Tuesday, 13 May 2014

Dukes and Dames

Let me introduce you to two new arrivals into our fold.  Last week Ryan and I travelled to Speltham Down in Hambledon, a small grassland property that we previously used to own.  Residing there, run by the local community, is a community flock of – you’ve guessed it – Wiltshire Horn sheep.  They have a number of ewes about to pop their lambs and they also still have last year’s lambs that are plumping up before heading to the slaughter yard for meat.  Knowing this, and wanting to boost our numbers after the losses of winter, I arranged for us to purchase two of these year old sheep for our flock on Stockbridge.  We arranged to take a ewe of our choice and also one wether (male that has been castrated) as their owner Simon was very fond of him and was hoping to spare him from becoming chops. 

I had been told that these lambs were somewhat tame and would eat out your hand so I envisioned us turning up and merely having to open the truck door and watch them skip in happily, ready to go to their new home.

Needless to say that the minute they realised they were being moved from the fields they had known since birth and being put into a vehicle (something which they had never experienced before), all tameness disappeared and battle commenced.  However with 4 of us on hand we soon got them heaved up into the back of the truck with a bed of straw and some sheep nuts for company.  We closed the cab up and made our way back to Mottisfont hoping they would settle down and, 40 minutes later we had the truck parked in one of our Mottisfont fields ready to unload.  We had to unload them one at a time (difficult when they are in a truck at face height, as they just want to leap out at you) as we had to give them some wormer and fluke drugs to ensure that anything they came with will be killed off and not spread to the rest of the flock.  However with Ryan sitting firmly on each sheep to hold it down we got them dosed and injected and then they were set free into their isolation field where they will remain for a few weeks until they can go to Stockbridge.  I am interested to see how the wether will cope with being the sole male – will he become King of the flock? Or will he be bullied and put in his place by 28 bossy ewes?  I’ll let you know!

The new pair

 Talking of arrivals and visits we had a very important visitor a couple of weeks ago, in the form of Dame Helen Ghosh, the Director General for the National Trust – basically the biggest cheese at the very top of the National Trust tree.  She is a lovely lady, very warm and friendly and easy to talk to – she is full of questions and enthusiasm about what we are doing and showing her.  She has been to Mottisfont previously for a day working round the departments but because she spent the whole day in the pay zone only, she promised to come back and have a day with our countryside department.  And thus, one very wet, miserable day at the end of April, we took her round Stockbridge and Foxbury, showing her the work we had going on, the sheep flock and its community lookers and the ongoing transformation of Foxbury from woodland to heathland.  Unfortunately the weather was atrocious which was pretty gutting.  It’s hard to show off the beauty of a chalk downland site that rises above the landscape when you can’t see the view and every living creature is hiding away from the downpour.  But still, Helen enjoyed it, listened to what we gave her and gave lots back so thanks to her for taking the time to come and see us – come back when it’s sunny so you can see all the butterflies I spoke about!

And the main butterfly we spoke about was the fabled Duke of Burgandy, which Helen was particularly interested in.  I hadn't seen them at all this year but had a feeling that this week, with the High pressure that came in today, could be the week.  So after doing the transect today I nipped into our coppiced spot at the bottom of Stockbridge Down and stood still for about 5 minutes and Bingo! They had returned with the sun and i saw at least 4 of them flitting around. A glorious sight.
Welcome back Dukes!

And from that I of course skip tomore butterfly sightings – on my survey last week, which was fairly poor due to the cool wet weather, but I still got lucky enough right at the beginning to spot 2 Grizzled Skippers mating on a Plantain leaf – result!  

Mating Grizzled Skippers

 Now I was roaming through the Duck Grounds yesterday, putting out more dormouse tubes as this area looks like it has potential.  As I have said before the Duck grounds can be pretty treacherous if you go in winter and don’t keep an eye on where you tread.  I waited until this week, when the waters have receded and the ground has dried a bit and then, initiating the buddy system (if I’m not back by 5pm, call me) I set off into this peaty wet woodland to get the tubes out in suitable trees. 

I managed to put them all up with no sinking disasters, although walking a fallen tree over a peat bog bit was a little bit nerve wracking, but I kept to the deer trails and the higher ground and all was well.  Blazing through the Duck Grounds in this way I was able to see the extent of the damage from the winter storms.  There were a fair few fallen trees and whilst we had cleared the ones that were river bank side or by the boardwalk, there were plenty more that had fallen unnoticed deeper in.  And that’s where I came across this Oak with a stupendous root plate.  For the average size of the tree, this root plate was simply massive – about twice the height of me (5ft 8 by the way) and was a great example of how trees in wetter, less stable soil, may grow a bigger and more spread out root plate in order to help give them purchase in the ground and keep them standing.  Despite this though, it hadn’t been enough for this tree and it had succumbed to the winter storms.  

Big root plate - with me in for scale.

Every cloud has a silver lining though as, nestled within the upturned root plate on a shelf of roots and mud, was a blackbird on her mud lined nest.  She flew to a branch nearby as I approached and so I was lucky enough to be able to peer into her nest and see the tangled mass of bald, pink skin and beaks that are baby birds.  I reckon she had a brood of about 4 or 5 – hard to tell as they were all sound asleep and intertwined with each other and I didn’t want to disturb them.  That’s what I love about roaming through our sites – you will always come across some natural wonder, something of beauty or a symbol of the ongoing cycle of life and the seasons.

There's no denying - baby birds are pretty ugly.  A nice brood of blackbird chicks.

I leave you with a final photo of the Cherry tree that adorns the entrance to the top carpark of Stockbridge Down – I have never seen a blossom of equal colour and vibrancy and it just screams at you to come in, park and take a stroll across the stunning ‘roof of Hampshire’.

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