shock and trauma (again, game over) turned into the God of sheep cutting us a wee bit of a break, when the animal suddenly recovered from her death’s door shock state, got up and started eating on 3 legs.  If a sheep can eat, then it’s not in too bad a condition!  She has made a full recovery thanks to some anti-inflammatories and the quick work of sheep looker Sue finding her in time (if a sheep is stuck on its back for too long, their lungs fill with fluid and they ‘drown’ under their own weight).

Some of the ewe's expressing their disgust at the tree that crushed both sides of the handling pen and fell over their feed box and water trough.

So all in all, an eventful start to the New Year!  I hear that we have some colder weather on the way at last and whilst I don’t want the deep freeze the US is currently in the grip of, I think we are in desperate need of some cold, dry weather to firm up the ground and give nature a chance to properly become dormant – we saw some hazel flowers and catkins in bud the other day, way too early!.  We shall have to wait and see what the back end of winter brings us…
A glimmer of light - and hope - after the storm.