Sunday, 8 December 2013

Last Post (for a while)

I have legitimately been able to forget the housework and go off exploring the countryside as the doctor said walking would strengthen my knee and help with its recovery following the op.  It has worked...I am now pain free!! :-))

Exploring my valley again has been like visiting a very dear old friend.  It is good to see the various habitats, that I have known for years, thriving and improving. I noticed that an old bridleway, that reportedly has dormice living in the trees and hedgerow that line it, has had gaps filled with more Hazel planting which is just what the dormice like :-)

I must make time to visit my valley more often as it was so enjoyable, although I missed my old dog, Jess, who always used to accompany me on these walks.  It was this valley that prompted me to start this blog in the first place but both my time and my blog sort of got hijacked by sheep and the Downland Project somewhere along the way-))

I have also visited the various parts of Saltbox S.S.S.I. The area we overlook from our bungalow is very disappointing as a third of it is now covered in Golden Rod. This picture was taken last year.  It was even worse this year.  I don't know why Natural England allow this sort of thing to happen and continue to pay neglectful farmers for doing virtually nothing.

Another part of Saltbox that is owned by the London Wildlife Trust and has been grazed at intervals by the Downland Project's ponies and goats, is looking rather scruffy and overgrown as it hasn't been grazed for several months. This is because three large scrapes were being dug. I am guessing that L.W.T. are hoping that the wildflowers above the scrapes, will set seed in them. However, the landscape funnels the wind across the scrapes, where there are mainly thistles, brambles and ragwort and I noticed these have already have started growing in them. Maybe with the low nutrient they will not take hold. Time will tell. To me, a more interesting bit to watch in the future, is where the tractor they used churned up the soil while crossing a flowering area in which Bee Orchids and chalk grassland flowers flourish.

I have also been doing some exploring further afield.  College Lakes near Tring is a favourite of mine at anytime of year but this autumn it looked particularly lovely.

As did the Ashridge Estate in the same area. Well done the National Trust for not charging for parking as there were so many families visiting with children jumping in puddles, scrambling over fallen trees and making camps.  This beautiful area of woodland should be enjoyed by everyone.

It is good to be back to my old self and I am pleased to be back to livestock volunteering.  We have moved the ponies, moved sheep, trimmed hooves and best of all put the rams in with the breeding ewes. Sheep are seasonal breeders and the rams definitely knew it was 'that' time of year. Before they were put with the girls, it was amusing to see how amorous they were getting with each other...they were obviously desperate for some female company:))

One can imagine how pleased they must have been to meet their new wives..

We are at that time of year when we are being bombarded with adverts and invitations to Christmas parties, cocktail parties, dinner and dances etc., etc., so I couldn't help laughing when I received the invitation to the Downland Project's Christmas Do... a BBQ in the middle of a field in least I wont have to by a party dress:-))  Christmas Wishes to everyone.

I am going to give this blog a bit of a rest for a while as I have some new plans for the New Year but I hope you all have a good 2014

Sunday, 20 October 2013

Autumn Memories

Spring fills me with energy and excitement for things to come but just as nice is the reverse effect that Autumn has on me. There is a sense of satisfaction. The fruits of summer are gathered in leaving a good feeling of winding down with the security of knowing that there is food in the freezer for the winter, wood in the log store to keep us warm and, this year, a new roof on the garage to keep things dry. All is in its place so, if I wanted to, I could hibernate!

This year there has been a bumper crop of everything.  The birds have been scoffing out on the abundant Elderberries and Hawthorn berries at the end of the garden and then depositing colourful, sloppy droppings all over the place for unsuspecting humans to tread in. However the pheasant's appetites still aren't satisfied and they feel the need to raid the bird table as well :-)

We've been busy making soups, pickling onions etc. and wrapping our bumper crop of apples in paper to store in our now dry garage.  This load of apples is probably just a third of what was on the tree and not many are damaged which is surprising since there is a wasps nest over our front door which is only about 6m away from the tree...

