Friday, 22 December 2017

Another local patch

Last weekend I was at my boyfriend's in Winchester, and with a slightly murky and drizzly weekend ahead of us, we weren't that inspired for choices of walks. However, a quick peruse of the map yielded some interesting exploration of his local patch, which he'd never walked around.

The first walk from his house took us through the scenic delights of a housing estate and the Sainsbury's carpark, before crossing the main road on an elevated footbridge - suddenly we were out in the countryside. It's always amazing how quickly in some places one can do that.

We walked along ancient boundary hedges, the tufts of the year's wild clematis festooning the fences, beside remnants of chalk grassland grazed by British White cattle owned by the Hampshire & Isle of Wight Wildlife Trust, and along old droves along a ridge top. We descended steeply, with gnarly old yews marking the way, as they have done for centuries. Very tranquil and seldom walked, and definitely a route to do again in the future (the Sainsbury's carpark is actually a very handy point on the route!).

The second walk on Sunday was a bit of a race against time before the rain moved in. We walked a loop from Kings Worthy, skirting wild wet woodland, streams and wetlands in the Itchen Valley, walking underneath the M3 and across the A34, through the picturesque villages of Easton and Martyr Worthy, and again encountering more British White cattle - the Wildlife Trust are busy making contacts with landowners to restore these fragments of rare wetland and chalk downland habitats. Alas, the rain came just as we started our route back, but despite this, it was a great loop through some less well-travelled bits of the valley. Sometimes it's really worth looking at the map to discover these hidden treasures.

Wednesday, 13 December 2017

Rewarding perseverance

We've had some wild weather lately, which has perhaps decreased my motivation for getting outside.

The final day of the Christmas Market, just before packing up, we managed a swift walk along the Broken Bridges footpath. This meandering path crosses many short bridges, winding its way across water meadows grazed by Highland cows on one side, and more commercial cattle on the other. On this cold afternoon, we encountered very few people in this surprisingly tranquil spot sandwiched between Harnham and Churchfields Industrial estate!

But the real reason for the title of this post was our walk into town along the Avon Valley Path on Sunday. You may recall this was the day of rain, sleet and snow, depending on where in the country you were. The wind whipped our faces, with squally showers blowing in intermittently. Funnily enough, this usually-busy path was rather devoid of crazy people like ourselves.

Having made it into town, and had a quick mooch around the Christmas Market (so dull now our chalets aren't there!), we retraced our steps back home. The observant in the party quickly spotted something moving along a tree trunk overhanging the river - a woodpecker! We were able to watch it for a little while, hopping along trunks and hammering for insects. Certainly the best view of a greater-spotted woodpecker I have had.

And then, walking along the boardwalk by the river and the reedbeds, he again spotted something interesting - this time a magical flash of blue. Yes, a kingfisher! It flew into the reeds and turned to face us - the rufous breast camouflaging perfectly with the surrounding habitat. The path split off in its direction, so we decided to follow it for a closer look, resulting in it zooming away from us, a beautiful splash of azure on this otherwise-drab lunchtime.

I was so glad to have been 'forced' out of the flat that morning, to the best views I've had of these beautiful birds.

Tuesday, 28 November 2017

Goldeneye on the water

I'm busy with the Salisbury Christmas Market at the moment (do come down!) but did manage to meet up with some friends and potter around Langford Lakes Nature Reserve this weekend.

It's definitely best in the winter, with an interesting and diverse array of wildfowl present on the old gravel pits. Although it's a small reserve, it's very quiet, unlike the larger complex of gravel pits Blashford Lakes, which we visited a few weeks ago.

This meant that we had most of the hides to ourselves - I'm no twitcher, and can only identify a handful of species out there. Lots of tufted ducks of course, but also gadwall pootling about, male wigeon looking resplendent in their chestnut heads and creamy facial stripe, many rear-ends of shovellers, the obligatory cormorants and grey herons and a possible kingfisher sighting.

