Sunday, 20 August 2017

Gibside Blog August 2017: Some unexpected finds

Terry hunts for small heather clumps
A welcome break
Terry hard at work amongst the heather

We found Terry and Mary under the spreading chestnut tree by the track close to the Hollow Walk. That was as expected. They had been working here for weeks, uncovering and freeing young, planted heather from a blanket of grass and bracken.

We left them to it, and went off to see what could be done to salvage another area of heather in the lower reaches of Snipes Dene. A few years back this area had been harvested of its Forestry Commission conifers and left to regenerate naturally, which it soon did – mainly with birch. But here and there grow patches of heather, and even some bilberry. The bilberry looked well-nibbled by deer, with no sign of flower or fruit; the heather all around was blooming. There is much to be done to keep the heather free of encroaching bracken, birch, raspberry and bramble. A winter’s job, we decided.
Some of the heather at lower end of Snipes Dene

Patch of heather (ling)
Bell heather

Back by the Hollow Walk, Mary guided us on finding the often tiny fronds of heather, and rescuing them. Painstaking work, but we found loads. Other finds included my forty-five year old Swiss Army knife – only lost for five minutes but, as any Swiss Army knife owner will tell you, enough time to induce panic – and a straggly little rose with two strange growths. Initially, we were puzzled by these hairy, red and green pom-poms, the product, it turns out, of the gall wasp (Diplolepis rosae)to house their larvae, and is popularly known as Robin’s Pincushion. Apparently they’re quite common. So much for our observational skills.

Robin's pincushion
Inside the Robin's pincushion - larvae visible

Though we have yet to spot a Gibside grass snake, the corrugated tins we use to attract them frequently provide us with some other interesting finds. Common toads are common, newts less so. In recent weeks we have also uncovered some fine, sculptural, abandoned wasp nests, ants in plenty, a nest of angry common carder bees and, best of all, a nest of minute short-tailed vole babies.

Delicate, paper-thin cell of wasp nest
Wasp and soldier beetle on umbellifer

Common carder bee nest under corrugated tin

Vole pups in nest

Grass snakes, who needs them?

Steve Wootten & Phil Coyne

Wednesday, 19 July 2017

A people’s garden

July 2017

Not that it’s any of our doing, but Gibside’s walled garden just gets better and better. Over the last few years, the collapsed wall has been expertly bricklayed back into place, the allotments extended, and the flowerbeds and fruit trees nurtured into splendour. Currently there is a sculptural, living willow maze growing on the grassy area previously occupied by washing lines full of beautifully and wittily stitched and appliqued tea towels. Head gardener, Debbie, and her team have transformed the place into a unique, exquisite gem – a people’s garden.
The Amazing Maze
Such an attraction is the walled garden these days that we seem to have permanently lost at least four of our Wednesday conservation volunteers to it. Some had always worked the winter months with the rangers, and gardened through the growing season, but the new, improved garden now gets year-round attention – and it shows.
Walled garden flowers
Another colourful border

More flowers
Whilst we bloggers spend our summer months seeking out grass snakes and collecting wildlife data, some regular conservation team volunteers take to the lawnmower. There was a time – a period of eight or nine years – when Wednesdays could be relied upon to be fine, sunny days whatever the season, but no more. It’s just as likely to rain on a Wednesday as on any other day of the week – and it does. The grass cutters, though, are still out there come rain… come rain.

John cutting the grass in the rain
You might think that pushing a lawnmower all day to be a tedious, torturous pursuit in any weather, but seemingly not. Apparently it induces relaxation – variously through daydreaming, or a state akin to meditation. Our nature study meanderings are a bit like that as well.
Common centaury

Poppy seed head
Shaggy inkcaps

Soldier beetles and a longhorn beetle on an angelica flower head
Small skipper butterfly

Steve Wootten and Phil Coyne

Tuesday, 16 May 2017

Grass snake (Natrix natrix)

