A dusk moment…

After a walk in the last of the sun this evening, as we returned to our car, we saw three roe deer grazing in the open arable fields. We stood and watched them for a few minutes as they grazed on the new shoots, well aware of our presence and looking up in our direction every so often. A blackbird and a small flock of yellowhammers provided the backing music to the view as the sun brought a orange hue to the greening fields and hedgerows.

It was exactly for moments like this that we moved to the countryside, fleeting moments that being a connection to nature. In the 40 years I lived in Cheshire, I didn’t once see roe deer in the surrounding countryside. We’ve now seen them twice in these fields below Hanging Houghton and plenty of muntjacs a number of times in various places across the area.

We eventually drove away after the three deer moved into the hedge line, only to find there were actually four together in the fields, a buck and three does.

Not the best image from my phone; three deer just visible at the bend of a hedge.

Surveying badget setts

My first post of the year made an aim to get back into conservation volunteering after leaving so much of it behind when I moved home last year. I’ve already made a good start with a breeding bird survey grid square secured for this spring and a week on RSPB Ramsey Island in September.

I may have said before that whilst my wildlife interests are wide and I spend a fair bit of time focused on birds, I’m particularly interested in mammals. I’ve tended to find that volunteering opportunities for mammals are much more difficult to come by. However, after following the local badger group on social media for a while, I decided to join and see how I could get involved. The first step has been to get training to do sett surveys and to look for setts when out on our walks around Northamptonshire as well as closer to home.

A few weeks ago on a chilly Saturday morning I attended a training session provided by Northamptonshire Badger Group. Run outside at a live sett, the morning of training gave me a very good introduction to many aspects of badger’s lives. The purpose of the training was to introduce me and the other attendees to badger ecology and how to undertake surveys of their setts. We learnt about the different types of sett, how to know whether they are in use including the the field signs to look out for, some of the legal background and how to spot a blocked sett. I have also bought a couple of books to widen my knowledge of badgers and booked myself on a day-long course on badger-related crime provided by the Badger Trust.

Since the training we have been out for a few walks around the Northamptonshire countryside and have surveyed seven setts so far and provided the details to the country badger recorder. In just one walk yesterday we found four setts on a six mile route. It’s unwise to provide details of the locations in the public domain as there are plenty of people out there who wish harm to both setts and the badgers living in them, so I will be careful with any information I post on here..

However, below is a photo of the fourth sett we found yesterday. It included a huge hole in the middle of a crop field with other holes on the edge of the planted area and some more in the adjoining copse, all within a short distance of the public footpath we were walking on. The farmer had avoided the huge hole and planted around it. It is illegal for anyone to interfere with a sett, so ploughing over the hole would have been an illegal act, but I’m hoping the farmer did this out of care for wildlife. The hole was so big that it could also have damaged the tractor if they had tried to go straight over it.

I’m hoping this is the start to being able to do more to help the wildlife of Northamptonshire after being very pleasantly surprised at how rich nature in the county is compared to my former home are in Cheshire.

Walking from our doorstep

It’s now almost exactly a year to the day since we moved into our house in a Northamptonshire village. Over the twelve months we’ve been for plenty of walks around the county, both locally and further afield. However, we thought that walks from the house were limited to a couple of footpaths that didn’t really lead anywhere. We were very wrong and it’s just a pity it’s taken so long to realise.

There’s actually a permissive path leading from the village down into the neighbouring valley and joins a newly established footpath up to the next small settlement. Neither of these routes are on the Ordnance Survey mapping, so we were largely unaware about of them. We knew there was a permissive path but not really where it was or where it went, but after reading some arguments about it on the village Facebook page, we decided to check it out. It turns out the path is a real asset to the village and connects to a wider network of public rights of way.

On what was a very blustery late morning, we headed out well wrapped up but we soon warmed up. The walk was about 5.5 miles in total across open pasture and ploughed fields, along hedgerows and on some quiet country lanes. It’s reasonably rolling in these parts so there were a few inclines to climb but nothing too steep. There were good views all around as we headed down the slopes and reached new crests. I even managed to put some of my new badger surveying skills into practice but more on that later.

While this was a relatively short walk, we expected it to rain at any moment, it looks like we can extend it in various directions and create 10 mile and possibly 15 mile walks when the weather is nicer.

The route is a real find and no doubt we’ll be doing it as regularly as some of our other local walks as the spring arrives.

