Wednesday, 15 June 2016

Destructive behaviour

8th June 2016

Adult butterflies and moths are amongst the most attractive of species – delicate, pretty and eye-catching. Their caterpillars – pretty or of insignificant appearance – are not always a welcome sight, especially when munching their way through your roses or your best cashmere jumper.

Currently there is an interesting, though not particularly attractive, display in some of Gibside’s bird cherry trees which are festooned with the larval tents of the bird-cherry ermine moth (Yponomeuta evonymella). Apparently, this tiny moth only breeds and feeds on the leaves of the bird-cherry tree and, under cover of their webs, the caterpillars can cleanly strip a tree clean of its leaves.

Larval tents in which the caterpillars can be clearly seen.
Well, we can tolerate nature getting on with its destructive ways, for that’s what it’s all about – eating and reproduction.  And usually that’s about as bad as it gets in a place like this. We were somewhat taken aback then, on our meanderings, to find one of the sheets of corrugated iron - used to encourage snakes to bask conveniently - inconveniently part-submerged in the Lily Pond. Number seven it was, so we know for certain that it had come from half way up the hill towards the Monument. Who would do a thing like that? And why? Behaviour, perhaps, intended to attract a mate.

Corrugated iron sheet dumped in Lily Pond
We completed a few maintenance jobs and continued our meanderings. It had been a while since our last wander around Snipes Dene. Our rejuvenation patch – an area we had monitored for some years following felling of the Forestry Commission’s timber crop – was difficult to identify. There has been some planting of trees in protective tubes, but birch, broom and others now cloak much of the valley. Where there is less tree cover foxgloves thrive and, in some barer patches, hare’s-tail makes an unusual appearance

Rejuvenated Snipes Dene
A patch of Hare's-tail
A carpet of buttercups and colourful grasses
in front of the Orangery

 Steve Wootten & Phil Coyne

Wednesday, 8 June 2016

The things we do for grass snakes

Wednesday 1st June 2016

The grassy bank below the Octagon Pond had been roughly strimmed, leaving a few small patches of bugle and lady’s smock – both in flower. Lady’s smock (Cardamine pratensis) is a delicate and graceful plant, the most attractive of the crucifer family. It is often the first spring flower of damp meadows - arriving; it used to be said, with the cuckoo. Indeed, some call it the cuckoo flower. Around here, these days, it comes without the cuckoo. The lady’s smock name seemingly also comes from its early spring appearance and association with milkmaids and their smocks. You don’t see many of those these days either. I’ve no idea as to why bugle (Ajuga reptans) is called bugle.

Lady's smock
Lady's smock

Anyway, back to the strimmed grass… We raked it, bagged it, loaded it on to the back of a truck, and carted it off to restock some of the would-be grass snake nest heaps. The theory is that fresh grass cuttings in the mix do a good job of rotting down and generating heat enough to favour incubation of any eggs that grass snakes might choose to deposit there. So far, that’s the missing ingredient. The things we do for grass snakes. Maybe they’ll arrive with the cuckoo.
A hardy volunteer cutting bracken with secateurs!
A completed nest site
No, not a grass snake nest but a chiffchaff nest discovered
whilst cutting  bracken. It was left undisturbed.
Steve Wootten & Phil Coyne 

Tuesday, 17 May 2016

Out-witting sheep

11th May 2016

As a rule, sheep are docile, unimaginative creatures, capable of no more than munching grass all day, reproducing once a year, and occasionally falling over with their feet sticking up in the air. It’s their upbringing, you see. Natural selection has long since been replaced by farmer selection. They are bred for the quality of their meat and wool, their reproductive success rate, and their good looks – so that they can win prizes in agricultural shows. Wit and survival skills are not selection criteria.

It was unexpected then that, after all our hard work, sheep dismantled a gate at the penned-in Warrenhaugh Pond, kicked sticks and straw out of the way, and ate all the green grass cuttings from the grass snake nest heap. It’s repaired now, and defences strengthened using hammer, nails and string. We know how to out-wit sheep.
We hope you're not accusing us...

The heap being repaired.
The gate repaired.

Our wits weren’t so sharp when we volunteered to shift the debris of some recently felled trees from the Ladyhaugh end of the Monument vista. The National Trust likes its vistas. It was a simple enough task and, we had thought, an easy one: shifting logs and branches out of line of sight – nothing to it. We were wrong. Job finished, we barely had strength enough to sit in the sunshine and lift a cup of coffee and sandwich to the lips. We should have got the sheep to do it.

Two views of the improved vista.
Then it was time for a bit of nature watching befor heading back to base...

Greater stitchwort.

Wood horsetail

Steve Wootten & Phil Coyne

Tuesday, 10 May 2016

A New Start

Wednesday 4th May 2016

Through to mid-morning it was still cool enough to wear our fleece jackets; by lunchtime the temperature had risen to sixteen or seventeen degrees. This year, that counts as hot. We had a few small jobs to get done, but this was the day to return to our summer job of collecting wildlife data around Gibside Estate. What we see, we note. We transfer our notes to a spreadsheet which we add into the Rangers’ data, and all that gets fed into the National Trust databank. It’s a useful task we’re told, but, in truth, we do it because we like to.
Other members of the Wednesday Conservation Team have their various summer occupations – cutting grass, maintaining path drainage, working in the walled garden, and such. Some just stay away, to reappear in October. We count flowers and live in hope of spotting a grass snake.


Today we had a newly recruited volunteer to the Wednesday Team with us. Since it will be the best part of six months before the whole team reassembles, he will have to find his summer niche. For now, he joined us on a tour of some of the grass snake sites where we did some maintenance on a few, and shifted one entirely down a steep bank and across a stream to be more in the vicinity of the Ladyhaugh ponds. Grass snakes like water.

