Wednesday, 20 July 2016

A wildly exciting day at Knepp Castle

GWCT staff on a visit to the Knepp Castle estate

Sometimes, just sometimes, everything falls into place and you experience a day to remember. 

Yesterday, a group of around fourteen Game & Wildlife Trust Staff visited the 1,400 hectare (3,500 acre) Knepp Castle estate in West Sussex, on a glorious high summer day.

Up until about 15 years ago, the estate was run in your bog standard way – you know the sort of thing – Wheat, Oil seed rape and a Maize crop grown for the dairy herd. Then Sir Charles Burrell (very much “Charlie” to everyone!) decided that enough was enough and that he could not continue to run the estate as it was, with the stresses and strains of large overdrafts, resulting in poor returns.

Charlie took the radical step of pulling out all the internal fences and, over a period of a few years, turning most of the estate into the UK’s largest lowland rewilding project. Now, this does not mean pulling the plug on all management and allowing nature to take its course, well not entirely anyway.

The project is interested in trying to “recreate” the wildwood of ancient Britain, but in today’s world. He has introduced Longhorn cattle, Tamworth pigs, Exmoor ponies, Red & Fallow deer which munch, browse, strip and root about in the growing vegetation. In effect, they represent the large prehistoric herbivores that would have existed way back in time, which created a mosaic of habitats from open pasture, through scrub, right up to closed canopy woodland – and everything in between! 

What is really interesting to me is that the estate’s finances now look in good order; but how can that be? Well, the pork, beef and venison which is raised in such an extensive and natural way from across the estate commands a decent premium. Many of the buildings that used to house stock, have since been converted into small business units, making a regular monthly income.

Another venture has brought the public onto the estate, who not only can go on “wildlife safaris” to see and learn about the wildlife and varied habitats, but also potentially to stay on site in a variety of luxurious bell tents and shepherd’s huts. Add to these estate businesses, the money from both the Common Agricultural Policy and Stewardship schemes and you begin to see how it all comes together.

I found the mosaic of different habitats amazing. I expected to see a more uniform scrubby/woodland scene, but the animals are certainly having a major impact on the end result. You can see from the few photos that I have put up, everything from young, thick, shaded woodland to grass fields which look as though they are cut for hay each year! 

Even arable plants survive. One might well think that this would be a group of plants that would suffer once the cultivators have been sold. But now the pigs do the “ploughing”, leaving churned up areas that quickly fill with a community of these plants such as Scarlet pimpernel and the rarer Sharped-leaved Fluellen.

We stopped at a good spot for viewing the wonderful Purple Emperor butterfly and almost immediately saw some flitting at speed around the tops of their favourite oak trees. The resurgence in young sallow – their caterpillar food plant – seems to be helping numbers increase. Penny Green, the estate ecologist, had found a young caterpillar which she followed through to the chrysalis stage and eventually, successfully hatching out into an adult. The photo of the empty pupal case is pictured and it was great to think that we were probably watching the original occupant high up in the canopy!
Finally, we landed back at the Charlie’s wonderful home, where his wife Isabella had prepared us all a superb summer lunch. As you might well imagine, with a table surrounded by scientists, conservationists and land managers – the discussion was robust and wide ranging!!

This is a fascinating project and I hope that it continues for many, many years to come as it is helping to reshape much of our thinking about the countryside and how it is managed. I would very much like to thank Charlie, Isabella and Penny for imparting their knowledge so freely, coupled with their infectious enthusiasm and wonderful hospitality. Here are some pictures of the visit:

Charlie Burrell

Track through open scrub land

Vegetation varied widely

Enclosures to exclude animals shows how effective they can be in controlling growth

Tamworth family doing what pigs do!

Pig cultivation

Arable flowers survive because of the pig cultivation - here Scarlet Pimpernel 

Here thick young woodland has got away from the herbivores

This scrape was created, but the surrounding sallow is entirely natural

Exmoor ponies enjoy "meadow" grazing

Empty Purple Emperor pupal case  

What a wonderful way to round off a superb visit!

