Calm After the Storms

Dudley, Eunice and Franklin – three named storms in quick succession – have left us longing that the weather would go away and leave us in peace.

The Kestrel hunting at dusk in the brief lull between Eunice and Franklin. How on earth was she managing to find her vole prey and feed herself during those long days of strong winds?
Yet, several days after the storms, she is happily still going strong, stretching her wings in the sunshine

As Franklin finally threw in his cards and roared off across the North Sea, the hunkered-down animals could venture out and once more get on with their normal lives.

A fox out enjoying the warmth of the sun:

This fox was not one of our regulars and was no doubt a winter-dispersing male. He had a distinctive mangey tip to his tail:

That night he was seen going over one of the gates between the meadows, unfamiliar as he was with the holes under the fence that are used by our resident animals:

That same night, there was a second mangey visitor to the meadows:

I always find this so upsetting, yet there is nothing I can do to help these animals that are passing through.

The frogs quickly resumed their amorous activities and now it was calm enough for us to hear their distinctive churring coming from the garden pond as we readied ourselves for bed. The heron, who is unfortunately not scared of scarecrows, continued to return to the wild pond to stand over the frogspawn awaiting a meal:

A quick preen whilst waiting for frogs

Badgers are pretty resilient to bad weather, but it was only after Franklin had departed that the mother badger moved her cubs from one burrow to another and we got our first thrilling view of this year’s young:

Born around 11th February, this tiny, hairless cub in her mouth was ten days old at this point. I believe that there were one or two more babies moved as well, but the trail camera did not quite catch these. It is surely not normal behaviour for cubs to be carried above ground like this – but our badgers here do it every year, affording us tantalising glimpses of the young animals before they are officially allowed up out of the burrow.

After a spot of tidying up, we left a pile of long, dry grasses by the badger sett:

This is like catnip for badgers and the next morning it had all gone off underground to start a new life as soft bedding for the cubs:

The grasses being dragged off into the sett

The location of this year’s magpie nest is still unknown to us but, nevertheless, work continues on its construction:

Sticks being flown along the hedgerow
Gathering soft lining

The birds have now started collecting soil from around the mini pond on the strip – soil that has been transformed into mud with water sprayed by bathing birds:

This week we made a trip up the coast to Sandwich Bay Bird Observatory where we saw saw a group of twenty Curlew at Restharrow Scrape. The burbling song of a Curlew is one of the most glorious and atmospheric sounds of the British countryside, but these large waders are red listed and have suffered horrible declines in recent years. Thankfully work is now being done to understand what the problems are to try to halt and reverse their losses.

Scandinavian Curlews fly here to spend the winter and they can be seen in groups at the coast at this time of year:

What amazing and beautiful birds they are:

The wood was not too badly affected by the storms and we have managed to fit a couple more coppicing sessions in before the start of the bird nesting season at the beginning of March.

This horizontal branch of a venerable Beech is a favourite perching post for birds of prey. This week we have seen a Sparrowhawk by day:

And a Tawny Owl likes to view the woodland floor from here at night:

It even flew up and sat on the nest box:

Tawnies are faithful to their existing nest site and so it is unlikely that the pair of birds whose territory this is will need this box – but we remain hopeful that one day it will be occupied by something other than squirrels.

This is an unusual sight. It has been light for some time because the sun is up and shining on the birch trunks, yet here is a badger above ground and some distance from the sett. What is going on?

Fox in the wood
Our winter-visiting Woodcock are still here but they will have left by the end of March, flying back to more northerly parts of Europe to breed.

Now that the storms have abated, we too have ventured out, filled with a fresh enthusiasm to get the garden ready for spring. It is always exciting when it is time to bring the supports back out for the peony bed and, at this stage of the year, difficult to imagine that these cages will be filled with flowers by May:

Monitoring Dormice

Hazel Dormice are slow breeders and poor dispersers and unfortunately their numbers and range are both in long term decline, badly affected by fragmentation and reduced management of woodland. The National Dormouse Monitoring Programme was started in 1990 to get detailed information on the situation in order to work out how best to reverse the declines. Across the country there are hundreds of monitoring sites, each with fifty or more nest boxes and all these boxes are regularly checked by Dormouse Disturbance Licence holders.

Nest box number 1 on a hazel coppice at the edge of the wood

This year, our wood and a neighbouring wood – making up a total of twenty acres – are enrolling as a Dormouse monitoring site on the programme.

Dormice live in low densities, are nocturnal and spend most of the summer up in the tree tops so it can be tricky to discover if they are present in a woodland. But we have found them as we cleared bird nest boxes in the autumn:

September 2020
September 2020. Dormouse on the roof

The typical population density is only 2.2 animals per hectare in the spring, although rising to 3-5 per hectare in optimal habitat such as our wood. However, there will be more than this in the autumn with numbers boosted by that year’s young. They are eaten by owls and squirrels and also taken by badgers when they are hibernating at ground level, but the biggest threat to an individual Dormouse is survival through the winter weather.