Autumn always brings back happy memories of both my childhood and that of my children's.  It was always an outdoor family time of collecting fruit, woodland walks searching for conkers, kicking golden leaves around and stuffing them down an unsuspecting siblings jumper. The biggest and most colourful leaves were always saved and carefully taken home as treasure. Under the leaves were hidden worlds of bugs, beetles, mice and fungi and in the clefts of trees, magical pools formed, that my mother and in turn, myself, told the children were where fairies bathed :-))

The RSPB has recently said that only one in five 8-12 year olds in the UK have a realistic connection to nature.  How sad that so many children and their parents are missing out on such fun and how insular and monochrome their lives must be as it is only through nature one realizes one's place on earth, that it is part of the biggest interactive game of survival that will surpass any computer game and it is full of colour and beauty.  It is good to hear that the RSPB, along with a coalition of other organisations, is forming a Wild Network with an aim to kick start a change to get children reconnecting with nature...something we should all support.  This is my eldest son when he was a child and the dog connecting with nature, watching a bird up in the Oak tree :-)

In the days when the fields behind us were cultivated, the harvest time had the added enjoyment for my children of the Combine coming round.  As soon as we heard the familiar hum of its engine there would be a moment of panic until we managed to get the cat in and retrieve any of our hens that had strayed into the field. Next the washing was hurriedly brought in so it didn't get covered in dust and all the windows closed. Only then could we sit back and enjoy our children's excitement as this monster machine did its work..

The children particularly liked it when the farmer started making round bales as they were so big and each child could be king of their own castle.  Such happy days :-)...

But then came the burning of the stubble.  The children naturally found this very exciting but I hated its destructiveness and was pleased when it was stopped.  However I was reading the other day that some farmers are wanting to start the practice again to control Black Grass which spreads a fungus to crops and is becoming resistant to conventional methods of control.

Then the farmer started experimenting with other crops and one year we had beautiful fields of baby blue Flax and the next a sunburst of yellow Oil Seed Rape which for a short time smelt quite nice but then for weeks smelt like rotten cabbage...we didn't have many BBQs that summer :-)))...

The children had the freedom of running in fields, climbing trees and picnicking surrounded by wild flowers...

It is nice to look back and I have been doing a lot of that since having my knee operation as I have been taking the opportunity to sort the many boxes of family photos, while slowly recovering.  My knee is quite good now and I should soon be back to my volunteer work with the Downland Project's livestock.  However it has been quite nice to have a break as the last couple of months of volunteering were hard and rather dispiriting.

At the end in August, there was an epic fly-strike involving the Projects 95 breeding ewes and lambs. It was caused by a very sudden and unusual change in weather. It was a critical situation where time was of the essence (in the right weather conditions fly eggs can hatch out in as little as 8 hours and the sheep can be dead within a day!!).

We worked so hard all day with hardly a break, until dusk, when there was just not enough light to see (my husband and I didn't get home until nearly 10pm!!). It was a painfully exhausting and a very distressing day but we did manage to save the majority of sheep, something a lot of people seem to forget.

Weaning this year had to be delayed a little while the sheep recovered from the fly strike but by then they had mostly weaned themselves so the task was a carried out very peacefully and without stress to them.  Not so the humans though as a few days later, when the lambs were being taken to their various grazing sites to begin their careers as conservation grazing sheep, it rained and rained and rained and I found my wax jacket no longer had any wax...I was soaked through so another rather unpleasant day.

We then had another fly-strike on sheep that had been recently been sprayed so in theory this shouldn't have happened but such was the weather.  This occurred on the Saturday we were replacing our garage roof so I left my husband and two sons to it and just the Grazing Officer and myself caught up the flock and treated the affected ones.

We have not been alone in suffering casualties from the flies as I have now heard of several farmers that lost sheep (and also a rabbit).  I think the problem was due to unusual cold nights with heavy dew and mist, followed by hot humid days that brought the flies out, who promptly homed in on the damp fleeces to deposit their eggs, as all the strikes were over their backs, sides and undersides.

I genuinely don't mind helping, especially in emergency situations and I don't mind how often I am asked or how hard or horrible the work is. I know from many years of experience that not all livestock work can be fun but it has been nice to have a break and re-charge the batteries for a while:-)

To end on a happier note the Countryside Day that the Project runs each year in September brought everyone together and there was a good team spirit :-)). Despite the wet weather resulting in the actual day being a bit quiet in comparison to previous years, it was still a very happy day.  This year we took along two lambs of each of the breeds that are used by the Project and it showed very well the differences in their temperaments with the laid back Herdwick lambs soon settling down to eat, the Jacobs cautiously following their example and the more nervous Beulahs sticking to the others like glue...

