Monday, 21 December 2015

Look to the East

We’ve done it! We’ve hit the winter solstice, the shortest, darkest day of the year and we are on the way through and out the other side!  I can now look, as I always do, to the Eastern horizon and know that the light will be dawning that bit sooner each and every day that passes.  I do wonder how many people feel this primeval urge to measure our days by the darkening hours up until the solstice and then by the longing for warmth and light that comes as we inch our way closer and closer to spring.  I suppose being that I work outdoors I feel it so much more, I record the passing of the year in every fallen leaf, every budding bloom, by the presence of the winter constellations in the night sky such as Orion the Hunter, by the harvest, by the smell of blossom, by the temperature of the wind, by the jerky fluttery flight of newly fledged, messily feathered young birds, by the gathering of swallows and swifts on phone lines and by their sudden, aching absence.

But this way of reading the natural rhythms of the earth and the countryside around us must be hidden deep within everyone, a prehistoric sense that has in many people been dimmed and overshadowed by our evolution into the modern world and its technology which can often blind us to what is all around.  So if you make only one resolution for the New Year make it this one – get yourself out and about every now and then and witness the awakening of the natural world as we head through the solstice and the darkness, on our way out to the light.

Meanwhile across our countryside properties we find ourselves flying through the winter works season at as fast a pace as ever.  The Marsh inlet works that I spoke about in my last post have taken well – I went there last week to see how it was faring and to my delight and despite the endless display of footprints that show that people are still not allowing it to rest and settle but are marching all over it, there was actually a few tiny signs of new growth emerging from the peaty mass of mud and root matter that was poured in.  Undoubtedly due to the ongoing warmth of the weather, things are still trying to grow and this is a good sign for this area when the proper growing season comes – if it can start shooting in December, it should have no problem properly growing and binding together come spring and summer, which will help firm up the whole inlet area.
The ford area, grass growing back bit by bit...

Our sheep flock have been taken out of their Kingdom and brought back to Mottisfont for the festive period, where they will be easier to keep a check on each day by the staff on rota.  This was a job that was easier said than done as it entailed dedicated training with the nut bucket by myself and the sheep lookers to lure all 25 into the corral each day.  By the time the allotted day came around they were all flocking in to the corral no problem and I had all 25 penned up inside awaiting their taxi within minutes of arriving. So far, so good.  Whilst we were waiting, a plump little Robin took it upon himself to hop around the corral tweeting at the sheep, probably wondering why they were all on his patch?  

'Oi you lot! State your business here!'

Keeping a beady eye on the proceedings...

Gareth Jenkins, one of our tenant farmers at Mottisfont arrived on the slope with his large livestock trailer and tractor and backed it into position by the corral.  We set up side hurdles to prevent escape, opened the corral gate and…..nothing. Not one animal moved and tumbleweed drifted by.  Hmmm.  I had thought getting them in the corral would be the hard bit, had somehow envisaged that they would from there flow smoothly into the trailer like a woolly stream….as usual I was wrong.  A bucket of nuts did little to lure them into the trailer and I realised that apart from the odd sick one who has come back to Mottisfont for TLC, the flock have not left Stockbridge in the two years they have been here and so they had no idea what the trailer held in store for them. Finally, with my promises of lush Mottisfont grass and both Gareth and I shooing and pushing their fat behinds, we got them all squidged into the trailer looking very out of place and befuddled, with a lot of loud complaining going on.

Walter and i having a chat about what was about to happen.  It did nothing to reassure them.

Back at Mottisfont I had a pen set up in their holiday field and when Gareth arrived with them we opened the trailer into the pen – I stood back expecting bodies to fly out like jumping beans but the first two that ran out stopped dead and threw their heads down and started gobbling the grass straight away – much to the annoyance of the rest of the flock who backed up behind them, unable to get out and making lots of sheep noises that I interpreted as ‘Oi! Get out the way! Move along!’   I then watched in amusement as the tide of fat sheep finally broke though the barrier of the first two animals and they all poured out in a rather undignified manner, into the pen.