One hide mostly looked out onto bird feeders, with great tits, robins, dunnocks and even a goldcrest flitting about. However, the real star of the show was mammalian. I have never seen such fat rats, for such an extended period and so close-up. They really are much-maligned. Can you blame them for hanging around a free and easy food source?!

One of the people in a hide told us of a male goldeneye on one of the lakes. We really didn't expect to find it but lo, there it was. It seemed to have befriended a black-headed gull, and looked very lonely. It really is a beautiful bird - crisp black and white patches, almost like black dominoes, and with that startling golden eye. Sadly no pics due to lack of telephoto lens!

Now, I said I am no twitcher, but that was a new 'tick' for me!

Sunday, 12 November 2017

Winter is coming

Yes, I know, somewhat predictable - but with most of the leaves finally on the ground, and autumnal wildlife on the wane, there's definitely a sense of things winding down to wait out the forthcoming cold snaps.

Although it was a tad muddy and drizzly yesterday, I dragged us out for a walk around Bramshaw Wood in the New Forest. It's near Nomansland (which has a pub, so hardly lives up to its name), on the northern end of the Forest, and hence not many people visit. It's a lovely mix of ancient woodland, with small streams and ancient Saxon boundary banks among other earthworks.

There are numerous paths - it being Open Access - making plotting a route rather difficult. An OS map isn't that useful BUT GPS is - on several occasions yesterday I was just pointing us in the right general direction. It was rather slow progress - negotiating extreme muddiness - it having rained a lot the night before - and tackling the holly bushes - but we were rewarded with beautiful mossy, gnarly beeches and oaks, fern-lined streams, and beautiful golds, oranges and yellows of the leaves falling around us. We saw one set of amazing fungi (look - don't pick, following the clear signage on most Forestry Commission car parks, to safeguard the amazing richness of fungi here), but apart from that, the fungi season appears to be over.

This morning was a different picture - sunny, with a cold biting wind on our walk into town along the river. Again, very muddy, but the beech and field maple leaves seemed to sparkle in the wind, and on our way back, we saw a kestrel hovering and had a fantastic view of a red kite effortlessly circling above us. So great to see these once-rare birds becoming a frequent sight in Salisbury.

Oh yes, and we also saw a red admiral butterfly - here we are in November, and without a really hard frost yet, some surprising species are hanging on! This week may bring an end to that :(

Sunday, 5 November 2017

Blowing Autumn away

I've really noticed the pace of the season lately - all of those autumnal gusts are really blowing the beautiful leaves off the trees, seemingly before they've really had a chance to change properly!

This weekend I've tried to catch some good autumn colours before it's too late, firstly via a loop starting from Hinton Ampner, and then today at Stourhead.

Some of you may recall I HATE a 'there and back' walk i.e. not a loop. Therefore, I managed to construct a loop, starting from the road to the ancient and pretty village of Hinton Ampner (off the A272 towards Petersfield, about 30 mins from Winchester). I had inadvertently also taken in part of the Cheriton battelfield from the Civil War, which has various interpretation panels dotted about - very interesting. It was a rather grey and cold day - very autumnal. The walk took us down ancient old droves with beautiful thick hedges laden with berries (refer to my post about mast years!), towards the Open Access of Cheriton Wood. I'd never been before - it's an interesting mix of native broafleaves, various conifers, and wide glades being planted up with new trees. Lovely colours, particularly from the beeches. On battling our way to the edge of the wood (no paths!) to pick up a footpath back, we came across a sign welcoming us to the wood. Unfortunately, it then turned out that the open access excluded August - Feb - whoops! The path then took us to the village of Bramdean via some fields of what looked like Phacelia (good for farmland birds and often planted as part of a Stewardship scheme) - not much to it apart from an enormous manor on the road, but not even marked on the map! Bramdean Manor itself was tucked away up the hill on our route, nestled next to a 12th century church being renovated, and with stunning views back across the valley towards Hinton Ampner. Here, we're at the very top of the Itchen catchment, and indeed, Cheriton is where the springs forming the source of this amazing river can be found. In the gathering gloom we quickly yomped back along a beautiful ridge towards the car.

