Tuesday, 1 December 2015

Your Countryside Needs You!

I turned on the radio in the truck this morning and the first thing I heard was ‘A Fairy-tale of New York’ by the Pogues and Kirsty Mac Coll.  Hearing this, my favourite festive song, suddenly brought it all rushing in that we are in December, the final month of the year, and 2015 is fading rapidly with the evening light.  Despite a brief, three day cold snap that finally gave us a thick ground frost a couple of weeks back, the weather is still very mild and a lot of our trees and hedgerows are clinging on to their leaves which whilst they have shrivelled and died, have not yet had enough of a cold shock to make them drop to the ground and to allow the trees to turn inward and settle into their naked winter dormancy.

In my last post I mentioned the beginning of a project on the inlets we have on Stockbridge Marsh…so let me tell you all about it, the main feature of it being MUD.  Huge, stinking, piles of peaty mud.  Beautiful!  It sounds vaguely bizarre but within this muddy mass lies hope and promise, for the preservation of an ecosystem and a common land, for the future.….

Stockbridge Marsh.  One of our sites just up the road from Mottisfont, this is a 23 hectare area of peaty marshy grassland, with a small tributary of the river Test running alongside it.  It lies flat and long, stretching down the river valley, protected from development by its own geology as well as its Common land status.  The Commoners of Stockbridge have ancient common rights here, similar to the New Forest, and grazing rights are still undertaken today.  It is a Site of Special Scientific Interest (SSSI) and managed under a Higher Level Stewardship (HLS) as most of our sites are.  The marsh is a place of bleak beauty, it can look desolate and windswept one day when the wind is howling and the rain is driving into your face at a sideways angle.   But then another day it can be soft and peaceful, with a pinky gold sunset sky reflecting in the water and birds flitting and calling among the reeds.  

Over the years, some odd inlets have formed on the marsh, meandering across the land from the river; their meandering nature implies they are natural and not man made (like an underground pipe etc.) but no one knows definitively what causes them – is it peat drying and cracking? Is it groundwater flow?  Either way, once they begin to form, they are then subject to constant erosion from people, dogs and livestock, all of which tramp through the inlets, making them longer and deeper and wider until some had got so deep that people lost wellies in them (don’t ask me WHY they kept trying to walk through it).  In order to try and counteract this ongoing and worsening problem, we decided to try something new and restore the past….this involved the ditches at Long Lash field, here at Mottisfont.  We have these ditches dug out on a rotational basis in order to maintain the habitat for Southern Damselfly, a rare Damselfly that we have here.  They require ditches with flowing water so if a ditch gets silted up and choked with vegetation, the habitat is lost.  We employed our tenant farmers from Mottisfont to dig the ditches out for us over the last couple of years as they have the right kind of machinery – diggers, low pressure track dumpers so as not to damage the ground, and one kick ass looking black tractor – if Batman had a tractor, it would be the black Valtra! 
Normally the peat that is dug out is left at the side of the ditches but this year, after a year’s worth of working with Natural England and doing vegetation surveys to ensure nothing nasty lay within (like Himalayan Balsam) I got consent from NE to use the peat from Mottisfont, to infill the inlets at Stockbridge – basically taking peat from the same river valley a few hundred years back upstream – restoring the past, see?  So the contractors came in with their sleek shiny tractor and over the course of a week in November they dug out the Long Lash ditches, piled up over a hundred tonnes of material in a corner of the carpark (kept that quiet) transported it over to the Marsh, piled it up in the carpark there (it basically resembled a small, muddy version of the Himalayas) and finally, took it on its final journey across the marsh in the low pressure tracked dumper and to the inlets where it was tipped in bit by bit and squashed down with a digger.  
Stockbridge Himalayas in the carpark

Enroute in the low pressure dumper


Being compressed with the digger

The end result - the canyons filled in with peat and vegetation matter that will take hold and grow up come the growing season.

 Essentially, it looks like a meandering line of muddy peat but to my eyes it is progress.  Where only the week before was a mini Grand Canyon of ooze, now there was level land.  The constant erosion of this habitat has suddenly been halted on this area.  The vegetation matter that is within the peat will take hold in the next few growing seasons and help bind it all together until hopefully, it will be nothing more than a vegetated scar on the surface.   After all the months of derogations, consents, surveys and planning, this is the grand fruition – MUD!   If we can just persuade people to stop treading on it until it has hardened up and settled down, it will have a good chance of taking hold and firming up And that’s why I look at the brown, smelly peat with rose tinted glasses and keep my fingers crossed for the success of this project and for future of the marsh.

