The First Leaves of Autumn…

As the daylight turns to starlight and the season turns to change,

I get the same old answers but the question still remains,

We shared a brief but magic song,

By the first leaves of autumn, you were gone.

So the leaves (and the reeds) have started to turn, and the estate is gradually turning from the green and pleasantly colourful place it is in the summer into the drab and misty place it becomes in the early hours of the day through the winter. I took to the saddle early one misty morning, and rode upstream of the river to the ridgeline near the next village, hopping a couple of hedges in the process. I’m glad I took the off-road route, as the mist enveloped me and the mount as we dropped into the dips alongside the river before climbing the ridge. I’m only sorry I didn’t take my trusty Nikon, as the photos would have been fantastic. There was also a purpose to this – seeing which of the hedges needed ‘topping out’ in readiness for the opening meet of the local hunt. I think the mount enjoyed his early ride, which may bode well for me borrowing him more often to ride to hounds in the season!

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Aside from that morning off, work on the estate has continued! I had the Environment Agency Biodiversity (formerly Conservation) Team along one morning to carry out an otter survey. I was almost one hundred percent certain that we do not have any resident (or transient) otters on either of the two river channels, and after their survey, they concur. However, it is unlikely to mean the EA will reconsider my most recent Flood Defence Consent application which was recently refused with a very brief (but very confusing) rejection. It did however; show up a large increase in the activity of the local Mink population. I shall set a few more traps on the river banks and perhaps ‘plot up’ with the .17 HMR for a few hours on a couple of evenings before it gets uncomfortably cold. On the other hand I could track down the local Mink Hounds!

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I shall be undertaking further tree works in the next two weeks, with two more of the ageing wild cherry trees in the weir pool paddock to be felled by myself, and a couple of tree climbers from my tame local tree company are going to reduce the size of the weeping willow overhanging the footpath, both to allow some light onto the footpath and also encourage the privet hedge bordering it to thicken. With the exception of the willow, which will be burnt, I should have another 10 – 12 cubic metre bags of firewood from the wild cherry trees to process. These cherries have never been managed, are rotting at the stumps and snapping out at the top. I would rather drop and fell them in a controlled manner than have to clear up the mess after a night of high winds! The mini-digger and log splitter (plus myself with a chainsaw) make quite an effective processing line, but it is back breaking! Currently I am stacking the cubic metre bags of logs three high in the barn to season, so feel free to contact me if you need firewood!

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My earlier mention of the reeds turning has reminded me – whilst the Sparganium erectum is starting to turn and die, the Schoenoplectus lacustris and Phragmities australis is still just about hanging on. The former (usually called Bur-reed) is the staple reed throughout most of the river on the estate, although interestingly it is well spread on one channel (downstream of the weir), and absent on the channel above before the weir splits the flow. It needs to be cut and removed as it dies off – generally because otherwise it all dislodges at once in high flows and block the road bridge at the downstream limit of our land. The latter two species (Club Rush and Common Reed) aren’t too much of a problem, but Common Reed has started spreading up the graded banks, and out competing some of the native river-side flowers I sowed, so it may be sprayed with Glyphosate early next year to reduce it.

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On the river banks, I have cut a chequer board pattern on the banks to the water’s edge with the tractor mounted flail, meaning there is 50m of vegetation topped to about 6 inches high, then 50m of vegetation left as is, to die off naturally over the winter, repeated down the lower channel. This should result in the ground covering vegetation on the topped areas coming back much quicker next year as the higher level plants quickly out competed them in the short time after I had completed the bank works. In leaving some areas to die off naturally, I have left cover for rods and wildlife alike through the autumn and winter. The river looks to promise some cracking winter sport for pike and chub, so we shall see how that fishes.

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Due to change in circumstances (shortly I am to become an uncle), I have also spent time installing all the temporary electric fencing on wooden posts throughout the lower paddocks to see us through the winter grazing, and am waiting on the fencing contractor to come and install the ‘horse rail’ along the field-side of the track along the lower river channel. The little 45hp compact tractor and post rammer have been worked hard, but my bracing and welding skills on the post rammer seem to have worked, as it is has rammed in all the posts (thus far) with no further issues since I welded the bending lift arm. Two horses will be residing on the estate earlier than planned due to the owner being pregnant with my nephew! The fields have been topped for the last time (hopefully) in the last of the sunny days, so they should provide some good winter grazing, even with the expected flooding of the lower paddocks.

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The temporary paddocks also needed water and electric running to them, so I have been on the mini-digger, trenching away to run blue water pipe and armoured cable to the old Nissen hut and existing stables. Due to the gravel substrate, a pipe ripper on the back of the tractor jams regularly, meaning it is quicker to dig trenches with the mini-digger. Our new stable complex, horse walker and barn look set to be a 2016 build due to planning permission issues and the local council planning department changing tunes like wind chimes in a force 8 gale.

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I finally got around to installing one (out of three) of the Little Owl nest boxes that were made on the estate by my father a few months ago. The only one installed to date resides in one of the semi-mature trees in the formal garden on the estate. At some point I probably should install the others before they end up housing something undesirable! The usual / regular jobs during the nicer weather, such as verge flailing, hedge cutting, paddock topping and track mowing should hopefully have been done for the last time by the time I write this. If by chance I have to cut them all one last time because the weather holds out, then so be it, but I shan’t worry if time does not allow it. With luck, I shall have an opportunity to dig the remaining tree stumps and miscellaneous bits of concrete out and then leave the weir pool paddock to it’s own devices over the winter.