October 2021. They are ridiculously sweet

Not holding Dormouse licences ourselves, we are very lucky that a licensed handler will be working with us to check our Dormouse boxes from May to September each year. This week she visited us in the wood to start getting the boxes up.

Thirty boxes are going up in a grid formation in our eleven acres of woodland and twenty boxes in our neighbours’ wood. The grid formation does mean that some boxes are sited away from the prime hazel coppice habitat, such as this one in amongst the cherry trees. Dormice do eat cherry stones as well as hazelnuts, though, so it will be interesting to see if this box gets used:

The hole in the box faces into the tree trunk in an attempt to deter Blue Tits from nesting

We also have ten of these cheaper but less long-lasting nest tubes that we will put up in the wood in addition to the thirty wooden boxes:

Hopefully, after two years of covid-related delays, I will begin my own training this year to qualify for a Dormouse Disturbance Licence. It will take two to three years but will eventually mean that I can monitor our boxes myself.

Majestic Buzzard in the wood

I have only recently learned about the terrible trouble rabbits are in – their population has fallen by 43% countrywide in the decade to 2018 with no sign of this decline slowing. Although rabbits are not native to the UK, they have been here for a very long time, probably having been introduced by the Romans. They are ecosystem engineers since their burrowing creates mini mosaic habitats of warm, bare earth which help seeds germinate as well as being very beneficial for many invertebrates and reptiles. They are also selective grazers, keeping grasses at bay which benefits wildflowers.

Rabbit in the wood. They are food for the Buzzards, Foxes and Polecat-Ferrets that we have seen there

Myxomatosis, introduced in the 1950s, reduced our rabbit population by 99% and this also led to the extinction of many invertebrate species that required warm, close-cropped grassland such as the Large Blue Butterfly (happily now reintroduced). Since then, rabbit numbers have risen again as resistance developed to the disease. But now they are facing a new threat – rabbit haemorrhagic disease virus type 2 – which emerged from commercial rabbit farms in northern France in 2010 and has now devastated populations throughout the UK. In fact, in Scotland, numbers have dropped by 83% between 1996 and 2018 because of this virus.

We only occasionally see rabbits in the meadows, but there does seem to be a good population in the wood, although until now I have paid them scant attention. I will definitely be appreciating them much more from now on.

The February frog-spawning spectacle in the meadows always feels like the inaugural event of the wildlife year:

Until abruptly stopped by the high winds, the waters of the ponds have been churning this week as groups of hormonal males clamber over each other to claim pole positions to meet and greet the females as they arrive at the pond.

Frogs in the water don’t seem to trigger the trail cameras and so I put this camera onto time-lapse mode, where its sensors were disabled and instead it took a photo every ten minutes through the night. Very satisfying that this approach worked
Hopeful males

Lots of lovely spawn has now been laid:

Mackenzie, our scarecrow and the mainstay of our anti-heron initiative, is on duty in his ‘staying alive’ pose overlooking the spawn at the edge of the pond:

For the last three Februarys, his presence has meant that not a single heron has gone near the pond, despite the extreme provocation of large gatherings of frogs. But unfortunately, yesterday, a heron was not fooled by him and paid two visits to hunt over the spawn:

The dog is extremely interested in the new badger hole that has recently been dug in the meadows and she is unable to walk past it without a detailed inspection:

I now have a camera on the hole to view the comings and goings:

Badger emerging from the hole

This tunnel entrance is some distance from the other sett entrances that we are aware of – perhaps the sett is more extensive than we imagined, or is this hole part of a different system of tunnels? I will keep the camera on the hole and see if we can work out what’s going on.

Magpie nest building has now entered its fourth week….

…although there was evidence in the last couple of days that the building work might be entering the soft furnishing stage:

A Sparrowhawk jumps into the pond:

And a Kestrel cleans her talons:

It has been quite a week of tempestuous weather. Storm Eunice dramatically smashed her way across the country on Friday, carrying with her a rare red weather warning for much of the south of England.

When ferocious south-westerly winds blow here, ferries shelter alongside the meadows. On Friday, we had three of them:

I had a shock when I first saw an Irish Ferry moored up in Dover port last year – they have recently started a service on the Dover Calais route
The other two ferries on a wild sea

Down in the village, at one end of the scale, a beach hut got blown some way off its foundations….

…and at the other end of the scale, a pigeon egg flew off a nest and smashed onto the ground:

There were a few trees that had fallen down in the wood but it could have been so much worse:

Can I once again mention how much I am looking forward to spring?

An early primrose flowering in the wood

Creatively Retreating

Setting aside space in your week to be creative is said to nourish the mind, body and soul. For much of my adult life I have paid this no heed, but now I understand and regret all that wasted time. Last weekend we went on a creative retreat at a country house hotel in the Brecon Beacons in lovely mid Wales. The hotel sits in thirty-three acres of its own arboretum on the banks of the River Usk.

