Friday, 18 September 2015

Autumnal musings

September has come upon us, fooling us with a glorious first week of warm sunshine and clear air reminding us that it was still summer.  And then week two blew in, wet and windy and grey and miserable and out went the shorts in exchange for waterproofs and wellies!  Branches snapped around us as the sudden blast of rain and wind grabbed tenaciously at their full leaved canopy and brought the weaker limbs to breaking point.  However today we have got a well-earned reprieve, the sun rose to a cloudless blue sky and a warm breeze and once again you could get a sense that we weren’t quite in the darker days yet.  If you ever stand on Stockbridge Down on a warm clear day, that has arrived after a run of windy wet ones, you will always see the Buzzards and Red Kites showing off their acrobatic skills with each other and floating lazily on the thermals as they enjoy the chance to just laze on the warm uprisings of air once more, without fighting against the elements.
Summer's end at Mottisfont...crops harvested, hay and straw cut, the fields returning to their brown winter hue.

We are just finishing off our summer works across our sites and planning into the winter and beyond.  As ever, our winter work schedule is jam packed with different projects across all our habitat types, from heathland to forestry to downland to mire and we are busily scheduling in our volunteer groups to help assist with it all.

Our sheep flock on Stockbridge have grown ever rounder as they graze down their new patch of slope.  They have reacquainted themselves with all their old trails and paths through the scrub and yew woodland, where they used to roam last year before I moved them.  Now I can stand at the corral, give a few bellows and far, far off in the distance I will see them emerge, like a white, woolly tide, flowing in a stream from under their favourite patch of Beech and Yew woodland and then gaining momentum like a breaking wave as they thunder along the slope to the corral and the sacred Nut Bucket.  They recently underwent a Freedom Foods inspection, as they do every year, and they showed themselves off to their finest, all coming when I called and looking so fit and healthy that the inspector actually exclaimed ‘Oh! Don’t they look good!?.’  This was one of the few shining moments with this flock when I can be slightly smug, instead of the usual moments of being trampled, kicked, head-butted, and run ragged trying to catch stubborn ones, so I basked in the praise of the inspector, as did the girls and Walter who stood by my side throughout it all having his nose scratched, the very image of a faithful and loyal companion (if only the inspector knew!).

The Kingdom of the Sheep; the flock nibbling their way along the slope.

Grazing of grassland helps ensure a short, herb rich sward which benefits species such as this Adonis Blue butterfly, which i found freshly emerged on Stockbridge a few weeks ago.  Electric blue!

One job that is an ongoing task all year round is the maintenance of areas like boardwalks.  Our site along the river Hamble, Curbridge Nature Reserve, is a long sinuous stretch of Ancient woodland alongside the tidal estuary.  Throughout this woodland runs stretches of boardwalk that was installed 9 years ago.  As is natural after time and the elements have taken their toll, every now and then the odd plank rots and snaps out and needs replacing.  Having made a note of how many planks were required this time round I rummaged around in our wood yard cutting bits to size until I had what was needed.  The next challenge was finding a way to get them all onsite – due to the nature of the site you can park a truck at either end of the 1.5km stretch of woodland but from there onwards you must walk in as it is not accessible by vehicle.  Naturally all the boardwalk pieces were scattered through the middle areas of the site so I figured I would have to carry everything in in bits…and then came my Bright Idea.  We have several large Ikea rucksack style bags that are meant to be for sorting recycling products that you can then put on your back and take to a recycling place.  They stand about 4 feet high and we bought some to use as forestry bags in felling season so we could have our sledgehammer, wedges, tool kit etc. all in a bag that we could move from tree to tree instead of running back and forth carrying stuff or lobbing it.  I figured I could use one of these bags, fill it with wooden planks and all the tools I needed and walk it all in to the site to where I needed it.

So off I went, got to the site, parked up and wedged nine 3ftx6inchx2inch planks into the bag, added hammers, drills, nails, tape measure etc. and was set to go….until I tried to lift it.  After a brief struggle I heaved the bag onto the back of the truck, turned around and put it on my back and then stood up straight…and promptly toppled to one side.  With a bit of readjustment I got the thing straight on my back and then wobbled off into the woodland, staggering slightly left and right.  I am not very good at doing things in small pieces.  I would rather heft everything in all at once under great strain, instead of doing lots of little journeys – an attitude which I fear will one day leave me either superhumanly strong or crippled.  I won’t go into huge detail but needless to say, walking around the woods for 3 hours, staggering up and down the hills with that almighty weight on my back, felt like some kind of boot camp torture – and I was the only person initiating it.  Each time I got to a plank that needed repair, I threw the bag down in relief, knowing that I would be making it lighter by getting rid of some of the contents into the boardwalk.  Inevitably, after hiking the length of the woodland on the bottom path and then back again on the top path (with many stops of various benches to try and recover) I was not in the best of tempers.  I sat on an open stretch of boardwalk to eat my lunch, ignore the bruises on my back and try and regain the feeling in my shoulders. 

Mirror image on the Hamble

As I crossly chewed on my sandwich, cursing the site for its inaccessibility, I glared angrily out at the water that rippled gently before me.  Little Egrets sat perched in the fallen skeletons of trees that lay sideways in the river, where they had fallen long ago and a heron stalked the shallows looking for prey.  Somewhere in the reed beds Bitterns lurked, having already been seen and heard booming in the last few weeks and overhead Ospreys sometimes flew on their long migrations.  As I gazed out at that exquisite view I started to feel myself oh so slowly relaxing, the simmering anger began to dissipate into the estuary, to be carried away out to sea, and I began to fall back under the spell which this site always puts me under;  A complete sense of timelessness and detachment. 
You could be anywhere and anywhen, completely alone and yet not lonely, the modern world ceasing to exist with just an eternal, spiritual changelessness that captures you and soothes the weariest of minds and most aching of hearts.  As you look out at the diamond like glitter of the sun on the tide, with a vast blue sky above it, nothing in the view hints at the modern day.  It is easy enough to go back through the ages, the Romans, the Saxons and all who have come before to this site and stood in this spot and looked at this view and imagine yourself as one of them and when you finally come out of your reverie, you feel refreshed and reborn and you have fallen in love with the site all over again.

Such is the beauty, the magic, the purity of Hamble.