Ash

After two long sessions on hands and knees in the spinney by our yard weeding ash seedlings I could be forgiven for never wishing to see the wretched tree ever again. The bigger they get (often disguised in shrubbery and undergrowth) the harder it is to winkle them out, roots and all. A cut just allows them to pollard, so that’s no answer. The parent trees around me can afford to loose the 250 odd babies I’ve massacred with my King Herod act. This year’s keys on the 15 year old parent trees look as plentiful and green as ever, ready to drop in a month or so to start the reproductive guerrilla battle once again. Prolific it may be, with an efficient dispersal system, but it is now also very vulnerable. First identified in Poland in 1992, and in the UK in 2012, Chalara ash dieback is putting this common and graceful tree in deadly peril. A fungal disease, chalara fraxinea is spread through infected imports up until 2012 (when our government halted them) as well as wind borne spores from mainland Europe. The spores enter the trunk at branch junctions, leaving tell tale diamond shape cankers. The pathogen then enters the tree’s water transport system, cutting the flow and thus killing its host. Young trees are the most susceptible while older trees take a few cycles of yearly infection to finish them off. A distinctive and defining tree in many northern landscapes in particular, wholesale lose would have a devastating effect. Our neighbours at Oldstead, who have done fantastic work in planting the new wood at their place, which we see and admire from ours, believe their some of their young trees are infected and have duly reported it to the authorities. Scientists are working to identify trees less susceptible to CAD and undertaking resistance breeding trials to grow stock most likely to survive infection. Let’s hope they are successful and in time to save the ash. Beginning to think to myself it may be worth adopting an orphan or two and pot them up in reserve for future replacements, should they be needed.

Rain Storm

The two months of near unbroken hot weather finally did break yesterday, and again this evening. The temperature dropping & skies darkening. The sheep getting up and flocking below the crags. The wind whipping up as thunder rolls. Quick, shut the windows. Lightning.The cat goes and hides. And then it comes rolling in…rain lashing and the violent wind converging around the house in a pincer movement lifts two of the heavy wooden sheep feeding troughs we use to edge the top lawn, along with buckets & watering cans, and hurls them across the grass into flower beds and meadow. It’s all over in 10 minutes or so; the wind drops, the skies lighten and the air is richly strewn with that most evocative of smells, parched earth stirred back to life. Later take a walk around as the evening settles and come across an adult frog down by the pond newly emerged in the returned dampness to feed. Then, around another corner, an adult hedgehog. He/she is sitting on stones, perfectly still. Injured? ill? Or just shocked by the downpour? I bring food and water and leave it. The rain has stirred insect life – I see a flurry of moths in the greenery – and both frog & hog are responding to that stimulus. Returning to the same spot later am relieved to find the creature gone, with food & water seemingly untouched. Our immediate neighbours have reported hedgehog sightings in recent weeks. We’ve also spotted a passing single adult on two separate nights triggering the yard security light (a dog fox on another evening). Oldstead accidentally turned up a nest in their garden with mother and two small hoglets. Let’s hope they are able to put on enough weight come the autumn to survive the winter sleep. (Library picture)

Green Wall

The country comes to town….An ambitious urban regeneration project clearing 24 acres of derelict brewery & industrial units to create a ‘Science City’. An ongoing project lead by the city council & university to create tomorrow’s knowledge based jobs in a mixed use sustainable site. A gateway building on sight, opened in 2014, is called ‘The Core’, and it’s where where a family member works as a computer scientist for a SME. Enjoyed a quick look at the foyer when in town one evening last weekend but was more impressed by what’s outside. An integral part of the modern block, the Core’s vertical garden is currently Europe’s tallest green wall at 27 metres. Its 35,000 plants are made up of clusters of 12 plants each, hung on rails carrying the water supply. It took a team of four from contractor ANS Global, using a scissors lift, two weeks to complete the job back in 2014. The building also has a sedum roof with rainwater harvesting. The plants are all brilliant for bees and other pollinators. They include wild strawberries, sea grasses, primulas, euphobia & thyme. Among the greenery can be spied bird boxes and bee hotels – the ultimate in urban living for our winged friends. May there be more such sites in many more cities and towns all around the world.

