My mother grew up in a small, close knit community in South Wales and only started speaking English when she went to senior school.
It must have been quite a culture shock for her when she chose to come to England to do her teacher training in Eastbourne in Sussex, and it was the little primary school in Alfriston nearby where she was sent to get her first work experience.
This week we stayed for a few nights in the lovely village of Alfriston where she first taught, which is nestled underneath the South Downs.
To the south of Alfriston, Seaford Head has an iconic view of the Seven Sisters, although I personally find the white cliffs around Dover to be more majestic and breathtaking:
The Long Man of Wilmington was cut into the chalk of the South Downs possibly at the beginning of the 18th century. At 72 metres high, he is Europe’s largest portrayal of the human form.
One day we parked in the little village of Firle, where nearly all of the houses are still owned by the Firle Estate and it feels very much like you have stepped into the past.
We did a circular walk from Firle up onto the Downs and taking in Firle Beacon:
The camera has a high drama setting which nicely accentuates the abundant sheep paths:
On another day, we really enjoyed a visit to the 780 acre Scotney Castle estate, now owned by the National Trust:
Back home again, I have been trying not to get excited about a Tawny Owl, who was spending time sitting near a Tawny nest box in the wood. But this week any such self-control has proved impossible, once I had seen these next two photos.
This may be blurry, but we have never before seen two owls together:
This is the photo that got me dancing round the room:
A Buzzard also likes to sit on the same branch:
A Sparrowhawk comes down to a wood pond to take a bath:
By this point of the year, the Fieldfare seem to have gone but they have been replaced by Redwing. I remember this same pattern last winter as well. Two Redwing here:
We have now finished coppicing for the season and it will be interesting to see how this newly-cleared area develops over the next few years:
The next job is to get the rest of the Dormouse nest boxes up before the animals emerge from hibernation.
Across in the meadows, I first got a photo of a Magpie with a stick in his mouth on 24th January. That is six weeks ago, yet still they are at it:
X9LT, the female of our pair of Herring Gulls, poses up on the strip:
It is really nice that the male, Chuckles, continues to be seen with his chick from last year:
When a new Herring Gull has the audacity to try to come in, Chuckles with his chick on the left, is seriously displeased:
A Kestrel on a perch:
A fox sits and looks across the meadow at night:
My last photo for today is of the tadpoles that have already started to hatch in the pond:
It is estimated that it is only one in fifty of the eggs laid make it out of the pond as froglets and so I wish them the best of luck.
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.
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:
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 location of this year’s magpie nest is still unknown to us but, nevertheless, work continues on its construction:
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?
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:
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.
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:
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.
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:
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.
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.
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.
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:
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:
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?
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.
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:
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:
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.
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
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:
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.
Managing our hedgerows here is one of the most important things to get right and we are happy with how wild and untamed they have become. They have even been admired by visiting naturalists!
Tall hedgerows with wide bases provide food and shelter for all sorts of wildlife as well as being essential corridors linking habitats. Hedges support up to 80% of our woodland birds, 50% of our mammals and 30% of our butterflies as well as much other invertebrate life.
But in order to stay as a hedge rather than growing up into trees, the occasional cut is required. Hawthorn and Blackthorn only flower on old wood, so the best practice is to cut a third of the hedgerow each year and it will be just this third that will not flower and produce fruit the next season.
It has been a while since we have done anything to our hedgerows, though, because we couldn’t find anyone to do the work. However, we have now been recommended a local agricultural contractor with a flailing arm on his tractor and he came to the meadows this week:
We have 400m of hedgerow that is actively managed and the same again that has not been touched for decades, much of it now overgrown and heavy with ivy. We made the decision to get the tops trimmed from most of the actively-managed hedgerow, since it is at least a couple of years since any work has been done. However, the sides were mainly not cut and should still bear plenty of fruit to feed the birds next winter.
The aim was for the hedges to have a trim rather than a scalping and the contractor did such a great job. The flailing arm munches what it cuts off and this then falls back into the hedge and disappears meaning that there is not a big clearing up job to do afterwards.
