Friday 19 April 2024

Dorset Rewilding

 This visit to Mapperton House near Beaminster in Dorset actually happened a couple of weeks ago however I've been so busy I'd not had a moment to write it up. 

The Knepp estate in Sussex is well known these days for the work they have put in to create a profitable estate while also encouraging a return to wildlife friendly farming,  Interestingly the Knepp revenue topped £1 million from eco-tourism alone in 2023 with sales from their organic free-range animals around £300,000. Seemingly there is money to be made in wildlife friendly farming and tourism, and less mucking out or vet's bills I should imagine.

A couple of years ago the Earl and Countess of Sandwich embarked on a similar venture at their 2,000 acre estate in the most Hardyeske landscape imaginable. I'd wanted to visit here for a long time, mostly as it has featured in a number of films as a homage to a bygone bucolic England, most recently the 2015 adaptation of Far From The Madding Crowd. I wasn't disappointed.

Mrs Wessex Reiver and I were booked onto a Wildlands walk with the ranger Ben Padwick, a brilliant communicator from a farming background in Norfolk. In many ways it was a strange experience for me to be paying to visit such an enterprise having spent years visiting farms and estates for work. Just four people on this walk which was excellent, the other two being a couple on holiday from Berkshire. Coffee and biscuits served while the introductions took place, and a quick resume of the long term plan. Sadly, as we were to discover, we'd not see the two beavers brought onto the estate as they'd escaped in the flooding this winter and no one knew of their whereabouts. But we did get to see beaver poo and a chewed stick, which was as an admirable a start as any.

Ben warned us we'd have a long ascent up to the top of the estate to begin with but after that it would be easy going. He was not joking. Following Ben who took off like a mountain goat we traversed what must have been the steepest hill in Dorset for fifteen minutes. Ben, being young and fit, was chatting away pointing out this and that and talking continuously. I was seeing stars, couldn't breathe, legs buckling, but somewhat comforted when looking about me to see all three of my younger and fitter companions were puffing away. But it was worth it to get up onto the ridge and look back down the valley towards Golden Cap on the horizon with Beaminster in the mid distance. What a landscape.

Not all of the 2,000 acres is being returned to nature friendly farming at the moment, only around 950 acres split into two parcels, in between which the rest of the land is being farmed as sympathetically as possible through tenant farmers who have lifetime tenancies.  Nearly 1,000 acres it is still a huge area as we were finding out. After our visit and as a result of a conversation with Ben, I worked out Mapperton is rewilding the equivalent of 1500 football pitches or 250 Country cricket grounds. I sent an email to Ben. He returned my email a week or so later to say those facts I'd unearthed went down well with a sixth form group he'd taken around the estate. 

So what is their plan and rewilding model? In simple terms it's a softly softly approach for the next five years. A baseline environment and ecological survey has been made and the ecologist who ran that is now creating management plans to be implemented. The estate runs a herd of park cattle who roam on a no-fence system using transmitters around their necks.  Not all of the fences can be removed at the moment but over time as much of the estate as possible will be range-lands for these cattle. Two large arable fields, used until recently to provide winter food for the cattle, have now been left after the harvest last year and the ecological management is aimed to see what successional growth takes place and what mammals, birds and invertebrates arrive to the area just by doing nothing. I'd noticed these fields as we drove in, how they were 'weedy' and as we exited a pair of red-legged partridge crossed our path.

Other areas of moistly former sheep grazed grassland are being managed by five Exmoor ponies and two Tamworth pigs. These have been introduced in a low intensive way to begin with to see what happens on this heavy clay landscape. Already after just over a year changes are happening, with the pigs reducing bracken and by digging up the uniform turf they're are allowing other plants to establish like plantain, violet and celandine.  It was still a little early in the season, but this spring and summer will be a good indicator of what can self-seed into the bare soil left by the pigs. The ponies have a different role, mostly keeping the grass at a low level, though as they only number five, the grass is never grazed for very long.

Everywhere on the former sheep fields there is evidence of the power two Tamworth pigs can bring to the project as ploughing machines. It was fascinating for me to see this as I studied just these ideas at University three decades ago when it was then thought of as a strange somewhat niche theory. At first glance in essence nothing looks as though it has really changed since it was a traditionally farmed landscape. But look more closely and bare patches or pig footmarks are everywhere.  This rooting up of soil and removal of sheep trampling is vital for the establishment of an ecosystem which while in transition doesn't look in balance but with time and effort will re-balance. That was part of a conversation had by the ranger Ben and the couple on holiday, with the latter asking why the land needed managing if it is being rewilded? 

For me that's a real issue with the word rewilding, a word I'm no fan of. At University alongside traditional agriculture I studied Biological Conservation in Agriculture. in other words how we could farm profitably but in sympathy with the natural world. Nature friendly farming may I suggest be a better term, but rewilding is in the media's headlights at the moment so we'll stick with that. 

The many books now published and TV programmes just gloss over the amount of work needed, and the public perception of rewilding is that it is something farmers do by doing absolutely nothing. But a well managed rewilding project needs time and effort to succeed, soft intervention if you like to encourage wildlife to return, but at some point the estate needs to generate income, enough income to bring in a profit. In a crowded landscape such as Britain everything needs managing to a greater or lesser degree. It is a huge debate.

Ben works on his own with some volunteers. They still put up fences, and of course remove some. Hedges are being either being planted or laid. Ecological surveys are continuing, Ben also does deer culls, grey squirrel control, tree work, and presumably now and again wonders where his two escaped beavers are now.  It is a lot of work for one man and his volunteers. 

