Tuesday, 17 May 2016

Out-witting sheep

11th May 2016

As a rule, sheep are docile, unimaginative creatures, capable of no more than munching grass all day, reproducing once a year, and occasionally falling over with their feet sticking up in the air. It’s their upbringing, you see. Natural selection has long since been replaced by farmer selection. They are bred for the quality of their meat and wool, their reproductive success rate, and their good looks – so that they can win prizes in agricultural shows. Wit and survival skills are not selection criteria.

It was unexpected then that, after all our hard work, sheep dismantled a gate at the penned-in Warrenhaugh Pond, kicked sticks and straw out of the way, and ate all the green grass cuttings from the grass snake nest heap. It’s repaired now, and defences strengthened using hammer, nails and string. We know how to out-wit sheep.
We hope you're not accusing us...

The heap being repaired.
The gate repaired.

Our wits weren’t so sharp when we volunteered to shift the debris of some recently felled trees from the Ladyhaugh end of the Monument vista. The National Trust likes its vistas. It was a simple enough task and, we had thought, an easy one: shifting logs and branches out of line of sight – nothing to it. We were wrong. Job finished, we barely had strength enough to sit in the sunshine and lift a cup of coffee and sandwich to the lips. We should have got the sheep to do it.

Two views of the improved vista.
Then it was time for a bit of nature watching befor heading back to base...

Greater stitchwort.

Wood horsetail

Steve Wootten & Phil Coyne

Tuesday, 10 May 2016

A New Start

Wednesday 4th May 2016

Through to mid-morning it was still cool enough to wear our fleece jackets; by lunchtime the temperature had risen to sixteen or seventeen degrees. This year, that counts as hot. We had a few small jobs to get done, but this was the day to return to our summer job of collecting wildlife data around Gibside Estate. What we see, we note. We transfer our notes to a spreadsheet which we add into the Rangers’ data, and all that gets fed into the National Trust databank. It’s a useful task we’re told, but, in truth, we do it because we like to.
Other members of the Wednesday Conservation Team have their various summer occupations – cutting grass, maintaining path drainage, working in the walled garden, and such. Some just stay away, to reappear in October. We count flowers and live in hope of spotting a grass snake.


Today we had a newly recruited volunteer to the Wednesday Team with us. Since it will be the best part of six months before the whole team reassembles, he will have to find his summer niche. For now, he joined us on a tour of some of the grass snake sites where we did some maintenance on a few, and shifted one entirely down a steep bank and across a stream to be more in the vicinity of the Ladyhaugh ponds. Grass snakes like water.

In a few weeks, Ladyhaugh will coloured with meadow flowers. Today we noted a few. Cowslips dominate, along with the odd patch of primrose and a scattering of lesser celandine and dandelion. The margins of the meadow are less showy, but display more variety with a few bluebells, greater stitchwort, garlic mustard, wood anemone, and daisies of course. At the rough, north end we sought out butterbur - now fading beside the river, and found a patch of ground ivy that we had not noted in previous years. An orange tipped butterfly fluttered by; a welcome start to a new season.

Ground Ivy
Lesser Celandine

Fern Emerging
Trees coming into leaf, West Woods

Old Carriageway West Woods
Steve Wootten & Phil Coyne

Tuesday, 3 May 2016

Spring gets going; some Rangers gone

27th April 2016

Hidden away in the new birch growth in the West Wood, Terry and Steve sought out a large and rather well-constructed log pile. Phil took Terry’s picture standing beside it. This had been the very first job for the Wednesday Conservation Team – nearly ten years ago now. We sized it up, admired its construction, exchanged memories of the day, and tried to remember who had been there with us. Phil looked on politely – neither bored nor in wonder; he’s only been coming here for eight years.

Terry next to The Logpile

We were in the West Wood, mapping a grass snake site. That is plotting the position of a heap of rotting vegetation which is there to encourage snakes to lay their eggs in a place where we can find them, and noting the position of pieces of corrugated iron sheet which are intended to provide a good warming-up spot for our cold-blooded reptiles. Each sheet is numbered to help us record what we find on it, or under it, during our weekly observations. There are eight such sites around the estate.
The nest heap

West Wood grass snake site

A few weeks ago, Ranger Liam helped us set up one of the sites on Warrenhaugh by carting some bales of straw in a vehicle referred to as the ‘Mule’. Going downhill was fine but, job done, the creature couldn’t cope with the wet, stony slope. We pushed it – and Liam - backwards seven-eighths of the way up the hill before admitting defeat, and summoning a Land Rover to tow it the rest of the way. Liam was rightly embarrassed, and would rather people didn’t know about it.

Ranger Liam has since left us for a forestry job with the National Trust in the Lake District. In the same week, Ranger Dan departed for a job with the Trust on the Farne Islands. For nature loving rangers, neither could have wished for better. Here at Gibside they will be sorely missed.

As spring gets going, it’s time for us to abandon our winter labours, and leave nature in peace. From now through to October we will be taking leisurely strolls with binoculars and note book, sandwiches and flask, recording flora and fauna for the Trust’s database. We might even see a grass snake.

Female Chaffinch
Great Tit

Abandoned Lunch. The remains of a woodcock,
a light lunch for a sparrowhawk

Steve Wootten & Phil Coyne