Surprise, Spring sunshine!

Well, I finally emerged from blog-hibernation a couple of days ago so welcome to this first post of the 2018 season. The sun is finally shining, we saw the first Swallows of the year yesterday and our early 2018 camping guests arrived over a busy Bank Holiday weekend so I am under some pressure to put fingers to keyboard to let you know about what’s happening on the wildlife front here at Greenhillock.

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Winter is a tough time for raptors – male Sparrowhawk searching for a meal in a Greenhillock snowstorm

The cold winter (you might have seen our Facebook pics of a huge snow-plough digging us out!) and prolonged wet early Spring have impeded the growth of our wildflower meadows and slowed down the emergence of insect life and bird nesting. However, there is finally warmth in the soil and we expect the meadows to spring up at a pace so that can enjoy the first wildflowers very soon. Eagle-eyed guests have already spotted the first bats, found a tiny Toadlet and collected the first hatched egg shells – Blackbird and Starling.

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Grey Heron feeding on first frogs to emerge for mating – what an opportunist!

Not many insects on the wing yet but we have seen Small Tortoiseshell and Peacock butterflies and numbers of queen Bumblebee are feeding themselves up and seeking out ground nesting holes, so nature is on the move. I recently heard a lone summer visiting Chiffchaff singing in its usual location at the Wildlife Pond and the dawn chorus is building daily in volume and variety. A treat just now is a Great Spotted Woodpecker drumming on a Beech Tree in the North Paddock to attract a mate.

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Tiny Toadlet found onsite this weekend – first of the year

As our rich and bio-diverse flora and fauna emerges with the warmer weather, we hope you’ll join us as camping and camping guests to share it with us.

 

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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.

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.

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!

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.

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!

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’!