Thursday, 12 September 2013

Autumn 2013

It has been several months since the last report from Holly Farm but now Spring has come and gone and Summer is turning to Autumn - already!
Last  winter was very trying weather-wise! The ground here was completely waterlogged for months, made worse by the Sussex clay.  Sometimes it is difficult to get excited by wildlife when the countryside is so drab and damp with little obvious signs of wildflowers or bugs.
Over the winter months 'our' pair of ravens were regularly heard or seen, often flying directly over the house and performing the odd barrel-role. A barn owl frequently appeared during late afternoons, flying 'softly' on silent wings as it hunted for voles in the rough grass, then returning to its roost in the cattle barn.  If only it chose to nest there as we have provided a perfectly good owl box and I would have thought that few hundred acres was more than enough to provide food to find food for their young. 
When finally a Spring of sorts did arrive, many of us imagined that we were going to have to put up with yet another miserable summer but little did we suspect what was behind the corner. Vague signs of what was in store began with the magnificent display of bluebells at the top end of Rookerywood.  Then gradually the rollercoaster of life got moving once again.

After a long cold winter the bluebell display in Rookerywood
refreshed the spirit
This was followed by a few warm days in late June that continued into July then August and early September when we experienced one of the hottest and most humid days I can remember.  Then overnight all change - the temperature dropped 15 degrees and the cold and damp returned and the wonderful hum and chirpings of insect life subsided.  My special interest in insects is not without sound reason. Apart from being fascinating in their own right, these often maligned creatures are close to the bottom of the food chain -  if there is a healthy population of insects then all 'higher' animals will prosper too, birds, reptiles mammals small and large. After plants they are at the root of biodiversity.

This summer several species of bumblebees were spotted in
the wood including the tree bumblebee which only arrived
 in this country in 2001

A carder beetle flies between the leaves of an oak sapling

The warm Summer brought farmers a bumper hay crop and insects which seemed to have become nearly extinct earlier in the season have returned. In fact I haven't seen so many bees and butterflies for years.  Around our house and wood we have counted 18 species of butterflies, 7 or so species of bumblebee and by mid August many species of hoverfly, twenty of which were identified and recorded 'on film'.  For a few weeks in mid Summer Rookery wood was almost seething with silver-washed fritillaries, punctuated by one or two pairs of white admirals.  The moorhens managed to produce three fluffy chicks and a pair of greylag nested on the island but once again  something took the eggs, possibly a crow or fox.  The buzzards that nest in the wood each year reared a pair of young and one afternoon six buzzards were spotted enjoying a thermal over the house.

Six buzzards head towards the wood circling in a thermal

My bĂȘte noir,  fallow deer have expanded yet again as they do with each passing season.  As alluded to in previous blogs, perhaps boringly so now, these vermin do unimaginable damage to the local fauna and flora by destroying wild flowers and any fresh saplings that dare to raise their head above ground.  
However a distinguished naturalist friend has persuaded me to spend a fortune, (with kind help from the Forestry Commission) on 800 metres of deer fencing to protect Rookerywood, although some have described the place as resembling a prisoner of war camp -  I think the enterprise is one of my more useful contributions to the health of our countryside!  The entire wood will now have a chance to be transformed into a haven for life: the last ten years of the now deteriorating plastic fencing which partially protects a third of the area is dramatic proof of its effectiveness. 

Observing the new plant and animal life that find refuge here will be fascinating to watch over the coming years. I would rather spend money on conservation projects at home where I can direct and observe progress rather than donating cash to foreign lands where there is a risk of dubious or ignorant characters controlling operations!

A section of deer fencing.  Within weeks its effectiveness was proved by the
wild flowers that appeared.  Here you can just make out the bird's foot trefoil
(yellow) and white clover.  On the other side of the fence these plants have
been all but destroyed.

Once the fence was erected and the gates closed, a lone roe was found
trapped inside the wood.  Unlike fallow, these pretty animals are not aliens
and in small numbers do not devastate all the plant life within their reach.
We left a gate open over night enabling the animal to escape.  This picture
was a chance snap while stalking a white admiral. 

The previous blog had a very obvious deliberate mistake included in an image,  surprisingly though nobody commented on it!














