Monday, 12 December 2016

A Sailing we shall go

Where has the time gone? Where has the year gone!?  I haven’t been able to sit and write for months, the work keeps piling up and Father Time seems to be stealing away the days just for fun.  The leaves have fallen and the carpets of gold and bronze have turned to a muddy slush; devoid of the chestnuts and conkers that lay hidden beneath them a couple of months ago – the squirrels and myself have seen to that, harvesting what we could find for roasting (not the conkers and obviously not for roasting by the squirrels, just me).  Fungi has emerged up through the leaf litter in all its weird and wonderful glory, from the tasty treats of hedgehog fungi, to the positively rude appearance of the Stinkhorns whose stench always let you know they are nearby.   

A Stinkhorn i found in the New Forest in all its phallic like glory!
The days have gotten shorter and darker as we turn inexorably towards Midwinter and the Solstice and the deepest point of the season. As ever I keep my eyes on the eastern horizon, waiting and knowing that we are almost at the point where we can begin to creep oh so slowly back out into the light again.  
Orion stalks the winter night sky once more; with Sirius at his heels and it are these signs which symbolise to me the passing of the weeks and months.  And what a few months it has been! 

On a personal level I have completed a charity trek in the Sahara desert, walking over 100km to raise money for Water Aid and witnessing some truly vast landscapes that were all the more stunning for their apparent sterility.  From huge sand dunes to flat endless salt pans, across dry lake beds and rocky cliffs, we trekked, with the desert sun burning bright on our heads and the distances to the evening camp unfathomable; you’d see the camp from a cliff top and think you would make it there within the hour – but it would take much longer.  Distances were very hard to gauge in such a huge, barren landscape. 

NT Ranger a long way from home....
 Night time gave us an unforgettable display of the Milky Way; with no city lights to dim them, the stars and galaxies shone and twinkled and burned hot against the inky blue and you felt like the tiniest piece of the most complex puzzle of them all.  Later on in the night the moon rose, fully waxing whilst we were out there and the desert would be lit up like daylight by the glow of the full moon, a silvery carpet laden across the landscape.  There were hardships in blisters, sand chafing, heat and the toilet holes (especially after a night’s camping with the whole group…shudder) and high points included the sheer thrill of the challenge, making some new lifelong friends and finding me some snakes! (I was very pleased one evening to find a sand viper tucked up in the sand dunes near camp, only his eyes sticking out the ground.   We also had a cobra slither across our path one day as we walked which was a sight to see).

Sand viper i spotted, tucked under the sand waiting for rodents or small birds...see his little eyes poking out?

Even in the bleakest places...a desert flower.

Talking of snakes, back in September time I assisted Catherine Supple, our Area Ranger in the New Forest, with a Smooth Snake survey on one of our sites.  We spent a warm five hours hiking around the site checking all the reptile refugia that was laid out and admiring the heathland in late summer.  Naturally it was only right at the very end, on the very last refugia mat, that treasure lay beneath; under the mat was a beautiful female smooth snake, basking in the warmth.  I picked her up so we could get photos of the head markings and record her (and generally admire her) and she proved to have a great temperament, leaning her little chin on my hand as she flicked her tongue at the air to sense what was happening.  Reptile surveys are a good way of ascertaining the health of a population on a site, the impact of any management work upon them as well as a way of finding reptiles were none may have been previously recorded.  We knew we had Smooth Snakes on our site but as they are such an underground creature it is very hard to find them – as this little lady proved, taking five hours to be found!
Beaut! See the round pupil in the red eye that helps distinguish it from an adder, which has a slit pupil in a red eye.
It has also been cider making season since I last wrote and once again, a willing gang of friends were happy to come round to my house and chop, scrat and press apples and make our summer supply of drinks for next year.  The juice has since been racked off twice and bottled into 60 odd bottles of soon to be glorious cider (I went for half the amount to last year as have also just moved house and wasn’t sure I could move 14 demi johns to my new place!).

