Archives for category: Nature Conservation

A double whammy this week, as it’s almost time for environmental artists Simon and Caitlin to start work on their latest creation at Harting Down…

Well here we are less than a week to go before we start building our first temporary structure on Harting Down. Last week, standing on the rise overlooking Witcombe bottom, I was quietly overwhelmed by the deeply rooted beauty of this place. No deer that day (I’ve seen hundreds here); the occasional conversations of birds were the only sound to break the phenomenal silence of the place. This was one of those moments when, yet again, I thought ‘why build anything here? This place is perfect.’ A question you may well imagine gets asked of us often enough. Our answer is hard to put into words.

We see ourselves as facilitators, asking people to be aware of deep worlds hidden in nature. By altering the landscape, adding to it, just for a while, we can highlight, question and explore different aspects of the world around us currently concealed by our own familiarity. Even if you are lucky enough to walk this place every day, or every week, there are still ways of seeing, ways of experiencing a place which people never knew existed.

An example of Red Earth's work

Red Earth's work is inspired by their surroundings

Our installations are not meant to detract from a landscape. They are made from it, respond to it, highlight one or more of its hidden elements. And in the end, they’re temporary. This one gone by October, leaving, we hope, a good and lasting memory of a place changed – even enhanced – by our efforts.

Over 20 years Caitlin and I have been exploring the landscape, especially the South Downs, through sculptures and performances, and now with our three lively boys in tow. We’re just a couple of folk, working with some other talented artists and craftspeople, attempting to make something happen which stays with people a long time. We still don’t quite know what it is we manage to create. But it seems to work. And after all the ins and outs of planning and logistics and emails and press releases and re-planning, at last here we are. Only a few days of panic and madness before we can spend two weeks just working solidly in a fantastic space, on the wonderful task of making physical something that currently exists only in our imaginations.

Visit to find out more about this project and how you can get involved.


How time flies. We apologies for the lack of blogs latley. It is a busy time here as all our houses and gardens open. Now however, Mark councludes his short blogging stint by telling you how you can become a volunteer shepherd.

We have very recently set up a scheme for visitors to Reigate Hill in Surrey to help the wardens check the sheep and cattle that graze here.

The sheep and cattle help us by grazing the rare chalk downland habitat and stop it reverting back to scrub and eventually woodland. On the steeper slopes of the hill they are invaluable as it’s impossible to get any machinery on the slopes to clear the regrowth. We use Belted Galloway cows and Black Welsh Mountain sheep as these breeds thrive on grazing the poorer types of habitat found at Reigate and are also very friendly to visitors.

One of our newest recruits, Antonia, wanted to share her reasons for volunteering:

“I spend a lot of time looking for my Border Terrier Loki. I sit and wait patiently while he counts the rabbit population on the side of Reigate Hill and checks whether any small holes are really too small for a dog of his size and doubtful intelligence. It was on one of these occasions that I spotted the pink poster asking for volunteer stockpeople for the National Trust. I have a secret yearning to be a vet but haven’t the sheer animal vitality (excuse the pun) not to mention the brains to embark on the years of training. I’ve volunteered for animal charities but they always involve domestic pets. Here was my chance to get up close(ish) and personal with cows and sheep. The top of Reigate Hill is so beautiful whatever the weather and now I have a perfect reason to push myself up the side, rewarding myself with a brief one-sided chat with Billy and the girls, while I run an eye over them. It’s a great opportunity to get to know the animals and feel I am doing something worthwhile whilst enjoying myself.”

So if you interested in becoming a volunteer shepherd or even just want to find more about the scheme them please email Marc Russell at or telephone us on 01342 843 225. No experience is necessary and basic training is given. You can volunteer as often as you like – even if its just every now and then – anything is a great help.

A little later than planned, the next series of blogs will be written by Mark Richards, Head Warden for National Trust countryside in the east of the Surrey Hills. This week he writes about his dedicated volunteers and shares a personal favourite memory.

