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.


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. 


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.


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.


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.


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.

Caterpillar pic

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.


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.

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.


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.


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.


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.


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.


Baby Hedgehog (Derbyshire Wildlife Trust)

Another example of the secret wildlife of Greenhillock!

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!


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.


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!

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.


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.


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.


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.


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.


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.


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).


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.


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.


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.


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!


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.

Meadows in May

Welcome back. Not sure whether it should be “Spring is sprung” or “Summer is a coming in” as, following the prolonged spell without rain through April and the first half of May, things are a way behind the normal. The recent rainfall and forecast warm weather should, however, release all that pent-up growth in the seed bank in a big rush so watch this space!

In the meadows, the tall grasses (especially Timothy) are in ‘flower’ providing much-needed food for the smaller bugs and the yellow Dandelions and Field Buttercups are attracting early bees. Ox-eye Daisy are standing by to burst into flower and yesterday I saw the first orchid flower – an Early Purple (clue’s in the name!).


Field Buttercups & flowering grasses in South Paddock

Flying insects (other than numbers of wasps and wee bitey things) are in short supply because of the lack of food but we have seen newly-emerged Red Admiral and Small Tortoiseshell butterflies and many bumblebee queens prospecting for nesting holes among the meadow grasses.

Birdwise, the first Swallows are here and have already nested in the stables. They are enjoying evening meals of those wee bitey things that I spoke of just now. Our large breeding population of Tree Sparrows have their first young and Blackbird and Starling fledglings have left the nest to become noisy, food-demanding members of the Greenhillock family. You can currently see many other species  but I want to save their story for another time.


Great Spotted Woodpecker feeding young by Wildlife Pond

With Ash being the last, all trees are now in leaf and some in blossom. The May flowers in the native thorn hedges are now out, so it should be safe ‘to cast a clout’!