Tuesday, 7 February 2017

January into February 2017

1st February 2017 - Ebchester Woods

We arrived before the others, though not particularly early. A mist hung in the fields across from the woods, and the river appeared still. Within half an hour, though, the rest of the team turned up, disturbed the peace and required us to do some work.  At less than ten acres, Ebchester Woods is a small but excellent stretch of semi-ancient woodland beside the River Derwent. We were there because the woods belong to the National Trust, and are managed and cared for by the Gibside Rangers.

Mist in fields on opposite side of River Derwent
It’s been a while since we were last here but, every so often, there is a need for a bit of a tidy and some maintenance. We two had the relatively easy task of carving out passing places here and there along the one narrow path that runs the length of the woods – cutting back the undergrowth to create little bays. “Scalloped” was the word used by Head Ranger Helen. The result was a little too crude to warrant that description, but they’ll do. At least we had the opportunity to quietly wander and pause to look at the wildlife. Tried to identify whether it was a lesser-spotted or greater-spotted woodpecker we could hear hammering. Found pleasure in mosses growing on tree stumps, birds skittering through tree-tops, mallards on the water.
Hard at work!

The cleared terraced bank
The path through the woods.
The others, it seems, had no need or no time for such distractions. There is a weir on the river here, creating a navigable stretch of water where once the locals leisurely rowed, or watched others from a series of earth terraces close to the clubhouse. These terraces had been invaded by a dense covering of gorse, bramble, bracken and the like, most of which is now removed, and in a big heap awaiting disposal.

The heap
Sandwiches and flask in the sunshine, a final tidy of the footpath, and the job was done. A lovely day: we should come here more often.
And then the sun came out...
Steve Wootten & Phil Coyne

Monday, 2 January 2017

December 2016

It's almost Christmas
Tree décor in the Walled Garden
That’s the thing about Gibside these days – even in December the car park is often full to overflowing. Of course, there have been some very fine days this month, but even on drab days it has been busy. You’d wonder where all those people get to and what damage their footfall might do in what, after all, is largely a Site of Special Scientific Interest (SSSI) and a nature reserve.
Well, The Avenue can take a hammering, with sections of it having to be roped off at this time of year when the grass can’t make good the damage. The Strawberry Castle play area takes a battering too, but that’s as it should be. Elsewhere, people stroll the tracks through West Wood and along the riverside, pop in to the café; some stray to the far reaches of Snipes Dene, but not many. In fact, most of the estate experiences little footfall at all, with some parts being rarely visited even by we Conservation Volunteers.
The team burn some of the rhododendron prunings
This month, we’ve been working in two such places. One is quite close to another spot popular with the public – The Monument, but sees no visitors on its steep banks, amongst its fine trees. We were there (as so often is the case) cutting back encroaching rhododendron; burning some it and building log piles with the bits too big to safely burn.
And, perched above an even steeper bank in an out of the way stretch of Snipes Dene is a fine area of woodland, where we have been thinning out young growth – mainly birch – amid the more mature oak, beech, holly and ash. In doing so, we were attempting to open up a series of woodland glades that will benefit and encourage a wider variety of plant life and animals to go with it. We might even attract the elusive grass snake. In ten years of working here, this is only my second or third visit to this beautiful spot. As for visitor footfall, it’s unlikely to have any – reserved instead for nature.
Hard at work
Pile of brash from prunings
A Happy & Healthy New Year to all our readers.

Steve Wootten & Phil Coyne

Monday, 12 December 2016

November 2016

Most probably, it was a common shrew, but there was little chance to check its identity. The tiny animal had been disturbed when we were cutting back the suckers around the base of a lime tree. Fright and flight had sent it deeper into the dense forest of twigs, only to re-emerge and disappear under the cropped vegetation bordering the track to The Stables. It all happened in a flash. We searched, but it was gone.

