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)

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