Holding pen and vaccination pen set up and ready to go

For the next few hours Ryan, Alan our volunteer and I went through the laborious process of the annual vaccination and worming of the flock in order to keep them in good health – not that they are ever grateful!  Each sheep had to be manhandled into the handling pen and held still by one or two people whilst I injected the vaccination into their skin, dosed them with wormer and gave them once over health check.  Given that they weigh in at around 70kg, and did not enjoy being stuck with a needle, we were all rather stiff and achy by the time we nearly finished.  Each sheep got sprayed with a purple mark to show that it had been treated and I got a bit bored of doing tick marks and started being more creative.  Walter the lone male got a crown (King of the Flock), one got a festive holly leaf, another a sail boat and so on as the ideas took us.  I also consider it a security measure as no one is going to try sheep rustling animals with such individual markings as these!   
Showing off their tattoo's - Walter and his Crown

Just as we had almost finished, one of the last two sheep in the pen decided that she was not having any of it and after giving us a cool look, turned and leapt over the hurdles to freedom.  Arrrgh!  Resisting the urge to throttle them all, I went for the nut bucket and threw some around the field, luring our escapee close enough for me to then leap on.  In the ensuing tussle of being dragged around by a fat sheep that wanted to travel I got a smash to the nose and though I managed to keep hold of her, by the time Ryan and Alan were able to run and grab her off me I had a healthy stream of blood flowing from my nostrils – just another day working with the sheep!  Still whilst I mopped up the guys got her vaccinated and wormed and released and finally, the whole flock were done for another year.  We cleared the pen away and left them all to enjoy the new lush grass in their holiday field while we went for a well-deserved cup of tea and a bag of frozen peas.

In keeping with the festive season, Mottisfont village is usually the home of a nativity scene, previously set up in the garden of resident Betty Pragnell.  Since Betty passed away earlier this year, the church wanted to recreate the nativity in the middle of the village where people would drive by and see it and so they enlisted our help in locating and creating it.  The Woodyard orchard was chosen as it is roadside along the main village road and so will get a good audience passing through.  Lily, one of our Visitor Experience team, and her craft group volunteers set about creating the figurines and Ryan and myself were put to work building the stable.  At first, we set our sights a bit too small when we started building a frame to fit the original figures.  Then when we were shown the size of the New Improved figures we realised we were going to have to scale up a bit!  And so over the course of a weekend and half the week Ryan and I rummaged through the wood yard creating the main frame of the stable – Ryan was entirely behind the design and all the fancy joints, all I did was hit nails where he told me and saw wood where it was marked!  Roofing felt was obtained and over the course of a bright frosty day we slowly erected the stable in the orchard, piece by piece. 
From woodyard... orchard...

to stable...

...Completed nativity with the Thursday volunteers - the Not So Wise Men! (Joking guys...)

The roof was felted, the beams were tapped into place and the sides were staked to the ground to avoid the wind blowing it over – although the whole construction was heavy enough that it would have taken a hurricane to lift it.  I reckon if we had put a ‘To Let’ sign up, it may have got some offers!
We spread some hay down on the floor of the stable and the figurines were brought up from the Abbey, complete with Mary, Joseph, Shepherd (and sheep), Three Wise Men and the baby Jesus, and the stage was set.  The later addition of lights around the bushes and a lit up star in the nearby apple tree made the picture complete and when the village held a carol service there one moonlit evening, it made a very pretty picture – Betty’s family were thrilled with the nativity that was created in her memory and I am certain Betty herself would have been pretty chuffed with it too.  I was tempted to put one of our live sheep in as a touch of realism but I think it would have ended in disaster!

Silent Night

So here we stand, once again, at the Gates of the Year, ready to step forward into the unknown that lies ahead.  2015 has given us many things as a working team.  We have had illness and loss, glorious successes and dedicated people, new projects that will improve our habitats and ongoing ones that are bearing fruit.  We have had the pleasure of watching our sites blossom and thrive with the seasons and the inevitable yearning as we see them decline into winter slumber, appearing barren on the surface but we know, oh how we know the glory of life that lies beneath, awaiting its time.

I find this work and indeed life in general, is like riding a rushing torrent of rapids, being relentlessly pushed on through peaks and troughs and only through hard work and forward momentum do you make it out of the lower troughs and onto the top of those shining peaks while the flow thunders around you.  We have all had our peaks and troughs in 2015 – now we look to 2016 and a new set of rapids – so paddle hard, look to the sun and enjoy your ride, wherever it may take you.

Merry Christmas!

The Team

Tuesday, 1 December 2015

Your Countryside Needs You!