If you would like to find out more, then go to:    

Friday, 8 July 2016

Silver Lapwing flies from Sussex to Wales!

Annie Brown left (2015 winner) hands over the prestigious Silver Lapwing award  to Richard and Helen Roderick
I attended the 39th Silver Lapwing awards yesterday, organised by the Farming & Wildlife Advisory Group (FWAG) and kindly sponsored by Waitrose. Heather Jenkins, Waitrose Director of Buying, attends the awards each year and told the audience how much importance the company places on these awards.
The event was held at Annie Brown’s stunning farm, high up on the Sussex Downs, with distant views overlooking Shoreham-by-sea, while passing container ships far out on the ocean completed the backdrop.

Annie was deservedly the winner of this prestigious award in 2015, as she and her team have over-seen a remarkable transformation of this part of the South Downs. Ironically, the whole farm was put into grass under the “Environmentally Sensitive Area Scheme” as conservationists at the time thought that this was the right thing to do with the Downs (severely criticised by the GWCT at the time I hasten to add!).

In 2007, Annie took over the running of the farm following her father’s death and she realised that the grassland was not delivering any sensible grazing nor any environmental benefits either. Indeed, the wildlife had exited the farm big time, as species such as Corn Bunting and Brown Hare disliked the mono-culture of grass.

As Annie says “The excitement as the plough transformed some tired grassland on the Downs was palpable, and the fact that the Corn Bunting returned to the farm so quickly shows just how resilient nature can be”.
After a delicious lunch of local lamb and an assortment of fresh Waitrose produce, we all jumped on trailers to take a look around the farm. I have known this farm for some time, but WOW – it is a long time since I have heard this number of Corn Bunting singing! Every time the tractors pulled over and engines were turned off, there was a constant background of “rattling keys”, the song of one of the UK’s fastest declining farmland bird species.

Skylarks, Meadow pipit and even a couple of calling Quail added to the wonderful cacophony of sound. Meanwhile, many rare arable plants such as Night-flowering catchfly and Prickly poppy have come back in profusion, having patiently waited under grassland for this opportunity – colourfully reminding us all that the Downs were indeed one of the first parts of this country to be cultivated by our distant ancestors!

So what exactly has Annie and her team done to bring a silent grassland farm back from the dead? Well, she has taken good advice from a range of people and is also very lucky to have a top Natural England advisor in the form of Sue Simpson to oversee her Stewardship agreement. She has also created a hard working farm team around her, who are as dedicated and enthusiastic as she is. How often do I find myself saying this after visiting top award winning farms!

She has introduced Beetle banks, wildflower margins, wild bird seed mixes, fallow plots and also carries out supplementary feeding in the depths of winter, amongst many other things. The arable cropping is not in huge blocks of the same crop type, but broken up, and of course she has still retained plenty of downland grass, which intersperses the arable. What is more, the grass is grazed by both cattle and sheep.

I did say on the way around the farm that should I be re-incarnated as a Corn Bunting – then please may it be on this farm!!

So, who has won this year’s award? Well, a charming couple called Richard & Helen Roderick, from Newton farm, Scethrog, who manage a mixed farm of 650 acres in the Usk valley near Brecon in Wales. They were obviously absolutely delighted and I would like to pass on my congratulations to them, as it is no mean feat to win this prestigious, national award. 

I would also like to congratulate Dominic Gardener from Lee farm, Angmering in West Sussex for coming second in the competition. I know Dominic well and can vouch for just how dedicated he is to farming with wildlife in mind.

I greatly look forward (if invited of course!) to looking around the Roderick’s farm next year in the knowledge that it has to be one hell of a place to have picked up the 2016 Silver Lapwing award!

After a delicious lunch, everyone thoroughly enjoyed looking around Annie's beautiful farm



Sunday, 5 June 2016

Keep an eye on your Brassicas - lots of Diamond Geezers about!

A tiny Diamond-back moth - only around 7 or 8 mm long! 
On Saturday night I set my moth trap out in the garden, as the night looked set to be warm and still - not something we have experienced much of lately.

