Monday, 12 December 2016

A Sailing we shall go

Where has the time gone? Where has the year gone!?  I haven’t been able to sit and write for months, the work keeps piling up and Father Time seems to be stealing away the days just for fun.  The leaves have fallen and the carpets of gold and bronze have turned to a muddy slush; devoid of the chestnuts and conkers that lay hidden beneath them a couple of months ago – the squirrels and myself have seen to that, harvesting what we could find for roasting (not the conkers and obviously not for roasting by the squirrels, just me).  Fungi has emerged up through the leaf litter in all its weird and wonderful glory, from the tasty treats of hedgehog fungi, to the positively rude appearance of the Stinkhorns whose stench always let you know they are nearby.   

A Stinkhorn i found in the New Forest in all its phallic like glory!
The days have gotten shorter and darker as we turn inexorably towards Midwinter and the Solstice and the deepest point of the season. As ever I keep my eyes on the eastern horizon, waiting and knowing that we are almost at the point where we can begin to creep oh so slowly back out into the light again.  
Orion stalks the winter night sky once more; with Sirius at his heels and it are these signs which symbolise to me the passing of the weeks and months.  And what a few months it has been! 

On a personal level I have completed a charity trek in the Sahara desert, walking over 100km to raise money for Water Aid and witnessing some truly vast landscapes that were all the more stunning for their apparent sterility.  From huge sand dunes to flat endless salt pans, across dry lake beds and rocky cliffs, we trekked, with the desert sun burning bright on our heads and the distances to the evening camp unfathomable; you’d see the camp from a cliff top and think you would make it there within the hour – but it would take much longer.  Distances were very hard to gauge in such a huge, barren landscape. 

NT Ranger a long way from home....
 Night time gave us an unforgettable display of the Milky Way; with no city lights to dim them, the stars and galaxies shone and twinkled and burned hot against the inky blue and you felt like the tiniest piece of the most complex puzzle of them all.  Later on in the night the moon rose, fully waxing whilst we were out there and the desert would be lit up like daylight by the glow of the full moon, a silvery carpet laden across the landscape.  There were hardships in blisters, sand chafing, heat and the toilet holes (especially after a night’s camping with the whole group…shudder) and high points included the sheer thrill of the challenge, making some new lifelong friends and finding me some snakes! (I was very pleased one evening to find a sand viper tucked up in the sand dunes near camp, only his eyes sticking out the ground.   We also had a cobra slither across our path one day as we walked which was a sight to see).

Sand viper i spotted, tucked under the sand waiting for rodents or small birds...see his little eyes poking out?

Even in the bleakest places...a desert flower.

Talking of snakes, back in September time I assisted Catherine Supple, our Area Ranger in the New Forest, with a Smooth Snake survey on one of our sites.  We spent a warm five hours hiking around the site checking all the reptile refugia that was laid out and admiring the heathland in late summer.  Naturally it was only right at the very end, on the very last refugia mat, that treasure lay beneath; under the mat was a beautiful female smooth snake, basking in the warmth.  I picked her up so we could get photos of the head markings and record her (and generally admire her) and she proved to have a great temperament, leaning her little chin on my hand as she flicked her tongue at the air to sense what was happening.  Reptile surveys are a good way of ascertaining the health of a population on a site, the impact of any management work upon them as well as a way of finding reptiles were none may have been previously recorded.  We knew we had Smooth Snakes on our site but as they are such an underground creature it is very hard to find them – as this little lady proved, taking five hours to be found!
Beaut! See the round pupil in the red eye that helps distinguish it from an adder, which has a slit pupil in a red eye.
It has also been cider making season since I last wrote and once again, a willing gang of friends were happy to come round to my house and chop, scrat and press apples and make our summer supply of drinks for next year.  The juice has since been racked off twice and bottled into 60 odd bottles of soon to be glorious cider (I went for half the amount to last year as have also just moved house and wasn’t sure I could move 14 demi johns to my new place!).