Wednesday, 1 May 2013

April 2013

Owing to the dreadful winter the land has been waterlogged preventing us from doing any heavy work in fields or woodland.  Instead much of my time was spent supervising the conversion of an old stable into a small gallery (see NEWS).  Now at long last it seems we have finished with the weeks of cold weather and rain.  During this time I hardly touched a camera all I managed was to photograph long-tailed tits on a bird feeder outside the kitchen window!  They took very little notice of me even when I was standing a couple of metres away. 

Long-tailed Tits
Compensation for the hard winter was the profusion of long-
tailed tits outside the kitchen window
Our best news is that the barn owl is back.  This most beautiful of birds can be seen floating around the rough fields most mornings and evenings in its hunt for voles and mice. Even during the very cold spells when the ground was covered with snow the owl could be seen in broad daylight looking for food, an indication that it was short of food. Apparently many barn owls died during this hard winter so it would be wonderful 'our' bird found a mate and produced some chicks - wishful thinking perhaps. The bird roosts in a barn owl box erected in one of the old cattle barns. 
Barn Owl
The picture will hardly win any awards but it is a record of our
barn owl having a short rest after a brief hunt for voles in the long
grass.  It roosts in a cattle shed just twenty-five meters away
Our first real Spring day was on the 20th,  its appearance was heralded not only by sunshine but also a few drone-flies, bumblebees, a brimstone and the song of the first blackcap of the season. The first cuckoo was perfectly on cue, being heard at the bottom of the Rookerywood on the 16th,  whereas the chiffchaff has been around for a week or two now.  A bonus is a pair of Greylag that have decided to nest on the little island pond - it is almost invisible even when viewed through binoculars but can be just seen in a photograph taken with a long telephoto lens. The island has more cover this year so with any luck the eggs will survive the carrion crows. Over the next few days the fresh green haze of Spring will be spreading through the trees.
It is said that in many parts of the country deer damage is more serious than global warming. This is the increasing opinion among many naturalists and ecologists, and certainly applies around here. The heartbeat of England's natural history is woodland, but in many areas deer destroy almost all greenery below about a meter resulting in no wild flowers, no new saplings, no diverse shrubbery and thin hedges. Around here all that survives is pendulous sedge and dog's mercury which deer hardly touch, the former out competing all else. 
A Ruined Habitat
Some twenty years ago the growth of bramble, blackthorn and other
plants was so dense that it took ten minutes to battle ones way
through this 50 meter stretch!  It will be fascinating to see a photo of
this exact spot in a couple of years time.
As fallow breed like flies, the pressure on Rookerywood increases each year, although up to now our temporary plastic fencing has helped to protect half of it. Recently though there have been more frequent break-ins, so now to save the life within, I am being forced to surround the entire wood with nearly 1000 meters of proper deer fencing - at vast cost.  But I can't think of a better way to help wildlife.  It all boils down to habitats. Besides which, charity begins at home!

Dawn in Rookery Pond
Most of the deer population explosion has occurred within the last twenty years or so. If there was an open season for these vermin with far more drastic culling methods instead of all this pussy-footing about, the biodiversity of plants and wildlife would increase by leaps and bounds and the countryside, woods especially, would be so much more beautiful. The RSPCA and Bambi brigade don't help of course as they don't believe in controlling anything. Sadly there are a lot of ignorant folk around who argue on an emotional level and can't see the larger picture.  The heartbeat of England's natural history is woodland, but in many areas deer destroy almost all greenery below about a meter resulting in no wild flowers, no new saplings, no diverse shrubbery and thin hedges. Around here all that survives is pendulous sedge and dog's mercury which deer hardly touch, the former out competing all else. 


Tuesday, 14 August 2012

August 2012

This year the weather all round the world has been particularly bizarre, which according to scientists is the result of global warming melting the Arctic ice shifting the jet stream.  There is virtually no doubt now that the root all this mayhem is our hell-bent obsession with everlasting growth to satisfy our ever rising population.

