Saturday, 29 April 2017

Counting snakes

Well, not quite. Last Sunday I embarked on a great trip north to Clattinger Farm on the Wiltshire/Gloucestershire border for the annual Snake's head fritillary count. I'd never done it before, but always wanted to.

I should explain. They are beautiful flowers found on tradition hay meadows - so-called because the drooping shape of the flower resembles a snake's head, and the chequer-board pattern on the petals is reminiscent of a dice-box (Fritillus being the Latin for this). Although I'd always though of them as native, apparently they have Asian origins and were actually introduced in the 1600s. Nevertheless, their scarce distribution and association with a very rare habitat has made them highly-valued as a native species.

Clattinger Farm is a Wiltshire Wildlife Trust reserve, a SSSI and SAC (nationally and internationally important and protected), and managed as a traditional floodplain hay meadow. Apparently, the history of management here is so clear we can be confident it has never had chemical pesticides or fertilisers. This has preserved a diverse flora - when we visited to count the frits, also present were loads of cowslips and a sprinkling of beautiful green-winged orchids.

Because we've had such a dry winter and spring, the frit flowers had gone over quite a lot by the time it came to count them. They have been counting them here - as part of a Floodplain Meadows Partnership study - since 2012, complementing the existing datasets from nearby North Meadow (an NNR managed by Natural England). Hence, counting them the same time every year is important, and then helps track whether flowering time is earlier, or height of plants is affected by dry weather, for example. Following the floods in 2012, the spring frit display was atrocious - I think they only found one plant. However, one thing they have found is that they can go through a period of dormancy and come back the following year in bumper numbers. This gives hope in times of uncertain weather conditions from climate change.

The quadrats we were given to check for presence of frits yielded very few - I need to come back next year to see whether I am lucky enough to survey during a bumper year. Nevertheless, it was a lovely day calmly counting amongst the tranquility and nodding heads of cowslips and vibrant purple spikes of the orchids.

Saturday, 22 April 2017

Bluebells and orchids

Last Sunday, my last trip out for my week off was to Langley Wood NNR, just south of Salisbury and part of the New Forest National Park.

There is very limited parking, and we were lucky to get a space - clearly, the combination of sun and bluebells was a draw! The site can be very wet, even despite the numerous boardwalks, but with the dry weather we've been having, it was a perfect stroll around the reserve.

The ancient Saxon boundary banks were already cloaked in bluebells - not quite at their peak - and amazing clusters of tall early purple orchids. This complimented the violets, celandines and wood anemones carpeting the surrounding woodland floor. Coupled with the bright green early leaf growth on the ancient oaks and beeches, and the birdsong, it was a glorious spring walk.

 We followed the permissive circular route, very clearly signposted, with a slight detour out the other end of the NNR and back in again to a less-visited corner of woodland. It features my favourite beech tree and an ancient path between two deep banks swathed in more bluebells. Following the storms, and in order to maintain a safe path, 'my' tree isn't what is once was, having had some serious tree surgery. However, Natural England has left the dead limbs around the trunk and surrounding floor, for valuable habitat for invertebrates and fungi, so in time it will be a haven for many species.

Saturday, 15 April 2017

Seizing the days

What an excellent coincidence - a week off timed with fabulous weather! I had a lot to pack in, but think I did rather well.

The weekend was a jam-packed series of social events, featuring a beautiful walk along the Wilts and Berks Canal from Melksham to Seend for lunch at The Barge Inn. The blackthorn blossom was out, the birds were singing, orange-tip butterflies were on the wing, and we were heading towards lunch - idyllic!

Then, on Monday, with the sun still shining, I headed off to Fritham for a walk with a friend. Deep in the New Forest, it is a hub for various routes through ancient woodland and heathland, with some particularly gnarly old trees along our path.

Tuesday I met up with another friend for walks in Botley Wood and along the Hamble. The former is a large area of mixed ancient and plantation woodland SSSI, with beautiful wildflowers along the rides and glades. It's under pressure from development at nearby Whiteley (on the edge of Fareham), and indeed, some of the (non-SSSI) fields earmarked for housing were a mass of cuckooflower - sad to know they'll be ploughed up in a few months. The bluebells, wood anemones and primroses were putting on a lovely display as we walked, accompanied by chiffchaffs, a nuthatch and various thrushes.