In a few weeks, Ladyhaugh will coloured with meadow flowers. Today we noted a few. Cowslips dominate, along with the odd patch of primrose and a scattering of lesser celandine and dandelion. The margins of the meadow are less showy, but display more variety with a few bluebells, greater stitchwort, garlic mustard, wood anemone, and daisies of course. At the rough, north end we sought out butterbur - now fading beside the river, and found a patch of ground ivy that we had not noted in previous years. An orange tipped butterfly fluttered by; a welcome start to a new season.

Ground Ivy
Lesser Celandine

Fern Emerging
Trees coming into leaf, West Woods

Old Carriageway West Woods
Steve Wootten & Phil Coyne

Tuesday, 3 May 2016

Spring gets going; some Rangers gone

27th April 2016

Hidden away in the new birch growth in the West Wood, Terry and Steve sought out a large and rather well-constructed log pile. Phil took Terry’s picture standing beside it. This had been the very first job for the Wednesday Conservation Team – nearly ten years ago now. We sized it up, admired its construction, exchanged memories of the day, and tried to remember who had been there with us. Phil looked on politely – neither bored nor in wonder; he’s only been coming here for eight years.

Terry next to The Logpile

We were in the West Wood, mapping a grass snake site. That is plotting the position of a heap of rotting vegetation which is there to encourage snakes to lay their eggs in a place where we can find them, and noting the position of pieces of corrugated iron sheet which are intended to provide a good warming-up spot for our cold-blooded reptiles. Each sheet is numbered to help us record what we find on it, or under it, during our weekly observations. There are eight such sites around the estate.
The nest heap

West Wood grass snake site

A few weeks ago, Ranger Liam helped us set up one of the sites on Warrenhaugh by carting some bales of straw in a vehicle referred to as the ‘Mule’. Going downhill was fine but, job done, the creature couldn’t cope with the wet, stony slope. We pushed it – and Liam - backwards seven-eighths of the way up the hill before admitting defeat, and summoning a Land Rover to tow it the rest of the way. Liam was rightly embarrassed, and would rather people didn’t know about it.

Ranger Liam has since left us for a forestry job with the National Trust in the Lake District. In the same week, Ranger Dan departed for a job with the Trust on the Farne Islands. For nature loving rangers, neither could have wished for better. Here at Gibside they will be sorely missed.

As spring gets going, it’s time for us to abandon our winter labours, and leave nature in peace. From now through to October we will be taking leisurely strolls with binoculars and note book, sandwiches and flask, recording flora and fauna for the Trust’s database. We might even see a grass snake.

Female Chaffinch
Great Tit

Abandoned Lunch. The remains of a woodcock,
a light lunch for a sparrowhawk

Steve Wootten & Phil Coyne

Sunday, 3 April 2016

A last bash

Wednesday 30th March 2016

Grey Wagtail on car aerial in car park

It being the Easter holidays, Gibside Rangers were doing their bit to involve visiting children in the planting of heather on a sandy bank near the top of the Hollow Walk. We left them to it and went off to have a last bash at clearing rhododendron from the hillside behind. A last bash, that is, until late autumn when we can renew the onslaught. For the time being though, we shall welcome the change of season by leaving nature in peace for its annual renewal.
Planted Heather

At times it seemed we were getting nowhere but, by the end of the day it was quite pleasing to survey our achievements. For a good stretch on this wooded hillside we had cleared the dense canopy of alien rhododendron, opening up stark, bare ground to daylight. Before too long we hope to see native plants moving in, creating ground cover and an understorey of shrubs. In turn, these will provide habitat and food for a variety of creatures. More immediately, birch, beech and rowan stand free and are a delight to see.

Work continues

Native trees are now visible

Cleared area

There is much more work to be done here to clear the remaining rhododendron, and to control the area we have cut to prevent recolonization. Drastic measures may be necessary.

Naturally enough, a paucity of fauna is a feature of such alien, toxic vegetation, though tracks suggest that badger and roe deer pass this way. And at least one tick. Unknowingly, I took that home with me, comfortably settled in just above my wrist. It’s squished now.

The offending tick before being squished

Steve Wootten & Phil Coyne

Monday, 28 March 2016

Strawberry Castle - Part 2

Wednesday 23rd March 2016

Contrary to the wishes expressed by my colleague in last week’s blog we did not have a bonfire this week.

Wot no bonfire!
Our work party consisted of 3 volunteers and the task allotted to us was to return to the Strawberry Castle play area for more relocation of bark chippings.

The team survey the work

The first task completed.

The first task was to level out the bark chippings below one of the swings, and then it was on to the greater task of creating a pathway of wood chippings between some of the play areas. Wood chippings were loaded into wheelbarrows and transported to the area marked out by large logs and a semicircle of large stones. Once deposited the chippings were raked into a neat footpath. When finished the idea is to allow children to move between the various play areas without getting muddy.


Half completed
Relocating wood chippings

The finished article

 A water feature has been created. This comprises a water pump at one end perched on a bed of rocks. Water can be pumped down channels and at the opposite end is an Archimedes screw which pumps the water back up. The whole area is surrounded by sand, children will love this play feature. We did notice footprints in the sand which indicated that the first visitors to the site had been badgers!

Water Pump
Badgers were here first!

 On my walk back to the car park before leaving I had to stop and admire the work being done bay those hardy souls Ruth and John, who once again were stood in water repairing a stone wall along the edge of the Leapmill Burn.
Ruth and John repair the wall along the edge of Leapmill Burn

 Phil Coyne