Friday, 29 April 2016

When Doves Cry

Doves are indeed crying tears of Purple Rain as we have lost yet another musical genius this year, with the lamented passing of Prince last week.  The truck radio spent the day singing out all his classics in tribute, so that anywhere you went around Mottisfont or Stockbridge that day, you may have heard ‘Raspberry Beret’ or ‘Thieves in the Temple’ floating on the air.

Anyway, back to the natural world and its wonders, and April is almost out and May Day nearly upon us – and I flippin’ wish the weather would catch up as I’m getting weary of feeling cold outside at work all the time – this week has felt a Northerly wind whipping round our ears and fingers and cutting the temperature in half, despite the sun.   Still, despite the ongoing cool temperatures, nature is still relentlessly marching into the season with all its jewels coming out on show; Stockbridge Down now has the first wave of Grizzled Skippers out, flitting and buzzing around low to the ground, in their usual blink-and-you-miss-it flight.  I was thrilled, as I always am, when I saw the first of them out last week and spent some time bent over following their flight path and no doubt looking a bit odd to any passers-by.  A Holly Blue also came out to play, as well as lots of Orange Tips, and some Green Veined Whites – this is the time of year when the butterfly survey sheet total doubles with every passing week – hooray!.  

Not a great pic but they don't keep still for long! Grizzled Skipper

Another longed for arrival that blessed me with its presence last week were the Swallows.  I was wandering along in the sun when suddenly, swooping, swirling and darting across the fields and right in front of my nose, were the first pair of Swallows I’d seen this year – and how happy I was to see them!  They seemed to be gliding and dancing in celebration at being home for the summer, never slowing down nor resting, but endlessly, gracefully soaring high and low with their shiny blue-black backs glinting in the sun.  How I marvel at these birds that have flown so far, for so long, crossing continents and seas to make it back to our green and pleasant land.  How I love to see them all again, perched on the telephone lines (where did they gather before we put these lines in!?) discussing their journeys and reacquainting themselves with each other.  And how I mourn to see them, all too soon at summers end, back on the phone lines gathering and getting ready to leave again, for warmer winter shores.

Still, for now we can enjoy their arrival and know that it signals that we are heading well through spring and beyond.  I have also begun foraging for the year, with Ramsons' in full bloom at Curbridge Nature Reserve meaning I could take a small supply of leaves to make Wild Garlic Oil.  I tried making Wild Garlic Pesto last year but think I made it a bit too strong…the taste stayed with me for days and everyone I spoke to seemed to wilt at the garlic smell that I emitted!  Staying off that one for now.  Garlic Mustard is also popping up and so with the Ladies Smock that is now out the Orange Tips will have plenty of plants to lay their eggs on.  Also the 135 bottles of cider that i made last year, using apples scrumped from across our woodlands and orchards, are now a beautiful clear, sparkling gold and ready for drinking - going to be a happy summer!

Garlic Mustard


In the beginning there was sludge....

And now behold! Anyone for a pint?

This time of year marks, among other annual firsts, the beginning of the fishing season.  Neil our riverkeeper has spent the last few weeks leading up to it sprucing up the fishing beats, cleaning the huts and restocking them, mowing, cutting and clearing to ensure the rivers are looking beautiful and ready for the season.  We manage our fishery and river here in a way that is of benefit to conservation; whilst many rivers that are owned by a fishery tend to have their river banks shorn to within an inch of their life, with no bankside vegetation present in order to allow fishermen ease of access to the river, we balance the best of both worlds.  Neil mows paths along the banks regularly so that fishermen can indeed walk along and get to the river, but the bankside vegetation is allowed to grow – reeds, rushes, sedges, and many water flowers all thrive along the banks and provide great habitat for many bird species like Water Rail, Moorhens and Coots, but also for mammals such as Water Vole and Otter, who appreciate having bankside cover – especially the Water Vole who nest in holes along the bank and need the vegetation as a cover to hide in.  It also means that the fish themselves may lurk in vegetated fringes, or in the shade of an overhanging tree which gives the fishermen a more natural and satisfying challenge when fishing here and trying to lure them out.  This balance means that the wildlife benefit from the habitat and the fishery benefits from having such a beautiful and diverse place to fish – the river Test is one of the most famous chalk streams in the world of fly fishing and so it doesn’t hurt that it has such beauty on top of such fame.

