Summer Arrives

Woke up to a beautiful clear morning, so clear it was decidedly fresh, and once again wondered at my good fortune. Lots of small things and experiences knit together to give meaning to my life and these are a few of those moments from the last couple of days.

The first telephone  ping of the day was my niece, Amber, forwarding a short video of her late night close contact with a rather lovely hedgehog! Her evident delight at having a chat with a relaxed spiny fellow was a great way of starting the day and my jealousy is tinged with a little sadness that I have never encountered one at my home. Deer yes, an ongoing relationship; foxes yes; weasel yes; occasional lost rabbit yes but no hedgehog!

Yesterday was also the first time for months that we have seen a fox. In this case a youngster making a run with a corn on the cob put out for the birds! Similarly, but not with corn cob, a young Kestrel came over the garden for the first time in months. In contrast Red Kites are now daily over the garden and fields but Wednesday was the first time we saw one take food from the garden. Bizarrely the item picked up by the Kite was a cooked Jersey Royal potato that had been put out for the birds! Yes really!

A hunched sunbathing Blackbird relaxes on the lawn whilst a young Robin , looking like a mini thrush, scoots around feeding. Bound to be some more special moments in the day ahead.

I do love a good sunrise and sunset, these are just a couple taken from the garden.

Sunrise
Sunset

A Little History

Much has been written in the press about changes to the countryside of Surrey and its management, particularly about alterations and charges at Newlands Corner but there seems to be a wilful ignorance on behalf of SCC of the history of areas like Newlands which are outside SCC ownership.

SCC completed agreements with two large estates during the early 60s to secure public access over some 350 acres of Newlands Corner, Silent Pool and St Martha’s Hill together with, approaching 500 acres of Puttenham Common. After a more protracted negotiation an access agreement was also made during the early 70s over some 1300 acres of Wotton and Abinger Commons together with White Downs.

When these agreements were made they were important as they secured legal public access over several areas that had a long history of use by the public whilst helping the landowners with the practicalities (and costs!) of managing access particularly where uncontrolled car parking was causing damage.

All perfectly laudable………then!

The reality now is that the land subject to these access agreements is now only small part of the operations of  3 major estates namely Albury Estates (the Duke of Northumberland), the Wotton Estate (the Evelyns), and the Hampton Estate (Thornton/Biddell). It is also a fact that much of the land is registered common and therefore if the Agreements were terminated the publics rights of access would be secured under the Countryside and Rights of way Act (CROW). So why, in view of the recent attitude of SCC towards their own estate, do the 3 estate owners still seem to wish to continue a superfluous agreement with SCC? Surely it would be far simpler and frankly more honest for the estates to work direct with Surrey Wildlife Trust as regards Rangering and ecological advice? There is no merit that I can see for the estates to continue an outdated and unnecessary agreement with SCC.

As ever I am more than happy to correct any errors in the above post.

Betrayal and Bullying

The more one considers the attitude of SCC to their countryside estate and the long overdue SCC/SWT business plan (which I can still find no trace of) the more it smacks of betrayal and bullying.

Betrayal of the intent of past councillors and the landowners who drove the expansion of the public estate. Bullying of a county wildlife trust who were only guilty of naively trusting SCC in the first instance.

No matter that circumstances have changed from when the estate was acquired, abrogating responsibility for contributing towards the cost of managing a publicly owned asset is simply wrong.

I have challenged SCC before and I will say it again, if you don’t want responsibility then hand over the estate, complete with properties, to SWT in a way that at least gives them and the community of Surrey an opportunity to secure a long term for the countryside of Surrey. Yes its complicated and yes it would take time but the current situation is not sustainable in the near future without further cuts and further reduction in positive management.

Car park charges are not the product of a golden goose.

