Free Therapy and Heaths

Most people now accept the powerful positive effects on the human spirit, and body, of enjoying the countryside. For me personally I cannot imagine a life without daily contact with the green environment and recent events have brought in to sharp focus its calming effect on both my mind and body.

In the company of good friends I recently returned to two famous heaths, one of which I know intimately, Chobham Common, and the other, the Devils Punchbowl at Hindhead, less so despite the familiarity of having driven round it for decades. The contrasts between the two sites is worth noting both as to the differences in consequences of different owners and the level and type of public usage.

Most access to the Devils Punchbowl is via the owners, National Trust, car park for dog walkers and site seers whilst there seem to be many mountain bikers taking advantage of some well way marked trails. Unless you are a NT member there is a charge at the car park but this is a long established “destination” car park with a rather good cafe, loos, and the facility to do some fun crafts with kids and interpretation with the adults. Yes it was sunny, the car park was packed! In other words visitors know they are getting something more than “just countryside” for their money unlike visitors at Chobham Common who are largely regulars and not getting anything new or extra for the car parking charges imposed. Not surprisingly many visitors to Chobham Common are now using any alternative parking that is available free!

My brief rant for the day!

Back to therapy. Though I had driven round the Punchbowl many times on the old A3, and drunk many a cuppa at the cafe, I have never wandered much of the site other than close to said cafe. I have a vague recollection of helping with some work with the NT wardens but that was probably over 20 years ago. Always intended to have a look but probably wimped out at the thought of having to climb back up if I went down!

Our friends however guided us up the easy path up Gibbet Hill where the views are just glorious.

Recently cleared view

On the way up you pass a commemorative stone which if you don’t know the story I won’t spoil it by explaining too much, go and discover it yourself!

Sailors Stone

The views from this path are great all the way to the top

but really I should have paid more attention to the pony grazing on the heath to the other side of the path. Though many may still have some reservations about grazing heathlands that are open to the public, most issues can be minimised by using what appears to be a common sense approach. On the NT site it seems that the grazing animals have been excluded from the area of most public use, the path up Gibbet Hill and the path along the route of the old A3. Have to say that the fencing is for the large part well sited and now largely invisible behind gorse and scrub. If I was to get all professionally picky I would probably prefer a little more scrub removal from the Punchbowl but heathland management is often a subjective thing and maybe the site managers have a different vision!

If you have never been to the Devils Punchbowl but you have driven through the A3 tunnel, you really should make the time.

View down to the old A3

The old A3 followed the curve of the Punchbowl and was locally famous for the dramatic view (and for interminable traffic jams exacerbated by the traffic lights just round the bend). The opportunity to erase the road after construction of the tunnel was taken and to be honest its now almost impossible to imagine that a major trunk road has been replaced by a sandy path.

No more traffic jams….

The whole place feels well managed with good sign posting and paths in generally good condition. I am not aware of staffing and funding levels for the place but I would be surprised if the cafe and parking charges make up more than a small part of the running costs of the whole site. More likely is that Agri Environment scheme grants combined with National Trust membership fees core fund the Hindhead Common complex, all of which is in stark contrast to the situation at Chobham Common.

Visiting my old haunt, with another friend a couple of days after the Punchbowl, it is clear that the continued Surrey County Council cuts to the grant made to Surrey Wildlife Trust and the long term reduction in site based staff is now clearly beginning to manifest itself as an appearance of neglect.

It is simply not possible to reduce a countywide workforce of 32 to 12 over 20 years without there being severe consequences. The subtlety of some of these consequences does not mean they are unimportant.

Heathlands have always been prone to both wildfires and acts of deliberate arson but with the lack of site based staff with detailed site knowledge (and some equipment) the risks of more frequent and more damaging fires has greatly increased.

One of this years wildfires

Fire has often been used on heathland for centuries as a management tool, particularly to encourage a flush of grass for grazing animals, BUT was always during the autumn or winter when conditions were more favourable. Happily this approach fitted in with the needs of wildlife unlike spring wildfires that can be devastating for newly emerged reptiles and small mammals.