In the morning I was amazed to find the outside of the trap covered in little Diamond-back moths! On opening the trap, clouds of the tiny creatures flew out and the egg cartons (where the moths hide in the trap) were covered with yet more.

By the time I had finished examining the catch - a rough guesstimate was that I had caught around a 1000 of these little migrant moths.

Despite their minute size these micro moths travel to our shores from the continent and then have several broods during the summer. It is quite normal to have catches of double figures in the late summer - but a 1000 moths so early in the year is incredible.

The reason I have titled this blog so, is that the food plant of Diamond-back larvae is brassicas of all sorts. So you gardeners and commercial veg growers beware - we are being invaded big time!


Wednesday, 25 May 2016

Buffalo, bumble bees and brown trout - Hampshire at its best.

A water buffalo - such a placid gentle creature

I had an interesting morning earlier this week when I went to visit Dagan James’s farm at Broughton in Hampshire. Now, it has to be said that this “ain’t no ordinary farm” as they say down these parts - no sir – because it’s not growing wheat and barley or raising cattle and sheep – instead the 500 acre farm supports a superb 250 water buffalo herd!  

The great Indian water buffalo has been farmed for thousands of years. Originating in the Indus valley in what is now Pakistan, the buffalo is farmed across the world, and is highly valued as a reliable and hardworking draft animal, as well as a producer of rich creamy milk and excellent meat. Well known for great resistance to disease and with a very hardy nature, the buffalo is able to thrive on marginal land and young stock grow well without any need for concentrates.

I had not really come to see these magnificent beasts however, as Dagan had invited me over to see the wonderful grass and herb mixed swards that he grows, as not only do they offer a rich diet for his stock, but also potentially they offer a lot for wildlife too.

Of course ignoring these beautiful beasts was not an option – so I followed Dagan over to meet the stars of the show. I could not help noticing that there was only one strand of electric fencing between me and an awful lot of “meat on the hoof”!

But I soon relaxed – a gentler breed of farm animal you could not wish to meet. In fact, within just a few minutes I had got over the novelty factor and instead enjoyed watching them go about their daily business – looking totally at home in the Hampshire countryside.

Dagan then showed me his grass and herb lays – what a treat! He explained how he has tried a number of different combinations, but a grass mix based mainly around cocksfoot with the addition of red and white clovers, sainfoin, chicory and salad burnet forms much of what he grows. In places Lucerne is added too.

I missed some of what Dagan was telling me, as the din of singing Skylarks over-head was making it really quite difficult to hear. An “exaltation of larks” were certainly telling me what they thought of this type of farming!!

I found what Dagan had to say fascinating. He openly told me of the mistakes he has made – but had learnt from. He digs holes in the fields and counts the worms (when his back allows) as he is fully aware of their importance. He was keen to show me the hedges and woods that he has planted and how he has completely “restored” part of the brook that flows through the farm by fencing the stock out, pollarding the willow and creating shallows and deeps within the water course. Here was a farmer managing the whole farm, not just the fields.

He is also keen on the public – yes people – not something that every farmer wants to tell you. He has created a farm shop in which to sell his produce and also attends local farmers markets as he sees the relationship between farmer and customer as incredibly important.

I hope the farm goes from strength to strength – not just for Dagan and his family, but also for the skylarks and bumble bees enjoying the herb rich grassland and the wild brown trout lurking beside the flag iris in the newly restored river. As for the water buffalo? Well, they looked in magnificent condition and by the end of my visit, seemed no more unnatural in the landscape than a Hampshire Down sheep!    

What a tasty mouthful!

Dagan examining one of his herb rich swards - the buffalo had only been taken out of this field a fortnight earlier - look at the growth already. 

Are you sure one strand of wire is enough?

Buffalo in Hampshire? They looked as though they had always been here!

Monday, 16 May 2016

Rabbit, rabbit, rabbit!

Doe with nesting material
I came across a very busy rabbit while out doing a bird survey the other morning. She was collecting large mouthfuls of grass so as to create a nest at the bottom of a newly dug hole, called a “stop”. She will then line it with hair plucked from her own body.

