Friday, 27 April 2012

Garlic Soup

Wednesday 25th April 2012

The first task of the morning for four of the conservation volunteers was to pick wild garlic leaves and flowers for the kitchen at the Stables so that they could make garlic soup. We quickly collected a sufficient quantity, so it was off to the Stable kitchen to deliver them. After making our delivery it was time for a quick coffee break then we joined the rest of the team where our next task was to pull up Himalayan Balsam seedlings.

Wild Garlic
Garlic tasting!

Himalayan balsam is a large plant which is native to the Himalayas, introduced into Britain it has spread widely. The plants are large (up to 2metres in height) and spread aggressively to outcompete native plants. Himalayan balsam is easily identified when in flower but we were looking for small seedlings a couple of inches tall – it was like looking for a needle in a haystack!

A Himalayan Balsam Seedling

Searching for Seedlings

Gibside's Wildlife - Birds

Lots of Gibside's birds are busy nesting now.  Red kites, buzzards and kestrels are back in their nesting territories and sitting on eggs while sparrowhawks are putting the finishing touches to their new nests and will begin laying over the next few weeks.

Young kite

Young buzzard

We erected lots of new nest-boxes earlier in the year and a good number of these have been occupied by blue tits, great tits and nuthatches.  Larger boxes were also provided for both tawny and barn owls, woodpeckers and gooseanders.

Great tit's nest with eight eggs

Swallows have arrived back at the stables and are already checking out possible nest-sites.  We will again be installing a camera at a suitable nest and viewing live on-screen footage in the wildlife room.  Great tits have also again used one of the nest-boxes and footage of these can also be seen.  Sadly the tawny owl nest-box has not been occupied this year.

Tawny owl in nest-box

Summer visitors are arriving now with blackcap, chiffchaff and willow warbler all singing from prominent perches to advertise their presence and attract a mate.  Listen also for skylarks and curlew on the 'Skyline Walk' and lots of other songbirds around the woodland walks.

Skylarks nest

This sunday 29th April our Conservation Rangers are leading a 'Dawn Chorus' walk looking for and listening to Gibside's birds and hopefully other elusive wildlife.  The walk starts at 5.30 a.m. and a charge of £6.00 includes refreshments.  Places are limited and booking is essential on 01207 541820.

Monday, 23 April 2012

Small Scale Wonders by John Grundy

On a recent wander through the Victorian shrubbery, down into the Ice House Woods and along the river, I came across some flowers and plants that caught my eye and I thought deserved a mention. Many of them are common enough, but perhaps not so well known due to their less than showy blooms. To completely contradict that statement Anemone atrocaerulea was first to catch my attention with its striking flowers, bold against the soil in the shrubbery borders.

Anemone blanda 'Blue Shades'
A South East Europe and Turkish native originally, they are a little temperamental to establish. Keith, Gibside's Gardener-in-Charge, suggests starting the corms off in a box and planting out in spring when they are ‘in the green.’

Narcissi in the ruins of the Greenhouse

In the Greenhouse beds an excellent combination planting of Pachysandra terminalis, the evergreen scented ground cover has miniature narcissi and chinodoxa emerging from it.

Pachysandra, Japanese box is a slow growing exotic ground cover, which does well in dense shade. Even growing under large trees in dry conditions.

Entering the Ice House Woods among the newly planted specimen shrubs are native woodland flowers such as anemone, oxalis and viola. Along the path edges is a very wide spread woodland wild flower dogs mercury Mecurialis perennis.  Poisonous, containing a chemical which can give off an aroma not unlike rotting fish its ability to cause vomiting and death if eaten in large quantities dogs mercury is perhaps not regarded as one of our most attractive native plants. It is however an indicator species of ancient woodland. I quite like its lime green carpet in shady woodland and the tiny green flowers.

Dogs Mercury

Heading down the steep path towards the Bath House ruins and riverside there are patches of Opposite-leaved Golden Saxifrage Chrysosplenium oppositifolium.  Again often overlooked as a result of being fairly abundant but not terribly showy. A lover of damp shady spots in woodlands and meadows these small perennial spreading plants can carpet large areas with their glossy foliage and pale yellow flowers.

Wood rush

Growing out from and above the long dry stone wall on the riverside path you will notice a wide-spread glossy leaved grass, Luzula sylvatica the wood rush. This handsome little plant produces brown to black flowers early in the year. They can be found in dry shade damp ditches and round pond edges. The flower spikes are held high above the foliage and sway and dance in the breeze.

Flowering Currant

A flowering currant bush Ribes sanguinium cascades over the end of the wall down by the riverside. Delicately scented and a good early source of nectar for many bees, the pale pink flowers are easy to spot. This native shrub has been hybridised over many years to produce many garden forms.

I hope like me, you will wander the paths of Gibside with your eyes peeled for the smaller wonders as well as the larger more obvious things.  Like the old saying ‘the more you travel the more there is to visit’ so it is true that the more you look the more there is to see.  Small is often beautiful and equally as important in many ways.  April and May are amazing months when it comes to wildflowers, especially in the woodlands where early blooms race to catch the sun before the leaves of the trees cast their shade over the woodland floor.

So get out there now have a good wander and soak it all up.
John Grundy

Friday, 20 April 2012

Gibside's Wildlife

It's a busy time for much of Gibside's wildlife with birds nesting and mammals busy raising their young.  Many of these mammals are shy and elusive but you may be lucky to spot some as you walk around the woodland paths.

Roe deer does are preparing to have their new kids.  After birth these are left alone hiding in vegetation for their first few weeks with the mother visiting them occassionally through the day to feed them.