I always look forward to Thursday’s as it means working with my volunteers, the Limpsfield Voluntary Task Force. The group have been established for over 25 years. At the moment we have 35 in the group, and some of them have been with us for over 20 years. 

The volunteers have helped us with many projects over the years on Limpsfield Common, from the construction of a pond to the restoration of a Second World War air raid shelter. Last year alone they gave us over 2,400 hours of their time. Over the last few weeks they have been helping us re-plant an area of woodland with young oak and beech trees, but their favourite task has to be anything involving a bonfire – the bigger the better.

At exactly 10.15am on a Thursday morning the word “coffee” can be heard as it’s shouted across the worksite by the group’s leader Derek Horn. Everyone puts downs their tools and normally conjugates close to fire to discuss the latest goings on locally as well as further a-field while enjoying a hot cup of coffee from their flasks. Before you know it though Derek is telling them they have had a long enough coffee break and that they need to get back to work.

After a hard morning’s work the majority of the group head off to the local pub to have a well deserved drink and continue to their discussions from earlier in the morning.

The most memorable time for me with regards the volunteers is when they provided a guard of honour at my wedding. It was such a privilege to walk out of the church and go under a tunnel of slashers held high by my volunteers.

The volunteers at my wedding

As well as this volunteer group we have got two other groups that meet on a Tuesday at Reigate and on a Wednesday at Outwood near Redhill. If you are interested in joining any of these groups please email Mark Richards at

Hello. This week David Elliot shares more about the design and materials for the new environmentally friendly building that Ben Law is helping the National Trust to build at Swan Barn Farm.

We have decided to call the new building Speckled Wood, after this butterfly that likes to frequent woodland rides and glades. They seem to be doing rather well here at Swan Barn Farm, thanks in some way at least to the work we have been doing here for the past few years.

Speckled Wood butterfly

Speckled Wood butterfly

The building will be based on a roundwood cruck timber frame. This construction technique produces attractive, functional buildings that can be sourced from the local woods. Exterior walls will be made of straw bales which will then either be rendered with lime or protected with oak boards. Interior walls will be wattle and daub with earth plaster. The roof will be made of chestnut shingles. We are very proud that pretty much all of the materials used in the building will be sourced in a sustainable way from woods within a couple of miles of the project site.

Sketch of new building

Sketch of new building

Above is a sketch of what the new building will look like, we have had a long haul to get the project off the ground and are still working hard on funding. Meanwhile we are also working hard in the woods getting the materials we will need for the project ready.

Felling chestnut

Felling chestnut

Here we are working in Ridden Corner Copse on Black Down felling and preparing the Sweet Chestnut which will be used for the timber frame of the building. The process becomes really fascinating when you start to think about which parts of the building the tree’s you are working with are going to be used for.

Working on oak

Working on oak

Above you can see me working on an oak in Witley Copse at Swan Barn Farm. The tree I am working on in this photo is destined for interior floorboards for the building. It will be sawn into planks and then air dried for a number of months before a final short spell of kiln drying.

Most of the timber for the building is coming from coppice woodlands. Coppicing is a traditional (and sustainable) form of woodland management which dates back many hundreds, if not thousands, of years. In a coppiced wood an area of the wood is felled each winter, but the trees don’t die, instead they re-grow from the cut stumps, the re-growth from the stumps can be harvested many times without any affect on the tree’s ability to grow again. Coppicing provides wood which is useful for a variety of purposes, but perhaps even more importantly it also provides the alternating cycles of light and shade, as well bare ground and dense shrubby thickets which are so vital to much of our precious woodland wildlife. Wild flowers grab the opportunity to grow and set seed in the light when the coppice is cut and woodland birds love to nest in the thickets as the woodland regenerates. There is nothing quite like a walk through a well managed hazel coppice in the spring, it is a vibrant place, bursting with life.

If you are interested in finding out more about this project you can visit the speckled wood blog at:

I am writing it as way of keeping a diary of progress on the project, telling its story I suppose, as well as letting people locally know about some of the other things that are going on at Black Down.

