Sunday, 22 January 2012

A Rubbish Post

The life of a conservation volunteer is wonderfully varied. One week we may be moving sheep and ragworting, the next it could be moving ponies or cows and rubbish picking.

Last week it was rubbish picking.  It seems that some of the chalk grassland sites we work on were once grand fly tipping areas.  A lot of the larger rubbish is removed when a site is initially cleared and fenced, however, when the area is to be grazed, the remaining smaller bits of rubbish also need to be cleared and it is amazing how much of it there is.

After a quick sheep move our task was to rubbish pick an area at Hutchinsons Bank that will possibly be grazed by the project's two Dartmoor ponies in the Spring. It is strangely satisfying when one reviews the big load we removed from the site.

It is even more satisfying when one sees all the broken glass, barbed wire and other dangerous things we removed.  I wonder how many wild animals may have suffered with injuries caused by this rubbish.

Most of our volunteer livestock work involves the conservation grazing sheep but another variation over the last couple of weeks has been tasks involving the Project's cows and ponies.

I am not very confident with cows as the only ones I have been involved with in the past were some rather dopey bullocks owned by my boss in a previous job. These big fellows would happily walk all over you rather than round you:)  Animals are quick to pick up if one is nervous and the biggest give away is the way one breathes so I had to use the 'boring' technique (see 'Boring' post 18/9/11) to make sure I stayed calm while helping move the cattle.  The first move was taking five of the Project's Sussex bullocks to the field next to Holly Lane car park at Chipstead. They were all very good which is just as well as they were sporting sharp little horns which on occasions seemed to be just a matter of inches from the Grazing Officer as he ushered them into the trailer.

The second move was taking the remaining three bullocks to Foxley Wood, Purley.  This is a surprisingly lovely site, a little oasis, close to the infamous, car infested, Purley Cross and with views across to Riddlesdown.

Following the move to Foxley Wood there was just enough time to visit the farm where the Project is over-wintering twenty conservation grazing cows for the Corporation of London. Even though I am not a fan of cows I have to say these are a lovely group who seem friendly and inquisitive.  One particularly caught my eye as she looks as if she has just had her top knot permed:)

My favourite stock move over the last couple of weeks has been the return of the ponies to my livestock checking area of Tatsfield.  The sheep were moved up a field and the ponies have gone in at the bottom, conveniently next door to the farrier as they will soon need their hooves trimmed again.  It is the first time they have grazed this field so after gobbling down some tasty grass they trotted round inspecting their new abode.

Then it was time to show off with a bit of bucking and galloping around just to inform any rivals or predators (being ponies they still think there may be wolves in Surrey:)) that they are tough guys.

Then they noticed the sheep staring at them from the adjoining field.  Both ponies and sheep looked shocked and quite horrified at first but it didn't take them long before they were politely introducing themselves....

Lastly I wonder if other people are having trouble with their blog sites?  I have had to change my 'comments' from embedded to pop-up as some people (including myself) couldn't access them. Also there are several of my favourite sites that I cannot access at all and others that I cannot access the comments on.  Is it my computer or is it blogger or something else?  Any ideas would be most welcome.

Sunday, 8 January 2012

Where's Winter

The first job of the New Year was to get over to Saltbox SSSI to dig up the Ragwort. Although Ragwort is the host plant for the Cinnabar Moth, it is, unfortunately, also very toxic to grazing animals and eventually the effects can kill them.  Horses are particularly sensitive to the plant if eaten and for this reason one is obliged by Defra's Code of Practice, to remove it if there are grazing animals near by.

We thought we had cleared the Ragwort from Saltbox in the summer but, worryingly, not only are there plants still flowering and producing seed heads (each plant can produce 150,000 seeds!!) but there are new plants growing and beginning to send up new flower heads.  They are in a sheltered part of the field so with the mild weather they have just kept growing.  I dread to think what it will be like next Spring/Summer if we don't get some proper winter weather soon.

We took three bags over to collect the Ragwort we had dug up but after just an hour we had filled them all so will have to go back again this week.  While digging up the Ragwort we found some lovely fungus...

...and also noticed that the Cuckoo Pint is shooting up.

It is so mild that I haven't really been able to do my new country boots justice which I had bought on the big side to accommodate thick socks to keep my feet warm this winter. When I first got them they seemed too lovely to use in the country (see pic below). 