And then today we braved the crowds and headed to Stourhead. It was chocker but, it seems to absorb the vast hordes well and we were able to enjoy the stunning autumn colours (perhaps a week or two too late?) without too many people blocking views! I'd not been before, but the constantly changing light made for some beautiful photos. The low autumn sun caught the edges of the tulip trees, planes and beeches, seemingly setting them afire. Beautiful but fleeting - some patience required!

So get out there (a recurring message of mine!) before this brief spectacle is over!

Sunday, 29 October 2017

Re-exploring the patch

In the last few days I've taken slightly different routes to re-visit some local haunts, and thoroughly enjoyed the sense of exploration!

On Thursday, we headed off to Lymington and Keyhaven Marshes on the beautiful New Forest coast. Although it was half-term, and certain spots were a bit busy with families, we encountered relatively few people on most of the walk from The Chequers Inn to The Gun Inn. Both are lovely pubs, but on this occasion, time was against us so we had lunch in the Gun. Next time Chequers!

It started off a bit drizzly and misty, but this soon blew (!) away, to leave great views across the marshes towards the Isle of Wight. The dark-bellied brent geese are now back from their summer spent in northern Russia, with their babbling and honking filling the air as we passed by them. The vast majority of this race are found on the South coast, so it's a bit of a speciality. We also saw and heard turnstones, curlew, redshank, shelduck, little egret, lapwing and a variety of other birds too far for the naked eye - I'd forgotten my binoculars!!

Yesterday we battled our way passed road closures to Blashford Lakes near Ringwood. These flooded gravel pits are now a haven for waterfowl - this time I'd brought my binoculars! the hides were very busy with lots of twitchers, so we didn't stay too long, instead preferring to amble in the sun, but we did see pochard, heron, lots of cormorants (as per usual), egret, little grebe, tufted duck, gadwall and teal. We skirted the edge of the New Forest by walking on Rockford common (part of the Northern Commons owned by the National Trust), with fantastic views back down towards the lakes, and passing some amazing old trees. I'd not done this particular loop before - definitely one for the future.

This morning we headed off to the Woodford Valley - picturesque and traditional, villages lined with thatched cottages and beautiful views to the River Avon. We started off on the Monarch's Way long distance footpath (the same one that runs through Grovely Woods and Clarendon Park), crossing the Avon, running alongside some ancient hedgerows filled with spindle and field maple (ancient hedgerow indicator species), then looping around into the Devenish reserve. This is a small piece of very steep chalk downland, beech woodland and wood pasture, owned and managed by the Wiltshire Wildlife Trust. The beech leaves were not yet at their best, but the view from the top across the valley is stunning. My eye was caught by a small tuft of purple - knapweed still flowering at the end of October! It's certainly been very mild.

Finally, I managed the usual loop in Grovely Woods this afternoon - the avenue of beeches is always beautiful, but with the delicate golds and oranges starting to come through, providing a rich rustly carpet, it was very atmospheric. Let's hope the colours continue to develop before all the leaves are blown off by winter storms!

Tuesday, 24 October 2017

Death and decay?

This is how I have previously referred to autumn - doesn't really quite do it justice, and in recent years I've come to look forward to this season of change.

I'm not long back from a lovely few days up North - the Lake District and Scottish Highlands visiting friends - and although it was a bit of a whistle-stop tour, we did manage to exalt (!) in the amazing scenery.

It certainly makes the South seem very busy and flat! However, I'm still so lucky to have some amazing places right on my doorstep. It being the foraging season, we headed off to Langley Wood NNR for a potter and possible chestnut foraging. The fungi were diverse and beautiful, with the leaves on the magnificent beeches, oaks and sweet chestnuts just beginning to turn. Not at their rufous best yet, so a future visit required.

