Wednesday June 16th dawned bright and clear. A good day for playing in rivers. We hosted the Wild Trout Trust with Prof Johnny Grey and a happy band of volunteers.

We were split into three groups, electro-fishing, water chemical analysis and invertebrate sampling, and then spent the next few hours enjoying the attention of midges and other jewels of our river environment.

We only have the results of the electro-fishing at the time of writing which can be found on our ‘Archive” page.


Prince’s Youth Trust Visit 14th June

Today we hosted a visit with some young folk from Darlington. The day didn’t start well with the bus driver being told by his ‘masters’ to drop them off at the wrong place. But through good luck and gravity (they were dropped off upstream of the cluster) we all assembled an hour or so later than initially planned.

Their day was meant to consist of a bird ringing demonstration with both nest boxes glared into and mist nets watched, followed by lunch and an afternoon doing ‘navigation’ on Fremington Edge.

Roger, a local National Park ranger introduced them to the idea behind ringing and the why’s and wherefores before our group of 18-25 yr olds giggled there way along to the first nest box.

As we approached a male pied flycatcher was on the nest box. Once carefully opened by Roger (a licensed bird ringer) he ringed each of the 8 chicks and invited a couple of our visitors at a time to get a bit closer and watch.

We then wandered down to where John (the gent who rings for me usually) had set up some mist nets. These are very fine nets which birds are unable to see. They fly into them and are carefully ‘extracted’ (yes that’s the technical term) and then their biometrics are taken, that is they are aged, sexed, weighed and wing measurements etc taken before being ringed and released. One lucky person got to give a robin its freedom.

By the time we got back to Heggs for lunch it was too late to do the afternoon’s activity, so we had a leisurely lunch and a good bit of banter.

Afterwards we said goodbye to a group who I genuinely believe had enjoyed their day (if their reactions were anything to go by).

Hopefully we can repeat this sort of thing with other youth groups. If we don’t engage, we’ve got no chance of getting folk to care.

The pitfalls of wildlife recording.

June 13th. Warm, muggy and now decidedly midgey.

Whilst we were having a wander around yesterday, a kind gent was trying to install some ‘pitfall’ traps to sample creepy-crawlies. I hope you appreciate my technical terms?

Pitfall traps are designed to catch insects, spiders, flies etc so they can later be identified. They do kill whatever falls into them, but this is currently the standard way that records are collected. It’s certainly uncomfortable having to take specimens, but it leads to a much better understanding of the biota (the things that live there) of an area than anything else. The ‘greater good’ argument. They are basically a cup, buried to the lip so creatures fall and are killed with a solution in the cup. Not ideal..BUT watch this space, as we are going to trial some DNA sampling this summer. More on this in a later blog.

After the earlier walk I offered to help install a series of traps. Digging them in next to the river we were attacked by midges. But when those were installed we moved onto less midgey territory. Once installed we decided to look for a rare spider that has recently been spotted in Swaledale. Getting our feet wet on a roastingly hot afternoon (for us upland types) was rather pleasant. Below is a pic of a spider similar (probably) to the one we were looking for.

The pitfall raps will be removed next week and results will be published here and on our ‘archive’ page.

We also found another oystercatcher on eggs and a pair of Large red damselfly.

Bird ringing demonstration…nah another walk around.

Sunday 13th June. Very warm and sticky. Part 1.

Sadly no one had booked to come on our bird ringing demonstration walk. So we reorganised and had a wander around with a chap (and his wife) who had expressed an interest in the project and who is the Director of the Wildland Research Institute. Find Steve on Twitter @LandEthics

We had another lovely few hours. We found the oystercatchers nest mentioned yesterday and came across a slow worm (which looks like a snake but is actually a legless lizard).

Hopefully we can work with him and his colleagues at Leeds University to further our understand and knowledge of the cluster.

Oh, and he brought me some ‘chicken of the woods’ fungi which I later coated in panko breadcrumbs mixed with a spice/herb mix I’d made, and created ‘Kentucky Fried Chicken …of the Woods’ so he can come again.

Recipe available if you ask nicely!

A good mooch around.

Saturday 12th June.

Saturday was the first day of our BioBlitz (or BioSkirmish as is my preferred name). We had arranged to meet a group of folk, many local, to show them around the cluster and explain what we are attempting to do, how we will attempt to do it and why we will probably get a lot wrong along the way.

