Rewilding and More

Last week Jo and I attended a meeting at the Knepp Estate down in West Sussex. There, the owners Charlie Burrell and Izzie Tree have devoted their 3,500 acre estate to an ambitious re-wilding project.We took the opportunity to have a walk around some of the estate.   Later that evening I enjoyed staying in their lovely yurt which I can recommend to anyone visiting that area.

The thrust of the Knepp project is to take the land out of conventional farming and let it lie fallow indefinitely to see what develops. So it is an open-ended project with no pre-determined goals. Many specialists and groups are monitoring the progress of habitats and species as they change and you can follow progress on the internet. But behind the scenes, as always, there is the underlying concern for financial returns from the land. Can the land qualify for any of the grant schemes? What effects will Brexit have? Are domestic animals, such as Long Horn cattle or Tamworth pigs, which are acting as surrogates for wild equivalents, making the land use eligible for payments under agricultural schemes, and can they be ‘harvested’ in a way that provides an income from the meat, while Man is, as it were, playing the role of top predator (instead of wolves etc) and keeping the numbers at a level that allows the habitats to evolve without decimating the plants? On top of this the estate has a very generous policy for public access and this raises issues of risk assessments (ugh!) and balancing amenity value against providing undisturbed areas for wildlife. It is a tricky act to play, with few precedents to guide them, and flags up the very real pragmatic issues and decisions faced by efforts to ‘re-wild’ areas of lowland Britain. This is a project to watch as it develops. Hats off to them.

We face similar issues here on the farm in west Wales and yesterday I visited the Royal Welsh Show in scorching heat. There I met up with various colleagues and representatives of organisations for updates on woodland management and wildlife management. The group of farmers in the Pontbren project have made bold steps to provide shelterbelts and wildlife habitat on a cluster of upland farms in mid-Wales and I smiled as I recognised so many of the same things we have done here on the farms over the past 35 years which have now come to fruition.

Barbro is up at the farm in Northumberland for two days, getting things ready for when we head up there at the end of the month. So in the evening I sat out on the terrace for a couple of hours with Joy the Munsterlander who was transfixed, sight pointing a rabbit in the meadow in front of us. I had two Gyr/New Zealand Falcon chicks out on the lawn with me. They have been the last chicks to hatch and can just run around now and take an interest in passing house martins nesting above their heads. As I watched, the falcons in the breeding pens started alarm calls and there above them circled a Hobby. It was an adult and was being mobbed by swallows. It is the first I have seen here for many years and was very elegant in its little parries with the swallows.

I was reading a book which I had bought at the Show, on the archaeology of the western Brecon Beacons since the last Ice Age. This is land familiar to me because we ride up there sometimes or fly the falcons. It documented the changes in habitats on this area of the Welsh uplands using dated pollen cores over the last 10,000 years or so since the ice receded. Climate has always been the main factor shaping the flora of these areas, and in more recent times, increasing influence from humans. It helps put into perspective our own efforts in our own very brief human lifetimes and whether one should leave the land fallow to see what evolves, as at Knepp, or whether one should encourage direct change towards specific ecotypes, such as climax deciduous woodland, marshes and meadows, changes which can be brought about within one human lifetime. While obviously one cannot create a 500 year old oak tree in 100 years, it is surprising what can be achieved in ecological restoration in just a few decades with steady work. Many people are astonished when they see the lake here, with kingfishers, water voles, reed beds and beavers, that was a field only 16 years ago.

As I sat there with the falcons who were mesmerised by the dog’s twitching tail, my glance was taken by a scrap of dark brown on the lawn. It was a young pipistrelle bat. This particular bat has been causing trouble lately. Yesterday I found it on the conservatory floor crawling around. I hung it up outside in a cool grape vine. Now it looked comatose, almost dead. So I held it in my hand for half an hour to warm it up. After a while it woke up and fluttered down onto the grass but couldn’t make headway. So I held it again and it took a little water from a teaspoon. But it seemed unable to fly upwards so once it was dark I left it on the grape vine. How do bats cope over this tricky teenage period? Will Mum come and find it?

Down below the meadow I could see big ripples on the pond as the adult beavers started to get busy for the evening. Their three kits are quite active now but generally they are all quite quiet. You don’t hear a lot of squealing and frolicking as with many young mammals, they are actually quite unobtrusive and I can understand how beavers can exist in places for years without actually being noticed.

In the distance I could hear the clamouring of geese and then a bomber squadron of greylags flew over me. First came a skein of eight; this is the family who hatched six goslings in the top beaver pen and who I helped get through the beaver fence when they were young. The second group of six were the family from the lake that are two weeks older and have recently lost one of their goslings. They are leaving the lake for long periods now, but often come back at dusk. Soon they will leave completely for the winter. Maybe their calling this evening was their ‘swan song’. Their ‘goose song’. See you in the spring, guys. Take care!

Nick

Bluebells

Call me a sentimental old fool if you like, but I do think that no woodland is complete without some bluebells! When we plant new woods we need to think of all the herbs and shrubs as well as the trees and it is always a delight in spring to see the bluebells.

Sometimes I thin out big clumps of our wild bluebells, then separate out all the individual bulbs and immediately re-plant them in the new woods. This can be done almost any time and is very successful. They soon come back thicker and thicker each year, spreading through new bulbs and by shaking out their pepper pot seeds.

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Freshly Picked
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Dried and Ready to Sow

Another way to do it, slightly more legally, is to collect the seed heads while still green, just before they turn brown. Then leave them in the sun for a few days and they turn brown, brittle and ripe. Then it is a simple matter to rub them between your hands and the seeds come out. There is no need to winnow them; the fragments of seed cases can be spread with the seed. They can be sown onto bare ground and lightly raked over, and then just forgotten. A little scratching of the soil here and there along the woodland rides is enough to sow them and get little clumps started. All our bluebells are the native species and flourish on the farm. It is an easy thing to do on an evening’s walk, to give them a helping hand.

