Thursday, 13 November 2014

The big wheel, keeps on turning...

'Summer ends, and Autumn comes, and he who would have it otherwise would have high tide always and a full moon every night; and thus he would never know the rhythms that are at the heart of life'
                             - Hal Borland

The wheel of seasonality is ever turning and I often mark the passing of time and seasons by what I observe on my walk from the staff carpark, through the grounds of the Abbey to my office.  In winter it can be hoarfrost covered cobwebs, winking at me from the statues, in summer it can be steaming dew lifting off the lawns as the new day heats up, and at this time of year, it is unequivocally the glorious display of the Chestnut and Plane leaves.  Gold, green, yellow, amber, red, the leaves lie like a fiery rug encompassing the ground around their parent tree in an almost perfect circle shape. Plump squirrels sit among the chestnut leaves scoffing on fallen nuts and come evening, on the walk back to my car, the rook and jackdaw colony that inhabit the tree tops along the roadside are often swooping and riding the wind, whilst cawing and calling and attempting to settle down into their treetop roosts for the night.
The Carpet of Plane leaves

Whilst everything is beginning to settle down into its dormancy period, we have started doing some work in the woodlands of Mottisfont to improve and encourage certain species distribution and population increase come the start of a new life cycle in spring.  Many of our woodlands contain what we call ‘wide rides’, essentially a wide track through the wood (unsurfaced) which breaks up the continuous canopy cover of the bigger trees like Ash and Oak.  By creating a wide ride, the sunlight can reach the forest floor in these areas and this in turn creates an explosion of ground flora such as Orchids, Violets, Sorrel and Bluebells which then provide food and nectar for species such as butterflies.  The edges of the wide ride will be able to grow a shrub layer of smaller trees such as Hazel and so you will end up with a pleasing graduated margin of canopy to shrub layer to ground flora which provides great structural diversity which benefits the habitat and the creatures that use it.  

One of our volunteers Geoff also works for the Butterfly Conservation Group and with his knowledge and expertise he has planned and carried out a series of wide rides in our woodlands.  These are in conjunction with our Woodland Management plan which features all our plantation felling work, open glade and ride creation and natural broadleaved regeneration/planting.  There are rides which we have to tractor-swipe on a rotational basis to keep the woodland from encroaching back in and by doing this on a rotation, we keep a good diversity of habitat.  Geoff has been doing a lot of this ride swiping for us this year and has also organised our Monday volunteer group into carrying out required ride work every other week under his command.  As well as maintaining these existing rides, Geoff and the volunteers have been creating new rides that were displayed on maps and no longer existed.  One of these is in a small woodland of ours called Herless copse.  
the finished Northern ride in Herless

volunteers clearing the rides

 Last Monday saw Geoff, the Monday gang, myself and our General Manager Paul, working on clearing through the new cross ride that Geoff had planned out.  Despite the odd rain shower we had a fantastic day and by the end we had completed the North, South and West ride, with just the Eastern ride to finish at a later date.  The difference was incredible, with the woodland really opened up and I cannot wait to see what it entices through it come spring.  

Jacket potatoes round the fire....
...a fire also enjoyed for its warmth by Sprocket the dog

One of the main reasons for these rides is to encourage the travel of butterflies, especially rare and declining species such as the Pearl Bordered Fritillary which inhabits woodland clearings and scrubby downland.  It was once very widespread but has declined rapidly by two thirds over the last 20 years as woodland management such as glade creation and coppicing has reduced.  With open areas growing in, their basking spots shaded out and their food plants of Violets being overtaken by canopy, habitats they were once found in became moribund for them and populations dipped.  On the Wiltshire border to the West of Mottisfont is an area called Tytherley Woods, in which BCT do a lot of work for the Pearl Bordered Fritillaries which reside there.  The work in our woodlands is part of trying to create an interconnected landscape of rides throughout woodlands across the counties to encourage the spread of Pearl Bordered Fritillaries and other species.  Fingers crossed for good results!
And of course these rides do not just benefit one species alone – bats such as the Barbastelle that inhabit our woods will be able to use them as flight corridors to make their way down to the river to feed and the diversity of vegetation layers that will be created will be good for birds and small mammals (dare I say dormice?) both for food sources (i.e. bramble berries) and home building sites.
Pearl Bordered Fritillary (NT archive)

