Monday, 12 December 2016

November 2016

Most probably, it was a common shrew, but there was little chance to check its identity. The tiny animal had been disturbed when we were cutting back the suckers around the base of a lime tree. Fright and flight had sent it deeper into the dense forest of twigs, only to re-emerge and disappear under the cropped vegetation bordering the track to The Stables. It all happened in a flash. We searched, but it was gone.

Not a shrew or a vole but a grey squirrel

Job done, we moved on to the still- frosted vista below the Banqueting Hall, above the Octagon Pond. A few days earlier the area had been strimmed to a height of about fifteen centimetres. We lightly raked off the cut grass, ferns and other greenery, and scattered it in the woods – careful not to scrape too deep with our rakes. Doing that would damage that underlayer of nooks and crannies and routeways that is home to so many small creatures. Just the kind of miniature world into which our shrew escaped.
Grass raking on the Banqueting Hall vista

Wandering back to our base, we spread out to search for waxcaps on the Hall Field, but found few. Later, we combed the upper slopes of the Warrenhaugh fields, and found fewer. We’ve repeated this exploration several times since. Both sites have been good for spotting waxcaps in past years, but not this autumn it seems. Don’t know why.
Parrot waxcaps
The path back from Warrenhaugh
Rainbow near car park

Steve Wootten & Phil Coyne

Monday, 31 October 2016

October 2016

The vegetation fades and most has long since gone to seed, but here and there plants continue to flower. On Warrenhaugh, the yarrow is extensive, and forget-me-not splashes its pale blue by the near-empty pond; there’s not been much rain in recent weeks. Elsewhere we came across nipplewort, red clover, devil’s bit scabious and lesser stitchwort – not many, but still in flower. Unsurprisingly, Himalayan balsam makes a show as well.



As might be expected at this time of year, fungi are emerging from earth and rotted wood. We find identification difficult, and what was learned in previous seasons is for the best part forgotten. Scarlet waxcap we recognized on the Hall Field, and a small forest of glistening inkcap at Warrenhaugh. Others were photographed in the hope of finding something matching in the book.

Scarlet Waxcaps
Crimson Waxcap - a rarer species

Glistening Inkcap

Lichen growing on tree stump

Autumn colours

Much else remains the same. Jackdaws explode out of the skeleton of the Old Hall – seemingly just to play before settling down briefly, then starting all over again. Buzzards cry, and red kites are an almost constant presence floating low above our heads. Spotting a tiny goldcrest low in a yew was a delight. But acorns falling to the ground and sunlight on the trees are the real markers of October.

And for we Wednesday Conservation Volunteers, October marks the start of our team work. After a summer of working in ones and twos, we were back together again claiming back the woodland from rampant rhododendron.
A tangled mess

Volunteers at work

Artist at work

Turner prize? - No, just herbicide applied to stumps.
Steve Wootten & Phil Coyne

September 2016

Rust red sorrels and ageing docks bring colour and structure to rough areas seemingly dominated by seeding creeping thistles, scruffy rosebay willowherb and fading grasses. Many umbellifers  - hogweed, angelica and the like – have shed their seeds, and stand skeletal.

There have been plenty of bright days of recent, some quite warm, though there is an overall cooling. Here and there colour in the leaves on trees mark a change, but it still seems far from the ‘start of autumn’ announced by the man on the telly. But the lower light of the equinox does bring a different quality, and fresh cut grass gains a golden glow. The hollow lane to the old mine in the West Wood is filling with fallen leaves, and mixed flocks of tits move from tree to tree. So perhaps autumn has started after all.
Early morning mist
Snipes Dene in mist
Autumnal berries
Steve Wootten & Phil Coyne

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