If conditions allow, rabbits will breed throughout the year and can produce a litter of 3-7 young (known as kittens) per month. The young kittens are born blind, deaf and almost hairless, unlike the young of Brown Hare which are born all singing and dancing and ready to go! The kitten’s eyes open at around 10 days and by about day 16 they will start to venture out of the stop, and begin eating solid food. They are weaned by about 21-25 days old, by which time their mother will already have mated and be expecting another litter.

As for the young, well a male or buck rabbit can mate at 4 months old and does can become pregnant at just 3.5 months of age.

Now for a bit of fun (farmers turn away!). A clever mathematician sat down to work out that a single female rabbit will have 184,597,433,860 descendants in just seven years. Translated into words, that is - one hundred eighty-four billion, five hundred & ninety-seven million, four hundred & thirty-three thousand, eight hundred & sixty!!

OK farmers – you can turn back now! What the mathematician did not do of course is factor in all the different ways in which rabbits can come to an early death. Many predators will regularly dine on rabbit, while Myxomatosis still takes its toll and large numbers get squished on our roads. If it wasn’t for these reasons along with many, many others, you can see that we would literally be knee deep in the little critters!

Despite all of this, I found myself secretly wishing my particular busy little doe, the best of luck as I went on my way.

She seemed to be in quite a hurry to get the job done!!

Monday, 9 May 2016

There is love in the air!

A stunning male Emperor moth attracted to a pheromone impregnated capsule. Note the huge feathered antennae which it uses to "smell" the scent.
Many creatures give off Pheromones (including us!), which can be used to trigger a number of types of behaviour, including attracting a mate, sexual arousal, bonding (mother to baby), claiming territories, raising an alarm and even as a warning to “back-off”!

I have just acquired a pheromone which (hopefully) attracts male Emperor moths. (If any pretty girls turn up, I won’t be that upset!) This particular group of scents are called Bombykol pheromones and are secreted by female moths to attract their male counterparts.

Male Emperor moths fly by day and the females fly by night.  Female Emperor moths have a gland at the end of the abdomen which emits a pheromone scent to attract the male moths, who use their large feathery antennae to detect the pheromones drifting past them on the wind. Unbelievable, when you think how many other scents there must be blowing around at any given time (farm animals, flowers, pollutants etc), it is believed that male Emperor moths can detect the pheromones from several kilometres away and then home in on the female.

So at the weekend, Rosie (my Lurcher) and I set off for the New Forest, which has plenty of suitable heathland/moorland habitat particularly favoured by Emperor moths. I parked up in a likely looking spot and we walked away from the road for a short while, Rosie gambling around pleased to be on a brand new walk, while I rather excitedly clutched my little phial of scent.

I took the little pheromone impregnated capsule out of the sealed bag and placed it on a piece of dead wood at about waist high. I stood and waited, slightly self-consciously, imagining the invisible scent drifting off across the scrubby heather landscape. Rosie sat down close by, hoping that this was not going to be a long stop.  A couple out walking their dog, passed by a short distance away and I prayed that they would not come over to ask me what I was up to!

After what could only have been a couple of minutes at the most, a large insect flew rapidly past me – was it a peacock butterfly, or could it have been an Emperor?  Having obviously overshot – it came fluttering noisily back, a wonderful male Emperor moth, stunning! But wait, there are two! No, three!

Over the next half an hour or so, I moved the phial a couple of times and must have attracted a dozen or so different male Emperors. They were not the easiest subject to photograph as they never really settled for any length of time at all, but instead frantically flew around trying to locate the “female”. Even when they did briefly land near to the phial, their wings vibrated excitedly and then they were soon off again.

I then began to feel rather guilty that I had caused such a frenzy of excitement amongst these beautiful creatures - all of which was obviously to no avail. Meanwhile, Rosie lying patiently nearby had acquired a very bored expression and so I popped the phial back into the sealed bag and continued on my walk. 

As I looked out across the wide open landscape, I realized that I had briefly tuned into just one of the many amazing species that inhabit this country, and yet so secretly go about their fascinating lives, completely unbeknown to the vast majority of us. 

Rosie with a very bored expression!