Thursday, 14 May 2015

This Fairytale World we live in.

The other day, when I had a rare moment to spare, I took a wander into Herless Copse, which is one of our smaller woodlands which lies just off the village cricket pitch.  Throughout the winter months (and detailed in my blog post last November) the volunteers had cleared back four cross rides in here, North-South and East-West, in order to encourage biodiversity of woodland margins, and encourage ground flora, butterflies, bees as well as create corridor habitats for creatures such as the Barbastelle bats to use as a route to their feeding grounds.  This work was carried out mostly under the lead of Geoff, one of our Monday volunteers who has led the group on a lot of ride work across the estate and helped us swipe, cut and bring our woodland rides back into rotation.  Having not visited the site since the winter months I made an effort to go in there and see how it was looking…..

As I stepped into the woodland the first thing that hit me was the smell; not a bad smell, but a gorgeous heavy scent that could only mean one thing – bluebells!  As I walked further in I started to glimpse between the greenery, a purple haze ahead and suddenly, I burst out of the trees and onto the cross rides and into a whole new world of colour and light. Bluebells grew thickly across all the newly cleared areas, creating a visual display that instantly leapfrogged itself into first place for bluebell displays on our estate.  The scene must have looked like a huge blue cross from above and the warmth of the sun enhanced the smell to a dizzying heady perfume.   Butterflies and bee’s hummed and fluttered around happily feasting on the floral buffet and overhead a buzzard circled lazily on the thermals seemingly admiring the spectacle below.  I wandered gobsmacked into the middle of the rides, completely blown away by the sheer intensity of colour, all the more so because of the short space of time in which it had occurred; we cleared the rides by the end of December and here we are, 5 months later and a hidden seed bank has exploded into light and life – superb!

...everywhere... look!

As I drifted through a movement in the corner of my eye made me pause.  I peered into the trees and spotted the herd of Fallow deer that tend to frequent these woods, their tails and ears constantly twitching and flicking against the flies, which is what had drawn my attention.  What made me double take was that for a brief instant, one of them stepped into an open bluebell glade looking partly like something out of a fairy tale but mostly like a very lost sheep – for it was a pure white doe.  We gazed at each other for a minute before her instincts over took her and she melted back into the safety of the herd, who all began to bound away further into the wood and away from human eyes.

Can you spot her?

It was like a completely separate world in there, like something out of a Brother’s Grimm tale, where pure white deer skipped among the trees and the ground was a magic carpet of orchids and bluebells.  The only sound was of birdsong and bee buzzing and for a moment it was like the outside world didn’t exist.  Once I’d had my fill of this wondrous place I stepped back out into the sunshine of the cricket pitch and returned to my truck chuffed with the results of our winter work and content in the knowledge that if I ever needed a place to revive my spirits, the bluebells of Herless were waiting, hidden within.

And bluebells are not the only floral display to be taking off as we enter the late spring/early summer months.  Stockbridge Down is beginning to spout out an array of wildflowers, whose colour all tantalizingly hint at the spectacle to come, just around the corner.  Milkwort, Horseshoe Vetch, Rock Rose, Wild Strawberry, Herb Robert, Red Campion, Speedwells, Forget Me Not – all have erupted with the warm weather and are littering the slopes and the herb rich glades in amongst the scrub patches.  And this is only the beginning – in another few weeks the yellow/orange tinted flower of the Birds Foot Trefoil will be in full force, and indeed I saw the very first one just newly opened yesterday.  Wild Thyme will pop up, Eyebright, Marjoram, Harebells, Ah! A whole host of colour is yet to reveal itself but we are nearly there!   Just a little while longer….

Horseshoe Vetch

Naturally I cannot talk about the wild flowers of the Down, or indeed the Down itself without updating you on the butterfly activity.  This last week has really spoilt me for butterflies up there as each passing week sees a new species emerge, fresh and new into the world for me to observe and delight in.  This week I have seen more Orange Tips, Pearl Bordered Fritillaries, Duke of Burgundy and Grizzled Skipper, Holly Blues, as reported in my last blog.  New to the show this week has been the Dingy Skippers, which I have never seen in such high numbers up there, Green Veined Whites, Small Heaths, Small Coppers showing off their beautiful orange hue which suits their feisty temperament perfectly and Green Hairstreak – seen a lot on the Down by other people, but not usually by me.  However I spotted four on two visits this week so I think they have paid their long overdue visual debt to me – they really are the most incredible colour butterfly, a shimmering emerald green underwing that can often be spotted resting on gorse bushes.  This one however fluttered past my knees and rested in the grass, allowing me to take this photo.  
A glittering jewel in the grass
Just take a moment to wander through the shorter turf glades on the Down, where flowers dominate over grasses and you will undoubtedly spot the tiny Grizzled Skipper, its larger cousin the Dingy Skipper, Small Coppers and many more all fluttering from hummock to hummock like perfect tiny clockwork toys.

