Tuesday, 21 June 2016

Strawberry Moon Solstice

It’s almost Midsummer! Can you actually believe it; we are halfway through the year already and yet barely seem to have had time to enjoy the delights that the warmer season brings.  The mixture of warm, wet weather has resulted in vegetation growth the likes of which I have not seen before on our sites – the grass is taller and longer than I’ve ever seen it at this time of year which at first glance on places like Stockbridge Down can give the impression of an endless sea of thick uniform grass sward; but when you look closer you spot the delights that lie within, the Wild thyme, the vetches, the Trefoils, the Wild Strawberries, the Marjoram, the speedwells and so many more, all making up a beautiful sea of herbs and flowers.  Unfortunately, also making up this sea of flora is this year’s onslaught of ragwort.  The Down seems to have suffered a large spread of the stuff which is vaguely bizarre as for the first two summers I was here we had barely any and then last year and this year, there are single stems popping up all over the site.   
Pretty pretty - Eyebright and Wild Thyme, just a couple of the stunning flowers you can see here.

Of course there is the usual argument over removal of ragwort and I do agree that it is a fantastic late season nectar source for insects and food plant for the Cinnabar moth; however if unchecked it does spread rapidly and colonise an area to such a heavy and vast extent that it is detrimental to the diversity of the site and therefore we have to keep it under control by pulling it and removing the majority of plants.  Contrary to belief, having it growing onsite is not an issue for the cattle or sheep whilst it is living – the cattle tend to avoid the living plant as it is unpalatable to them and the sheep will happily nibble the rosettes in the early stages with no ill effects.  It is only once it has been pulled or sprayed and the plant is dying that it becomes palatable to the cattle and that’s when they may eat it – which could cause an issue.  To avoid this we remove all the pulled stems offsite and take them to our compost area we have for this very purpose.  We also ask that members of the public do not pull stems (all be it they are trying to help) and leave them lying there as they would then become potential cattle fodder.

The VERY curious cattle investigating our ragwort bags - go away!

So it was yesterday, on the Summer Solstice which was ironically a very soggy, rainy day, I took two truckloads of volunteers as well as two work placement students we have with us at the moment, and we headed up to the Down for a day of ragwort.  It’s not the most inspiring of tasks, bent double all day pulling at stems but you can at least admire the flora as you do it.  The volunteers are not keen on ragwort but soldiered on in the rain none the less, with good natured grumbling and ‘we want a pay rise’ floating on the wind in an endless monologue.  Seeking to try and divert people from the mind numbing task I called out ‘guys! It’s the Solstice today, the longest day of the year!’
To which Tony, with his arms full of ragwort, piped up ‘Yeah – feels like it!’

However the sun popped out at intervals, bringing out the first of this year’s Marbled Whites, and throughout the day we heard the Turtle Doves purring from the scrub, a beautiful summer soundtrack.  I have heard the Turtle Doves a lot this year on the Down, including two good sightings of one up at the clay cap woodland flying round displaying and calling which, our local bird expert and surveyor tells me, is a good sign at this time of year as it likely means a female is nearby on a nest.  Another bird that made an appearance as we toiled was a fat little fledgling wren, which fluttered in and then hopped over the ground to investigate our work.  I scooped it up to admire it as baby birds always remind me fondly of Jasper the Nuthatch chick I reared, and this chubby wrenlet was just as sweet.  After we all oohed and aah-ed I opened my hand and it fluttered wonkily to the nearest Juniper branch and sat there, baby head feathers sticking out at funny angles, and continued to watch us with its beady little eye.
Fledgling wren

Another job planned for this time of year was to do some transplanting of reed vegetation on Stockbridge Marsh, in order to help the bank restoration revegetate behind the geotextile that we put in a couple of summer’s ago.  I went to the Marsh last week to plan the work and found to my delight that due to the protection of the fence, the vegetation has established so well on its own so far, that it did not appear necessary to bring anymore across.  The inlets where we had 150 tonnes of peat brought in from Mottisfont to fill in the eroding canyons have also worked well, the peat has dried out enough that a more solid surface is forming and vegetation matter is beginning to grow up which will help with bonding it all together. I have hopes for more similar work this winter but we shall have to see how it all pans out…however the current results are promising.
Re vegetation around the eroded bank

Beautifully vegetated bankside margin, round the faggots installed
The inlets vegetating up

Looking much better!