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Jobs coming up will mainly be finishing off the last few bits of fencing, hanging a few gates, processing the timber from forestry and tree works into firewood and tucking away the hay and straw properly to ensure we have a usable supply through winter for the horses in the temporary stables. If anyone would like any logs in the Berkshire area, please drop me an email to ACountryChap@outlook.com.

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All the best,

ACC.

Having the Weather Gage…

…is an old naval expression, taken to mean that you have the wind and weather in your favour as you prepare to engage an enemy warship downwind of you (at least in times of sail power). It is slightly applicable to working in the countryside too – particularly as I don’t have it!

I have been caught stating for the past few weeks that the hay crop had been less than expected and the ground far too dry to harrow and roll the fields in preparation for use as paddocks and that a few days rain would be a good thing. Not only would the ground soften up, the fields be green rather than brown and the new hedges that had been planted have a fighting chance, but the river would also colour up slightly, giving the fish the confidence needed to venture through the shallower areas into the upper reaches on my estate, hopefully improving the dismal catches so far in the season. It would also make installing all the fencing, grading/levelling some of the bumpier bits easier. Unfortunately most of the sub-soil on the estate is gravel (hence the areas of fantastic spawning gravel in the river), which means that it needs riddling before spreading on the fields – or it has to used to fill in the larger holes and a layer of topsoil spread on the top to seed. This isn’t the nicest job to do in the pouring rain…

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Sadly, I asked for the rain too soon. The garage extension is half-built and the roof is being delayed due to the rain, the stack of cordwood and tree trunks is increasing as using a chainsaw and PTO log splitter on wet muddy ground in the rain is too risky, the compost heap is saturated and I haven’t been able to cut channels through the reed growth in the river due to the ground conditions. I hadn’t cut it earlier in the season as the reeds holding back water were the sole reason the river levels were still fishable higher up the channel. The old outbuildings are still standing, as I haven’t wished to demolish them too early on in the year prior to the stable yard and new barns being built. On the plus side, digging out a lot of the old tree stumps in and around the garden with the mini-digger is easier with softer ground, but only if you turn a blind eye to the mess created! I’m not too worried as half of the current lawn will end up as paddocks anyway, but still – I should have got around to this earlier!

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I definitely don’t have the weather gage, and it looks, sadly, as if the stable yard build shall be put off till next year due to the weather and the un-erring ability (or lack of it) of the planning department to know what each hand is doing at the same time.

All the best,

ACC.

Preparing for Rivers Week 2015

Carrying on from the previous blog, I had a little bit (lots) of preparatory work to carry out on the weekend before Rivers Week 2015 to make the site safe for when the volunteers arrived on the Tuesday – (bear in mind some of these volunteers had never worked in a river before). First off, there was an area of hard standing (road planings) with a concrete pad built on top, which had once been a muck heap. Why by all that is Holy, the previous owners of the estate had thought the eroding river bank would be an ideal place to build a muck heap is beyond me, so one of the first tasks with the excavator was to break it up and scrape out the road planings. (During the course of this I also discovered a buried and long forgotten lawn roller which will be cleaned up and probably either be pressed into service or painted and used as a garden decoration). Around 25% of this concrete pad was sat on thin air as a result of erosion by the river over time, which meant keeping well away from river bank with the machine until I was certain which bits were capable of supporting 13 tons! It had to come out as I didn’t fancy someone innocently walking over it, only to disappear vertically in cartoon fashion with a wild yell and a cloud of dust!

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Secondly, there was a rather large and rather dangerous windblown Willow tree which had cracked, fallen over and been hung up on a neighbouring Willow tree (which also happened to be dead) on the edge of the Willow stand at the bottom of the fields. I am a fairly experienced tree climber / tree surgeon and common sense dictates that the only two things required to spike up these particular trees were a donor card and a suicide note. Much as I wished for the tree to come down to the ground in a timely fashion, I had no particular interest in riding it on it’s way there. Working on my own for most of the time means I readily develop innovative ways of working to keep myself safe (rather than Health and safety, read self preservation). In this case, it meant using the pulling power of the excavator and some long winching straps to make the tree drop where I wanted it to whilst working from the ground with a chainsaw.

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The windblown tree was much easier to deal with than I was expecting with some nifty cutting from both sides and the use of some high lift wedges to make it fall back on itself and fold up, and then extracted both halves of it with the excavator. It was later used to generate some of the T-Bar woody debris items which would be installed in the river channel later that week!

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In the pouring rain, and alternating between on the chainsaw and on the excavator, I also felled and extracted around another 12 Willow trees from the Willow stand halfway along the reach, both to generate woody debris to install in the channel, and also to allow some sunlight into the area, hopefully to transform the bare earth in the stand of trees into a natural woodland, with low level ground vegetation, making for an increase in habitat for native species. This area will also have the banks re-profiled, but later in the year with a smaller excavator as the 13t is slightly unwieldy to use in confined spaces. Working in the rain is never an attractive prospect, and in full chainsaw equipment (including a climbing harness), I admitted defeat at 1400, going in search of the woodburner, fresh coffee, dry clothes and some soothing cream for some hideous chafe marks!

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However, the majority of the materials needed for the volunteers were on site – brash was stacked up to start the bank repairs and channel narrowing, large woody debris items were laid out to be wired together and the pallet of chestnut stakes was left on the river ban over night. Despite the rain, the site was ready. I just hoped the rain would stop to allow work to be carried out on the Tuesday without the river rising to prevent anyone from working in the channel.

To be continued, yet again…

ACC.