I turned on the radio in the truck this morning and the first thing I heard was ‘A Fairy-tale of New York’ by the Pogues and Kirsty Mac Coll.  Hearing this, my favourite festive song, suddenly brought it all rushing in that we are in December, the final month of the year, and 2015 is fading rapidly with the evening light.  Despite a brief, three day cold snap that finally gave us a thick ground frost a couple of weeks back, the weather is still very mild and a lot of our trees and hedgerows are clinging on to their leaves which whilst they have shrivelled and died, have not yet had enough of a cold shock to make them drop to the ground and to allow the trees to turn inward and settle into their naked winter dormancy.

In my last post I mentioned the beginning of a project on the inlets we have on Stockbridge Marsh…so let me tell you all about it, the main feature of it being MUD.  Huge, stinking, piles of peaty mud.  Beautiful!  It sounds vaguely bizarre but within this muddy mass lies hope and promise, for the preservation of an ecosystem and a common land, for the future.….

Stockbridge Marsh.  One of our sites just up the road from Mottisfont, this is a 23 hectare area of peaty marshy grassland, with a small tributary of the river Test running alongside it.  It lies flat and long, stretching down the river valley, protected from development by its own geology as well as its Common land status.  The Commoners of Stockbridge have ancient common rights here, similar to the New Forest, and grazing rights are still undertaken today.  It is a Site of Special Scientific Interest (SSSI) and managed under a Higher Level Stewardship (HLS) as most of our sites are.  The marsh is a place of bleak beauty, it can look desolate and windswept one day when the wind is howling and the rain is driving into your face at a sideways angle.   But then another day it can be soft and peaceful, with a pinky gold sunset sky reflecting in the water and birds flitting and calling among the reeds.  

Over the years, some odd inlets have formed on the marsh, meandering across the land from the river; their meandering nature implies they are natural and not man made (like an underground pipe etc.) but no one knows definitively what causes them – is it peat drying and cracking? Is it groundwater flow?  Either way, once they begin to form, they are then subject to constant erosion from people, dogs and livestock, all of which tramp through the inlets, making them longer and deeper and wider until some had got so deep that people lost wellies in them (don’t ask me WHY they kept trying to walk through it).  In order to try and counteract this ongoing and worsening problem, we decided to try something new and restore the past….this involved the ditches at Long Lash field, here at Mottisfont.  We have these ditches dug out on a rotational basis in order to maintain the habitat for Southern Damselfly, a rare Damselfly that we have here.  They require ditches with flowing water so if a ditch gets silted up and choked with vegetation, the habitat is lost.  We employed our tenant farmers from Mottisfont to dig the ditches out for us over the last couple of years as they have the right kind of machinery – diggers, low pressure track dumpers so as not to damage the ground, and one kick ass looking black tractor – if Batman had a tractor, it would be the black Valtra! 
Normally the peat that is dug out is left at the side of the ditches but this year, after a year’s worth of working with Natural England and doing vegetation surveys to ensure nothing nasty lay within (like Himalayan Balsam) I got consent from NE to use the peat from Mottisfont, to infill the inlets at Stockbridge – basically taking peat from the same river valley a few hundred years back upstream – restoring the past, see?  So the contractors came in with their sleek shiny tractor and over the course of a week in November they dug out the Long Lash ditches, piled up over a hundred tonnes of material in a corner of the carpark (kept that quiet) transported it over to the Marsh, piled it up in the carpark there (it basically resembled a small, muddy version of the Himalayas) and finally, took it on its final journey across the marsh in the low pressure tracked dumper and to the inlets where it was tipped in bit by bit and squashed down with a digger.  
Stockbridge Himalayas in the carpark

Enroute in the low pressure dumper


Being compressed with the digger

The end result - the canyons filled in with peat and vegetation matter that will take hold and grow up come the growing season.

 Essentially, it looks like a meandering line of muddy peat but to my eyes it is progress.  Where only the week before was a mini Grand Canyon of ooze, now there was level land.  The constant erosion of this habitat has suddenly been halted on this area.  The vegetation matter that is within the peat will take hold in the next few growing seasons and help bind it all together until hopefully, it will be nothing more than a vegetated scar on the surface.   After all the months of derogations, consents, surveys and planning, this is the grand fruition – MUD!   If we can just persuade people to stop treading on it until it has hardened up and settled down, it will have a good chance of taking hold and firming up And that’s why I look at the brown, smelly peat with rose tinted glasses and keep my fingers crossed for the success of this project and for future of the marsh.

