Wednesday, 20 January 2016

Jack Frost comes a' calling


‘Normality is an illusion. What is normal for the spider is chaos for the fly’
                                                                                      - Charles Addams


Happy New Year!  We are now well and truly into 2016 and the festive feasting seems like a distant memory. 

Jack Frost has finally put in an appearance this winter and has been dancing across the land spreading his icy affection and giving us a much needed cold snap in this otherwise remarkably mild season.  We have missed out on the snow this far south – the more inland counties have had the sledging fun whilst we remain snowless but chilly, with breathtakingly cold, clear nights resulting in everyone rooting around their trucks hunting for their long abandoned ice scrapers first thing in the morning. 
These kinds of days are the best of winter days, the Frosty Blue days I call them, when the sky is clear and blue and the winter sun blazes, causing the silvery frost to glisten and sparkle.  At Hamble the other day the reed beds were all intricately adorned with frost on their feathery flower heads, whilst their stems glowed gold in the sun creating as fine and pretty a picture as I have seen anywhere.  I stepped out onto my favourite vantage point of this site, along the stem of one of the large oaks that had fallen into the river and, standing among its fallen branches over the estuary, I could look up and down stream at the peaceful view.  Snow white Little Egrets stood hunched on skeleton trees on the far side of the river, basking in the winter sun; the reed beds whispered and rustled secrets to each other and the tide was creeping out on its journey to visit the sea, under an endless blue sky…unfortunately I was startled out of my dreamy reverie a few minutes later when I put my hand in dog crap as I worked on the boardwalk here – and the crisp, fine air was, for a few seconds, filled with expletives and horrified yelps as I ran to the water’s edge to wash it off.
Frosted Reeds
Glowing reed beds

Dressed in more layers than an onion, I find myself waddling slightly these days due to the sheer mass of clothing I have on – makes climbing over gates a bit more challenging but my reptile like nature does not approve of being too cold.  And talking of waddling, our sheep flock have spent a month here at Mottisfont plumping up on the lush grass and allowing us to keep an easy eye on them over the festive period when staff numbers were fewer.  Having gorged themselves on the Mottisfont Menu, the time came last week to get them moved back up to Stockbridge where they belong and so once again I entered the Battle Royale ring and played the game of getting them penned up.  A few days of training them to enter a self-made pen of hurdles proved enough for most of them, but as usual 6 remained on the outside looking in and so the games of woman vs flock began.  In the end human evolution prevailed (just) and the final 6 fell prey to my many tricks of luring them in to the pen, tricks which included shaking the nut bucket and looking the other way so they think I’m not watching, scattering a nut trail into the pen, feeding the already penned up sheep to make the others jealous and shaking the nut bucket near an individual, luring them close enough to grab and wrestle into the pen (the latter being the only one that worked and had to be repeated for all 6 sheep).  Gareth our tenant farmer then arrived with his livestock trailer and we proceeded to shoo them in, pushing their fat, woolly behinds in an effort to get them to move forward and into the trailer, before locking them in and taking them on their journey to the Down and home.
They are now all safely back on the Down, doing their important habitat work of eating – which they fell to straight away, no slackers in this flock; they flooded out the trailer and threw themselves on the grass as if they had been half starved!  They seemed chuffed to be back on their Kingdom; they were soon trotting along their old scrub trails and standing nobly on top of the hills asserting their authority.  They will remain on this Leckford slope into spring before we move them back through to the NT side of the slope, thus giving each area a chance to rest and flower.  And if the sheep are returned, then that also means the wonderful sheep lookers are now back at their daily duties of checking the flock – and are enjoying the tattoos on their fleeces which make individuals more easily identifiable – especially the troublemakers! (Holly Leaf sheep was particularly naughty when trying to be penned up).
Back home!

Over the festive rota period, when the weather was still wet and mild, Neil and I were doing the rounds on the rivers and opening the sluice gates across the estate, in order to allow some of the excess water to drain out of the main channels and into the side ditches, thus reducing the risk of flooding.  The torrents of water that were flushing through these sluices was tremendous, like a mini version of Niagara Falls, and woe betide any beastie that got sucked in – they were in for a rapid ride!
The swan family taking a organized paddle up the river
The river Dun overflowing through the woods...

We also came across an otter kill on one of the river banks, of a huge salmon with the most impressive set of jaws I’ve seen on any fish that wasn’t a shark.  Neil said it is the male salmon that have these big hook like mouths but this was the biggest teeth he’d seen on one….and so how could I resist?  I donned disposable gloves (I actually had a pair in my coat pocket left over from a first aid course), Neil handed me a bin bag and, retching and gagging at the stench, I wrapped the squishy, gooey, carcass in the bag and we took it back to the farmyard and my Pet Cemetery rot pile, where I put skulls to rot down and lose their flesh, ready for cleaning and for taking their final place on the Shelf of Death (kind of like the Disney theme of taking their place in the Great Circle of Life…).  Got to admit though, the smell of rotting fish was almost too much even for me and I was glad to relinquish it to the pile and leave it for the next few months for nature to do her thing….I shall just claim ignorance when I see people wandering around that corner of the carpark wondering just what the hell that smell is!
Looks like a crocodile!