It is going to be some years before we will need to ask him to cut the 85m of new hedgerow that was planted in January 2020. This hedge still seems to be in the stage of establishing its root system rather than doing any growing above ground:
Regrettably, in places, the heavy tractor has made quite a mess of the soft January ground:
Now that we have discovered this reliable agricultural contractor, we hope to get our hedgerow management back on track and have the recommended third of it cut every January. Unfortunately, of course, it is a bit of a balancing act because we do need to give him enough work to justify his trip over here but we shall have to take each year at a time.
The average life expectancy for a Magpie is only three years but the oldest recorded individual is more than twenty-one years old. They mate for life and both birds build the nest together, although it is the male who gathers most of the sticks and constructs the walls and roof. The female will concentrate on the interior decoration, lining it with mud. The nests take up to forty days to build, usually high up in a tall tree, and they are unusual in having a domed roof of sticks with one or two side entrances.
This week I have been getting photos of a Magpie carrying sticks on this gate:
But are they building a new nest this year or repairing last years?
On searching the internet for the answer to this, I came across an academic paper on this very subject (Antonov and Atanosova in Acta Ornithologica, Vol 38, 2003, no. 1) and it seems that the situation is not straightforward. Magpie nests are robust and often survive until the following season, yet most of the time the birds invest the effort into building a new nest. They found that nests were only reused 17% of the time in the urban areas of Sofia in Bulgaria, and 36% of the time in Manchester in the UK, but much less often than that in rural settings such as in our meadows.
The two year study investigated if the building of new nests each year was to evade parasites, avoid predation or was affected by the unavailability of good nest sites. However, it found no evidence to confirm any of these hypotheses and fledging success was the same with both new and reused nests.
But it did find that birds reusing their nests laid eggs a week earlier than birds building from new, giving them more time to start again if the nest fails. This suggests that it would be an advantage to reuse a nest, yet mostly this isn’t what they do. Clearly there are other factors at work that we don’t yet understand.
We think that the Magpies nesting here build a new nest every year and last year’s nest was high up in a Holm Oak. This is an evergreen tree and so, annoyingly, even now in the depths of winter, we are unable to see it properly.
The 2020 nest was towards the top of a Corsican Pine and again it was impossible to see clearly. In fact we only got a good look when the remains of the nest fell onto the grass in high winds just before Christmas:
Over the next few weeks we hope to be able to work out what is going on and see if they are building a new nest or have decided this time to renovate the old one.
The flock of around a hundred House Sparrow continue to be very busy up on the strip:
But I am delighted to report that the Yellowhammers are definitely now back to join them. The highest count last year was seventeen birds and there are are currently only five here so far, but it is early days:
A lovely group of Stock Dove also visits:
And of course all this bird activity is always of interest to the Sparrowhawks:
We are seeing a bit more of the colour-ringed female Herring Gull X9LT, ringed at Pitsea Landfill Site in Essex on 24th January 2015, just over seven years ago now:
A bedtime snack of a Short-tailed Field Vole for this Kestrel before calling it a day:
On both of the past two years I have successfully treated the One-eyed Vixen for mange. But it is with a sinking heart that, once more, I notice her tail is starting to show a few telltale signs. Am I going to have to serve her up medicated honey sandwiches yet again?
The time is fast approaching when badgers give birth in their warm burrows underground. But, in the meantime, there is certainly time available for some lounging around and a spot of tummy scratching:
This week’s highlights from the wood include what I think might be a Tawny Owl investigating a nest box. There is a series of three photos and, in the first, the owl is sitting on the branch. In the second, it flies up to the box:
In the third photo of the sequence, taken thirty seconds later, it has returned to the branch:
This is definitely no basis to get our hopes up that an owl will soon be nesting here, but these photos are at least evidence that the bird knows the box is there if ever it should need it.
The group of Fieldfare are still coming at dusk every day to bath. Six birds here:
The Woodcock over-wintering in the wood are seen every night on the cameras and we also regularly put them up from the undergrowth as we walk round the wood during the day:
The camera on the small, new pond has been triggered by a Great Tit but it is the background that is more interesting. Once again, there are two Great Spotted Woodpeckers working their way up the trees looking for insects:
This was the weekend of the 2022 Big Garden Birdwatch, the world’s largest citizen science survey which has now been running for forty-three years. Last year more than a million people took part, counting seventeen million birds, which is really rather amazing and uplifting. We always look forward to the excuse to spend an hour quietly observing what is going on here.