As mentioned in my last post, this year we tried to make the livestock stand more interesting with a lot more information and displays and we got good feedback with several people saying they hadn't realized that so much work and planning went into conservation grazing. The grazing assistant had also made an impressive display of dried chalk grassland wild flowers, each  in its own specimen pot and labelled with information. Unfortunately the assistant has now left the Project and he will be missed by everyone including the animals and volunteers...who is going to offer to run all the way back to the Landrover now, just because one of us has left our coat in was good working with you Sean and we wish you well :-)

So now I am enjoying, what I think is a well deserved rest while my knee gets better.  The only thing I am missing like mad is the horse I ride. I can't wait to go out for a plod with her again. This is a rather blurry pic of my last ride the day before the op.  Hopefully I'll soon be back but I can't help wondering if I should maybe make time for a horse of my own and perhaps even a small flock of rare breed sheep (I have my eye on some Soay lambs for sale nearby but the land I also have my eye on is very suitable, except it has too much ragwort and possibly too many dandelions (they are a diuretic), so it probably won't happen but it's nice thinking about it :-)))

Tuesday, 27 August 2013

Summer Fun

This summer the bird that has given me most amusement in the garden is the pigeon. The latest one is Kung Foo Pigeon:)  He has decided the garden is his territory and whilst he will tolerate most of the visiting birds, he will not tolerate other Pigeons, Magpies or Crows.  He demonstrates his disapproval by raising a threatening wing and, if the trespasser dares to come closer, a quick karate chop sees off the offender. This has been particularly welcomed by the Pheasants as the Crows and Magpies like to play a game of 'Who can get the Pheasant's Tail' causing several of the more unfortunate Pheasants to have bald bottoms!!:))

It has to have been the nicest summer we have had for several years (at least in the SE) and I am hoping this good weather will last a little longer so that we have a good day for the Downland Project's Countryside Day on Sunday 15th September (Banstead Woods, Holly Lane, CR5 3NR.  10.30am to 4.30pm).  This is a really good day out with lots to do for all the family so well worth going to.

The project always takes along some of its sheep to the show and this year we are trying hard to make the livestock stand a bit more interesting.  One of the things I have been working on is a display to show how animals graze differently and why we therefore use different animals for different sites.  To do this I needed photos of the incisors (the biting teeth) of the different animals we use.  This was not a problem with the sheep (this is the mouth of the all obliging Granny Alice mentioned in previous posts:)...

...and the ponies were easy too (Tavey is grooming Rufus hence what looks like grey hairy grass:)....

...but try getting a cow to open its mouth and, with the cow, I also needed a photo with its tongue included as it is integral to its eating habits.  I searched Google images and the Internet and only found one photo which was not really clear enough so I needed to find an obliging cow that I could get to open its mouth and say "Ahhh," for me to take the photo myself.  Cutting a long story short I did manage it and can now proudly present my photo (I think I am going to copyright it as it is so rare:)) of a cow's mouth....

It always amazes me how obliging animals, large and small, can be when one takes the time to gain their trust (all be it with a morsel of carrot) and communicate with them.

On Bank Holiday Monday, hubby and I made our annual pilgrimage to the Edenbridge and Oxted Agricultural Show.  It is a huge show with crowds of people and lots with dogs but I didn't see one dog misbehaving (I saw lots of children misbehaving though, getting very fractious, understandably as it was a long, hot day:)).  I also didn't see any particularly bad behaviour in any of the livestock classes I watched. There were classes for dogs, horses, donkeys, cows, sheep, pigs, rabbits and chickens and even a parade of cattle where several animals of each breed, including bulls and calves (probably in excess of 50 animals!!) were walked from their pens, across the showground, to the main arena where they were led around for the large audience to see and they mostly remained calm and amenable all the time...just incredible. My favourites, as always, were the horses, particularly the fantastic Shires (I am a bit biased as I used to ride a Shire who was a very kind, gentle giant).  It was good to see so many of these beautiful horses at the show...

