Friday, 30 January 2015

Briefly leaving the patch

Wow - this week has flown by - it's amazing how an impending holiday (in my case, skiing in the French Alps) can speed up the last days of work!

Although I won't be visiting my patch this weekend, I did manage to get a little further afield this week, through a morning of scrub-bashing (technical term!) at Old Winchester Hill NNR.

Now, although nothing can compare to Martin Down NNR as readers will know, Old Winchester Hill isn't half bad, even during the torrential rain and strong gusts that nearly blew us off the side of the hill. It's a large-ish area of chalk downland, yew woodland and scrub in the South Downs National Park - in fact, the  South Downs Way National Trail runs through it, drawing thousands of visitors each year. It has the most amazing views stretching out as far as Portsmouth, Southampton and, even on the murky day we were there, the distinctive local landmark of the Fawley oil refinery on the New Forest coast. It also has a large iron age hill fort - this is where the highest point and best views can be found. In summer, the hillfort in particular is covered in round-headed rampion and field fleawort - both nationally-declining chalk specialities. And of course, the butterflies are something to behold, with a notable population of my favourite, the chalkhill blue.

If I'm trying to sell a place to visit, posting pictures of my morning there will not do it, so here's a picture from a glorious day spent assessing the grassland diversity in June 2012, the stunner that is the round-headed rampion, and a chalkhill blue butterfly to get you planning your visit (although note you'll need to go in August really to see it).

Sunday, 25 January 2015

No birds:(

Just a quick post to update you all following the Big Garden Birdwatch run by the RSPB.

So, no birds sighted for me - a shame, but not entirely unexpected. My garden is shared with the ground floor flat below, and until relatively recently, we hasn't done anything with it. It's smallish but a blank canvas really. the only trouble is it is on a very steep slope towards the flats, and surrounded on all sides by other houses, gardens and tall hedges. The catalyst for change came late last year, when the neighbours finally removed the hideous Leylandii hedge that had blocked out all sun to it. Suddenly, there was a new lease of life and things actually started growing!

I organised a garden work party with my friends, which also included kind donations of plants. We dug two flower beds, trimmed back the hedge and generally tidied up (but not in a death-to-all-wildlife kind of way!).

Things have yet to start growing properly, and therefore be discovered by the birds. So, I'm hoping that this year's Birdwatch will act as a baseline to measure the effectiveness of the garden renovations - here's to next year and many flocks of birds descending on the garden (and that the many cats in the neighbourhood don't stake it out for lunch).

Saturday, 24 January 2015

Unexpected benefits from a training course

Last Sunday saw me venture onto Martin Down NNR - don't know how I had resisted so long this year! This time we walked up and out of the reserve onto the neighbouring downs, ending up at Penbury Knoll hillfort. Barely a soul around, with amazing views across the NNR and beyond across more of Cranborne Chase. The Chase is an AONB (Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty) and forms a large area of downland, arable land and woodland in parts of Wiltshire, Dorset and Hampshire. In fact, on the walk, we crossed from Hampshire into Dorset.

 That set me up nicely for the working week, which got off to a beautiful if frosty start. I was taking my first aid requalification training course, and this involved me walking into town across the watermeadows.

It's a beautiful walk I know well from my childhood growing up in Harnham (suburb of Salisbury), starting at the historic Old Mill pub and restaurant, right next to the Avon, then taking the Town Path through the watermeadows. These are still irrigated today - watermeadows are mostly found in Southern England, and started in the 1600s I believe, although there were various phases. The idea was to take the naturally-warm spring water from the chalk river (water percolates down from the surface into the chalk aquifer, being held there and released slowly, and therefore coming out slightly warmer than surface water in the winter) and 'drown' or irrigate the meadows in the winter months. this prevented frost and promoted early grass growth, meaning that sheep could be grazed on the meadows earlier than elsewhere, giving a competitive advantage to the farmers. They would be grazed on the meadows during the day, and then driven to nearby arable fields overnight, where their rich dung would aid crop growth. If you're interested in getting involved, you can attend demonstration days held by the Harnham Watermeadows Trust - highly worthwhile.

The watermeadows - although not traditionally valued for their wildlife - provide a green oasis right in the heart of the city, and habitat for overwintering wildfowl and waders. one part of it is also a SSSI (Site of Special Scientific Interest) for the rich flora, especially in the ditches, which also support water voles and many invertebrates - well worth a visit!

Saturday, 17 January 2015

Waiting for Spring to spring

Yesterday, whilst emptying the compost, I noticed my raspberry cane had the first leaves unfurling - this is despite the cold snap. I always find winter drags on a bit, and look forward to spring, with all that new life. of course, mostly it's not 'new' just life that has woken up!

Last Sunday's walk was in a very windy Grovely Woods near Wilton - Wikipedia says it is one of the largest woodlands in southern Wiltshire, but what I love about it is the feeling that you are walking where others have walked for centuries. There are signs of this everywhere - great beech avenues, smaller droveways, tumuli on patches of relict chalk grassland, old mile stones. And of course, there's the wildlife - not much to see at this time of year, so instead I marvel at the magnificent trees (mostly beech in among the conifer plantations that sadly spoil some areas) and their bright mossy plumage. Come spring, there are carpets of bluebells and other wildflowers, which always amazes me, when you consider how bare it all looks at the moment.

Recently, a change in my job means I am not going to get out and about as much as I have been used to, making weekends even more important to stretch the legs (put the new walking boots to the test), and take in the landscape. So, time to plan for tomorrow!

Sunday, 11 January 2015

Kick-starting the year

I've been meaning to do this for ages, as part of the BBC Wildlife Magazine Local Patch Reporters project, but also as part of my intention to write (and illustrate) a guide to wild spots in and around Salisbury. So here goes!

It's a funny thing, but until relatively recently, although passionate about the natural world, I hadn't really explored the locality. I'm Salisbury born and bred, but when growing up, our parents didn't have the time to get to know some of our local reserves, juggling their business with family life. Only really since Sixth Form (I'm now 32) have I been out and about.

Martin Down National Nature Reserve (NNR) was one hell of a discovery for me, being practically on my doorstep and THE most beautiful place I have ever visited, throughout the year. And, in latter years, I've been to New Zealand, Australia, North America and Tanzania, so it just goes to show you don't have to go far to see something amazing. This has just been recognised by the BBC Countryfile Magazine ( to cast your vote!!).

I'm an ecologist by training, and am extremely lucky that my work in Hampshire sees me visiting places most people don't get the chance to see. This also forms the inspiration for many of my artworks (see here for my website:

Right, let's start the year as I mean to go on - the sun is shining so where shall I walk this afternoon?...