A little piece of English history

As most readers of my blog will realise, I am more one for natural rather than human history. However, over the last few weeks a little piece of both national and immediately local history has come to light which has taken more of my interest than usual.

One morning between Christmas and New Year, I looked over our lawn to see that part of the wall facing the road had come down in the storm during the previous night. Like so many of the older houses in our village, we have a drystone wall boundary although ours looked a lot more rickety than most. Since we moved into the house nearly a year ago, we have carefully taken off some of the ivy that was overgrowing it and made some of the stones on the top a little more secure. Looking at the wall on the Google Streetview image, which was taken in 2015, it was completely overgrown with bramble and ivy, so it appeared to be in better shape than it had been in previous years. However, after several storms and heavy rains over the last few months, it seem it couldn’t stand up any longer, or at least one section of it.

We spent the following week getting quotes for works and eventually appointed the local waller and shepherd, Tim, who actually drives down our village lane each day to tend his sheep. He started the work a week and a half ago and, with a few hours each day, is already showing good progress. He’s not just repairing the missing gap but rebuilding much of the whole 10 metre run, including putting a cock and hen coping on it. The section of the wall done to date already looks much better than the section it replaces, so the whole wall is going to be much stronger and a lot less rickety.

Now onto the history…

While taking some of the stones down, to then rebuild the wall, Tim found pieces of an old clay smoking pipe including parts of the bowl. After an initial view from Tim and some research, the pipe has been dated to a time around 1650 to 1680. This may be interesting enough to some, but then comes the wider historical link to the stones in the wall and the English Civil War.

Naseby is a village around 12 miles to the north of our own, and is on some of my usual cycling routes around the area. It was the setting for the Battle of Naseby in 1645, one of the defining engagements of the war and perhaps the most famous. Even closer to us, around two miles away, is Holdenby House, pronounced locally as Holmby, which was the site of what was to become a major royal palace of both James I and Charles I. After the Civil War it was the prison of Charles I between February and June 1647 before he was seized and taken off to New Market (to be later executed in 1649 in Whitehall). Parliament later sold the palace to Captain Adam Baynes, who demolished the majority of the building, leaving behind one wing, which remains in itself a major country house. The stone resulting from the demolition, potentially used to pay soldiers from the war, was distributed around the area and used in construction of buildings and walls.

All of the above dates point to not only our wall being built in the 17th Century (the house is from circa 1860) but also being made, in part at least, from stone taken from a former royal palace. Looking at some of the stone in the wall, Tim believes that some of the local ironstone and non-local sandstone is very similar in size and shape to other Holdenby stone he has come across in walls he has worked on.

As I said, I’m not one for human history really, but links from my own drystone wall and a major palace and Civil War battle, might just make me look a bit more, at least at the history of our new home and surrounding area. It’s pretty amazing what findings objects such as little as a piece of old smoking pipe can lead to.

First signs of spring

The weather yesterday morning was absolutely lovely for what is approaching the latter end of January. It wasn’t warm, far from it, but the bright sun and the clear skies made the world around me a lot happier and colourful. For the first time this year, in fact for several months, I got my bike out and went for an easy pedal around the area. This part of Northamptonshire really is a pleasant place to cycle, there isn’t much traffic on the small country lanes and there’s plenty of choice in avoiding the busier, more major roads. The countryside is hiller than I was used to in my former cycling area in Cheshire but they add more challenge and interest, once my legs have got back into the swing of things. There is also quite a lot to look at as I pedal my way past, whether it be the great array of country houses and village churches, the scenery in general and, of course, the wildlife, of which there is nearly always something to be seen.

By the time of arrived home, surprisingly less frozen than I was expecting, the skies were starting to cloud up and by the time we went out for a walk in the afternoon, a dark, overcast murk had descended. This was a bit more like it for January, these last two weeks of which month, along with the first two of February, being statistically the coldest of the winter; and it really did feel cold with the sun behind the clouds. We went for a walk along the Brampton Valley Way, the former Northampton to Market Harborough railway line, which is a great place for wandering, running or cycling, with various points of access along its 14 miles. We decided to join at Hanging Houghton and northwards but only went about a mile before turning back. However, during that short walk, despite the gloom and presence of winter-visiting redwings and fieldfares, it did seem like there were some of the first signs of spring in the wildlife. A pair of buzzards were calling to each other within the way-side woods, pairs of red kite circled above the village and a woodpecker could be heard hammering, a little tentatively perhaps, on a nearby tree. These sights and sounds were coupled with us seeing blue tits prospecting our garden bird box earlier in the day, to give the impression that the new season might not be far away. However, I had to remind myself just how long we could have yet to go in winter. Iin two week’s time, it will be a year since we moved into our new house; it was a snowy and icy day and that weather stayed around for the rest of the week and it certainly wasn’t the last time we saw that kind of weather.