Stockbridge Down continues to see the roadside hedge being laid bit by bit, as they work their way down from the top carpark to the bottom carpark over the course of the winter.  I have also had volunteers and students working on a patch of scrub clearance on the site, in line with our management plan and our Higher Level Stewardship.  Rotationally clearing areas of large, moribund scrub is an important task on sites such as the Down.  The chalk grassland habitat is ecologically vital as is the mixed scrub habitat that is interspersed within it.  However it is important the scrub consists of different age groups, from the thick, dense young scrub to middle aged, through to mature scrub as different mammals, birds, inverts and so on will value different age classes of scrub.  We have targets under our Higher Level Stewardship that we require a certain percentage of this rotational age class of scrub to be present and maintained on the site.  However we also have to achieve and maintain a percentage of chalk grassland habitat which means that we cannot allow the scrub to encroach onto the grassland with new, young growth – so to ensure we can have that young age class of scrub, we get it by rotationally cutting out patches of old scrub that have reached a peak and that have lost all understorey and ground flora below it, due to their age.  The patch I chose this year was a patch such as this, consisting of a mix of Blackthorn, Hawthorn and Buckthorn (all of which have wickedly horrible thorns which we got lodged in our fingers constantly) which had all grown up so tall that they completely shaded out the ground below it.  Consequently there was no understorey and no ground flora except for moss, making it fairly barren below the canopy.  I had programmed in many days of work with volunteers to tackle this bit of land as I knew it would be a tough job.  The scrub was thick around the edges and then very tall and heavy further in and all needed felling and then dragging up or across the slope to the fire to be burnt.  Old rabbit holes littered the site creating trip hazards a plenty with every step and the scrub was all so thorny that even the thickest tree stems had random two inch spikes on which inevitable pierced gloves and spilt blood.  Felling the scrub wasn’t the end of it, the way it had grown meant that each branch and stem was deeply intertwined and entangled with other stems, or ivy, making it all a huge mass of knots to try and cut and tug apart to get it into a moveable size to get it fireside.

Is that Gorillas in the mist? Nope, just the volunteers on a frosty blue morning!

Cutting and burning the scrub

However despite all this, the volunteers powered through it with me, as well as a couple of days of Sparsholt students and we finished the patch last week, with a whacking great bonfire finale that would have served well as a beacon had it been up on the top of the hillfort!  Flocks of Fieldfares and even the odd Waxwing flew overhead as we finished the job, getting themselves settled in to their overwintering site on the Down. Come spring and summer this cleared patch will erupt with Wild Strawberry, Marjoram, and other flower species which will be the feeding and basking ground for invertebrates such as Grizzled and Dingy Skippers before the young scrub grows up into a thick dense thicket which will then be favoured by birds and mammals for nesting – and so the great circle of scrubby life continues!

Grizzled Skipper - a species that will enjoy the cleared scrub area this coming spring.

Elsewhere on the Down our sheep flock continue to roam their Western Slope Realm, where they graze the open grassy areas and run along hidden paths up in the Yew woodland and scrub, like fat, woolly woodland nymphs.  Whilst they are doing well and have plumped up in fine form for winter, we unfortunately suffered a loss a couple of weeks ago, when I found one on the slope one day that had been subject to a dog attack. I arrived on the slope, threw some nuts in the corral and called the flock.  They came running and bouncing but seemed more jittery than usual.  Not many came into the corral and one who did didn't settle to eat the nuts but stood and stamped her front feet at me.  ‘What’s your problem?’ I asked her, thinking that they may all still be mistrusting of me after I had allowed students to learn how to handle sheep with them the week before.  It’s a valuable experience for the students to learn livestock handling and it’s useful for the flock to be used to being handled for when we have to work on them.  However they usually get in a bit of a sulk about it so I thought perhaps this ewe, stamping her feet at me was signalling that she was still rather miffed at their treatment a few days before. Unfortunately her jitteryness was for a worse reason. All but two of the flock had appeared so I set off to hunt down the missing two, one of which was one of the old girls and usually the first to the bucket so when she didn’t come running I pondered it, but thought she must be out of earshot. After a brief walk I spotted two girls up the slope under the Beech trees and scrambled up to check them. 

