Thursday, 27 February 2014


What do you get if you cross 28 sheep, with the wettest winter in a hundred years and add in an annual vaccination schedule? Answer:  2 VERY muddy, bruised rangers and a whole new game called Mud Wrestle Sheep Rugby.

As you may have guessed, last week it was time for the sheep flock to have their annual vaccinations, which protect them from a host of clostridial diseases that they can otherwise be prone to such as pulpy kidney and braxy.  The vaccination consists of giving each sheep a subcutaneous injection (into the skin, not muscle) in a baldish patch just behind their front leg.  We were also to give them an oral dose of wormer at the same time.  But of course to do so, you must first catch them….

We tried waiting for a dry day, but it looked like we would wait forever and we had a deadline of March so, one not too rainy day last week, Ryan and I loaded up the sheep race and the necessary equipment and made our way to Stockbridge Down.

We had a hairy start reversing the land rover down the bridleway to the sheep slope (my very stupid idea as I thought it had dried out enough to get the truck down safely – it hadn’t) and I ended up sliding the vehicle gracefully off the edge of the path down the slope and into the scrubby fence line.  After some choice words and a quick assessment of the situation, I managed to back it up onto the path with a grinding ripping of foliage and skidding of wheels and we continued our wobbly way along to the entry gate.  Two hours later, we had unloaded, flocked the sheep up into the corral pen from all four corners of the slope, set up the sheep race (a long fenced corridor with a gate at the end, which the sheep run into and can then be treated before being let out the gate), set up our table of vaccinations and were stood looking at the flock of sheep, which blinked back at us, fully aware something was going to happen to them.

Naturally, the sheep chose not to run into the sheep race one by one, but instead just ran round and round the corral, making the ground muddier and muddier and into the texture of angel delight.  We realised the only way to get on with the job was to catch them one by one and drag them into the race and so…let the games begin!

Looking back I wish we could have filmed some of it as it would have made hilarious viewing.  These are big sheep, an average adult ewe weighs around 80kg, horns and all and so when they have a lanky ranger throwing themselves upon them, they are still able to run around and around, dragging the annoying dead weight behind them (and whilst the sheep gracefully leap over obstacles like the feed box and tree stumps, the attached ranger gets smashed into them).  This charade would continue until the second ranger could get through the mud to assist ranger one with bringing the animal to a complete standstill, by which time both human and animal are slick with mud from head to toe.  We would then walk the animal into the race and inject and orally dose it (only got bitten once), check its feet, give it a condition score and then release it back out onto the slope looking rather disgruntled and very muddy.  25 wrestling rounds later, we were down to the final three and discovering that the fewer animals in the corral, the harder they are to catch as they have more space.   

Fancy a game?

Suddenly all three ran into the sheep race and found themselves cornered.  I stood at the gate blocking their exit but before I knew what was happening, the largest ewe put her head down and charged my knees which were blocking her route to freedom.  I went flying but, in my desperation to finish the job, I threw myself on her as she was escaping and managed to bring her down – but in doing so the final two were able to run out the gap to freedom despite Ryan’s efforts to wade through the mud and get to them in time.  ‘Nooooooo!’  I howled in anger after the gleefully retreating rumps of the escapees, and punched the ground, whilst still lying flat on the other sheep who had accepted her fate and was keeping still.  After a few moments of weary despair where we felt all the aches and pains in our bodies and knew we’d have to do it all again, Ryan’s calm and matter of fact reasoning that we would come back with more people and catch them the next day brought me out of my misery and we did the final sheep I was holding and let her go.  I looked at the clock – 4pm!  We had been going all day without eating or drinking and hadn’t even realised how late it was.  We packed everything up just as the rain started falling, climbed into the land rover sodden, aching, dejected and very very muddy, and sludged our way back to Mottisfont.

(But we did return with a band of volunteers two days later and caught and treated the offending pair.  Oh and I hasten to add that no sheep were harmed in this process, only rangers).

Now all across the estate at the minute, signs of Spring are beginning to pop up.  The rooks and the jackdaws are kaw-ing and screeching in the Plane trees’ as they begin to build their nest site and the daylight hours are creeping outwards.  I took this photo of a Hazel flower, freshly bloomed in our coppice – the flowers are the female counterpart to the Hazel catkins and are usually overlooked because they are so small.  But if you search a Hazel stem you will find a tiny sea anemone like flower in the most vivid fuchsia pink waving its tendrils at the sun.


Talking of Hazel coppice, I must take my hat off to Ryan and our countryside volunteers for their coppicing work this winter.  We had a big coupe to clear in our Queen Meadow Coppice site this year and we weren’t fully sure if we would be able to do it all in amongst everything else.  However they have not only cleared that coupe and harvested the product for charcoal and fire wood, but they have also opened up another section of derelict coppice in Oakley Copse woodland.  This is a small woodland that consists of hazel coppice, oak and Norway Spruce plantation.  The Spruce was planted for a Christmas tree crop several decades ago but as it never got harvested it was left behind to grow on and it has now got so big that it casts a very dark shadow beneath its canopy, so nothing grows on the woodland floor below it.  Our plan is to remove the Spruce from the woodland by the end of next winter and plant it up with native broadleaf species to encourage and enhance wildlife diversity.  This ties in with bringing the derelict Hazel coppice back into rotation and the ground flora that is already springing up is evidence of a seed bank long since hidden that is once again beginning to emerge into the light.

Lords and Ladies - Arum Maculatum - growing up in the cleared coppice area.

