Tuesday, 15 July 2014

The Jewel in the Crown – and baby pandas’.

Now this time of year brings our site of Stockbridge Down, into its own.  On these warm, clear sunny days it is the Jewel in our Crown, with stunning views across Hampshire and Wiltshire, wildflowers smothering the slopes and butterflies fluttering thick and fast around your feet, your heads, everywhere you look.

If you walk the slopes and the glades you will find large areas of shorter turf in which wild flowers have exploded, with Wild Thyme, Birds Foot Trefoil, Harebells, Salad Burnets, Eyebright, Rock Rose, Vetches, Marjoram, Centaury, Ground Ivy, Bugle, Wild Strawberry, Speedwells and many more all creating the annual technicoloured cloak of Stockbridge Down.  I have watched the areas I had cleared of scrub, two winters ago, blossom and bloom with a new layer of ground flora, the seed bank of which lay hidden under the mossy turf and degenerate canopy of the scrub that was there before, just waiting the chance to be brought out into the light.  
So many colours...Wild Thyme

...Rock Rose (a personal favourite)...

...and Eyebright; a gorgeous little flower that is used in eye washes and eye drops.

With this incredible array of flora comes, of course, the butterfly spectacle.  I realise I mention Stockbridge butterflies in most of the summer months but that is because they really are just too fantastic not to.  My weekly butterfly surveys have shown the numbers to be soaring up as we hit into midsummer, from 64 one week, to over a hundred the next, to 264 this week and still climbing.  The Marbled Whites are covering the longer grasses and thistles in their hundreds, closely followed by the Dark Green Fritillaries and the Skippers in all their orangey buzzing glory.  And this very week has bought out the first of the Gatekeepers and the onset of the Chalkhill Blues.  The Chalkhill blue butterflies will peak around late July into early August and are just phenomenal – thousands of silvery blue butterflies floating like vapour across the slopes and, quite often, on dog turds from which they like to take the salt.

A Marbled White - wings like a Magic Eye picture.

17 Chalkhill Blues and 1 Peacock on a single turd - could it be a record!?

 I am giving a guided walk of Stockbridge Down on the 18th of July, so if you want to come and see these wonders for yourself and hear about the history, archaeology, habitat and management of the Down then ring Mottisfont Abbey and book yourself a place.  If you don’t want to come on the walk, then go and visit the Down anyway I urge you- you might even be lucky enough to hear the elusive Turtle Dove as I did, in the scrub on the lower slopes recently.  It has a beautiful deep ‘purring’ coo, much deeper than a pigeon and much rarer.  Stockbridge Down is a stronghold for these summer visitors and as I didn’t get to hear one last year (although others did) I was very chuffed to hear one this summer.

The sheep flock are doing well on the Down and are looking superbly sleek and bright now that they have finished shedding their ratty, dreadlocked, winter coats.  This breed shears themselves (thank god) and I must say they do a far neater job than I ever could.  They have plumped up with the summer flush of grass growth and are looking very healthy.  The two new lambs that we bought back in May have been added to the main flock and after some initial nose touching and bottom sniffing of the newbies, they all happily settled down together without any apparent need to settle the hierarchy.  The lone male was a bit sheepish at first (snigger) and let his sister take the lead which was unusual for him as he is normally very bolshie and first in line, but as Ryan said – ‘he’s a bloke that has just been chucked in a room with 28 women; of course he looks terrified!’.  Fair point.
Summer fleeces - very sleek.

Now as I have mentioned before that we have a population of ageing Juniper trees, those Giant Pandas’ of the plant world.  I have written before about their struggle to survive and reproduce as a species (see Winter Hymnal blog post), which is due to a number of factors such as being dioecious, lack of seed viability, seed vulnerability to predation by small mammals and mites, their need for completely bare soil on which to germinate as even grass will shade out and kill any emergent seedlings and so on.  All in all, a rather difficult species to try and preserve but one which, as one of only three conifers native to Britain (the other two being Scots Pine and Yew), it is important to do so.  There is also a whole host of life that relies on Juniper alone for survival, such as Juniper Shield Bug, Juniper Carpet Moth and of course – our gin and tonics.