At the beginning of August hubby and I had a few days away staying in Alfriston, a little village nestled in the South Downs.  It is only about an hours drive from us and we frequently used to take our children for days out here, kayaking on the River Cuckmere Meanders, but we have never actually spent any length of time exploring the area on foot...Wow... what a beautiful area it is with fantastic chalk grassland and amazing views, definitely deserving of its recently awarded National Park status.  Our most enjoyable walk started at the National Trust's 'Up and Over' car park situated above the White Horse...

From here we walked down through chalk grassland covered in colourful plants like Viper's-bugloss...

...and pretty Common centaury...

There were spectacular views...

Once down in the valley we strolled along by the River Cuckmere Cut to the Seven Sisters Visitors Centre where we stopped for lunch and then followed the South Downs Way up the other side which gave us even better views of the Cuckmere Meanders and sea...

We continued to follow the South Downs Way into Littlington village where we stopped for coffee. Then the path took us alongside the river again and back up through fields of chalk grassland covered in snails (yet to be identified if there are any snail experts reading this)...(also note the diverse number of plant species around the tiny snails in what must be only a three or four inches ...

We arrived back at the hotel where a lovely meal awaited us.  It was one of the best walks I have ever done and worth it even though I have been suffering ever since as I am still awaiting my op to repair the torn cartilage in my knee. The op is scheduled for the 26th Sept so, fingers crossed, by my next post it should be over with and I will soon be able to get back to The Thames Path walk which we aim to pick up again after Christmas. I am sooo looking forward to feeling normal again and to sleep through the night without waking up everytime I move and I have promised my husband (who has had to put up with my frequent moaning) that I will act my age and never again climb over a sheep hurdle carrying a heavy bale of hay!! :)))

Sunday, 4 August 2013

I Blame the Weather

There still seems to be a lack of insects in our valley.  The butterflies have picked up a little but numbers still seem low and there is a noticeable absence of all the Blues which are usually so prevalent in my garden and surrounding area.  There are also very few bees and not so many ants (we are usually over-run) and there is a marked decrease in the number of snails and slugs (the vegetables and Hostas are doing well though :)).

I just hope the numbers of these creatures recover quickly as it is having a knock on effect with other things that live in our garden. In the early summer we were finding slow worms everywhere; we couldn't put anything down without finding a slow worm under it the next day, but now there seem to be very few.  Also our bat numbers seem to be going down. We've had a bat roost for all the 37 years we have been here so I would be devastated if we lost them.  This thought brought it home as to how awful the situation is in North America where a fungus called the 'White Nose Syndrome,' has killed an estimated 7 million bats and is still spreading fast!!

Thankfully when we took my mother to visit a Lavender farm that is not too far away there were plenty of bees (although hardly any honey bees).

I can remember my mother telling me about bumble bees when I was a very young child as I had tried to stroke the furry back of a poorly bumble to make it feel better but it promptly stung me:) Sadly, with the progression of her Alzheimer's, it was my mother asking me what the things were that were flying around and what the spiky, purple plants were. She really enjoyed the visit though which was the most important thing, although, by the next day it was totally forgotten.

Some time ago we registered to take part in Plantlife's Wildflower Count and this week we received a map showing the kilometre square in which Plantlife would like us to carry out the count, as well as a useful little booklet on flower recognition and details off what we need to do.  Basically we have to do a 1 km walk within our alloted square, recording what flowers we see in a 2m strip, either to the left or right of the path and/or survey a plot of 5x5m or 1x20m.  They just ask for the survey to be carried out once or twice between 1st April and 30th September so not very taxing but extremely worthwhile.  Please consider doing it. To register on line go to

I was very excited to see that the plot we had been allocated was in the grassland directly behind Charles Darwin's house and garden in Downe (which is only a couple of mile from us).  He would have walked this area himself many times but it would have then probably been full of chalk grassland flowers. It has changed a  lot since his day as the field we walked through looked like it had been cultivated in the past but is now being left to recover and there is also a large golf course now in situ. Never the less we recorded 47 different plants (but sadly not many chalk indicators) and, as we foolishly did our survey on the hottest day of the year, we followed the walk with a much needed, thirst quenching glass of cold larger and some chips at the local pub. A very enjoyable day.