Roe deer kid 'hiding' in grass

Foxes and badgers are also busy raising their cubs in underground burrows.  Badgers are strictly nocturnal but you may be lucky and spot a fox searching for food during the day for it's hungry family.

Fox hunting during the day

If your very lucky you may see a red squirrel as we are fortunate to still have a small population here at Gibside.  These are usually encountered feeding in coniferous trees.

Red squirrel in pine tree

Other mammals present include otters on the river, stoats and weasels, hares and rabbits, and smaller mice, voles and shrews, as well as nocturnal hedgehogs and various species of bats.

Water shrew largest of the shrews and almost black in cclour

Stoat distinguished from weasel by larger size and longer black tipped tail

Please always be aware that it is a very sensitive time for all wildlife while raising young and most are afforded legal protection against disburbance while at their nest sites or dens.  If an animal or bird appears agitated and disturbed by your presence you should move away from the area quickly.  For the same reasons and in line with our policy you should always have your dog under control and on a leader at all times.

Thursday, 19 April 2012

Bluebell ID by John Grundy

If you’re feeling energetic and like to explore, you may consider a gentle meander up into Snipes Dene to see the bluebells which are coming into flower. Look out also for anemone, oxalis, campion, alternate-leaved saxifrage and lots of other emerging woodland flowers. They can be seen on the track edges through the West Woods also.

In Snipes Dene you can find drifts of bluebells close to the track edge near the old carriage drive. These are English bluebells Hyacinthoides non scripta. With a bit of careful study you will spot the subtle differences between our natives and the invasive Spaniard Hyacithoides hispanica. The Spanish garden form has made its way out into woodlands surrounding urban areas and forms a fertile hybrid with the native form. This shares characteristics with both species but means that the pure native form is becoming rarer.  The descriptions below can help you to distinguish between the two.

Native bluebells
·         have narrow leaves, usually about 1cm or 1.5cm (about half an inch) wide
·         have deep blue (sometimes white, rarely pink), narrow, tube-like flowers, with the very tips curled right back
·         have flowers mostly on one side of the stem only, and distinctly drooping, or nodding, at the top
·         have a distinct, sweetish scent
·         Inside the flowers, the anthers with the pollen are usually cream

Close up of native bluebell flower. Note the recurved petals.

Spanish bluebells
  • have broad leaves often 3cm (over an inch) wide
  • have paler blue (quite often pink and white ones too), conical or bell-shaped flowers that have spread-out tips
  • have flowers all round the upright stem
  • have almost no scent
  • inside the flowers, the anthers with the pollen usually blue (although this may vary a little)

Our native wild flowers are pollinated by a wider variety of insects than most exotic species.  So what can you do to help save the native UK bluebell? Is there anything you can do? Well there are some small scale plans. Check your own garden bluebells. If they are the Spanish form, and this is going to sound harsh, you could dig them up and dispose of them thoroughly. I have begun doing this at home, to make way for some English bluebell bulbs. These can be bought from reputable plant nurseries or on line from native bulb specialists.

Have you spotted any bluebells or do you have them growing in your garden?
                       Add your own bluebell sightings to the National Trust Bluebell Watch map!

Tree Guards

Wednesday 18th April 2012

Our small group of volunteers, under the guidance of new ranger Vicky, set off to replace the wire guards around some laurel trees alongside the road up to the Stables.
The young laurels need protection from being nibbled by roe deer.

We began by first removing the old chicken wire protection, which had become inadequate for the job. Then we had to create individual wire cage guards, which were fixed in position with wooden stakes. Two new laurels were planted.

Installing new tree guards

Our task complete, we dug up some Western Hemlock to fill in the time until lunch.
Rain was forecast for the afternoon and being neither amphibian nor amphibious we decided to have an early finish.

Is it a Frog or a Toad? Amphibian Education Session

The sun was still shining as we headed up to the Bowes Room at the Stables on Tuesday evening. En- route we had sightings of a greater spotted woodpecker, a pheasant and a jay.

Amongst other things, Gibside is home to the common frog, the common toad, the common newt, the not so common great crested newt and the palmate newt.

After a cup of tea and a biscuit we were treated to a very informative talk given by the National Trust’s and Gibside’s own amphibian and reptile expert, John Grundy. This was followed by a hands-on practical session on amphibian identification and a walk out to the Octagon Pond to try out our newly acquired skills.

Fishing for newts
What's this one then?

Now where are they hiding?

Hopefully, Gibside volunteers should now be able to tell them apart, when they can find them, that is.

Wednesday, 11 April 2012

Spring at Gibside 11 April 2012

The weather forecast had been dire but, for the morning at least, the rain held off and there was even a little pale sunshine. Spring is underway at Gibside and the woodland floor is coming alive with Dogs Mercury, Wood Sorrel, Primrose, Wild Garlic and Golden Saxifrage. Bluebell and Greater Woodrush, too, are beginning to flower and, in some of the darker parts, patches of Toothwort are coming through. Toothwort, a member of the parasitic Broomrape family, is a pale drooping plant that feeds on trees and lacks green – having no need to manufacture its food.



Distracted occasionally by the flowers and a Red Kite circling over his mate which was sitting on a nearby nest, we were checking to see what use smaller birds were making of the recently installed nest boxes. Many had clearly been visited, and a few held delicately crafted nests of moss with down-lined cups.

Ramsons (Wild Garlic)
Our work was cut short by heavy rain. It may be spring, but it is April.
                                                                                                                                     Steve Wootten