Tuesday, 19 May 2015


29th April 2015

Dog’s mercury, though abundant in our woodlands and one of the earliest plants to flower, can go largely unnoticed. Its flowers are small, green and have no petals. As a herald of spring, it doesn’t make much of an impression, but it’s soon joined by other, more impressive, flowers carpeting the woodland floor – golden saxifrage, wood anemone, wood sorrel and ramsons. Elsewhere primrose, lesser celandine, coltsfoot, and dandelion make a fine show.

Dog's Mercury
Wood Anemone


The oddly delicate moschatel has its five flowers set at right-angles to each other – like clock faces with an extra one on top. Previously recorded along the riverside path and in the woods at the northern end of Ladyhaugh, it has this spring appeared in a swathe near the Lily Pond. It’s small and beautiful but, being almost entirely green, is easily over-looked.


It’s April, and the animal world is preparing for the new season. Frogs have long since spawned, and tadpoles have started to emerge from their gelatinous mess; numerous toads tangle in the ponds, seeking mates; peacock and small tortoiseshell butterflies have started their wanderings; and common carder bumblebees glide the woodland fringes; chiffchaffs seem to be everywhere.


For many of the Gibside Conservation Volunteers, all this is a sign to pack in for the summer and leave the wildlife to itself. Some, though, opt for the near endless task of grass-cutting, or work at small maintenance jobs. We bloggers make our annual survey of Gibside’s wildlife. Mostly, this is no more than wandering the estate identifying and making a note of whatever is there, which is later transferred to the National Trust’s data bank. Presumably good use is made of all this information. But, anyway, we do it because we like to.
A curious robin

Another regular summer job for some of us is to maintain and monitor the grass snake project patches (See the Gibside Blog 2 July 2014: Not many snakes). Heaps have been topped up or rebuilt, and corrugated sheets put in place. This year there’s an innovation: numbers painted on the underside so they can be readily identified without referring to the site map. That is, identified by the observers, not the snakes. It’s a bit early for grass snakes, but a few field voles and some ants have moved in already. 

A Field Vole peeps out from a hole

A Blogger - hard at work!!

Steve Wootten & Phil Coyne


Thursday, 30 April 2015

Bursting Buds

Spring is a wonderful time of the year with the warmer days heralding the onset of spectacular floral displays.  Many woodland plants produce their flowers early in the year, capturing the sun's light and energy, before the leaves grow on the trees blocking it out.  Look out for carpets of wood anemones, sorrel, lesser celandine and bluebells; all are a common sight at this time of the year.

Primroses on woodland floor

Not as conspicuous, but just as spectacular however, can be the flowers produced by many of the trees themselves.  Check out some of those shown below and then next time you take a walk through the woods take time to enjoy not just the floral displays of the woodland floor but those on the trees also.

Flowers of Ash Tree

Flowers of Horbeam Tree

Flowers of Elm Tree

Flowers of willow tree

Tuesday, 3 March 2015

Home improvements

25th February 2015

We were in Great Crested Newt territory; fortunately, the newts weren’t. We did come across a frog or possibly three, but it’s difficult to know when you only see them one at a time. Common frogs often find their way back to water as early as February, but great crested newts sensibly stay on their winter break until April or May; it’s cold in there. The great crested newt is a protected species so, if there were any about, we would have been prevented from doing our job.

Overgrown Pond in The Walled Garden
We were clearing the Walled Garden Pond. “This is the hardest job we’ve ever done,” said Mike, the most energetic of us. In the last couple of years, vegetation – especially horsetails and sedges – had taken over, leaving no open water and even becoming solid enough in places to form an island. There’s open water now, but only over a third of the surface area so as to minimize disruption of the resident wildlife. And by leaving the dumped mud and plants by the side of the pond for a week, invertebrates were given the chance of finding their way back to their much improved home. Carting the waste to the far reaches of the West Wood to dispose of it was another strenuous job.