In the event we had a very exciting birdwatch this year. Perhaps it helped that it was a sparkling, calm and warm day with deep blue skies. We divided the hour between time in the hide overlooking the feeders and watching the birds visiting the seed up on the strip. Our final tally was twenty species and ninety-nine birds.
Our final tally, that we have now reported in to the RSPB, was: Crow 3, Magpie 4, Herring Gull 2, Stock Dove 1, Collared Dove 1, House Sparrow 42, Dunnock 4, Linnet 1, Blackbird 4, Chaffinch 5, Yellowhammer 9, Woodpigeon 10, Kestrel 1, Blue Tit 3, Great Tit 3, Robin 2, Green Woodpecker 1, Greenfinch 1, Skylark 1, Sparrowhawk 1.
Let us hope that once again a million people or more have taken part this year and lots of useful information will be gleaned on the current state of British birds as a result.
January is generally a bad month for trail cameras. Poor light, cold nights and heavy dew often lead to disappointing results and lenses that stay fogged for days.
But some of the cameras have been doing quite well – it is a rare treat to see a Tawny Owl in the meadows:
On a different night, the same camera caught an Owl in flight along the hedgerow:
We have a few perches up around the meadows and a Kestrel has been using the one in the ant paddock every day:
On several occasions she has caught voles from here but this is the best photo that I can offer of this:
Of course, it is not very helpful when the bird stands on the camera rather than on the perch:
One more photo of a Kestrel for your consideration:
The camera at the hide pond got this shot of a Heron having a bad hair day:
With frog spawning time fast approaching, we will need to bring the scarecrow out soon to keep Herons away from the temptingly large concentration of frogs that is expected.
Magpies are very obvious at the moment. There are ten of them in this tree and I absolutely hate to see so many:
We have been outside working in the winter sunshine this week and I have twice had a male Sparrowhawk glide right past me at hip height as he patrols the hedgerow for potential small bird prey.
January is the time of fox mating and I am certainly noticing the foxes going around in pairs much more than they normally do. The male sticks close by the vixen until she is ready to mate:
The badgers are in their winter torpor, when they slow down to conserve energy. They are still seen on the cameras every night but just not for very long. But, even so, this badger has managed to get herself very muddy indeed:
There has been a bit of bedding collection:
A vertical hole that appeared last year, and that we thought was a ventilation shaft, has now been dug out into a proper tunnel entrance:
We intend to get a camera on this because I am really interested to see what other animals live alongside the badgers and make use of the opportunities that these diggings and tunnels create.
There is a large flock of over a hundred House Sparrows enjoying the winter feed we are putting down on the strip. The contented cheeping emanating out of the hedgerow from these birds can be heard far and wide and brings me such joy:
At one point three juvenile Herring Gull came down to the feeding cages:
Chuckles, our adult male who considers these meadows his own, was seriously displeased by this development:
Yellowhammers have been missing for several months but are just starting to be seen again now. It’s lovely to have them back:
Unusual to see Bullfinch here:
It has been an exceptional winter for the White Saddle fungus that grows in association with the roots of a Holm Oak:
The fungal fruiting bodies are such weird contorted things:
In the fragile sunshine this week we became aware of the languorous buzz of winter-generation Buff-tailed Bumblebees making their way to and from what flowers are available in the garden:
The nice weather has lured us out, too, to work in the allotment and we have finally got round to weeding it and applying a cosy blanket of garden compost, ready for the worms to pull down into the soil. I feel that the allotment is now poised to begin another fruitful year of vegetable growing when the time comes:
This snail graveyard near the comfrey patch is evidence that a Song Thrush has been helping us out with natural pest control in the allotment:
The job of weeding and mulching the new hedgerow has, at last, been finished as well. What a relief to have ticked that one off:
One advantage of the short January days is that I am more likely to be up and about with my camera at sunrise. We have had some corkers recently:
The cameras in the wood are less exposed than in the meadows, but still have been similarly affected by the January weather.