As always there is an opportunist in the natural world and the fires on Chobham Common appear to have encouraged Woodlarks to breed in much better numbers than previously. We saw several Woodlarks including young birds.

Woodlark

Snatches of song form tree tops and some odd contact calls (which were new to me) were frequently heard and I suspect the high altitude ethereal song will have to wait till early next year when their cycle starts again.

Chobham Common is still a beautiful and wondrous place with regulars like

Female Stonechat

and increasingly rare

Distant Tree Pipit

Dartford Warblers are frankly all over the place! And difficult to catch with a small compact camera!

More unusual plants can be found if you know where to look

Petty Whin

And insect life is beginning to crank up! Always something new.

Black Headed Cardinal Beetle

Heaths and therapy, yes it works for me.

 

 

To Build or not to Build

Much has been written concerning the proposed development of Blackwell farm to the west of the Royal Surrey Hospital in Guildford and I am not well informed enough to speak with authority on its merits or with outrage at its failings.

Last week I did however walk over the land adjoining the proposed site and was frankly rather surprised at what we found (I was with a mate). My intention was to check on the status of 2 rather rare Surrey visitors previously found on a forgotten piece of land near Wood Street Village, Nightingales and Turtle doves. Sadly no burst of song from the scrub or quiet purring from the trees or hedges. I will be repeating the visit next week much earlier in the day as though I expect to be disappointed again the habitat still looks and “feels” right and there is always hope that an odd pair of these 2 threatened species will have returned.

We did hear and glimpse lots of regulars, tits, Nuthatches, Blackcaps but the surprise came on leaving the scrub behind and crossing in to the the farmland that then runs along the southern face of the Hogs Back.

Hedgerows

Well not so much the hedgerows! But what was singing at intervals along the hedges, Yellowhammers, quite  a few for a birder like me who has worked on heaths for years where they are now largely absent. A further surprise were singing Skylarks. I cannot tell you how bittersweet it is to experience the joy of encountering both these 2 birds when they used to be such a normal part of my environment (up to about 20 years ago). The habitat needs of both these species are thought to be well understood but the complexity of their needs is certainly not going to be served by greatly increasing the numbers of local human residents and their accompanying dogs.

Ok, I know the following photo isn’t great but its the best I could do with a compact!

“Could do better” pic of a Yellowhammer!

The fields, paths and small pockets of woodland were also dotted with some magnificent trees including some casualties that have been ignored, hooray!

Fungi and wind victim

Always amazing to me that fungi, so incredibly important, can help fell such strength.

Source of the vulnerability

Take wood and add the wrong/right fungi equals paper like rot.

Precursor to a collapse

Some of the standing landscape sentinels are just awe inspiring

In it’s prime

Some years behind its declining neighbour

You can think of Oak trees like these as almost a whole world on their own. Problem is the rest of the world intrudes on their health, air quality and soil compaction from machinery can be catastrophic.

Yes it was the middle of the week but there really is little sign the paths are heavily walked or ridden. The impact on this wonderful area, with fantastic potential for wildlife, of large-scale adjacent residential development is difficult to underestimate. The farmed landscape is broken up not just by hedges but by copses of trees like Wildfield Copse and the traces of an older planned landscape.

Old planted beech avenue?

Anybody who isn’t filled with wonder at spring colours needs to have a word with themselves! Get out there and breathe deep.

As we walked past a copse a final surprise amongst the Bluebells

Early Purple Orchids

Uncertain future yes but what is certain is that if people don’t get out in their local environment then they won’t know what’s threatened till it’s too late.

A Not so Gentle Reminder

Spring and Easter were rudely interrupted for me by a probable mini stroke and assorted family dramas that left me with a temporary loss of desire to write about the joys of life.

Have to say that a reminder of ones own mortality soon led to two thoughts.  Firstly, get on with your life and enjoying every moment that you have. Secondly, and for all it’s present woes, it really is a beautiful world.

