Sunday, 28 August 2016

Bee gardens and blackberries

What a gorgeous week it's been weather-wise. I was lucky enough to get out on Wednesday for a trip to the New Forest for work. All of the colours of the heather and the gorse together with the stunning azure sky made a feast for the eyes!

It also got me thinking, as we watched the bees buzzing through the heather, of the feast being created around us through their endeavours. Heather honey is a recognised 'product' in supermarkets, but is obviously not a new thing. It reminded me of a trip to another part of the Forest a couple of years ago, where someone had introduced me to the wonders of 'bee gardens'.

These were small banked enclosures - to protect against the free-ranging livestock - within which hives were set up. They're a relatively common sight across the Forest, if you know where to look. They are hundreds of years old - quite amazing to have survived and a testament to our sweet tooth!

Now is the time for the start of the blackberry harvest, and last Sunday we popped out to Blashford Lakes Nature Reserve near Ringwood to see how our favourite bramble patch was doing. We collected lots, with the peak season still not upon us. Lots to clean and put in the freezer! On the way back, I had a quick look at Dockens water, the small New Forest stream that had been restored a decade earlier from it's previously-straightened self. Now, tea-coloured waters flow over the clean gravels, creating pools and riffles, and many niches for a variety of wildlife.

To contrast, on Bank Holiday Monday we are heading to the River Test for a potter and exploration of the nearby Harewood Forest - an area I've never explored and which nearly became a SSSI several years ago.

Saturday, 20 August 2016

Correcting the media

Some of you may have seen the article in the Guardian this week from Chris Packham, saying the New Forest was overgrazed and the habitats and species were suffering. Well, from my experiences this year, I would beg to differ.

Last weekend the family opted for a pub lunch as part of a birthday celebration, and then walk through Wellow Common. This is part of the Northern Commons, owned by the National Trust. Here, the turf is very short, heavily grazed by ponies, donkeys and some cattle. Despite this, it was teeming with life.

The common and bell heathers, and cross-leaved heath, were all flowering, forming a mosaic of purple as we walked. Clusters of yellow tormentil, and in wetter patches, spearwort, provided the opposite end of the colour wheel (how does nature do that?). Large heath butterflies flitted from gorse bush to gorse bush, and buzzards wheeled overhead from the adjacent, cooling woodland. It was an idyllic English summer scene.

The New Forest's value comes in part from the mosaic of close-cropped turf (the 'lawns'), taller heath,  wetlands and ancient woodland. Many rare species require these conditions - for example, small fleawort positively thrives in habitats that look like the Somme! And where some species may struggle in areas where livestock might favour, there are plenty of other areas that they can survive. On the whole, it all balances out. I haven't seen the Forest looking this good in years, which is a testament to all those involved in positive management of this unnatural landscape.

Spending more time outdoors can have a surprising impact on work productivity, as I found this week! Our management team had a business planning meeting, and a following day of team building, at Testwood Lakes near Totton. We kick-started the session with a picnic buffet outside, overlooking the lakes on a beautiful sunny day, surrounded by dragonflies and bees. We were all subsequently very relaxed going into our business meeting, and came out of it feeling positive and inspired, which rarely happens! We continued this the following day with the team building sessions - being outside the whole day seemed to energise people.

Just think what could happen to our economy if people spent more time outside? Recession, what recession?!

Saturday, 6 August 2016

Lazy hazy days of summer

It's been a bit of a whirlwind of socialising, of course, always featuring the Great Outdoors!

Last Friday I introduced a good friend of mine (and her one year old in a push chair) to Martin Down - I should be getting commission on the advocacy of the place! Although a bit overcast and with ominous clouds gathering, the light seemed to pick out the mass of colour in the 'purple season' that is upon us. I'm not quite sure why this is, but it also follows the 'yellow season' - cowslips, hawkbits and yellow rattle give way to knapweed, scabious and harebell, and with them come the butterflies such as dark green fritillaries and marbled whites. The Down is looking absolutely stunning this year, so made an excellent impression on my friend - she can now understand why I keep raving on about the place! We encountered a trio of intrepid mobility-scooterers, who had negotiated their way through the rutted tracks to the very top of the reserve - admirable that they wouldn't let decreased accessibility get in the way of a good view!

I followed this up with a weekend in Kent, visiting an old school friend, who showed me some of the sights. Once again, despite the drizzle and mugginess, the White cliffs of Dover were amazing, and carpeted with wildflowers. I even heard a corn bunting up there, which was surprising given the scrubby nature of the area - they like to sing from fenceposts in wide, open fields usually.

And for once, during the week, I was able to negotiate time away from the desk, not once but twice! On Tuesday we had organised a team meeting on a farm on the upper Itchen - the river was a mass of aquatic plants, forming a green underwater carpet, amongst which trout darted and damselflies skimmed over. Quite idyllic, although on close inspection you could see the diatoms coating some of the vegetation (looking like brown slime) - an indication of phosphate levels being too high, mostly from agricultural runoff. Still much work to be done to improve things.

I also spent a day out on the Dorset Heaths, on a mini tour around the outskirts of Poole, hearing about the restoration work to sites, through hard negotiation with landowners, the complex politics and history, and how they join up on a landscape-scale. Some of the sites had good heather growth in under 5 years - quite staggering, and a testament to the resilience of the natural environment, if given the right conditions. This year seems to be particularly good for the heather, with a vibrant swathe of the different purple tones of bell heather and common heather.

Finally, I've just got back from a quick potter in the New Forest with more friends - Churchplace Enclosure near Ashurst is a mixture of ancient and conifer woodland, and on a hot day like today, the dappled sunlight cast beautiful shadows in the cool depths, with silver-washed fritillaries swooping in the glades, and tormentil flowering on the rides.

Quite a contrast but once again, I marvel at the variety of sites within close reach of Salisbury and, for the most part, the ability of them to 'soak up' people, enabling tranquility and peace, not far from the hustle and bustle of the busy school holidays.