Looking back up to the hotel from the River Usk
The River Usk looking docile. But then there was rain overnight on Saturday and the river became a furious brown and raging torrent
Photo from two years ago when the same thing happened
Snow on the distant tops of the Brecon Beacons this year
Dipper on the river
In the nineteenth century, many special trees were planted here and they have grown into the magnificent specimens which grace the hotel grounds today. The current owners continue to plant trees for future generations and are big supporters of Stump Up For Trees – a charity hoping to plant a million trees across the Brecon Beacons over the next few years
We always admire this majestic Cedar of Lebanon when we stay here
There were a lot of Treecreepers climbing the tree trunks and pecking around the bark
The large Camellia bushes were out in flower already
A captive-bred male Goshawk joined us on the retreat for a while, brought by an author who arrived to give an after-dinner talk
This is a Sparrowhawk in the meadows last summer. I worry that, should a Goshawk ever chance to land in front of a trail camera in the meadows, I would mistake it for a Sparrowhawk. However, I can see that Sparrowhawks are much leggier than Goshawks. They are smaller too, of course, but this can be difficult to assess when there is just one bird
Over three days, we attended lots of workshops for different crafts, including making these willow baskets
I attempted to make a felt picture of the Old Gentleman Fox
Chunky knitting workshop about to begin

Back again in Kent, the Yellowhammers are being seen on a lot of different cameras in the meadows:

Throughout the winter, it has predominantly been House Sparrows, along with other larger birds, that have been enjoying the seed on the strip.

But there is more variety now. Nine Yellowhammer here, as well as a Linnet and a Chaffinch:

This Kestrel spends more time sitting on the camera rather than the perch these days. It is a little bit higher and perhaps affords a better view:

Chuckles and his mate, the colour-ringed Gull X9LT, are once again arriving together at the seed. They have lost the grey speckling that they had around their necks over the winter and are resplendent in their summer finery once more:

X9LT, the female Herring Gull
Chuckles is still sometimes seen with his chick from last year. I have actually never seen this young bird with its mother

Magpies are busy nest building:

In a series of photos, this Magpie pulled a stick out of the hedgerow but then got tangled up. Eventually the bird gave up trying to grapple with it and flew off, leaving the stick behind:

Here is a badger entering the meadows from the cliff:

A couple of hours deeper into the night and another one is in the same place although I have probably never seen one quite as muddy as this:

Badgers mate as soon as the females give birth, and I can confirm that this year’s cubs have now been born. Here is the male, unusually above ground in the daylight, outside the burrow where the cubs are born every year. He is not allowed anywhere near the cubs but is anxious to get at their mother.

Then, that night, the badgers mated. Initially a third badger was around:

That third badger rubbed against them, as badgers do, and left:

Mating then continued for forty-five minutes. The male always takes a firm hold of the the females neck with his teeth:

There is delayed implantation in badgers and any eggs that have now been fertilised will not actually implant in the female’s uterus until the autumn.

Male frogs have started to gather in the ponds to await the arrival of females. Their bright, white chins and their big, broad smiles automatically make me want to smile right back at them.

Those specially adapted thumbs help them clasp a female tightly should they chance across one:

Although this year’s party is not yet in full swing, we did find one female, her belly swollen with spawn. She had already been claimed by a suitor:

There is no spawn laid yet but it surely won’t be long.

This increased activity has not escaped the notice of the Heron, of course.

Our scarecrow, Mackenzie, has been awakened from his slumbers in the shed and put on duty by the pond to protect the amphibians:

Meanwhile, along the sheltered path behind the paddock, the Hawthorns are starting to come out into leaf:

In the wood, Primroses and Lords and Ladies are pushing their heads above ground and there is a sense of the woodland getting itself out of bed to begin the day.

Although I knew that a male Great Spotted Woodpecker could be distinguished by the red patch on the back of his neck, by comparing these two photos I now notice for the first time that he also has two white triangles below that red nape.

There is a large cherry in the wood with several woodpecker holes drilled into it and one hole in particular has had woodpeckers (Great Spotted and then Green) nesting in it for the last three years. Last summer we noticed that, interestingly, the tree had reacted to the woodpecker damage by secreting globules of resin around the hole. Trees use resin to seal over wounds so that insects and pathogens can’t get in.

Photo from last summer

But the tree was never going to be able to plug a hole of this size. The resin has now turned black and looks like dried up seaweed hanging forlornly from the trunk

Sparrowhawk in the wood
Blackbird action shot

The curtain is about to come down on another coppicing season and, yet again, we haven’t achieved quite as much as we had hoped. But we may still be able to fit a couple more sessions in before we have to stop when the birds start to nest:

The new clearing created this winter. We build dead hedges at the woodland edges with the cut timber which form great invertebrate habitat and safe highways for Dormice

This might all look a bit drastic but this new glade will now allow sunshine to hit the woodland floor here, enabling a different set of plants and animals to thrive and increasing diversity in the wood. Once the stumps start to regrow over the next few years, they will be younger and more vigorous than the trees around them, carrying heavier crops of hazelnuts to support the Dormice.

It is hard but important work and we will see how much more we can achieve before the end of February.

I finish today with a view over the meadows as winter starts to wind down and the magpies, frogs, badgers and us humans keenly anticipate the coming spring.

It has been a mild and dry winter here to date and I do so hope that it doesn’t prove to have a sting in its tail.