Talking of fish, you may remember the otter kill Salmon that Neil and I found at the end of last year on the river bank.  I had taken it back to my Rot pile in the carpark to allow it to decompose so that I could eventually get the clean skull for my shelf of death, as it was a truly stunning specimen, with jaws like a crocodile.  I pulled up in the carpark the other day in time to see that Howard the gardener was digging out a drain right where my Rot pile had been.  I rushed over to see if all my dead things were ok and he kindly informed me that Doug their garden volunteer had moved my Rot pile out of the way to another corner.  He also told me that when poor Doug picked up the plastic bag which housed the rotting salmon, it tore and liquefied, rotten fish poured down his trouser legs….they then had to hose him down with disinfectant in the wash down area.  I went over to the newly positioned Rot pile and checked they were all ok.  Then I found that the decaying salmon head was able to be detached now from the rotten body so I pulled it off and left it on the pile and then picked up the bag of mushy fish to throw away – and some of the melted matter oozed out onto the floor and the SMELL that arose was superbly vile.  Melted, rotten, fishy, death.  It was just incredible in its hideousness.  I held the bag at arm’s length and put it in the massive bins – and then spent the next few hours repeatedly washing my hands to get the stench of mouldy salmon off of them – oh the things we suffer for the Shelf of Death! (Sorry Doug).
The Salmon head in progress....

In my last post I mentioned our five newbie Wiltshire Horn sheep that we had collected from Speltham Down.  They spent a few weeks at Mottisfont in quarantine and then came the sunny day that we were to take them to Stockbridge Down and their new home.  I harangued most of the countryside team into coming and helping me by standing at each hurdle, in order to prevent the little horrors from leaping over the hurdles to freedom, as they have been known to do when panicked.  People didn’t seem too thrilled when I told them to stand against a hurdle and watch out in case the sheep leapt for their faces – they’ve seen my black eyes enough times to know I wasn’t kidding.  However with everyone standing guard, and Ryan backing the sheep trailer up, I managed to wrestle all five in to the back (they never just walk in) and we shut them in and drove them off.  Once on the Down we offloaded the newbies into the corral whilst the rest of the flock gathered outside the corral, baaahing with curiosity at these new arrivals.  We opened the corral gate and held our breath as the two woolly walls met – would there be savage head-butting from Walter, who, until these newbies arrived, had been our only male in the flock?  In the end it was a bit of an anti-climax, with some nose sniffing going on before the newbies headed off on their own into the horizon no doubt, I remarked wryly to Ryan, to go and find any escape route they could.  And how prophetic my words turned out to be, when my sheep looker the following day called to let me know all five newbies were outside of the fenceline and relaxing on the other slope – the slope where I had signs up telling dog walkers there were no sheep currently – argh!  However I soon had them back on the right side and the hole on the fence duct taped up until I could return with some proper fencing.  Must be a breakout record, not even 24 hours before they tore their way through the fence! Oh the games we play….every day since they have been reported to be keeping separate from the main flock, mainly because when they get close some of the older sheep start attacking them with head-butts so I hope they sort the hierarchy out soon and settle down together.  Maybe Walter will take them under his woolly wing until they get big enough to fight their own battles, but we shall see.
Relaxing after their Great Escape...whilst I ran around looking for them grrrr!

My make-do fence repair of duct tape and dead wood - all i had on me at the time....properly fixed the next day.

Now I mentioned a bit earlier about a Sahara trek I have signed up to do, in November this year.  It is 100km and I have decided on Water Aid as my charity.  Being that I work for a conservation charity and donate regularly to human aid charities, I felt Water Aid was an important one to cover as it is just so fundamental to human survival.  Three days without water and it’s Game Over for us- and freshwater is a limited resource on this planet as it is.  Whilst I have to be careful not to go all preachy on people, I really think each and every one of us living in this country should just remember how lucky we are that we can turn on a tap and get safe drinking water straight away.  We don’t have to gamble with our lives, or the lives of our children, and wonder if the water we give them will lead to them dying of some waterborne disease – can you imagine having to make that choice, roll that dice every time you wanted a drink?  The statistics include horrific figures such as 900 children under the age of 5 die EVERY DAY from diarrhoeal disease which could be easily avoided.  So if you feel strongly enough about this cause, or just want to send me off into the back of beyond to see if I can ‘hack it’ and see just how sunburnt my nose gets, then please read the full story and donate a few pennies via the link below:

Many, many thanks in advance – and enjoy that next glass of cool, safe water!