Our walk along the Hamble was a bit of a contrast - the tide was in, suspending the algal mats in the water - they  are a sign of nutrient enrichment and prevent the important colonies of wading birds from feeding. A lot of work is being done to reduce runoff from agriculture and improve sewage treatment, but there is so much more to be done. Despite this, it was good to see some oystercatchers and black-headed gulls feeding, and the various wrecks and mosaic of reedbed and saltmarsh habitat were very scenic.

On Wednesday, I finally managed to get out to Garston Wood - this is my favourite bluebell spot. A small RSPB reserve north of Sixpenny Handley, it can get rather packed at peak bluebell season. I arrived at 10am, with the place deserted. The bluebells were a beautiful spectacle and yet still perhaps a week or so away from their peak. I extended my walk north out of the reserve into other patches of ancient wodland, following the Dorset/Wiltshire county boundary, and encountering the remains of a fort. The ramparts were a mass of ramsons (not yet in flower) and the surrounding land a carpet of bluebells - such a marked demarcation, so interesting to see and no doubt going to be beautiful when the flowers are at their best. I meandered down through part of the Rushmoor Estate, with lots of work being done in their woodlands to open them up - carpets of primrose and wood anemone were the result. I then returned to the reserve, photographing my favourite old mossy stumps and noting the first ramson flowers coming up. Fingers crossed I can revisit in a few weeks for their display. On my drive back I was able to have an excellent view of a red kite flying low over the road adjacent to the reserve - if the walkers I was passing had only looked up, so would they!

Thursday was a day of chores and seeing friends (although I did see another couple of red kits on my journeys!), but yesterday I headed off with my parents to Wherwell in the Test Valley for a lovely couple of walks around Chilbolton Common and Harewood Forest. Although the weather wasn't as nice as previous days, it was still dry and actually the flatter light made for better photography. Our morning walk crossed west down nature reserve - an area of chalk grassland slowly being restored, and where I spotted my first cowslips of the year.

In the afternoon, we headed up into Harewood Forest. It's a large area of mixed ancient woodland and plantation - not a SSSI, it is largely carved up into blocks and narrow strips of woodland bordering arable fields. Nevertheless, pockets of wildflowers remain, although it was interesting to see these bluebells were much further behind than at Garston. There was also evidence of hybridising with the non-native Spanish bluebell - these are the familiar ones in gardens, taller stems, wider leaves, no scent, flowers not drooping on one side, and blue pollen. On our way back I did see my first swallows of the year - a couple perched in a tree looking a bit knackered, unsurprisingly given their mammoth journey from Africa! And again, on our way back we had a fabulous view of another red kite - they seem to be everywhere at the moment. What a brilliant story of recovery.

Fingers crossed the weather continues to hold up for this Easter weekend, as I'm hoping to visit another one of my favoured bluebell haunts on Sunday - Langley Wood NNR.

Sunday, 9 April 2017

'I expect a view'

This week has been simply glorious, and unfortunately I've spent most of it indoors in meetings! However, there were a few notable exceptions.

After work on Monday, I managed to head off early, and was back in time for a lovely late-afternoon walk from mine along the Avon Valley Path - the air was alive with birdsong including a very vocal bullfinch. It's odd, but I've never really noticed them much until this year, when they seem to be everywhere! A beautiful bird to view, with its pink breast and black cap, and very insistent call.

Then, on Wednesday and Thursday, I was in a two-day management team meeting - ugh you might think, but no, this was held on Chesil Beach (or at least, in the lovely visitor centre there). For those who don't know, it's a long bank of shingle connecting the mainland at West Bay to the isle of Portland. It used to be thought to be a tombolo (a beach connecting an island) but my A Level geography has had to be updated as research has shown that it was once a barrier beach (isolated out i the channel) that has rolled backwards to join the land with Portland. Really fascinating. plus, it is home to a wealth of wildlife - little tern nest on the shingle, and the sheltered lagoon behind (the Fleet) is home to a variety of waders and wildfowl, as well as various rare plants found only in this unique habitat.

You get great views when driving up to Portland - subject to some Olympics cash - back towards the beach - on the beautiful sunny spring days we had, it looked like a tropical paradise, with the thermals off the ridge being caught by a kestrel nearly at head height. Bliss.

Then, yesterday I was walking along the Wilts and Berks Canal from Melksham to Seend in more glorious sunshine, marvelling at the reflections of the blackthorn blossom  and once again accompanied by the chiffchaffs, skylarks and other birds calling around us. Have we been lulled into a false sense of security in that this sort of weather might last? Well, i'm off work this week for a bit of local pottering, so you can pretty much bank of the weather breaking tomorrow - sorry everyone!