The sheep flock have spent a few months on the Leckford area of the slope, where they also received their annual vaccinations (and my annual beating up).  As always, Ryan was on hand to help me vaccinate them and as we began the process we realised that our little flock had all grown into fully fledged plumpers!  Normally when we pen them up for vaccinating we take them one by one to the needle and sometimes you get a smaller one, sometimes you get a larger older one that required more strength and effort.  However this year, apart from the 5 newbies we brought in in June, the whole flock were all equally large and fat and therefore equally exhausting to manhandle into the ‘medicine bay’.  It also meant that trying to do injections under the skin sometimes meant that they were so plump that there was no skin to pinch!  I was afraid they would pop like balloons if we pricked them with the needle as they had the circumference of one.  Still, it was good to see them all in such good shape, if a little obese, to stand them in good stead for the winter.  As usual, each time we vaccinated one, we sprayed a tattoo on them so we could see which sheep had been done in case they all broke out before we finished.  My favourite works of art this time were the tank and the Christmas pudding, both of which I was very pleased with, even if I do say so myself!  I also gave a tribute to the late, great Bowie with a Ziggy Stardust lightning bolt on one of them – I’m sure the man himself would have been flattered.  
Who you calling a fat pudding!?

Built like tanks these sheep...

Today marked their movement through to the NT public slope and also proved to be a record of easiest move ever – 29 followed me through the gate in two groups and having seen Boadicea was missing, I went off searching with the nut bucket and a whistle.  Just as I stood by the Leckford corral thinking perhaps I had miscounted, she emerged silently from the yew trees and proceeded to trot down to me and follow me back all the way to the NT land and join the rest of the gang – first time I’ve ever moved them without having to either wrestle some through or capture odd ones up in the sheep trailer- may it be the first of many such moves as this.

Meanwhile, also on the Good Ship Countryside, we have been sailing our way through autumn and into winter, getting on with all our busy winter works.  In one respect, we literally set sail, as, one fine crisp cold day the other week, Dylan and I finally succeeded in doing something we had always wanted to do but had never got around to/sorted out; we dug out our flat bottomed boat from one of the barns, got the engine working and took it to the Hamble estuary where we tentatively put it in the water at the public hard, got in and were afloat!  We puttered our way through the marina of million pound boats and made our way up river towards our Hamble site.

Once we were far enough up, we took up the oars which were far quieter than the engine, and rowed our way in turns up the estuary, glorying in the sight of our land, our Curbridge Nature Reserve, from the water.  We have always wanted to see our site from the water and finally we were doing so – and what a sight it was.  The sky was pure and blue and this reflected into the estuary water so it felt like gliding on blue glass.  The banks were lines with titanic oaks, some of which still held a few autumnal coloured leaves and the reed beds stretched out into the estuary and glowed frozen gold and everything had an exact double in the reflection on the water.  I sat in the front (prow?) of the boat and dipped my hand in the water in glee, and resisted the urge to do a titanic style Kate Winslet pose (‘I’m flying!).  It was truly stunning and seeing our site from such a different perspective gave it a whole new spirit of place than the one you got on the land.  It also allowed us to monitor the continued tree erosion and decline and see which ones were likely to be lost to the estuary next.  We also took fixed point photos of the reed beds so we can see if they are increasing or decreasing in areas. We rowed our way all the way up to the top of the estuary and the beginning of our site before turning round with the tide and heading back round the meanders with their fallen titans of trees, the reed beds and the rapidly appearing salt marsh flats before bursting once more out into the wider, open waters of the estuary.   

Mirror image - see the fallen giants of the eroded trees, the golden reed beds that stretch out into the water as the estuary narrows.

As the sun lowered in the winter sky, we kicked up the engine and chuffed our way back down river, following in the footsteps of history as the Saxons used this same route, as did the romans who built their villa site here.  How many people from how many Ages had made their way up this river?  How many tides had flowed in and out since the estuary was first formed?  It was easy, that golden winter’s day, to feel the timelessness of that place, the magic of it.  Drifting on the water I felt we were at the beating heart of this place, feeling the elemental purity of it as we sat surrounded by blue and gold, as so many others must have felt in years long past.  We were one more footstep on the memory of the Hamble estuary.
At the heart of Hamble

Wednesday, 24 August 2016

On the Wings of Summer

We are drifting into the later stages of the summer here in the Test Valley and August is currently blessing us with blue skies and burning sunshine.  This weather, alongside the summer holidays, has brought the people flocking to Mottisfont Abbey where the still waters of the Test run cool and the towering Plane tree’s spread their shade for hot families to dwell in.  It always amuses me when I walk through the stable yard to see the difference between summers beginning and end; at the start of summer, everyone sits on the chairs and tables that are on the sunny side, in order to capture that first bit of summer warmth; by July and August, they have swiftly flocked across to the shady side because the heat is too intense!

