Following the discovery of hay trails where badgers have been dragging fresh bedding to their set, we trained the trap camera on the path that runs on the other side of the fence which seems to be the one down which all the hay was being dragged and so we presume leads directly to the sett. It runs along the thin strip of land at the top of the cliff before the land falls away very steeply.
We left the camera there for five days and here is a selection of what we got:
However, all was not well. A number of the foxes captured on the camera showed signs of having mange:
I have had a look at the website of the National Fox Welfare Society – nfws.org.uk – which has a lot of information on sarcoptic mange – caused by a mite that burrows into the skin and lays its eggs and will kill a fox horribly within four months if not treated.
Clearly action has got to be taken. I have sent an email to the Society, attaching the photos above and I understand that they are able to supply a medicine that you can add to jam sandwiches and leave out for the foxes. Jam or honey sandwiches are suggested because foxes have really sweet tooths and will gobble them down but cats don’t and so shouldn’t. But how about badgers?
I hate the thought of these animals suffering out there and am impatient to get down to sorting this out.
In January badgers are less active and spend more time in their setts because it is cold and because there is less food around. However, it appears that there has been some housework going on below ground and fresh bedding was required.
There are signs that the long grass in the second meadow has been vigorously raked through and there are visible trails of hay leading from these raked areas to the holes in the fence:
Apparently badgers spend a lot of time collecting bedding to line and provide warmth to underground chambers for themselves and their cubs (generally born in February). Grasses, hay, fallen leaves and so on are gathered up and pulled backwards into their setts, sometimes from more than 100 metres or more away. As they move backwards, hugging a bundle of bedding under their chins and between their forelegs, they inevitably leave an obvious trail of flattened, debris strewn grass that leads straight to the sett.
It goes without saying that I would love to get a photo of this and I will see what I can do – the trap camera is out covering these trails as I type, just in case the badgers have not completed their work here. I will keep you posted.
Leaning over the fence and peering down the cliff, we see that the badger sett must be in the cliff directly below the second meadow. A lady who lives along the cliff but 200 metres to the south has told us that she has a badger sett at the bottom of her garden and so we had always presumed that the badgers visiting our land came from her sett. We now realise that there is a second sett right by the second meadow. Any cubs that may be born next month are likely to be seen above ground from April…another reason to impatiently anticipate Spring.
Before I go any further, I was so shocked to look up the Wikipedia entry for the film Kes to see that the film was released in 1969 – thats 47 years ago. Sometimes its things like this that make you realise quite how old you are.
But that is just a diversion because what I really want to do is mention the Kestrel who has been hanging out at the meadows recently.
Kestrels are sexually bimorphic – females have brown heads and brown barred tails and so I am fairly confident to report that this is a girl. Males have slate grey heads and tails and no barring.
I have recently disturbed her from the conifer trees in the copses dividing the meadows but today she was perched on the mysterious WW2 ruins just beyond the second meadow.
Kestrels used to be seen everywhere at the time the film Kes was released – they were such a common sight hovering for disturbed rodents at the sides of roads – but they have declined dramatically since then and now are Amber listed.
They feed on rodents as well as frogs and lizards so our meadows are actually perfect for them. If food is plentiful then they don’t bother with the hovering business but just lurk in trees or on the sides of ruined buildings as our girl was today.
I would like to call her attention to the Kestrel nest box that we have up for rent in a conifer tree ready for her should she need it.
Kestrels do not build their own nests but use old nests of other large birds such as crows or pigeons. Or they lay their eggs in a tree, a crevice in a wall or cliff face or, hopefully, in our box. We put it up this time last year but did not have any tenants last summer. The eggs are laid in April and so we shall be watching out and hoping this year.
In some ways it was a frustrating year because other things going on in our lives kept us away – at first due to child commitments and then, two weeks after our youngest child went off to University in October, my mother was taken into hospital where she remains to this day.
However, that has not stopped us becoming completely enthralled by the land and its ability to be slightly different every time we see it. We have tried to notice, photograph and subsequently research these changes in order to learn – and indeed we have learnt a lot although there is still much work to be done.
The first job in January was to refence in order to retain our nightmare dog. The new fencing was trenched down to discourage tunnelling foxes.
