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!