Saturday, 30 January 2016

A first

You may recall that last weekend I let you about to head off to Bentley Wood again. Well, in a Rose-first, we didn't get lost getting there or walking in it!

It was extremely muddy places, so we mostly stuck to the main tracks, exploring a part of the wood we hadn't done so before. This took us through mixed woodland, including numerous stands of hazel, bedecked in their wonderful yellow-green lambs' tails (catkins) - a sign of spring on the way. These are the male part of the tree, with the female part (the bit that will eventually produce the wonderful nuts) forming relatively inconspicuous reddish tufts close to the branches.

Continuing on, we came to the edge of the wood and followed the muddy path south. This took us alongside what appeared to be Saxon earth boundary banks, indicating the ancient origins of the woodland, probably divided into parcels between the local populace. Several ancient yews also emerged from the woods - I believe in this part of the country these were mostly planted several hundred years ago - a further testament to the long use of the countryside here.

On another occasion this week, I was driving through the New Forest on my way back from a meeting - I know that the Forest is pretty much stuffed with deer (having seen many over the years) but I was surprised to be able to make out a herd of fallow deer through the fence on the main road from Cadnam to Lyndhurst. I just happened to glance that way as I was driving along at 60mph - how many people would have missed them? A privileged view.

And now I'm writing this part-way through the RSPB Big Garden Birdwatch - I know I should be watching the garden (that's the whole point) but as not one bird has deigned to show itself so far, I'm making other use of the time! I think my 'problem' is that there is so much great habitat for them elsewhere, and there are so many cats around, that there's not much point venturing further afield- if I was a bird, I wouldn't bother either! saying that, I have seen several species in the garden - perhaps they're all out enjoying the sun?!

Sunday, 24 January 2016

Extremes of temperature

What a funny old week. Last Sunday I attempted a short walk around the Stratford Nature reserve (my new local patch-within-a-patch!) but the extreme mud and waterlogging called a halt to proceedings.

Then partway through the week the cold snap hit - and this coincided with my handbrake cables freezing, so I was sat waiting for the breakdown people for nearly 2 hours. I was on my way to Dorchester for a team scrub bash - for those not familiar with such a term, it usually refers to a team day out destroying unwanted vegetation, to make way for the preferred vegetation, usually species-rich grassland. Much of conservation works hinges on some form of destruction!

We were heading up to Hog Cliff NNR - think I've mentioned it before in posts - and with the sun shining and a thick frost, it made for a beautiful setting for our destructive activities. The low winter sun picked out the ant hills, highlighting the NNR's importance for invertebrates as well as plants. However, upon the first approach to the fire, a big bit of ash went down the back of my glove and burned its way through 4 layers of clothing - only a very tiny burn to the skin, but very annoying on both the holey-clothing front AND paperwork!

Nevertheless, camaraderie and cake saw me through the rest of the day - we were clearing blackthorn, hawthorn and gorse off of the chalk downland here and with about 15 of us present, we made a big impact (including one 'specimen tree' being felled by a particularly exuberant - there's always one!). It was amazing to see the pyrotechnic tendencies of gorse - no wonder heath fires take hold so quickly and sweep in a destructive path, as it lights with a big 'whoosh' and leaping flames.

And this afternoon - if the rain holds off - we'll be attempting not to get lost in Bentley Wood once more - fingers crossed!

Sunday, 17 January 2016

Are the eels ill?

A quote from a good friend of mine - it only works with a Portsmouth accent!

I'd met up with them in Alresford, north-east of Winchester last weekend, for a bite to eat and a quick potter along the river. The Arle is a tributary of the River Itchen (which, as you may recall from previous posts, is a SSSI and SAC - the highest level of legal protection).

It was pretty muddy underfoot (well, we have had a lot of rain), but the river was looking clear in many places, with lots of different aquatic plants on show. On first inspections, this seems like a good thing, but unfortunately, having carried out a condition assessment on the river in 2014, I know this to be far from the truth. The levels of phosphate in the river are still much too high - a result of runoff from farmland, septic tanks, watercress farms and fish farms mainly. And the river hasn't been allowed to 'do its thing' throughout much of its course through the landscape - for example, many of the banks are 'protected' with reinforcements to prevent them eroding away - this effectively means the river can't move. It's a funny thing, but a river is far from inanimate!

Our walk took us to the Eel House - this is a listed building that had been restored to a degree some time ago, and is part of the rich heritage of the area - harking back to a time when the runs of eels through the river were so plentiful that you could build permanent buildings to catch them. Now, unfortunately due to many factors, some of which unknown, the numbers of eels nationally are declining rapidly. With their famous migration taking them all the way to the Sargasso Sea south of Florida, there is a lot thrown at them to along the way.