Where the fence was good enough to remain such as the one at the far end of the second meadow, shown above, a trench was dug just in front of the fence and a skirt attached half way up the fence and the bottom of the skirt was buried in the trench.
The second job, in February, was to dig a large wildlife pond at the lowest point of the meadows, to include lots of shallows and boggy bits.
And then in March, April and May the meadows just started to come alive with new plants and flowers. Each time we walked around, a different plant seemed to be having its day.
Along with the plants came the butterflies, about which we knew so little and which just don’t stay obligingly still to be photographed and identified. And so, we still know so little! Thats something we will hopefully focus on more in 2016 – especially since we now have a butterfly net.
Three plants in particular stay in our minds. Firstly and secondly, the Early Spider Orchid and the Autumn Ladies Tresses, simply because its extremely exciting to have rare orchids growing on your land:
And, thirdly, Jonny-Bed-By-Noon – or Goat’s beard. This plant looks initially like an ordinary dandelion type flower but has dramatic points making a beautiful star and it is completely closed up by noon each day and I have no idea why it would want to do that.
About this sort of time, we got into contact with Kent Wildlife Trust and they come and did a plant survey and drew up a management plan which gave us a focus and gave us confidence. They brought with them a most welcome burst of enthusiasm, interest and excitement about what a lovely and precious thing the meadows were. They also introduced us to moths and mothing, a subject about which I immediately became obsessed and now eagerly await the Spring and the recommencement of Moth Nights.
It was also Neil from Kent Wildlife who, when we showed him the hole the naughty foxes had made in the new fencing despite our attempts to stop them, queried the whole fox thing and suggested we place a trap camera on the hole with the result shown below:
As the year rolled on, we started to worry about getting the meadows cut and all the hay taken away as it must be if we want to work towards getting the nutrients out of the ground to discourage grasses and encourage chalk grassland plants. Various solutions were investigated and found to be non-viable. The off cuttings could not go for hay to feed animals because of the chance of Ragwort. In the end, we cobbled together a solution that sort of worked but we need to revisit the whole issue in 2016.
In September, we were allowed to borrow some cutting equipment from Kent Wildlife and some lovely members of that organisation and some co-opted family members spent an extremely energetic weekend harvesting the first meadow and heaving the cut grasses up the hill into the little paddock. The second meadow was not cut and is still not cut. The family members have let it be known that, enjoy it as they did, they were not interested in participating in same the next year!
Several weeks later, the piles of decomposing hay was taken off to a green composting site
There was then the most wonderful Autumn. Glorious day after glorious day, flocks of birds eating the seeds left uncut in the second meadow and the hedgerows dripping in berries.
We had some of the hedgerows trimmed up by a local farmer but left other bits so that these berries remained for the birds.
Eventually Autumn became Winter, although it was really mild and there were surprising things appearing in December such as this blackberry which has berries and blossom on the same bush:
It has been a marvellous first year. Some things have gone well, some things have not but we have lots of plans for 2016 and are looking forward to it very much indeed.
On walking around the meadows now, we see that there are very few berries left. The berries that are left are presumably the ones that the birds don’t really like. We have very few Rosehips but they are pretty much all still left on the bush.
In fact, I saw this tell tale little sign today, left on the top of the five bar gate next to the rose hip bush. Presumably hunger made the bird try it, but it certainly didn’t like what it found.
Also left are Ivy berries – both black and green, which I believe are unripe ones. Ivy berries are a vey important food source for when everything else has gone and so I’m very pleased to report that we still have a healthy stock available.
However, the tasty sloes and hawthorn berries and all the other berries that seemed to be dripping off the hedgerows in huge abundance in October are now nowhere to be seen these days and I feel guilty about harvesting some of them for the frivolous reasons that we did such as the flavouring of some Gin or, worse, to make an autumnal arrangement to beautify the house for a fleeting few days. Its a life or death struggle going on out there at the moment and they need all the help they can get.
There are a couple of Holm Oak, Quercus ilex, in the copses of trees between the two meadows. We estimate that these copses were planted about 20 years ago, looking at relevant historical Google Earth photos. While some of the trees in the copse such as Whitebeam still feel like juvenile trees, the Holm Oaks are very large and have the aura of fully grown trees, although they are not the 20 to 27 metres tall quoted for a properly mature Holm Oak tree.
