To Everything There is a Season…

Turn, turn, turn…   As I write this (my last blog until next Spring), Autumn has fully arrived at Greenhillock and our successful 2017 camping season is drawing to a close. There has been much to celebrate and we want to thank everyone for their interest in our conservation efforts and for helping us to spread the word about the growing importance of bio-diversity.

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Autumn colour palette – evening view from our front window

There are still a few Scabious and Knapweed flowers in the meadows, attracting a late butterfly influx, particularly Peacocks. Mostly, however, it is a mass of ripe seed-heads, ready to disperse and produce next year’s stunning scenery. We will wait until all this has set before giving the meadows their annual cut and clear. That will also give our seed-eating birds – Goldfinch, Tree Sparrow, Yellowhammer and the like – the chance to feed up for the lean months over winter. The seed producing ‘weeds’ in the hedgerows – Willowherb, Dock, Nettles and Thistles –  will also be left to help with this essential task.

The other reason for delaying the meadow cut is to give all the small mammals and amphibians a chance to prepare for their winter hibernation. Frogs, toads and newts (in a variety of sizes) are still active in the meadows, feeding on slugs and other small invertebrates. Likewise the Short-tailed Voles which build lovely round nests of chewed grass at the base of tussocky native grasses and will be producing young for another month yet if the weather is kind. 

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Wood Mouse sneaks into its local food bank!

Shortening days make us more aware of the activities of our nocturnal visitors. This week a pair of of Tawny Owls have been engaged in a ‘domestic’ near the Field Kitchen, noisily waking all the local dogs in the wee small hours. Our Hedgehogs are leaving tell-tale signs of night-time perambulations and Roe Deer are returning to graze on the pitch grass in the dark.  Best of all, the Badgers, which are one of our best-loved secrets, have resumed their foraging trips from dusk to dawn.

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Visiting badgers caught at night on one of our infra-red cameras

 

Always plenty to see and do here! Thanks again and we look forward to seeing many of you here again in 2018 to share our wildlife delights.

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Red, Gold and Green

Not sure about my dreams but these are certainly the colours here at Greenhillock in early Autumn. Glorious red of the turning Field Maple leaves and mass of Rowan berries in the hedge-lines, this week attracting our first winter thrush arrivals – a small group of Redwing. Glowing gold of the recently harvested barley fields in the evening sun. Vibrant green of the meadow grass pitches which continue to look good even after well over 1,000 camping and glamping guests have enjoyed them.

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Pink-footed Geese at the Greenhillock Pond

The sense of changing seasons is emphasised by the arrival from the Arctic of our first skeins of wintering Pink-footed Geese, whilst the late Swallows continue to feed up for their long migration south to Africa. We have more bees and butterflies than ever with lovely Red Admiral and Peacock varieties flitting busily about the meadows.

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Grey Dagger Moth caterpillar found on our Hawthorn hedge (photo Kate Latham)

Life continues to emerge, despite the shortening days, and we are seeing some very interesting caterpillars feeding on the flowers and grasses. A couple of days ago, our neighbour Mary found a lovely red-spotted Frog Hopper, an adult emergent from the summer ‘cuckoo spit’ clusters that stick to the meadow grass stems. Autumn fruiting fungi are abundant just now, with Fly Agaric the most colourful and photogenic.

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Fly Agaric fungi by the Wildlife Pond

Finally, Beth recently found another Great Wood Wasp (really a type of Sawfly) but this time a male – smaller, more brown than yellow and lacking that impressive ovipositor. We are now wondering whether these rarely-seen insects have come in with the tonne bags of softwood logs which we buy in for campfires.

Wild, Weird and Wonderful

Since my last blog, things have been very busy at Greenhillock so I have had to rely on our keen-eyed guests to report interesting wildlife finds. Well, they haven’t disappointed!
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Willow Warbler (www.arkive.org)

We have had two further sightings (with photos) of the baby Hedgehogs among the camping pitches, both in the late evening. Lots of people have commented on the large numbers of Willow Warblers in the hedgerows, their presence announced by the insistent, repetitive call of the fluffy yellowish-green fledglings. 
Our pond dippers have been finding increasing numbers of immature Newts and both Frogs and Common Toads have been seen feeding in the meadows. Amphibian find of the month, however, has to be a  splendid male Common Newt spotted by the Parfitt Family on their camping pitch in the South Paddock. Although they spend half of their year out of the water, we rarely see these lovely creatures, less still get to photograph them, so this is a real treat. Thanks guys.
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Handsome male Common Newt in camping pitches (Credit: Parfitt Family)

The purple flowers of the late-flowering Knapweed are attracting lots of bumblebees (at least five types have been identified) and butterflies – we currently have Peacock, Small White, Red Admiral, Ringlet and Small Tortoiseshell. Bug hunting has become more popular than ever and young guests have been finding an interesting range of mini-beasts. Without doubt, the best insect find this week is of two Great Wood Wasps. These huge insects are rarely spotted and are quite harmless, despite their fearsome Hornet-like appearance. What looks like a deadly sting at the rear of their abdomen is actually an egg-laying tube (ovipositor). Well done to the guests who remained calm enough to bring them to me for identification!
 