The sheep flock have spent a few months on the Leckford area of the slope, where they also received their annual vaccinations (and my annual beating up).  As always, Ryan was on hand to help me vaccinate them and as we began the process we realised that our little flock had all grown into fully fledged plumpers!  Normally when we pen them up for vaccinating we take them one by one to the needle and sometimes you get a smaller one, sometimes you get a larger older one that required more strength and effort.  However this year, apart from the 5 newbies we brought in in June, the whole flock were all equally large and fat and therefore equally exhausting to manhandle into the ‘medicine bay’.  It also meant that trying to do injections under the skin sometimes meant that they were so plump that there was no skin to pinch!  I was afraid they would pop like balloons if we pricked them with the needle as they had the circumference of one.  Still, it was good to see them all in such good shape, if a little obese, to stand them in good stead for the winter.  As usual, each time we vaccinated one, we sprayed a tattoo on them so we could see which sheep had been done in case they all broke out before we finished.  My favourite works of art this time were the tank and the Christmas pudding, both of which I was very pleased with, even if I do say so myself!  I also gave a tribute to the late, great Bowie with a Ziggy Stardust lightning bolt on one of them – I’m sure the man himself would have been flattered.  
Who you calling a fat pudding!?

Built like tanks these sheep...

Today marked their movement through to the NT public slope and also proved to be a record of easiest move ever – 29 followed me through the gate in two groups and having seen Boadicea was missing, I went off searching with the nut bucket and a whistle.  Just as I stood by the Leckford corral thinking perhaps I had miscounted, she emerged silently from the yew trees and proceeded to trot down to me and follow me back all the way to the NT land and join the rest of the gang – first time I’ve ever moved them without having to either wrestle some through or capture odd ones up in the sheep trailer- may it be the first of many such moves as this.

Meanwhile, also on the Good Ship Countryside, we have been sailing our way through autumn and into winter, getting on with all our busy winter works.  In one respect, we literally set sail, as, one fine crisp cold day the other week, Dylan and I finally succeeded in doing something we had always wanted to do but had never got around to/sorted out; we dug out our flat bottomed boat from one of the barns, got the engine working and took it to the Hamble estuary where we tentatively put it in the water at the public hard, got in and were afloat!  We puttered our way through the marina of million pound boats and made our way up river towards our Hamble site.

Once we were far enough up, we took up the oars which were far quieter than the engine, and rowed our way in turns up the estuary, glorying in the sight of our land, our Curbridge Nature Reserve, from the water.  We have always wanted to see our site from the water and finally we were doing so – and what a sight it was.  The sky was pure and blue and this reflected into the estuary water so it felt like gliding on blue glass.  The banks were lines with titanic oaks, some of which still held a few autumnal coloured leaves and the reed beds stretched out into the estuary and glowed frozen gold and everything had an exact double in the reflection on the water.  I sat in the front (prow?) of the boat and dipped my hand in the water in glee, and resisted the urge to do a titanic style Kate Winslet pose (‘I’m flying!).  It was truly stunning and seeing our site from such a different perspective gave it a whole new spirit of place than the one you got on the land.  It also allowed us to monitor the continued tree erosion and decline and see which ones were likely to be lost to the estuary next.  We also took fixed point photos of the reed beds so we can see if they are increasing or decreasing in areas. We rowed our way all the way up to the top of the estuary and the beginning of our site before turning round with the tide and heading back round the meanders with their fallen titans of trees, the reed beds and the rapidly appearing salt marsh flats before bursting once more out into the wider, open waters of the estuary.   

Mirror image - see the fallen giants of the eroded trees, the golden reed beds that stretch out into the water as the estuary narrows.

As the sun lowered in the winter sky, we kicked up the engine and chuffed our way back down river, following in the footsteps of history as the Saxons used this same route, as did the romans who built their villa site here.  How many people from how many Ages had made their way up this river?  How many tides had flowed in and out since the estuary was first formed?  It was easy, that golden winter’s day, to feel the timelessness of that place, the magic of it.  Drifting on the water I felt we were at the beating heart of this place, feeling the elemental purity of it as we sat surrounded by blue and gold, as so many others must have felt in years long past.  We were one more footstep on the memory of the Hamble estuary.
At the heart of Hamble

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