Now we have sold my mother's bungalow we are starting to catch up with things around our place.  The first task I needed to do was to get some control over the bit of field that adjoins our garden and was full of a block of 7ft high hogweeds, encroaching brambles, thistles, docks, ragwort and other invasive nasties.  I am fed up with these things spreading to our garden.  When I was helping to prepare the veg plot earlier this year I pulled up 22 spear thistles from area of about a square meter!!  I therefore decided that this year I would brush cut and rake the area of the field directly behind us before these plants went to seed.

Amongst the undergrowth I was very pleased to find one small bit of yellow rattle and one ox-eye daisy. They were surrounded by ragwort and hogweed but with a bit of continued care I have high hopes that eventually I can change this little area of the field for the better:)

This deer seemed to like what I had done and now frequently comes down to browse...

I get so much entertainment from my garden.  When the spell of hot, dry weather broke with a downpour of rain this pigeon immediately lifted his wing to shower his presumably smelly wing pits :))

This last month has been busy so we have not had much time to work with the conservation grazing livestock but several of the times when we have been out it was to help the assistant grazing officer by being on hand while he sheared the Project's sheep. This was no mean feat (the shearing that is, not the helping...that was easy :)  Shearing is a back breaking job especially if your muscles aren't used to it, the portable trimmers are heavy compared to professional shears and it was all carried out in extremely hot weather, not to mention that all the usual work associated with the livestock still had to be carried out.  I hope that Sean's efforts are duly recognised as it must have saved the Project hundreds of pounds. He hasn't been given the nick name of Superman just for jumping over gates!:)

Here is a picture showing Superman Sean shearing a shaggy sheep in shimmering sunshine (I am sure with a bit of time I could have come up with a better tongue twister :))

And lastly when trimming some of the sheep's feet the grazing officer found this little fellow which brought to mind a poem I had to put to music in a school exam and which I have liked ever since for the lovely feeling of summer it evokes..

Grasshopper Green 
by unknown author
Grasshopper Green is a comical chap;
     He lives on the best of fare.
Bright little trousers, jacket, and cap,
     These are his summer wear.
Out in the meadow he loves to go,
     Playing away in the sun;
It's hopperty, skipperty, high and low,
     Summer's the time for fun.

Grasshopper Green has a quaint little house;
     It's under the hedge so gay.
Grandmother Spider, as still as a mouse,
     Watches him over the way.
Gladly he's calling the children, I know,
     Out in the beautiful sun;
It's hopperty, skipperty, high and low,
     Summer's the time for fun.

Sunday, 7 July 2013

Big Mistake

I did a really annoying thing.  I came home from a tiring day with my mother and decided to quickly do a blog post. After two hours of searching out photos and thinking what to say, to cut a long story short, I inadvertently wiped it all off unsaved!!  My husband asked how I managed to stay so calm and good humoured about it (I had laughed at my stupidity). "It's a good excuse for comfort food and drink," I replied...I am now rewriting the post under the influence of a big chunk of cheese and a large glass of spiced rum!!:))

Now how had I started?  I think I was bemoaning the fact that there weren't many bees and butterflies around my garden this year.  Infact the only insect I found on my walk around the garden this morning was a fly on an ox-eye daisy...

I decided to visit the Saltbox SSSI which usually has lots of butterflies and lots of lovely chalk grassland flowers.  It was rather depressing as there were very few butterflies.  It hadn't been grazed for a while and was quite overgrown but there were a nice lot of Pyramid and Common Spotted Orchids although I only counted three Bee Orchids and two Man Orchids which was disappointing after last year when the count for both were in double figures.  I did find a white orchid which, after some deliberation, I think must be an albino common spotted although there were no spots on the leaves...let me know if you think otherwise (sorry it is not a very clear photo)...

It is interesting that it was in the same area that white Marjoram and white Scabious grows..