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Great Wood Wasp (nearly two inches long!)

My sole contribution is that of an early morning Snipe at the Wildlife Pond. I can also report the safe hatching of a new family of Swallows in the roof of my tractor shed. The parents are kept very busy catching increasing amounts of insect food over the North Paddock.

New life in the sunshine

After a few days of heavy rain, when all self-respecting birds and insects hid in the grass and hedges, this week’s sunshine has brought new life to Greenhillock. The number of bumblebees has noticeably increased and a new batch of butterflies, mostly Small Tortoiseshell, has been feeding on the Scabious, Knapweed and Self Heal flowers in the meadows. A few of the colourful Burnet Moths can be seen most days on the meadow flowerheads.

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Burnet Moth on Knapweed flower

Second broods of Bluetit, Great Tit and Tree Sparrow clamour noisily to be fed whilst Blackbirds stretch out their wings in the sun to help clean their feathers. Large mixed flocks of Swallows and House Martins have been soaring high in the air as their prey insects rise with the thermals. The resident pair of Sparrowhawk fly daily along the hedgerows in search of their avian lunch and just now numbers of Willow Warbler can be seen and heard in the South Paddock, particularly in the Den Zone.

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A Garden Bumblebee steals the Blackbird’s sultanas – note its enormously long tongue!

The Wildlife Pond is also heaving with new life and most of our pond dippers are catching newts, water beetles and larvae. The meadows are hiding lots of froglets and Common Toads can be found under many stones and pieces of fallen wood.

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Near-perfect specimen of Small Tortoiseshell butterfly sunning itself on a drying-up cloth

We are in the process of building a new Bug Hotel and this is something that camping and glamping guests can help us with.

Summer Sights and Sounds

Last weekend, one of our camping guests spotted (and photographed) not one, but two, baby hedgehogs in the South Paddock meadow! This is great news as it proves that we have at least one resident breeding pair.

Apart from that, things have been a bit quiet on the wildlife front at Greenhillock. The unsettled weather has kept down bee numbers although we have seen at least three different sorts of bumblebee in recent days, including one huge Garden Bumblebee using its long tongue to extract nectar from Honeysuckle flowers. Butterfly numbers are also quite low although the emerging purple Common Knapweed flowers are attracting Small Tortoiseshell, Small White and Ringlet, among others.

The Wildlife Pond is now buzzing with life and most of our enthusiastic pond dippers are finding Common Newts, Leeches, water insects and larvae of all kinds. Sadly so far this year, Dragonflies and Damselflies have been conspicuous by their absence.

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Greenhillock Guide Beth helps pond-dippers identify what they have found

Many of the hedge nesting birds have produced a second brood. Blackbirds and Song Thrushes can be seen at dawn and dusk feeding young in the meadows and the nest box on the Field Kitchen has noisy young Tree Sparrows about to fledge. Groups of Swallows and House Martins swoop low over the tents on their feeding flights. Goldfinches are singing musically among the trees and there are still lots of Warblers to be seen and heard – the one-note call of the Willow Warbler is most noticeable in the Den Zone. Best on the bird front this week has been a guest reporting hearing an early-morning Snipe calling. These birds are becoming quite rare in the area so this is very good news.

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An adult Snipe visiting the Home Paddock

As Summer moves on, Greenhillock wildlife is changing but there is always something interesting to see and hear.

Reassuring Rattles

Hearing an unusual rattle can be a worrying thing. As I write, the wind is making a more welcome rattling sound as it shakes the dry, paper bag-like, seed-pods of our Yellow Rattle flowers (clue’s in the name!), before they burst and scatter to produce next Spring’s attractive yellow flowers.

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Yellow Rattle seed-pod next to an unusual white Heath Spotted Orchid

There are lots of other seeding flowers and grasses in the meadows (including all but a few of the late flowering wild Orchids), being dispersed by insects, birds, wind and rain to ensure that we all have something to enjoy next year. The large white seed-heads of the Cow Parsley along the pitch edges are alive with mini-bugs waiting to be discovered by our enthusiastic young bug hunters.

Meanwhile, the next wave of flowers have appeared to feed the butterflies and bees and we have lovely stands of bluish-lilac Field Scabious, Red Clover and purple Common Knapweed taking us on into late Summer. This natural succession is essential to the breeding cycle of many birds, insects and animals and is the main rationale for creating species-rich habitats such as our meadows.

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Insects love the open flower-heads of the Field Scabious

On my late night round this week, I was delighted to find a baby Hedgehog on one of the North Paddock paths, feeding on the small slugs that emerge from the damp grass at night. We have released two lots of adults in the past but, apart from occasional sightings of their droppings full of beetle shells, they have disappeared from view. Obviously, nature has been at work without our knowing it.

