Monday, 8 February 2016

Wild is the Wind

Wild is the Wind – a small tribute to the recently departed genius of David Bowie and also a pretty accurate summary of the weather battering us today.  I sit writing this from my own sofa as the Mottisfont estate has been closed to the public and staff today due to the high winds of Storm Imogen which is currently howling and screaming over the South of Britain – I’ve just heard another of the recycling bins go flying across the road outside and the neighbours fence has decided to relocate itself to someone else’s garden…whilst we are all very used to working out in all weathers and have done so many times, it would be pretty foolish to be out in the woods and open countryside today so we remain hunkered down and tucked up and wait for the storm to pass, as it always does.

The last few weeks have seen us bungee between icy, frosty days and back to the mild, wet days which make our winter works more difficult to complete as sites are just too wet to access with vehicles or machinery.  My truck has obtained an interesting damp smell reminiscent of fungal growths and gym changing rooms as every time I clean it out, it simply gets disgusting again within days as I squelch into it in sodden waterproofs and muddy wellies.  However not everyone is fed up of the wet weather – I caught this little fellow taking an energetic bath in a puddle the other day, giving himself a good fluff up and shake down, possibly making himself look his best for the upcoming breeding season.
'This will make me look good for the ladies!'

 The sheep at Stockbridge are taking it all in their stride as ever, seemingly unruffled by storms or frost and just tucking themselves deeper into their scrubby kingdom for shelter – emerging in one woolly tide to flow down the hill to the corral for the daily nut handout.  During the frosty period the other week I visited them to top up the nuts and deliver some mineral licks.  The frost lay thick on the ground, making the shady sections of the slope appear almost white, and the water trough needed an inch of ice smashed off the surface.  

The frosty shade and the thawed sunlit grass

All but one of the sheep appeared for nuts, with the missing one being one of our old girls, usually first in line….which made little alarm bells go off in my head; was she lying dead somewhere, victim to dog attack or harsh weather?  I looked around, trying to think like a sheep and decided to head off to the North end, up to the Higher Meadows which were in the sunlight and consequently had thawed out a bit; if I were a hungry sheep I would head there.  I hiked along and up the slope, keeping my eyes peeled for any sheepy shapes in the scrub and kept shaking the nut bucket, but no answering reply came.  Finally I crested the rise of the hill into the Higher Meadow and there, in the sun thoroughly enjoying herself gobbling the thawed out grass was our missing ewe. Clever old girl! Whilst the others were down in the frosty shadows, she was basking in the winter sunlight and happily eating her way through the meadow. Phew!  I couldn’t help but be relieved as the last two times I’ve had to search for a missing one; it had ended in a dog attack victim – but thankfully, not today.  One whistle and she finally heard me, her head shot up and she came charging over for her own personal supply of nuts whilst I stopped to enjoy the view and get my breath back.

Our missing ewe - sunbathing happily higher up the hill.

One very plump sheep enjoying the sun - check out the double chin!

The grounds of Mottisfont are also looking stunning in the winter sunrise’s and ambling down the drive on my way in to the office is a pleasure on such days; the font looked especially magical, with the early morning mist steaming off of the water surface making it almost look like an inviting warm bath – pass the Radox!  

Bath, anyone?

Our work at this time of year isn’t all about felling trees and clearing scrub.  We have also been doing one of my favourite tasks of winter – tree planting.  We have several projects going on across our countryside portfolio for tree plantings including woodland creation, hedgerow planting up and coppice planting.  I find it very satisfying to put a tree in the ground, tuck its roots in and wish it well and know that this tree is likely to outlive me and, in the case of species like Oak and Beech, it will live out many future generations of my family.  There is something very therapeutic about looking at veteran trees and knowing they have stood tall through all that has gone on around them over the centuries; wars, development, storms, changing land practices, disease and so on – they have survived it all and are some of the few fixed points in a changing age.  

Our site at Foxbury, in the New Forest is part of a restoration site for heathland and fringing woodland.  Over the last few years the site has undergone radical change from a rhododendron covered conifer plantation, to being cleared and allowed to redevelop back to lowland heath like many of its neighbouring areas in the Forest.  Part of this restoration includes planting up of wet woodland fringe areas around the buffer edges, a project which I have talked about in previous blog posts.  This year’s winter planting sessions, undertaken by our Community Ranger Jake and involving many volunteers and members of the community, has now finished, with almost 6000 trees gone in to the ground this winter season.  This is a tremendous achievement and a brilliant milestone towards the end goal for the Foxbury site – already many species have been attracted back to the area since its conversion; Nightjar, Dartford Warbler, Woodcock, Adder and many more are making Foxbury their seasonal or all year round home.

Foxbury planting

And from one lot of tree planting to another, we whip back to the Mottisfont estate and the work here.  Under our Woodland Grant Scheme, we routinely clear fell areas of plantation, in order to sell the timber and then replant the area with broadleaf species alongside the natural regeneration.  We also have many kilometres of hedgerow around the estate some of which have thin/bare areas where the growth has died out and which require replanting to thicken up the hedgerow again.  Ryan and the volunteers have been planting up these hedgerow gaps with a mix of hedgerow species specific to the area and the soils, to ensure the best possible survival rate.  They have also been planting Hazel saplings in our working coppice area in Queen Meadow, alongside the layered stems from the current stools, all of which increases the number of Hazel trees growing in a coppiced section which in turn is important for product quality.  
Planting in the coppice - alongside some beautifully stacked charcoal piles!

 By increasing the density of the coppice, it encourages the stems to grow tall and straight in order to race upwards to the light away from the neighbouring stems and this results on good quality product, useful for stakes and binders, peasticks, walking sticks, charcoal and more, for use across our sites or for selling to wholesalers and our own shop.  I joined in with some of the planting in Queen Meadow last week and it was like a soothing balm to a winter weathered soul.  The air was still and mild, the sun finally held some warmth in it and all around us there were little signs of spring; Celandines gleaming gold, Snowdrops pure and white, birds singing heartily and best of all, best of ALL – butterflies!!  The first emergent of the year of those species who hibernate as adults (usually Peacocks, Red Admirals and Brimstones to name a few) and sometimes awaken on warm winter days – and how it warmed the frosty cockles of my heart to catch a glimpse, just for a brief second, of those fluttery, buttery loves of mine, which, alongside the fresh, warm breeze, gave a tantalising hint that spring was coming and nature was beginning to wake up.   
Which is why i know that, despite the raging weather today, we are almost there - Welcome back Spring – boy, have we missed you.