On the Rot Pile

The previous mild weather has also meant that we have been seeing things emerging that should have long stayed hidden.  Bluebells leaves are poking their way up through the soil at Hamble and Mottisfont, Daffodils are in bloom, Hazel is budding and I saw a Hawthorn with fresh, newly opened leaves in Oakley Copse – all much too early!  I also, when walking home the other night at 3am, heard a bird singing loud and clear in the middle of town – and this was 3am in January so there was no sign of the dawn or first light, so I can only assume the birds are a little bit out of sync also and are perhaps displaying their increased spring singing a bit early? Any bird experts let me know if winter night singing is normal…I would have recognised a nightingale but of course they are summer only. 
Bluebells popping up at Hamble...

I am hoping this cold spell will put things back in cycle a little bit more as it would have a bad impact on flora and fauna if they start blooming and nesting thinking spring was here and then get caught out by a cold blast.  Despite these concerns, I also think that nature has a bit more of an idea of what it is doing then we do and it will continue to adapt and evolve to suit the current climate and play of the seasons – be they late, early, mild, extreme or whatever the latest weather report calls them – let’s face it; just what do we define as a ‘normal’ season anymore?  There isn’t a deadline date by which spring or summer or autumn or winter should know to be in place.  There is no list of designated characteristics that nature can read to know that ‘oh ok, winter should be this cold and autumn this wet, whilst summer wow! You’re meant to be pretty warm – better start heating up!’  The only list is that which we have recorded and defined in previous years and whilst there has undoubtedly been a global warming of temperatures – I refuse to use the word ‘normal’ anymore when talking seasons because I just don’t think there is a ‘normal’ season. They will come when they want and do what they want and we must work with them the best we can (this would be a good place to mention flood control policies, trees in upper river catchments, preventing buildings on floodplains etc. but I fear it would turn into a bit of a rant so I shall leave it to more educated people than I to comment on such matters….but do read up about it.  A lot of the flooding we have in this country is not always due to ‘abnormal’ rainfall, but catchment mismanagement).
Back to the frosty present and the Monday volunteers came to Hamble last week to help coppice and pollard some of the Holly understorey on the site.  The Holly has grown particularly thick in some areas in this woodland and this blocks most of the light to the woodland floor as well as prevents the Oaks putting on any epicormics growth on their stems (epicormic shoots are the cluster of little side shoots that you sometimes see growing out the main stem of species like Oak.  They are usually dormant whilst the growth hormones go to the main canopy but they help a tree to survive as, if the canopy is damaged, i.e. ripped out in the wind, the epicormic growth will be able to take over and grow and keep the tree alive.  It is not great for a timber crop but Hamble is not for timber production so the more we can do to keep the woodland here in survival mode, the better.  The Mottisfont Oak, our 1000 year old specimen has superb examples of epicormic growth).  So by clearing back some of the Holly understorey, we are allowing light to the floor for ground flora to spring up and to the stems of the Oaks, thus improving the health of the canopy trees.  We left enough holly to continue to provide shelter for birds such as Goldcrest and Firecrest which are both found here and I look forward to seeing the floral results on our work come springtime.  Whilst we were there the tide was peaking in the estuary and as we watched it, it crept in higher…and higher…and still higher until it was higher than I’d ever seen it there, having overtopped the platoon and had reached the first set of garden benches in the pub garden area.  According to one of the local volunteers the winter tides are often reaching this height here now and with the proposed housing development nearby likely to increase surface runoff, there is a serious danger of high tides and spring tides flooding the pub and the road.
High tide - see the handrail of the platoon?
Finally, I took a wander the other day to some Barn Owl boxes that myself and ornithologist Alan Snook put up back in April 2014 (you can read about it on the blog post for that month).  We put up a nest box and a roost box as once a Barn Owl pair have hatched owlets, the female likes the male to be out of the nest box but stay nearby at her beck and call so by putting up a roost box near to the nest box, the bloke has somewhere to go!  To my delight, for the first time since we put them up, I found some owl pellets underneath the boxes which implied a Barn Owl had used them recently – so we are keeping our eyes peeled and our fingers crossed that a pair may choose these boxes to nest and rear their young this year – but not quite yet – it’s not 'normal' spring time yet….

The barn owl pellets
Another pellet I found on a fence post on Stockbridge - see the red teeth of the skull? That means it belonged to a shrew...