Not a shrew or a vole but a grey squirrel

Job done, we moved on to the still- frosted vista below the Banqueting Hall, above the Octagon Pond. A few days earlier the area had been strimmed to a height of about fifteen centimetres. We lightly raked off the cut grass, ferns and other greenery, and scattered it in the woods – careful not to scrape too deep with our rakes. Doing that would damage that underlayer of nooks and crannies and routeways that is home to so many small creatures. Just the kind of miniature world into which our shrew escaped.
Grass raking on the Banqueting Hall vista

Wandering back to our base, we spread out to search for waxcaps on the Hall Field, but found few. Later, we combed the upper slopes of the Warrenhaugh fields, and found fewer. We’ve repeated this exploration several times since. Both sites have been good for spotting waxcaps in past years, but not this autumn it seems. Don’t know why.
Parrot waxcaps
The path back from Warrenhaugh
Rainbow near car park

Steve Wootten & Phil Coyne

Monday, 31 October 2016

October 2016

The vegetation fades and most has long since gone to seed, but here and there plants continue to flower. On Warrenhaugh, the yarrow is extensive, and forget-me-not splashes its pale blue by the near-empty pond; there’s not been much rain in recent weeks. Elsewhere we came across nipplewort, red clover, devil’s bit scabious and lesser stitchwort – not many, but still in flower. Unsurprisingly, Himalayan balsam makes a show as well.



As might be expected at this time of year, fungi are emerging from earth and rotted wood. We find identification difficult, and what was learned in previous seasons is for the best part forgotten. Scarlet waxcap we recognized on the Hall Field, and a small forest of glistening inkcap at Warrenhaugh. Others were photographed in the hope of finding something matching in the book.

Scarlet Waxcaps
Crimson Waxcap - a rarer species

Glistening Inkcap

Lichen growing on tree stump

Autumn colours

Much else remains the same. Jackdaws explode out of the skeleton of the Old Hall – seemingly just to play before settling down briefly, then starting all over again. Buzzards cry, and red kites are an almost constant presence floating low above our heads. Spotting a tiny goldcrest low in a yew was a delight. But acorns falling to the ground and sunlight on the trees are the real markers of October.

And for we Wednesday Conservation Volunteers, October marks the start of our team work. After a summer of working in ones and twos, we were back together again claiming back the woodland from rampant rhododendron.
A tangled mess

Volunteers at work

Artist at work

Turner prize? - No, just herbicide applied to stumps.
Steve Wootten & Phil Coyne

September 2016

Rust red sorrels and ageing docks bring colour and structure to rough areas seemingly dominated by seeding creeping thistles, scruffy rosebay willowherb and fading grasses. Many umbellifers  - hogweed, angelica and the like – have shed their seeds, and stand skeletal.

There have been plenty of bright days of recent, some quite warm, though there is an overall cooling. Here and there colour in the leaves on trees mark a change, but it still seems far from the ‘start of autumn’ announced by the man on the telly. But the lower light of the equinox does bring a different quality, and fresh cut grass gains a golden glow. The hollow lane to the old mine in the West Wood is filling with fallen leaves, and mixed flocks of tits move from tree to tree. So perhaps autumn has started after all.
Early morning mist
Snipes Dene in mist
Autumnal berries
Steve Wootten & Phil Coyne

Wednesday, 7 September 2016

August 2016: Summer fades

In nearby fields, wheat, barley and the like have turned golden; rape seed has turned straggly and is ready to crop. Here at Gibside, the Ladyhaugh meadow has already been cut, and the one by the Orangey will be cut any day now. The farmer will want the cut grass, and the livestock will benefit from the assortment of wild flowers taken with it – though not all are welcome. Knapweeds, ragwort and docks make for coarse animal feed.
And ragwort has another unwanted trait: it’s toxic, and a problem for grazing animals – particularly cattle and horses which are attracted to its sweet, honey flavour.

Heather in all it's glory
Basking tin for grass snakes was burried in the bracken
Himalayan balsam - the bane of a volunteers life

 Much of June and July’s colour fades through August, as the range of plants in flower lessens – or so it seems. Yellow of ragwort, groundsel, hawkbits and hawkweeds gain dominance, along with the pinks and purples of heather, willow herbs, and the dreaded Himalayan balsam. Devil’s-bit scabious and harebell add a delightful touch of blue, though broad-leaved helleborine on the Avenue bank goes unnoticed unless searched for. In too many places, stinging nettle and bracken are rampant.

Newts found under grass snake tins
One of the many toads

 We haven’t found any grass snakes under our bits of corrugated iron this month (or any other), but common toads have settled in nicely in great number. It must be a cosy place to gobble up the resident invertebrates. Of course, toads would be gobbled up in turn by grass snakes, if there were any around to do the gobbling.

Berries on a rowan tree

Small skipper butterfly


Soldier beetle

 Steve Wootten & Phil Coyne