Thursday, 29 January 2015

Full steam ahead.

I realise we are almost out of January now, but a rather delayed Happy New Year to you all anyway.  Time has flown on swift wings as usual and I have had absolutely no time to write about what we have been up to, as we have been too busy doing it!

These first few weeks of 2015 have proven as fast paced as I predicted and whilst we don’t have the storm damage that faced us last New Year to contend with we are still being kept on our toes with trying to catch up after the festive break.

One of the first things we got to do this year was one of the more fun – a chainsaw course in large tree felling!  Myself, Ryan, Laura and Mike spent a happy three days learning new ways to knock over large trees safely which also involved a type of cut called a ‘Danish Pie cut’ – just made me hungry when the assessor was explaining it to us.  A lot of our woodland work involves plantation felling, in order to sell the softwoods to timber merchants and allow the cleared areas to regenerate with natural broadleaved species.  All but one of the plantation species are not native to the UK (such as Douglas Fir, Norway Spruce) and the only native one – Scots Pine – is more naturally at home further north in the country, and in Scotland. So as part of our English Woodland Grant Scheme we are targeted with removing the plantations and allowing the natural deciduous trees to fill in the gaps and so it came to pass that we were able to work our chainsaw course around this and begin working on another area of plantation felling at the same time. 

Laura, Ryan, myself and 'Loggerhead Mike' after finishing our course

 Needless to say things got a bit competitive and whilst I managed to fell the tallest tree (114ft), both Laura and Mike felled ones that were significantly wider around the base; mine measured only 3ft across whilst their chunkers’ were at least another foot in width.  Our assessor took some videos of us felling and below are videos of Laura and I felling our trees – mine is in slow motion (which gives some impressive tree creaking noises) and Laura’s is in time lapse which makes her look like she has had a lot of energy drinks!

We all passed successfully and enjoyed ourselves at the same time, so a good few days all round.


Also with us for the first 3 weeks of January were work placement students from Sparsholt who came and mucked in with everything we could throw at them; from working in the winter chill of the river, to building a pole lathe, to ride clearance work, to tree planting, to gorse cutting, to sheep vaccinations, they had a taste of our work across all our sites and (I think) they thoroughly enjoyed it.  We enjoyed having them and found them very helpful and good to work with, so thanks Paul and Andy for all your efforts; hope we haven’t put you off a countryside career too much!

.And talking of sheep vaccinations….Last week saw the Dreaded Date arrive, the annual vaccination and worming of our sheep flock.  You may remember from last year’s account (Mud-Wrestle-Sheep-Rugby) that Ryan and I had one hell of a task getting all the sheep treated, and got very battered, bruised and dragged around in the process, so it was with justifiable trepidation that I set the date for this year’s wrestling match.  I told the students to ensure they had a good supply of Radox and Deep Heat waiting for them at home afterwards and Ryan and I regaled them with the horror stories from last year.  We loaded up the trucks with vaccines, needles, worming guns and hurdles and set off.  When we arrived, I went on ahead in order to try and call all the flock into the corral – if we went in with both trucks the sheep would know that something different was going on and would be unlikely to come willingly (I realise this sounds ridiculous, but its true – they recognise my truck and will come running for sheep nuts but when we go in with two trucks they know it means something bad for them; such as being rounded up, so they keep away – I never knew their memories were so good).  
I started bellowing to the empty hills ‘COME OOOOOOOONNNNN!’ and within seconds I heard the answering bleats as a stream of fat white blobs came running out of the trees.  They all came into the corral for sheep nuts and I counted them with my fingers crossed: 27 – 1 missing. Damn! Here we go, I thought, the usual one missing that will refuse to be caught.  I shut the rest in the corral for the moment and called again and again, hoping we wouldn’t have to try and catch one sheep on a 4 hectare slope of woodland and grassland.  After a minute or so, during which time it began to snow lightly, I heard a very faint ‘baaaaaaa’ in the distance.  I called again and the answering cry got louder: ‘baaaaaaa….baaaaaaa.baaaaaa.baaaaaaaa!' until out of the scrub popped the final sheep, screaming at the top of her woolly lungs at being the last one to arrive at the dinner table and running full pelt.  She rolled down the slope and straight through the gate I held open for her and Bingo! half the battle was already won, with the entire flock penned up within ten minutes

Penned up

Ryan and the students then drove across and we unloaded, got a pen system set up and got all the medical stuff ready and then, with our fingers already frozen in the chill, we began.  The students were keen to do some sheep handling so Ryan and I happily let them do the majority of the heavy work, grabbing sheep and holding them in place, whilst we sorted out the vaccines and the worming doses.   
rugby catching sheep!
The medical bay.
With four of us we got a good system going and I couldn’t believe it as the sheep flowed through smoothly one after the other.  Whilst they weren’t happy about being stabbed with a needle and made to swallow a dose of Cydectin, they seemed easier to deal with than ever before – I didn’t get head butted in the face, no nasal botfly larvae was procured and overall it was our easiest, most successful sheep treatment session ever with all animals wormed, vaccinated, condition scored and given a general MOT within two hours.  They were all marked with a bright purple Nike style tick on their rumps so we could see which ones we had done; they didn’t seem too keen on sporting their new logo’s but they will just have to put up with them until they shed their fleeces in early summer. 
Job done.

If you read my blog throughout the summer months you will know how much I waffle on about butterflies, those colourful guardians of the warmer months.  Whilst they are all dormant at this time of year we can at least pave the way for them and to this end I took the Monday volunteers out to do some work on a Duke of Burgundy project that we doing on Stockbridge Down.  Duke of Burgundy is a small little butterfly, incorrectly named a Fritillary.  They are in fact a member of the Metalmark (Lycaenidae) family, the only member of this family to be found in Britain and Europe.  
The Duke of Burgundy
They were once a creature of woodland glades and coppiced areas but as coppicing became less practiced and the glades and open areas become more overgrown the Duke of Burgundy suffered.  They are a fairly fussy butterfly that requires its food plant of Primrose or Cowslip to be in partial shade on the edge of a glade and not out in full sun where they may wither.  I’ve heard they like plants to have at least 4 leaves on which to lay their eggs (although how they can count I don’t know).  With the cessation of coppicing they did manage to adapt to scrubby chalk downland areas that had their food plants on such as Stockbridge Down and as woodland management changes to try and encourage rides, glades and coppicing they are making a comeback.  Across the road from the Down we have a strip of land and in the neighbouring field that borders it there is a good size colony of Dukes.  The Dukes are often seen on our strip of land of, having crossed over from their colony and we have consequently been doing our bit by cutting back some of the overgrown hazel on our land and opening up the glades where their foodplants are found.  This work has been started by the volunteers and to further it, the Butterfly Conservation Trust are funding us to do more work with contractors, cutting a large swathe of overgrown hazel which will open up the Duke area a lot more and also enable us to bring the hazel back into rotation.  I hope that this work will not only keep the butterflies coming across to our land but encourage them to further breed and spread across the Down.  So come May and June you may see me wandering through the cleared areas peering at some tiny fluttering specks among the Cowslips and the Primrose….

Clearing overgrown hazel

Opening up the glade