Sunday, 28 July 2013

Making Hay While the Sun Shines

The recent hot, dry weather has seen Alistair, the estate farmer, hard at work cutting and baling the hay meadows at Gibside.  Some areas such as along roadsides and fencelines are not easily accessible to his machinery so are left uncut and the ranger team tidy these areas using strimmers. This grass has in past years been added to 'grass snake heaps' (piles of vegetation which heat up during decomposition creating an ideal environment for grass snakes to lay their eggs).  This year however we have saved some of the better quality grass for a trial at making our own 'hand-made bales'.  Our volunteer joiner Colin manufactured a bale maker from timber and plywood. This is a rectangular, open-topped box into which hay is fed, with hinged door at the front for removing the finished bale. Two string lines are put in place prior to loading with hay and a swinging, pivoting press mechanism compacts the hay before tying off and releasing the pressure.  

Ranger Phil collecting hay for baler

New volunteer Daniel loading hay into baler

Ranger Phil with finished bales

Bales loaded onto vehicle

Tuesday, 23 July 2013

West Wood LWS survey Blog 2: A well ticked list (18 July 2013)

For the most part the designated West Wood Local Wildlife Site is continuous, but it also takes in two isolated ponds in the Park Fields farmland. The one to the south is in open field and conveniently situated for fairly frequent visits on our way back at the end of the day. The more northerly one is close by but requires just that bit more of an effort to tempt us to put it off to the next time. This is July; our last visit was in April. Not surprisingly, we found lots of things that we hadn’t seen there before. Of great interest were two people - one a NT volunteer, the other a local small mammal enthusiast - checking traps set in the hope of finding water shrew. Instead, they captured five common shrews – two of them with little white ears and very cute.
Common Shrew

Some things are just puzzling. A comb of an accessible stretch of the Derwent riverside that comes within the LWS boundary produced some unusual plant discoveries. One was clearly wild celery, except its distinctive smell was not at all celery-like and it was growing on a river bank far from its favoured seaside habitat. Another was very familiar with its silver shaded leaves yet its name difficult to recall. We ceased trying when it dawned that it’s a frequent sight in many a suburban garden. We’re still puzzling over the celery though. Of course, many a garden plant finds its way into a river and its tributaries, but wild celery is quite unlike its domestic descendant in superficial appearance. And, of course, many an umbellifer looks remarkably like others of its family.

Last week two buzzards were making a lot of noise when we twice passed close to a known nest site thought abandoned. Are they back? Possibly, though there was no sign this week and, with so much leaf on the trees, the nest couldn’t be checked - or seen even.

In order to find some species on the list designating West Wood as a Local Wildlife Site, we have changed our strategy and for a few weeks are seeking specific plants where they have been previously recorded and/or in their most likely habitat. Some we can expect to locate without too much difficulty as the season progresses; some we are not so confident about. That may prove unfounded with a more targeted approach, but includes wood brome and lesser skullcap.
Narrow Buckler Fern

We have had some success with targeting though - finding climbing corydalis carpeting the woodland floor close to the upper farm track. Don’t know how it escaped our attention in the past. Wood millet is just about everywhere it should be, and dainty heath bedstraw has come into flower by tracksides and in woodland clearings. Narrow buckler fern has been found by a cascade in upper Leap Mill Burn – and possibly in other places. It’s a difficult plant to identify – not least because the books are a little unclear about some of its attributes.
Climbing Corydalis
Heath Bedstraw

We have just had another unsuccessful search for lesser skullcap, wood (or hairy) brome and wood barley, and there’s still devil’s bit scabious to wait for. Otherwise the boxes on our plant list are pretty well ticked.
Birdsfoot Trefoil
Steve Wootten & Phil Coyne

Friday, 19 July 2013

Summer fruits and flowers ...

Mid-July in Gibside's gardens and there's the sense that the growing season is reaching its peak. There are so many colours and scents, so many different moods and moments, so many fruits and flowers, that it's difficult to choose what's finest in all this grandeur. Here's just a taster of what's "hot" in our pleasure grounds this week.

The turf that was laid a few short weeks ago has had its first cut and it's difficult to believe this area was a muddy car park at the end of March. The weather is making things tricky though; scorching is affecting some areas and watering is still required to help combat this long dry spell. Nevertheless, we hope you agree, it's a huge improvement.
Elsewhere the vegetable plots in the walled garden are burgeoning with produce, some of which is already being harvested for use in our Potting Shed Cafe; rocket, mixed salad leaves, radish, and herbs are all picked on a daily basis to add that very local fresh touch to your lunch at Gibside.
The heat is quickly ripening soft fruits too: black and red currant, strawberry and raspberry plants are all full of fruit that is ready to be eaten. There are plenty of uses for all this bounty if you can resist eating it on the spot; from jams and jellies to pies, sauces and liqueurs. Why not come down and chat with our growers about what they're doing with theirs this year?

In our herbaceous border you'll find globe thistles just about to flower, their distinctive spherical heads are a mass of tiny blue stars that seem to fizz into life.
Many visistors are commenting on the bold red blooms of Lychnis chalcedonica too.
And a favourite that has been the source of many a conversation over the last few weeks has been the sweet william. Its sweet-shop scent takes me right back to my childhood, and it seems many visitors have been similarly transported. This allotment staple is a real old fashioned darling, the essence of nostalgia and due for a bit of a revival I hope.
Beyond the walled garden and roses are at last filling the shrubbery walk with their flowers and fragrance. Look out for the eternally popular Rosa mundi (aka Rosa gallica 'Versicolor') which appeared as a sport back around 1500 and has been beloved by gardeners ever since for its paint-splashed colouring and delicious perfume.
Further along, and much of the orangery planting is basking in this very un-British heat: diascias, mesembryanthemums, and osteospermums - all native to southern Africa - are showing off their vivid oranges and pinks. Adding to the display are the cooler, daintier blue-skied felicias, and the sun-yellow sharp-petalled gazanias.
Bees and butterflies are also loving the sunshine (see the small heath butterfly caught below enjoying the oregano), and who can blame them? There can be few better places to be on a summer's day than here in Gibside's gardens.

Wednesday, 17 July 2013

New Kids on the Block

During May female roe deer (does) seek out a quiet spot in which to give birth.  The young (kids), usually twins, are left hidden in thick cover for the first few weeks of life although the mother is usually not too far away and visits at regular intervals to attend to and suckle them.  Vulnerable at this age they have adapted to remain hidden from predators such as foxes by having virtually no scent and freezing motionless when one approaches relying on their spotted and dappled fur to remain hidden from sight. 

Young kids when alarmed drop on the spot and remain motionless

Close-up of above - note tongue sticking out

Occasionally a doe will choose to give birth in a hay meadow in which although the long grass gives plenty of cover it dosn't exactly provide good camouflage as seen in the picture below. An added danger is that the birthing period usually coincides with hay cutting time and many kids are killed during the process.

Kid 'hiding' in hay meadow

By now kids are growing stronger and are able to move around with the doe although they may still be left unattended for periods and can often be seen wandering and feeding alone.  As you walk around Gibside's woodland walks keep your eyes open and you may be lucky to spot some.