Plans also include creating a hub in the centre of the rewilding area where currently there are some derelict buildings, a glamping site has already been created (with composting loo), and eventually a butchery, farm shop and retail sales. It will be interesting to return in a few years to see what the changes have brought about, though possibly the highlight for that return may be as during this visit the two Tamworth pigs who were great fun and came to meet us. 

All in all a most interesting two hour visit. I hope they succeed. Ben mentioned that in canvassing the local population, overwhelmingly the people of Beaminster were in favour, not least having beavers which could reduce flooding. It's also hoped the venture will bring in much needed tourism income to what has been a very quiet corner of  Dorset. Some of the adjacent estates are not as keen, either due to shooting loss (Mapperton closed down its shooing business) or damage to woodland (fences needed on the boundary to keep cattle out of neighbouring land), or as happened in Knepp, traditional farmers worried about ' pests and weeds' coming onto their fields. It is not just the wildlife approach that is a balancing act. 

Tuesday 2 April 2024

The Wessex-Sexagenarian-Reiver

Mr Bumble-Gnome - knitted for me for my birthday by a friend.

How on earth did this young naturalist-about-town born on April Fools Day 1964 (in the afternoon so it doesn't count), become a sexagenarian blogger. I began this blog in 2007, which made me 43 years of age, gulp was I really that young? Some of my school friends who I still keep in regular touch with were talking over the weekend about our time in junior school when we took part in a project - how old will we be in the year 2000 and what will the world be like? I can vaguely remember being part of this, the usual weirdness, we'd all be living in sealed bubbles or driving aero-cars, or have turned green and communicate with telepathy, but I can distinctly remember thinking, gosh I'll be 35 years old on January 1st 2000 and then 36 on my birthday. That age seemed very very old to a seven or eight year old. Yet now the year 2000 is itself 24 years ago. 

However as I nudged into my three score years on Easter Monday, I enjoyed the fact that my significant birthday coincided with Easter, and rain.  For a change then on this blog a brief resume to remind myself of this moment in the years to come, while sitting by the fire in my slippers. Though why there's a fire in my slippers is anyone's guess.

Incoming rain shower

Good Friday. We set off on a shortish (7 mile) walk along the Strawberry Line from the nearby village of Winscombe to Cheddar Reservoir and back. This occurred after being rudely awakened by the jackdaws making a nest in the roof above the bed. We've had sparrows and starlings roosting in this part of the house for as long as I've lived here. The house was only built in 1997, but I think being the former show home it was thrown up rather than built, I've had to rectify some quite strange things over the years, such as a window installed the wrong way around, and a strange electrical supply that had no obvious source.

The hole in the roof is where some flashing has come away, luckily it doesn't let the rain in, but the cavity behind the hole is of a fair size and sealed off from the loft. In past winters I'd hear starlings doing what sounded like a sand-dance as they shuffled about in there to keep warm. However about a week or so ago I heard an almighty clattering and banging coming from above the ceiling, accompanied by the tell tale jak-a-jak call of jackdaws. At first I thought it was coming from outside but when I heard what sounded like a small forest being dropped onto the floor over the following days I knew what was going on. Some acquaintances have suggested calling pest control.. really? Okay there'll be a mess in the roof space, but I feel very lucky to have this brilliantly intelligent bird choosing to live with me. Though I have to admit gingernut our cat is a little perplexed by the racket. As I type this the nest building has ended, replaced this morning with some lovely soft contact calls from the pair. Eggs soon I think.

Our walk was along the old railway line that once ran from Shepton Mallet to Clevedon, carrying goods and the product it became famous for, and from which the Sustrans managed pathway now gets its name, Cheddar strawberries. I've heard tell of the 'strawberry' trains running all day, in the season, filling the air with a fruity scent as they whisked these strawberries away from the Mendip slopes to London and Midlands markets. All of this ended with the Beeching cuts but over the last few decades more and more of the old railway route has been restored and opened up to walkers and cyclists, plus it is a fantastic nature reserve in its own right. We'd just set off when there was the most impressive hail storm, turning to rain. There was no shelter so we just pushed on into the wind trying to cover the half a mile or so to the Shute Shelve Tunnel as quickly as possible and out of the rain. This tunnel is a magnet for bats with many studies conducted  here throughout the year. We however reached the southern end of the tunnel to be greeted with sun. So odd entering in rain and exiting in sunshine. 

Cheddar Reservoir with a backdrop of the moody Mendips

Fortunately the rest of the walk was predominantly dry and with the sun up, the wildlife along the path sides as we walked was an added incentive. Violets (violet and white flowers) and primrose were everywhere, a few early bluebell, arum poking up, alexanders were growing tall,  even a patch of wild garlic had a few white flowerheads visible. Catkins adorned hazel and willow and the leaf burst was in full swing along the path, though the standing trees were still winter-bound. Chiffchaffs were everywhere, robin, chaffinch, blackbird, long tailed tit, wren and dunnock all flitted in front of us. Butterfly singles of brimstone, peacock and speckled wood added to the mix with a couple of small white too. Overhead a couple of buzzards wafted by, and a kestrel, and in the fields a smattering of corvids and gulls mingled with sheep. I'd hoped when we reached the reservoir I could do some birdwatching as it is a well known site for waterfowl.  However the wind had really picked up and while there was the usual coot, great crested grebe, mallard and tufted duck on the water with pied wagtail and meadow pipit on the banks, nothing else really was obvious other than a green woodpecker which flew to a fence post and clung on there giving remarkable views.  We got back to the car after about three hours, including a coffee in a café, just as the heavens opened once again. 