Sunday morning at Ravensthorpe Reservoir

Less than a 10 minute drive from our house is Ravensthorpe Reservoir, one of several all in a short distance from our Northamptonshire home. The 100-acre water body is dissected at its northern end by a causeway across which a country road passes, and this linked with the path around the larger southern part of the reservoir form a good circular walk. There is a small car park at the north-eastern end of the causeway but it is also possible to park on the road-side at the other end, as we did today.

We walked clockwise around the water, across the causeway first. You have to be a bit careful of traffic walking along the road and it’s better to walk on the righthand, southern, side no matter which way you are walking, due to the bend of the road. You soon come to the water’s edge and today, in the watery sun, on the calm surface, we saw two great crested grebes already starting courtship, albeit only half-heartedly and briefly. On the opposite side of the road, the much smaller northern portion of the reservoir gave us good views of a group of goldeneye, both males and females, on the surface and diving down into the water.

Turning right at the junction at the northern end of the causeway, we soon came to the car park and the off-road track around the rest of the reservoir. The track is very muddy for much of the rest of the route and we were glad we had put on our wellies – a family coming the other way probably wished they had too. The path down to the dam is all within woodland cover with some limited views of the water; there are just a few points where you can get to the water’s edge. As we approached the dam we came to the raised walkway over the spillway which helps to regulate the reservoirs water levels. It’s quite a picturesque spot with the Victorian engineering clear to be seen.

Passing through a metal gate, the path then travels across the top of the dam, with the waterworks below, eventually coming to the fishing lodge. The dam provides a view across the whole reservoir south of the causeway and is a good place for grey wagtails and as well as the wider range of waterfowl. Today, we had a reasonable number of birds on the walk, including greylag, Canada and pink-footed geese, mallard, gadwall and tufted duck, as well as coot and moorhen. We had 27 species in total, without looking too hard.

The last leg of the walk on the western side of the water provided a range of woodland and farmland birds but the views were the main reason for stopping frequently to look across the water. The sky was slightly hazy in places but the deep blue breaks in the cloud opened up and the sun was even slightly warm at times. It certainly didn’t feel like spring this morning but it did provide the first early sign that it will be coming.

Finally, a fine day for a walk

Yesterday, after seemingly spending almost the whole Christmas period under a veil of dark and damp cloud, the final day of the holiday turned out to be clear and sunny. We went out on what is now our favourite walk in the area close to home – a circular around Cottesbrooke and Haselbech Hill.

I’ve found a great blog for wanders in the county – Northamptonshire Walks – with guides for hundreds of routes all over the county and beyond. Before we moved here early last year, I spotted an area that might be nice for a walk and by chance this blog already has a route around it – Walk 132.

We started in Cottesbrooke itself, a lovely old village with ironstone houses and cottages, heading out towards Brixworth but then some way after leaving the buildings behind, heading up a farm track into the countryside. The route meets up with one of our regular walks from Hanging Houghton but then continues up to the high ground between Cottesbrooke and Haselbech. Near to the top of hills is a view point with great vistas over the fields around our village and those surrounding it, with a very distant Northampton barely visible in the background. At this point, the land seems almost like the Downs rather than the more wold-like landscape lower down the hills and it has to be my favourite spot in Northamptonshire we’ve found so far. On a day like yesterday too, it really was a special place to be.

Northamptonshire – raising hope for nature in our rural places

Come the early days of February, we will have lived in our cottage in a quiet Northamptonshire village for a year. So much has happened and so much has changed over the 12 months that I could write about but I want to get back to the basics of my blog; my love of nature and my concern for the natural environment.

As I have written previously, we knew very little of Northamptonshire before we started looking for a new home. I’d only ever passed through the county, racing through by train or car, usually on the West Coast Mainline or along the M1 or A14. It came as a surprise to us when we started looking at the county, having first focused on Warwickshire, just how lovely rural Northamptonshire is. 

