Wednesday, 19 August 2015

There goes the Swallow....

'There goes the Swallow - could we but follow!  Hasty Swallow, stay; point us out the way'.

                                                                                        - Christina.G.Rossetti

Dare I say it?  I almost can’t bear to but there is no escaping it…the first few leaves are starting to fall here in the grounds of Mottisfont.  The Acer trees are beginning to turn from vibrant green to the deep, glowing tones of red and gold, which, along with the darker evenings and the vanishing of the Swifts, are signalling the first tiny hint of seasonal change that is to come.
But let’s keep focusing on summer for the time being as it is too soon to think yet of colder weather and darker days.

This tree in the grounds is just beginning to get its golden gleam of autumn leaves from the top down...almost looks lit up like a flame.
In our staff carpark we have many open barn style buildings, where vehicles or items are stored.  These classic style barns, with roof and rafters also make great homes for nesting birds – and I have spent the last couple of weeks keeping my eye on a nest of swallows that inhabited our ‘buggy’ barn.  I watched the nestlings grow from three beaks attached to three piles of fluff, into more defined Swallow like creatures.   
Grumpy looking chicks...

The parents would swoop in elegantly and at high speed, seemingly invincible to all the obstacles in their way and they would zoom up to their nest whereupon three yellow noisy mouths would all gape open and yell, until they were shoved full of food and whoosh! Off the parent bird would shoot, back out the barn into the open air and the insect buffet that floated around.  Eventually one day I noticed that the chicks had got so big they almost hung out the nest and I reckoned they must be very close to fledging. 

Definitely big enough to leave the nest now!

Each time I walked by I peered in and up to see if they had plucked up enough courage until finally, I saw that the bravest and biggest chick was fluttering around rather wobbly on its wings, from hanging ivy stem to rafter and back again.  The parents flew around calling and encouraging it (and probably shouting at the other two to get off their fat behinds and give it a go) but after a while of squatting on a beam blinking and looking rather fat and bemused, the chick fluttered back up into the nest and back to the safety of its siblings. 
Two days later, I looked in and saw the nest was empty – and the whole family were sat on the rafters together looking down before all leaping into space and soaring up and out the barn and away, the chicks in their slightly duller plumage and a bit wobbly on the wing, but learning fast.  Soon they will be gathering on the phone lines to chat about their long journey to Africa and, if we are lucky, this family will return next summer to the exact same barn – such an incredible migration.

Our volunteers have been kept busy around our estate with the usual summer tasks of fence line maintenance.  It seems we have a constant battle to upkeep, install and maintain fence lines across our lands – once you have got them all up to scratch, the first lot have disappeared into the undergrowth again! There are also many fence lines that have been long swallowed by invading trees and scrub and brambles and need rescuing – the perfect summer task for large groups of eager volunteers!  The biggest field they have been tackling this year is Conservation field, a wetland field we have along the Test Way and one where the fence line was completely dilapidated and buried under overhanging, fallen trees and years of bramble and nettle growth.  Send in the volunteers! 
Days of chainsawing, brushcutting, bowsawing and loppering have gone into exposing the old fence, followed by days of pulling out the old, broken pieces of wire and rotten posts, all to be replaced with new ones.  Trees and scrub have been cut and processed – larger stuff will go into our log processing business, whilst the smaller stuff and scrub is being put through the chipper, the resulting chip mulch from which we will put around our young trees in the plantation areas, to act as a weed preventing mulch mat.  I helped Ryan do some chipping last week and was impressed at just how big a limb you could feed into the chipper – it takes up to about 8 inches diameter, and you watch it get sucked in by the rollers and crunched without any obvious effort apart from an increase in noise, before it all gets spat out the top chute as chipped mush.  I couldn’t help but keep thinking what a nasty way to go that would be for a person – a bit morbid, but best to be wary of these things!

A beautifully cleared ditch and fenceline in conservation field.