 

A new generation

Its a bit hard to know where to start with birds in my garden at this time of year because we are once again inundated with young birds. Amongst the positives are that the Blue tits and Great tits have done well, the record so far is 12 birds on a fat ball container that holds 6 balls! My joy at this is tinged with a caution as to why this year the garden birds seemed to have become much more reliant on supplied food. Something more seems to have gone wrong with the relationship between natural food supply, particularly insects, and timing of broods. There is a much discussed problem of the temperature trigger that influences insect abundance getting out of step with birds egg laying which is often related to day length. This year, to me, it also just looks like there are far fewer insects and insect larva. Whether this is so or not and whether it may be down to climate change or not isn’t clear. I am alarmed at the thought that the influence of atmospheric pollution may also be far more insidious than the obvious impact on human health in cities.

Greenfinch family also regulars but it is the surprise presence of a pair of Bullfinches and  an adult Great Spotted woodpecker together with the absence of young House sparrows that raises my level of concern.

Nightjars and Parking

A heady mix! Last night was the annual Nightjar survey on Chobham Common and though not perfect weather, cool and windy, I am struck again with the need to tell anybody who hasn’t gone for a walk to listen to Nightjars (and hopefully see them) that they are missing one of those special experiences that Surrey has hidden up its sleeve. If you have been in years past GO AGAIN! It can be an evening of wonder and an almost mystical experience . Don’t spoil the experience by looking and listening on the internet either go out with an organised group with SWT or local RSPB or be adventurous and look at a map of a heathland site like Chobham Common and go for a walk to be out in the middle of a heath by sunset when the birds usually start to sing (moot point calling it singing!). If last night was anything to go by it does look like Nightjars numbers are fairly stable unlike some of the other birds that used to be common on Surrey Heaths, Linnets, Yellow Hammer, Willow Warblers, Tree Pipits………..the list is becoming alarmingly long.

I remain angry and bewildered with prospect of car park charging in most of the car parks and not a little confused with some of the intentions. No overnight car parking, well that has always been technically a prohibition, but how does that become you cannot park after 9.00pm and before 7.00am? Nightjar watchers and dog walkers are just a few who look like they are going to be unnecessarily penalised. Over complicated systems involving permits wont solve what is a bad idea.

On from Beginnings

Looking back to that first summer in Worplesdon I am sad that there are so many negative changes among all the wonderful experiences.

For the first couple of years Merrist Wood continued to cut the surrounding fields for hay and silage followed in the autumn by cattle grazing before the ground became to wet (September to October). The impact on bird numbers and variety was incredibly beneficial. We knew that we had a Linnet nest in the garden and even more amazingly Lesser Spotted Woodpeckers had nested in an old plum tree in our hedgerow but were simply overwhelmed with the migrants that appeared soon after the cattle.

First, and a little hard to miss lined up along the barn roof, were hundreds of Yellow wagtails. Most spent there time gorging on the flies associated with the cattle but on some days there were more in the garden than Bluetits! Seems like a dream now as we also regularly saw Whinchats, Wheatears, Redstarts, and Stonechats! Two glorious autumns then Merrist Wood ceased being an agricultural college, dispensed with the herd of cattle and the farm staff- hardly any autumn migrants!

You will note that the only reason the fields were passed from public ownership to the college was because they were required as part of the teaching resource of an agricultural college. Sadly the management of the college at the time decided, in my view without any consideration of the long term impact, to shift the college towards teaching both golf and equine studies. Nothing wrong in that you could say but my view is that at that stage the land should have been passed back to public ownership rather than being used as a prospective housing site that nobody other than certain people at the college want.

More unexpected

I enjoy exploring blocks of land that are not crossed by roads and the Botany Bay/Oakden/Tugley/Old Oakbottom complex of woods is one of those. Yep its all within Surrey, full public access and free. Look carefully to pick a parking spot as there are no formal car parks. Owned by the Forestry Authority and part managed by Butterfly Conservation it is a really special place.

Eating lunch in a clearing surrounded by orchids and the occasional burst of Nightingale, Emperor dragonflies hunting, (and horseflies) was then topped with several rather fast views of a Honey Buzzard! And then…….the day became more surreal with the appearance of a pair of Spotted Flycatchers!