Our part of the county, particularly, is rolling, steeply in places, with a patchwork of large arable fields for growing grains and smaller pastures primarily for sheep and beef cattle. The fields are bounded by both mixed hedgerows and dry stone walls and the area is criss-crossed by a network of country lanes and relatively quiet more major roads. The west of the county is very lightly wooded for a rural area, with West Northamptonshire having only 5.6% woodland cover, less than some cities, but what it is missing in trees it makes up for with water. 

We have a good selection of open water around us with Ravensthorpe, Hollowell, Stanford reservoirs close by and the much larger Pitsford Water a ten minute drive away. There is also the River Nene, which passes through Northampton a few miles to the south of us and makes its way through the county and onto Cambridgeshire, briefly into Lincolnshire, before it meets the North Sea at The Wash. As it meanders through Northamptonshire there are groups of lakes, many being former gravel pits, that have increased the water habitats through a large area of the county.

This wold-like landscape, with its mixed farming and its range of water habitats has had a particular positive effect on me. It holds a range of wildlife, birds, mammals and insect life, that was so often missing from my former home in South Cheshire. It is altogether a richer place in nature terms and in being so has rekindled some hope that rural England doesn’t have to be so nature-depleted, that it can mix farming with wildlife and that man’s impact on the land doesn’t all have to be bad.

I won’t pretend that everything is as it should be in rural Northamptonshire; that would be very far from the truth. Only in the last month have I seen flood water inundating rivers with soil from autumn-ploughed fields, turning them to the colour of fudge. Chalara die-back is taking many of the ash trees which are so widespread around the edges of the county’s fields. I also expect, like so many other places, that the wildlife I am seeing now is in a very much diminished state compared to earlier decades. However, what wildlife I have seen over the last 11 months has been in a positive contrast to where I used to live.

In that time, we have recorded 53 bird species seen in or from the garden and a further five heard. We have also had 11 species of mammal, including six species of bat over the garden, as well as 11 different types of butterfly. I could only dream of such richness in my old garden (although I do still miss the badgers that suddenly started sneaking in under holly hedge in the last few months before I left).

Almost from the moment we moved in to our cottage, the wildlife was evident. From the owls calling during the first night, to a kestrel landing on the telegraph post next to the house the following snowy morning, it was immediately clear that this might be a better place for wildlife.

That owl on the first night wasn’t the last. We hear tawnies almost every night and in the spring we heard little owls nearby and as well as a barn owl once or twice in late winter. During our first drive around the area after we moved in we saw a barn owl in broad daylight sitting on a post and also saw one in an old barn at Hanging Houghton, a place we have come to love for a walk when we have a spare hour or so. This was also the first place we heard skylarks this year and we saw upwards of a dozen at a time on some of our spring and summer walks there. I love to just stand or sit, eyes closed, listening to the skylarks; a perfect way to meditate for a while.

Working from home for so much of the year, wildlife has been a release, during the working day as well as after it. Red kites and buzzards frequently fly over the house and I hear them from my desk. I also often hear green woodpeckers from the same spot yaffling away in the nearby gardens alongside their great spotted cousins hammering on the trees down in the shallow valley beneath us. There’s usually a few birds flitting about in the trees and bushes behind the drystone wall opposite my home office but the best view I had this year was a fleeting one, of a spotted flycatcher perching on the telegraph wire just outside my open window.

Some of the flora has also been notable, particularly in the hedgerows. During the spring there was a procession of blossom over the months with apple and cherry coming first followed by the blackthorn and hawthorn, then the elder and finally the bramble. With such a display of flowers we expected, or rather hoped, for a great glut of berries and we weren’t disappointed. Several autumnal walks resulted in good harvests of sloes, blackberries and elderberries and our hedgerow gin has just been decanted and kicked off a few festive evenings.

My cycles around the local countryside were accompanied in the spring and summer by yellowhammers and whitethroats, as well as more skylarks. In some spots it seemed as though they were in every hedge and tree; a continuous calling as I pedalled along the country lanes. As summer started to fade and the crops were harvested, I got frequent views of groups of red kites feeding on the creatures exposed in the stubble left behind by the combine.

It’s not just our walks that have revealed the richness of nature in the area; there are quite a few nature reserves too and our favourite to date has probably been at Titchmarch. In the eastern half of the county, it is one of those series of lakes on the Nene and our first spring time walk there was lovely with a wide range of warblers calling from the reeds and undergrowth. We also saw a cuckoo for the only time this year, standing in clear view in a stand of poplar calling out over the water.