Another big summer project we have been doing is the next stage of our river bank restoration project on Stockbridge Marsh.  The marsh has a tributary of the river Test running along its Western boundary and being that the site is very popular with local dog walkers and also has livestock grazing it, the river bank gets put under a lot of pressure – more so than just the usual pressure of river flow alongside it.  Over the years the bank has been crumbling and falling away in great chunks, as dogs use it to climb out of the river and thus scrabble and erode at the bank, weakening it, which then in turn makes it more vulnerable when cattle graze along it and so on.  Last year saw the installation of a section of fence along the upper reaches of the river bank, as well as geotextile material and faggots be put in place along the river bank edge, to effectively form a new bank edge whilst the eroded bank grew some vegetation and restabilised.  The fence would prevent any pressure from dogs or livestock being put upon the bank whilst it recovered.  The results from last year have been very promising – the vegetation has thrived, with reeds, sedges, Fleabane, Water Mint, Water Parsnip and much more all taking root and taking off, which will all help in the long term, to bind the bank together and prevent it from constantly crumbling and falling away. 

2014: After the installation of the fence and geotextile.

Same spot 2015: Bank side vegetation has shot up.

Vegetation growing up around the faggots.

The results were so pleasing that the Court Leet of Stockbridge, with whom we regularly work with over issues on the common land of the Down and Marsh, asked us to install a further stretch of fencing down to the ford area in order to begin the recovery of the second stage of the bank.  This has now gone in and we are currently putting in more geotextile, faggots and vegetation to kick start the process, so fingers crossed this will be as successful.  Obviously with the fencing off of a beautiful area of river bank, there have been some unhappy comments from a few people.  Whilst I agree that it is a shame that it is no longer as accessible to children playing or dogs swimming, we have to understand that being a Site of Special Scientific Interest (SSSI) and common land we cannot just stand by and watch it continually erode away under the increased pressure it has become subjected to – we have a duty of care to preserve the site.   There are still areas where the river is accessible to people and dogs – by the top footbridge into the town and at the ford area which remains accessible.  Also the stretch of river below the ford remains unfenced, but obviously if we can encourage people to stick to the ford area it will prevent the remaining bank being hit hard.  As well as planting up the bank with vegetation to give it a head start, we are also looking into a project to try and bring some peat infill to the large inlets that have begun to crack and wind their way across the marsh from the river bank…watch this space.

I shall leave you with a couple of photos from Stockbridge Down – one of the last Dark Green Fritillaries of the year, showing off her lovely green underside for which the species is named, and a photo of a rare insect called the Hornet Robberfly that we have on Stockbridge that was recorded in the last bio survey back in 1998 – so it was brilliant to see that it is still present on site! 

Dark Green Lady

Hornet Robberfly feasting on an unfortunate victim...(Credit: M.Oates)

Wednesday, 5 August 2015

Its been a while!

Long Lost Greetings to you all!  It has been nearly two months since my last blog post and for this I can only apologise – time has constantly passed me by on swift wings and I have not had a spare moment in the office to write anything up in detail.  However, I finally find myself in a brief lull for an hour or so, and so I shall use it to update on our summer adventures so far.
This time of year of course it is just a blessing and a joy to be outside all day working.  The trees are all shades of green and the land is littered with wild flowers all coming in and out of season on their own personal cycle.  I am keeping a beady eye on the various fruity potential for foraging already on all our sites, and I can see the apple crop is looking very promising for this year’s cider making – but I will have to be patient and wait a while yet.

The blackberries are ripe and the sloes are already on the Blackthorn in high numbers...
Last years blackberry wine has just been bottled - ready for more months of maturing.
Meanwhile, Elderflower champagne has come and gone in a fizzing pop, Pickled Ash Keys (a new recipe for me this year) are currently maturing in a dark cupboard, the blackberries are ready for blackberry wine and whisky and, my latest culinary adventure from the great outdoors…pickled walnuts!  Every year I leave it too late to try this, but this year I finally remembered to pick some in July, before the inner shells have hardened.  Mottisfont gardens have several huge Walnut trees  that grace the lawns, so after work one day I helped myself to a couple of tubful’s…turned out to be 4kg worth, slightly more than I anticipated, but I kept seeing a ‘really good one’ that I had to pick!  Following two weeks of soaking in briny water and then a day airing in the sun, whereby they all turned black and looked like unappealing lumps of coal, I have since simmered them up with vinegar, ginger and spices and put them into jars to mature….supposedly good with cheese, I will let you know the end result.  It maybe that everyone I know gets a jar of pickled walnuts for Christmas this year…

From tree... brine.... air dried - ready for the pickle and spice mix!

