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.
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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!

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!

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.