Les Hard at Work

Mike upto his knees in mud
The Team
Gibside staff have benefitted from home improvements as well recently, with their offices being stripped back to the bare walls and clad with two inch thick insulation. This could be an example of the National Trust caring for the environment by saving energy though, as householders know too well, cost-benefits are always questionable. Or perhaps it’s the National Trust doing a fine job in looking after another rare species.
Furniture Removal - another of our many talents!

Steve Wootten & Phil Coyne

Friday, 30 January 2015

Tracks in the Snow

by Andrew Mawer, Assistant Ranger Volunteer 

Snow. Love it or hate it, one of the things it's really great for is preserving animal tracks. Many of our native mammals can be hard to spot when out for a walk as they're either small, elusive or nocturnal. Whilst out and about in the recent wintery weather, our Rangers came across a huge number of tracks in the estate woodlands and luckily had a camera on hand to take a few snaps.

Footprints of a brown hare

Pheasant footprint

Roe deer slots

Squirrel footprints

Badger footprints.  Badgers have five toes

Another set of badger prints (top) alongside fox prints (bottom)

If you get a chance to visit Gibside in the snow, spend a bit of time checking the ground to discover the fantastic wildlife that calls the estate home.

Tuesday, 20 January 2015

Destructive conservation

14 January 2015

Last week, whilst some of us laid waste to molehills – though not to moles – others were busy resurfacing the path that runs to the rear of the Chapel. Civil engineering isn’t really our thing. Terry and Mary occasionally check and clear the many gullies that help keep the Estate’s tracks from becoming waterlogged, but for the best part we deal with nature and landscape; infrastructure is best left to others. Anyway, this path had become a slimy, sticky yellow – not good for visitors or chapels – and was in need of urgent improvement.

Boys from The Blackstuff - the completed path

This week, as we laid waste to rhododendrons on the ride and in the woods adjacent to the Monument to Liberty, some reflected that last week’s path building was one of the few seemingly constructive activities the Wednesday Conservation Team had undertaken. Of course, this isn’t true. We plant trees, build log piles, manage ponds and many other things to improve the landscape and encourage wildlife. And we cut down rhododendrons and burn them.
Pyromaniacs at work!

Some things just don’t belong, or are too successful at the expense of other species. Recently, for example, we removed great numbers of silver birch and sycamore that threatened newly planted hazel in the West Wood. On the other hand, we rely upon silver birch to lead the recolonization of clear-felled Snipes Dene. Opinions differ about sycamore, but all agree that the non-native, invasive western hemlock must be eliminated. Rhododendron presents a conundrum: people love it for its display of early summer flowers, but it is a difficult to control imported nuisance that blankets the woodland floor and drives out native species. Gibside, after all, is largely designated nature reserve of one type or another. So we chop it down or pull it up, and burn it. It’s being destructive to be constructive in our mission to conserve nature.
Steve Wootten & Phil Coyne

Making flat bits out of molehills

7th January 2015

Sheep grazing on frosty grass in front of The Orangery

Some things are primarily cosmetic but, nevertheless, can have a beneficial effect on some species. Cutting trackside grass, for example, gives some flowering plants a chance to thrive when they otherwise might not; cutting and removing vegetation from grassland might encourage waxcaps – fungi lovers of unimproved soils – or help maintain a traditional meadow flora. Making flat bits out of molehills, though, can surely only be rated as superficially beautifying.

Not a waxcap, but a Blewit mushroom.

The Conservation Team at Work

The task wasn’t a first for the Wednesday Conservation Volunteers but, thinking about it, someone must have been flattening molehills in the groomed parts of Gibside unbeknownst to us. Perhaps lawnmowers do the deed, but that only accounts for the grass-growing season. And a molehill can be a sizable obstacle even for a mechanised grass cutter. One cluster of about fifteen on The Avenue produced soil enough to fill a wheelbarrow a dozen times, and a dozen times an extraordinarily heavy wheelbarrow had to be wheeled a hundred and fifty yards to dump the very fine soil - that’s a little over two miles. Granted it was empty on half the journeys, but still two miles – and then there was all that shovelling. Maybe all this exercise is intended to help conserve the ageing Wednesday Volunteers; it might even be superficially beautifying.