I continue to delight in seeing the Woodcock at night:
A group of Fieldfare has been coming in to use this pond at dusk every night:
A pair of Bullfinch come to the wood each spring to breed and they seem to be here already. Here is the female…
…and the male:
Just before Christmas this strange looking ship caught our eye. It looks half super-yacht and half cargo vessel:
She is the Frank Bonefaas and, at 119m long, is one of the infamous super-trawlers that have controversially been licensed to fish in UK ‘protected’ waters. We have read all about these vessels but had never seen one before.
Our son and his girlfriend, continuing their world trip, spent a few weeks over Christmas in Costa Rica and have now moved on to Columbia. Here are a few of photos that they sent us from glorious Costa Rica – we have been there ourselves and would love to return one day:
I had set myself the challenge of getting Hyacinths flowering in time for Christmas. I bought the specially-prepared bulbs but then planted them up too late last autumn, and so it wasn’t until early January that they came into flower and filled the house with their wonderful fragrance:
However, it turns out that this was much better. The chaos of Christmas had all been cleared away and packed back up into the loft and a brand new year was beginning, ushered in on a wave of the most uplifting scent of spring flowers.
Kent is a big county. The Weald in the west with its sandstone and clay has completely different geology to our dry chalk downland in the east, and what an impact that has on the landscape. The clay makes the Weald much wetter and muddier, heavily wooded with lots of with streams and ponds. We decided to stay there for a few days and explore what it had to offer.
There are a lot of grand houses and gardens to visit in the area but most of them were closed for the winter. Some were still open, however, and we started the trip with a visit to Chartwell, Sir Winston Churchill’s beloved home and now a National Trust property.
Churchill famously used to paint in order to escape from his worries and stress but he also had a lifelong interest in wildlife – particularly butterflies. This building below had originally been a meat larder but, when the Churchills bought the house in 1922, they removed a wall and it became first a summer house and then a butterfly house where Winston stored the larvae of British butterflies to release into the garden.
Alongside his wife Clementine, they created a beautiful garden to relax in but also one that was a haven for wildlife, particularly his beloved butterflies.
On the next day of the trip, we visited Bedgebury Pinetum – the largest pinetum in the world and a centre for international conifer tree conservation. Winter was a great time to visit because we more or less had the place to ourselves and these evergreen trees, of course, still had all their leaves.
We spent a happy couple of hours wandering around admiring the trees.
We have come away from Bedgebury with the names of several beautiful trees that we would like to try to grow ourselves.
On the way back to the cottage that day we visited Eridge Rocks near Tunbridge Wells, where a bit of that soft Wealden sandstone pokes its head above ground.
It is a popular place for rock climbing – so much so that, during Covid times, this has had to be temporarily prohibited – the precious ecosystem of mosses and lichens on the rock was becoming damaged.
Our cottage was close to the Ashdown Forest and on the third day we went for a walk at Old Lodge nature reserve. I was surprised to discover that Ashdown Forest is actually mainly heathland:
A A Milne lived at Cotchford Farm, just north of the Ashdown Forest and Winnie the Pooh’s Hundred Acre Wood was based on this area. We walked down to Pooh Sticks Bridge where the author reputedly played the game with his son Christopher.
The highlight of our stay was probably the visit we made to Wakehurst Place the following day. Left to the National Trust in the 1960s, they have leased it to The Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew since then and it is now home to the Millennium Seed Bank.
As well as the seed bank, there is a grand house (now used as offices for Kew staff and for school visits) and the most wonderful garden and estate, housing several national collections.
We were very taken with these Wollemi Pines.
These trees had been found in the fossil record and were thought to be extinct until a small population of less than a hundred trees was found in 1994 in their native Australia, hanging on in a remote gorge, the exact location of which is kept secret to protect them:
Kew has found a way to propagate these trees and now sells them to the public as another way to protect the wild population.
An exciting project underway at Wakehurst is to research and create six acres of the endangered American prairie habitat:
The grounds at Wakehurst are so extensive and we didn’t get round everything by any means. We would love to revisit in the summer to see the full glory of the gardens and especially to get a feel for how that prairie is coming along.
Our cottage did not have an enclosed garden and so in the mornings I took the dog on her lead up to this beautiful meadow and took its photo at about the same time on several different days. What an inspiring start to any day:
On the final day we called in at Sissinghurst Castle on the way home. This famous garden is only an hour from the meadows and yet we had never visited before.