So we have reached yet another seasonal milestone with the Summer Solstice yesterday, one that co-incided with a ‘Strawberry moon’ at its peak which they say is a one in seventy year event.  Whilst this inevitably means that the days will now begin, oh so slowly, to get shorter, I can’t think about that yet as there is still so much light and life of summer still to come, from churring Nightjars and purring Turtle Doves to butterflies of every colour including some species yet to emerge, like the Chalkhill Blues and Dark Green Fritillaries.  The summer and autumn harvest is yet to come, bringing with it all the goodies for various types of homebrew including cider and so it is these things I think of and not the slow slide into hibernation that will inevitably occur in the natural world, a few months from now.

Last night, in honour of the occasion I opened my window and hung out to try and see this special moon but my attention was caught by a snuffling around the front lawn.  Into view scurried a couple of hedgehogs, comically plump and all the more attractive looking for how fast they tottered along on their little legs.  They spent a long time running to and fro, searching out tasty slugs no doubt (I wanted to put them near my veg pots) and so, in a scene that felt like something out of a Roald Dahl book, as the light faded on the Longest Day of the year I sat with my feet dangling out the window watching hedgehogs by the light of a Strawberry Moon.

Hedge pigs on the lawn!

Friday, 3 June 2016

Survey season

We are well and truly into survey season now and consequently my desk looks like a naturalist bomb has exploded over it; FSC ID guides, bird survey maps, butterfly transect forms, glow worm survey routes, dormouse survey grid forms, smooth snake survey instructions, eye lenses, dying grass specimens,  books on moths, bees' damselflies, wild flowers and more all litter the available surface round my laptop, interspersed with living insects (normally ladybirds) that drift in through the open window and decide this is a nice spot to settle for a while and a Peace Lily that thrives on the cold tea I pour into it when I need to empty my cup.  In the middle of this chaos you may find me, happy to be surrounded by such things that symbolise the outdoors and the vibrancy of the natural world at this time of year, and therefore loath to tidy it up.

Species surveying is such an important part of our work across our countryside; it’s all very well managing habitats for their benefit and protection but if we cannot ascertain actual evidence of species population trends and monitor their health then it doesn’t allow us to spot when something may be going awry in the ecosystem.  Some of this may be natural flux, but some will also be as a result of past or present management so it is important to keep our eyes on it.  Equally important is that such data gets uploaded to a national database and not just shelved in our office. To this end, we do surveys of all sorts across all of our sites at Mottisfont, Stockbridge, Curbridge and New Forest, from detailed vegetation surveys veteran trees, from butterflies and moths to birds, from various invertebrates to reptiles and more detailed specific species surveys; but there is always a hunger for more, to find more and know more and understand more and this is in part why my desk looks like it has been vomited on by Springwatch.

On this surveying note, I was over on the Isle of Wight the other weekend helping PTES (People’s Trust for Endangered Species) carry out dormice surveys at their site there.  This site is booming with dormice, they really seem to thrive here due to the management of the woodlands and coppice and, I suspect in part, the lack of deer that have meant the understorey layer of bramble and scrub is able to dominate and create thick, near impenetrable areas around the younger coppices.  Dormice are arboreal and very rarely come down to the ground except to hibernate, so if they have a lovely thick understorey they can run along in as a highway, as well as lots of bramble flowers and fruits to feed on, it does really well for them.  Naturally, it is into this thorny hellish mass we have to go and find the boxes to survey and as usual we spend the two days staggering round playing Dr Livingstone before emerging scratched, torn and bleeding, but usually triumphant, having found several adorable dormice in the boxes.