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Baby Hedgehog (Derbyshire Wildlife Trust)

Another example of the secret wildlife of Greenhillock!

Night Visitors

If you have already stayed with us at Greenhillock you will have noticed two things about our night-times. Firstly, the quiet – apart from the wildlife and occasional all-night agricultural activity you can only hear the wind in the trees. Secondly, how clear our night skies are – we have very little light pollution and have been named by the Met Office as one of the top ten UK campsites for stargazing (quite often you can see the Milky Way with the naked eye).

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Roe Deer at first light, helping himself to the duck food

In reality, however, nearly as much wildlife activity happens during the night and most of it is unobserved. What we do see regularly are the Pipistrelle Bats as they skim low at dusk  over the Wildlife Pond and hedgerows hunting down moths, gnats and midges (yes folks, bats are your friends!) What we often hear are the Tawny Owls in the Beech trees calling either to attract a mate or to defend territory. The characteristic ‘twit-twoo’ is actually the two sounds of a male and female calling to and answering each other. Rarely we hear the eerie screech of a Barn Owl.

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Night visiting Fox at the back of the Field Kitchen, shot with infra-red

Largely unseen and unheard are the near nightly visits of the Roe Deer, Foxes and Badgers, even when campers are sleeping close by. We capture these on wildlife cameras in our garden and keep a record so we know quite a lot about these secret unpaying guests. We have also had rare visits from Otters as they travel along the burn.

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Tawny Owl resting after hitting my office window in a snowstorm

At Greenhillock Glamping you are closer to nature than you might ever think!

In Praise of Pollinators

You all know the back story – no bees, no food! Einstein’s version was harsher in that he predicted the end of human existence within a short time of Bee Armageddon. Right now, expensive mobile pollination units are criss-crossing America to keep the food production wheels on. Just to complete the Doomsday scenario, without pollinators many of our essential medicines, pharmaceuticals and other chemicals would not be available.
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Hoverflies prefer open flowers like this Ox-eye Daisy

So what are pollinators and what do they do? Nearly all flying, hopping and crawling insects play a part in pollination – solitary, bumble and honey bees, wasps, hover flies, moths and butterflies, dragonflies and damsel flies, beetles, flies and a whole kingdom of mini bugs. In exchange for collecting nectar food, they fertilise the flowers, grasses and plantains that they visit, ensuring that they fruit and set seed for future years. Without this process none of these vital human food and other plants could survive. The message is both stark and simple – look after the little guys!
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Rich meadow flora; each flower shape will attract its own range of pollinators

Our meadows at Greenhillock were created to provide food for pollinators from early Spring through to late Autumn. The flowering plants emerge in succession in a variety of colours and shapes to provide both food and shelter for those essential mini-helpers. The grasses, hedges and trees also flower, adding to the food bank and extending the season. Even the Late Autumn cut of the meadows, after all the seeds have set, will sustain insects and birds well into the Winter.
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A Red-tailed Bumblebee buries itself deeply in the pollen-rich head of a Thistle

Each pollinator will have favourite food plants and will be adapted to exploit the design of the flower heads, from the flattish Daisy and Scabious to the tunnel shaped Vetches, Orchids and Yellow Rattle. Many will lay eggs and pupate among plants of a particular type, ensuring their own survival.
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Now who says that grasses don’t have flowers?

So when you’re strolling along the winding meadow paths or doing a spot of bug-hunting, remember to salute the pollinators (some almost too small to see) and respect their key role in our own survival.

Things ain’t what they used to be!

We had a helpful visit from our enthusiastic Wildlife Consultant Kaye during the week and now know that there is even more to see at Greenhillock than we thought! The headline news is that we actually have three types of Wild Orchid growing here – Early Purple, Heath Spotted and Northern Marsh – as well as some hybrids between the latter. All are still in flowering profusion in colours ranging from deep purple, through pale mauve to white with many right alongside the camping and glamping pitches. They may only last another couple of weeks so do make a special effort to see these increasingly rare plants whilst you can.

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Species richness in the meadows, featuring two of our types of Wild Orchid

Elsewhere in the Wildflower Meadows, colours are gradually changing from the predominantly yellow of Field Buttercups and Yellow Rattle to the white of the Ox-eye Daisies with hints of purple from the emerging Common Knapweed. Standing by are the Field Scabious with their striking blue flowers and, low down, are the Yellow and Purple Vetch. To help young people get around the site to see all these lovely things, we have just created the Wildlife Wander game (a sort of nature treasure hunt) and we are working on a harder version for adults!

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A newly fledged Blackbird goes for the All-You-Can-Eat breakfast option!

With the greater food supply from the flowers have come more mini bugs (noticeably Hoverflies), bumble bees (mostly Buff-tailed just now) and butterflies – the chocolate brown Ringlet seem to enjoy being out and about whatever the weather. So, lots to see and hear by taking time out from busy lives to wander in a unique habitat or simply by sitting quietly in the special tranquillity of the deep countryside.

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!