Sparrows

Our neighbours at Oldstead called by this afternoon. Normally it’s a quick chat on the path, as they walk their dog so it was good to extend the conversation. It’s also the first time they’ve both seen their house from the viewpoint of our garden. When I first came here there were more sparrows about the place than there are now. One reason may be that they’ve taken up residence at Oldstead. The place is chirrup full of passer domesticus we were told. They take over the house martins nests in the hemmel (barn) for the winter but this summer they refused to vacate when the migrants returned from Africa and fiercely defended their squatter rights much to the frustration of the martins who have now had to build new nests in less advantageous positions outside the secure berth of the old stone building. The main predators of their nests being woodpeckers or magpies. Our friends keep free range chickens and the ever opportunistic sparrows are helping themselves to their feed. In planting a small wood of native broad leaf trees on the rise next their property the couple have done a great service to wildlife and the environment. The sparrows certainly approve and when not liberally fertilising yards, roofs and garden with their droppings congregate in the young woodlands. Interesting to think that in the wake of the agricultural and industrial revolutions many rural parishes like ours would have had sparrow clubs. The whole purposes of such bodies being to kill as many of these voracious seed eaters as possible. Lucky for them that folk eventually admitted defeat on that score and, in towns at least, learned to tolerate and sometimes even love these cheeky avian residents.

Fieldwork

Hosted a friend for lunch this week and afterwards took a stroll over our field. Our guest is a retired forester turned ecologist so it was a privilege and delight to have him help us understand more about the flora and fauna we have and how best to preserve and encourage it. The top half of our field consists of crags, with rushes and rough grazing for sheep. Mini cliff faces are lichen covered and sprout Rowan in places while smaller horizontal cracks in the rock nourish ferns. Things get really interesting in the lower end where a thin Spring seeping into shallow stone troughs betray iron sediment at its lip. A diving beetle in the water, while a massive frog leaps away into the dense waving mass of what my companion identifies as less pond sedge. His attention is caught by the glossy leaves of a willow that straddles the pole and barb fence between our property and North Farm’s. It is a bay willow, one of a number in our damp hollow, along with alder and sallow. North Farm have had a pond excavated, using water from the burn that runs out of the forest here, carving its winding course through their hough. The shooting of duck, along with pheasants bred in the neighbouring woodland, provides extra farm income. The environment here is rich with insect life. Day flying moths and ringlet butterflies much in evidence, dancing before our eyes over the dense mass of tall bog plants. There are also attractive looking mini cicadas – green leafhoppers – amongst other unidentified small insects. The dozen or so of Southridge’s newly sheared hoggs currently grazing the field have found their way down here for water and foraging, but not to the extent that they unduly inhibit or damage the structure. Returning uphill we walk by the thin lateral strip of ungrazed grassland between wall and fence and find various meadow flowers – foxglove, yarrow, tormentil, vetch, sorrel, birdsfoot trefoil etc – thriving amongst the grasses in this protected zone. Back below the crags, looking for potential rabbit incursion, we stumble upon the remains of an underground wasp nest, grey papery wisps all that remains from a comprehensive wipe out by badgers. We speculate where their sett may be and wonder in turn if any hedgehogs in the area have been predated too. My friend is impressed with what he’s seen today and says he will come back in future and compile a proper report on our four acre field. That we really look forward to!

