Just a Field

I lent against the old fence the other day watching marbled Whites and Meadow Browns flying over the rough grass land. To my side was bramble scrub where Whitethroats and Garden warblers fed their young and like all of those who watch wildlife  felt a sense of excitement to see these wonders of an english summer. Excitement soon turned to sadness as I turn to see the metal fence round the fields where last year as saw the same species and many more disappearing under a housing development.

Old Fields, new house.
More to come

This field can show us many things if we take closer look. Situated on the edge of a large Surrey village and like many other formerly productive agricultural fields are now seen as a financial asset by the owner and potential building land. I first encountered this field 8 years ago, rough grasses , bramble patches and a few small Sallow trees already established and then we have seen the changes in the species that have occurred from the ground to the skies. the species lists collected show the incredible variety of life that these fields can support given the chance to recover from its former species poor state as an agricultural field. We have observed 24 species of butterfly including Small Copper

Brown Argus, Common Blue, 3 species of Skipper and the Marbled Whites. Amongst the grasslands we found Grass Vetchling.

Scarlet Pimpernel, Birds foot Trefoil

and clumps of beautiful Black Knapweed all feeding a mass of insects. We stood and watched Red Kites and Buzzards in the air together last year, after the presumed farmer cut the grass and made a short lived bounty of food. One winter we watched a Goldfinch feeding on a teasel head and then in a split second its life over  taken by a male Sparrowhawk.

My partner Sam and I have watched the sad decline of the wildlife in these fields after so many amazing wildlife scenes, too many to describe.

We believe all habitats are vital if we are to repair the already fragile natural habitats in this country. The current UK government have nature conservation as a low priority which is fundamentally wrong on so many accounts. They and local government need to realise that building on the Greenbelt is whats slowly killing natural biodiversity. Protect what we already have and lets try to repair some of the damage is what I believe we should be doing. Time for the politicians to actually do something constructive to protect our countryside.

For my dad Francis,

Francis Willis

Childhood haunts

Unexpected time available for a walk this morning led me to think about change in the countryside over time. Seemed like a good idea to go and wander round some of the commons and woods that my mates and I used to roam. In fact the countryside where we first found a wonder for the natural world which for ,most of us has never diminished.

I couldn’t park outside the house where I was born as most of the road is now yellow lined but its clear that there are now no House Martin nests or Swifts along the road. Sad when you think that 40 years ago there would have been at least 40 House Martin nests along the road and another 40 odd nests around the junior school down the road. My first school project aged 9!

Parked instead along Stafford lake Rd which runs across one piece of Bisley Commons. Happy days, this was our patch, assiduously watched for birds and butterflies but also home to camps and favoured climbing trees. Much to my surprise it felt very familiar (though admittedly this little site had been part of my responsibility as a ranger). In fact over the next couple of hours I really did feel that I was on familiar territory, I didn’t even get lost!

Our “best” pond!

Walking through dappled light along wooded paths quietly on my own was a reminder of how much more you hear and see when you shut up (in company I talk too much!). Foraging Nuthatch and a close encounter with a whole Jay family was topped by a very close encounter with a Tawny owl. Standing in the shade enjoying the sights and sound of a lovely bit of wet woodland I jumped when I turned to see a rather surprised owl suddenly change its flight path inches, yes really, from my face. Don’t think it was aggression just surprise.

Watched a beautiful Golden ringed dragonfly hawking the stream in the woods and disturbed a sunbathing Grass snake but both were too quick for a snap. Would have been happy with just a walk in the woods but by heavens I was enjoying myself.

Left the woods and walked across Sheets heath pausing at the sandy pond to admire the dragons and damsels.

Sandy pond

the dragons were too fast but the damsels were more obliging.

2 of the blue ones!
Red eyed damsel

Back to the woods and shade to return across the old fields of Brookwood farm which look like they could make a fantastic local country park with great potential to build on what is already a great place for wildlife.

Brookwood farm

Not the place to be picky and criticise the lack of management but it would be great if they could put a little effort in keeping a little of the stream exposed to the light as it is getting too closed in, pushing some wildlife on to bits of water that really are marginal.

The smallest of stream pools

Amazingly there were at least a dozen tiny fish in this pool crammed with freshwater snails. Again couldn’t get the dragon, a Black tailed skimmer to stay still but this wonder did….

Beautiful demoiselle

As usual gone on a bit and there was more………..

 

Cost of some Joy

My father was a lovely man, gentle and kind, with a passion for gardening and in particular growing just about anything edible. Our vegetable plot is a pale imitation of my dads but it also gives a great deal of pleasure to us.

