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!

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!