And so I shall leave you with a few pictures of how time moves on - with the golden tide of the rapeseed fields flooding our horizons already and the first tick of the season discovered on my arm the other day (ugh).  

The Rapeseed wave

My first tick of the year, discovered in the shower - like a scene out of Psycho...

May Day or Beltane is almost upon us – so go celebrate in whichever way suits you best, skip around a May pole, put some Hawthorn blossom in your hair or leap over the Beltane fires and follow your primordial instincts as they dance you through this fertile time of year where nature is reborn with every leaf bud and blossom, and the cycle begins once more.  
Happy Beltane!

Friday, 15 April 2016

Come one, come all.

‘In April, come I will’ and come they have, with the first Cuckoo heard on one of our New Forest sites this week, heralding one of the seasonal  landmarks of the arrival of the migratory birds.  The call of the Cuckoo always makes my mind fly back to childhood and the vague understanding I had back then that hearing that cuckoo, cuckoo signified that something special was beginning – I was obviously always destined to work out in the seasons even from a young age!

Another migratory bird that has been spotted is the Osprey; Alan Snook, our bird surveyor and expert was lucky enough to sight one flying over Mottisfont a few weeks ago, all be it up high and heading North; they usually migrate up the Test Valley en route back to their summer breeding grounds, having spent the winter in Africa.  I have been lucky enough to see one once but you do have to look up at the right time in the right place!

As well as the Cuckoo, I saw my first Orange Tip out a few days ago – a sure sign that winter is behind us, as they are one of the first butterfly species to emerge that have not overwintered as an adult; the Orange Tip overwinter as a chrysalis and the adults develop and emerge from this around early April.  Orange Tip butterflies will then lay their eggs on Garlic Mustard (Jack by the Hedge), Lady’s Smock and other Crucifers – you may be able to spot them if you look hard enough, they are a tiny orange egg laid on the underneath of the flower or leaf.

Brimstone enjoying the nectar

It’s not only the fauna of the country that is returning and waking up; the Blackthorn is blossoming a beautiful creamy white, the Hawthorn is budding its lime green leaves and of course, the Bluebells have burst into splendour, like a thick purple tide that has crept  inexorably throughout our woodlands and verges.  If you visit the Mottisfont estate or Curbridge Nature Reserve within the next couple of weeks, you will be richly rewarded by this visual display – which, when interspersed with golden Celandines and silvery Wood Anemone, is truly glorious.  I was padding through one of our Bluebell woods the other day and once again spotted the white Fallow deer standing amongst the Bluebells, like a fairy-tale creature; this vision was swiftly shattered when the whole herd caught wind of me and fled over the hill and out of sight – bet that never happened to Snow White!
Bejeweled Wings

Looking like lost sheep; our albino deer

April Fool’s Day also marked the beginning of one of my favourite jobs for the year – the butterfly surveying season!  I happily wandered round the Stockbridge Down transect the other day, in warm sun and feasted my eyes on what the site had to offer me after its winter hibernation.  These surveys are not simply about drifting around in the sun enjoying butterflies (although that is a big perk); they also provide important data for both the regional and national database, as well as allowing me to see how work we have carried out on site has benefited species.  For instance, the scrub cleared area we did over the winter will be a useful basking site for butterflies such as Grizzled Skipper which requires bare areas and short turf for basking.  The cleared sites on Stockbridge also often have Wild Strawberry as the first coloniser of the soil and this is one of the egg laying plants of the Grizzled Skipper.  As the months pass other plants start creeping in such as Grasses, Marjoram, Wild Thyme, Vetches and many more and these are all important for other species of butterfly and invertebrates.  As the scrub then slowly regrows it becomes a good area for ground nesting birds and mammals to hunker down in and when it matures it benefits bird species like Turtle Dove (who like the mature scrub clumps), Bullfinch (which we have in good numbers here) and feeds the winter migratory flocks of birds who enjoy the berries.  And all this comes from clearing a patch of scrub that had become over mature and essentially a bit derelict; nothing grew below it but moss, and the scrub itself provided no understorey cover because it had got so tall and leggy trying to grow up to the light against tis neighbours.  A large percentage had died and so by clearing it all back, you can begin the cycle again and watch each stage of clearance and growth benefit different inhabitants of the Down.