We have spent two winters clearing the scrub from around the mature Juniper trees in order to save them from being shaded out (detailed in past blog posts).  I have spent the following summers spraying the scrub regrowth to kill it off and prevent it from returning, a job which I did again last week in the sweaty heat of spraying overalls and welly boots.  This is helping to preserve the mature Juniper trees which are welcoming the chance to be free of shading scrub.  However what we really also need is for the Juniper to regenerate which is very difficult to get it to do in the wild down in the South.  Whether it’s the lack of suitably viable trees and gene pools, attacks of mites and parasites or the conditions of the surrounding site, it has always been an ongoing project for agencies like Plantlife (see their ‘Juniper; Breaking New Ground’ online article for a good scope on the challenges of preserving this species) and landowners of any Juniper sites.   
One of our countryside volunteers Tony took a special interest in the Juniper, having spent many a day helping clear the scrub from round it (which seemed to put most people off it, but Tony was hooked!) and together we visited another nearby National Trust site called Pepperbox Hill, where they have similar issues with scrub and Juniper, and where they have tried a number of seed cage designs.  Tony took one of these designs, created by Plantlife and made ten sturdy seed cages.  The aim of these cages is for them to be placed beneath a berry bearing female Juniper with bare soil left within.  The area around it may grow up with grasses or other plants, but the soil within the cage would be kept bare and clear of weeds.  This would give the potential for any berry that fell into this soil from the tree above, to be able to germinate successfully in the soil (uneaten by rodents as they would not get into the cage) and begin to grow (without being shaded and out-competed by grasses or weeds as we would keep the soil clear of them). We could also potentially sow seeds into them from trees on the site, to try and help kick start the process. We installed these cages across the site a few months back with the aim to weed them throughout the summer and hope that in a couple of years’ time, they would bear fruit.  
Installing the cages

In place beneath a berry filled female

 Tony and I came to weed them this week, for the first time since their installation.  Some had barely any grass or weeds at all; others were deeply surrounded by bramble which we hacked back.  We worked our way round them, expecting only to be weeding and clearing when suddenly…..there, poking up out the ground just below my weed clearing fingers…there grew a baby Juniper.  I choked slightly, uttered an expletive and pointed it to Tony.  We looked and saw another one…and then a third!  Three! Three baby ‘panda’s’ in one seed cage, a first for the site and a rare occurrence in Hampshire – natural Juniper regeneration!  These little blue green, spikey seedlings stood only about an inch high, all too fragile and vulnerable but there – against all the odds and to my complete astonishment as I honestly hadn’t thought we would get any seedlings in the cages within the first few months - these babies take years to ripen and germinate, and yet here they were, the first of their kind to be born onto the site (that we know of) in many, many years, possibly since the original, mature trees themselves.

We whooped and hollered and I ran full pelt back to the truck to get my camera to record the evidence.  We cleared the few weeds from the cage – oh so carefully, so as not to disturb the children – and just stared and gawped for a while more at these little things which I hadn’t imagined we would succeed in getting after so short a time.  Then we carefully replaced the lid, tucked them in, and crept away.

We shall weed the cages again towards the end of summer and see what the others bring us.  I now feel the burden of parenthood, with three rare youngsters in my charge and the fear that some calamity may befall them before they reach adulthood. There will be a long way to go but it has shown us that we have viable seed trees and thus the potential to save our Juniper population here – may these three be the first of many.

Hope for the future - viva la Juniper!

Thursday, 10 July 2014

Life Aquatic

Greetings!  And a long time it has been; I have been off-blog for a good few weeks due to events such as holidays, moving house and the hectic workload that June bought us.  Weeks of warm breezes and sunlit hours also ensured that our working time was spent on outdoor jobs, leaving the office stuff for a rainy day – a plan that never works well in winter but comes into its own in summer.

The summer solstice has been and gone already, and it is almost inconceivable to me that we are halfway through the year and heading back into the shorter days of winter - however, I won’t dwell on that for now as we are still enjoying the heat in which to get our work done.  And with the onset of June came, of course, the first of the three annual weed cuts on our river stretches.  Our river keeper Neil dove (haha) back into action and spent every waking minute for 2 weeks in the river trimming the Ranunculus whilst obtaining a small population of ticks on his various body parts as he went – he is one of those useful people to have around as he draws ticks towards him before anybody else.  I did my part where I could and helped him push on the weed down the River Dun which, in the hot weather was a delightful task, even when we had to start over again due to more weed coming down from the upper stretches.
Salute of the weed Cutters

The weed cut period has also allowed me to begin a project that has been years in coming and will be ongoing for years more.
Stockbridge Common Marsh is a site of ours that lies in the village of Stockbridge, just down the hill from Stockbridge Down.  It is a 23 hectare site alongside which runs a tributary of the River Test, called Marsh Court River.  Now this site has some valuable fen and marsh habitat as well as important chalk stream habitat, both of which serve to class the marsh itself as a Site of Special Scientific Interest, and the river tributary as a separate SSSI.  Consequently these designations as well as the beauty and tranquillity of the habitat for both humans and wildlife alike, mean we have to do our best to protect and preserve them both.
If you have ever walked on the Marsh you will have noticed the badly eroded river bank on the Marsh side.  Now any river bank that is made of peat, as this one is, is going to suffer some erosion from natural river processes as it is a soft substance that the current of the river is able to wear away.  However this process is usually buffered by a marginal fringe of bank side vegetation of rushes and reeds, water parsnip and so on, all of which help stabilize and protect the banks and provide brilliant habitat for water voles, damsel and dragonflies and water birds found here.

