Jacobaea of all trades

While people back at the Forest Centre have been enjoying Purple Emperors (not that I’m jealous in the slightest!), myself, Ashley and Katy (a work experience student with us for 4 weeks) have been controlling the spread of Ragwort over the Forest.

As things stand, we have visited every car park on the Forest and tried to remove as many plants as we can from the roadside. There may be stands of Ragwort on rides which we have not got to yet but hopefully we will in due course.

Most of the Ragwort we are pulling up is Common Ragwort, which can grow to about a metre and has yellow flowers. Common Ragwort (Jacobaea vulgaris) has the potential to spread over disturbed or poached soil and can become dominant. It is not a plant that has been introduced the British Isles and Ragwort and Groundsels are members of the Daisy family.

TomRagwort1_tonemapped

Common ragwort

Common Ragwort contains toxins (pyrrolizidine alkaloids), which, if ingested in large enough quantities (it varies from animal to animal), can damage and, in some cases, fatally damage an animal’s liver.

Ragworts are an important food source for insects and for some species, most famously the Cinnabar Moth (Tyria jacobaeae), it is their main food plant. Cinnabar Moth caterpillars are black and yellow striped with little hairs and touching them can cause a rash. The caterpillars store the toxins ingested from the Ragwort in their bodies.

Because of the Ragwort’s close association with insects such as this we are leaving some Ragwort for them.

TomRagworms1_tonemapped

Cinnabar moth caterpillars

It is worth knowing what is not Ragwort, as there are plants that we have left that do look similar.

The first one, which looks most similar in my opinion, is Perforate St. Johns Wort (Hypericum perforatum). This is a fairly common plant on the Forest and can look very similar to Ragwort but the stamens on the flower protrude a lot further and only have 5 petals, whereas Ragworts have many more!

TomHypericum

Perforate St John’s-wort

Also similar is Common Fleabane (Pulicaria dysenterica), which just to be terribly unscientific, looks like little sunflowers on stalks. Common Fleabane also has a lighter green stem and leaves than Ragworts.

TomFleabane

Fleabane

Common Groundsel, which is also in the Daisy family, has deeply serrated and hairy leaves. This is possibly the most Ragwort-like looking plant of the lot and can also be a food plant of the Cinnabar Moth. I haven’t knowingly found any on the Forest yet but if I do I’ll take a photo of it!

Another plant to that looks similar is this, Goldenrod! This grows about the same height as Ragwort but has pointed leaves and narrow, drooping flower heads.

TomGoldenrod

Canadian goldenrod

Finally, we have something that can look surprisingly like ragwort from a distance: dead Bracken!

TomBracken2

That’s all the yellow flowering plants I can cope with for now!

Should have some good insects for the blog!

Your friendly Countryside Worker,

Tom.

Our hay day

On Friday we made hay, while the sun shone. It was our first time making our own hay, having rented a series of fields not far from the visitor centre, and a couple of agricultural buildings for storage. It’s a rather stressful business, being – like so many agricultural activities – highly dependent on the weather. The hay was cut on the previous Monday, and needed at least four days without rain in order to dry sufficiently. Against all the odds (this is England in July, after all, and Wimbledon season) the rain held off, and on the fifth day we did bale.

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The trick then is to get all the bales into storage before it rains, and we were looking at potentially 3000 bales. Thanks to some marvellous organisation by Caroline, our Grazing Officer, we had a brilliant turn-out of staff and volunteers, who set about the task of manhandling the bales into the two storage sheds as they arrived from the fields.

Caroline in the director's chair, attended by stalwart volunteer Philip

Caroline in the director’s chair, attended by stalwart volunteer Philip

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

It was desperately unpleasant work, on what turned out to be the hottest day of the year so far. It made me think of a scene from one of my favourite books, T H White’s ‘The Once and Future King‘ (if you haven’t read it, give it a go, and don’t be put off by Disney’s interpretation of the first part, The Sword in the Stone). White describes medieval hay making on a similarly hot July day, and this passage in particular sprang to mind:

“For the hay was an element to them, like sea or air, in which they bathed and plunged themselves and which they even breathed in. The seeds and small scraps stuck in their hair, their mouths, their nostrils, and worked, tickling, inside their clothes.”