As an expression of all that it could be summed up in happenings at home. During the last couple of days; my wife witnessed last years twin Roebucks play fighting on the back lawn like a couple of teenagers just released from mum’s apron strings, this years Roe deer babes have arrived and a Red Kite has now joined assorted crows, magpies and “our” young male fox (truly glorious he is) in the argument over any meat scraps we put out!

One of last years twins before growing up!

 

Yes I know some will cry foul over the feeding of meat to a fox or other predators in a garden but to honest I don’t care! The privilege of seeing wildlife close up is such a thrill, a glorious joy! And it’s probably the high point of my elderly mothers day which is reason enough.

More time in the garden and the planting of some new wildflowers also had a speedy insect response.

Female Orange Tip homing in on newly planted Cuckoo Flower.

 

 

At Last?

Last week apparently saw a monumental decision by the British government, to finally address the massive world issues of climate change and loss of species and habitats across the world. For those of us with half a brain; we know that the world is getting hotter.

When this news appeared a few nights ago I have to admit, I felt shocked. Are politicians finally starting to see the bigger picture about the condition our planet is currently in and how it will worsen for future generations if we continue to live in certain ways. I am encouraged to see this happening, I’ve hoped that this kind of ruling would come into place for most of my life.

For those of us with our eyes and ears open, and particularly those over 40, the decline of the UKs wildlife is obvious. Some of the issues written about by myself and Steve over the last year have touched on some of the issues that have lead to the reduction in numbers of many of our once common wildlife.

There seems to be an awakening in the younger generations about the state of the planet and this to me is vital if we are going to try and halt the decimation of the natural world. I have been encouraged to see the school strikes and the words of sixteen year old Greta Thunberg demanding changes in the way governments protect our (or don’t protect, which often more the case) planet. The youth have got to do something now and as I said it is good to see the youngsters speaking out about their future lives. I have also been encouraged to see that it’s a whole range of different people that have speaking out to demand change with the Extinction Rebellion illustrating the urgency.

The optimism I have felt in recent days is also a feeling of hope. I have for the first time in my life talked to the general public about the state of our planet and where are all the sparrows gone. The facts are out there for all people to find out and these are facts that have come from top scientists and experts in their field. It is now the turn of the governments to actually take proper notice and act fast. I will be honest and feel that the greed and power culture that we are currently living in will prevail with this government and probably in the following one. With the media and political parties currently quite aware for once about the crisis our planet is living in. I know I’ve said this before to you but now is a great time to email your local MP and express your concerns for our environment and its dwindling wildlife. MPs aren’t that keen on losing voters you know. Pressure has got to be put on government from as many ordinary people like you and me if essential changes are to be made

To Plant or not to Plant?

There are, and always have been, many joys of living in our little slice of countryside for approaching 25 years but some dilemmas return every year.

I have a somewhat imaginative (my wife would call it lazy) approach to gardening and outside the deer fenced veggie patch and a few small formal flower beds tend to rely on mother nature and a sense of curiosity as to what is going to appear each year.

It’s fascinating to speculate where some of the plants have originated from. I confess I have assisted nature over the years with planting and seeding some native species but others have both arrived and multiplied all on their own. A few primroses when we moved in is now a lot but they are outnumbered by cowslips and now the odd oxslip (I think) are beginning to appear.

It is likely that there are some conservationists who would disagree with planting native species if they were to be outside of their normal recorded geographic range, hence the dilemma of plant or not to plant. I am not such a purist and tend to lean in the direction of “if the conditions are right and the plant grows” then its ok!

I love Snake’s head fritillary flowers! There are famous meadows full of these glorious blooms and every year I fail to go and visit them. I make do with my mini meadow where 6 plants, 23 years ago, have kept spreading.

 

The name, incidentally, refers to the growing stem which seems an odd choice when of many other country names include the “chess” flower which I think is a lot more obvious.

Though the temperatures as i write do not exactly feel spring like the pulse of life is beginning to beat faster. Nests are well under way for many species of bird and blooms in the garden are already attracting lots of insects, in particular my neighbours honey bees, hooray!