There was not a whole lot to be seen of this garden in January, however:
We had not expected much of our short break in the bog-end of January, encumbered as we were with the dog and scarcely leaving our home county. But it turned out to be inspiring and interesting and we learnt a lot about natural history. We definitely want to revisit every one of these places in the summer.
In Part 1, earlier this week, we went on a whistle stop tour of the meadows through the first part of 2021. Now you will need to hold on to your hats as we are off again, this time looking at the highlights of the second half of the year.
2020 had been so dry, and the ground so hard, that there was much concern in the press that birds such as Blackbirds were not able to get at worms to feed their chicks. 2021 was altogether a much wetter year and this, at least, was one thing that no one had to worry about.
After all the photos of Blackbird chicks being well provisioned, it was lovely when they started to fledge and appear on the cameras:
Yellowhammers also bred successfully here:
Unusually, there were no speckled, young Green Woodpeckers this year. There was a juvenile Great Spotted but these birds are not around here very often and the nest was probably not that local.
Magpies and Crows also successfully raised families in the meadows. These young Magpies were being brought food by a parent as they waited on the gate and they’ve been given a dead bird here, possibly a Blue Tit:
When we cleared out the nest boxes in the autumn, we were dismayed to discover that only three of the seventeen boxes contained nests, suggesting that Great Tits and Blue Tits had had a really poor breeding year. A spell of very cold weather in the spring must have impacted these early nesters.
It is always exciting when the Bird Ringers set their nets up in the meadows. In 2020, 1059 birds were ringed here, this number boosted by the exceptional autumn migration that year. In 2021, for one reason or another, only 253 birds were ringed but this did include 26 species.
Kestrels and Other Birds of Prey
For the last few years we have been following the fortunes of a Kestrel nest in a hole in the white cliffs, a short walk away. In 2021 there were four chicks in the nest:
It is only when the meadows were cut in the autumn, and voles had fewer places to hide, that these birds started hunting here in earnest.
Our residents Crows are annoyingly quick to escort any visiting bird of prey off property:
But Kestrels and Sparrowhawks are usually tolerated. One day, however, we enjoyed watching a Crow make four attempts to get a Kestrel to move on but she wasn’t to be intimidated and stayed put.
I was most impressed to see how far round a Sparrowhawk can rotate its neck..
..and also at the length of that leg:
Given all the eggs and young birds we have seen in a Magpie’s beak over the course of the year, it is sort of nice to see a Magpie on the back foot for once, as it became aware that it had caught the eye of a Sparrowhawk:
It’s difficult to know how many foxes live in and around the meadows because I do not recognise them all. But some, such as this handsome fellow with the tip of his tail dipped down, I see on the cameras a lot and have got to know:
He seems to be a successful hunter and here he is with what we believe to be a Tawny Owl, for goodness sake…..
…and another unidentified but interesting-looking bird
Two small litters of fox cubs were born here in 2021. The male with the tail dip was the father of a single cub. His mate was a vixen with distinctively starey eyes:
We put a camera close to their den and it captured the most wonderful sequence of photos of the little cub being taken on its first trip out into the big wide world. To begin with, the vixen looked out to check that the coast was clear:
Then both parents came out with the cub, the father watching over it so tenderly that my heart melts every time I see it:
The mother of the second litter of cubs was our old friend the One-eyed Vixen:
Both of the vixens with cubs are relaxed in each other’s company and perhaps are themselves related:
These two vixens had mange on their tails in the summer but I successfully treated them with medicine-laced honey sandwiches. This did not work for the Old Gentleman but I’m so pleased that it did for these mothers with cubs to care for.
There have been a lot of photos of foxes carrying fish this year. I am not entirely sure how they are getting hold of them but guess that they are opportunistically hanging around night fishermen down on the beach:
The final thing that I want to say about foxes is to mention their love of pears. As the fruits ripened on the tree towards the end of September, the foxes got to work to take off as many as they could, although this year we did not see them climbing into the tree as they had the year before.
At the same time, apples lay on the ground untouched. All very interesting.