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Out in the fields, our contractors carried out the baling, and the bales were loaded onto trailers to be transported back to the yard. Here, they were off-loaded (thrown, actually – fortunately bales are pretty tough) and carried by hand into the buildings, where someone would stack them, climbing around on the pile as it grew towards the rafters. I had a few sessions as stacker, and again was reminded of T H White:

“Sir Ector scrambled about on top, getting in the way of his assistants, who did the real work, and stamping and perspiring and scratching about with his fork and trying to make the rick grow straight and shouting that it would all fall down as soon as the west winds came.”

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Another trailer-load arrives. Elegantly done, Mike…

Obviously the wind wouldn’t be an issue, but there was certainly plenty of perspiring. The temperature inside the buildings soared as the day went on, and the air was thick with hay dust. Those outside didn’t have a much better time as the sun continued to beat down. Volunteers came and went throughout the day, but we always had sufficient hands to keep up the pace, aided by on-site catering (thanks to Pat and Ros).

Scary tales had circulated earlier in the day of baling carrying on until midnight, but luckily we made good progress and the final ‘half-crown’ bale was added to the big stack in the cow barn at around half-past eight. And then, right on cue, it started to rain.

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Moving so quickly they are a blur, our staff and volunteers finish the final stack

All in all, a very successful exercise, and our sincere thanks go out to all the staff, contractors and volunteers who made it possible, including the Conservation Volunteers who had the unpleasant task of clearing out the sheds in the first place.

This is a major step forward for our grazing programme, and will hopefully be the first of many fruitful hay days.

Steve Alton

Conservation Officer

Dragons and Damsels 2

Regular readers may recall that in an earlier post I was keen to find the heathland-specialist Small red damselfly, but had to make do with its larger cousin. Well, thanks to the extremely knowledgeable Graeme Lyons from the Sussex Wildlife Trust, I have now added the Small red to my list. Here it is – not the best photo in the world, but good enough for a positive ID.

IMG_4655_tonemappedNow that I’ve seen one, the differences between it and the Large red damselfly are very clear; reddish legs, no markings on the abdomen, and overall a much smaller, more delicate creature.

Just as a reminder, here’s the Large red again:

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Black legs, red eyes and black markings on the abdomen. And larger, as the name suggests. The only slight disappointment for me was that I didn’t see the Small red on ‘our’ Forest, but on the Sussex Wildlife Trust’s excellent Old Lodge nature reserve next door. But it’s only a line on a map, after all.

 

 

 

 

Short-toed Eagle – what a week!

As some visitors to the Forest may have noticed, over the past week there have been a lot of birdwatchers around, mostly at either the Old Airstrip and Black Bog or at Gills Lap.

What has attracted a lot of them is a Short-toed Eagle, a nationally incredibly rare bird of prey.

So, what exactly is a Short-toed Eagle (Circaetus gallicus)? Well, it’s a medium sized bird of prey, slightly bigger than a Common Buzzard. The bird here at the moment is a young bird and so has light brown upperparts and dark edges to the upper wings which can look like it has pale ‘shoulders’. Its underparts are very pale and have very faint markings. It has yellow eyes and a bit of a crest so when its settled the head can look quite big. It feeds on reptiles, which is one reason why it’s settled on Ashdown Forest as there are plenty of reptiles around!

(Photo: Bob Pask/Ashdown Bird Group)

(Photo: Bob Pask/Ashdown Bird Group)

 

I had seen on one of the birding websites that this bird had turned up in Dorset about 2 weeks ago and had been flying around southern England since, but I didn’t really think it would turn up here!

Why is it here? By complete accident is the simple answer. Short-toed Eagles usually come up to halfway up France and may just creep into Germany from the east. For one of these to come the UK is a very rare event. This is only the 3rd ever Short-toed Eagle seen in the UK and A LOT of birdwatchers will want to see it.

Unfortunately, not all bird watchers are as responsible as they should be so some may try to get a bit too close to get that perfect photo and could cause unnecessary disturbance to other wildlife, so please be careful!