With the saying ‘When Gorse is out of blossom, kissing is out of fashion’ in mind, the Down is very much a romantic place all year round but especially in warm sunny weather  when you can really  smell the Gorse flowers; a rich coconut scent which is given off by the yellow flowers and is strongest in the heat.  You can almost close your eyes and imagine you are somewhere more tropical – until a gorse spine pricks you in the nose – not romantic at all!

Whilst I waffle on about the triumphs of spring, I mustn’t forget that since I last wrote we have had Storm Katie blow its way across our shores; we lost a lot of trees throughout our woodland estate, including softwoods, Oaks, Chestnuts and even a stunning veteran Yew that was blown completely in half!  It is still attached to the root plate however, and Yews are known for their longevity so I am hoping for a phoenix tree phenomenon.   We were also hosting our Easter trail at Foxbury over Easter Sunday and Monday, in basically the prelude and the aftermath of Katie, as the worst of the storm came in Sunday night.  Monday morning dawned bright and clear and upon arrival at Foxbury we found nature had been fairly kind – but she had decided to blow the event porta loo’s over!  Still, one phone call to the company to come and replace them in time for opening, a check round the tracks to ensure all fallen trees were clear and the show could go on as it always must.

Our blown in half Yew! (photo credit: Ryan Scott)

From the other side (photo credit: Ryan Scott)

I may have mentioned previously that we were getting some new sheep to bulk up the numbers on our flock of Wiltshire Horn, and replace those we lose through age/dogs/illness.  I’m pleased to announce, rather like a proud mother, that we now have five new hoggets’ (one year old) who are currently residing at Mottisfont in quarantine, before they join the main flock.  Ryan and I went to get them from Speltham Down, where a lovely chap called Simon runs a community flock out on NT grassland.  His flock are gorgeous – pedigree registered Wiltshire Horn and basically spoilt, tame pets as Simon looks after them so beautifully, with the help of Ian, another local inhabitant.  They breed from their flock and then either sell them alive to folk such as myself or slaughter them for meat.  Previously we have bought Walter the wether and his sister from this flock so we know we are getting good quality animals.  Simon always prefers to sell them living as they do become rather like pets and he is happy to see them go somewhere else to live on!  It does mean Ryan and I faced the task of choosing the ‘lucky ones’ out of all the hoggets’ he had….after a brief tussle in the pen choosing the right animals, we soon had three new wethers (including twin boys Simon couldn’t bear to have slaughtered) and two new pretty ewes in the trailer ready to go.  We had a quick stop to admire the first of Simon’s new-born lambs and then got on the road with a bleating trailer of slightly disgruntled sheep.  When we got to Mottisfont we unloaded them into pen, dosed them with quarantine wormers just as a precaution and then let them out and watched them all run away from us as fast as possible, probably never to come near us again.  Whilst Simon’s sheep always come tame, they soon turn feral after they have been with us a while – I think the others set a bad example!  They are so small compared to the rest of the flock and I feel a bit sorry for them when the time comes for them to fight for their place in the hierarchy – Walter is being a bit bossy at the moment, head-butting people in the leg on a regular basis, so I hope he isn’t too mean when the newbies are introduced!  Still, that’s the world of sheep for you….
Ready to go...

See how little they are!?

Soon have them eating out my hand again!

Its fleece shedding time!

I shall leave you with a picture I got on Friday April Fool’s day, which was for me, a perfect way to end the week; a Red Kite sat high in a tree for a good few minutes, seemingly unbothered by me snapping away on my camera below.  I was spoilt with many photos before it finally took off and left me content and happy at such a great way to welcome in April and celebrate the end of the working week - TGIF!