Friday, 6 February 2015

The Year of the Sheep...

Brrrrrrrrr!  The last couple of weeks has reddened our noses and frozen our digits as snow, sleet and bitter winds have all graced us with their presence.  I have taken to wrapping my feet in newspaper inside my wellies for insulation, and we have all turned into hooded, scarf over face people, from which only a peeping pair of eyes is visible.

One of my sheep lookers pointed out that February 2015 is the beginning of the Chinese New Year, which this year is – the Year of the Sheep!  As a result we felt that part of this blog post dedicated to the flock was a worthy tribute, in honour of our Ovine workers.  Over the year many of them have been given names, by either myself or the lookers as each individual character or appearance became more recognised.  Such names include:
Boadicea (the leader of the rebel pack)
Margo/Maggot Neck (our fly strike victim who I call Maggot Neck, but our sheep lookers changed it to the more pleasant Margo)
Fatty Boom (Our plumpest girl who never loses weight)
Walter (The Wether, sole male of the flock)
Bigfoot (named obviously for her large camel like front feet and the fact she will follow you to the ends of the earth for the nut bucket)
And no doubt more will follow as they each develop their own perks.

When the snow fell the other day I took up bales of hay to the flock as they were unable to graze the grass and I was met by 28 rather cross sounding bleating sheep who seemed to be implying that I should have got there much sooner and didn’t I know how hungry they were?  I filled their corral with hay, added some sheep nuts for good measure and then was consequently trampled by the resulting stampede as I opened the gate to let them in.  After picking myself up and picking off the clumps of frozen dung I’d fallen in, I then inspected their water bowser which had frozen up.  

I smashed the ice layer and scooped it out, nearly losing a finger to frostbite in the process – you can see from the above picture how thick the layer of ice can get here – being a North facing slope, it seems to take a while longer for everything to thaw out.  The girls seemed suitably appeased with their snouts deep in hay and I admired their thick winter fleeces that enable them to stay warm and cosy on that bitter snowy slope.

From snow to Snowdrops – it’s that time of year again where the first little hints of spring have poked their way up through the soil in the form of pure white snowdrops.  Each year we do Wild Snowdrop Walks from Mottisfont grounds across to one of our private woodlands.  These are organised by myself and our Visitor Experience team and then facilitated by our Outdoor Guide volunteers who lead the walks across the weekend.  Walks are on the 7/8th Feb and 14/15th Feb at 10.30am, 12.30pm and 2pm – from within the pay zone.  I walked the route the other day to ensure it was all ok and enjoyed the site of a beautiful white carpet of flowers, spread out in the dappled sunlight beneath the canopy.  Whilst I favour bright yellow daffodils as my favourite flower, you really can’t help but feel joy at the site of snowdrops – a visual feast for the eyes after the long winter, they are a little signpost on the road to Spring.

I was driving around the Mottisfont estate the other day, taking the chance to check in on some of the sites I hadn’t got to for a while.  I headed to Oakley plantation, a small woodland of ours that is a mix of coniferous plantation and out-of-rotation hazel coppice with standards.  Ryan and the volunteers have been working hard to start sorting this woodland out, by bringing the coppice back into a rotation and removing the softwoods which Dave then sells for logs and timber.  Sparsholt College have also been helping us fell the softwoods here as part of their chainsaw training courses, so everybody gets a benefit.
Last year we coppiced the first section of the woodland and this winter Ryan and the volunteers have just completed another section, as well as removing a load of softwood.  I hadn’t got there for a good few weeks so went along the other day to have a nosey and was gobsmacked by the amount of work that had been done and how good it looked.  The section they have cleared this winter is a fairly large section and is now ready for deer fencing to be installed.  The wood has all been sorted into piles for charcoal making and it all looks fantastic – considering when I was last there it was a tangled mess of overgrown hazel, softwood and birch!  I cannot wait to see the ground flora that will pop up in couple of months, now that they can reach the light….
The newly cleared section in Oakley
And in case you are wondering where the wood goes to be made into logs – Dave extracts it to our wood yard where he and our wood yard volunteers then spend many happy hours (boys and toys!) cutting them to length and putting them through the log processor which spits them out as beautiful logs, perfect for your wood burning stove or fire place.  Below you can see Phil and Alan our volunteers, in action, ploughing their way through the timber pile and creating wooden money.
From wood to fireplace...

 Another place I visited whilst roaming the estate was the Oakley Oak.  I felt it was high time I reacquainted myself with this magnificent tree beast to see how it was doing during winter and also to check the Barn Owl was still in residence.  I walked beneath its gargantuan boughs and marvelled, as I always do, at its presence, from the huge knobbly root buttresses, worn smooth from hundreds of years of people sitting on them, to the craggy hollow limbs that extended skywards.  Beneath one limb I found a pile of Owl pellets (the small bundles of indigestable fur and bone that they regurgitate) which reassured me that the Barn Owl was still doing well and remained tucked up in his chosen limb and as always put the nursery rhyme in my head: ‘A wise old owl, lived in an Oak.  The more he heard, the less he spoke. The less he spoke, the more he heard – why can’t we all be like that wise old bird?’
Examining the pellets I found shrew, vole and mice skulls (you can especially tell shrew skulls as they have red tipped teeth) which seemed to point to a good supply of food.  I then clambered up into the arms of the tree and found several more areas of pellets which could either mean the owl is perching from several roosts, or that there is more than one using the tree which would be excellent news. 
Owl pellets - spot the skulls!

As I sat in the branches of that ancient Oak I looked out at the river which rippled alongside it, crystal clear and musical, and at the sunlit fields that surrounded it where cattle gently wandered.  Birds were singing and calling and the sun held the first hint of warmth I had felt in a long time and with this I felt my heart lift ever so slightly; Spring was coming.  We were almost there.

Our Oakley Oak

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