Nick

A Busy Evening

A very busy evening on the lake last night. The goslings, now all pretty much fully feathered, were practicing their flying skills to a huge cacophony from their parents. The nest in the new hide has yielded its first chicks – at least three hungry wee swallows. The little yellow diamond shaped open beaks were easily visible in the gathering gloom as the parents swooped in and out with beaks full of insects, not at all bothered by my presence. It occurred to me whilst I watched them that these little swallows will not drink until they can fly themselves – it’s all very well when you have a diet of worms and grubs like a robin or blackbird chick but all those dry little midges and mosquitoes can’t have a huge water content.

I was delighted to be able to watch what I presume must have been a cloud of young bats chasing each other in the half light. The seemed browner and less agile than the bats I am used to seeing so I can only presume that they were youngsters. It was a lovely thing to witness. They seemed so full of joie de vivre.

The young moorhens and dabchicks seem to be getting bolder and are off making forays on their own. Sadly the young beavers on the lake have still to make an appearance. Mum and dad certainly seemed less busy and I did not see them bring anything to the lodge.

The highlight of the evening was a prolonged sighting of one of our kingfishers. It flitted from branch to branch as it spied for prey and seemed very intent on the area around the beaver lodge. Eventually it made a successful dive into a small area alongside the lodge. I can only conclude that the underwater matrix of willow sticks is making great habitat for small fish and aquatic invertebrates. Once again, thank you the beavers!

Drew

Fledgelings

This is a time of year full of hope, tinged with sadness. All the young animals are leaving their nests and burrows, but they are so vulnerable, and many don’t make it. Evolution has planned ahead and compensated by creating bigger broods, but even so the attrition rate can be horrendous.

There have been lots of baby rabbits hopping around naively these last couple of months. We see them here and there, on the lawns, along the hedgerows. But how many three quarter grown rabbits are there? Very few. As fast as the rabbits breed, the predators mop them up. Animal populations follow a massive annual saw tooth graph. They have a big spike in the summer which tails off over the autumn as most of the young ones don’t make it. The predators have a similar graph, but a month or two behind the prey species. Their young ones also die off, this time often from starvation as they fail to become good hunters. By winter, resources are getting scarce and all plants and trophic levels are at a low ebb. By spring, first the plants perk up, then the insects, then the species that feed on plants and insects, then the predators. We saw a peregrine site near Tregaron last week and the chicks were still only half fledged. But now there are some easy pickings for the parents catching prey for their hungry young.

There was a baby blackbird in Blaencwm yard yesterday, still too young to fly properly. The moorhens at the top pond have only one gawky youngster from their first attempt, but now have several fluffy black youngsters in their second brood. But in this foul weather, how many will there be next week? Down at the lake it looks like two pairs of dabchicks have got broods well on, which is a record. For their size and unobtrusiveness when humans are around, they can be very territorial with one another with little heroic dramas going on when nobody is around. The first brood of greylags have flown away but the other family is still here. We have far too many Canada geese which have eaten out about an acre of grass by the lake. Drew has shot a couple of youngsters so far but he will have to thin them out big time next week otherwise we will be overwhelmed with them next year.

The mallard that derive from farmed stock do not breed well, nor do the pheasants. We see eggs or new chicks, but they die off in days. The wild ducks have reared young on Skinny Dipping pond, and another few down at the Goose pond by the river. Sadly one of the dogs caught a duckling while I was on the tractor topping bracken on the banks. Uncontrolled dogs and cats take a big toll on wildlife, and while the government are keen to open access to the countryside for humans, this becomes even more pressure on the wildlife.

We have had our own dramas. The young falcons are starting to fly now. The earliest are now ‘hard-penned’ and are starting to fly loose for their first faltering flights. A young New Zealand falcon, still very fat, got a bit boggle-eyed on her first few flights and didn’t want to come down. I had to stay with her until dark in case a predator got her. A buzzard came and hung in the updraft of the hedge she was in, focused, then dropped a little, then dived. Had it caught the falcon? After a few moments it rose up again with prey in its feet. It looked like a young rabbit, and the falcon was still safe a few metres away. At daybreak the hill was in thick cloud and driving drizzle. The young falcon was sopping wet and very sorry for herself. She hid in a hedge but did not really know how to find shelter. Although she would come down to a lure, she would not let me approach her to pick her up. By 10 am her trainer arrived, and this time she allowed him to pick her up and we all went home with a sigh of relief, ready for a hot cuppa and a change of clothes. In a few more days the same falcon will be carving up the sky, riding the wind, in her element.

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A soggy Tom and falcon

The weather has been wet all through June and July so far. Thank God we don’t make hay any more but even silage is a gamble. Drew has had the ewes and lambs in for dosing. Wet warm weather is a trigger for flystrike, with maggots hatching in the wool. So we keep a close eye open for any sheep with twitching tails. The beavers meanwhile continue to flummox us. Whereas the top pair have had their kits out for some time now, the lake pair have been bringing food into the lodge for about 9 weeks, but still no sign of the kits. What can conditions be like inside a burrow for two months, with continual deliveries of wet leaves? What about aspergillosis? And what about carbon dioxide levels? It goes all against my instincts for fresh air and sunshine!

The bats in the log cabin get better air. They crawl into crevices inside the roof. I saw a spattering of bat urine and droppings on the floor and looked up to vertically above it for a bat. There hung a hand towel from a hook on a beam. The bats must be using it as an easy place to hang onto and land. Maybe it is the young bats making their first independent landings?

Nick