My old pear tree has been humming with activity, weeks ahead of the apple trees as usual, and has yet to be caught by the frosts.

More importantly perhaps is that the blackthorn flowering has been fantastic this year.

Just past its best but still glorious the adjacent hedge is now spreading in to the field to create an excellent bit of habitat. Some years ago the owners of the fields, a nearby college, ill advisedly  cleared a new fence line (leaving the old fence buried in the hedge!) but left the cuttings in heaps nearby. Unsurprisingly much has now taken root, ‘bobs your uncle’ new scrub thicket.

Our (sorry can’t help but be a little possessive ) Roe deer seems certain to birth in this patch again and I’m hoping for a more unusual avian visitor to arrive, finger crossed.

With Time You See

Can you remember the last time you went out and you stood still to observe what was around you? The way of the modern world doesn’t seem to want us to ever stop ourselves from doing something or other is tiresome and frankly a bit unnatural. We can do things, and feel relaxed and comfortable but from what I see here in Surrey that is all too rare for many people. On my local wanderings I have even noticed that very few people are stopping to take in the beautiful riverside scenery that surrounds them. If there not, running, cycling, walking dogs, talking on mobiles, and even listening to music they seem to hurry and not take in the countryside they are passing through. Now I am being harsh on the people I see and undoubtedly many people get as much enjoyment from the area as I do myself and I have often seen anglers, walking groups, occasional photographers, and people with old dogs taking in the area.

Now as you know from my previous writings that when I go out for a walk; the number one priority is to observe wildlife. Yep I can be obsessive about it sometimes, I admit! Over the many years that I have been going out and doing this I also learnt the simple but sometimes highly effective idea/trick of standing still. I generally try and pick a good place to stop at its not always random although as nature can be very random and you never know what can happen and I recall being in Guildford the other year and whilst walking in a crowd of people, I saw a Peregrine wheeling about the sky and instantly stopped in my tracks causing the person behind me to bump into me! I apologised and stepped aside to get more views of the Peregrine.

Finding a good place to stand is key if you want to see wildlife and these, in my experience have often been by water, woodland edges, viewpoint and good old trustee gates. In recent years I found a wet field with a marshy pool full of Reedmace that was bordered by a track. I have started to walk this way quite a bit in the last two years and have found myself standing on the track looking at this Marsh pool.

Mallard by Steve Duffy

Last week I stood and saw a male Stonechats suddenly appear on a Reedmace head, then there were 2 with a female joining him. I watched the for a couple of minutes and then noticed another bird on the Reedmace and there was a male Reed Bunting busily ripping through the seed heads. From the hidden depths of the marsh a Water Rail squealed as well. Feeling very satisfied I took a step to my left and heard the local Tit flock going crazy and saw the male Sparrowhawk flick over the hedge into the woodland having missed his dinner.

Blue tit by Steve Duffy

In 20 minutes, I had seen all these species plus a whole variety of other birds and probably only moved 2 metres in total. This example of what you can see when you stand still and I will continue to do this and see what I can find. The other good thing about carrying out this practice is that it teaches you patience for today I stood in the same place and saw nothing apart from the Wood Pigeons that deposited its dinner on me!

Wood Pigeon by Steve Duffy

New Chances

Late winter and early spring were the times when you would expect the conservationist to be busy getting ready for the forthcoming coming season. As I always make reference to the current weather in my pieces that I write here I realise that I may have become predictable but that is one thing, particularly in recent times, that is not predictable and that is the weather.
February’s temperatures were again record breaking with 17°c being noted in Scotland during the month.

The warm weather was causing a few events on the reserve and raising a few questions in my head. As you know, the first plantings were carried out in June last year and many of those plants flowered late and many of them have retained their green basal leaves throughout the winter. In what I would have called a normal winter these basal leaves would have shrivelled up and possibly died. As I looked at the plants a couple of weeks ago many of the plants were starting to grow new leaves encouraged by the warm weather.

The seasons seem to be moulding together and this past winter has emphasised this point. I’m going to be keeping a careful eye on the plants of last year and how they
have coped and managed to furthering of their species.