We have visited a few of the reservoirs and particularly like Pitsford and Ravensthorpe, which are so close by. A walk around the nature reserve half of the former is always very quiet despite the number of bird hides provided. I particularly loved watching the common terns which nest there, a species I never saw in Cheshire. The autumn and winter have revealed a place for thousands of waterfowl of a wide variety. Ravensthorpe on the other hand, whilst also good for ducks and swans, gave us views of hundreds of hirundines hawking over the water as they arrived for the breeding season and we’ve also seen a small starling murmuration over the reed beds and grey wagtails on the dam.

Returning to home, we also have a grey wagtail visiting our often waterlogged patio at the moment and our bird feeders have more visitors than I can remember seeing at any other. We often have a dozen or more goldfinches supported by a cast of greenfinches, chaffinches and a range of tits.  

Good numbers of my favourite bird, swifts, appeared around the village in the summer. The Chairman of the parish council not only has his own swift boxes on his house, he’s installed some in the village church tower along with speakers playing recordings of swifts. Often on a spring lunchtime walk around the village I would stare upwards expecting to see them flying above only to (again) realise that it was just the recording. However, one late spring day they were actually chasing around above my head and I stood watching as they raced between the steep roofs of the ironstone houses, my heart lifted by the sight of them. Over the course of the next few weeks we regularly saw them around the village and could lie in the back garden watching them wheel and dart above us.

Perhaps, however, the birds that has most made an impact on us in our new house have been the starlings. They were calling in their slightly crazy way from tree tops and TV aerials around the house when we first arrived in but then they moved in too. We have had three pairs nesting in the eves of the house and we regularly hear them in the morning before we get out of bed and during the rest of the day. When they had chicks, we heard them grow; their calls starting as quiet ‘cheeps’ but developing into raucous screeching to wake us every morning for two weeks running before they fledged. They then had creches in the back garden, the fat balls on the feeders being rapidly devoured each time we put them out. Now we are at the quiet time for them but some are wintering in our roof and we still hear them as they chatter and slide down the sloping section of the eaves.

Despite all the above, the view that pleased me most was a very recent one. As we headed down the hill for our usual walk at Hanging Houghton, we saw four roe deer feeding quietly in one of the fields. We stopped the car and watched them for a moment and they looked back at us. I never saw free-roaming deer in Cheshire in the 40 years I lived there, but these roe add to the muntjac we have seen on several occasions at various places in the county. I love seeing deer, they remind me of wllder places, particularly of my trips to Sweden where they are so often seen in forest glades at dawn or dusk, and seeing them in my new home county really lifted my spirits on an otherwise gloomy day.

I’m sure we have only just touched the surface of Northamptonshire’s wildlife and I can’t wait for the new year to start and to see what else we can find out about nature in this quiet and so little known county. If we find even more, this place will make that hope for a better future for nature in our rural places even stronger.

Something new…

I wildlife and I like gadgets, so what could be better than combining the two? So I bought a new bat detector recently to cheer myself up and it works a treat!

I bought an Echo Meter Touch 2, which slots into the bottom of my iPhone, along with a couple of books about British and European bats. The big difference between the new gadget and my old bat detector is that it automatically recognises the type of bat producing the echolocation calls it records. This enables a novice (basically) like me to easily note the bats in an area without the need to gain specialist knowledge around calls and call frequencies, which will take a some time to develop.

However, it has spurred me on to learn more about bats and to spend more time outside at dusk and into the night to see and hear them. It is now quite a few years since I went out with a couple of friends, who are much more knowledgable than me, to do some Daubenton’s surveys along a nearby river. I loved doing the surveys and seriously considered getting my own survey spot and maybe I should do actually do it this time – but first, I think I need to do more reading around the subject and testing out my new kit.

Over the first two nights of using the detector, I was amazed to recorded four species of bat in our garden, both Common and Soprano Pipistrelle and Brown Long-eared and Noctule. I’ve never recorded Soprano Pipistrelle or Noctule before, which was particularly pleasing, but simply to record four species at all was great. I’m planning to take a few nocturnal walks around the village soon to see what else I can pick up and I also want to find a nice stretch of water to see if I can find some Daubenton’s too.

Unfortunately, on searching the Bat Conservation Trust’s website, there doesn’t appear to be a Northamptonshire bat group but I’m hoping there may be some opportunities to undertake bat surveys in the surrounding area once I’ve gained some more knowledge and skills.