I first tried to see the bird early on the morning of Monday 16th June while it was at Black Bog. After the first person I asked had told me to look in entirely in the wrong place for the eagle, I joined the group of bird watchers who had just been watching it perched in tree in the open.

I then prepared to wait for the bird to reappear but unfortunately, for me, I had to go off for our Monday Morning Meeting, with one of the birders telling me to “get my priorities straight”.

I knew that I and our new Countryside Worker, Ashley, were due to do a Forest-wide car park litter pick, which was fine with me with this thing flying around!

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STE2

(Photos: Bob Pask/Ashdown Bird Group)

We had our mid morning tea break in Broadstone Car Park where a birder pulled up and said that the eagle was headed over to Gills Lap, happily the next car park we were due to visit. Just as we arrived, the Short-toed Eagle was hanging in the air. I grabbed my telescope and rushed over to get a good view and watched on as the eagle plunged down and landed on something, but this time it didn’t come up with a reptile.

Not only did this bird attract a lot of birders, it also attracted all of the Ashdown Forest Conservators staff out at lunchtime to look for it! Sadly, no photos of this rare event exist for prosperity.

It is worth noting that we did carry on with the litter round and on this crazy day I ended up giving an impromptu talk about the eagle to a school trip next to Friends Clump!

That was the last I saw of the eagle until after work on Tuesday 17th June at Black Bog again. When I got down there I was amazed to find that someone had found its perch, deep in the Scots Pine trees, and for the next two and half hours my and the other 30 birders view of the eagle was this:

STE4

Yep, one of those pale blobs is the eagle!

Eventually, as I’m watching it takes off and everyone is treated to a wonderful circling flight over the woodland. The bird then loops over and up towards the airstrip and out of sight.

(Photo: Neil Fox)

(Photo: Neil Fox)

As a collective group, everyone is looking at each other to see who will go first. In the end, it was me! I headed up the track towards the Old Airstrip, with a look behind me to see the majority of the people following in a cloud of dust and tripod legs at all angles.

We got to the top of the slope and can’t see the eagle but in my mind I’ve had some fantastic views and as I’m on the airstrip in the evening sun I’ll wander back happy.

I am all alone at this point as everyone has stayed to see if the eagle comes back. When I get about a third of the way back up the airstrip I can see through a gap in the trees a white thing on top of a lone Scots Pine. Sure enough, it’s the eagle!

(Photo: Neil Fox)

(Photo: Neil Fox)

I am still by myself so I start waving to attract someone’s attention and soon the same tripod filled dust cloud comes hurrying up the airstrip and before long there is a line of birders lining the whole airstrip!

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As I write this the Short-toed Eagle is still on the Forest and seems quite settled so it is unknown how long it will stay here for. There is a chance for this bird to find its way back to where it should be when it comes to the time of year it should migrate back to Africa.

It is worth pointing out that this all happened in Ashley’s first week of working here and not only that he found a £5 note on the litter round! Apparently he did buy a lottery ticket but I’ve yet to hear how that turned out.

AshFiver

One crazy week!

Tom.

(Thank you to the Ashdown Bird Group, Bob Pask and Neil Fox for the photos).

 

Parasites and carnivores

A scary title, but fear not – I’m talking about plants, and the strange ways some of them get their nutrients. I’ve posted about Sundews before, and their habit of eating insects. I recently saw the other species of Sundew found on the Forest (there are three native to the UK, but one doesn’t grow here). Conveniently, the two species are growing side by side, for ease of comparison:

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Round-leaved sundew (Drosera rotundifolia) top right, with Oblong-leaved sundew (Drosera intermedia)

Another unusual way for plants to obtain nutrients is by parasitism. What you can see in the photo below is not those red liquorice bootlaces you used to be able to buy, but a plant that has given up on leaves and photosynthesis altogether. Common dodder sprawls all over other plants, often Gorse, and where it touches its host it essentially taps into its pipework and draws out nutrient-rich sap. It’s a bit like connecting your house’s electrics to next door’s mains. Since the Gorse is doing all the hard work of photosynthesis, the Dodder doesn’t need to, and stopped bothering to produce leaves. It does still flower though – I’ll post a photo if I’m in the right place at the right time.

