Thursday, 9 October 2014

Hidden history - the eagles of Mottisfont

We have come sadly, inevitably and all too quickly for my liking, to the end of the butterfly season.  With the final week of September faded and October wet and windy in our present, butterfly surveys across the land have stopped until April comes again on multi-coloured wings.  I hate the end of butterfly season as it always heralds the beginning of the cold wet weather and the end of summer: Everything I love; reptiles, butterflies, warmth, wild flowers, tree’s in full leaf, all go to ground and sleep the winter away out of sight but always in the back of my mind acting like a talisman that burns throughout the dark months, reminding me that all these wonders will come again with the rebirth of the seasons. 
Dew soaked cobwebs - a sure sign of autumn

However I must sweep away the melancholy that I get with the summer-autumn changeover; once we are into the season properly I feel better as I also enjoy the cold, frosty blue days, where the sun shines like burnt diamond and glistens off frost covered leaves, or howling gales where you can stand on top of Stockbridge Down and barely breathe as you face into the wind which rips the oxygen from your lungs and pelts you with hail that makes your skin bleed.  

Anyway, I feel that with the close of the butterfly season I must nominate one species in particular that has been the Olympian torch bearer of butterflies this year; the Brimstone.  One of the first to emerge in the early months, this species is always a forerunner for the start of the warm weather.  They overwinter as adults and so often come out of hibernation on warm winter days, before emerging properly anytime from February/March onwards.  The emerging adults will then mate, lay eggs and die, leaving the eggs to hatch, pupate and become adults in turn in the same season – and then it is these new adults which hibernate through the next winter.   This cycle means that they are often seen most of the year but for some reason to me, they just seemed to be present every single week of this year so far, since their first emergence.  Normally there is a lull between the two broods but this year with the warm weather they must have overlapped significantly as they have been with me every step of the way since I saw my first trio of Golden males on the Down back in March.  Every task I have done this spring and summer they have fluttered past, be it Juniper work, river restoration, hay making, spraying, guided walks, survey work, chasing sheep, student placements and all the rest – a Brimstone has been present, like some kind of spirit guide.  So now, as they begin to creep into their leafy retreats to dream of spring I say: sleep well, come back soon – and see you next year.

October means felling season is upon us and as a result we have begun our coppicing work.  Each winter we fell a section of hazel in our working coppice and use the produce from this to make charcoal, chimnea wood, kindling, faggots, besom broom handles, bean sticks and chippings.  I talked about our coppicing work in my blog this time last year so I won’t repeat it all again, but for those who don’t know, it is a very sustainable way of getting an endless cycle of wood; by cutting sections on a 7-10 year rotation you can keep yourself stocked up with product for hundreds of years.  Whilst every conceivable product was being made from most of the fallen hazel, the leftover stuff is to be chipped and taken to the tree planting site for mulch – so even the rubbish gets recycled!


Bean sticks and broom handles

Charcoal pile

Faggot making

Nearly chainsawed this little fella who crept up out of the base of the hazel

Mottisfont village is full of hidden bits of history and features that have a tale to tell.  From the abandoned ice house which is full of bats to the large dug out pits that hide in some of our woodlands and hint of the quarrying and mining of lime, peat and chalk of years past, you can always spot something that hides in plain sight among the modern day aspects of the village.  Having worked here for two years now it seemed massively amiss that I hadn’t ever ventured into the church grounds so, at Dylan’s insistence that it was somewhere everyone should go and take note of, I crept through the little wooden gate one day last week and found myself in the old graveyard. The church itself was locked so I wasn’t able to see the inside unfortunately – it is a very old church and contains some of the oldest stained glass in Hampshire.  

I’ve always thought of graveyards as places where time seems to stand still.  Ancient Yew trees often border their boundaries, silent guardians of the dead which have seen the centuries come and go and the land around them change dramatically.  The graveyard here is a pleasant spot, with tombstones so old and weathered by the elements that you can no longer read the inscriptions on them, the names of those that lie below are now lost from living memory, engulfed by the ravages of time.   
Walking round I found, in the far corner under a gently drooping Hazel, the graves of the Meinertzhagens.  The Meinertzhagens were a family who lived in Mottisfont Abbey from 1884 until the turn of the Century and in the graveyard lies the two parents Daniel and Georgina, and their eldest son Dan.  Their children had the run of the estate as their playground and the two eldest sons; Dan and Richard, especially became avid ornithologists and created huge aviaries in the grounds where they kept African sea eagles, huge owls, peregrines, Black Kites, a raven named Jacob and many other birds (you could buy anything at a market back then!).  These birds were their pride and joy and a feature of Mottisfont history that I find fascinating.  There are many old black and white pictures of the men and their birds in our archives and I have read some brilliant stories about them.  For instance Jacob the raven was bought from a market as a chick by Dan and was so intelligent and devoted to his master that he would become very jealous of any other animal that Dan showed affection to.  He would peck the tails of dogs Dan petted and when Dan once fed Belinda the Black Kite on the front lawn of the abbey Jacob was so jealous at the attention she was getting that he managed to drag her into the abbey stream and drown her!  
The grave of Dan Meinertzhagen - eldest son.

They had Lobengula the African Sea Eagle who claimed the Test river valley as his domain. Upon hearing his call, Livingstone wrote ‘Once heard, his weird unearthly voice can never be forgotten…it sticks to one through life…as if he were calling to someone in the other world...’.  
Lobengula would also, upon sighting a fisherman landing a juicy fish, swoop down and steal the fish away leaving a very nonplussed fisherman – before repeating the whole episode again with the next catch.
There were also the two sea eagles that took up residence in the Great plane tree on the abbey lawn and would prey upon the chickens, dogs and cats of the village.  One of these eagles flew to Salisbury where it was shot, and the other was caught and kept in the aviary permanently for fear that it would begin to try and attack small children.
So these birds and their owners formed a very interesting and eccentric part of Mottisfont history until 1898 when Dan died aged 23 of untreated appendicitis whilst exploring and bird watching in the Arctic Circle.  The death of their eldest child, son and heir, led to the breakup of the aviaries; the selling of all the birds and the family’s eventual departure from Mottisfont in 1900.  With the Meinertzhagens gone and the birds sold and dispersed, the abbey grounds and the Test valley fell silent; the cry of the eagles of Mottisfont became another piece of its fascinating history and moved from the present into the past.  

Sometimes when I’m walking by the river or through the estate and I hear the keen piercing call of buzzards and kites I like to fancy that it is one of the Meinertzhagens’ eagles, once again claiming the valley for their own.

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