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?