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.

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