Wednesday, 10 September 2014

Hamble, Hay and Harvest time

 “Summer afternoon—summer afternoon; to me those have always been the two most beautiful words in the English language.” 

                                                                       - Henry James

There is a distinct nip in the air these mornings which, combined with the first hints of autumn colour in the Acer trees tells us that Summer is fading.  The ‘Fire tree’ as I call it, outside our staff carpark is beginning to turn its vivid red, looking like someone has lit the flame from the top of the canopy, which will slowly engulf the whole tree over the coming months. 
My butterfly surveys on Stockbridge are getting quieter week by week – the Skippers, Marbled Whites and Fritillaries are long gone, with Meadow Browns, Small Coppers, Blues, Brimstones and Speckled Woods the last soldiers holding the fort and fluttering on; however the decreasing numbers seen each week signals that they are one by one dying with the season.

Whilst this time of year marks the approaching end of summer, it does signal the beginning of something else – harvest time!  Everywhere you look at the minute, the trees and bushes are heavily laden with fruits and nuts, again looking like a bumper year for autumn foraging – last year was also superb.  The hazel nuts are beginning to ripen and fall, and the Blackthorn bushes are already absolutely stuffed with fat looking Sloe’s that whisper ‘gin…giiiiiiin’ in your ear.
But the winner this year for impressive produce has to be – blackberries.  Normally, bramble bushes are something I despise.  As a conservationist I shouldn’t say that as they are a brilliant source of nectar and food for insects, birds and small mammals but: I hate them.  All year round they torture and maim you, they scratch and cut and claw at your skin with their little backwards hooking thorns that tear through your clothes.  They trip you up with their sinuous tendrils and capture your hair in a thorny embrace all year round.  They untie your laces constantly, and then dig in a couple of thorns into your fingers for good measure when you tie them back up.  You are left with the endless rotation of scratches and scars on your arms and legs from their touch, thorns in your scalp and under your nails as well as nearly losing an eye to them on a regular basis.

Blackberry glut - and Comma butterfly enjoying the nectar
However, this time of year they present their one redeeming feature (in my eyes); blackberries.  And boy, have they outdone themselves this year!  The bushes are absolutely heaving with blackberries, hundreds of shiny, juicy, globules of deep purple fruits hanging off the stems, tempting you to brave the clutches of the thorns and pluck them.  The New Forest, Stockbridge, Mottisfont – all our sites are just crammed full with these fruits at the moment and I have been taking full advantage and getting my own back for the pain they usually cause for the rest of the year.  Laura and I picked a haul of blackberries at Foxbury and I then couldn’t resist picking more in our Mottisfont woodland the other day – they were just so plump and shiny that I couldn’t resist.  I took my bandana (I wear one on my wrist or neck most days as they really are the most useful thing at work; they can be headbands, sweat rags, nose/face masks, small critter catchers and so on) and with a few knots here and there I had fashioned into a small collecting bag, in which I proceeded to place blackberries.  From these I have so far made Blackberry whisky – an old favourite – and am in the process of making Blackberry wine – a first attempt, so fingers crossed.  If you get the chance, get out and pick some and make something – booze, crumble, blackberry fool, anything!  They are too good to miss.

A bandana of blackberries - new collective noun

I also got back from holiday last week and found my vegetable crop in the garden had finally borne fruit (haha).  I had actually managed to grow a couple of cucumbers that resembled cucumbers – all the previous ones had grown in interesting bendy, curly shapes – and my tomatoes have at last decided to put on their red coats and throw away their green summer vests.  Unfortunately the slugs have also been enjoying the glut and I found them savaging a couple of fallen tomatoey victims – damn them!
Straight cucumbers - hooray!

Slug attack

So have a go and see what you can create from the summer and autumn goodies – so far this year I have done Elderflower champagne, pickled cucumbers and chillies, honey roast tomatoes, chutney, rhubarb crumble, blackberry whisky and blackberry wine…and the best is yet to come, with Sloe gin, cider, sweet chestnuts, walnuts and much more still on the menu – yum!

Gluttony aside, we have been finishing our summer tasks at work and planning ahead to winter.