Adorable, fat, half torpid dormouse...looks proper snug!

Some boxes held nestfuls of wide mouthed greedy chicks...Blue Tit ones in this picture.  They look like they are having choir practice!

 The May weekend proved no exception and we had good results from all but one area surveyed – many were in torpor as it was fairly cool so we got the obligatory cute ‘dormouse asleep curled up’ photos that endear so many people to these animals.  We found 29 in total over the weekend which sounds fairly low but is quite normal for May – come September and often October (if it stays mild) the count can treble or more as these are the months we find most of the boxes populated with dormice families; some furless ‘pinky’ babies no more than a few days old, right up to families of almost weaned young who all explode out the box into the survey bag like identical bouncing jelly beans that just tempt you to steal one away in your pocket (I don’t, really). 
Couldnt resist the sweetness of this torpid one...air kiss!
Other surveys ongoing at the moment include breeding birds, Nightjar, butterflies, reptile, vegetation, damsel and dragon flies and glow worms.  The Damsel and Dragonfly surveys I have set up with some volunteer experts who are proceeding to survey our wet meadow ditches for all species but especially to include Southern Damselfly which inhabits here.  Some have been spotted out already which is great news and I am hoping the warmer weather coming in next week will encourage a boom.  
Like looking for a blue needle in a rush stack

The glow worm surveys are something I set up last year for the first time, on Stockbridge Down, and are to begin at the week of the New Moon in June (very pagan sounding).  Last year we had a low June count then a massive increase in numbers for the July count so it will be interesting to see if the same thing occurs this year.  Once again a team of staff and volunteers will be creeping round in the dark trying not to fall down rabbit holes or walk into trees or cattle, all in the name of ecology….
Follow the light...glow worm doing its thing

Elsewhere on the Down, where the Turtle Doves are purring, I met with Andy Barker of Butterfly Conservation to have a butterfly spotting session and discuss more management for our species, especially the Duke of Burgundy and Pearl Bordered Fritillary.  In May alone I found 20 different butterfly species emerged on the Down so the species diversity seems to be doing pretty well so far.  Both the Dukes and the Pearls are doing well in patches on the Down, the Dukes especially seem to be more widespread across the site than before but it is always a fragile population and so I would like to do works that will help increase their habitat and improve their stronghold.  We are looking at bring back some of the larger, over mature Hazel back into a coppice rotation.  
There is a patch of Hazel down near the lower carpark that has not been but in many years and is essentially a barrier between the current coppiced Duke area and the main Down.  By cutting this older stuff and bringing it back into a rotation, it will allow for an extension of the habitat such butterflies require, including young coppice, Violet and cowslip ground flora, glades and shaded edges and so on.  This will also benefit other species too, as the previously over shaded seed bank in the soil is able to receive the light and burst into life and this could give us a whole range of wonders that will be good for other species.  Such work could also benefit some rare pot beetles which were once known to be present on site.  We had three of the UK’s most threatened species here back when the last internal biosurvey was carried out (1998) and they usual require young scrub like hazel to live on, so again, bringing the coppicing back into rotation will benefit them, should they still be found to be here –our next internal biosurvey (hopefully next year) will let us know.  

I was in our Juniper stand area yesterday fixing a lid onto one of the Juniper seed cages that we use to encourage natural regeneration.  Tony, our loyal volunteer made another 6 cages for me this year and we installed them back in April under a new set of berry bearing branches.  However I found one with the lid completely mangled and another with a lid missing a few weeks later (even more weeks later I found the missing lid in some bushes across the site, some berk’s idea of a laugh no doubt).  Judging by the hoofprints and cowpats around the mangled lid and the dislodged cage, my Sherlock instincts flew to the fore of my mind and I deduced that the cattle must have been to blame, no doubt using it as a scratching post.  Tony re-fixed the lid for me and I went yesterday to reinstall it to its rightful place.  As I knelt by the cage and sorted out my drill bits, I suddenly heard the bushes behind me rustle and heard a sound that no lady wants to hear when out alone in the countryside; just over my shoulder a huffing puffing heavy breathing….I whipped round, armed with my drill to find myself face to face with not a pervert, but the cattle herd who had oozed out the bushes like silent ninja’s and come to investigate.  
What do these taste like then?

