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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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.

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.

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.

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!).


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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.


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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’!