Saturday we were at home and pottered in the garden. The spring flowers are looking brilliant here at the moment, newly emerged, fresh and nothing much yet has succumbed to decay, it is a lovely time of year. The sun is warm too and I watched a dark edged bee-fly buzzing the daffodils and pulmonaria for ages. We've had these in the garden for a couple of years now, I love them, they're really funky. Sadly a peacock butterfly had died in the greenhouse overnight, but outside and  very much alive was a brimstone and a small white. There were hoverflies and solitary bees everywhere too. As we pottered in the garden a pair of raven cronked their presence overhead, these are a regular sighting now.

By the side of the Strawberry Line

Easter Sunday saw us walk a different six mile section of the Strawberry Line, this time from Congresbury to the new EDF sub-station on Nye Lane. Part of the planning approval for this feeder station from Hinkley Point, was to create a new permissive link between two parts of the existing Strawberry Line, each part of which ended at a farm who refused public access. And very impressive it is too. But not as impressive as I realised a raven pair were nest building in one of the huge super-structures carrying the electricity into the sub-station. 

I'd heard a cronk as we looked over the new site and saw a raven flying by carrying a sizeable twig. I wondered where it was going before it flew left at an angle, back on itself and into this gantry style metal structure. As it arrived, from inside the structure, a softer cronk-craw could be heard - its mate. One of the birds then flew out, did a Biggles style wing roll and disappeared into an orchard over the lane,  only to then reappear a minute or so later with another twig, this time flying directly to and into the gantry. Raven nests are huge so this may well fill the void in that latticework metal gantry, but it will be well hidden and protected. I'll have to pop back and have a proper look, but it seemed incongruous that this bird which extols wild places should decide to make its home in an ultra-modern electricity sub-station now hissing and fizzing with electricity from a nuclear reactor. And given there is a 3 meter electrified fence around the site,  I should think the raven are quite safe in there.

I also noticed that the outer fence, (thankfully not live wired), has badger holes cut into it wherever a badger track existed in the undergrowth. Someone has taken a lot of effort into wildlife mitigation and with a lot of tree planting on the site, and a large pond newly dug, it should mature nicely. On the route to and from Congresbury yet again the birdlife was astonishing, the same species as on Friday but with the addition of song thrush, bullfinch, greenfinch, goldfinch, Cettis warbler, little egret and a yaffling woodpecker. There are also a lot of badger tunnels along this path. We also startled a fox while trying to help an elderly couple retrieve their 'lost' dog who was running about a distant field - thankfully after half an hour Memphis the dog returned safe and well and looked very happy, as did his owner.

Elworthy Cottage Garden - spring meadow

Easter Monday and the birthday had arrived. For a few weeks now I'd said I'd like to visit Elworthy Cottage Plants on my birthday as while normally visiting is by appointment only, it was to open on April the 1st under the yellow-book National Garden Scheme. I'd recently been reading about this small specialist nursery, about an hours drive from home nestled in the Brendon Hills and thought it was worth a visit as I'd never been before. It is located in the middle of a lovely quiet part of Somerset betwixt the Quantocks and Exmoor complete with evocative wild-sounding west country villages such as Monksilver, Roadwater, Timberscombe, Higher Vexford and Wheddon Cross. We drove through torrential rain to get here and as soon as we arrived I thought, I've been here before. When exactly I'd been there before I can't remember but it was, like on this visit, with Mrs Wessex-Reiver. Oh well we're here now so best have a cup of tea and some cake.

As we consumed the tea and cake the clouds parted and for our entire visit the sun shone. Its quite a difficult place to find so there were only a handful of people here, in fact more people helping the owners than visitors I'd say. And on this April day it looked stunning, drifts of snake-head fritillary, daffodils still in their prime, wood anemones, hellebores, primrose and a host of pulmonaria. The owner is known also for her collection of snowdrops, of which there were hundreds of clumps round the garden, not in flower of course. I chatted to her husband asking at some point if they had Galanthus 'fly fishing' - they do but not for sale this year, though the suggestion was if I email them in the autumn then they may know if they can sell me one next spring. It is a difficult cultivar to source so I'm very happy to wait. After an hour mooching around in this lovely garden we headed back home, yet again in torrential rain, stopping on the way at Hodder's Combe to look at the rookery there and half an hour tree-bathing. 

Elworthy Cottage Garden in sunshine

All in all then an enjoyable way to shuffle into year sixty. We mostly managed to avoid the deluges and found ourselves immersed in some lovely wildlife encounters. Speaking of which I must go and see what those jackdaws are up to.

New book I bought on Good Friday with references to Richard Jefferies.

Saturday 30 March 2024

Rocking Rooks


Earlier in the week I finally managed to do my annual rooks-on-the-nest count in the village. I've done this for a few years now, just in and around the actual village itself. I could expand the range of nest sites I might look at as in recent years a number of new rookeries have developed within a 2-3 mile radius. I did a quick drive-by count of those recently and there are 7 new rookeries in the area, all on fairly young trees by roads, rather than traditional mature copse and woodland trees. While it is interesting to speculate why this population boom is happening, food supply (more sheep farming on grassland, fewer cattle farms), climate change, lack of persecution etcetera, remaining faithful to my original site allows for a little consistency. Though none of what I do is scientifically rigorous. I'm just interested.

The above image gives the best view of most of the nests. During the wet and windy winter just coming to an end every nest from 2023 was trashed. By January not one nest remained, I can therefore be virtually certain all those nests I observed this week were 2024 active nests. In total I noted active nests in six different trees. Three nests are on the lane into the village, with a carrion crow nest nearby, a further nine were in two sets of trees on the village outskirts, and a set of three nests were on the farm trees about half a mile away, making 15 nests in total away from the main site. 

