Hurrah for hedgerows!

Most of the land around Greenhillock has been intensively farmed for decades. To increase yields, field margins have been ploughed up and trees and hedges removed. It is estimated that we have lost some 500,000 kms of hedgerow in the UK in the past 60 years. In this blog, I hope to tell you why this is important and about our modest efforts to combat this trend. Very recently, farming subsidies have encouraged more sustainable practices and we look forward, in time, to the restoration of a better balanced landscape.

Trees and hedges add three important dimensions to any habitat – food, cover and shelter – and the protection provided by hedgerow bases is important in the survival of native wildflowers, grasses and plantains which, in turn support a community of invertebrates and birds. If you pitch your tent on a windy day you too will appreciate the considerable sheltering effect of our 3-4 metre high perimeter hedges!

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Wild Roses in flower just now, the bees love them and their scent is delightful

With the exception of the 150+ year old Beech trees on the East boundary, all of the trees and hedges on site were planted by us and our neighbour Mary. Nearly all are native species (with a few other trees gifted to us in ways that obliged us to plant them) and there are well over 20 varieties – an interesting identification challenge for visitors. The hedges are 90% thorn (Hawthorn, Blackthorn and Wild Rose) inter-planted with Oak, Ash, Rowan, Hazel, Beech, Field Maple, Alder, Holly, Bird Cherry and other species. These provide food in the form of pollen and nectar in Spring and Summer and berries in Autumn and Winter. The thick spiny interior gives important protection from predators for nesting birds and an escape for small birds from the attentions of raptors such as Sparrowhawk, Kestrel and Buzzard.

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Young Brown Hare moving down the extended hedge-line

Finally, connecting up areas of woodland with ponds and other habitat essentials, hedges serve as ‘wildlife corridors’, allowing birds and animals to move safely through their respective territories. As well as many types of bird, over the years, we have seen Roe Deer, Foxes, Badgers, Stoats, Rabbits, Red Squirrels, Brown Hares and even Otter, all making use of this feature. So please don’t take trees and hedges for granted – the world would be a poorer place without them!

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Bugs, Bees and Butterflies

After a week cycling along the Northumbrian and North Yorkshire coast, where we enjoyed good weather and many lovely stretches of unspoilt countryside, I was excited to see how things had been progressing at Greenhillock in my absence. My walk this morning found the meadows at their best – a multi-coloured panorama of grasses and wildflowers including masses of both types of wild Orchid. The Wild Roses have also come out in the hedgerows, filling the warm air with their lovely scent.

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Islay, our Border Collie, enjoying a walk in the North Paddock meadow

Bee numbers are still low, although I saw some honey bees, Buff-tailed and Red-tailed Bumblebees and Common Carder Bees – easily identified by being Scotland’s only all-brown bee. Lots of mini-bugs were feeding on the grass seed heads but butterflies are still playing hard to get. Greenhillock Guide Beth tells me that she saw Damselflies at the Wildlife Pond over the weekend giving their characteristic display of iridescent turquoise and scarlet as they flit between food sources.

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A Carder Bee feeding on Yellow Rattle, a popular nectar source

Talking of food sources, we have many interesting fungi just now and all are well nibbled by the Wood Mice and Short-tailed Voles that live in the meadow sward.

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Tiny fungi like this provide food for Wood Mice and Voles

All of our normal summer visiting birds have now arrived and can be heard singing tunefully in the trees and hedges around the site. I was asked recently about Cuckoos, which occasionally visit, but have to say we haven’t heard or seen them in the last couple of years. A rare flying visitor a few days ago came in the form of a beautiful Jay – lovely to look at if you’re not an egg or fledgling of another species!

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This week’s flying visitor – a striking adult Jay

Hopefully we’ll see you on site sometime, when we can chat further.

Walking among Wildflowers

This week I’m away from home, riding my bike along the Northumbrian coast, so I’ll talk about a feature of Greenhillock that I don’t need actually to see in order to comment on – our lovely wildflower meadows.

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The rich biodiversity of a mature meadow habitat

Our land at Greenhillock was originally part of a small dairy farm where the principal need was for dense, quick growing and nutritious grass as food for the cattle. Whilst this looked very lush, its lack of biodiversity supported hardly any invertebrate life and, in turn, provided a poor habitat for farmland birds and animals. The constant fertilisation over decades, both natural and artificial, meant that the vigorous rye grasses crowded out almost all other flowers and smaller plants. In order to create a richer habitat, supporting a wider range of species, we ploughed up the existing grass and sowed the fields with old-fashioned seed mixes containing a range of native grasses (notably Bents and Fescues), together with many native wildflowers.

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Roe Deer, regular visitors to Greenhillock, feeding in the meadows

The original meadow seed, sown over 20 years ago, contained a rich mix of native grasses, plantains and wildflowers to provide pollen and nectar in succession from early Spring to late Autumn. This is vital to feed mini-bugs, bees and butterflies from their emergence right through their breeding cycle. The prolific seed heads are ideal for feeding finches and other seed-eating birds and mammals, whilst the open, tufty sward is perfect for ground-nesting birds such as Yellowhammer and Meadow Pipit. It is also a perfect habitat for the delightful Short-tailed Vole, a principal food source for both Kestrel and Tawny Owl. Low, dense ground-cover provides shelter for mammals and both young Brown Hares and Roe Deer have been born here over the years.