The project has been really interesting so far, and we are only just getting going, we have been lucky to have lots of local support and interest and we hope this will continue.

We have a busy year ahead of us, so wish us luck! If you are here in Haslemere this summer why not call in and see the building going up, there is easy access to Swan Barn Farm from the High Street, and the main footpath goes right past the project.

In this week’s blog David Elliott, National Trust Head Warden for the Black Down Estate, starts writing about the Speckled Wood project at Swan Barn Farm.

Swan Barn Farm is a National Trust property next to the small town of Haslemere. Being right on the town’s doorstep it offers a real opportunity for people to get involved in the countryside. It is made up of about 100 acres of ancient woodland and meadows as well as a small orchard and a number of ponds and streams. It is home to the Black Down wardening team as well as to Hunter Basecamp.

Hunter Basecamp at Swan Barn Farm

Hunter Basecamp at Swan Barn Farm

The basecamp, pictured above, offers accommodation to volunteers who come for week long working holidays and work on a number of NT properties in the area. It is also the site for an exciting new project; a project that aims to extend the basecamp facilities by building new accommodation for long term volunteers.

View across the estate

View across the estate

From our base at Swan Barn Farm the Black Down countryside team manages hundreds of acres of woodland, heathland and meadows. This countryside and its important wildlife are much loved by local people. We want the new building to reflect this landscape and to be constructed from materials sourced on the estate in an environmentally friendly manner.

Woods near Swan Barn Farm

Woods near Swan Barn Farm

The woodlands on the estate are managed primarily for public access and nature conservation. Large areas of them are traditional coppiced woodlands. The cyclical cutting of coppiced woodland provides ideal conditions for a wide range of woodland wildlife as well as providing timber for use on the estate, including our new building.

Chesnut coppicing on the estate

Chesnut coppicing on the estate

We have been working with local designer and woodsman Ben Law, who you may have seen building his house (shown below) on the Channel 4 programme Grand Designs. Ben is working with us to design and build an environmentally friendly, locally sourced building which we can construct with the help of our volunteers.

The house Ben Law built

The house Ben Law built

Next week David will share more details about this project including what work has been carried out so far and the design of the building.

Well, the end of the year has come and gone. The end of “International Year of Biodiversity”. (IYB, no less) Please don’t say you missed it!

I realise that there is a “year”, “week” or “day” to “celebrate” almost everything. I believe that there is even some sort of celebration of that most pernicious, disgusting and, frankly, evil member of the planet’s flora – the Brussels Sprout. But even this object of torture that torments us from childhood to the grave has its moments. If you cut out the middle man/woman and chuck them straight on the compost heap they can benefit any number of microbial species and will no doubt nourish our earth worms. The worms will go deeper into the soil as the surface temperatures drop, but a compost heap is likely to be warmer (as a result of all that decomposition). I have sometimes put a bit of old carpet on my heap to speed up the rotting process. If you do this, then roll back a bit of the carpet in cold, snowy weather you are likely to find birds aplenty descending on it to find worms and other invertebrates.

One species you are likely to see is the Robin. This charming little bird (as seen on a Christmas card recently, no doubt) is actually a bit of a brutish thug at this time of year, engaged in some aggressive activity to defend its territory. Robins have no doubt been put off vegetarianism by the thought of sprouts, and prefer to eat meal worms from bird tables. They are the gardener’s friend – I have a “pet” on my allotment (whom I have imaginatively named “Robin”) who follows me up and down the plot as I dig.

Talking of aggressive, largely (but not solely) male behaviour, at the end of IYB…. There are other parallels in the generally mindless, drunken lechery and aggression that is sometime referred to by us humans as “celebrating” New Year’s Eve. As the New Year begins you can see some of our early breeding birds coming into full breeding plumage. Try and see through the apparently sordid mating scenes of the Mallards on your local Trust pond. Admittedly the females look battered and scarred and can sometimes be drowned by the “over-amorous” behaviour of a group of drakes, but this seems to be the way they work and you may wish to concentrate your thoughts on the male’s plumage. The head which may look, at first sight, to be dark green can shimmer as it moves from a sort of luminescent turquoise to blue and purple. And look at the colours of Starlings too. Close up that apparently dull dark brown/black also goes through all sorts of shades of deep purple – showing the sort of subtle “make up” and glamour that nature can produce but us humans may struggle with as we prepare to go out for New Year.