Another large scale project we have started on with the coming of Autumn is taking place in our Duck Grounds.  This is the area of peaty wet woodland, floodplain meadows and reed beds that we have at Mottisfont, running parallel to the river.  The area is only accessible by guided tour and via a boardwalk, due to the danger of the peat bog terrain that can be lurking in the woodland here in the wetter months (if you haven’t done so already, read my blog post ‘A Tale of Two Tractors; August 2013) for full details of the habitat here.

Part of the Duck grounds consists of an area of reed beds that were starting to becoming overtaken by the wet woodland.  Both are valuable habitats, but the reed beds are the rarer and are home to Water Voles, Otter, Heron and potentially Bittern.  However as reed beds age they can build up a considerable thatch litter layer which then raises them above the water level, dries them out and allows scrub and woodland species to sneak in and colonise. So to prevent the woodland swallowing up the reeds for good, and in accordance with our Higher Level Stewardship, we have had contractors in to reduce the canopy cover of the reed bed area and allow the reeds to regenerate and flourish – and what a difference they have made so far!  They got started before the worst of the wet weather and are battling on regardless – hopefully it should be finished in a couple of weeks before it gets too wet and treacherous.  You can see from the photo’s what it looked like before and how it looks now – the area around the Otter pond in particular looks brilliant as all the trees that were beginning to take over it have gone from round half the pond, and the connecting reed beds have far more light.  By removing a certain percentage of the canopy cover we can create and maintain all the successional stages of the wetland habitat – from the wet meadows, to the reed beds to the wet woodland, without losing one of these stages altogether and the wildlife that goes with it.

Before: Area of reed bed enclosed by encroaching scrub

After: The opening up of the reed bed and pond from the scrub and woodland

 Now this year finally saw me achieving my New Year’s resolution of the last 4 years – which was to obtain my Dormouse Licence.  After several years of jumping on other people’s surveys and juggling dormice in all their life stages I have finally got my own licence and am able to survey for them alone.  As I have written before, I am still on the hunt for our own Dormice at Mottisfont, but I was surveying on another site recently and found, deep in torpor, a male Juvenile dormouse (torpor is the sleeping state that is a short term version of hibernation.  They usually go into torpor on cold days throughout autumn to conserve body fat and energy.  Hibernation is the extended form of torpor which they stay in throughout the winter).
I held the sleeping dormouse in my palm whilst I checked his gender (you do feel a bit rude peeking under their bed clothes whilst they sleep, but it is necessary for the survey) and suddenly the little creature stretched out his clenched little fists and feet in an almighty yawn, before curling up tightly again.  My heart popped and I almost threw up at the sweetness of it – no wonder so many people want to get their dormouse licence; they are just so damn cute!
Finally, there is a place I visited recently which, if you have not been to, I urge you to visit, especially now as the autumn leaves fall and the ground is a carpet of gold; Savernake Forest in Wiltshire.  Matt and I went there recently to walk and look for the ancient Oaks that dwell in the depths of the forest and we weren’t disappointed.  From the King of Limbs to the Spider Oak, there are some fantastic specimens in this forest all of which tell of hundreds of years of history; Savernake is the only ancient forest in Britain still in private hands; it has been passed down through 31 generations of father to son (or daughter on 4 occasions) in an unbroken line of ownership since it was first acquired by Richard Esturmy, one of the victorious knights at the Battle of Hastings.  This means it has never once been bought or sold in a thousand years, an entire millennia.  Not a bad family heirloom to inherit I reckon.

The King of Limbs - although some of them have now fallen

Red Admiral of Savernake (i can't take the credit for this photo; M.Bramich)

The Legendary Big Bellied Oak - the largest diameter of all the Savernake Oaks - what a fatty!

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