Tuesday, 9 December 2014

Winter sunsets

For the first time this morning I finally had to scrape the ice off my truck windscreen – something which seems to have been a long time in coming.  But Orion the Hunter is walking our winter night sky once more and the leaves have finally all fallen in the Mottisfont woodlands, having hung on in the mild weather with no frost to encourage them to wither and drop off.  This did mean we were treated to an extended display of autumnal colour but now the winds have changed and the flocks of avian winter visitors have arrived on our shores and once again the seasons have begun to merge into one another.
Talking of avian visitors, this little chap joined me in the fencing store the other day and, with that intent nosiness that Robins display, he watched me quizzically as I shuffled through the fence posts and reams of wire trying to find what I was looking for.

"What 'choo doin'?"

 We do a lot of work with students from Sparsholt Agricultural College, who come out to get experience of working on different sites and habitats, doing different conservation work, which gives us lots of hands on work in exchange for us giving them some knowledge and case studies to go away with.  This winter so far they have already helped us with felling, scrub clearing, gorse burning, tree planting, fishing surveys and juniper saving.  They came out on Stockbridge the other week to carry on the Juniper work, clearing away the endless tide of encroaching scrub that is swallowing up the population.  We had a big fire, cleared a good amount and discovered and released even more Juniper trees into the light.  At the end of the day there was just time to walk them up to the top of the hillfort at the very top of Stockbridge Down so they could get a better perspective of the site as a whole – when you are down in the scrubby lower end, it can be hard to imagine the grassy plains and herb rich areas that dominate the top half of the site and make it the chalk grassland site that it is.  We hiked up the slope, through scrub and woodland, up the Celtic field systems and the final steep ramparts of the ancient fort and reached the top where the county lay spread out before us, all aglow.  The sun was low, the light golden; the shadows of every tree and hillock stretched out before it like a long black twin.  The whole land was bathed in a gleaming winter sunset and it looked astounding; as each group of students puffed up the hill and made the top, each one fell silent as they turned round and took in the view.  To the west, Danebury stood tall, silhouetted black against the amber sky, a permanent reminder of the history that once dominated this landscape, ancient hillforts rising up out of a sea of what is now mostly arable land.
After drinking our fill of the sight, we made our way back down the embankment our ancestors made and on down the hill.

Our Stockbridge flock of sheep have been making themselves at home on their new winter pasture, further round the slopes of the hillfort.  This new enclosure neighbours their old one, which makes it easier as we can just run them through the gate in the fenceline (although even this took several days to get every one of them through, but Sparsholt students came to the rescue and helped flock the remaining three refusniks though the gate after a week of exile).  Their new patch is similar in size, another 4 hectares or so of grassland and scrubby woodland habitat so plenty for them to get their teeth into.  They have responded well by fattening up on the new grazing and the old slope has benefited from having some time off their endlessly munching mouths.  I hope to use both these compartments to balance out the grazing impact on each – such as timings for wild flower seed settings – whilst also keeping to our HLS terms of having sheep grazing to benefit the sward height.  By having two differing areas I can move the flock between each, allowing each slope to rest and flower, or spread the numbers across both sites and thus reduce the livestock units which again will reduce pressure on the vegetation should we wish it.
However for now, they are finding their new hideouts and highways through the woodland and keeping a watchful eye for the sheep lookers - Bringers of the Nut Bucket….

Trying to nose into the Nut box!
Now at our Foxbury site in Wellow, we are 5 years into a huge landscape restoration project.  What was once solid plantation is being slowly reverted back to heathland, with areas of broadleaved woodland.  Cleared of 150 hectares of plantation woodland and rhododendron (although rhodi is ongoing) Gorse and heather species are returning to the sight along with heathland creatures such as Adders and, for the first time ever, a Dartford Warbler which was spotted a few weeks ago. 
To go with this heathland interior, areas of Foxbury along the fringes are being planted up with mixed deciduous woodland to create a good ecotone (transition between two ecosystems) and provide habitat diversity.  Alder, Sweet Chestnut and Sessile Oak are being planted in their thousands and Laura is heading up this planting work by having community planting days, volunteer groups, corporate days with different companies and Sparsholt students all organised to come and plant trees over the winter dormancy period.  The overall aim is to plant 20,000 trees in four years and last week, being National Tree week, she blazed ahead with the help of all the above groups and got 1850 trees planted in one week alone!

One down....Laura planting


And finally, the update on my Mottisfont Orchard cider….I spent 3 happy hours racking off the liquid, which was now sparkling gold and clear, into bottles, adding a spoonful of sugar to each to aid in a secondary fermentation.  Racking off 7 demi johns gave me over 70 bottles of cider and I tasted each demi john as I racked it (to check there was no taint of course) and it all tasted like it would be a winning batch once it was ready.  With the kitchen looking like a bombsite, I transferred the bottles to a colder area to allow for a final slow steady fermentation and they should be ready for drinking in a month or two – just the thing to liven up the gloom of January.
The new brewery in town...

Roll on New Year!


  1. So interesting and explanatory blog. I love your enthusiasm!!
    The mini brewery looks intriguing. Whats the brew going to be called!!

  2. Hmm it has had many names over the years - 'Swan Barn Sicker' (Swan Barn Farm being where the cider press is) being one of my favourites but as it is mix of Mottisfont orchard apples this year it needs a new name...'Mottisfont Mayhem' or something...