Holm Oaks are evergreen oaks, native to the Mediterranean, and actually classed as alien invaders in the UK since they reduce native biodiversity. They are not particularly frost hardy and so seen more in the south of England than the north. They were introduced into Britain in the 16th Century and those first Holm Oaks grown from acorns in Britain are apparently still going – in the grounds of Mamhead Park in Devon.
In the Mediterranean, the acorns of the Holm Oak are an important food for the free range pigs reared for Iberico ham production and it is one of the top three trees used in the establishment of truffle orchards. But none of that sort of stuff is going on here. We value our Holms for their dense evergreen cover which acts as a wind break and shelter for animals as the strong coastal winds rage across the meadows, as they are doing at this very moment as storm Frank, the last storm of 2015, works its way across Britain.
Our Holm Oaks, however, are infested by Leaf Miners. All the leaves over the entirety of the trees are covered in the brown marks of tunnelling larvae.
As part of our continuing need to educate ourselves as to whats going on out there, I have been looking into this…….
It would appear that these trees have been infested with the micro moth Ectoedemia heringella. This species has come from the Mediterranean area as indeed have the trees themselves but the moths have followed 400 years later. They are thought to have been introduced by mistake as part of the trade in garden plants – first discovered here in 1996 in Greater London but its identity not confirmed until 2002. They are now reasonably rampant across the South East of Britain and currently it is not known how best to control them. This is now under investigation by Kew – parasitic wasps are mentioned – but for now there is nothing to be done.
The adult moths emerge in June and July, although they are rarely encountered – presumably they do not come to light and I won’t be collecting them in my trap next summer. However, they can be reared from the mines if you collect them in Autumn and Winter, perhaps by picking some leaves and putting them in some water in an enclosed place until June? I am not sure that I am going to do that, but I will be keeping an eye out as I pass these trees from now on to see whats going on.
At the top of the second meadow we have a little parch of Yellow Fieldcap mushrooms growing ( Bolbitius titubans) – the egg yolk fungus. It’s a very colourful little toadstool and quite surprising to see it because it is meant to fruit between June and October in Britain but then this has been a most peculiar winter in all sorts of ways.
It starts off as a bright yellow almost conical little head that quickly flattens out to form what looks very much like a fried egg and I read that this happens within just one day. The fried egginess of it is very cheering to see but what is not so good is the knowledge that this is a fungus of well manured grassland – even liking to grow on old cow pats.
How that fits with us trying to get this meadow as nutritionally deprived as possible to disadvantage bullying grasses and allowing beautiful chalk grassland flora to flourish remains a rather discouraging thought.
By way of a grande finale for the year, on New Years Eve we went to Dungeness to see a Long Eared Owl that had taken up a winter roost at the RSPB reserve in a willow tree behind the dipping pond near the visitor centre and had been there without fail every day for nearly a month.
What a very wild and windy day it was but the owl was there, sitting quietly and resolutely in the bare tree, with a large array of humans with long camera lenses spread out at its feet. Well, we were the other side of the dipping pond but those of us with the right quality of equipment would have been getting wonderful photos of it. Sadly, we were not one of those people.
It was a magnificent bird and one which neither of us had seen before. For me, an obsession was born. My thoughts turned to whether we could have a Long Eared Owl roost somewhere amongst the thick tangle of thicket at the far boundary of the second meadow (we don’t know who owns this land but it appears to have been completely untouched during the entire year of our involvement with the meadows).
The RSPB website says there are 1,800 to 6,000 pairs of long eared owls in the UK, not many in Wales and the West Country and the ones in Scotland move south to southern England in the winter as well as us receiving some autumn immigrants from Scandinavia. During the winter, they roost, sometimes communally, in thick scrub with access to rough grassland over which they hunt at night – well, that sounds just like what we are providing for them. In summer they tend to be in thick coniferous woodland during the day so we would not be expecting to see them then but now, in the depths of winter, we are in with a chance.
Now that I am alert to the possibility of having long eared owls in our shrubbery, it it difficult to stop looking. I checked out data from Sandwich Bay Bird Observatory which is not far from us. They had seen a Long Eared Owl in December, so they are about and it is a chance.