I like to think that part of doing all this work is to share it and encourage people to learn from it – and to this end, we had a group of school children out from Mountbatten School yesterday come out into Oakley copse and help us with the work.  They got a woodland management talk and walk to show them the site and the reasons for the work, then we gave them a run through on how to fell a tree with a bow saw (during which all their eyes lit up) and then we let them crack on with the work.  They also enjoyed jacket potatoes out of the bonfire and perfected the art of toasting marshmallows.  The day was blessed with golden sunshine from start to finish (very lucky!) and in fact the hail held off until the minute they got back into their minibus – when the heavens opened.  So a big thankyou to Fran from Mountbatten who organised the trip, to Mike the minibus driver who proved himself a keen coppice worker and to all the boys for their hard work throughout the day – and for not squashing their classmates with any trees.

Budding Foresters!

Learning the art of tree felling...

Monday, 17 February 2014

Raindrops and Snowdrops

Greetings from Atlantis!  Ok we may not quite be a lost city beneath the waves but we are damned close.  It seems incredible that, after the last few months of blog posts where I have mentioned the weather, there are STILL more dramatic scenes of wind and water to record – but there it is. 
 Here we are, mid Feb and the River Test which has held its own for so long has finally burst its banks and flooded into Mottisfont.  The fields surrounding our visitor carpark and the entrance are now a rippling lake which is creeping ever further into the road – much more and it will be cut off.  We have spent the week sandbagging tenant cottages, visitor reception and Lower Lodge house, not to mention the endless clearing up of fallen trees on roads, in rivers and over fence lines.  However, whilst I am heartily sick of spending my working hours soaking wet, filthy and run ragged I do totally appreciate the fact I am one of the lucky ones who can go home to a dry, warm house with power – unlike so many people in the UK right now who have had their homes flooded out and their possessions ruined. 
A large Oak came down across Bengers Lane, the main road at Mottisfont, which took 3 chainsaws and a tractor to clear.

The view from the bridge of the River Test outside Mottisfont - the true river channel should only be on the far right.

Full moon over our flooded fields - scenic but soggy!

I read a very interesting article the other day about the whole flooding issue and the use of river catchments.  A lot of it was to me, a student of geography, common sense, but it is amazing how this sense has not been integral to the decisions and plans drawn up with regards to how we manage river catchments – especially the bit about land clearing grants being increased, whilst tree planting grants are going...give the article a read and see what you think.  I’ve not read the book by the same author, and I have heard he is rather opinionated but I do think this article is a very worthwhile and fascinating read (especially when you have an idiotic UKIP councillor blaming the floods on ‘God’s opposition to gay marriage!’ And I thought we were in the 21st century!).


Anyway I have another reason not to be too downhearted by the weather – I skived off to Egypt for 6 days last week to escape the threat of trench foot and be enveloped by the Saharan sun and the balmy azure waters of the Red sea.  Flying out of Gatwick (luckily between storms) we ascended through the grey fleecy cloud up, up, up and suddenly....ahhhhh...sunlight burst through, rapidly constricting our pupils which were unused to such golden light.  The sky was as beautiful a blue as I remembered and the sun seemed to shine all the brighter and clearer for us not having seen it for so long.  I mashed my face against the little porthole window through which I could feel the warmth that was previously only a summer seemed so uncanny and strange that above those storms and gales this idyllic scene of gold and blue lay calmly waiting – even though you know it’s there, when you are down in the endless rain and gloom it just doesn’t seem believable.
A distant memory - blue sky and the saharan desert.

Then followed 6 days of Egyptian sun during which we snorkelled some of the most vibrant and colourful coral reefs I’ve ever seen; every centimetre was humming and throbbing with life, shoals of neon coloured fish, turquoise lipped giant clams, corals of purple and gold and patrolling triggerfish and parrot fish lit up the sea like a rainbow in a raindrop.  Amongst my favourite were the puffer fish that blew themselves up when you got close and the box fish – a cute, slightly baffled looking fish who seems permanently confused as to why it is shaped like a cube.

However, I must not let the reader dwell on such visions of paradise – back to the flooded isle of Mottisfont.  Half term is now upon us and we kicked off the weekend with our Wild snowdrop walks.  These took people out across our parklands and into a private woodland on the estate within which lies a beautiful display of snowdrops.  I created these walks with the enthusiastic dedication of our Outdoor Guide Team, a large group of volunteers who run daily tours around the gardens and the Duck grounds for members of the public.  The Outdoor Guides were keen to do more tours and so we started the Wild snowdrop walks last year and, due to the huge success and high demand we have continued them this year.  Planning countryside events are always a bit of a hit and miss affair as we are always so reliant on the weather and the seasons. 

Our Snowdrop woodlands
For advertising purposes, dates have to be set 6 months or so in advance which of course makes it hard to predict if the seasons will play ball.  Last year everything came out late due to the ongoing cold winter and as a result I had to cancel a bluebell walk we had planned – as there were no bluebells out in time.  This year I was concerned that with the warm winter things might start to bloom early – indeed there are bluebell leaves already emerging – and that the tours may miss the peak of the snowdrops. 
However despite my fears, the snowdrops have pulled it out the bag and are at their peak across the gardens and the estate looking fantastic in rain or shine.  The Outdoor Guides are doing a fantastic job of leading the walks and we have another weekend of wild snowdrop walks next weekend so do come along to Mottisfont and join a tour – but be warned; wear wellies!