Common dodder (Cuscuta epithymum)

Common dodder (Cuscuta epithymum)

Interestingly, a plant I have blogged about before – Lousewort – is what is known as a hemi-parasite; it does a similar thing to Dodder, tapping into the roots of other plants, but hasn’t gone so far as to lose its leaves. A ‘belt and braces’ approach, I guess.

Lousewort (Pedicularis sylvatica)

Lousewort (Pedicularis sylvatica)

Steve Alton

Conservation Officer

 

Question Time, of sorts…

For this week’s blog, I thought that I would try to tackle some questions people may have about the work we do, while at the same time telling you what we have been up to.

So to start with:

How many horns can Hebridean sheep have?

TomHebridean

Well, as I found out when I helped the grazing team with spraying the shearlings with an anti-blowfly, err, spray, it can vary a lot! Most have two, this one has four (and it might be this one which is called Dark Star but one of the grazing team would know) but some in there do have five!

 

 

How do you choose the right litter picker?

Well, it’s not as easy as it looks! What you want to do to start with is look along its length, much like you would when selectingTomPicker a snooker cue, so check that your litter picker is straight and not twisted (this one is prime example). Then it gets tricky because I am quite tall but prefer a shorter litter picker! Bizarre I know, but it really is down to an individual’s taste.

 

Why are some Bluebells white?

TomBluebell

Either:

a)      Because they are albino versions of normal Bluebells and are lacking the necessary pigment to be blue.

b)      Or because they are ones that have been touched by moonlight.

I know which one I believe!

What does the view from Stonehill Car park look like if you stand on your head?

Ta-dah!TomUpsidedown

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

What is the best technique for sweeping out the tractor shed?

Well, opinion on this does vary but I like what I call ‘The Hawth’ technique (named after the way the stage is swept at The Hawth Theatre in Crawley). You sweep from the sides of the shed, make a line of sweepings, if you will, in the middle and then sweep up the line.TomSweeping

I find it quick, efficient and it gives you time enough to take a photo of it :-)

What are these spiders?

TomSpiderlingsI found these spiderlings on one of our bins at our dump last week and just by looking on some social media a few other people have too!

They have yellow bodies and black rear ends (politest way I could describe that anatomical area!).

I had to look it up but these are Garden Cross Spiders (Araneus diadematus).

 

 

How do animals get out of cattle grids if they fall in?

Simple! Sort of… There are holes in the ends of the girders that support the cattle grid and a ramp for the animals to climb out! This is looking through the holes with the ramp at the end after we had just cleared this cattle grid out. TomCattlegrid

That is all of the questions that I can think of for now!

I will try to think of some more questions for next time or write something completely different,

Tom Simon

 

Dragons and Damsels

Ashdown Forest is a particularly good area for Odonata – that’s dragonflies and damselflies to you and I. A glance at the maps in the excellent ‘The Dragonflies of Sussex‘ shows a concentration of records in this area. In fact, Pippingford Park (not strictly part of the Forest but within the original Forest boundary) is one of the best sites for dragons and damsels in Sussex.

A particular speciality of the Forest is the Small red damselfly, a scarce species associated with acid pools on heathland. I’ve already started scouting around for this species in likely habitats, but I think I’m still too early; June is usually quoted as the start of their flying season.

The much commoner Large red damselfly is very much out and about now, and breeding in the same boggy pools.

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After pairing up and mating, the male lowers the female – clasped behind the head by the tip of his abdomen – down to the water’s surface so she can lay her eggs. As you can see, suitable pools get quite hectic. Let’s hope there is still room for the Small red damselfly in a few weeks time.

IMG_2650_tonemappedIMG_2719_tonemappedSteve Alton

Conservation Officer

Adders, udders and Exmoors

Tom PoniesWell, it has been a while since I’ve done a blog (hopefully no one’s noticed but I have been on holiday!) and I’ve had a few days with the grazing team, in between more litter picking and other estate management related jobs. TomPonies2

I was involved with moving our 6 Exmoor ponies from the grazing enclosure at Arden’s to an enclosure at Lone Oak.