I learnt the hard way that growing vegetables in a garden open to Roe deer is a frequently frustrating process. Once the regular agricultural activities stopped in the surrounding fields deer quickly found the refuge and at least one doe has given birth to young every year since the millennium. On telling my father, soon after seeing deer actually in the garden for the first time, and being met with incredulity and disbelief it led to great mirth. Whilst berating me for dreaming the sighting a Roebuck chose that moment, in broad daylight, to step out of the hedge behind my father and begin nibbling windfall apples! Joy and wonderment and a lot of giggles!

For a couple of years I kind of gave up growing much at all using the deer as a rather lame excuse for my laziness. Very early in the morning following my fathers late night passing I looked out of the bathroom window to find 5 deer quietly grazing in the garden, reassurance that life goes on comes in many forms.

The experience led me to interpret their appearance as a challenge and my mum and I then fenced the veg plot and started growing again.

Some years we have had very relaxed does who have treated the garden as their private refuge, bringing quite young kids (often twins) in to sleep. During the worst of the snows there were often 3 snow covered humps outside the patio doors which morphed in to mum and babes as the sun came up.

The fence round the veg has to be high obviously and you have to remember to close the gate!

Guilty carrot thief

Forgot the gate last night after watering and my wife had even commented over breakfast tea that we hadn’t seen any deer for a couple of weeks. Result……….runner beans gone! The cost of joy, indeed!

What’s an apple?

End of the Road

Across the main road from “our” patch are a group of all fields and mixed woodland which make up part of Broadstreet common. To me this sort of land is an essential but often ignored wildlife refuge and green lung for the locals. As the seasons move towards high summer, and this year it now looks like we are going to have a serious hot spell, the countryside begins to feel a little quiet. Many birds have fallen silent as they move from rearing young to commencing moults. If you don’t need to attract a mate or defend a territory then why waste the energy on singing and strutting your stuff?

Spring flowers may be over but meadow and verge plants like Knapweed are painting our local field with a wonderful shade of purple and the butterflies are enjoying the nectar.

Skipper on Knapweed

Look at the length of the tongue!

End of the road

Problem is with field like these is that they don’t stay like this without management. Cutting for hay and/or grazing is often difficult to undertake on smaller parcels of land and frequently these areas move in and out of active management. Not necessarily a bad thing as there are a whole range of species adapted to take advantage of the variability of habitats created through variations in management provided more vulnerable (and rare species) are considered.

Walking round these fields is great if you have kids with you as the grass moves with grasshoppers and crickets! There were so many that my wife started to feel a little uncomfortable!

A last word in support of Ragwort! Yes it is poisonous to horses particularly when cut and mixed in to hay but do remember that many insects love the flowers and some even use the poison to dissuade predators by advertising their toxicity with bright colours.

Cinnabar moth caterpillars on ragwort

The Benefit of Stillness

At last we finally visited Roy and Vala at their home in Haslemere! What you cry a facebook type blog?! Not really no, more of confirmation that there are wonderful people in this world who treasure every small but wonderful encounter with the natural world around them. The garden of their home extends up a rather steep slope but has been tendered with a passion for gardening, flowers, vegetables and art then combined with a love of birds, insects and all wildlife. The results are humbling. Roy’s patience and calm stillness has created a relationship with many of the birds in his garden where their instinctive fear has been overcome by the simple fact that humans can be a ready source of food. Always carry mealworms in your pocket! The fact that a Robin

can be coerced is one thing but House SparrowsBlackbirdsand Great tits have all come to Roy and any other calm friends is a tribute to his continual wonder of the small things in life (I suspect that actually they are really the big important things in life just a little disguised!).

Sitting within feet of feeders repeatedly visited by 2 families of Siskins was also a pretty gobsmacking experience!

Father Siskin
Young Siskin

Roy has watched the Woodmice come and feed, knows where the Hedgehog is likely to sleep, observed surprising behaviour like Great tits hawking his honey bees and knocking the stings out, Blackbirds fishing for tadpoles and so much more.

Yes I would love him to share more of his knowledge and I am also hoping he will share some of his photos!

Along the Hogs Back

Glorious day on the downs. My mother in law is living at a care home on the Hogs Back which has magnificent views……

Butterfly spotting

And magically still has flower rich meadows which are full of butterflies and all kinds of wee beasties. Previously rented out for horse pasture but now neglected just enough to be full of Birdsfoot trefoil, Knapweed, Bugle and lots more (going back for a much closer look as there was also a Pyramidal orchid on the main lawn). A real little gem of a place which deserves the effort of protecting.

Small Blue

 

Marbled White

 

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.