It has also been interesting to note the evidence of gardening work of the past. After I cleared the rank vegetation off the area last year it has been completely and is now an open area so when I noticed plants emerging through the compacted soil I realised that the area had been ‘ gardened ‘ before and I was witnessing the re-emergence of plants that had been dormant for many years. I left the Crocus and most of the Daffodils in place as they looked pretty in the early spring and I also noted an Early Bumblebee feeding on one of the Crocus proving their importance.

Inherited daffs

 

The work preparing the rest of the area for planting continued and carried on to dig over the remaining unworked areas removing buttercups, dock and brambles as I went along. These species will forever be needed to be removed if they are to be prevented from taking over the area.
With the weather being so warm I decided to sow a few areas of already prepared soil and in three days seedlings were starting to show. The growing season is starting and the local birds are starting to breed and there have already been bees visiting the area. It’s all just beginning and I look forward to the visiting wildlife that will hopefully be using the reserve in the forthcoming months.

New recruits

The Trouble with Spring

At last Francis and I managed to get out together for a walk and on a glorious day to boot!

Following my purpose of discovering hidden, secret, areas of Surrey  we parked (for free!) in the lower car park at Puttenham Common close to The Tarn lake. Have to admit that for all of my life I had called this whole series of large ponds/small lakes Cutmill and it was only double checking an ordnance survey map  that educated me as to my mistake. All five stretches of water carry separate names and the further irony is that the only one I had never walked near was indeed Cutmill Pond, part of our route!

Cutmill in the sun

Beautiful in the February brief spring we were immediately entranced by a Goldcrest pretending to be a Treecreeper, climbing vertically up a tree. As Francis has written the warmth had encouraged birds to get a little carried away, lots of song and display which included the birds on the water.

Unusual for Surrey was a flock of 11 Goosander, the males in fresh, full on, uniform and the more subdued females paying (not much!) attention to the posturing boys.

Just 3 of the boys

Spectacular certainly but we also caught a glimpse of a Mandarin, Tufted Duck and the ever present Mallards.

Tufted Duck by Steve Duffy

We left the water through gardens and woods where more good fortune found us in the shape of an actual Treecreeper and excitingly , for us, a pair of Marsh Tits. The latter are becoming increasingly rare in Surrey like their close cousins Willow Tits but nobody is quite sure why. Lots of speculation but no clear proof.

Walking through a new landscape is always fun and the countryside we found was really rather lovely and, in places, clearly in good shape. Well managed hedgerows, veteran trees, worked chestnut coppice, protected field trees and peace, blessed peace.

Yep, the glorious weather helped with birds and butterflies all in abundance. Four species of butterfly with Brimstones everywhere.

Brimstone in the sun.

Threaded through the woods and fields were some magnificent trees.

Veteran Oak
Huge outgrown coppice stool

Past, soon to emerge, bluebells and out across the fields near Shackleford, lots to enjoy.

Great hedges

Difficult to fault, honest!

Back through the woods, past lovely wet bits with terrific stands of Alder.

Past glorious gardens and, yes houses, the walk was topped off when arriving back at Cutmill we were greeted with that flash of azure, Kingfisher. Flying over the Goosanders on the lake I am certain there was a pair but I suspect my companion wasn’t convinced!

All this pleasure arising from a long look at an OS Explorer Map and finding a bit of land never walked before. The very best of peaceful fun. A walk to return to in a few weeks when spring has properly arrived.

Lichen jungle on a gate

 

Make a Difference

For those of you that keep up to date with environmental news, you will be well aware of the decline of many species all over the world and there are various statistics that have been monitoring the decline of our worldwide wildlife for many years now, particularly of more obvious wildlife groups like birds and mammals. These statistics are generally put together by a combination of scientists, conservationists and volunteers and always an estimation of numbers as total population numbers.

In my lifetime I have been involved in sending wildlife records to various wildlife recorders in order for them to be noted to be used to record the status of that species. I have always felt that our wildlife is under recorded and many species true status is not properly recorded.