Last week we performed the final bat survey of the year across our Mottisfont woodlands.  We conduct these surveys in July, August and September each year to monitor the Barbastelle population we have here.  I have mentioned before about our Barbastelle and how rare they are, so it is important we keep monitoring how they are doing in conjunction with our woodland management work.  Maintenance of wide rides (which they use as flight corridors) protection and recording of tree roost areas and thinning of plantations and regeneration of broadleaves all contribute into the woodland management plan, and the bat populations are one aspect of this.
So Ryan, Dylan and I each walked our individual transect routes through separate woodlands, recording the bats heard on the bat detector on a sound recorder, as well as tallying off heard bats on a survey form.  You always hear interesting noises when walking alone through the woodlands at this time of night – large shufflings of heavy mammals, the screeches and hoots of Barn and Tawny owls and, once, the sudden squawk of a pheasant that burst up out of the bushes in the dark straight at me and made me shriek like a banshee – all recorded, doh!  On the last survey the owls were going wild – they were shrieking and crying and there was a lot of hooting and calling noises from one area in particular, and sounds of bustle in the branches – possibly young tawnies trying to compete for territories?  The cry of an owl always sends a shiver down my spine – there is something so ethereal about it, something that makes you think of haw frost covered lands overlooked by star-ridden night skies….or maybe that’s just me.

Back to the light and daytime, and with the saying ‘make hay whilst the sun shines’ dancing through my head, I have got a hay cut being taken off of Stockbridge Down this week.  It is on an area of particularly tough grass that is near the entrance to the Down and consequently is of fairly poor quality.  The cows do not graze that area particularly and so by taking a hay cut we can remove the dominant grasses and nutrients which will allow a greater diversity of grasses and flora to grow and seed next year.  The hay can be used to feed our sheep flock should they require any extra help over the winter and so we kill two birds with one stone – benefitting the grassland habitat as well as the sheep flock.  We are lucky that the dry weather has continued this far – there are still many farmers still cutting hay and straw whilst they have the chance and the gutter sides of all the roads are littered with bits of hay from where bales have been transported in mass loads – fingers crossed the dryness keeps up until we get the hay in.

Cut hay on the Down

Last week Ryan and I went to our site at Curbridge Nature Reserve, alongside the river Hamble.  This is one of our furthest sites, lying an approximately 40 minute drive from Mottisfont, but is a beautiful stretch of ancient woodland, running alongside the River Hamble estuary.  Mature Oaks and Ash stand tall in this woodland, with an understorey of hazel, field maple, holly, crab apple and even Wild Service tree, to name but a few.  The bluebells here in April and May are fantastic and there are many other ancient woodland indicators to be found here too, including Dogs Mercury and Solomon’s seal.  It is a lovely place to take a walk and when you get to the end of the woodland you come out onto an open field that I hope to turn into a wildflower meadow, by taking a late hay cut each year.  Adjacent to this field is the river estuary itself where you can watch the tide turn and chase itself in and out, revealing wooden structures sticking up out of the mud flats when the tide is low.  On the other side of the bank are the remains of a roman villa that lies on the confluence of the rivers Hamble and Cur and must have made a very pretty summer house in its time.
Running through this woodland are stretches of boardwalk to take people over the wetter areas and the creeks and it was these boardwalks we were attending to.  The Sunday Volunteer group spent a very productive day with Ryan a few weeks ago, replacing broken/missing steps and repairing rotten bits of boardwalk.  Ryan and I went back to finish the last few bits and replace some old rusty chicken wire that was coming loose – by the way, if anyone knows of a low cost alternative to chicken wire for providing grip on boardwalks, do share, because chicken wire is so terrible for coming loose, breaking and rusting and causing trip hazards, and it’s like painting the Forth bridge – by the time you replace it all, the beginning needs doing again.
Whilst there we also removed some old rotten sections of old boardwalk that had been left rotting in the bushes for a decade and took them back with us to be burnt.

Hamble Boardwalkin'

Before we left we stood on the banks of the river looking out.  The tide was low and the sun was warm on the back of our necks, with the air smelling of heat but with that tiny touch of freshness that hints at impending seasonal change.  The trees on the other bank were reflected in the water perfectly, their autumnal colours just beginning to show and the only noise was the egrets and other estuary birds calling softly across the water.  Then we became aware of another noise…a sort of snap crackle and pop! noise that rice crispies make.  We wandered around listening before ascertaining that it was coming from the mud below our feet – mud that was usually covered at high tide, and now had hundreds of tiny air bubbles escaping and popping in the suns warmth making a very pleasant – if unusual - soundtrack to such a peaceful view.

River Hamble

No comments:

Post a Comment