It was, however, the peak time to collect chestnuts! This year definitely seems to be a mast year (hardly death and decay!)- where all the trees produce lots of fruit/nuts to create a population boom of predators, only for next year to not produce anything and cause a massive population crash. This means the trees can put less energy into successfully reproducing whilst their predators (insects mostly) slowly build their populations. Cunning! 

So make the most of this year's bounty (even if it means risking life and limb dodging falling spiky chestnut cases falling around you, or spending hours preparing the damn things!), as next year is probably going to be fairly rubbish!

Sunday, 1 October 2017

Walking with the Devil

What with holidays, visiting friends, and various craft fairs, I've not had too much time to explore the local patch, but I corrected that on Monday.

I'd been working in Blandford all day, which meant that the drive home took me passed Martin Down NNR, which I feel I've been neglecting this year. It's Devil's Bit Scabious season - just when you think the summer is over, and the glorious flowery colour is fading to dried husks of a myriad of many-shaped seedheads, up pops this spectacle.

It's purply-blue cluster of flowers is usually found on unimproved grassland, sometimes in the wetter patches in fens, other time on drier, chalk banks. Many species depend on it - for a late-season nectar source, as well as a food plant for the caterpillars of the marsh fritillary butterfly (another rarity). Oh, and it's so named because of the very short rootstock, allegedly bitten off in a devilish plot - who comes up with these things?!

The peak of the flowering season for this species is in September, so get out there while you can and see this last reminder of summer before autumn really takes hold.

Tuesday, 12 September 2017

The Hovis and the Ivy

Do bear with me...

I had another week off work (such luxury!) and made the most of the patchy sunshine through a few nice walks locally.

The first started at the lovely Queens Head pub in Broadchalke in Cranborne Chase- Terry Pratchett's favourite - and headed in a loop down along the lane to Middleton Down Wiltshire Wildlife Trust reserve and up to the Ox Drove. Although not the best time of year to see the amazing wildflowers of chalk downland, it is the season for late butterflies and devil's bit scabious. On this very peaceful walk, the scabious in particular was beautiful - we spotted the best display on the footpath down from the Ox Drove on our return journey, descending Knighton Hill (182m high) steeply via some ancient Mediaeval strip lynchetts (terracing for farming). Although the swifts have departed back to Africa, we still had swallows and house martins to accompany us through the insect-rich fields.

The next day we headed west to Shaftesbury for a nice potter around (including the site where the 1970s Hovis ad was filmed!!)before calling in at Old Wardour Castle on our return. This ruined site is run by English Heritage, but you can get pretty good views from the brilliant network of footpaths in the area. We followed a roughly two hour loop via New Wardour Castle (1800s mansion now owned by Jasper Conran!), featuring more swallows and house martins, babbling springs and ancient woodland. We passed an extremely ancient, gnarly old sweet chestnut, hollowed out but still clinging on to life, with a magnificent view across the countryside.

Finally, we squeezed the good yomp to Old Sarum on Sunday morning - again, more swallows (when will they leave?) but also, most notably, an incredible swarm of ivy bees. They were emerging from the bare earth on the steep footpath on the hill back to the flat - they weren't there on the way down but clearly it had sufficiently warmed up to trigger them to emerge. Having done a bit of research, it's clear that Salisbury is a bit of a hotspot for this solitary bee, which was only described as a new species in 1993 and only found in the UK in 2001. There is no 'queen' here - the males emerge from their burrows - where they have spent the year as pupae - about a month before the females. This means they then pounce on them when they do emerge in late August/September, and is what we were seeing - quite incredible! Each female lay a few eggs in their burrows and feed the grubs on ivy pollen and nectar. As ivy is a late flowering species, that's why they emerge now. That's evolution for you!

Wednesday, 6 September 2017

Climbing by feet or by car

I'm just back from a fabulous holiday to Sicily, but before that I managed some lovely long walks in Cranborne Chase.