April - May 2017
The new tins had been numbered with Roman numerals. One of the rangers must have done that. They’re a sophisticated lot. We’ve been back in one of the more remote parts of the Gibside woodland, cutting back the tangle of bramble and honeysuckle that had taken advantage of the clearings we had carved out earlier in the year. We lopped down a few more birches while we were on, to let in more light. It is grass snake time again, and we were there to set up a new monitoring site in addition to the eight already dotted around the estate.
The new site
A log pile covered in honeysuckle

This site is a bit out of the way, bordered north and south by intermittent streams, and surrounded by trees – oak, rowan, ash, beech, wych elm, holly, hazel and lots of birch. Though predominantly trees, there are margins – streamside, field edge, nearby track side and, of course, the clearings themselves – where non-woody flowering plants thrive. Here there are bluebells, wood sorrel, ramsons, primrose, yellow pimpernel and the exquisite moschatel. In some parts, people refer to grass snakes as water snakes. Hereabouts there are a few ponds, and we’re not too far from the River Derwent – though it is uphill all the way. The streams might help.
A lovely wych elm tree near the site entrance

Wych elm seeds

The delicate flowers of moschatel


Yellow pimpernel

This sedge gave off clouds of pollen when touched

Anyway, with it being a new patch, it has new ACOs – artificial cover objects that is: bits of corrugated iron. These days they’re made of some other material, but we just call them tins.

The tins are there because, underneath, they make an ideal grass snake shelter and, on top, a fine basking place, making any snakes more visible to the observer. The numbers aid recording. And Natrix natrix might well be tempted by the Roman numerals, but don’t count on it.

An inquisitive Common pheasant
Steve Wootten & Phil Coyne

Wednesday, 5 April 2017

Into the woods

Wednesday 5th April 2017

Wood sorrel

Wood anemone
Dog's mercury
Lesser celandine
Volunteers at work
Burning the rhododendrons

Away from our woodland wasteland, native nature is stirring. Primroses flower on tracksides, wood anemone take advantage of the early spring sunlight before the leaves are fully out on the trees, among it the emerging arrow heads of cuckoo pint.

Goat willow catkin

There’s a narrow path here where badgers – regular in their habits – make their way to forage and use the latrine. A roe deer is glimpsed not too far distant, but feels safe enough not to run. A green woodpecker calls, jays quietly come and go in pairs; a buzzard cries. Our constant distraction, though, is a pair of red kites circling, and returning time after time to the same tree. We are delighted to see them, but this choice of nesting site is in a far too busy, public area, and is destined to failure. We hope they go away, deeper into undisturbed woods.
Maze in the Walled Garden
Steve Wootten & Phil Coyne

Saturday, 4 March 2017

Ha-ha it's no joking matter

15th February: Mist clung to the trees in Parkfields as the team headed off to one of our least favoured tasks – clearing leaves from the Ha-ha along the side of The Avenue.
Mist in Parkfields
Ha-ha full of leaves

Inspecting the job.

Blue tits chirped in the oak trees above our heads as we set about our task; it was hard work and in places very muddy. As the mist burned off in the early morning sunshine three red kites wheeled over Parkfields, it’s always a delight to see them.   Our peace was only disturbed by the buzz of a chainsaw which was being used by a team of tree surgeons felling a magnificent beech tree just outside the Walled Garden. Why was this magnificent tree being felled? Well, unfortunately it was infected with a fungus(Meripilus giganteus) as well as with Honey fungus(which was only discovered after it was felled), which could have put the tree at risk of falling – a risk to visitors (and staff) and to the wall of the Walled Garden.
Tree surgeon at work
Almost done

The team hard at work

Leaves were left in piles on the edge of the Ha-ha to be removed later.
Inspecting in the sunshine

22nd February: We were back in the Ha-ha again, this time at the far end of the avenue near to the Hollow Walk, a much muddier environment. On this occasion we bagged and disposed of the collected leaves ourselves.
Ha-ha with leaves
Disposing of the leaves

Cleared, muddy Ha-ha
Roll on spring!

Phil Coyne & Steve Wootten