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