Meanwhile, when I haven’t been making things to eat and drink, the work on our sites goes on as always, full steam ahead with little room for breathing.  Stockbridge Down is looking, as always at this time of year, truly fabulous.  Whilst the Marbled Whites and Dark Green Fritillaries are nearly gone now, with just a few faded individuals loyally hanging on, the Chalkhill Blues have come into their own and taken up their August rule of the site.  For this one month only, they are the Kings and Queens and entire army, more numerous than any other species I have seen here.  Clouds of them flutter up around you as you walk, from every pathway, every flowery verge and every dog turd, they are in full peak and I urge you to go on a sunny day and immerse yourself in their shimmering, silvery blue beauty.

Chalkhill beauty
In June-July seemingly every knapweed on the Down was covered in Marbled Whites - you can see three here!

 I have given several guided walks on the Down over the summer which have been really successful and well received – to be honest, a site like that shows itself off, without the need for me waffling on in the background, but it is good to be able to explain the work we are doing and see the results of it.  One result that was good to see is the area where we took a late hay cut last year.  Previously rather overgrown, dominant grassy sward, the late hay cut has done this section wonders, with the whole area now thick with Knapweed, Scabious, Vetches, Trefoils, Salad Burnet and many more, all being heartily enjoyed by the invertebrates of the area – including Forester moths which I keep finding on the knapweed and which is provoking interest within our internal bio survey team as to whether they are Forester, Cistus Forester or Scarce Forester….watch this space.

Last years hay cut area - heavy with flowers.

And talking of hay, of course always leads to our sheep flock, for whom food and forage is forever on their woolly minds.  They have finished grazing the Leckford slope for the year, and we recently moved them through the fence line back onto our NT slope to start late summer grazing, now that the wildflowers have predominantly done their thing and set seed.

They gave us the usual run around games in that we did not get all the flock through in one day as there were a stubborn 6 or so that refused to leave their Leckford home.  However, over the days and with the sheep lookers and volunteers tempting them with a bucket of nuts each day, they eventually were persuaded through to join the rest of the gang and now they are all enjoying the richness of the new site – although Walter the Wether, the minute he was moved through, started eating Yew, no doubt just to spite me!

Knee deep in food! Gorging on fresh forage on the new slope

Mmmm yummy Yew tree....Walter showing off his digestion skills.

 I must report that two days after this move, I went on the slope one evening to find one of the flock in a very bad way, having been the victim of a dog attack and left to suffer.  She had been bitten round the neck and the legs, with a lot of blood loss and chunks out the flesh.  Whilst I waited for the vet to arrive, I couldn’t help but feel very, very sad that this animal, usually so feisty and feral and full of attitude, was now reduced to this shivering pathetic wreck who leant against my legs to keep herself upright, and who’s ears were growing cold as life ebbed slowly away.  It was an inevitable euthanasia for the poor old girl which left me with the unenviable task of trying to heave a 65kg dead weight corpse onto the back of my truck singlehanded – luckily I had some rope which I used to make a sort of pulley system so I could drag her over the edge and into the back - i wont even mention how much blood i had to hose out the back of my truck that night.

