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


Monday, 11 July 2016

Ten years hard labour

Wednesday 6th July 2016

Steve with his certificate of service.
Photograph by Damien Wootten
The photo is of me: smiling and pleased with myself. The day had been a fairly ordinary one for this time of year. A few of us had checked out some of the sites of the near-mythical grass snake, and did what maintenance was needed, pausing only to drink coffee, have a bite to eat, and look at the scenery – the distant view and the detail of the close.

A couple of hours later, back in the Rangers’ office, I had the pleasant surprise of being presented with a certificate and badge in recognition of ten years of volunteering service. It was just a smile and a thank you from Head Ranger, Helen, with supporting murmurs from the other Rangers. There were no speeches or applause, but that was my fault. For, not for the first time, I had failed to show at the latest volunteers’ social do or any of the meetings where others got their award from Mick the Manager. I’m not a fan of meetings, and probably not very sociable either for that matter.

The badge is a nice enough badge, and I shall wear it; the only other badge I wear is the one I got here five years ago. But the certificate has a personal touch. It identifies and acknowledges not just the labouring I do here at Gibside, but those things that are important to me: nature conservation and wildlife surveying - the reasons I joined and what keeps me coming. Of course, it doesn’t mention the rest of the Wednesday Conservation Team and the lovely times we have working and chatting together, or the knowledge and understanding I’ve gained from working alongside the Rangers, or the coffee and bite to eat, gazing at the view, or the simple fact that I just enjoy being at Gibside – for they, too, are good reasons for toiling here these ten years. But the certificate will do very nicely as it is, thank you.

Grey Squirrels - we haven'y seen a Red Squirrel for years.

Blue Damselfly

Common spotted orchids

Art in Walled Garden
 Steve Wootten & Phil Coyne

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