Thursday, 17 March 2016

High flight

Last time I wrote on this blog, I was sheltering from the wild winds of Storm Imogen.  Today, I sit and write in the most glorious weather we’ve seen so far this year, with cloudless blue skies, a glowing, burning sun and the smell of freshly cut grass drifting in through the open window.

Since I last wrote I have also been a bit off piste from our countryside estate and been winter trekking in the High Atlas Mountains in Morocco.  7 days of trekking through stunning snow covered mountain peaks and valleys, where icicles hung off every rock face and the snow lay in thick drifts under a burning alpine sun.  The whole group conquered the highest summit in North Africa (Mt Toubkal) on a sunny, clear but bitterly cold day, with a wind chill of minus ridiculous.  Then myself and two others tackled the second highest summit (Ouanakrim) which was slightly lower but more technical and involved ice axes, cramponing up and down sheer icy slopes and climbing up rock faces whilst looking down into icy ravines; my terrified, frozen fingers clinging to the rocks in fear, the wind whipping ice and snow into our exposed faces and my mind filling with thoughts of ‘if my mother could see me now!’ (she’d have more than kittens).  However once past the terrifying bits (and being handed an avalanche monitor on day two, to keep strapped to my body was certainly a slight downer) you got up to the lofty peaks which felt like the ends of the earth and the top of the world.  No human, animal or plant was in sight, just miles of beautiful, carved out mountain terrain which stretched away below us into the distance, towards the Sahara and the endless horizon.  It felt like we were the only people on the planet. 

Me at the Top of the World! (Or North Africa anyway).

This fine clear weather lasted only until the following day when we had to walk out the valley for five hours in a white out blizzard, which was like nothing I’ve ever experienced.  My hat and buff froze around my face, my contact lenses froze in my eyes until I blinked rapidly, and the person two steps ahead disappeared from view when the wind picked up.  I was constantly stepping into waist deep snow which then had to be clambered out of and we put all our absolute faith in our guide who led us unflinchingly through the storm, using invisible mist covered rocks to guide the way.  One of our party had to wet himself walking as to stop and go to the loo would have meant frostbite somewhere very unpleasant and a guy from another group who was improperly clothed, had to be carried down with hypothermia and frostbite – and will probably lose some toes.  After hours of walking through the storm, singing to myself to keep motivated and swallow the little frissons of fear that kept surfacing everytime I thought of what would happen if our guide failed, we began to descend below the level of the winds fury.  

Human Popsicle.
 Lower we climbed, and soon we could make out the sides of the mountains, trees and shrubs, until, eventually, the skies cleared and we could see again!  The feeling of relief was euphoric; once more the world was full of sunlight and sounds like rushing mountain streams and Alpine Choughs calling overhead.  We had spent hours in a snow cloaked bubble, our vision limited to a few feet, with our faces frozen numb like our clothes and every step a fight through the deep snow and the wind.  Now, out of the storm and safe down the valley we blinked in the sun light and threw snowballs at each other out of sheer joy and adrenaline.  On our final day walking out of the mountains I kept turning back to look at the heights we had come from.  Toubkal stood, tall and imposing among the crests, some wisps of cloud hiding its true summit from our eyes as we stood in the safety of the valley.  Finally I turned my back on those sunlit, Godlike peaks for the last time and began the final descent, and the journey home.

Like swifts on the wing I fly from the lofty summits of North Africa to the green lowlands of Mottisfont and we have finally been graced with some drier weather of late and the sun actually holds some warmth to it despite the cool Easterly winds.  This turn of the Big Wheel has set in motion the beginnings of the spring season with Celandines, Daffodils and even the odd Bluebells popping out and the woodland rides we have worked on over the past few winters look to be very promising in turns of the floral display to come – the bluebell foliage is thick on the ground here and will look spectacular when they finally all bloom across the Mottisfont estate and at Curbridge Nature Reserve, which is always a winning site for Bluebells. 

The Rookery in the treetops of the Sycamore and Plane trees in the Abbey gardens is alive with the endless cawing and chattering of the Corvids to one another as they bustle about remaking their old nests, spring cleaning, nicking each other’s twigs and showing off to their potential mates.  Anywhere you wander in the pay zone here, you can hear the sound of the rookery and to me it is one of the definable sounds of the beginning of spring here at Mottisfont Abbey.
The Rookery

Another herald of the season was found by our river keeper Neil two days ago, on the banks of the River Test; a sleepy, young grass snake – our first snake for the year!  He rang me to see if I was nearby to come and admire it but unfortunately I was up on Stockbridge and unable to make its acquaintance – so I am yet to spot my first reptile this year, but I’m sure a stroll round our Foxbury site could sort that out in an instant.
Neil's grass snake (Photo credits: Neil Swift).

The hedgelayers on the Down have stopped their work for the season, having laid their way through about 700M of hedge.  The remaining stretch will be finished next winter and meanwhile I look forward to seeing the regrowth of the laid section which will bring it back from a derelict, dying hedgerow, to a thicker, more vibrant wildlife corridor.  Of course you can’t have a winter’s worth of hedgelaying with no brash to clear up and so, in the last week of February, Ryan and I chuntered up to the Down in a tractor each and set to work burning the brash.  Ryan was in the loyal but clunky Massey, whilst I was driving the brand new Valtra which was smooth as a nut and a pleasure to drive and to use – heated seats (which I didn’t like as I could find the off switch!), radio, air con and front loader suspension that meant I didn’t end up 3 inches shorter from compression of the spine from the bouncing of the seat!

Up and down the stretch we drove, back and forth grabbing up great piles of brash in our tractor claws, taking it to the bonfire site and then going back for more.  The fire burnt like a beacon and the weather was perfect – dry, little wind and still damp enough on the surrounding ground to not fear it spreading.  After three days of tractoring and the volunteer group following behind stick picking the smaller bits, we finally burnt the final lot and the site was clear again and ready for the growing season.

Grab a load...

Chuck it on (trying not to melt hydraulic hoses in flames)
And watch it burn!

Talking of the growing season, we have just installed another 6 Juniper seed cages on Stockbridge Down, to see if we can continue to encourage more natural regeneration.  Some have gone under trees which have already proven viable and able to produce young, and others have gone under new female trees to allow us to see if they will produce little ‘uns within the cages.  That’s gives us 16 cages in all and with the number of seedlings so far doubled each year, I look forward to the summer to see if we get even better results this time around.

I have spent time over the last two days going round our dormouse box grids and clearing them out of rotten nests and leaves, ready for the survey season to begin again.  Wandering the woodlands with dappled sunlight flitting across the ground flora and Brimstone butterflies flapping past is not a bad way to spend the time, even if you do get the odd stab from a bramble bush or a twig in the eye.  Several of the boxes had inhabitants in them, in the form of small, plump, angry shrews that squeaked at me noisily (I left them in peace) or lazy wood mice that lay on their bed of leaves, looking up at me sleepily and blinking at the sunlight like a teenager that has just had the curtains thrown open in his bedroom after a night out.  I also noticed another spring like sign whilst I was doing this job; midges.  Small, irritating black blobs bounced off my eyeballs and floated up my nose, making me swat my own face – definitely almost time for the insect repellent I think…

Do i have to get out of bed?

So we have finished the winter season and made it out the other side and now we look forward to reaping the rewards to come; witnessing the results of the work we do as our sites burst into life and sound and colour – we are heading into my absolute favourite time of the year and as I sat on the banks of the river today amid the Daffodils and the Primroses, and admired the diamond like glitter of the sun on the rushing water, I breathed a sigh of relief; the Spring Solstice is only 4 days away and lighter, longer days lie ahead.  Amen to that.