Bellister

Joined a handful of other National Trust volunteers this week for a guided walk by a ranger around the Trust’s Bellister estate on the southern side of the South Tyne River near Haltwhistle. Our five miles of meandering by footpaths, green lanes, woodlands and open fell was a revelation. Despite the two months of little rain and mighty sun the fast flowing Pennine river was clean and clear, the well worn waterside path shaded by hazel, oak, ash & alder. Later woodland wanderings included an encounter with an ivy coated dead elm being further digested by brown lumps of honey fungus. Back down to the river we were introduced to one of the three SSSI sites on the estate – a raised stony bed, a flood plain, set in a wide bend of river. Normally thriving at this time of year much of this extreme meadow now lay blistered and crunch dry under foot. Due to the wash down from old mineral workings upstream this environment would be too toxic with heavy metal residue for most plants. Here though dune helleborine, thrift, spring sandwort, thyme. scurvy grass, alpine penny grass and hawkweed can all thrive. Volunteers had laboured in the winter to clear the site of gorse to help make it happen and rabbits had helped too in reducing coarser plants. Later we would encounter a small orchard between road and river, replanted by volunteers, giving a home to old apple & plum varieties that would have been grown by the former working agricultural population: Czar, Keswick Codling, Grandpa Buxton and the neatly named Lancaster Ladies Fingers among them. Sheep from one of the estate’s three tenanted farms graze here between September and May which helps regulate rampant grass and encourages the growth of traditional (and increasingly rare) meadow flowers; The betony looked particularly graceful in the long grass. Another highlight was a cooling stroll through lush ancient willow carr in the valley bottom. Once again conservation work had helped preserve the habitat and promote butterfly and insect presence by opening glades and clearing scrub from old stone bedded flood channels similar to the shingle bank visited earlier. Loved the sight of cardinal beetles smothering the head of an umbillifer. Leaving the valley we headed up through a farm yard by a hough – steep wooded tributary stream – emerging on to open fellside, rough grazing dotted with heather, ladies bedstraw and an old favourite of mine – little yellow flowers of tormentil. Had our picnic lunch on a ridge overlooking a waterfall complete with grey wagtails bobbing about the deep pool at its foot. Wondered at the fabulous far horizons of rolling fell and sill stone ridges, much of it baked brown after this long dry summer. Encountering a bull and lively herd of heifers we beat a diversionary retreat through a long neglected ancient woodland previously overplanted with commercial forestry that had now been cleared. Among the deciduous trees thus liberated was an oak that we stopped to admire, deemed to be at least 500 years old. Lots of northern marsh orchids, enchanters night shade and other exotics around the ferns and grasses that had sprung up with the newly let in light. Finished the walk tired but happy to have made new friends and learned so much about the ups and downs of conservation and challenges of effective land management in this impressive yet vulnerable upland landscape.

Wet & Dry (2)

Returned from my trip to Pembrokeshire last Monday, via Lancaster. Council highway crews still cutting verges and banks far further down and back than necessary. Vegetation already baking brown in the continual hot weather. On the M6 caught glimpses of thin coils of smoke on the hills above Bolton. A few days later these peat fires had grown dangerously and Winter Hill was well alight, as were Saddleworth moors to the east, dense smoke billowing everywhere. Back in the north-east at last and no need to cut the grass here. Lack of rain translates to lack of growth, the short dry sward awake with white clover. The big Hebe by the porch, long rooted out of its pot, looks like a giant macaroon, and is alive with bees feasting on the tiny white flowers. At the railway hut a low persistent hum lead ears and eyes up under the eves to a long roll of gauze netting. It’s become the home of a colony of white-tailed bumble bees (bombus lucoram). In another cool corner of the old wagon’s carcass is the swallow’s nest where the young are being fed by the parent birds, who at this time are in a constant state of motion, filling the air with the most wonderous flight.  I step over the wall for an evening walk around Southridge’s big field, all the growth cut and baled as haylage last week when I was away. Most of the farmers round about have done likewise to take advantage of this prolonged dry spell. They’re also worrying about getting enough water for stock as these rainless days roll on. Southridge have opened a borehole on another of their fields to cope. My late stroll turned up, at the field’s uncut margin, a prettily patterned small moth, later identified as a silver carpet. Also saw a small tortoiseshell sunning itself on a fence post. Another time, back at the pond logged a diving beetle larva in the water; saw a large red damselfly at the edge on a stone and, most thrillingly of all, blue-tailed damsels in a copulation wheel followed by the female laying her fertilised eggs under the surface of the water. I shall be looking out for the nymphs as they grow. Also delighted to find, at different times, two frogs of various sizes, palmate adult and very young newts. The water level is steadily dropping but a trip to the aquatics section of the garden centre has resulted in a fresh drop of weighted oxygenating plants into the existing established mix, plus a few floating ‘lettuces’ to give some shade against the fierce heat of the day. We’re using saved bath & shower water on the garden most nights but it could desperately do with a proper soak. (Damselflies image courtesy of British Dragonfly Society)