You may ask yourself what is the reason to send a record in, in the first place? Once a record has been sent in and has been noted by the relevant recorders it can be used to show a number of interesting facts. In the first place a record sent shows that a species is present! This is the most important reason for sending in a record in the first place, to prove a species presence. From being present at a location you can learn if it’s, breeding, visiting, summering, wintering, if it is known from that location or indeed is it new to that location.

Record sending methods have moved on from the days when I used to sit at the end of each month a scroll through my note books and write down the interesting records on a piece of paper and send these, by post, to the relevant recorders for them to add to the status of that particular species. Conservation has not been slow to use modern technology and I have made use of them and have found that since I started using my mobile phone to send in records, I have sent in many more records than I used to. There are a number of wildlife apps that can be downloaded onto a smart phone (if you have one) and can be used to send records in when you are actually out the field or wherever you happen to be. I personally use the iRecord app and every time I send a record from the phone, the date and the exact location, using a GPS system on the phone, are automatically logged. There are other points to fill out on the record including, number present, age, photo, if you got one and a section to comment on the record that you are reporting. When the record is sent it goes to the local recorder. It’s probably a good thing to point out that you should never send a record in unless you are 100% sure it is correct. Records sent in are viewed by experts and if they are unsure of a record you have sent in you will receive an email from irecord saying that they are reviewing the record. You can get similar emails if the species is new to that area. The irecord app also have several other wildlife apps that specialise in Butterflies and Dragonflies.

Early Comma by Steve Duffy

The recording of our wildlife has moved on with the new technology and more people are getting involved and hopefully the knowledge of our wildlife’s status will be increased. If you feel confident with your wildlife identification and want to help the bigger picture, you should get involved. you never know what you might find out there.

The Endless Cycle

The last few days have been unseasonably warm again and I have observed a number of signs that indicate that the season of spring is upon us. If I go back to February 1987 I recall freezing snow and icy conditions that attracted wildfowl and waders to my local area in Kent where I grew up. 2019 has been somewhat different and in the past 2 weeks I have observed classic early spring flowers in bloom and many of the local resident birds were in full song and building nests and even mating if my local Robins and Kestrels are anything to go by! Have these things all been encouraged by the warm winter weather or is it all part of the global warming problem. In all honesty, with the warm winter that we have been experiencing it would seem obvious that this is the case. Despite this I recall that I joked with one of my neighbours during the snow that it was actually spring.

Even in the midst of cold winter weather wildlife is already thinking about the next breeding season. My ‘ joke ‘ with my neighbour was only me thinking about the resident birds of which a number of species were already establishing breeding territory in preparation for when conditions were right to attempt to reproduce. When I spent ten minutes looking out the back the other morning I could hear Song Thrush, Blackbird, Mistle Thrush, Dunnock, Robin, Blue Tit, Great Tit,

GT by Steve Duffy

Goldfinch and Nuthatch

By Steve Duffy

all in full song and noted the Robins and Nuthatches in territorial fights. All of this behaviour is normal and their preparation for the furthering of the species is a big job. Mistle and Song Thrushes establish their territories in winter and will fight and protect these areas over the winter and will only stop defending the territory if there is a prolonged cold weather period. I noted the other week during the freezing weather that many of the birds sang much less presumably to save energy. Early spring and late winter can collide with each other in some years and it has seemed to occurred more often in recent years. It can be a very unpredictable time for nature and as I look towards this week ends’ weather there may be a few flowers that regret their early emergence but some will survive.

Primrose

The weather patterns at this time of the year can be crucial to the breeding/blooming/success of many species and their resilience to cope with adverse weather conditions that occur whether they be natural or part of the global warming phenomenon that is currently gripping the earths weather patterns.

Sallow burst

They are already saying that it has been the warmest February on record. we shall see what the year brings us and if it stays as it has been so far this year it’s going to be a very interesting year and as I see multiple records of migrant birds in the UK already noted and this very day I observed 4 species of butterfly and I wonder about the forthcoming year and future of these species. Only time will tell and I will continue to observe these changes and see how nature deals with it.