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

Monday, 27 October 2014

Explore the Orangery

This week 27-31st Oct, we are testing a new short trail.  This is a chance to learn more about the Shrubbery and Orangery here at Gibside, learn a little about it's history and an insight into our planting today.

The trail has been created by our trainee historic gardener, Lisa who is taking part in the National trusts 'Passport to your future' programme.  Funded by the Heritage lottery fund it has five trainee Gardeners and three trainee Rangers at various properties across England.

If you would like to try out our trail and help us evaluate it, then please let one of our conservation team know.

Thursday, 16 October 2014

A Day Out At Aukland Castle

Aukland Castle: 9th October 2014

We didn’t recognize most people on the bus. There was Maureen and some of her pals from the Walled Garden, Andy the residential volunteer, our leader Vicky, and a handful of us from the Wednesday Conservation Group. And there were lots of other people, all volunteers. Gibside and many places like it – National Trust or not - depend on volunteers. This was the Gibside volunteers’ annual charabanc outing. Our guides at Aukland Castle last Thursday were of the familiar breed of volunteers: well-informed, enthusiastic and entertaining.

The Entrance to Aukland Castle
Castle Buildings


Carved wooden panel behind altar
Aukland Castle, home to the Prince Bishops of Durham for eight centuries, is quite an impressive place. Its chapel – converted from the Castle’s great hall - is stunning, inside and out, and full of detail – both decorative and historical. We give no further account of it here; go and see it. And whilst you’re there, have a wander in the Deer Park. We did; we saw no deer, but we did see the English Heritage cared-for Deer House, which is an extraordinary, extravagant affair – built to give shelter to deer and provide somewhere comfy for the bishop’s visitors to watch them. It’s hardly surprising that the deer keep away from the tourist bits when there’s so much shapely parkland to hide in.
The Deer House

Aukland Castle Grounds
On a day out, the coach ride matters. For those of us not familiar with north County Durham, our return journey by our driver’s scenic route - in order to avoid the rush-hour mayhem of the A1(M) - was a revelation and a delight. Tony isn’t a proper grumpy coach driver, not like they used to be in the olden days. Throughout the day, Tony was helpful, smiling and pleasant, interested and interesting. That makes a difference on a day out.
Phil Coyne & Steve Wootten

Wednesday, 15 October 2014

Autumn's Bounty

Autumn is a bountiful time of year for Gibside's wildlife with trees and bushes laden with nuts, seeds and berries.  Acorns from the Avenue oaks (these are mostly non-native turkey oaks but there are a few native oaks as well) provide a feast for squirrels and jays (a colourful member of the crow family) and much time is spent by both of these caching away the surplus in readiness for leaner times ahead.  Roe deer will also take advantage of such a feast and in quiet times will visit the Avenue to fatten up on the acorns. 

Jay on Avenue searching for acorns

Female roe deer on Avenue in search of acorns

With the good summer we had this year many trees and shrubs have produced good crops of berries and these will provide food for both mammals and birds.  Badgers take advantage of this alternative food supply and many are busy gorging on yew berries.  Look out for their latrine sites (there are a number on the Avenue) and you may see some of their droppings contain mostly yew seeds.  Birds, such as thrushes, also feed on berries and can strip a bush or tree bare within hours.  Look out also for the first of the year's fieldfares and redwings arriving to join in the feasting.

Badger dropping containing undigested yew berries and seeds 

Redwing a common winter visitor

Tuesday, 19 August 2014

Rutting roe deer

Late July and early August is the main rutting period for roe deer and lately there's been lots of activity here at Gibside. A 'courting' pair usually indulge in a prolonged chasing game of follow the leader, the doe leading followed closely by the buck, often nose to tail.  During this chase they will often, on reaching some prominant object such as a tree, bush or stump circle it many times creating a well-worn track known as a 'roe deer-ring'.  Occasionally this may involve more than one object and a figure of eight may be formed.


Ring around a tree stump

Figure of eight and rings around tree-shelters