Some of the molehill residues
The Avenue basks in the Winter Sun
It’s been more than two months since we last produced a contribution to the Gibside Blog, months that have been a slow journey from autumn into winter. Mild weather encouraged trackside flowers to make another appearance, let loose mini-swarms of unidentifiable insects, and delivered a prolonged leaf-fall. But, with a substantial drop in the temperature, at last the seemingly endless raking of leaves on The Avenue has ended.
The Team head for home.

Undeterred by the arrival of cold weather, Ruth and John - defectors from the Wednesday Team - have happily stood with feet in icy water completing the building of a bridge over the stream above the Hollow Walk with a fine stone structure. “Happily stood” is no exaggeration; Ruth and John always look happy, and make light of heavy work. Mind you, the same can be said of the leaf-rakers and barrow-pushers. It’s the best way: no point in making mountains out of molehills.
John at work building the bridge

The finished bridge


Steve Wootten & Phil Coyne

Monday, 8 December 2014

Winter Wildlife at Gibside

The onset of winter heralds a quiet time for much of the natural world. As temperatures plummet plants become dormant and animals must deal with a lack of food.  Yet winter brings with it some new faces and new opportunities to see wildlife at Gibside.

  • Mammals
Few mammals actually hibernate through the winter, although some, such as badgers, become less active in cold weather.

Most mammals are hard to spot, being small and elusive or nocturnal, but we can still see signs of their passing. With the wet mud and occasional snow, winter can be a good time to find prints. Look out for those of roe deer, badgers and foxes as you walk around the estate.

Badger and roe deer footprints in the mud                   
Bats are one of the few UK mammals that do hibernate, hiding themselves away inside small spaces in trees, buildings or one of the bat boxes installed around the estate. Even then, on warm days they may wake up and are sometimes seen heading out to forage or find a drink of water.

You may be lucky enough to catch a flash of white as a stoat in its ermine winter coat dashes across your path in search of a meal.

A stoat in its winter ermine coat
Gibside is home to good numbers of roe deer and they remain active throughout the winter. The best places to see deer are the quieter areas of the estate, such as the woodlands and particularly Snipes Dene. In winter their coats are a dark greyish brown and the bucks will have shed their antlers, so the males and females look similar. A good way to tell the difference between male (buck) and female (doe) is to look at the rump. Adult females have a tail-like tuft of hair called a tush, which is absent on the males.

Roe deer in their winter coats. In the background you can make out the tail-like tush on the females rump. 
(Copyright www.northeastwildlife.co.uk)

  •     Birds

Birds remain active throughout winter and with food in short supply the wildlife hide is a good place to spot visitors fuelling up at the feeding stations.

In winter, populations of resident bird species are swollen by visitors moving in from colder climates to the north and east.  Along with an increase of familiar species such as robins and blackbirds, some new faces arrive – look out for fieldfare, redwing and brambling. 

Winter visitors include brambling, fieldfare and redwing 
(Copyright www.northeastwildlife.co.uk) 

Winter is also a time when many species of birds form flocks and communal roosts. Whilst walking through the woodlands, keep your ears open and you may detect the ‘contact calls’ of these feeding flocks as they move around looking for food.

Look up at the late afternoon skies and you might see groups of red kites circling before coming in to roost together. 

Finally, as winter moves into January, the first signs of new life begin to poke their heads above ground. Snowdrops are one of the first flowing plants to appear, a welcome portent of things to come. They can be found all over the estate, but the Ice House Wood is a particularly good spot.

Andy Mawer
Volunteer Assistant Ranger