It has been a good two months since I last wrote, namely due to how busy we are across the summer (despite winter being our ‘full on’ work season with felling and so on, summer seems to get busier every year!) but also because when the weather is this glorious, its very hard not to be outside in it instead of typing at a desk; today I have compromised, and sit typing under a tree in the Abbey grounds.

Our summer months have flown by in a sort of blink and you miss it kind of way.  The wildflowers of Stockbridge Down have blossomed and bloomed in a technicolour fury and are now going to seed.  The sheep flock have continually eaten their way through the summer vegetation and have just moved back to the Leckford slope to begin the feast anew – needless to say, they are a very healthy size at the moment, and when they come running to my call the ground shakes!

The sheep doing their bit - NOM!

 Already September looms up at us, as of next week, and here and there you can spot the first small signs of impending autumn; the first leaves changing colour and falling, the absence of some of our migratory species, the reduction in butterfly numbers as each species dies with the ongoing season.  We have been doing all our usual surveys across the summer months, to enable us to see how our species are faring on our sites, in response to our management as well as to nationwide trends.  The glow worm surveys on Stockbridge Down proved a success with a similar trends to last year – June being a more quiet month with only a few specimens found, and July being the booming peak, with 237 juicy, glowing beauties found this year, the majority being females glowing their little bottoms off in the hunt for a mate (not much of a hunt for the female really, she sits and glows and the males come to her!).  This topped our July total of last year and so was very pleasing as a result, despite nearly losing two of our volunteers who fell down a rather large burrow in the dark, which was also hidden by the long vegetation (we managed to drag them out, so all good).
A quick photo of a glowing female glow worm - you can just see her glowing bottom in the torchlight

On our heathland regeneration site in Foxbury the Nightjar surveys have also come up trumps with 24 churring males recorded over the course of the survey season.  One of our rangers Dave J happened across a nightjar nest by chance on site and managed to get some brilliant camera trap footage showing this magnificent and slightly weird looking bird.

This time of year also brings the Barbastelle bat surveys with it, and in our woodlands at Mottisfont we have been walking the transect routes recording bat calls which are then analysed on the computer to differentiate the Barbastelle from the other bat species which were abroad that night.  Being that our woodlands are designated as an SAC (Special Area of Conservation) due to the presence of the Barbastelle maternity roost, our woodland management has to very thoroughly and carefully tie in with this; whilst we manage our woodlands for conservation and timber produce, we must also manage them for the bats in terms of ensuring that none of our woodland work adversely impacts upon them, as well as managing for the future – so choosing trees to become future veteran trees and future bat roosts and so on.  Of course, the bats will still go where ever they like and roost in trees that do not appear to display any sign of potential bat habitat (I have seen some of these roost trees, small, skinny, no cracks or flaking bark…and yet they are used!) but we must still plan ahead using what knowledge we do have of their preferred habitat types and work towards this.  To this end, and as our Woodland Stewardship is soon to come to a close, we have been working in conjunction with Natural England and the Forestry Commission on our new woodland management plan for countryside stewardship that combines all these features, from managing for the SAC and bats, to managing our timber production now and for the future and potential to combat risks of climate change such as spread of disease and loss of species.  This plan has proven fairly colossal and both Dave C and Ryan have put a huge amount of work into it to get it approved and submitted in time for the deadline.  The future of our woodlands has been rewritten!