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The once-common Yellowhammer relies on a good supply of seed to survive the winter

The main secret to creating a mature species-rich is maintaining low fertility so we never add any kind of fertiliser we avoid the use of chemicals such as insecticides. We cut the meadows once a year in late Autumn, when all nesting has ceased and all seeds set, removing all the cut material to feed the trees and hedges. Three years ago we retro-sowed the North Paddock with Yellow Rattle, a plant which is parasitic on the roots of grasses, reducing their height and giving more space and light to the smaller wild flowers. All of the original plant types have thrived, to be joined by a number of new species, notably our two type of native Orchid but also several types of Vetch, Lady’s Bedstraw, Sorrel and Speedwell.

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Yellow Rattle, an early flowering plant, helps in meadow creation

We are delighted that we can share the rich fruits of our 25 years’ conservation activity with you and hope that, when you visit, you’ll enjoy exploring all aspects of the exciting natural world.

A Bounty of Birds

This week I want to focus on the rich bird-life that can be encountered at Greenhillock.

When we moved here some 25 years ago, the once common farmland birds were already in decline and subsequent years have seen a near catastrophic fall in numbers of all the typical countryside birds that I grew up with; modern farming and construction methods are squeezing out these long-term residents. There is a danger that our children will never see or hear a Curlew, Skylark or drumming Snipe or see the fantastic summer display flight of the Lapwing. All is not lost yet, however, and we have been making valiant efforts to restore and re-establish habitats, with considerable success.

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Tree Sparrows using an old House Martin nest on our house

Our biggest successes have been with the smaller seed-eating birds, especially Yellowhammer, Goldfinch, Tree Sparrow and Reed Bunting. All are breeding on site and we have over 30 nest boxes housing Tree Sparrow families. As this is a bird that has become practically non-existent in the South, this is a pleasing achievement.

In the hedgerows and trees just now you can see most of the finches and tits – Chaffinch, Greenfinch, Goldfinch and Bullfinch (lovely pair in the hedge dividing North and South Paddocks), Blue Tit, Great Tit and Coal Tit – as well as Blackbird, Dunnock, Starling, Robin, Wren, Tree and House Sparrows.


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Young Starlings enjoying a bath

Slightly more exotic and harder to spot are Siskin and Redpoll and the summer visiting warblers – Blackcap, Willow Warbler and Chiffchaff (regularly calling in the Beech trees round the Wildlife Pond with the two-note call that gives it its name).


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Handsome male Bullfinch in Home Paddock hedgerow


You are also very likely to see Pheasant, Jackdaw, Rook, Mallard, Song Thrush, Pied Wagtail and Yellowhammer feeding in the meadows. A Grey Heron regularly visits the Wildlife Pond, on warmer days Swallows swoop low catching insects and Buzzards circle overhead (they have a nest in the tall Beech trees). At night you will hear the Tawny Owls calling to each other in the woods. Most spectacular of all is the visiting Sparrowhawk, flying low like a fast jet along the hedge-line after small songbirds that make up most of its prey.


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Attentive Sparrowhawk at the burn along the South boundary of the pitches

So, lots to see if you’re with us and to look forward to if you’ve yet to book!

An Orgy of Orchids

This week it’s orchid-fest here at Greenhillock! From just one in flower last week, the recent warm weather and rain have sparked a profusion of lovely purple flowers in the North and South Paddocks. Wild orchids took 15 years to arrive here on the wind so we feel very privileged (there is an old saying “you don’t find orchids, they find you!”) and we have both Early Purple and Northern Spotted varieties in the wildflower meadows, particularly in the glamping area. Take a look and you’ll be amazed.


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Early Purple Orchid in the North Paddock


Insect-wise, the most interesting thing in the last few days has been the Mayfly hatch and on some warm days and evenings the air has been full of these flying creatures with their characteristic long legs. Butterfly numbers, however, are still slow to build although we did see the first Peacock over the weekend.


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Peacock butterfly on seat in Wedding Wood


Our enthusiastic young pond-dippers have been turning up a variety of water critters in the wildlife pond, including Diving beetles, Pondskaters, a variety of larvae and the occasional Common Newt. Meantime, the many varieties of trees in the hedge-lines are giving us a stunning display, with every shade of green. This year seems to be a fantastic one for blossom of all kinds and there are some lovely scents to be picked up on a warm breeze – the Rowan and Bird Cherry in the Wedding Wood give an especially heady experience!


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Our Greenhillock Guide Beth leads a pond-dipping session

The most noticeable thing about our rich bird life just now is probably the fantastic dawn and dusk chorus, led both early and late by the male Blackbirds. Several guests have mentioned how pleasing they have found this aspect of our fields and hedges although one couple reported finding the 4.30 wake-up call a bit trying, particularly when enhanced by the local male Peacocks (the birds that is) up at the big house!

As the weather warms up, we look forward to increasing bee and butterfly numbers and to the arrival of more visiting summer birds – more about these next time.