That main site consists of two trees holding the bulk of the nests, 23 in total. These two trees have been at the centre of rook activity for a number of years.  New for this year an adjacent tree was hosting five nests, I've not seen nests here before. In total then 43 active nests within the village or no further than half a mile away. That figure, in common with my casual observation of the surrounding wider area, is up slightly, in most years the figure is around the mid to high thirties. I used to do a count of actual birds based on two birds to a nest. Recently though I was chatting to a corvid observer who uses 2.8 birds per nest, with the 0.8 taking into account non breeding individuals remaining within the spatial cohesion of the colony during the breeding season. With that in mind, the village of Wick St Lawrence has, by my Heath Robinson efforts,  a rook population of 43 nests x 2.8 = 120.4 rooks. I may round it down to 120, that 0.4 of a bird is maybe a statistical outlier...or not very well and missing 0.6 of it's body. Eric the half rook if you will.

Given the wider circle of rookeries outside of the village and a quick count as I drove past I'd estimate within a three mile circle there could be a population of 250-300 rooks. 

As an aside, in my home I now have a pair of jackdaws nesting in the roof space of my home (lack of maintenance has a benefit). The noise they create building a nest in the void is astonishing. No doubt I'll write about these in a future post. 

Sunday 17 March 2024

A Portrait of John Moore

Gloucester Services on the M5 (Northbound) is as good a place as any to begin to explore the writer John Moore. 

After an early start from Somerset I'd stopped here for breakfast while travelling up to Tewkesbury, or Elmbury as Moore referred to his home town in his Brensham Trilogy. While forking in the nourishment I took time to plan my day. This was to be a relaxed general discovery day, the second of my ad-hoc project to visit the graves and landscapes associated with rural authors I admire. Tewkesbury Abbey, John Moore's grave, John Moore Countryside Museum, Tudor House and finally the village of Kemerton. First though the Abbey.

Between the wars John Moore was tasked with fundraising by the then vicar of the Abbey, Edward Gough. At this time the fabric of the Abbey was crumbling and Moore, who was working for Gough,  had the not inconsiderable job of trying to raise £25,000 for the repairs. To raise such a large sum Moore organised a Tewkesbury Festival and to his credit the money flowed in allowing the repairs to occur. Nearly a century later this would be my first visit. And it is beautiful.

When I arrived it was still early, meaning I had the place virtually to myself. I sat for a while thinking  of Moore, who despite not being religious in the traditional sense loved this monument to religion. I can understand why as I gazed ever higher at the craftsmanship and detail. If I did nothing else today seeing this interior would have been worth the drive all on its own. However I'd come to the Abbey to find Moore's grave.

I'm not sure what the correct description of Moore is. Writer and broadcaster possibly, campaigner for certain. His biography by David Cole is titled True Countryman. I think then for me Countryside Writer fits a large swathe of his output over the years as it wasn't just nature he wrote about. His interests were many, ranging from the rural scene, changes to the social fabric of the countryside, the people and characters he encountered, conservation of buildings in the town he loved and customs and ways in farming. He also wrote about his time abroad and his World War 2 experiences as a pilot. He was also outspoken on topics that interested him, sometimes bringing him into conflict with those he opposed, or opposed him.

I asked the lady managing the Abbey gift shop if she knew where Moore's grave was. She didn't and confessed she'd heard of his name but had no idea who he was, before suggesting I ask a verger. "Oh yes" the verger said, "out the north door, then head to the left over the grass and it is over there". I thanked her and headed outside, to the area of the Abbey grounds she'd mentioned. There were a number of graves here but after a fruitless search I couldn't find Moore's. I'd been informed by the Chair of the John Moore Society that his grave had recently been cleaned. None of those I searched through were what I'd call clean. Maybe I'd misheard the verger, was it was located at the left of the Abbey as you entered. No, nothing. Checking an image I'd seen of his grave on my phone it had what looked like a gravel path next to it, and where I stood only grass was visible. I knew it was here, I wandered off to another part of the Abbey grounds.

I eventually found it nestled in near the south side of the Abbey, in the exact opposite direction to my instructions. It is a lovely spot to rest in, overlooking the river and with a little sitting area somewhere for the living to also rest a while. I sat on a bench next to the grave to reflect on a man who did so much for Tewkesbury and the Abbey, but who is almost forgotten today. If that is not a metaphor for life I'm not sure what is. My reverie was interrupted by a screeching and a low cronk cronk. A peregrine - they nest on the Abbey I was later told - was circling a pair of raven flying along the river. Other birds, chaffinch, goldfinch and robin especially were singing nearby. It all seemed apt, a peaceful spot to be enriched by nature, in the centre of a very busy town, a town which houses a museum in Moore's name.

I've been to the John Moore Countryside Museum once before, about eight or nine years ago. One of Moore's campaigns was to prevent the demolition of the timber framed and old buildings of Tewkesbury after the War. Many to be fair were in a perilous state and the Town Council wished to modernise the town as there had been a plan to make Tewkesbury an overspill town for the West Midlands. Some buildings were lost, but through Moore people rallied to the cause including his friend Sir John Betjeman adding weight to the fight in writing of the need to preserve this unique heritage. As a result of which around a hundred buildings avoided the wreckers ball. The Museum is housed in a row of buildings preserved by their efforts 

I chatted for over half an hour with the knowledgeable gentleman at the desk. Not just about Moore but a wider ranging chat about writers in general. The Museum itself is quite small and concerned mostly with education and information on the countryside. Display cases of stuffed animals are well presented and the information is up-to-date, such as the role the return of the pine marten would play in grey squirrel red squirrel fortunes. It has had a revamp since my last visit, now feeling less cluttered. Outside the museum is a lovely garden and next door a restored Tudor Merchant's house. I didn't visit either of these this time as there was a tour taking place and I didn't wish to tag along. 

