Tuesday, 23 December 2014

The Gates of the Year

And I said to the man who stood at the Gate of the Year: “Give me a light that I may tread safely into the Unknown”           
I love this poem by Minnie Louise Haskins as this time of year really does feel  like you are standing on a threshold; stepping out of one year and into another, leaving behind all that was, in the expectation of all that may yet be, leaping through the gate with eyes wide open, into whatever the future holds.

The Winter Solstice (never far from my thoughts) has been and gone, marking Midwinter and, as I always do at this time of year, I begin to look to that Eastern horizon where light will start gleaming sooner, pushing away the darkness and think of all the life that is to come.

In the meantime, we are still in the last days of 2014 and what a year it has been for us as a countryside team.  It has been the usual rollercoaster ride of highs and lows, moments of seeming defeat followed by triumphs, hard work, blood, sweat and tears, and I have enjoyed (mostly) every minute of it.

We saw biblical winds and floods in the first part of the year, which knocked all our work plans out the window as we desperately tried to clear up and catch up as our woodlands fell around us and our river broke its banks.

Low points in my book would have to be my sheep nasal botfly horror, that haunted my eyes and sinuses for weeks and had me on the verge of despair, the daily lancing of pus from the open holes on the neck of our flystruck ewe, and the headbutt to the face I got from one of them which left me looking like I’d done a round with Mike Tyson.

There has also been the odd sheep escape and flocking disaster which at the time had me near despair, but now makes me chuckle as I think fondly back to our volunteers, always willing to help, marching in a slightly wobbly line across the sheep slope, waving sticks and branches either side of them to make themselves appear more impassable, and scrabbling through scrub trying to flock the sheep.  Watching the more determined, bigger ewes charge, head down at these poor people, in order to try and break the line and me bellowing from further up the slope “WAVE YOUR ARMS! SHOUT AT THEM! MAKE YOURSELVES BIIIIIIIG!!!” All to no avail, as when 70kg of horned sheep is running full pelt at you, you don’t have too much chance of diverting them – especially when it is a whole flock of 70kg fatties!  However no volunteers were lost in any of these events and all the sheep related injuries I seemed to save for myself, so no harm done.

Despite their mischievousness, the sheep flock has worked wonders on the slope area they were on for most of this year.  They have nibbled their way through the under grazed, overgrown ranker grasses and this should allow good regeneration of species diversity come Spring, whilst the flock do the same job now on another compartment.

High points of the year include the bankside restoration at Stockbridge Marsh, a long time coming but now well underway, the success of our Juniper regeneration on Stockbridge Down (a personal favourite of mine!), the Foxbury tree planting project, our woodland works here at Mottisfont – plantation thinning, derelict coppice being brought back into rotation – and the list can go on.  We don’t slow the pace as we head into 2015, with the tree planting project at Hamble getting underway in January (watch this space), creation of an Oak woodland going in at Mottisfont near our working coppice, Duke of Burgundy project work, funded by the Butterfly Conservation Trust, taking place at Stockbridge and oh! Once again, the list goes on and I could waffle on forever, but then I’d have nothing to blog about in later months – so wait and see as to what we get up to down the line; there is always plenty.

Of course, all our work would not be possible without our staff and volunteers.  I like to take this time of year to thank our volunteers all across the countryside, from the weekly groups, to the surveyors, to the sheep lookers, to the river bank watchers and to you all; we could not get half the work done without you and we would miss the baked potatoes, pints, laughter and hilarity that working with you all generally ensues (especially when someone gets a truck stuck).  

Staff wise, we have had to bid a sad but fond farewell to one of our own; Michelle, our Visitor Experience and Communities Ranger in the New Forest has just ended her time with us to go to an equally, if not more worthy cause at Help the Heroes.  Michelle was the clean and calming force in an office of rowdiness, potty mouths, dead things and funny smells and we shall miss her sooooooo much.  She may not have appreciated my Shelf of Death, but as she put it: “I accept it as who you are and what you do” (whilst she placed an air freshener in amongst the skulls) and it is this that I shall miss most.  She loved us all despite our mud, dead things (me bringing them in usually), animals in the office (again, my fault) smelly dung ridden boots, filthy trucks and disgusting swearing and as such she has left a huge void in our working lives – but life goes on, the cycle continues and who knows what the New Year will bring?  So, farewell my friend, thank you for everything and good luck – remember Mottisfont, the New Forest and of course, remember us!
Michelle's last Day - surrounded by Team Countryside!

I leave you with a tale of the Face Off I had the other day with our male sheep Walter and his Wives.
Upon checking the flock last week I found that 6 were not appearing for the bucket and so I hiked up the slope to the top of the hill fort to see if I could spot them.
Upon reaching the very top there, standing on a collapsed stretch of fenceline and enjoying the sun was the missing 6.  All 6 came straight to the bucket led by Walter, who seems to have established himself as a bit of a King Solomon with his doting sub flock of doe-eyed ewes (I wonder if they realise he is only ‘half a man’?).

However I knew it had been too straightforward to get them back so easily and this was proved as I inspected the fenceline.  5 posts and 1 strainer had rotted out and collapsed, leading to the sheep being able to get into the top field.  I heaved the fenceline upright and leant on the strainer to keep it in place whilst I pondered what to do.  I decided to use the horizontals from the strainer to prop up the fence until I could return with new fenceposts but, just as I was thinking this and was going to turn and pick up the horizontal, Walter came trotting up and stood right by the fenceline I was so perilously holding.  I thought right, I shall wait for him to bog off so I can put the fence down and reach the bits of wood I need.  Walter obviously knew this to be my plan as we then commenced a ten minute face off of him standing right by the fence as I stood holding the whole thing together, with the taught barbed wire putting considerably strain on the whole thing.  No amount of shouting or waving would scare him off and when I managed to throw a small branch that I reached, he didn’t even flinch as it fell at his feet.  Unbelievable!  His wives started to gather round him in support as if they knew that I couldn’t hold it up forever and there was no help to be had.  After ten minutes of this stare off and just as I was thinking I would have to wait for the sheep lookers of the day to arrive in a few hours’ time, he finally walked slowly down the slope.  He left enough distance that I could lower the fence, grab the wooden horizontal and get it into a prop position, just in time as my muscles were starting to cry from holding up a strained fenceline for so long.  I propped the posts as best I could using logs form the fallen pine as well.  The minute I finished and stepped back, Walter came and nosed the wobbly fence, obviously weighting up his chances of pushing it down again – oh the games we play!
As it turns out, when I returned to fix the fence with new posts, Walter had taken his wives back over it and were two fields away and enjoying themselves mightily on the lush grassy verge - Little sod!  
'Whadd'ya reckon girls? Think we could nudge this back over?'

It has been a bit of a sheep obsessed blog post this time, but it suits the festive time of year – so from me, the lowly shepherd and from us all, have a very Merry Christmas and an inspiring New Year – and tread safely into that Unknown.

Who ate all the Christmas pudding!? Our plumpest sheep - Merry Christmas!

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