Every year we take a little step forward in our understanding and appreciation of the invertebrates that we share the meadows with. Here are some of the invertebrate highlights of 2021:
Other Interesting Photos from the Second Half of 2021
2021 was another year in which the world was beset by problems and concerns and it was easy to be overwhelmed. But here in this little corner of East Kent, we have managed to find a certain amount of solace and escape for a while into the wonders of nature. I would say that we are definitely feeling positive about this new year just beginning and there is much to look forward to as we roll on towards spring.
A happy new year to all and let us hope that this one is a good one.
Over the course of this year I have accumulated so many photos that I wanted to include in a round up of the meadows’ best bits. But I’ve had to be firm with myself and edit them down to make things more manageable. Here is the result – my favourites from the first part of 2021.
The Old Gentleman
The Old Gentleman Fox first arrived here in the autumn of 2020 and quickly became an enthusiastic consumer of the nightly peanuts. To begin with, he waited unseen on the cliff path but soon ventured closer.
So much so that, as the months rolled on, I started to wear wellies to deliver the peanuts because otherwise he had a tendency to nibble the bottom of my trousers which was very disconcerting.
But he was beset by problems – firstly carrying a hind paw, then a forepaw, he had bad eyes, a cough and, finally, a devastating attack of mange.
I repeatedly consulted the Fox Project charity for advice and did my best for him, giving him worm and mange treatments and whatever else they suggested. But ultimately it was not enough and we lost him.
Chuckles the Herring Gull
Another prominent personality from this year is thankfully still going strong. Chuckles is the male half of a pair of Herring Gulls that we got to know as we put seed down at the feeding cages every day. Watching them through the year has taught us that there is much to appreciate about these characterful birds.
The female of the pair was colour-ringed and so we were able to discover that she was ringed at Pitsea landfill site in Essex in January 2015 when she was around four years old. This means that she is now eleven or twelve years old.
These two gulls formed a very tight pair bond although Chuckles was much the braver and more vocal and often making his chuckling call.
The dog objected to him strutting around the feeding cages as though he owned the place and she would sometimes chase and bark at him. This was very entertaining because he retaliated by dive bombing her:
The birds were good enough to mate in front of the camera which helped us to be certain that Chuckles was the male:
The colour-ringed female then started to gather nesting material and shortly afterwards more or less disappeared – presumably because she was on eggs. Chuckles, however, still waited for us every morning as usual.
Towards the end of the summer, we were delighted to meet Chuckles’ offspring when they both started arriving each morning:
Chuckles is now in his winter plumage with greyish speckled neck feathers:
Ever since she disappeared to go and sit on eggs, the female has made only occasional visits and always on her own. But I hope that she will return properly next spring and once again join up with Chuckles.
In mid February there was a bitter spell of weather and snow lay on the ground for several days.
We became aware that the exceptional weather had brought different birds to the meadows and were interested to observe them:
The Snipe and the Lapwing were new species for the meadow bird list. The other four new species this year were Common Gull, Sand Martin, Reed Bunting and Curlew, bringing the total to ninety-one.
On particularly cold nights throughout the winter, a Wren roosted up in a teapot nest box in the garden. Here the Wren is, leaving just before dawn one morning:
It feels like the spectacle of the annual frog spawning in February is the inaugural event in our natural history year.
Now that we have sorted out the Heron problem with the tactical placement of our scarecrow, the frogs seemed to have a good year with a lot of spawn laid and then successfully hatched into tadpoles.
In March, winter-visiting Starlings always gather in the meadows, readying themselves for the flight across the North Sea back to mainland Europe to breed.
For the first time this year we noticed all the beak holes in the ground where they probe for soil invertebrates.
But for the last two years, several pairs of British resident Starling have chosen the meadows to raise their families. We are delighted with this, hoping it is a sign of improving habitat.
Crow Wars broke out in the skies above the meadows at the start of the breeding season. Every day there were noisy confrontations as encroaching Crows tried to muscle in on the territory of our resident pair. At one point I dashed out to rescue a bird that was pinned to the ground and surrounded. But I couldn’t be around all of the time and, before too long, we found a dead Crow on the ground.
This death seemed to have resolved the matter irrevocably and the victorious pair went on to build their nest on the top of a tall tree.
A number of species made use of the wool dispenser including this little Wren:
Three or four years of putting seed down daily on the strip and we are pleased to report that quite a flock of Yellowhammer has built up with several pairs nesting here this year:
A pair of Grey Partridge were in the meadows until about July although we haven’t seen them since. I do hope that they made a nest in a local hedgerow but sadly I have no evidence of that. Maybe we will see them again next spring.
