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!

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