I love dogs, one day, no doubt I will own one myself, but I can never imagine myself being selfish or careless enough to let my dog go out of control near livestock – if there was any risk of its instincts taking over enough that I couldn’t call it to heel, then it would be on a lead.  I realise sometimes these unfortunate collisions between pets and livestock happen, but with 60 hectares of the Down sheep free, and news signs on every gate telling people that the sheep were back on the slope, I was so disappointed that this happened within 36 hours of their return.  I was even more saddened that the person involved could not even ring in anonymously just to let us know there was an injured sheep – if I hadn’t had happened to have been onsite that evening, the sheep would have spent the whole night suffering until the lookers found her the next day, if she even survived that far – it’s just sick!  Anyway, fingers crossed that will be the only incident we have of this sort, i am well aware that it is only a tiny minority of dog walkers that can cause this issue - most of them are very conscientious people - and as ever we move onwards and upwards – the rest of the flock are plump and fluffy and I have already reserved some new sheep for next year, to boost the numbers….you will meet them come spring time.

Another pleasing result that has blossomed this year is the ongoing success of our Juniper regeneration – last year we saw two ‘mother trees’ bear five seedlings between them, in the first, tenuous stage of our natural regeneration plan.  I have a dissertation student who is studying the Juniper population and the work we have done to restore it, including the winters of scrub clearance, summer spraying of scrub regrowth  and the seed cage installations, and he has reported to me twice this summer some brilliant news – we have more babies!  In June he found five new seedlings, three from one of last year’s mother’s, and two from a new mother tree and then yesterday he reported a further NINE found – two from another new mother and seven from one of last year’s mother trees – FANTASTIC news!  I was bouncing around with joy as there is nothing quite so soul healing and thrilling as seeing all those days of hard, cold winter clearing and hot, sweaty summer spraying, pay off in the best way possible; natural regeneration of a population on the brink.  

Another young 'un!

The area round the Juniper we cleared of tight scrub 3 winters ago - now a grassy, Wild Marjoram filled paradise, room to breathe!

And it’s not even just a one hit wonder – two years in a row and more trees are bearing young each time – there is a long way to go but I can see from this that the population is viable, the male trees are successfully pollinating the female trees and they have survived their entombing in scrub and emergence into the light with enough vigour to live on and begin, oh so slowly and cautiously…to thrive….

For the last couple of spring seasons on the Down I have spotted, every now and then, glow worm larvae lurking on the paths and in the grass seeking out the snails and slugs that they devour.  It only occurred to me this year to actually organise some night time surveys to see what we could find in the way of adults and so, one June evening, having put the word out for help, I had a group of about 18 volunteers and staff gathered on the Down ready to go glow worm hunting.

Only the female adult glow worms glow, and despite being a beetle they don’t look very beetle like.  They resemble the larvae a bit, like a long, armour cased, segmented bug with legs.  The females basically glow out their backsides, and will sit in a tussock of grass or climb up a grassy stem after dark and glow, hoping to attract a mate.  The males, which are far more beetle like, fly by, spot the light and fly down to her.  Once a male has successfully mated with the female, she turns her light out (like a taxi!), lays her eggs and shuffles off this mortal coil, her work done.  Glow worms live 2 years as larvae and only about 2 weeks as an adult, so they have to get on with it once they are matured.

Divided into three groups led by myself, Ryan and Dylan, we all marched off with our team and our map routed out and, stumbling along in the dark (you don’t want to use a torch as it hides their lights and the week of the new moon is best for darkness) seeing what we could find. 
The light of the glow worm is bizarre – it doesn’t look natural but more man made, like a tiny LED neon green light you may see on a rave scene.  Wandering round the Down in the dark was quite lovely – you have it all to yourself, the stars were heavy in the sky above and every now and then on the wind you heard one of the other groups shout ‘got one!’ as there was little other noise to interfere apart from the odd calling of owls or rustle of night creatures.
When we found a female, we would shine a torch on her quickly to ascertain if any males were nearby or on her.

Our June count saw us find 14 glow worms between the three groups, which I dutifully put on the national glow worm website.
We performed the same survey in July (June and July being the peak times to do them) and it was like the Down had exploded with scattered bioluminescence – 205 were counted in all!  Mostly females, including one chubby lady who had FIVE males clutching at her – but not one of them had obviously performed the desired task as she was still glowing strongly.  

While the Milky Way twinkled and glittered above our heads, at our feet the glow worms shone like hundreds of earth bound green stars lighting up the grassland in all directions, tiny gleaming beacons in the dark.