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!

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!