Wednesday, 24 August 2016

On the Wings of Summer

We are drifting into the later stages of the summer here in the Test Valley and August is currently blessing us with blue skies and burning sunshine.  This weather, alongside the summer holidays, has brought the people flocking to Mottisfont Abbey where the still waters of the Test run cool and the towering Plane tree’s spread their shade for hot families to dwell in.  It always amuses me when I walk through the stable yard to see the difference between summers beginning and end; at the start of summer, everyone sits on the chairs and tables that are on the sunny side, in order to capture that first bit of summer warmth; by July and August, they have swiftly flocked across to the shady side because the heat is too intense!

It has been a good two months since I last wrote, namely due to how busy we are across the summer (despite winter being our ‘full on’ work season with felling and so on, summer seems to get busier every year!) but also because when the weather is this glorious, its very hard not to be outside in it instead of typing at a desk; today I have compromised, and sit typing under a tree in the Abbey grounds.

Our summer months have flown by in a sort of blink and you miss it kind of way.  The wildflowers of Stockbridge Down have blossomed and bloomed in a technicolour fury and are now going to seed.  The sheep flock have continually eaten their way through the summer vegetation and have just moved back to the Leckford slope to begin the feast anew – needless to say, they are a very healthy size at the moment, and when they come running to my call the ground shakes!

The sheep doing their bit - NOM!

 Already September looms up at us, as of next week, and here and there you can spot the first small signs of impending autumn; the first leaves changing colour and falling, the absence of some of our migratory species, the reduction in butterfly numbers as each species dies with the ongoing season.  We have been doing all our usual surveys across the summer months, to enable us to see how our species are faring on our sites, in response to our management as well as to nationwide trends.  The glow worm surveys on Stockbridge Down proved a success with a similar trends to last year – June being a more quiet month with only a few specimens found, and July being the booming peak, with 237 juicy, glowing beauties found this year, the majority being females glowing their little bottoms off in the hunt for a mate (not much of a hunt for the female really, she sits and glows and the males come to her!).  This topped our July total of last year and so was very pleasing as a result, despite nearly losing two of our volunteers who fell down a rather large burrow in the dark, which was also hidden by the long vegetation (we managed to drag them out, so all good).
A quick photo of a glowing female glow worm - you can just see her glowing bottom in the torchlight

On our heathland regeneration site in Foxbury the Nightjar surveys have also come up trumps with 24 churring males recorded over the course of the survey season.  One of our rangers Dave J happened across a nightjar nest by chance on site and managed to get some brilliant camera trap footage showing this magnificent and slightly weird looking bird.

This time of year also brings the Barbastelle bat surveys with it, and in our woodlands at Mottisfont we have been walking the transect routes recording bat calls which are then analysed on the computer to differentiate the Barbastelle from the other bat species which were abroad that night.  Being that our woodlands are designated as an SAC (Special Area of Conservation) due to the presence of the Barbastelle maternity roost, our woodland management has to very thoroughly and carefully tie in with this; whilst we manage our woodlands for conservation and timber produce, we must also manage them for the bats in terms of ensuring that none of our woodland work adversely impacts upon them, as well as managing for the future – so choosing trees to become future veteran trees and future bat roosts and so on.  Of course, the bats will still go where ever they like and roost in trees that do not appear to display any sign of potential bat habitat (I have seen some of these roost trees, small, skinny, no cracks or flaking bark…and yet they are used!) but we must still plan ahead using what knowledge we do have of their preferred habitat types and work towards this.  To this end, and as our Woodland Stewardship is soon to come to a close, we have been working in conjunction with Natural England and the Forestry Commission on our new woodland management plan for countryside stewardship that combines all these features, from managing for the SAC and bats, to managing our timber production now and for the future and potential to combat risks of climate change such as spread of disease and loss of species.  This plan has proven fairly colossal and both Dave C and Ryan have put a huge amount of work into it to get it approved and submitted in time for the deadline.  The future of our woodlands has been rewritten!

