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 Natural selection has long since been replaced by farmer selection.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

Monday, 21 March 2016

Fire Next Time

16th March 2016

Like most portmanteau words ‘mizzle’ gets it about right. The mist was thin and seemingly distant; the rain scarcely falling. It took me a while to realize that I was getting wet - and a wee bit cold. Still, the walk over to the woods by the Lily Pond soon warmed me and, once I had started work, I was soon overheated enough to remove my waterproof. Anyway, it’s one of those cagoules that as soon as any energy is expended becomes wetter on the inside than on the outside, precipitation or not.

I was back on the hillside beneath the Monument, laying into the rhododendron once again. Other demands were due to keep me away from Gibside for two consecutive Wednesdays, so there I was on a Tuesday, just me and bird song.
After more than six decades of studying nature, I am still pretty hopeless at recognizing anything other than the most common of birds by their song. With one exception, that did for now: wren, robin, blackbird and an assortment of tits. A red kite cried, drifting over the Lily Pond; crows croaked. Under the western hemlock there were a few foraging scrapes – presumably the work of badgers, and faintly worn tracks that disappeared into the dense rhododendron growth.

A Tangle of Rhododendrons
In recent weeks the team has worked its way up the hill cutting back rhododendron and stacking it in larger and larger heaps. From now the job is likely to become more difficult, for it grows far more densely, and presents as a solid wall of thick, interwoven branches which, when cut through, remain in place held by each other. Some reach up into the tops of other trees and refuse to be dislodged. And there is another problem developing. There is not enough ground space to stack it all. In other parts of Gibside this has been overcome by reducing it to ashes. That could be difficult in this location, but will have to be done.

Yet more ...

The mizzle had long since faded, but an occasional movement of the air and my struggles with the vegetation now brought down accumulated water from the leaves and branches above. Wet once again, I packed in for the day. Perhaps it will be the fire next time.
Steve Wootten

Sunday, 6 March 2016

Of Horsetail and Rhododendron

2nd March 2016

Ranger Dan, wader-deep in the chill water of the Lily Pond, was hauling out colonizing horsetail with Wednesday Conservation Team volunteers Les and Mike taking it in turns to watch out for the total submersion that didn’t happen. Given time and left to itself, the horsetail, reed mace, and assorted other vegetation would reduce the pond to a lush, damp patch. And we wouldn’t like that. So, in order to conserve the pond habitat, young Dan waded in. Mind you, the exercise is also a cosmetic one of maintaining a feature in man-made landscape, and not letting nature take over as it is wont to do.

Working in the pond

The rest of us, meanwhile, cleared stray willow saplings from the ride above the pond, and significantly cut back those growing around it. After a cup of coffee and a bite to eat sitting in the dry under the only Grand Fir on the estate, we returned to our task of recent weeks in the adjoining woodland. This area is, in some ways, the most sterile patch in Gibside, dominated as it is by western hemlock underlain by everybody’s favourite invader, the rhododendron. The western hemlock will have to stay until the Forestry Commission come to claim their crop, but we can do for the rhododendron, help give native species a chance, and bring some variety to the woodland floor.

Thinning out the willow saplings
Continuing the war against rhododendrons

Among other things, our job, working with the rangers here at Gibside, is to manage the environment in order to give wildlife a helping hand. Put another way: we interfere with nature in order to support nature. Deciding what is natural, though, is a little difficult – especially when it comes to non-native, introduced species, and invasive species. As volunteers, we do as we are bid; decisions are taken by the professionals. But it is still a question worth pondering. For example, if we remove non-native rhododendron to stop it over-running our woodland floor, then perhaps we should do something about the native bracken that blankets other parts of Gibside’s woods. And what should be done about the likes of Himalayan balsam, Japanese knotweed and the grey squirrel?

I wonder what's for lunch?

Taking a break under the Grand Fir

It’s all a bit subjective. Some would argue that it’s all part of nature, and that nature will sort itself out. Many introduced species will just find their niche and fit in without negatively influencing the environment or markedly changing their host habitat. But some will just seek to conquer, colonize and drive out native species. We don’t want Japanese knotweed blanketing our river banks, or grey squirrels bringing the plague to our beloved reds. Then again, some of us quite like Himalayan balsam; bumblebees certainly do. Ignore the professionals; leave the decisions to me. Let’s start with buying Dan a boat.

No it's not fog but pollen from a yew tree - a gentle
reminder that spring is almost here.

Steve Wootten & Phil Coyne