However it hasn't taken me long to christen them and they are now covered in mud after walking across the fields to do a livestock check of the Herdwicks that we had moved from Chapel Bank to Tatsfield last week.

When we arrive to do the livestock check, the sheep seemed very interested in something going on over the other side of the fence, but when I looked I couldn't see anything unusual.  We moved them on to check that none were showing signs of lameness and then went off to check the fences. By the time we had finished they were back staring over the fence...

Very peculiar I thought...then, suddenly, a big lorry drove past very fast and the sheep all ran and I realised they had been looking at the traffic going past.  Although they are used to the sound of traffic, I don't think they have been in a situation where they could really see the traffic but at the point in the field where they were looking it was quite a bit higher than the road and so gave them a birds-eye view of all the vehicles speeding along this little country lane.  They obviously found it very entertaining:)

Sunday, 1 January 2012

Happy New Year

2011 was full off BIG ups and BIG downs but it was never dull and as such I am sorry to see it go. Thankfully there were more ups than downs.

One of the things that stood out for me in 2011 were the wonderful wild flowers of the Spring and Summer, particularly the Bee Orchids.  I know they are not particularly rare but they are very beautiful and at one point last year, they were so prolific, we were discovering a new one nearly every time we went out.

Unfortunately there was also a profusion of Ragwort.  This is a plant that is very poisonous to grazing animals so much of the summer was spent digging it up.  Unbelievable, even after all that effort, with this mild weather there are still Ragwort plants flowering on Saltbox SSSI, so that will be one of the first jobs to do in back is already aching at the thought of it.

Another highlight of 2011 was, of course, being involved with the lambing.  It was hard work and stressful as I was worried that I would do something wrong but it was also very, very rewarding seeing the a new generation of little conservation grazers gambling around the fields full of the joys of life.  Even now when I see them, all grown up, it still gives me a buzz of satisfaction.

The biggest down of 2011 was having to face the reality that my mother had Alzheimer's and then having to make her face the same reality so that we could take her to the doctor for a proper diagnosis and treatment to slow its progress.  Even with the drugs, her condition has deteriorated a lot over the year.  This was brought home to us particularly when her Christmas cards arrived from friends and relatives and she couldn't remember who they were. Sooooooo sad, but as usual she put on a brave face and Christmas was a particularly lovely, happy family occasion...very special as I suspect this will be the last Christmas she can enjoy knowing all her grandchildren and her great grandchild. Maybe she won't even remember me next year:(

Unfortunately my three friendly pheasants weren't so happy or festive as they had the most almighty fight with each other on Christmas morning.  It went on for several hours with them ferociously pecking at each others necks and lashing out with their claws and growling (well that's what it sounded like) menacingly at each other.  The cause?  A male pheasant who stood by watching them for the first hour or so and then got bored and marched off, obviously deciding he didn't fancy any females that behaved in such an unlady-like fashion:)  All is calm in the garden again now, but it shows Spring is on its way.  I think it will be early this year.

As soon as we get in to the new year, I can't wait to get the Christmas decorations down and return everything to normal, but unfortunately the family won't let me, saying it must be done on the 12th night.  I am beginning to think I know why.  Forget all the traditional reasons for decorating the house with Holly and Ivy.  Whilst reading my favourite book, Culpeper's Complete Herbal, I found that he refers to Pliny observing that Ivy berries are good for 'preventing drunkenness' and also saying that, 'the speediest cure for a surfeit by wine, is to drink a draught of the same liquor wherein a handful of bruised ivy-leaves have been boiled.'  He also says that the berries of Holly 'expel wind.'  It seems they are the perfect plants to have draped round the house over the 12 days of Christmas, although personally, I wouldn't like to risk any of his cures:)))))

And so to 2012.  It's going to be a great year because life is too short and too important for it to be anything other.  My New Years resolution is the same as it was the New Year following the birth of my first child, 33 years ago, and has been every year since... that is to get fit and lose weight:) I think this might be the year I actually succeed as everything in the shops is sooo expensive and I don't want to have to go back to work so it will be half portions for everyone:)

Have a Happy New Year and instead of joining the gym please consider joining your local conservation groups for some volunteering.  It is needed this year more than ever as all the councils are having to make big financial cut backs and our precious countryside with its special flora and fauna is going to suffer if we don't get out there and help maintain it:)