Tuesday, 6 May 2014

May the Fourth be with you...

 Although both the dates have now past, let me take the opportunity to wish you a happy Beltane, May Day and Star Wars Day (May the 4th….say it out loud).  April to May is one of the best times of year, when flora and fauna abound.  In one glance you can take in greens of every shade and texture on the trees, hawthorn scenting the air near the hedgerows and the rapeseed of the fields glowing golden on the horizon.  Newly fledged birds flutter awkwardly along the field margins as they try and master their wing technique and, as always, the butterflies are constantly flitting in and out of sight, each week bringing more species into flying adulthood and so bringing with them more colour variety as they emerge.  Only today on Stockbridge I saw my first Blue of the season – a stunning little Common Blue that fluttered alone among the Orange tips and Brimstones.  I also spotted two Dingy Skippers for the first time this year – both in areas I hadn’t seen them previously on the Down which is always a promising sign.

Can you spot the Orange tip egg on this Ladies Smock?  Tiny little orange egg in the middle.

 And talking of Stockbridge, the sheep flock are sporting some truly horrific hairstyles as they continue to shed their winter coats.  Some have random hump backs of lifted wool whilst others look like they have been trying out Mohican styles all down their backs.  They do look like a drunken shearer has come and started shearing bits of them and then got bored and wandered off – I can assure you this is not the case, and that this wool loss is all natural to them.  However the sooner they shed the lot the better!  On the plus side I am picking up lots of lovely soft clumps of wool which I need to find a use for…
Chilling in the sun - you can see the shabby hairstyles!

Now I often mention survey work that we do across our estates, be it butterfly, reptile, bird, flora or other things.  There is one animal in particular I am determined to find across our wooded estate at Mottisfont.  It relies on mixed broadleaf woodland, with good understorey and species diversity, but is also heavily reliant on Hazel, Oak and Ash.  It will eat nuts, fruits, flowers and tiny insects and builds its home out of stripped honeysuckle.  Whilst named as a mouse, it is not actually a mouse at all but is a rodent; I am talking, of course, about the Hazel Dormouse.  These are elusive little creatures that look like a miniature ginger hamster, with a long furry tail and prehensile toes.  They are almost entirely arboreal, spending their lives climbing from tree to branch which is why they need a good under canopy structure to enable them to get about – they don’t like crossing open ground but it isn’t unknown for them to do so.  

Our woodlands at Mottisfont host ideal Dormouse habitat in some areas.  We have a lot of mixed woodland, hazel coppice, Ash, Oak, Cherry, bramble, honeysuckle; everything they like to feast on, connecting hedgerows round every field edge and between every woodland (the only major barrier being the river to the East of the estate) – and yet there have been no records of Dormice found here. 
In order to search for dormice, you can put up Boxes and tubes to establish a presence/absence scenario.  Even then though, the Dormice will not always choose these things to nest in, and may prefer to make their nests in a natural place such as in the intertwined branches of honeysuckle.  Also it may take them a few years to find and decide to use the boxes/tubes that are put out for them.
To this end, I want to determine once and for all what we have here as I cannot see how we can’t have them, based on the habitat I know we have.  I bought 50 boxes off the PTES (Peoples Trust for Endangered Species) with whom I have contacts and do some work with, and also had the local countryside college of Sparsholt make another 35 as part of their curriculum. 
Myself, Ryan and Andy, one of our volunteers, put out the first 50 in one of our woodlands.  We spread them throughout the entire woodland, following a grid pattern that ran up and down the length of the site.  Boxes should always be put up along ‘edges’ – near ride edges, hedgerows, margins between different habitats – as this is where Dormice will most likely discover them.
The next 35 were then put up with the assistance of Sparsholt who brought their students out to learn about dormice, the purpose of the boxes they had made, and what makes a good place to fix them.  These were put up in another woodland of ours.
Then, for all the other woodlands across our estate, I had 64 dormouse tubes that were loaned to me by the Hampshire Dormouse Group and which I put out with the help of two work placement students back in March.  The major issue with these boxes and tubes is disturbance.  People spot them and open them up to look inside, thus disturbing the resident.  If this is done too many times, the creature won’t bother nesting in the box and will find somewhere less disturbed.  So please, if you spot any of these boxes on our estate, please resist temptation and do not look inside!
Between the 85 new boxes and 64 new tubes, I must surely determine, one way or another if we have dormice – if there are any furry tailed, ginger rodents on this estate -I will find them.  I hope.
A Tit nest full of eggs - in a dormouse box

A lovely nest to find in the boxes - wren.  They make a fully round nest of moss with a small entrance hole- cosy!