The first was along the old Ox Drove from Salisbury Racecourse, taking a detour to make it a loop that took in an area of chalk downland. It was early evening so the low light cast long shadows on the undulating ancient ground - this area had been cultivated during Mediaeval times I believe. There were still many flowers out, and I spotted an autumn gentian in bud - not quite autumn yet! Quite a rare plant and an indicator of unimproved grassland, not touched by fertilisers. The dead stems of orchids hinted at an amazing display earlier in the season.

The next morning we headed off to the Fovant Badges. These are regimental badges cut into the steep chalk escarpment running along the A30 off to Shaftesbury. We parked at the layby with the info board and walked up (very steep!) and over the ridge for spectacular views. The top includes Chiselbury Hill Fort, with its Iron Age ramparts clearly visible and bedecked with more beautiful chalk downland flowers.

We continued our walk along the same drove from yesterday (it runs all the way to Shaftesbury) before turning off onto some Open Access chalk grassland - amazing steep valley systems, with the sides once again chalk downland - devil's bit scabious just peeping out, dwarf thistle, bird's foot trefoil, ox eye daisy, knapweed, eyebright etc etc. We followed the valley almost down to Broadchalke, before heading back a different way albeit uphill, for beautiful views back across to the valleys we'd just traversed.

It was at this point we heard distant sounds of car engines - not your usual road cars, but what sounded like racing cars. I suddenly realised it was the day of the Gurston Down Hill Climb - a notable event on the racing calendar and ending at a point where it intersected our footpath! This meant we had to wait until all the cars had gone back down again, but certainly gave us something different to look at!

The final part of the walk was on of the ridge, looking back across the flatland below, and walking along an ancient path crossing the escarpment. Amazing to have this landscape on my doorstep!

Thursday, 17 August 2017

The old and the new

Last week was a bit of a mix of visiting new places and revisiting old haunts.

I managed a quick walk after work along part of the Clarendon Way at the Winchester end - the views are spectacular, even with a storm front coming in. Much of the land is in Environmental Stewardship, with wildflowers, birds and insects abounding.

We then headed off to Langford Lakes Nature Reserve - this is owned by Wiltshire Wildlife Trust, and is a small group of flooded gravel pits, now home to a variety of interesting birdlife, insects and plants. I had my best view of a kingfisher - normally I'm too busy walking and talking to notice, and they're usually a blue blur! This one perched obligingly in front of the hide before flitting off along the lake margin. It's a great place for this protected and declining species to live - they need banks to burrow in for their nests, and a good abundance of small fish. Often, our banksides are modified so they don't have access. We also saw tufted duck, gadwall, the obligatory cormorants, swans and mallards, and great crested grebe. It's a work in progress too - they took on some more land in 2011, and they're attempting to return it to its former glory of a flooded watermeadow, grazed with cattle. A very interesting corner of Wiltshire (just off the A36 heading out of Salisbury) and we didn't encounter anyone at all on our walk!

Finally, last weekend we had a good long walk in the South Downs National Park. We started at Beacon Hill NNR - owned and managed by Natural England, it's an area of steep chalk grassland, scrub and ancient woodland, great for butterflies and wildflowers. Our route skirted the reserve, before heading out along the South Downs Way down into the Meon valley, before crossing the old dismantled railway line and heading towards Old Winchester Hill NNR. We then headed north along the Monarch's Way, stopping for refreshment at the pub in Warnford - the perfect spot, as their beer garden has the Meon flowing along one side. This is one of our very rare chalk streams, but notable in that it isn't legally protected as it's a much shorter river and doesn't have some of the species found on the Test and Itchen. It's therefore often not in a great way - over abstracted, receiving agricultural runoff and modified in parts. However, recently, as part of a partnership project with the South Downs National Park Authority, water voles were reintroduced to the river after years of absence. Fingers crossed this marks a new beginning for this beautiful little river.