Mallards on frozen water at Petworth Park

After dark you will still hear the ducks (carrying on all night!), and last night I listened to a coo-ing collared dove sitting on a snow covered chimney in the cold and dark. But daytime also brings sounds of impending spring. If the sun manages to poke through you will here the “squeaky wheelbarrow” call of Great tits and the chirpy and generally “happy” sound of Chaffinches as their minds turn to finding a mate and getting down to the business of…well… life

So IYB comes to an end as 2010 closes, but I am glad to say that there is a sequel … well there is in my book. If “biodiversity” is simply our variety of wildlife, then every year is one in which to celebrate it, fancy logo or not.

A new year starts here – get out to your local Trust property and enjoy it…Ravens and Peregrines on the White Cliffs; orchids on the North Downs (and Bee Orchids in Batemans car park); Dartford warblers (have they survived the cold?) on our Surrey and West Sussex heaths; “mad” March Hares on the lawn at Uppark; Serotine bats at Polesden Lacey; dragonflies gracing ponds at Nymans, Ightham, Hatchlands and Sissinghurst and, best of all in my book, nearly 2,000 hectares of Trust woodland to explore in Kent, Sussex and Surrey.

Early morning, afternoon tea time, or after dark… get out there and enjoy it.

Nature Conservation Adviser, Crispin, Scott, looks at what goes on under ground and after dak. In particular, the ant hills that cover our many acres of parkland.

The snow comes, it goes…it comes back again…. The ice man cometh …and much of our wildlife will be struggling. Particularly since the cold weather arrived so early in winter. There could be three months of this ahead of us. Of course while many animals are struggling for food and warmth the fairly steady temperatures may also benefit those that hibernate or just slow their metabolism down. At least they know where they stand.

While the rest of us battle in and out of overheated shops fighting for the last orange flavoured Christmas pudding on the shelves or shiver in front of those horrid chiller units as a family from Billingshurst stockpiles white bread just in case it snows again, we could learn a thing or two from the Yellow meadow-ants in our parks. These wonderful little creatures create their own micro climate within their raised ant hills, which heat up nicely in summer. The ants are another of our “after dark” brigade, preferring to build the anthills (by bring fine soil particles to the surface) at night. But in winter under a layer of snow and ice the ants have gone deeper into their homes and are feeding on their own stockpile. The anthills are also home to root-dwelling aphids which feed on sap from plants and exude a “honeydew” fluid which the ants “milk” for food. In the winter, as everything slows down and times get tough, the ants often resort to eating the aphids, rather than their honeydew.

Snow covered ant hills at Petworth Park

Snow covered ant hills at Petworth Park

Lets hope for the sake of the Chalkhill blue butterflies on some of our downland sites that the ants do not resort to devouring too many of their larvae. The symbiotic relationship between this now scare butterfly and the ants is crucial – the ants get food and the butterfly larvae get underground protection…. So long as the ants do not decide, under their duvet of snow, to scoff the lot. And as for the Green woodpeckers…. These ants can make up 80% of their winter diet, but they will struggle to get their sharp bills into the frozen ground. Fortunately this member of the woodpecker family is not averse to coming to bird tables for nuts and meal worms, so all may not be lost.

In the meantime, after dark you may hear the soft “tseep” call of migrating Redwing. These charming members of the thrush family move south, mainly from Scandinavia when the weather gets cold, hoping to feed on berries, as well as worms and insects. They can be distinguished by a red patch under the wing, as the name implies – but I prefer to look for the elegant cream stripe above their eye – Thrushes with style!