Saying that, the Environment Agency have a National Eel strategy, and they are even protected under a specific piece of legislation - these coupled with efforts to improve the ability of fish to migrate up and down rivers (overcoming barriers such as weirs), the UK is doing its bit to help these struggling fish.

Saturday, 9 January 2016

First visit of 2016

Due to the copious amounts of rain we've been having, we've been constrained in our walking locations to those on the chalk. The free-draining soil has kept the paths relatively clear, although sometimes exposing the bare chalk in parts with erosion from sudden downpours.

So, last Sunday I went on my first walk on Martin Down in 2016. Amazingly, the sun was shining, casting long shadows, and really picking out the varied topography of the NNR.

The sheep were in force, rotationally grazing sections, getting the grassland ready for the spring flowers. The birds were also evident, although mainly skylarks. They have already started to sing, which is coinciding with my other observations of birds getting ready for the breeding season.

The song thrush that is resident outside of my flat has been singing its repetitive song for weeks now, joining the melodic flutings of blackbirds and robins, and the inane chatter of house sparrows. I'm lucky in this neck of the woods - we have great numbers of this declining bird, once so common in our gardens.

Talking of which, the RSPB Big Garden Birdwatch is only a few weeks away (weekend of 30th and 31st Jan) so don't forget to spare an hour to record what your garden has, no matter what its size.

Finally, no sooner had the latest issue of BBC Wildlife highlighted the fox breeding season was upon us, than I heard the cries of a vixen calling outside the flat - it's amazing what wildlife you can hear from the comfort of your own bed!

Sunday, 3 January 2016


Here we are, about to head back to work in the rain. I hope you've all had a relaxing break - mine features much mud and rain (but then the latter seemed fairly unavoidable for all!).

I started with a quick walk on Christmas Eve afternoon - the sun was out, and a rainbow - but the mud was also making its presence felt. I decided on a quick yomp around Stratford Sub-Castle (below Old Sarum), ending up on an area of wetland given to the local people by a developer, and now being managed by the friends of Stratford Nature Reserve (volunteers). They're after a grazier, so if anyone out there knows of one locally, they would be grateful, otherwise it will have to be cut, which is expensive and time-consuming. In the summer, it will be alive with insects and beautiful wetland flowers.

Despite the copious amounts of food and celebrations, I did manage a surprising number of walks, including Broken Bridges and across the Town Path. On the 29th, we opted for a family outing from Fovant across to Broadchalke for lunch and back. This started (in the sun!) with a steep and slippery climb on the chalk escarpment of Fovant Down (including the beautifully-maintained Fovant Badges - military emblems carved into the chalk), up to Chiselbury hill fort. We then hit the Ox Drove (the one that runs from Salisbury, that we often walk parts of), before turning off to walk in some chalk valleys.

We came across some signs indicating that the farm was in a Higher Level Stewardship (HLS) agreement, being paid to manage the land in an environmentally-friendly way, and including permissive access routes connecting the Public Rights of Way to areas of Open Access chalk downland. Under the Countryside and Rights of Way Act 2000, many areas of chalk downland were designated in such a way, but without connecting paths to them. This particular area of downland was part of Knapp and Barnett's Downs SSSI, being nationally-important and legally protected. It was a beautiful valley, with ancient stunted hawthorns and earthworks providing evidence of habitation and cultivation of the area for thousands of years.

In the distance we could hear a shoot underway, which was getting closer as we continued to walk down the valley. Eventually, the SSSI became a narrow bank, with a track and arable fields on the other side, which contained the shooters. We were told by a man with the shoot to stop and wait a few minutes to pass, and then walk along the track rather than the SSSI. Doing this, we were accosted by the shoot, saying it wasn't a footpath - I then showed them the map with the Open Access land clearly marked on it, which all appeared to be news to them! In any case, they were very pleasant and allowed us on our way, where we joined up the the main footpath and continued a short way on to Broadchalke for our lunch.

Afterwards, due to slow service in the pub (it was rammed) we route-marched back a slightly different way to avoid the initial slippery steep slope, and ended up through a short but very muddy stretch of path in woodland, before emerging out onto the other end of Fovant Down and returning to the car. A beautiful walk, even in the mud!

And finally, I've just come back from a few days on the North Cornwall coast, where the wind and rain made for some of the worst walking conditions I've ever experienced - saying that, the waves and coastal scenery were still amazing, even if my waterproofs couldn't cope with the blasting!

Now to work, and a week full of meetings :(