Interestingly my conversation with the custodian touched on the similarities between Moore's legacy with that of Richard Jefferies' legacy. Both wrote about the rural scene, both campaigned for causes they felt warranted their attention and both have museums named after them. However in the opinion of the custodian although the two writers are sometimes favourably compared to each other, Moore himself was no fan of Jefferies' output, thinking it too anthropomorphic and fanciful, written by a dreamer. Which could explain why I almost never see references to Jefferies in Moore's writing. I left the Museum, with a first edition copy of Moore's September Moon, and headed to the home Moore lived in as a child, at the other end of the main street.

Tudor House as it was in the early part of the last century was where Moore lived in childhood. His family were part of the long established Moore & Sons auctioneers business. John Moore himself worked for the family firm but it was a vocation he never enjoyed and by all accounts wasn't very good at either. Today it is the Tudor House Hotel an imposing timber framed building, which despite its name actually dates from the 17th Century. On this visit I didn't go inside but the rooms from which  Moore looked out from over the busy street (and slum alleyways in his time) are bedrooms to stay in. There is however a plaque outside to commemorate his time here. I'd now visited Moore's grave, his home town and his childhood home, my final destination was the nearby village of Kemerton where Moore lived before his untimely death aged 59.

Kemerton is a picturesque village, a hotchpotch of architecture-Midland style. From timber buildings to Cotswold stone, Georgian brick to individual modern. Moore and his wife Lucille first moved here in the late 1940s, first to Chapel House then Lower Mill Farm where finally Moore had the space to develop his interests in creating a natural environment surrounding the house he could enjoy. It's not a large village to explore so first I'd have a tea in the village cafe and look at the map.

Chapel House is a beautiful Georgian brick building on Hill Lane. Running the length of Hill Lane is a culvert stream. As I walked up the gentle slope the trickling sound of water filled the air. This is middle England in its purest sense and I could imagine why Moore and his wife loved this village. On my visit grass was being cut, a hedge was being trimmed into shape, everywhere there were spring flowers. People out for a walk or working in their gardens said hello, while birds sang. After leaving busy Tewkesbury only 5 miles away Kemerton seems a calming peaceful place. I didn't loiter for long outside Chapel House, it is after all a private dwelling, but on this visit the garden was full of primroses and spring bulbs. I wonder if in Moore's time it was just as beautiful.

Lower Mill Farm is at the opposite end of the village tucked down a side lane leading only to the farm. This was Moore's final home and although his health was beginning to fade it was a place he threw his energies into to create what he'd always craved, a house within nature. As I walked through the village song thrush and blackbird song seemed to be everywhere, a nuthatch too. Rook and jackdaw squabbled in the mature trees. Here it seemed nature ruled village life and I could imagine Moore walking around the village absorbing the best that the natural world had to offer.

My visit to John Moore's land was drawing to a close. Before I left though I headed into St Nicholas Church. And that proved a revelation. Largely rebuilt in the Victorian era this hides an amazing artwork on the ceiling and behind the alter by a Miss Hopton. Sadly she was killed not long after completing this masterpiece in a dog-cart accident while out cycling. I discovered this information talking to the two church wardens, there to clean the church.

When he was a child one of the church wardens, as it turned out, said he knew and could remember John Moore. His father knew Moore but it seems they fell out over the collection of water charges. The story told to me being that the lower end of the village then had a private water supply and Moore was charged with collecting the usage fees. This chap's father refused to pay (why this was wasn't offered) causing his father and Moore to not speak. An interesting end to my visit. As I set off this morning I'd never imagined meeting someone who knew a man who died in 1967. By all accounts Moore and Lucille were very happy here, though ironically a year after his death a rare flood of Lower Mill Farm destroyed a lot of Moore's archive and letters.

As an aside St Nicholas Church is planning a fund raising evening in the autumn. As a result of our chat they suggested readings from John Moore may make an interesting addition to commemorate Moore's time in the village and maybe draw in extra people. I said I'd let the chair of the John Moore Society know this was happening and will try and attend this event myself if I can.

There is still more to discover about Moore, but for this my first visit I've expanded my knowledge of this complex writer immeasurably. Would I have liked to meet Moore? Most definitely, though he wasn't one to suffer fools gladly and had a long memory. 

Moore wrote many times about the villages surrounding Bredon Hill, as did farmer and author Fred Archer whose home was nearby Ashton-Under-Hill. 

They were contemporaries writing of the rural scene in this small part of the south Midlands. Chatting to the church warden he said some of the characters and stories in Fred Archer's books were also chronicled in Moore's output. Their styles were different but it seems the landscape and inhabitants of this rural place got under the skin of both. I can feel that, as on my visit I felt the draw of this area, there's something comforting about it. And as the church warden said "It is a shame Moore didn't live longer, otherwise we could have seen Moore and Archer in conversation together celebrating their love of the rural scene"

Now that would be a fund raising event I'd have liked to be part of and see.

John Moore Society 

John Moore Museum 

Fred Archer Trust (now defunct I think) 

John Moore True Countryman (2007) Cole, David, Blacksmith Publishing (Available from the Museum)

Sunday 10 March 2024

Bittern by the SEO's


There is a lot to be said for going that little bit further, further away from the madding crowd. As happens every year March arrives and the urge in me to get outside more and more comes along. Especially so after the endless relentless wet weather this winter has been less than conducive to outdoor pursuits. However as the forecast for Friday looked fair of face, I booked myself a day of annual leave. The aim was to go and do some sound recording while also birdwatching. The reality was somewhat different.

Due to serious traffic problems on the M5 my planned early departure dissolved into gridlock chaos meaning my plan then became an 11am start. Not ideal, but the sun was shining. My aim was to visit the Catcott Complex, where a hide that is very rarely used as it involves a bit of a walk, has the peace and quiet I needed to set up some recording equipment. 