The bank side of Stockbridge Marsh is almost entirely devoid of vegetation due to river erosion and the pressure of livestock, people and dogs climbing in and out and breaking off the overhanging turf which has suffered river erosion beneath it.  There have been many plans over the years to try and improve this bank and save it as the erosion evidence is plain to see – you can see chunks of bankside turf that have fallen in over the last few months, just lying in the river. 
In order to re-stabilize and allow the bank to regenerate I have worked with Natural England and the Environment Agency to come up with a plan of action.  Consent was then sought from both agencies and gained, and I was finally able to begin the first phase of work during the June weed cut.
We have erected a fence along the first 200M of the river, which contains some of the worst eroded stretches.  This fence will remain in place until the bankside vegetation has grown up enough and the bank has recovered enough to allow it to better stand the pressure that is put upon it.  A fence was erected some years ago along the top part of the river and the vegetation that has grown up there has proven how beneficial it has been in keeping it protected until it has recovered.
The new fence

So the fence went up and then come the weed cut (when the fisheries downstream would not be disturbed by work we would be doing) I started installing a geotextile material, with the help of work experience students and our countryside volunteers.
This geotextile material is essentially an engineered form of faggoting, but one that is more durable than faggots and better for long-term works.  We installed it by post banging down some specially treated stakes that came with the material, designed to be used in rivers.  These were hammered down into the river bed and the geotextile contains ‘pockets’ through which you slide the stake before hammering it so that you can then pull the fabric tight along to the next stake and so on.  You end up with a long edge of geotextile that will basically serve as the new bank side whilst the area behind it begins to grow in.  This was very hard, hot work as we had to do it all manually due to the sensitive nature of the bank – no post banging machine would have been able to be sat on the bank edge as its weight would have collapsed it.  So, waders were dug out from the sheds where they had sat since last year, and we jumped in the river and worked from the waterside.  

The geotextile in place
The geotextile in place


The geotextile was finished in June and now, with the July weed cut looming, we can begin the next step, which is to work on the banks themselves.  The bank will be manually dug out under their overhanging edges; just enough so that the top layer of turf can be folded down to create a shallow slope.  This will slope down into the water behind the geotextile and the remaining area will be filled in using peat dug out from the bank and vegetation transplanted from other areas of the site, to help it begin the regenerative process.  By creating this shallow sloping margin, you are making a far more natural habitat than the current steep sheer sided banks that erosion has created.  Different plants, invertebrates and other wildlife utilise different areas of the bank based on the different gradients and provides far more diversity than the sheer faced eroded bank side.
The stretch that we are working on contains the shallower part of the channel.  There are some parts of the channel that are much deeper and would require the river bed raising before we could do bank works.  However this first step will enable us to gauge the success of the bank work on the shallow channel (and I believe it will look fantastic in a growing season or two) and thus plan our next step.

Obviously this is a very sensitive project as the Marsh is a beautiful and popular place for people to walk their dogs, enjoy a picnic or just come dip their feet on a hot day.  The work we are carrying out has had both supporters and opposition, mainly due to the presence of the fence.  Whilst another 500m or so of the river remain unfenced and therefore perfectly accessible, we appreciate that people may find the fence along the first bit visually disturbing and it may look like we are trying to bar people from being able to enjoy walking by the river.  This is obviously not the case as we do in fact want to try and preserve this stretch of river for the future so that more people can enjoy it, hence the work.  If we did not carry out this bank work, the bank would continue to fall and the river would become wider, deeper, and siltier and lose all the important features and aspects that are so valuable in the ecology and make up of a chalk stream.  

So, many thanks to the Stockbridge Court Leet who have funded the fence and geotextile materials for this work and thanks to those people who stopped to talk to me whilst I was working on the bank work and boosted us with their support – it means a lot when you realise that people know you are trying to do what is right for a habitat in order to preserve it – forever, for everyone, right?