Unfortunately Holly Farm is not immune to the effects of weird weather! This year has seen fewer house martins and swallows than ever and a dramatic reductions of insects, yet life in Rookerywood seems to have held its own. While sitting at the water' edge on one of those warm early August days, my spirits were lifted after counting 8 species of dragonflies, while earlier in Spring a further 4 species could have been added to the list.  Twelve types of dragonfly living in and around a relatively small woodland pond is pretty impressive.
(southern hawker, brown hawker, emperor, banded demoiselle, common darter, large red damselfly, azure damselfly, blue-tailed damselfly, and earlier species - beautiful demoiselle, downy emerald, broad-bodied chaser, 4-spotted chaser)

Brown Hawker

On the same day my wife Liz and I made our butterfly count for 'British Butterfly Conservation', spotting 7 species (large white, green-veined white, speckled wood, meadow brown, gatekeeper and most exciting silver-washed fritillary and white admiral).  Three further species were seen earlier in the year (large skipper and red admiral) but sadly no commas, peacock or small tortoishells, the latter two becoming scarcer here as each year passes) 

Such a diverse range of butterflies and dragonflies seen in a small patch of deer protected wood is testament of what can be achieved through, enthusiasm,  gentle management and empathy with living things - perhaps small compensation for our total impotence in 'rescuing' the rest of world's wild places. Mankind will not succeed in saving habitats and the life therein by pussyfooting around the margins. As each generation follows another, the insidious decline passes unnoticed: it is just accepted. We have no real concept of what the countryside was like say 50, 100 or 200 years back, but we do know that it was indescribably richer and more diverse than it is now.

Our anthropocentricism and warped attitude to economic progress, is at the root of the problem. I am convinced that the best way to prevent futher decline is to capture the imagination of the young at an early age through nature study lessons, as at this time most children are fascinated by animals and of course are particularly impressionable. Of course this may take a generation or two to work, but it should change our whole attitude to the natural world. Humans have an instinctive love of nature, albeit usually suppressed by modern life, which according to the eminent American naturalist Edward Wilson is a part of our DNA - biophilia he calls it.

Nature study should be a central part of the primary school curriculum. Kids need to be taken outside by enthusiastic and knowledgeable teachers to experience and learn about the countryside and the wondrous life it sustains. The subject is just as, or arguably more important than any other school subject, and if taught on a large scale cauld go a long way to save life on earth. 

In spite of the huge number of frogs and toads breeding in
  Rookerypond, surprisingly I have not seen many grass-snakes
    here. Yesterday though one swam majestically from one bank
 to the other.

Friday, 13 July 2012


Finally, the silver-washed fritillaries and white admirals are flying around the glades of Rookerywood, having emerged a month or so late! Frankly with this shocking weather I'm surprised they bothered! My wife and I get a real buzz seeing these spectacular fast-flying butterflies gliding from one patch of bramble flower to the next, and all the result of 15 years of habitat improvement largely by fencing to eliminate fallow deer and creating glades by the judicious felling of trees.  Now it is perfect for these butterflies, with violets carpeting the open places and honeysuckle climbing up and around the stumps and rotting trees -  both these plants being the food-plants for the larvae. By contrast the remainder of the wood is virtually lifeless due to the ravages caused by plagues of fallow, the bane of my life!

Silver-washed Fritillary

Apart from being one of the few sunny days of the summer, what a memorable day yesterday was. While these butterflies were flying all around us, the first kingfisher of the year was spotted. We heard its spine tingling high pitched call first, then moment later it was fishing from a dead oak branch set into the bed of the pool. Again and again we watched it splashing into the water to return to its perch with stickleback - the action backlit by the early morning sun.  It was one of those rare and sublime moments of life when we both felt detached from the material world and a part of what real life is about, the natural world. 
Kingfisher with stickleback

Now may be a good time to describe a small project that I started during April. In front of the house I decided to experiment with a 30 square metre 'undesignated' dull and comparatively lifeless patch of grass. I began by removing the turf and 3 inches of topsoil, replacing it with two tons of sharp sand, thereby substantially reducing its fertility.  It was then seeded with a mixture of annual and perennial wild flowers and meadow grasses. 
Mini-meadow a month after sowing with wild-flower seed mix

In spite of initial doubts the experiment can be judged a success - as can be seen from these two pictures. Now in mid July this mini-meadow is full of colourful wild flowers buzzing with insects from solitary bees and small beetles to many species of hoverfly - so much more beautiful and biologically vibrant than a bed of 'dead' and gaudy displays of bedding plants so popular with councils and many gardeners countrywide. If similar projects were undertaken on a countrywide basis, the honeybee population would take on a new lease of life, as would insects generally, together with the host of birds and other vertebrates that depend on them. I really can't see much point in garden flowers unless they attract wildlife.

 The management of this, once the flowering period is over, will be crucial for its future success.

Mini-meadow 3 months later in July, with poppies, corn, marigolds
chamomile, cornflower, corn cockle, corn marigold etc