What I had not bargained for was the recent arrival of a male hen harrier at Catcott (there has been a female here all winter). Walking to the hide we passed a few 4x4 vehicles parked on the track up to the hide. I began to worry as no one should really be up here in vehicles. I was greeted at the gate to the hide by a man in full camouflage fatigues standing outside. Next to the entrance of the hide a collection of equipment trolleys were neatly arranged. I really worried now. As I walked up the path the other chap walked back into the hide and shut the door in front of me. That sort of behaviour never stops me and I opened the door. The hide was full to the gunnels of camouflaged clad photographers who all looked round at me as though I'd stood in something unpleasant. In all the 20+ years I've been coming to this hide I have never ever met anyone else inside. Of course I could have barged in between them but wanting to do some sound recording that'd have been pointless. I turned tail and exited.

That curtailment however provided the catalyst for what was to become a much better day, though I'll maybe gloss over the sound equipment debacle in any detail. That reason being the microphone kit I wanted to test, a shotgun microphone and a figure of eight surround sound microphone combination, known as an M&S set up, requires something called phantom power. In other words the microphones are powered by the field recorder batteries, rather than having their own internal batteries. Normally I would use something like a Narga recorder which has eight AA batteries. Today though I wanted to test the quite capable hand-held Zoom H5 recorder. This affordable kit copes well with a parabolic set up and the batteries will last a good eight hours. However as I was to discover today, using an M&S configuration drained both of the recorders AA batteries in ten minutes. And guess who forgot to bring replacement batteries which he'd left at home. Shall we move on?

I mentioned to Mrs Wessex Reiver who was with me that from this hide there's a nice track into the less well visited part of the reserve, let's wander up there. Not long into this walk a male tawny owl hooted, not unheard of in daytime, possibly a disturbed owl, or it had seen us and was voicing its displeasure. This came from a little copse by the track which produced a chiffchaff calling, also calling were wren, dunnock, blue tit and long tailed tit. [Ed. If only you'd brought some batteries to power the sound recording equipment with you].

There were quite a few gnats and bees hovering about too in the now warm sunshine. March does surprise like this, cold mornings can become very pleasant days though not warm enough today to get brimstones in the air. The noisy chattering of fieldfares rising from a clump of trees caught me off guard as we approached, a flock of about thirty, reminding me that winter has only recently released its grip. I think I heard a redwing with them but only saw the flash of feldgrau grey as they wheeled out, up and over the trees. They'll be gone from this landscape soon, leaving our shores as the first summer migrants arrive. Some already have. I heard later in the day that wheatear are now in Devon and previously read that sand martins have been along the south coast for a week. In the fields each side of the track the regular resident birds were around, robins were plentiful, a number of corvids hopped about, groups of magpie, some rook, and a few carrion crow. No raven overhead today which is unusual though a small party of jackdaw jak-jak'd as they passed over. This was turning into a proper nature ramble.

Eventually we made it to a dead end. I believe one day soon this track, or maybe another one nearby will be opened up further as there is a plan to create a 20km, or is it 20 mile? circular walk around the entire Avalon Marsh Super-NNR. I can see the real advantage of such a circular walk, though I also enjoy dead ends as no one passes through without reason. We stood in a gateway, taking time to look over the fields where Mrs Wessex Reiver had spotted some roe deer. I then heard a piping call. Peep-Peep, Peep-Peep. Kingfisher. Not just one kingfisher but a male and female flying at speed and in unison along a ditch, then out over the fields in a wide arc to then return to the far end of the ditch and fly fast and low over the water towards us, before the male alighted on a branch. I lost the female after that. A spectacular encounter we'd have missed if we'd been sitting in the hide. The male then flew off through some trees but not long after a Peep-Peep alerted us to the fact he was now behind us, perched on a branch over another ditch. He then flew off and despite our best efforts to see them again neither birds returned. Those efforts though were rewarded by a beautiful male sparrowhawk flying leisurely by just a few yards from us, quietly scanning the treeline for unsuspecting prey. Standing still and remaining quiet really does bring dividends even in an unremarkable landscape. I didn't manage any photographs of any of these encounters, but that is of little importance and the image below is simply a reminder of how an unremarkable looking habitat can offer so much. 

After that excitement we retraced our steps and headed off towards the 'tower hide'. I like this hide as, as its name suggests, it is high up, maybe 10 metres? It is a bit of a slog along boggy paths to get here but well worth the effort as it looks down over the reeds and because it's a bit of an effort to reach here it is a quiet part of the reserve. We had the hide to ourselves for a good half an hour, a half hour that yielded a marsh harrier flying by at our elevated head height. That spooked a flock of teal to noisily erupt from the reeds. I do like teal, they may be common but their plumage is stunning. A couple of Canada geese, a pair of mute swan, mallard, coot and a great white egret were here too. Then Mrs Wessex Reiver called out, what's that flying towards us? Lifting the binocular revealed a bittern, flying lazily across open water towards us, then past us, then away from us before dropping into the reeds some distance off. In the strong sunshine we had fantastic views from this elevated position for a good twenty seconds if not more. In flight the stippled browns and blacks look like striped lines of colour, which of course is why they blend in amongst the reeds so well. I've seen bitterns flying many times but that was a good one and for Mrs Wessex Reiver this was a first. She was thrilled.

View from the tower hide, where the bittern flew top right to bottom left 

Retracing our steps as we walked back past the track up to the first hide where a ragtag line of camouflaged men were walking back to their 4x4's, pulling behind them trolleys bristling with equipment. I wonder if they'd had as much success photographing a male hen harrier, that may or of course may not have appeared, as we had with our encounters.

I'll come onto a conversation about this topic of photographers later. 