One wonders why they are in the same area and if there is something making them white or is it just coincidence.  It makes me think about some fairly recent research about the soil fungus, Mycorrhizal.  We have known for a long about time the nutritional symbiotic relationship plants have with Mycorrhizae, especially in orchids but this research showed something more.  Two groups of five broad bean plants were grown.  The first group were allowed to develop a Mycorrhizal network but the second group weren't. One plant from each group was then made to be infested by aphids causing both to produce a chemical defence. All the plants had been individually covered so there could be no air transmittion.  However the remaining plants in the first group (with the Mycorrizal network) all produced a chemical defence even though they had had no actual contact with aphids.  Where as the remaining plants in the second group (without the network) didn't show any chemical reaction.  This indicated that the plants were able to communicate their distress via the Mycorrizal network causing the other plants to protect themselves. Wow!!  I wonder what else fungi do that is yet to be discovered.

Anyway back to the Orchids at Saltbox.  While I was there I came across the tallest Common Spotted that I have ever seen.  I estimated it to be about 29" from the ground to flowering tip!!

A couple of weeks previously I had also found the longest slow worm I have ever seen at about 20".  It was wriggling up and down the garden path being chased by another slow worm about a quarter of its size.  Every time the short one caught up with the long one it bit it and held on but the long one was having none of it.  I am guessing it was a mating ritual and I would have loved to have recorded it but we were loading our car up for our camping holiday at the time and were already being slowed down by having to avoid treading on the amourous couple.  I did take a photo of the monster though...

We had a good holiday in West Dorset although it was a little wet and chilly and tiring as at night we were kept awake by a family of noisy Little Owls.  It was actually very entertaining especially when one of the two babies was so close to the tent we could hear it being fed and flapping its little wings...Ahhh :)

Some more 'Ahhh' moments were had at the Abbotsbury Swannery where there were cygnets everywhere..

And at a water garden where there were a series of beautifully landscaped ponds and lakes all covered with different varieties of Water Lillies and some rather attractive ducks...

There was also a Monet type bridge and my husband and I spent a few silly but very funny minutes trying to beat the self timer on the camera so we could get a photo together(this picture is zoomed was a lot further than it looks).  Luckily there was no one else around to see our rather childish behavior:))

We found a nice bit of deserted beach accessed through beautiful National Trust flower meadows down to a reed bed in which we could hear, what I think, were Water Rail; then over on to some shingle covered in Thrift, Birdsfoot Trefoil, Yellow Poppies and Sea Kale and then on to the sea.  It was strange laying on a beach hearing the waves break whilst also listening to Skylarks..

And of course I couldn't pass my beloved New Forest on the way home without stopping for a while...

Once back home it was straight back to work with the Dowlands Project giving the ponies their worming medicine.  This is an enjoyable job as it is the only time we get to feed them.  There is more than enough for them to eat in the fields but they need a little extra in the form of pony nuts to help sweeten the taste of the wormer which has to be given over five days.  Next was catching the ewes and lambs to collect faecal samples for a worm egg count and then a week later catching them up again to treat them.  It was good to see how well the lambs were growing but at there young age they have little resistance to parasites so can easily succumb...

The next few weeks will be hard for me as completion on the sale of my mother's bungalow is set for 26th July so the place now has to be emptied.  Besides there being a lot of work, it is also hard emotionally as I can't help feeling a bit of a traitor selling her home and belongings  while she's somewhere she doesn't want to be but I can't see any alternative as her Alzheimer's it too bad for her to live on her own.  The trouble is she doesn't remember she has Alzheimer's so doesn't think there is anything wrong with her:)  At least the sun has started shining at last which always makes my mother more cheerful.  This was one of her favourite poems...

Summer Sun
Robert Louis Stevenson

Great is the sun, and wide he goes
Through empty heaven without repose;
And in the blue and glowing days
More thick than rain he showers his rays.

Though closer still the blinds we pull
To keep the shady parlour cool,
Yet he will find a chink or two
To slip his golden fingers through.

The dusty attic, spider clad,
He, through the keyhole, maketh glad;
And through the broken edge of tiles
Into the laddered hay-loft smiles.

Meantime his golden face around
He bares to all the garden ground,
And sheds a warm and glittering look
Among the ivy's inmost nook.

Above the hills, along the blue,
Round the bright air with footing true,
To please the child, to paint the rose,
The gardener of the World, he goes.