Magpies successfully nested at the top of one of the pine trees.
They were also observed robbing other birds’ nests of eggs and chicks.
Blackbirds were very conspicuous nesters this year. The females have sole responsibility for making the nest and I had so very many great photos of them doing this.
We also saw a Song Thrush collecting wet mud from the pond for her nest:
Another species that we were happy to get evidence of nesting this year was Linnet:
This year we forgot to put bungs into the Swift box holes. By the time the Swifts were due to arrive back in the country, we found that every Swift box already had House Sparrows nesting within:
We decided to rapidly put two new boxes up because we were really hoping that 2021 would be our lucky year and Swifts would surely nest. In the event, however, poor weather dramatically delayed the Swifts’ arrival and, by the time they did finally get here, the new boxes also had House Sparrows nests.
As in previous years, the Swift calls that we were playing brought the birds into the vicinity of the boxes very successfully. But we didn’t see one stop to look in a box and there was certainly no nesting. Maybe next year….
Other Interesting Photos From The First Half Of The Year
May is such a wonderful month in the meadows. I finish today with this carpet of May buttercups that we look forward to every year.
In a few days, I will continue the review of the year with a final post covering the second six months of 2021.
Its been three years now since our dream of owning a little piece of woodland became a reality. We may not have had the wood for long, but already it has taught us so much and has become a quiet and precious haven both for us and the wildlife that lives amongst its lovely trees.
Woodcock fly across from Finland and Russia to spend the winter in the wood. They rest up during the day on the ground amongst the brambly undergrowth but come out at night to probe the soft ground with their long breaks, searching for soil invertebrates to eat.
Redwing are also to be found here in the winter before returning to Iceland and Scandinavia to breed.
This year there was a cold snap in February and snow settled onto the woodland floor:
A rare sighting of deer in the wood:
Fox in the snow:
And Fox stalking a Magpie:
As spring finally arrived, parts of the wood became covered in a blanket of primroses and violets, visited by Bumblebees and Bee-Flies…
…and birds started to make their nests.
Seventeen of the eighteen small bird boxes that we have put up in the wood were used by Great Tits and Blue Tits this year.
In our first spring here, a hole in a mature cherry tree was dug out and used by a pair of Great Spotted Woodpeckers. Then, last year and again this year, Green Woodpeckers have reared their young in this same hole:
Each spring, a pair of Bullfinch has arrived and raised a family here:
There is small colony of Twayblades, a type of orchid, that comes up every year:
This year we also found a single White Helleborine, another orchid:
As the weeks advanced, young animals began to appear on the cameras:
The adult foxes needed to work extra hard to find food for their cubs as well as for themselves:
Badger cubs were also seen in the wood this year but I particularly enjoyed this photo of three adults sprawled out relaxing together. Badgers really know how to lounge:
Unfortunately there are large numbers of Grey Squirrels here in the wood. They have killed so many beautiful Beech and Oak trees by stripping bark in the early summer and are also notable predators of bird nests.
A Roe Deer in the wood in June:
Molehills pock-mark the boundary between the wood and the adjoining field but this is the first time that we have actually seen a mole and I was surprised to see that it had a tail:
In the summer, one of the clearings in the wood becomes carpeted in Marjoram which attracts a wonderful variety of insects such as these Scorpion Flies..
.. and Silver Washed Fritillary Butterflies, gliding serenely amongst the Marjoram flowers on sunny days. It was a particularly good year for these butterflies:
As the heat of the summer started to build, birds of prey came down to the ponds to drink and bathe. Tawny Owls….
.. and Sparrowhawks
In the autumn, with the breeding season long over, we went round clearing the old bird nests out of the boxes. It was surprising to find that five of the boxes had Dormice nesting on top of the bird nest.
But now it is winter once more. The Woodcock and Redwing have returned and we have again begun our winter work of coppicing the Hazel and creating dead hedge habitat along the boundaries with the cut wood.
On the brink of 2022, it has been lovely to reflect on the year that is finishing as I put together this post. I now look forward to what further natural history discoveries and delights the new year will bring.