Stockbridge Down continues to see the roadside hedge being laid bit by bit, as they work their way down from the top carpark to the bottom carpark over the course of the winter.  I have also had volunteers and students working on a patch of scrub clearance on the site, in line with our management plan and our Higher Level Stewardship.  Rotationally clearing areas of large, moribund scrub is an important task on sites such as the Down.  The chalk grassland habitat is ecologically vital as is the mixed scrub habitat that is interspersed within it.  However it is important the scrub consists of different age groups, from the thick, dense young scrub to middle aged, through to mature scrub as different mammals, birds, inverts and so on will value different age classes of scrub.  We have targets under our Higher Level Stewardship that we require a certain percentage of this rotational age class of scrub to be present and maintained on the site.  However we also have to achieve and maintain a percentage of chalk grassland habitat which means that we cannot allow the scrub to encroach onto the grassland with new, young growth – so to ensure we can have that young age class of scrub, we get it by rotationally cutting out patches of old scrub that have reached a peak and that have lost all understorey and ground flora below it, due to their age.  The patch I chose this year was a patch such as this, consisting of a mix of Blackthorn, Hawthorn and Buckthorn (all of which have wickedly horrible thorns which we got lodged in our fingers constantly) which had all grown up so tall that they completely shaded out the ground below it.  Consequently there was no understorey and no ground flora except for moss, making it fairly barren below the canopy.  I had programmed in many days of work with volunteers to tackle this bit of land as I knew it would be a tough job.  The scrub was thick around the edges and then very tall and heavy further in and all needed felling and then dragging up or across the slope to the fire to be burnt.  Old rabbit holes littered the site creating trip hazards a plenty with every step and the scrub was all so thorny that even the thickest tree stems had random two inch spikes on which inevitable pierced gloves and spilt blood.  Felling the scrub wasn’t the end of it, the way it had grown meant that each branch and stem was deeply intertwined and entangled with other stems, or ivy, making it all a huge mass of knots to try and cut and tug apart to get it into a moveable size to get it fireside.

Is that Gorillas in the mist? Nope, just the volunteers on a frosty blue morning!

Cutting and burning the scrub

However despite all this, the volunteers powered through it with me, as well as a couple of days of Sparsholt students and we finished the patch last week, with a whacking great bonfire finale that would have served well as a beacon had it been up on the top of the hillfort!  Flocks of Fieldfares and even the odd Waxwing flew overhead as we finished the job, getting themselves settled in to their overwintering site on the Down. Come spring and summer this cleared patch will erupt with Wild Strawberry, Marjoram, and other flower species which will be the feeding and basking ground for invertebrates such as Grizzled and Dingy Skippers before the young scrub grows up into a thick dense thicket which will then be favoured by birds and mammals for nesting – and so the great circle of scrubby life continues!

Grizzled Skipper - a species that will enjoy the cleared scrub area this coming spring.

Elsewhere on the Down our sheep flock continue to roam their Western Slope Realm, where they graze the open grassy areas and run along hidden paths up in the Yew woodland and scrub, like fat, woolly woodland nymphs.  Whilst they are doing well and have plumped up in fine form for winter, we unfortunately suffered a loss a couple of weeks ago, when I found one on the slope one day that had been subject to a dog attack. I arrived on the slope, threw some nuts in the corral and called the flock.  They came running and bouncing but seemed more jittery than usual.  Not many came into the corral and one who did didn't settle to eat the nuts but stood and stamped her front feet at me.  ‘What’s your problem?’ I asked her, thinking that they may all still be mistrusting of me after I had allowed students to learn how to handle sheep with them the week before.  It’s a valuable experience for the students to learn livestock handling and it’s useful for the flock to be used to being handled for when we have to work on them.  However they usually get in a bit of a sulk about it so I thought perhaps this ewe, stamping her feet at me was signalling that she was still rather miffed at their treatment a few days before. Unfortunately her jitteryness was for a worse reason. All but two of the flock had appeared so I set off to hunt down the missing two, one of which was one of the old girls and usually the first to the bucket so when she didn’t come running I pondered it, but thought she must be out of earshot. After a brief walk I spotted two girls up the slope under the Beech trees and scrambled up to check them. 