You are unlikely to be “antwatching” in this weather, but the anthills that are such a feature of many parks such as Knole or Petworth look amazing under a covering of snow. Midwinter approaches – get out there and enjoy our countryside come rain, shine, ice or blizzard.

Find out more from Crispin Scott in our next  post.

Returning to our scheduled post this week Crispin Scott, our Nature Conservation Adviser will be talking about what goes on in the natural world during the winter months.

Welcome to December. We are almost at the shortest day. Christmas and New Year are just around the corner and the weather has turned as cold and snowy as it has been for decades at this time of year. As the days are at their shortest and temperatures plummet, how is our wildlife coping?

People walking in the snow at Box Hill, Surrey

Nature has a number of strategies for dealing with the cold, dark days of winter, so I thought it may be worth thinking about what you might call “the opposite of summer”. Think of all those lovely warm days among the butterflies, birds and wildflowers in flaming June….and now fast forward to the present and imagine what is happening underground and after dark in Paul Simon’s “Deep and Dark December”. Actually, after dark it can be more like Jonny Rotten’s “Anarchy in the U.K” with death, destruction and violence. Oh, and a lot of sex.

 Cold and hunger are starting to take their toll, as the fight for food continues and the malnourished fall sick. In daylight I have seen sick looking pigeons and rabbits sitting in the open, almost motionless, looking as though they are the foxes’ next meal. But after dark I have also noticed a number of roadside deer, fox and badgers carcasses in the last week. Are these the animals more vulnerable as they have to search more desperately for food and become disorientated with hunger and disease?  It becomes survival of the fittest in these conditions and one of the “fittest” groups is the crow family. One of its members, the Magpie is being accused of damaging songbird populations with brutal attacks on eggs and young in the summer. But it is the fact that they can survive the winter by feasting on “road carrion” that keeps their numbers high – so there are more to carry out their nest-raiding in summer.

 In the meantime, underground, hedgehogs are conserving energy in the months when food is short by hibernating, buried under piles of leaves or even using rabbit holes.  Likewise, bats will be using underground sites and hollow trees – hoping for a constant temperature a few degrees above freezing. Any disturbance, or sudden temperature rise, can wake them up. If this happens they will probably have to feed – since they can use as much of their vital fat reserves in a couple of waking hours as they might use in two weeks hibernation. I suspect that our bats, and possibly other hibernating mammals, may be getting confused by the changing climate. There seems to be little predictability now and in most years in the last decade we have experienced mild winters. This leads to bats emerging from hibernation earlier in March, then having to find insect food during cool damp spring nights. And the females, having mated in autumn, have a delayed fertilisation mechanism, meaning that they do not actually become pregnant until some inbuilt mechanism (presumably linked to temperature and humidity) triggers the process as weather improves in spring.

And talking of sex…. One of the most evocative night-time sounds in our countryside is the call of an owl. In December (and I always feel that the “screech” of the Barn Owl and the “Twit-too woo” of Tawny owls sounds most haunting in mid winter) there is a good deal of territorial calling as they pair up and prospect for nest sites, to mate and lay eggs in February/March. You need to hurry if you want to put nest boxes up and expect success next spring. In the meantime, you may get a chance to see or hear Short-eared owls in southern England at this time of year. Both species tend to breed further north, but the often overwinter in woodland at the foot of the downs.

So if you want to get out and about, there are few more dramatic scenes than our countryside at dusk in the depths of winter. After dark is great, but do not disturb anything underground! And of course, you will see much happening in daylight. Barn owls are often visible in late afternoon in winter. They nest, for example, in fields at the foot of Leith Hill.  The scenery around Back Down and Hindhead on the Surrey/Sussex border is looking stunning and you may see buzzards looking for vulnerable prey over Petworth Park at the moment.  Nearly all our properties in London and South East have places you ca n walk and enjoy wildlife this December. Get out and make the most of it – even those “bullying” magpies look spectacular and, like Jonny Rotten, probably get a bad press.

Check back next week to find out more about the natural world.