Another huge development which has occurred since I last wrote features our smallest but no less loved site on the Hamble River.  This is where we have our strip of ancient woodland meandering alongside the Hamble estuary, complete with its salt marshes and reed bed habitat all of which are of critical importance on an international scale.  As such the site has just about every designation you can throw at it; SSSI, SAC, SPA, RAMSAR, NNR (I will let you google all those).  The site is prone to pressure from encroaching development which knocks at its boundaries and also from sea level rises and higher tides, already evident, which are slowly eroding away the woodland edge and resulting in the loss of some impressive veteran trees.  Last year a chance came up for us to help safeguard the site and try and relieve some of the pressure on this woodland.  After many months of consultations, project boards and application papers as well as a lot of hard work from all involved, we finally got the go ahead to purchase a parcel of land that had gone up for sale bordering the woodland, using project Neptune funding (this is a fund source the National Trust set up to help buy areas of coastline/estuary that need safeguarding).  With this funding we were then able to successfully buy the land and got full ownership of the area in July this year – much to my beaming, excited, bountiful delight!  After all the months of uncertainty as to whether we could get the funding or whether someone else would buy it out from under us – it’s ours!  We have not just bought a land parcel; we have bought a chance to prevent the habitat here from succumbing to the pressures of increasing population and climate change.  The new parcel of land can be allowed to regenerate and turn into woodland, with access through it which will help take the pressure off the current woodland area which is suffering badly from soil erosion and excessive runoff.  Increasing the woodland will help counteract the runoff that comes with the nearby developments, and provide more space for people to roam without all hitting the same area too hard.  It will also be the woodland of the future, as the current one is lost to the rising estuary; it now has a chance to extend outwards and survive.  I find it mind boggling to think that this is the beginning of something that will stand for centuries; long after I am gone, this special place will remain.  A huge thank you to everyone who put their heart into this project and acquiring this piece of land, including Peter Nixon, Richard Henderson, Paul Cook, Dylan Everett, James Taylor and other members of the board – take a walk through the Hamble woodlands on a summer’s day like today, look out across the historic estuary and feel just how precious an area you have helped to protect for the future. 
Looking out at the estuary from our woodlands - stunning.

 And so our work goes ever onwards with the seasons, always fighting to conserve and manage the land we own and safeguard it for the future, whilst always opening our minds to new opportunities and chances to save more land from the clutches of urban sprawl.  This is the time of year when I begin to count the last few signs of a fading summer, a season I love so much for its vibrancy and light and life (although the brambles, nettles, horse flies and ticks do get a little tiring).  The Turtle Doves have long since flown from Stockbridge Down; their purring calls have fallen silent. 

The backside of a Turtle Dove! Best shot i could get...apart from some decent film footage which is too large to upload here.

However the weather is glorious and there is still life in the old girl of summer yet, with the swallows dancing crazily around our farmyard, still very much with us, and, more importantly, the very promising looking start of the foragers harvest….blackberries, sloes, hazelnuts, walnuts are all popping out and, most importantly of all – the apple harvest.  My beady eye has already clocked the ripening apples on trees across our estate including our orchard, carpark and woodland apple trees.  Very soon now I will begin the scrumping and pillaging ready for my annual cider making mid-September.  Definitely one of the highlights to summers end! 
Mmmm..not long now my lovelies, until i pulp you to juice...

I shall leave you with a selection of photos that detail the sights and sounds of working in the countryside over the summer months far better than my words (and if you only ever want the photos and not the words then follow me on Instagram, username: swhantsnt).  Enjoy!

Chalkhill Blue butterflies emerged in their hundreds on the Down

Golden Ringed Dragonfly

Hornet Robber fly on Stockbridge - a rarity!

The Curious Cattle of Stockbridge Down, lurking in the undergrowth

Ryan modelling a Comma butterfly

You know you have improved on your wildflower ID when you can tell these three apart - L-R = Mouse Eared Hawkweed, Smooth Hawksbeard and Rough Hawks Bit....i think...

Synchronized bumbling

Wasp spiders on Stockbridge Marsh - this Shelob caught and wrapped a bush cricket before my eyes!

Flag Iris seed pods - whopping!

The Harebells of summer

Common Blues mating

The Curious Cattle of Stockbridge assaulting my truck - again

More new Juniper babies this year! So teeny!

PS: Working in the current heat levels is helping me to acclimatise for my Sahara trek in November (and making me realise just quite what I’m letting myself in for!).  If you wish to donate towards my 100km challenge, in honour of Water Aid, then please click the link below – thank you!