The Junipers of Samphire Hoe

This week we walked the dog at Samphire Hoe, a seventy-five acre country park at the bottom of steep chalk cliffs near Dover. The land here has been reclaimed from the sea using the chalk dug out when building the channel tunnel in the 1990s and it is really interesting to visit such new land that is still very much settling in:

The iconic lighthouse memorial at Samphire Hoe

Juniper grows on the steep and inaccessible cliffs behind the hoe:

Inspecting the cliffs for Juniper
Juniper bush growing high on the cliff

Britain only has three native conifers – Scots Pine, Yew and Juniper – and there is much worry about Juniper. It has declined in the south of England for a variety of reasons and needs urgent conservation work to understand the problems and put them right where possible.

We got talking to a park ranger there who told us a lot of very interesting stuff about the human history of the place. He has initiated a project trialling different ways to propagate new Juniper trees from the few existing, accessible Junipers that are growing wild in Kent. He showed us his little group of fledgling trees behind the visitor centre. But not only is Juniper very slow growing, it has the additional complication that it has male trees and female trees. This male one seemed to be doing very well though:

But most of his trees are absolutely tiny still:

Juniper likes chalk downland and so last autumn we bought four bare root Juniper trees from the Woodland Trust and planted them in the meadows as an experiment. These trees are probably not pedigree Kent thoroughbreeds like at Samphire Hoe, though, and we also now realise that we do not even know the sex of them. Nonetheless, these small trees all seem to be doing alright and are now showing signs of new spring growth and so hopefully we will eventually get a chance to find out which are male and which are female.

One of the newly-planted Juniper trees in the meadows

Six species of orchid now grow at Samphire Hoe, but the place is best known for its Early Spider Orchids. As the land matures, fewer are growing there though – from a peak of 11,500 in 2012, there are now only a few thousand but they were at their best for our visit:

This Hoary Cress was introduced to the country when its seeds were contained within mattresses that had been packed with straw on the continent to transport injured soldiers back home from the Napoleonic Wars. When the mattresses were dismantled, the straw was given to a farmer in Margate to spread on his land. The seeds germinated and the plant has been growing here ever since:

These Brown-tailed Moth hairy caterpillars are what Cuckoos love to eat, being able to tolerate their irritating hairs:

Back in the meadows, there are always a lot of woodpigeon, each of which must represent a substantial and easy meal for a sparrowhawk. We saw this sorry sight as we took a stroll round after lunch one day:

The feather shafts still had their pointed ends and so had been plucked out by a sparrowhawk rather than bitten off by a fox

We had probably disturbed the predator at her work and so, in the hope that she would return to reclaim her prey, we brought across a couple of cameras that had been on baby badger duty elsewhere. But after a while, the One-eyed Vixen, out for a stroll herself, came across the pigeon and took it off with her:

It looks like this unfortunate pigeon might well have been the bird that was sitting on the nest that we found last week. We had been hoping to monitor the progress of this nest but it has been forlornly unattended ever since. After a day or so, the eggs disappeared as well, no doubt discovered by crows or magpies:

The ill-fated Woodpigeon nest

Here is one of the culprits, although this is the smaller male Sparrowhawk with his brown cheeks. It would have been the much beefier female that would take a pigeon:

A while ago I finished treating the One-eyed Vixen for her mange with a course of Psorinum, and have since been scrutinising photos of her to see if she seems to be getting better, or continuing to get worse.

The One-eyed vixen in the foreground and her mate at the back. In the middle is another vixen who we think is their daughter from a previous year.

This is the third year that the One-eyed Vixen has brought up a family in the meadows and, each time, she has caught mange although I have been able to cure it. Now, even though it does look like perhaps there is short fur growing back in the bald patch, I have lost my nerve and started her on a course of Arsen Sulphur. This is an alternative cure for fox mange that has worked wonders in the past. Whereas the Psorinum is only a week’s course, the Arsen Sulphur needs to be given for much longer and so these foxes will be getting medicated honey sandwiches at dusk for a while yet. They will be pleased about this because they absolutely love them. Both these medications and dosages have been recommended to me in the past by The Fox Project, and can safely be given even to lactating animals.
The One-eyed Vixen with her blind left eye

This is the first glimpse this year of fox cubs in the meadows. This young fox was trying to get its father’s attention:

It then tried to bite his tail:

The cub seen by day. Looks to be older than the ones in the wood

The baby badgers continue to be a bit elusive this year, despite my best efforts. The twins are now being allowed up above ground for a limited time each night, watched over by their ever-attentive mother:

A robin is making her nest at the base of a shrub in the garden and I watched her as I sat at my desk:

It was difficult not to call attention to herself with so much activity – she certainly caught my eye and I was not alone. Before long a Magpie arrived and stood menacingly on the top of the shrub she is nesting in:

This does not augur well. To my mind, there are way too many magpies round here.

A few other photos from the meadows this week:

A Redwing, on its way up to the far north to breed
The first Small Copper of the year
Common Carpet Moth, often out flying by day
Three Yellowhammer – camouflaged amongst the buttercups
Haven’t seen a Kestrel in the meadows for a while
Lovely shot of his tail feathers

Over in the wood, I am finally starting to calm down after the exhilaration of finding Tawny Owl chicks in the nest box last weekend. The bird ringer sent me this photo that he took from the top of the ladder once he had safely returned the chicks to their box:

No doubt this is one of their parents at the nearby pond:

We are delighted that there has been so much bird ringing in the wood this spring. This is the third Marsh Tit that has been caught and ringed:

The down curved beak of a Treecreeper:

Treecreepers have stiff tail feathers to push against the tree trunk for extra support:

A Mistle Thrush is a new species for the wood:

There is also a potential and very exciting second new species seen this week although I am still waiting for the bird ringer to confirm – could this possibly be a Nightingale below? I think it is, myself, although I have not seen one before:

This action shot is of a confrontation between two Blackbirds. The female on the right is carrying nesting material in her beak:

The fox cubs are becoming more reddish and less snub-nosed:

They are now on solids and here is one with a rabbit:

Hedgehogs are gathering in our daughter’s garden in the North Downs. Pleasingly, the animals are using the hedgehog house put there for them:

And four of them have been seen in the same shot:

Our son and his girlfriend have now reached Africa on their world trip. They had just arrived in Tanzania when they saw these birds hopping around the airport carpark:

These are Superb Starlings. Our European Starlings can look pretty colourful themselves when the light hits them at the right angle:

One of the two pairs of European Starling that are nesting in the meadows this year

But it does have to be admitted that their colours are not a patch on their fancy cousins from East Africa. I am looking forward to what else we shall see of African wildlife over the next few weeks.

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