 Leading on from this, is the surveys of the boxes.  This is done throughout the spring to autumn months by licensed surveyors.  I am training for my Dormouse licence and so I go in the company of a lady who already holds her licence and kindly checks our boxes. (April checks we found bird nests in almost every one, which is quite normal for new boxes and that time of year – at least something is living in them!).
I also go along on surveys at other sites and properties in order to get more handling experience of Dormice for my training and last month I went to a private woodland near Andover where Dormouse boxes were present, to help with their survey.

April is usually not a month where you find many, if any, dormice in boxes – but this year, with the mild winter and the warm spring – we got lucky.  5 dormice were found in separate boxes, all in torpor, which is when they are curled up fast asleep in a hibernating like state.  These ones would have been in torpor due to the cold night that passed.  They had obviously been on the move as not one of them had built a nest in the box – they were all found just in the bottom of the box curled up, like they had got in after a night out at the pub and collapsed into sleep where they fell.  One even had a flat sided face as he was squished into the corner of the box!
Dormice in torpor are one of the most sickeningly cute things you will ever see.  They use their furry tails to cover their noses for warmth and if you hold them to your ear you sometimes hear tiny little snores!  I had to resist the temptation to slip one into my pocket as a keepsake.
Fingers crossed that our boxes and tubes at Mottisfont one day hold the same thing…
Beyond. Cute.

 Another type of surveying that has just been done is a kick sample on Stockbridge Marsh.  Sparsholt students came and did kick samples of the tributary river that flows alongside the Marsh, in order to ascertain the water quality.  Kick samples are very simple; you get in the water, hold a large net just in front of your feet and then slowly and continually kick up the sediment for 1-3 minutes.  Then you bring up the net with all it contains and empty it out into a sample tray to see what you have caught.  The invertebrates all have a number status when recorded, that add up to the water quality – things like Stonefly larvae are numbered as 10 as they are only found in the very cleanest waterways.

The samples that the students kicked up showed a fantastic array of invert life – the trays were humming and trembling with the sheer number of things in there, water beetles kicking around, caddis fly larvae creeping over the bottom, freshwater leeches oozing along looking for their next meal, may fly larvae, the list was endless.  They even thought they found a stonefly larva but then they lost it in the mass of things in the tray.  However the end result was that the water was of very good quality (I expected nothing less) and my favourite things to watch are the Caddis fly larvae.  These amazing little creatures build themselves a case like cocoon in which they dwell, and which they stick themselves out the end and drag themselves along with the case on their backs.  Depending on which part of the river the live in, will alter their case accordingly – those that inhabit the flat gravels on the bottom of the river have a case that is made of tiny flat stones, polished smooth by the waters flow.  Those that are found in amongst the vegetation use tiny twigs and bits of leaf for their case – they really are mega adaptable and great fun to watch as they clamber around, sometimes picking up a smaller caddis to add to their own cocoon!

Caddis fly larva in its case of tiny stones and twigs
One final thing – now is the time to walk our 6 mile estate trail that leads you round our Mottisfont countryside estate.  I walked it at the weekend and it is beautiful, with birds such as Whitethroats, Black caps and Yellowhammers all dancing along the hedgerows, grass snakes basking on the field margins and the constant rustle of small mammals scurrying through the fallen leaves.  The Bluebells are still magnificent in places and – well need I say more?  Go and see it all for yourself, you won’t regret it.

Wild Hops in our estate hedgerows - fancy a beer anyone?

Me lurking in the Bluebells of our estate

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