Tuesday, 15 July 2014

The Jewel in the Crown – and baby pandas’.

Now this time of year brings our site of Stockbridge Down, into its own.  On these warm, clear sunny days it is the Jewel in our Crown, with stunning views across Hampshire and Wiltshire, wildflowers smothering the slopes and butterflies fluttering thick and fast around your feet, your heads, everywhere you look.

If you walk the slopes and the glades you will find large areas of shorter turf in which wild flowers have exploded, with Wild Thyme, Birds Foot Trefoil, Harebells, Salad Burnets, Eyebright, Rock Rose, Vetches, Marjoram, Centaury, Ground Ivy, Bugle, Wild Strawberry, Speedwells and many more all creating the annual technicoloured cloak of Stockbridge Down.  I have watched the areas I had cleared of scrub, two winters ago, blossom and bloom with a new layer of ground flora, the seed bank of which lay hidden under the mossy turf and degenerate canopy of the scrub that was there before, just waiting the chance to be brought out into the light.  
So many colours...Wild Thyme

...Rock Rose (a personal favourite)...

...and Eyebright; a gorgeous little flower that is used in eye washes and eye drops.

With this incredible array of flora comes, of course, the butterfly spectacle.  I realise I mention Stockbridge butterflies in most of the summer months but that is because they really are just too fantastic not to.  My weekly butterfly surveys have shown the numbers to be soaring up as we hit into midsummer, from 64 one week, to over a hundred the next, to 264 this week and still climbing.  The Marbled Whites are covering the longer grasses and thistles in their hundreds, closely followed by the Dark Green Fritillaries and the Skippers in all their orangey buzzing glory.  And this very week has bought out the first of the Gatekeepers and the onset of the Chalkhill Blues.  The Chalkhill blue butterflies will peak around late July into early August and are just phenomenal – thousands of silvery blue butterflies floating like vapour across the slopes and, quite often, on dog turds from which they like to take the salt.

A Marbled White - wings like a Magic Eye picture.

17 Chalkhill Blues and 1 Peacock on a single turd - could it be a record!?

 I am giving a guided walk of Stockbridge Down on the 18th of July, so if you want to come and see these wonders for yourself and hear about the history, archaeology, habitat and management of the Down then ring Mottisfont Abbey and book yourself a place.  If you don’t want to come on the walk, then go and visit the Down anyway I urge you- you might even be lucky enough to hear the elusive Turtle Dove as I did, in the scrub on the lower slopes recently.  It has a beautiful deep ‘purring’ coo, much deeper than a pigeon and much rarer.  Stockbridge Down is a stronghold for these summer visitors and as I didn’t get to hear one last year (although others did) I was very chuffed to hear one this summer.

The sheep flock are doing well on the Down and are looking superbly sleek and bright now that they have finished shedding their ratty, dreadlocked, winter coats.  This breed shears themselves (thank god) and I must say they do a far neater job than I ever could.  They have plumped up with the summer flush of grass growth and are looking very healthy.  The two new lambs that we bought back in May have been added to the main flock and after some initial nose touching and bottom sniffing of the newbies, they all happily settled down together without any apparent need to settle the hierarchy.  The lone male was a bit sheepish at first (snigger) and let his sister take the lead which was unusual for him as he is normally very bolshie and first in line, but as Ryan said – ‘he’s a bloke that has just been chucked in a room with 28 women; of course he looks terrified!’.  Fair point.
Summer fleeces - very sleek.

Now as I have mentioned before that we have a population of ageing Juniper trees, those Giant Pandas’ of the plant world.  I have written before about their struggle to survive and reproduce as a species (see Winter Hymnal blog post), which is due to a number of factors such as being dioecious, lack of seed viability, seed vulnerability to predation by small mammals and mites, their need for completely bare soil on which to germinate as even grass will shade out and kill any emergent seedlings and so on.  All in all, a rather difficult species to try and preserve but one which, as one of only three conifers native to Britain (the other two being Scots Pine and Yew), it is important to do so.  There is also a whole host of life that relies on Juniper alone for survival, such as Juniper Shield Bug, Juniper Carpet Moth and of course – our gin and tonics.

We have spent two winters clearing the scrub from around the mature Juniper trees in order to save them from being shaded out (detailed in past blog posts).  I have spent the following summers spraying the scrub regrowth to kill it off and prevent it from returning, a job which I did again last week in the sweaty heat of spraying overalls and welly boots.  This is helping to preserve the mature Juniper trees which are welcoming the chance to be free of shading scrub.  However what we really also need is for the Juniper to regenerate which is very difficult to get it to do in the wild down in the South.  Whether it’s the lack of suitably viable trees and gene pools, attacks of mites and parasites or the conditions of the surrounding site, it has always been an ongoing project for agencies like Plantlife (see their ‘Juniper; Breaking New Ground’ online article for a good scope on the challenges of preserving this species) and landowners of any Juniper sites.   
One of our countryside volunteers Tony took a special interest in the Juniper, having spent many a day helping clear the scrub from round it (which seemed to put most people off it, but Tony was hooked!) and together we visited another nearby National Trust site called Pepperbox Hill, where they have similar issues with scrub and Juniper, and where they have tried a number of seed cage designs.  Tony took one of these designs, created by Plantlife and made ten sturdy seed cages.  The aim of these cages is for them to be placed beneath a berry bearing female Juniper with bare soil left within.  The area around it may grow up with grasses or other plants, but the soil within the cage would be kept bare and clear of weeds.  This would give the potential for any berry that fell into this soil from the tree above, to be able to germinate successfully in the soil (uneaten by rodents as they would not get into the cage) and begin to grow (without being shaded and out-competed by grasses or weeds as we would keep the soil clear of them). We could also potentially sow seeds into them from trees on the site, to try and help kick start the process. We installed these cages across the site a few months back with the aim to weed them throughout the summer and hope that in a couple of years’ time, they would bear fruit.  
Installing the cages

In place beneath a berry filled female

 Tony and I came to weed them this week, for the first time since their installation.  Some had barely any grass or weeds at all; others were deeply surrounded by bramble which we hacked back.  We worked our way round them, expecting only to be weeding and clearing when suddenly…..there, poking up out the ground just below my weed clearing fingers…there grew a baby Juniper.  I choked slightly, uttered an expletive and pointed it to Tony.  We looked and saw another one…and then a third!  Three! Three baby ‘panda’s’ in one seed cage, a first for the site and a rare occurrence in Hampshire – natural Juniper regeneration!  These little blue green, spikey seedlings stood only about an inch high, all too fragile and vulnerable but there – against all the odds and to my complete astonishment as I honestly hadn’t thought we would get any seedlings in the cages within the first few months - these babies take years to ripen and germinate, and yet here they were, the first of their kind to be born onto the site (that we know of) in many, many years, possibly since the original, mature trees themselves.

We whooped and hollered and I ran full pelt back to the truck to get my camera to record the evidence.  We cleared the few weeds from the cage – oh so carefully, so as not to disturb the children – and just stared and gawped for a while more at these little things which I hadn’t imagined we would succeed in getting after so short a time.  Then we carefully replaced the lid, tucked them in, and crept away.

We shall weed the cages again towards the end of summer and see what the others bring us.  I now feel the burden of parenthood, with three rare youngsters in my charge and the fear that some calamity may befall them before they reach adulthood. There will be a long way to go but it has shown us that we have viable seed trees and thus the potential to save our Juniper population here – may these three be the first of many.

Hope for the future - viva la Juniper!

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