The Oak Barn, Hittisleigh Barton
Hittisleigh Barton, Exeter, Devon EX6 6LF

Nature Conservation Update 2016

 

Birds

Our swallow nests increased from 2 to 4 and all nests fledged at least two broods, meaning 8 birds came and over 40 left. We had no house martins in 2015 after previously having up to 14 nests. Pairs came and inspected the nests in 2016 and then flew on, so we were resigned to having no occupied nests again when two pairs surprised us by taking up residence in June (after the first swallow chicks had fledged) and proceeding to produce young. House Martins are an essential element of summer and fingers crossed that they return this year.

Farmland birds are generally in decline due to ever more efficient agriculture and we manage our land to support birds through hedge laying, managing the woods and planting bird mixes. This produces flocks of small birds in winter and we have a lady who nets and rings birds. We were pleased this year when 10 yellow hammers were netted in one day which shows a very healthy population locally. A reed bunting was caught here for the first time in 2016 and we also had a solitary teal on one of the ponds.

Butterflies

2016 was not a good year for butterflies here and elsewhere. Our very small colony of pearl bordered fritillaries disappeared and other no shows were dingy skippers and white admirals although both these are no doubt still present. We still had reasonable numbers of silver washed fritillaries and marbled whites but overall numbers and species were considerably reduced.

Bats

Occasional monitoring of bats shows Barbastelles remain present in the woods.

Meadow

2016 was a very good year for our flowery meadows with the dominant colour being yellow. The re-seeded area was full of yellow rattle and other areas were full of coltsfoot. We gathered seed and redistributed it in the less flowery areas. We had numerous parasol mushrooms and some horse mushrooms but few wax caps. We did not cut for hay in 2016 and manage now only by grazing.

Orchard woes

In 2000 we had a small traditional orchard of around 70 trees in 1.25 acres. The trees were mainly nondescript cider with a few Bramleys and the orchard was heavily festooned in lichens. In 2002 we doubled the size of the orchard, planting around 100 new standards in a mix of eaters and cookers and created two fenced enclosures for semi standards (to keep the deer out) and planted one to pears and the other to cherries and pears. We laid the hedges and created ditches to divert storm water. By now we should be knee deep in fruit but unfortunately it has not worked out like that…

In 2015 we put our sheep into the orchard thinking the substantial tree guards would protect the trees from the sheep. Unfortunately the sheep found they could push their heads through the netting and ring barked around half the new trees, killing many of them. We duly reinforced the netting with chicken wire and replanted. The trunks of the mature trees have been protected for many years with heavy duty wire dating back over 20 years. Somewhat unbelievably, the sheep found that they could roll the netting up with their noses and proceeded to ring bark many of the mature trees too, killing 10 of them. This came on top of many losses through wind rock and wet ground and the mature trees are now down to around 35 with all but one of the Bramleys falling over and expiring.

In addition to the above, the 50 pear trees have been a non event producing a few handful of hard pears between them whilst the 30 cherry trees are stripped by the birds as soon as they fruit. We do get some apples including russets, some eaters (Beauty of Bath) and cookers to store in the winter and we normally have enough sweet cider apples to make juice In addition, we normally have some plums and damsons have appeared in the hedges (damson jam, yum). One positive benefit is Mirabelle plums which are fantastic and the orchard does attract fieldfares and redstarts in the winter.

Other problems have been the churning up of the ground by the pigs and a dock and nettle problem. Overall the orchard has been a bit of an expensive disaster but in fairness, most of the problems can be put down to bad management and/or lack of time. We have resolved to get a grip on the orchard and the sheep have been banned until we are happy they can do no harm. We have had a digger in which has re-graded the churned up areas and removed dozens of tree stumps and the dead trees. We have rebuilt spread hedge banks, removed redundant fencing and grubbed out most of the pear trees. We are re-planting standards in the main orchard and replacing the useless pears with semi standard apples. We will net the cherries (a major undertaking) and have planted more Mirabelle plums. The docks and nettles will be sprayed out, the hedges laid again and wild flower seed scattered. Watch this space!

The pleasures of keeping sheep

We have a small flock of Shetland sheep for conservation grazing. We have learnt you are never bored if you have sheep! The sheep are inveterate escapers and it is always a pleasure to find them in the same field you put them in. They get tangled in brambles and get their heads stuck in gates. They go lame, get lambs stuck in their rear ends, prolapse and reject their own offspring; some die for no apparent reason. We had several suffer “blowfly strike” this summer where the sheep get maggot infested and now have a small arsenal of nasty chemicals to treat the sheep for a wide range of ailments. The upsides are we have a small pile of fleeces which we will get spun into wool at some point and they do taste delicious.

We currently have 25 sheep with 18 lambs expected in the spring. We have decided we have too many sheep for the area we need to graze and are going to gradually reduce the flock through natural wastage and more dinners.

Other

Ash dieback has not yet appeared here and there is some suggestion that ash in Britain may be more resilient then on the continent. The Forestry Commission are very gloomy about imported disease with oak, horse chestnut, larch and alder also all apparently at risk. We plant around 200 trees a year and are concentrating on diversifying our woodland by planting hornbeam, birch, field maple, willow, bird cherry, wych elm and crab apple. The idea is that if we suffer heavy losses in ash and oak there will be some trees left.

In the past few weeks it has been reported that both cheetahs and giraffes are in danger of extinction in the wild, as well as most primates. People are using more and more resources and squeezing other species out. It is surprising to me that there appears no likelihood that this problem will be solved and we continue to degrade all natural habitats on the planet. Here at the Barton we put time, effort and resources into keeping our land wildlife rich and thank everyone who has had a wedding here for enabling that to happen.

Resolutions for 2017

I will;

  • produce a species list for the meadows
  • lay the orchard hedges
  • spray the bracken
  • monitor butterflies
  • take lots of photos to illustrate next years conservation update.

Have a good year!