I arrived half an hour early and managed to see the the cluster’s first common blue butterfly of the year. Sadly it didn’t reappear on our walk.

It was a lovely afternoon and after introductions and the mandatory ‘spiel’ (stating the bleedin’ obvious about watching what you are doing) we set off. Ragged robin was flowering. Oystercatchers called nearby, probably nesting so we quickly moved on. Yellow rattle and greater burnet were both noticed and were the first specimens to be ‘officially’ recorded for the cluster. Surprisingly there were some primrose still in flower.

Yellow rattle is an interesting plant. It is a ‘semi-parasite’ which feeds on grasses. it can reduce yield in a hay crop by 50%. It slows the growth rate of coarse grasses but that means that more wild flowers get a chance to flower. So if you want to cut down on your lawn mowing AND get more wildflowers in your lawn, get some yellow rattle sown. A win win situation if, like me, you hate grass cutting. A quick look here should tell you all you need to know.

I was too busy chatting to take any pix of the group and after a good walk and 3 hours of chat we parted.

Everyone seemed to enjoy themselves and we got a nice thank you message later in the day from one of the group.

Thanks to everyone who came.

Wood Pasture.

“Wood-pasture and parkland are mosaic habitats valued for their trees, especially veteran and ancient trees , and the plants and animals that they support. Grazing animals are fundamental to the existence of this habitat. Specialised and varied habitats within wood- pasture and parkland provide a home for a wide range of species, many of which occur only in these habitats, particularly insects, lichens and fungi which depend on dead and decaying wood. Individual trees, some of which may be of great size and age, are key elements of the habitat and many sites are also important historic landscapes”

That is part of the official description of the rare and valuable habitat that is wood pasture or ‘silvo-pastoral agro-forestry’ as it is also known. The full description is here.

The cluster would once have been wood pasture. In Andrew Fleming’s excellent book ‘Swaledale, Valley of the wild river’ there is a map showing what the land use was in medieval times. I have overlaid this on the current OS map and as you can see it shows clearly the extent of wood pasture many years ago.

Overlay reproduced (with permission) from “Swaledale, Valley of the wild river” by Andrew Fleming

Interestingly enough the north western edge pretty much mirrors that of the Heggs Farm part of the cluster. The land to the west of Heggs has very few established trees, whereas on Heggs, there are many old trees and it looks very like what wood pasture should look like.

Through careful use of grazing and replanting we hope to enhance what we already have and re-establish what wood pasture would have been there. This is something I would love to see so much more of in the Two Dales.

Sunday peregrination.

A clear blue sky and the first warm Sunday of the year. Reeth was very busy as I drove up to the peace that is the Heggs Castle Cluster for a wander, or a ‘peregrination’ as some would have it. The last couple of days has seen a large arrival of swallows in the dale, so I went looking for other migrant birds.

I didn’t hear the cuckoo which has been calling recently behind Heggs House, but found I found plenty of other migrants. Five plus territories of spotted flycatcher (a late arriving migrant) were quite a surprise. Plenty of willow warbler too. A couple of green woodpeckers were ‘yaffling’ loudly, 2 lots of pied flycatchers, a couple of woodcock, common sandpiper, blackcap and a few beatboxes occupied by tits feeding their young. Surprisingly no redstarts were seen. There were no ospreys today, unlike the other day when two flew low overhead. perhaps the Wensleydale birds?

I noted very few bees and a few butterflies. One orange tip and a few whites were seen including a lovely green-veined white feeding on wild garlic.

I also saw a wonderful elm in full leaf. A survivor from Dutch Elm Disease which look stunning at this time of year. Very few left locally sadly.

A lovely walk on a stunning day at a wonderful location.

Plantlife Cowslip Survey completed

24th May: The Plantlife cowslip survey was done on the cluster. They are not particularly abundant but many won’t have been noticed as the flower spikes are nibbled off by grazers and I was only looking for flower spikes.

Just over a hundred were found. Some couldn’t be recorded as the flowers were not ‘out’. 82 flowering plants were recorded of which 44 were ‘L-morph’ and 38 were ‘S-morph’ (don’t ask, just follow the link below!)

It’s an easy and enjoyable survey to do so if you know anywhere with a few cowslips crack on! Find out how

Also noted were peacock butterflies, two common sandpipers, kestrel, buzzard, pied flycatcher and a cuckoo calling close to Heggs House. There were also a few ‘screaming’ swifts racing around.