Following Friday's glorious weather and even better encounters, on Saturday we went to the Steart Marsh complex. Rain was in the air, though not falling with any real effort. Steart is a strange place for me as I come here and rarely see very much and given the weather I wasn't hopefully today either. However the place was virtually empty, just how I like it. Upon arrival Mrs Wessex Reiver headed off for a five mile walk and I readied myself to visit the three main, and very upmarket, hides here. If nothing else I'd avoid the rain and the brisk wind. The Mendip hide was my first stop which produced absolutely nothing. There was a magpie by the entrance, but from the huge picture window looking over a vast salt marsh, not a bird stirred, though coltsfoot was already in flower outside. I had a cup of coffee and a biscuit.

Quite posh the hides here...

Ten minutes walk away is the Parrett hide which, as you may surmise, looks out over the river Parrett, a main drain out from the Somerset Levels into Bridgwater Bay. It was low tide exposing huge areas of mud showing a smattering of Canada geese, redshank, what looked like gadwall, but they were a long long way off plus a single curlew plodging through the mud. The biggest high tide of the year was due the next day that will overtop the Parrett and flood the whole site, as it is designed to do through an engineered breach. Today though the river was still sea-bound and very low. A lovely male  stonechat was singing as I exited the hide, a female close by listening. Stonechats, a favourite bird of mine,  are best known for their chak-chak alarm call but their song is a melody of soft whistles and single notes, almost like a dunnock but softer. I've probably only heard this a half a dozen times. 

View from the Parrett hide on a dull day, at low tide

Next stop the half mile walk to the Quantock hide. I could hear the teal and wigeon as I approached, though I decided not to enter the hide but instead look out from the screens. Quite a few redshank, shoveler, shelduck, mallard, little egret, and of course the aforementioned ducks. On one of the shingle islands a pair of greater black backed gulls, their backs looking almost jet black in this light, were resting. I'd like to know, are they are nesting here?  These really are huge birds when you compare them to say teal. I like them but they can wreak real havoc in a nesting colony. I then noticed some pied wagtail noisily flying about in tight circles over another island, males chasing females, males chasing males, I couldn't rightly tell. I was hoping they would stop and do some courtship display on the ground as I've never seen what some observers refer to as a wagtail dance.  However after a few minutes of frenetic activity they flew off towards the far fields where up on the ridge a very noisy rookery was also in full swing. I scanned the rookery and counted at least fifty nests. There was a lot of activity, individuals flying to nests with twigs, pairs of rook shadow-flying overhead, groups of rook just flying about enjoying the wind and despite the rookery being a good half a mile away their raucous calls filled the landscape. There was one odd sight though as I scanned the trees, a great white egret flying past the rookery, who'd have thought that twenty years ago this would be an everyday sight in Somerset.

My final highlight of the visit occurred was while ambling back to the car park. To my left I heard a commotion, a flock of linnet noisily flew overhead and a group of teal flew rapidly in all directions. I could see something light brown flying with purpose, half obscured behind a hedge so I stopped to try and see what is was. What it was, was a short eared owl. I had the binoculars on this bird immediately, what a stunning view of this top predator. As it flew towards me it casually looked left and right with those piercing eyes, and with a gentle flap and glide it flew towards me and then out of sight. There has been an influx of short eared owls into Britain this winter, especially along the North Sea Coast. Smaller numbers have overwintered here in Somerset but to see one in mid March is, while not unusual, a little late in the season. But what a lovely surprise ending to the day and as I got back to the car park I popped into the estate office. 

Yes they knew about the Short Eared Owl, though they are no longer publicising rare or unusual sightings, as WWT who manage the site have been having trouble here with a minority of photographers who disregard blocked off tracks or gateways and sometimes are found in restricted parts of the reserve looking for that perfect image. I'm glad though I popped into the office as I had a long chat about the reserve and its management and more importantly I learnt that WWT have taken over the management of the entire Bridgwater Bay NNR from Natural England.  And that has to be a very good thing.

Short Eared Owl landscape - well in this part of Somerset at least!

How fortunes have changed for many species in recent decades, some losers like the turtle dove, but we often forget the winners. That flypast of the bittern on Friday was a point of note, as I can remember when they were extremely rare, as can the writer Richard Jefferies in his 1879 book Wild Life in a Southern Country..

"Once, some five-and-twenty years ago, a sportsman startled a great bird out of the spot where the streams join, and shot it, thinking it was a heron. But seeing that it was no common heron, he had it examined, and it was found to be a bittern, and as such was carefully preserved. It was the last visit of bitterns to the place; even then they were so rare as not to be recognised: now the progress of agriculture has entirely banished them."

Through tireless work by the many agencies developing the Somerset Super-NNR now covering an area from Glastonbury to the coast we can see hen harrier, marsh harrier, bittern, great white egret, and short eared owls with relative ease once again. And that has to be a good thing. I just need to bring some batteries with me next time.

Sunday 3 March 2024

The Song of the Cirl Bunting

 Not that long ago, most lowland farms south of a line from the Humber across to Blackpool would have healthy populations of cirl bunting feeding on spilt grain and chaff. Then as agriculture cleaned up it's act, literally, and as the land became industrialised, the decline in farmland seed-eating species has been meteoric, and the cirl bunting range contracted to an unviable, in the long term, population in Devon. A poster bird for this decline, the turtle dove, is a species we'll probably lose as a breeding species in Britain soon, but the cirl bunting, with it fantastically exotic species name of Emberiza cirlus, a species naturally at the very northern extent of it's range, is returning from the brink, thanks to decades long conservation efforts. And I've now seen these birds return to Somerset.  