One was a young ewe who got up and limped away from me – suffering a slight limp in her front leg.  Then I looked round and spotted the old girl stick her head out from behind a Yew tree.  I climbed up to her and my heart sank as I noted how she held herself; head held down low, not moving from her spot, which was not a good sign.  I put my hand under her chin and looked at her face to try and see any problem; she gazed back with dull eyes.  She stood leaning against the Yew tree so I checked over her sides and then got to her back end and my heart sank into my boots as I beheld the gory mess that was revealed.  A huge, gaping wound above her left hind leg, stretching from her tail across the rump and so deep I could actually see a fair way within, like a great, blood clotted cave of various muscles, sinews and goodness knows what else, which should not be on display.  The leg was swollen with blood within that had flowed out of the torn vessels and was filling up the limb around the knee joint, which was obviously causing her tremendous pain as when I gently touched it she would shift and cry.  And so, for the second time in three months, I called the vet out who came and clambered up the slope with me to where our poor ewe stood in misery.  As the vet examined her I put my arm around the ewe’s chest to stop her trying to hobble off but she didn’t even bother to move.  Instead she leaned her head on my shoulder and leaned into me, weary and in pain.  The inevitable conclusion reached, we walked her slowly down the slope to a more accessible area and then lay her down whilst the vet prepared her cocktail of drugs that would send her to the big grassy slope in the sky, where the grass is always green and lush and the sun always shines and I never appear on the horizon nor try and round up the flock and disturb their peace.

Once the deed was done and the life had flickered out of the ewe’s eyes, the vet showed me more teeth marks that hadn’t been obvious before, due to the wool.  She had taken a few bites including the horrific main mauled area and it was surprising she hadn’t died of trauma already.  The vet did confirm that the size of the bite suggested a dog as oppose to something like a fox – these are big, fully grown 70kg sheep that a fox would not be able to bring down.  After the vet had gone I stood looking at the copse contemplating my fears that this, as the second such incident in three months, may not be the end of it or another one off, but something that could happen again.  As I stood there I suddenly became aware that the rest of the flock had appeared and gathered under the Beech trees and stood silently watching what had happened to their fallen comrade.  They didn’t chew cud or wander, they just watched.  Then Walter, our lone male, detached himself from the flock and trotted over to me.   I knelt down and he nuzzled against me perhaps trying to convey that he was sorry he hadn’t been able to keep all the flock safe.  I put my arm round his neck and scratched under his ears as we looked upon the sorry sight whilst the others stood by.  After a few minutes time started again and Walter wandered off and I stood up and got my trusty piece of rope out the truck, which I use as a sort of pulley system to help me hoist 70kg of dead weight into the back so I could take her to meet the knacker man, and it was back to reality.
A grim photo, but a reminder of the care we all need to take

Again I can only state that I know that the majority of dog owners are responsible, reliable and will keep their dogs on lead around livestock.  But somewhere there is a tiny minority that either don’t bother to try and control their animals, or don’t take into account the instinct that lies dormant in all dogs and may suddenly burst out when they are confronted with a flock of sheep.  This minority can do significant damage and impact on the management of a site.  The countryside is used more and more by our increasing population as a place of leisure and this is something that should be encouraged; we all need to get out and experience the wilder areas of our country.  But it comes at a price in that increased people pressure can create increase of problems such as this one.  We must all learn to sacrifice things in order to allow for a sustainable way of management.  For instance the fencing of the river bank on Stockbridge Marsh – we have had to sacrifice our access to it, in order to prevent it being completely eroded away by people, dog and livestock pressure.  And the same with the sheep on the Down.  60 hectares of land on the Down do not have sheep on them and dogs can run free.  The remaining 5 hectares of the Western slope, which is entirely fenced off separately, has the flock on and so dogs MUST be kept on a lead.  Losing freedom in 5 hectares does not seem like a high price to pay when 60 hectares remains open to them.  We cannot, must not get to that point in the future where habitats are unable to be managed in the way that is required for their own benefit, due to external pressures from our growing population.  We must all take heed, appreciate when areas are closed off for grazing or breeding birds, when dog bins are put in to prevent excess nutrients from dog faeces altering the habitat, when areas are fenced to try and halt erosion and accept that we have to share these lands with nature and wildlife and not just assume we can do as we wish on them all the time.  Only by working towards this and understanding this concept can we have any hope of keeping our fragile ecosystems alive through what is undoubtedly the biggest challenge that they have had to face – and one that is ever growing as urban sprawl and population continues to soar.

So next time you walk around any of our sites, enjoy them but please just be aware; take notice of signs marking where animals graze, pick up your dog poo, read about what work we have done and why and try to understand that we as the landowners cannot do this alone – we need everyone to band together – fight the good fight!


  1. Catherine, your blogs are brilliant. Informative, beautifully descriptive with a strong but balanced message to us all. They are a pleasure to read and deserve a wide audience.

  2. Thanks very much Sid, that is much appreciated. I am glad that people can read it and enjoy as well as understand the messages I sometimes put across. Have a good Christmas!