Also, in my last post I wrote about the success of our clearance work for the Duke of Burgundy on the site.  I am pleased to report further triumph as I was on the Down yesterday, at the completely opposite end of the site to the Duke of Burgundy area and what did I spot?  A Duke of Burgundy!  This means they are either spreading across the site or we have a second colony – either way, a fantastic result!

Duke of Burgundy
Another fantastic result has to be that of our sheep grazing.  The Wiltshire Horn flock, which I currently have grazing on the furthest slope of the Down are all getting fat bellies and dirty back ends as they gorge on the spring flush.  They are also going through their seasonal wool shedding and as a consequence of the itchiness of the shedding wool, they are a bit more irritable with each other of late.  When I go to see them, there is wool on every branch and the corral fence is lined with it.  They are all rubbing their heads, flanks, and bums on tree trunks to remove the hot winter clothing and their patience with each other is so thin that when they come to the corral for sheep nuts there is a lot of head butting going on!  

The wool lined corral

Walter the Wether itching his back end on the Elder


Watching the pecking order establish is amusing; two sheep will suddenly give each other the evil eye, walk through the flock towards each other whilst rippling their shoulder blades in a sort of ‘come on then, come on then!’ motion.  Then they stand and have a stare off and, if neither backs down they suddenly leap and head-butt each other full in the face – a sight which always makes me wince and my nose twinge as I remember one of them head-butting me in the face last year.  Sometimes one head-butt is enough and one backs down meekly, sometimes they carry on for a few more, shaking their heads after each collision to try and get the dazed stars out their eyes no doubt.  In the end, they all get sheep nuts so I’m not really sure what the point of it is…but I’m not going to intervene.
Eyeing each other up for a challenge...

Meanwhile, the section of slope they grazed last year, which had been under grazed for a few years before hand, is now looking stunning.  The grass growth is lush and green and the flower species seem to have catapulted – I walked there a few weeks ago and already Violets, Speedwells, Cowslips, Forget Me Nots and many more were popping up, now that they were not being dominated by grasses and their seedbank could germinate.  It shows how vital grazing is for a chalk grassland site and the sheep will do the same job on their current slope this summer, bringing both sections back into a grazing rotation that will benefit the site hugely.
Zzzz....dozing in the sun after a tough morning shedding wool and eating.

I stood on the top of the sheep slope the other day and looked down and across to the neighbouring arable land where the silage had been freshly cut and lay in neat rows ready for baling.  Like the fading Rapeseed fields that dominate the arable landscape, this view of the silage harvest acted like a constant reminder of time passing, the seasons moving on.  It is not only the natural world that demonstrates the seasons, in every tree leaf bud, every new wild flower or butterfly species that emerges, but the manmade landscape too, as the fields turn from brown to green with crop and the tractors come out of hibernation to march up and down the fields with sprayers on their backs.  Even now, with the sight of the silage cut, I know that time will fly round all too quickly to the hay cutting season and beyond.

Another area that is worth a visit now is the Mottisfont orchard on Hatt Lane.  Lovingly pruned, mowed and tended by our volunteer Keith (and lovingly scrumped for apples for cider by myself) the orchard is looking idyllic right now.  The trees are full of blossom and wildflowers including an impressive cowslip display litter the ground beneath them.  If you are walking past on our estate trail then it is a perfect place to go and have lunch in or to take a doze in the sun.

The Cowslips in the orchard

Finally, as always with the warmer months, I am constantly on the lookout for reptiles.  More often than not, my reptile encounters are the sound of a sudden scuffle of a lizard darting into the undergrowth, or the slithery rustle of a snake I haven’t even seen sliding away out of sight.  However every now and then I get lucky and this week was no exception.  I took an early morning stroll through the Duck Grounds, before the property opened and enjoyed the buzz and hum of wetland life as everything went about its morning business before the sun got too hot and the visitors came in.  I knew of a stretch of boardwalk where I had spotted the tail end of a grass snake last week (tail end as it was typically quick and was off before I really saw it) and so I crept along this stretch softly and quietly, hoping to spot one basking in the early sun.  Nothing revealed itself in that stretch but then, as I walked further on I came to an abrupt halt; there, in the middle of a clearing on a nice mossy log pile for all to see, was a beauty of a grass snake, basking flat out in full view.  I held my breath as I tentatively got my camera and took photos.  
See her flattened body for basking?

Right from the start she (I don’t know for sure but it was big enough to suggest female…but you can’t really tell unless you count the scales from its vent to its tail, as the males typically have longer tails) had her tongue out, scenting the air for the sudden new scent that announced my arrival.  The scent was obviously bad as within 20 seconds she slithered back into the log pile.   I passed back that way ten minutes later, keeping low so as not to be a blot on the skyline that might alert her to my presence, and I spotted her head just poking out of the log pile.   However even crouched low and standing downwind, her incredibly acute senses meant that once again, unhappy at my presence, she withdrew back into the shadows, where I couldn’t follow.

Thats it, I'm off!

Thrilled that I had finally tracked down a grass snake in this area, I left her in peace and ambled on, with the morning soundtrack of birdlife trilling all around me, as the first butterflies of the day started fluttering out to play.