Here they are at Lone Oak, drinking from one of the pools and mingling with the Woodlarks.

Going out with the grazing team does mean that I get to a few places that I otherwise wouldn’t, including Windy Ridge. The other day we came across this striking male Adder! TomAdderThis is the first Adder I’ve seen on the Forest (still waiting for Dartford Warbler!!!) and this one is trying to climb a garden wall – he did eventually find a hole to shoot into.

The Adder was at Windy Ridge and that is where our Hebridean Lambs are. They are still getting to know the world and here are some finding out what a twig is. TomLambsThey are still reliant on milk from their mothers (hence the udders reference in the title of the blog) and after the ewes have eaten their pellets there is a period of loud bleating from all the sheep as they are reunited.

I am trying to get to know my moths a bit better and not one to pass up an opportunity, here is a Maiden’s Blush TomMaidensBlush(thanks to iSpot for identifying it for me) that landed in the wheel of one of our tractors while we were having lunch.

In another unlikely spot, here is one of the more colourful day-flying moths, a Cinnabar Moth! This one was just at the entrance to our dump on a dock stalk. I always think it’s worth reiterating if you find a black and yellow stripped caterpillar it’s probably one of these and DO NOT PICK IT UP! You will get a rash from it! This moth extracts the toxins from its food-plant, Ragwort, and uses them as a defence against predators. TomCinnabar

All good fun as we continue through 2014 (how are we halfway through May already?).

That’s all for now,

Tom Simon

Countryside Worker

 

 

After the fire

I recently took a walk down from Millbrook East car park to look at the area we burnt this spring. As it was my first burn on the Forest, I was keen to see how the vegetation was responding, and I was pleasantly surprised. The first sign that all was well was the presence of plenty of Lousewort (Pedicularis sylvatica) in flower. This is a partial parasite on the roots of grasses, and the fact that it was flourishing bodes well for some of the other perennial herbs, particularly the Marsh gentian.

Lousewort

Lousewort

Whilst grubbing around on my hands and knees for the photo above, I had a quick look at some woody stems, to confirm that they were, as I suspected, Creeping willow (Salix repens). I was surprised to find a couple of clusters of eggs on the underside of the leaves.

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The owner of the eggs was close by – a Red poplar leaf beetle (Chrysomela populi). Despite its name, it seems quite common on willows, with plenty of records from Creeping willow.

Red poplar leaf beetle

Red poplar leaf beetle

All this activity suggests that the burn has certainly done no harm, and will hopefully have benefited a range of heathland species. I’ll be keeping a close eye on the site as the season unfolds.

Steve Alton

Conservation Officer

 

Plants that bite back

Lots of plant species are coming back to life on the Forest; one that I’m particularly excited to see is the Round-leaved sundew. This is a carnivorous plant – it catches and digests insects using the sticky glandular hairs on its leaves. This is an adaptation to the poor soils of places like Ashdown Forest; the sundew obtains nitrogen and other nutrients from the bodies of its prey.

If you look closely, the leaf at the top of the photo has caught a fly

If you look closely, the leaf at the top of the photo has caught a fly

The Round-leaved sundew is uncommon but widespread in the UK; it is very much associated with Sphagnum moss and peat bogs, an increasingly scarce habitat. It does have a particular Ashdown Forest link, though. One of the earliest books on plants that catch and digest insects was written by Charles Darwin. Prior to his research, there was a lot of debate about whether or not the capture of insects was deliberate, and if the plant actually derived any nutritional benefit from the process. In The Insectivorous Plants, published in 1875, Darwin showed conclusively that the carnivorous habit was a deliberate mechanism to supplement the plant’s diet. And the sundews he used in his studies, in his greenhouse at Down House in Kent, were collected from Ashdown Forest.

I hope he had permission!

The kind of nutrient-poor peaty pool favoured by sundews

The kind of nutrient-poor peaty pool favoured by sundews

Steve Alton

Conservation Officer