I had to look it up. It has been fourteen years since my one and only sighting of a cirl bunting. Back then, on a very snowy day in winter 2010 I headed down the scarily snowbound M5 to Labrador Bay in Devon to record a piece with the RSPB for the Radio 4 series Saving Species. Thankfully when I arrived there there hadn't been any snow falling in this warm part of Devon and better still the cirl buntings appeared at the windswept and steep project management site. On that day the issue as always with sound recording for the BBC was that I was concentrating on capturing the interviews rather than out for a day birdwatching. At the time I did make a mental note to return to Labrador Bay. I've never been back.

Today however I set off for a closer destination Stolford Beach, forty minutes by car.

How I found myself here involved reading a newly discovered blog to me, so new I only discovered it at lunchtime. The blog writer, Jeff had spent a day in Somerset on Saturday the 2nd of March and in his write up he mentioned seeing cirl buntings which have overwintered at this Bristol Channel site. The weather was perfect and I'd been meaning to visit Stolford Beach this summer anyway after reading it is a butterfly hotspot. No butterflies probably on the wing in March, a little too cold for brimstone, therefore if nothing else I'd treat this as a pleasant reconnaissance, a walk in the sun and if I saw a cirl bunting that would be perfect.  Out on the Bristol Channel the tide was out, with a number of shelduck on the mudflats. This part of the Bristol Channel is known as Bridgwater Bay and is internationally important for shelduck, and other waders such as curlew which were calling out there too.

Stolford Beach is a stones throw from the largest engineering site in Europe, Hinkley Point. I'd not realised how close this nuclear site was until arriving and looking west saw it looming into the sky just a couple of fields away. However look the other way and the landscape feels wild and remote despite the proximity of thousands of workers. I'd come here today only to see the cirl buntings and on arrival didn't really know where to go but a photograph accompanying the description on Jeff's blog showed a pond and a track. To the east there was indeed a pond in the distance, I walked along the path which runs a-top the sea wall. Within five minutes I noticed what looked like millet on the track. Again the blog had mentioned supplementary feeding was taking place. Hopefully then this was the right location and not a horror moment from a passing family spilling their granola.

A number of birds were moving each side of the path, chaffinch, blue tit, house sparrow, wren, robin, starling, meadow pipit and above them all a skylark high up in full beautiful clear song. What a fabulous place, why have I not been here before?  But as yet, no cirl bunting. 

Mrs Wessex_Reiver who'd accompanied me headed off for a walk along the coast path leaving me watching and listening. I'm no expert with birdsong, but after years recording bird calls, I can recognise the more common ones. Cupping my hands around my ears to produce a sound listening receiver I swivelled myself left then right. A chaffinch pink-pink, a blue tit angry chatter, meadow pipits twittering over the field, and the fluty tinkling of goldfinch, out on the mud a curlew again and some cawing corvids. But no cirl bunting. Their call is similar to its relative the yellowhammer, but without the bread, cheese or flourish. I tried again, yes, there,  back in the direction from where I'd come, definitely a cirl bunting call. But where was it? 

A good couple of hundred meters away a bird flew to a hawthorn and perched... before calling. Despite this bird being a long way off, through the binoculars the yellow striped head gave it away, a male cirl bunting. I shot off a quick record photo thinking at least there's proof if it flies off, and then I tried to walk slowly back towards the shrub for a better view. As I approached the bird dropped down into the main part of the shrub and for the next ten minutes it played cat and mouse with me as it was visible but always a little obscured by the tangle of branches. Looking through the binoculars though really showed that from behind these could be easily mistaken for a sparrow, reed bunting, even maybe a dunnock if on the ground, given their chestnut brown, black and grey back, though with a noticeable cleaner definition. From the front though the male is a riot of lime-green-yellow with dark stand-and-deliver highwayman stipes across the head.

Eventually after about ten minutes this male flew off and I was left on my own, alone but elated. I never thought for one minute I'd be lucky enough to find this stunning looking bird without any local help, though of course I had a good idea from Jeff's blog. 

Turning around to catch up with Mrs Wessex_Reiver, now well out of sight, there were some birds feeding on the grain on the path almost where I'd  stopped to listen earlier. No, it can't be, it was. An easy to distinguish male and a drabber female nearer to me, who were joined at various times by a robin, chaffinches and house sparrow. I was way too far away to get any closer to them without spooking them into flight so I contented myself to watch through the binoculars, both the birds feeding on the path and regularly scanning the gloriously untamed field they all flew in from, to the right of me.

While scanning this field I noticed a different bird fly into a thicket of brambles, whereupon checking what this was, it was another male. Difficult to spot, virtually impossible to photograph as it was in shade and I had the camera lens pointing directly towards the sun. It is thought there are four cirl bunting here, they arrived naturally but I guess the supplementary feeding, from whoever is doing that, is helping them stay. Will they breed here, only time will tell? However it is a quiet corner of Somerset and if there is enough seed it's highly possible. The habitat is right for breeding, however more stubble fields nearby would be needed to sustain any meaningful population.

Eventually after a number of minutes watching this male he flew back towards the sea wall and into a shrub behind me, the one on the left. I was now only fifty meters away or so and able to get good views, well slightly obscured but decent views for a good five minutes until that is a dog walker walked past the shrub and the cirl bunting was gone. I'd spent a good half hour or more in their company and they didn't disappoint.  

I really enjoyed today. A spontaneous decision made at lunchtime while sitting in the garden wondering what to do in the afternoon, and everything worked out famously. The weather was perfect, the location is somewhere I'm definitely coming back to in the summer looking for butterflies (Wall, Small Heath, Small Copper, Common Blue and Brown Argus are possible along the coast path I've read), and the cirl bunting were easy to see. I hope they stay. 


Jeff Goodridge blogging site (Somerset Day March 2024)


Saving Species 2010 - Radio 4 involving the cirl bunting