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!

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