One was a young ewe who got up and limped away from me – suffering a slight limp in her front leg.  Then I looked round and spotted the old girl stick her head out from behind a Yew tree.  I climbed up to her and my heart sank as I noted how she held herself; head held down low, not moving from her spot, which was not a good sign.  I put my hand under her chin and looked at her face to try and see any problem; she gazed back with dull eyes.  She stood leaning against the Yew tree so I checked over her sides and then got to her back end and my heart sank into my boots as I beheld the gory mess that was revealed.  A huge, gaping wound above her left hind leg, stretching from her tail across the rump and so deep I could actually see a fair way within, like a great, blood clotted cave of various muscles, sinews and goodness knows what else, which should not be on display.  The leg was swollen with blood within that had flowed out of the torn vessels and was filling up the limb around the knee joint, which was obviously causing her tremendous pain as when I gently touched it she would shift and cry.  And so, for the second time in three months, I called the vet out who came and clambered up the slope with me to where our poor ewe stood in misery.  As the vet examined her I put my arm around the ewe’s chest to stop her trying to hobble off but she didn’t even bother to move.  Instead she leaned her head on my shoulder and leaned into me, weary and in pain.  The inevitable conclusion reached, we walked her slowly down the slope to a more accessible area and then lay her down whilst the vet prepared her cocktail of drugs that would send her to the big grassy slope in the sky, where the grass is always green and lush and the sun always shines and I never appear on the horizon nor try and round up the flock and disturb their peace.

Once the deed was done and the life had flickered out of the ewe’s eyes, the vet showed me more teeth marks that hadn’t been obvious before, due to the wool.  She had taken a few bites including the horrific main mauled area and it was surprising she hadn’t died of trauma already.  The vet did confirm that the size of the bite suggested a dog as oppose to something like a fox – these are big, fully grown 70kg sheep that a fox would not be able to bring down.  After the vet had gone I stood looking at the copse contemplating my fears that this, as the second such incident in three months, may not be the end of it or another one off, but something that could happen again.  As I stood there I suddenly became aware that the rest of the flock had appeared and gathered under the Beech trees and stood silently watching what had happened to their fallen comrade.  They didn’t chew cud or wander, they just watched.  Then Walter, our lone male, detached himself from the flock and trotted over to me.   I knelt down and he nuzzled against me perhaps trying to convey that he was sorry he hadn’t been able to keep all the flock safe.  I put my arm round his neck and scratched under his ears as we looked upon the sorry sight whilst the others stood by.  After a few minutes time started again and Walter wandered off and I stood up and got my trusty piece of rope out the truck, which I use as a sort of pulley system to help me hoist 70kg of dead weight into the back so I could take her to meet the knacker man, and it was back to reality.
A grim photo, but a reminder of the care we all need to take

Again I can only state that I know that the majority of dog owners are responsible, reliable and will keep their dogs on lead around livestock.  But somewhere there is a tiny minority that either don’t bother to try and control their animals, or don’t take into account the instinct that lies dormant in all dogs and may suddenly burst out when they are confronted with a flock of sheep.  This minority can do significant damage and impact on the management of a site.  The countryside is used more and more by our increasing population as a place of leisure and this is something that should be encouraged; we all need to get out and experience the wilder areas of our country.  But it comes at a price in that increased people pressure can create increase of problems such as this one.  We must all learn to sacrifice things in order to allow for a sustainable way of management.  For instance the fencing of the river bank on Stockbridge Marsh – we have had to sacrifice our access to it, in order to prevent it being completely eroded away by people, dog and livestock pressure.  And the same with the sheep on the Down.  60 hectares of land on the Down do not have sheep on them and dogs can run free.  The remaining 5 hectares of the Western slope, which is entirely fenced off separately, has the flock on and so dogs MUST be kept on a lead.  Losing freedom in 5 hectares does not seem like a high price to pay when 60 hectares remains open to them.  We cannot, must not get to that point in the future where habitats are unable to be managed in the way that is required for their own benefit, due to external pressures from our growing population.  We must all take heed, appreciate when areas are closed off for grazing or breeding birds, when dog bins are put in to prevent excess nutrients from dog faeces altering the habitat, when areas are fenced to try and halt erosion and accept that we have to share these lands with nature and wildlife and not just assume we can do as we wish on them all the time.  Only by working towards this and understanding this concept can we have any hope of keeping our fragile ecosystems alive through what is undoubtedly the biggest challenge that they have had to face – and one that is ever growing as urban sprawl and population continues to soar.

