Tuesday, 16 May 2017

Grass snake (Natrix natrix)

April - May 2017
The new tins had been numbered with Roman numerals. One of the rangers must have done that. They’re a sophisticated lot. We’ve been back in one of the more remote parts of the Gibside woodland, cutting back the tangle of bramble and honeysuckle that had taken advantage of the clearings we had carved out earlier in the year. We lopped down a few more birches while we were on, to let in more light. It is grass snake time again, and we were there to set up a new monitoring site in addition to the eight already dotted around the estate.
The new site
A log pile covered in honeysuckle

This site is a bit out of the way, bordered north and south by intermittent streams, and surrounded by trees – oak, rowan, ash, beech, wych elm, holly, hazel and lots of birch. Though predominantly trees, there are margins – streamside, field edge, nearby track side and, of course, the clearings themselves – where non-woody flowering plants thrive. Here there are bluebells, wood sorrel, ramsons, primrose, yellow pimpernel and the exquisite moschatel. In some parts, people refer to grass snakes as water snakes. Hereabouts there are a few ponds, and we’re not too far from the River Derwent – though it is uphill all the way. The streams might help.
A lovely wych elm tree near the site entrance

Wych elm seeds

The delicate flowers of moschatel


Yellow pimpernel

This sedge gave off clouds of pollen when touched

Anyway, with it being a new patch, it has new ACOs – artificial cover objects that is: bits of corrugated iron. These days they’re made of some other material, but we just call them tins.

The tins are there because, underneath, they make an ideal grass snake shelter and, on top, a fine basking place, making any snakes more visible to the observer. The numbers aid recording. And Natrix natrix might well be tempted by the Roman numerals, but don’t count on it.

An inquisitive Common pheasant
Steve Wootten & Phil Coyne

Wednesday, 5 April 2017

Into the woods

Wednesday 5th April 2017

Wood sorrel

Wood anemone
Dog's mercury
Lesser celandine
Volunteers at work
Burning the rhododendrons

Away from our woodland wasteland, native nature is stirring. Primroses flower on tracksides, wood anemone take advantage of the early spring sunlight before the leaves are fully out on the trees, among it the emerging arrow heads of cuckoo pint.

Goat willow catkin

There’s a narrow path here where badgers – regular in their habits – make their way to forage and use the latrine. A roe deer is glimpsed not too far distant, but feels safe enough not to run. A green woodpecker calls, jays quietly come and go in pairs; a buzzard cries. Our constant distraction, though, is a pair of red kites circling, and returning time after time to the same tree. We are delighted to see them, but this choice of nesting site is in a far too busy, public area, and is destined to failure. We hope they go away, deeper into undisturbed woods.
Maze in the Walled Garden
Steve Wootten & Phil Coyne

Saturday, 4 March 2017

Ha-ha it's no joking matter

15th February: Mist clung to the trees in Parkfields as the team headed off to one of our least favoured tasks – clearing leaves from the Ha-ha along the side of The Avenue.
Mist in Parkfields
Ha-ha full of leaves

Inspecting the job.

Blue tits chirped in the oak trees above our heads as we set about our task; it was hard work and in places very muddy. As the mist burned off in the early morning sunshine three red kites wheeled over Parkfields, it’s always a delight to see them.   Our peace was only disturbed by the buzz of a chainsaw which was being used by a team of tree surgeons felling a magnificent beech tree just outside the Walled Garden. Why was this magnificent tree being felled? Well, unfortunately it was infected with a fungus(Meripilus giganteus) as well as with Honey fungus(which was only discovered after it was felled), which could have put the tree at risk of falling – a risk to visitors (and staff) and to the wall of the Walled Garden.
Tree surgeon at work
Almost done

The team hard at work

Leaves were left in piles on the edge of the Ha-ha to be removed later.
Inspecting in the sunshine

22nd February: We were back in the Ha-ha again, this time at the far end of the avenue near to the Hollow Walk, a much muddier environment. On this occasion we bagged and disposed of the collected leaves ourselves.
Ha-ha with leaves
Disposing of the leaves

Cleared, muddy Ha-ha
Roll on spring!

Phil Coyne & Steve Wootten

Tuesday, 7 February 2017

January into February 2017

1st February 2017 - Ebchester Woods

We arrived before the others, though not particularly early. A mist hung in the fields across from the woods, and the river appeared still. Within half an hour, though, the rest of the team turned up, disturbed the peace and required us to do some work.  At less than ten acres, Ebchester Woods is a small but excellent stretch of semi-ancient woodland beside the River Derwent. We were there because the woods belong to the National Trust, and are managed and cared for by the Gibside Rangers.

Mist in fields on opposite side of River Derwent
It’s been a while since we were last here but, every so often, there is a need for a bit of a tidy and some maintenance. We two had the relatively easy task of carving out passing places here and there along the one narrow path that runs the length of the woods – cutting back the undergrowth to create little bays. “Scalloped” was the word used by Head Ranger Helen. The result was a little too crude to warrant that description, but they’ll do. At least we had the opportunity to quietly wander and pause to look at the wildlife. Tried to identify whether it was a lesser-spotted or greater-spotted woodpecker we could hear hammering. Found pleasure in mosses growing on tree stumps, birds skittering through tree-tops, mallards on the water.
Hard at work!

The cleared terraced bank
The path through the woods.
The others, it seems, had no need or no time for such distractions. There is a weir on the river here, creating a navigable stretch of water where once the locals leisurely rowed, or watched others from a series of earth terraces close to the clubhouse. These terraces had been invaded by a dense covering of gorse, bramble, bracken and the like, most of which is now removed, and in a big heap awaiting disposal.

The heap
Sandwiches and flask in the sunshine, a final tidy of the footpath, and the job was done. A lovely day: we should come here more often.
And then the sun came out...
Steve Wootten & Phil Coyne

Monday, 2 January 2017

December 2016

It's almost Christmas
Tree décor in the Walled Garden
That’s the thing about Gibside these days – even in December the car park is often full to overflowing. Of course, there have been some very fine days this month, but even on drab days it has been busy. You’d wonder where all those people get to and what damage their footfall might do in what, after all, is largely a Site of Special Scientific Interest (SSSI) and a nature reserve.
Well, The Avenue can take a hammering, with sections of it having to be roped off at this time of year when the grass can’t make good the damage. The Strawberry Castle play area takes a battering too, but that’s as it should be. Elsewhere, people stroll the tracks through West Wood and along the riverside, pop in to the café; some stray to the far reaches of Snipes Dene, but not many. In fact, most of the estate experiences little footfall at all, with some parts being rarely visited even by we Conservation Volunteers.
The team burn some of the rhododendron prunings
This month, we’ve been working in two such places. One is quite close to another spot popular with the public – The Monument, but sees no visitors on its steep banks, amongst its fine trees. We were there (as so often is the case) cutting back encroaching rhododendron; burning some it and building log piles with the bits too big to safely burn.
And, perched above an even steeper bank in an out of the way stretch of Snipes Dene is a fine area of woodland, where we have been thinning out young growth – mainly birch – amid the more mature oak, beech, holly and ash. In doing so, we were attempting to open up a series of woodland glades that will benefit and encourage a wider variety of plant life and animals to go with it. We might even attract the elusive grass snake. In ten years of working here, this is only my second or third visit to this beautiful spot. As for visitor footfall, it’s unlikely to have any – reserved instead for nature.
Hard at work
Pile of brash from prunings
A Happy & Healthy New Year to all our readers.

Steve Wootten & Phil Coyne