Another huge development which has occurred since I last wrote features our smallest but no less loved site on the Hamble River.  This is where we have our strip of ancient woodland meandering alongside the Hamble estuary, complete with its salt marshes and reed bed habitat all of which are of critical importance on an international scale.  As such the site has just about every designation you can throw at it; SSSI, SAC, SPA, RAMSAR, NNR (I will let you google all those).  The site is prone to pressure from encroaching development which knocks at its boundaries and also from sea level rises and higher tides, already evident, which are slowly eroding away the woodland edge and resulting in the loss of some impressive veteran trees.  Last year a chance came up for us to help safeguard the site and try and relieve some of the pressure on this woodland.  After many months of consultations, project boards and application papers as well as a lot of hard work from all involved, we finally got the go ahead to purchase a parcel of land that had gone up for sale bordering the woodland, using project Neptune funding (this is a fund source the National Trust set up to help buy areas of coastline/estuary that need safeguarding).  With this funding we were then able to successfully buy the land and got full ownership of the area in July this year – much to my beaming, excited, bountiful delight!  After all the months of uncertainty as to whether we could get the funding or whether someone else would buy it out from under us – it’s ours!  We have not just bought a land parcel; we have bought a chance to prevent the habitat here from succumbing to the pressures of increasing population and climate change.  The new parcel of land can be allowed to regenerate and turn into woodland, with access through it which will help take the pressure off the current woodland area which is suffering badly from soil erosion and excessive runoff.  Increasing the woodland will help counteract the runoff that comes with the nearby developments, and provide more space for people to roam without all hitting the same area too hard.  It will also be the woodland of the future, as the current one is lost to the rising estuary; it now has a chance to extend outwards and survive.  I find it mind boggling to think that this is the beginning of something that will stand for centuries; long after I am gone, this special place will remain.  A huge thank you to everyone who put their heart into this project and acquiring this piece of land, including Peter Nixon, Richard Henderson, Paul Cook, Dylan Everett, James Taylor and other members of the board – take a walk through the Hamble woodlands on a summer’s day like today, look out across the historic estuary and feel just how precious an area you have helped to protect for the future. 
Looking out at the estuary from our woodlands - stunning.

 And so our work goes ever onwards with the seasons, always fighting to conserve and manage the land we own and safeguard it for the future, whilst always opening our minds to new opportunities and chances to save more land from the clutches of urban sprawl.  This is the time of year when I begin to count the last few signs of a fading summer, a season I love so much for its vibrancy and light and life (although the brambles, nettles, horse flies and ticks do get a little tiring).  The Turtle Doves have long since flown from Stockbridge Down; their purring calls have fallen silent. 

The backside of a Turtle Dove! Best shot i could get...apart from some decent film footage which is too large to upload here.

However the weather is glorious and there is still life in the old girl of summer yet, with the swallows dancing crazily around our farmyard, still very much with us, and, more importantly, the very promising looking start of the foragers harvest….blackberries, sloes, hazelnuts, walnuts are all popping out and, most importantly of all – the apple harvest.  My beady eye has already clocked the ripening apples on trees across our estate including our orchard, carpark and woodland apple trees.  Very soon now I will begin the scrumping and pillaging ready for my annual cider making mid-September.  Definitely one of the highlights to summers end! 
Mmmm..not long now my lovelies, until i pulp you to juice...

I shall leave you with a selection of photos that detail the sights and sounds of working in the countryside over the summer months far better than my words (and if you only ever want the photos and not the words then follow me on Instagram, username: swhantsnt).  Enjoy!

Chalkhill Blue butterflies emerged in their hundreds on the Down

Golden Ringed Dragonfly

Hornet Robber fly on Stockbridge - a rarity!

The Curious Cattle of Stockbridge Down, lurking in the undergrowth

Ryan modelling a Comma butterfly

You know you have improved on your wildflower ID when you can tell these three apart - L-R = Mouse Eared Hawkweed, Smooth Hawksbeard and Rough Hawks Bit....i think...

Synchronized bumbling

Wasp spiders on Stockbridge Marsh - this Shelob caught and wrapped a bush cricket before my eyes!

Flag Iris seed pods - whopping!

The Harebells of summer

Common Blues mating

The Curious Cattle of Stockbridge assaulting my truck - again

More new Juniper babies this year! So teeny!

PS: Working in the current heat levels is helping me to acclimatise for my Sahara trek in November (and making me realise just quite what I’m letting myself in for!).  If you wish to donate towards my 100km challenge, in honour of Water Aid, then please click the link below – thank you!