Grazing round the Juniper

They kindly slobbered all over my tools during their investigation and then one took my box of screws in his mouth and dragged it to the floor spilling them everywhere- helpful!  I took all the saliva covered tools back off of them, crossly telling them what I thought of their DIY skills but in reality I was pleased to see them in the Juniper area – means they are helpfully munching the scrub regrowth here (less for me to spray) and keeping grasses like the brachypodium from dominating, thus allowing a greater floristic and herbal diversity to come through.  And indeed the marjoram in particular has begun to grow up now, all be it not in flower for a while yet, but the leaves emit their gorgeous smell when you crunch through them walking, or pinch them between your fingers – mmmm herbal heaven!


The two vigilante sheep that stubbornly remained on the Leckford slope after I moved the rest of the flock have finally fallen foul of my many tricks to catch them.  In the end, after the best part of a week, it was an entire 25kg bag of nuts that tempted them into the corral whilst I walked away pretending not to look. Their tummies finally overcame their fear and they wandered in and started gobbling, whilst I hit the gate home, penned them up and brought the truck in with the sheep trailer attached.  Then I had to repeat the process of putting the bag of nuts in the trailer to get them in before securing them up finally and driving them round to the NT slope and the rest of the flock – they don’t like to make things easy!  Still they seemed happy enough with being chauffeured, they peered out the sides of the trailer calmly observing the view and occasionally whickering softly to each other, no doubt playing ‘I Spy’.  

'Ere Mavis, this is a rum do, ain't it?'

Elsewhere across our estate we have been spraying around our tree plantations and spreading mulch at their bases to help prevent weeds growing up – Ryan and the volunteers have worked especially hard on this, heaving wheelbarrow after wheelbarrow across the planting area to each individual tree.  The log producing business is booming and now its BBQ season, the charcoal burns have begun.  The June weed cut will commence next week, meaning river keeper Neil will become more amphibian than mammal for entire period, and all the while, the survey season goes on.  

Ghostbusters outfit - all kitted up for chemical spraying round the tree's.

Getting out my truck in the staff carpark the other day, I stood and watched a female chaffinch flitting around nearby with a beakful of food.  She hopped and fluttered from stem to stem among the grass and I figured perhaps the nest was nearby.  Then she darted down into the walled pit that surrounds the cess pit (nice) and flew back up empty beaked.  I peered over the edge to see if I could spot the nest but saw instead a fat, fluffy and rather grumpy looking newly fledged chaffinch chick, which she had been feeding. The chick fluttered up over the wall and came to rest plumply among the nettle stems, looking like a disgruntled teenager that was being finally forced to make his own meals.  Mum cheeped from a nearby perch to encourage the youngster further and after watching them for a bit and seeing the little one flutter around getting used to its wings, I left them to it.

Not a chaffinch, but a very vocal Dartford Warbler who i watched for some time the other day in the New Forest, flitting round calling - they have such a sweet grumpy sound to them, its unmistakable.

Finally, as obsessed as I am with homebrew, I should probably mention that the cider that I produced last year, using apples from across our estate woodlands and orchards has been tested.  Lee’s chum took some to test on a special machine thing (too technical for me) and it came back as reading as 8.07% - what a result!  I felt like a proud mother being told her child is a prodigy and so was very pleased that all the hard work paid off into something that tastes good and has as strong a kick to it as I imagined.  Survey season – summer season – cider season – all are one glorious stretch of warm sunny days in the great outdoors. Cheers!

All the way from tree...

to table - and gullet!