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!

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