So next time you walk around any of our sites, enjoy them but please just be aware; take notice of signs marking where animals graze, pick up your dog poo, read about what work we have done and why and try to understand that we as the landowners cannot do this alone – we need everyone to band together – fight the good fight!

Monday, 2 November 2015

Tongues of Fire

'Steady thy laden head across a brook;
Or by a cider-press, with patient look,
Thou watchest the last oozings hours by hours.'

                                                                                               - Keats

Greetings!  It has been several weeks since my last post and during this time autumn has swooped in on wings of glorious technicolour; golds, crimsons, ambers, the turning of the leaves this year seems more vibrant than I have ever seen it.  The gardens of Mottisfont are adorned with a copper coloured carpet and our woodlands are a shimmering haze of rich fiery hues.  When the sun shines through the leaves it is like they glow from within and the Cherry trees especially look like they are aflame in the rays of the sinking sun.  Combine this with the mists that have begun to lie in the fields first thing in the morning and last thing in the evening, creeping off the river, and you have a truly stunning picture to behold as you enter into Mottisfont.

Colours everywhere! My favourite, the Cherry tree outside the staff carpark

Whilst I always mourn the passing of summer and its associated vibrancy of life, autumn does bring us many wonders.  Whilst kicking through the leaves, you can find the shiny conkers and sweet chestnuts, plump and looking like they have been polished, with their intricate swirly designs ingrained upon them.  Fungi has popped up everywhere providing splashes of colour where you least expect it; Fly Agaric red, Amethyst Deceiver purple, the creamy white blob of the puffball – or the giant puffball if you are very lucky!

And of course with summers end and autumn’s beginning, comes the time of ‘mellow fruitfulness’ which, in my personal annual schedule means: cider time.   
This year has been kind to us in terms of bounty and I have already made good with blackberry whisky and brandy, elderberry and blackberry wine, pickled walnuts, pickled ash keys, elderflower champagne, jams, chutneys and sloe gin.  But of course, the most important yearly creation comes in the form of my home made cider – and what a year for it!  The apple trees have been absolutely full to bursting this year, in all our orchards, hedgerows and woodlands and I have taken full advantage of this fact.  I started my usual scrumping and harvesting of apples throughout august as they began to fall and ripen and due to the sheer mass of fruit around I got a bit carried away and kept on collecting.  After a few weeks my patio at home was covered in apples.  Laid out on a tarp, they looked like some brightly coloured art installation and I dutifully turned them with a broom every day to spot any rotters that needed to be picked out and chucked in the compost (quite what the neighbours thought I don’t know!).  
An apple a day....

Then, having secured the Mottisfont cider press for use, as well as a borrowed scratter, I lured my team mates to my help with bribes of how much cider they will get to drink next year (as well as guilt trips of how much of my home brew they have had this year!) and they dutifully came round one sunny Saturday and helped me turn apples into liquid gold.

Washin' choppin'


And pressin'!

 Four and a half hours of washing, chopping, scratting and pressing and we had 14 demi johns – 70 litres – of juice ready to begin the long and beautiful journey into cider…they are currently bubbling away happily in my kitchen, having been racked off once already and thankfully passed the slightly sulfuric eggy smelling stage that was being burped out of the air locks at double speed as the first fermentation kicked in vigorously.  The journey continues….


Meanwhile, with the onset of autumn we are already headlong into various winter projects across our sites as time seems to be flying by already; we have passed All Hallows Eve and are creeping ever closer to the Winter Solstice, the day after which I look to the East and know that the light will begin to return to us bit by bit and in a few short weeks the natural world will begin to awaken. 
A belated Halloween!
Up on Stockbridge Down we have begun a winter long project of hedgelaying.  The roadside hedge here, which runs along the B3049 was once laid about 20 years ago and has been flailed ever since.  It is slowly turning into a line of bottom thin trees which does not equate to a wildlife beneficial hedgerow so I decided to get it re-laid again, using a specialist contractor who was confident he can do the whole length in one winter.  Hedgelaying is basically a way of improving the health of a hedge and increasing its use as a habitat for wildlife.  To lay a hedge you cut through each individual stem, but not all the way, just enough that you can bend it over and weave it into line, whilst remaining attached to its growing base.  New shoots will then grow up from the cut area at the base thus thickening up the lower bit of the hedge which was previously just a stem.  Laying also allows more light to come in which in turn encourages the new growth and aids in the regeneration of the new shoots.  Hedgerows are vital as wildlife corridors for birds, mammals, reptiles, invertebrates and all sorts and they are more likely to use them and nest in them when the hedge is thick and bushy as it provides better cover for them to travel through.  Stockbridge Down is surrounded largely by arable land, but there are pockets of estates and copses nearby and it is so important that wildlife can have a chance to travel between such areas under cover using the wildlife corridors of hedgerows and not the open arable land where they are far more vulnerable to predators.  The first 100m barrier of hedge has been laid; I look forward to seeing the rest!