A whole variety of birds during a day that we were really looking for butterflies! Unexpected pleasures. Surprises also came with the smaller residents. I had never seen one of these

Golden-bloomed Grey Longhorn Beetle

I also got us fairly lost but had a beautiful day with a strange twist. On the way back to Godalming we passed a lady called Sarah who had sadly hit a Roe Deer and was trying to arrange with the police what to do as the deer was very much alive (but with at least a broken leg). We waited with her and the gently restrained deer (sorry folks if you were one of the many delayed on the Dunsfold Rd) as the RSPCA were going to be a little while. The good twist? By sheer chance a lovely guy from Hydestile Wildlife Hospital stopped and collected the doe, hopefully to fix or at least reduce the distress suffered. Thanks RSPCA and Hydestile and good on you for stopping Sarah.

A day for the unexpected

Many naturalists, particularly those with a passion for butterflies, know of Botany Bay and it was to this area of woods and glades that Neil and I returned to today. A couple of weeks ago we had been greeted at the gate entrance by the wonderful sound of Nightingales and we did hear them again but not straight away.

Cool and a little dull for butterflies other than Speckled Woods distraction was provided with flowers and in particular Common Spotted Orchids, lots of them!

During the day we must have seen close to a thousand spikes! When you look carefully they are all magically different, colours, height or stages of opening. The randomness of nature means every bloom is unique.

Same applies to the most common place of flowers, bramble and dog rose to name but 2.

Muddled thinking

Increasingly concerned with the muddled thinking of Surrey County Council as regards funding of the management of the countryside and Rights of Way. To my way of thinking if land is owned by SCC and clearly subject to full access by us, the public then money spent on the management of that land is taxation whether gathered via Council tax or car parking charges in countryside car parks. There is however a huge difference in the two sources of funding as to their efficiency. To replace £1 of funding from Council Tax how much indirect tax will have to be paid via car park charging?

Please don’t misunderstand, I am not against car parking charges per se (they can be a useful tool to manage the numbers of visitors to vulnerable sites) but where the justification is muddled with poor planning, perceived public rights and a simple lack of logic I remain bewildered!

Beginnings

I first saw my home back in the winter of 1993/1994 when it was semi derelict and a more than a little unloved but knew that it completely captured my imagination.

Flower beetle
Flower Beetle

The house was built by Surrey County Council as a small holding in 1911 as part of a serious attempt by local authorities across England to encourage people on to the land and produce food. Then, as now the problem with new start farmers being able to afford property was evident. The smallholding remained productive till the 70s (I think) when the larger part of the land, over 4 acres was absorbed by the surrounding farm which was also owned by SCC.

Probably because of the original purpose of the house and the longevity of its setting it has a wonderfully peaceful setting and atmosphere despite being on the edge of Guildford and on a lane sandwiched between 2 busy main roads. The house sits as the only house on its side of the road surrounded by farmland and hedgerows.

Crab Spider
Crab Spider

What was the bigger farmhouse burnt down in the late 80s or very early 90s but the land was already being used by Merrist Wood Agricultural College for hay and silage production as well as being autumn grazed by their herd of cattle. In 1993 the farmland was formally transferred to Merrist Wood as a result of a decision by the Education Assets Board who decided what assets would be handed over to colleges who ceased to come under the authority of SCC (or indeed other local education authorities). It should be noted that the land was handed to Merrist Wood as an “educational asset” essential to the function of an agricultural college which in light of the last 20 years and the changes which took place in the 90s at Merrist Wood could be seen as rather ironic.

Already vacant by 1993 the house and the site of the farmhouse were retained by SCC. The house occupied by me in June 1994 as a countryside staff house and the empty plot sold off for redevelopment (my neighbours across the field!).

Working with a budget from SCC and employing our families as labour my then wife and I peeled back layers of neglect both in the house and the large garden. I doubt that there had been any money spent on the property in 30 years and the last tenant, Mr Newman, had clearly found it all a little too much. It was also clear though that the house had been a happy home for him and his family for at least 30 years and I still discover plants or buried treasure in the garden that must date from their time.