The first laid stretch...a long way to go!

Stockbridge Marsh has shown some great regrowth results on the bank that we fenced last year.  The array of vegetation that has come back in just one year is astonishing and really gives good hope for the future of this site, that if we can provide a well vegetated and stable bank it will prevent the erosion that occurs as a result of animal and people pressure on the bare bank.  It also gives hope to the stretch we have fenced this year; if that revegetates as well as last year’s stretch, the habitat will have improved dramatically.
Looking beautifully vegetated
Also an issue on the Marsh are the creeping inlets that have begun meandering their way across the marsh from the river.  Whilst the first inlet has dried out quite a bit since we fenced the bank and faggoted across it, which helped prevent the river from creeping in, the lower ones have got wider and deeper.  As a result, we have begun a project whereby we have had peat dug from the ditches in Long Lash at Mottisfont (where peat and vegetation requires clearing from the ditches on a rotation in order to keep the Southern Damselfly habitat in good condition) and this peat is being transported to the Marsh and being used to fill in the inlets and try and halt their crawl.  Essentially it is peat from the same river valley, just a few hundred years further down the river!  This is going on this week, so watch this space for results…

At our Hamble site, Curbridge Nature Reserve, we have started coppicing the understorey in a section of the woodland.  Mainly Hazel understorey over stood by Oaks and Ash, this stretch of ancient woodland and estuarine reedbed and saltmarsh is one of our little gems.  It has had some coppicing in areas of it in the past and this year I wanted to bring in the rotation again in order to improve the understorey of Hazel as well as bringing in more light for the ground flora species.

Hamble has also had another tree down in the river.  I have mentioned before about the titan Oaks that gradually get eroded under their rootplates by the tide and fall into the river where they lie, some skeletal, some still living, and provide a great perch for Egrets and habitat for water beasties.  However one tree went down right at the very top of the river where it is very narrow and consequently had to be removed to allow boats past.  After a very muddy hour working with the harbour master to remove part of the canopy so boats could squeeze through (we only had an hour because of the tide, which would turn and fall and leave the boat stranded otherwise) I then had a contractor complete the job as he had equipment I could only dream of.  One sludgy day, when the tide was out, the work gang proceeded to cut the tree up bit by bit, using plankways to walk over the ooze of the mudflats, and eventually, once all the limbs were completely removed, they used their truck and crane to heave the stem out over the bank to be taken away.  
Cutting up the tree

 And when I say truck, it was like a MONSTER truck.  I walked into the woodland and came face to face with Optimus Prime; the thing filled the entire woodland path area and looked vaguely out of place!  However it got the job done before the next turn of the tide and the river was once again made clear for day trippers to get to the Horse and Jockey pub.

Transformers come to Hamble river
Finally, since my last blog post, we have said good bye to Laura, our Area ranger for the New Forest.  Laura has moved on to another job back up in Hertfordshire, where she hails from and where her friends and family are so it couldn’t be more perfect for her.  I miss her to pieces, and every now and then look round for her to share something funny with only to realise she is no longer there but as always life moves on and we move with it, lest we get left high and dry when the tide goes out.  Therefore a fond farewell to Laura and thanks for all she has done for us and a warm welcome to Catherine, the new Area Ranger for the New Forest – I am waiting for the confusion of having two Catherine’s on one team, to inevitably begin!

Laura and her volunteer group, saying goodbye.

I leave you with a friendly goodbye from Walter our lone male in the sheep flock who discovered he had a fondness for looking at himself in the camera reflection – fathead!

What you lookin' at bub?