April was a bleak month - cold, sunless and, to begin with, very wet. Daphne Watson, the ornithologist who is surveying Rew Farm for us, regards it as late and cool a season as she can remember.
It was serious. The grass re-growth was non-existent and that which remained had withered away. In consequence, some of our paddocks became badly over grazed as the cattle were searching for non-existent greenery. Rabbits, deprived of early spring growth, set about eating and destroying everything in sight. Early spring flowers were devastated.
People are quick to criticise ivy covered trees. Yet this spring, when so many other habitats were unfriendly, they offered excellent and invaluable shelter to birds. Much of the bird song came from ivy-clad trees. Ivy does not damage trees. The only problems arise when its mass becomes so thick that it threatens a tree’s stability in heavy winds.
It is always a thrill to see a barn owl and one was regularly observed in the barns and hunting around Lower Preshaw House. It is probably one of a pair of chicks which, together with our neighbours, the Denton-Thompsons, we rescued last summer. We found them sheltering under my car in the farmyard. Their parents had disappeared.
Magpies can be a threat to all song birds. Their numbers have to be kept under control. Last year we trapped 27. The traps were set again last month. Some view trapping with distaste. It is, however, a necessity because if magpie numbers go unchecked, the impact on other birdlife in the countryside will be catastrophic.
We are greatly indebted to the Watsons for volunteering to carry out the base count at Rew. They only just managed to squeeze in their April visit because of the dearth of suitable sparkly mornings. They recorded 160 birds of 27 species, including the Little Owl, Skylark, Barn Swallow and Blackcap for the first time. They were particularly pleased to see three pairs of Song Thrushes which showed how sheltered Rew Valley is. One bird was mobbing a Little Owl in the trees by the ditch across the road from the farmhouse. In the end the owl just shrugged and flew away, but it was probably breeding close by.
The most rewarding sector surveyed was around Stocks and the northern and middle thirds of Rew Copse. The eastern part of the farm, across the road from the farm buildings, was also satisfying with nearly as many different species and individual birds.
Keith Lea carried out more clearing and ride widening in South Rowlands. Much of Rowlands was planted in the 1940’s and it is surprising how the seed banks have survived that period. Around the pond area, which we cleared last year, there is a healthy population of primroses, and the more interesting rare narrow leaved lungwort. Commonly known as “Jeruselem Cowslip, narrow leaved lungwort is an attractive purple flower with spotted leaves which is only found on the Isle of Wight and in Hampshire.
At Wroxall Copse, Keith started his survey and scheduling of veteran trees. It is a larger task than he anticipated and I doubt if it will be completed this year. In only about a third of the Copse’s length, nearly 100 veterans were recorded and tagged.
In April the yearling heifers are usually put out onto Mottistone Down and the two year old heifers onto Idlecombe Down where their hardy grazing is a valuable contributor to our conservation management. This year, due to the late vegetation, the move was delayed until May.The newly acquired Rew Farm is a lovely farm and the cattle do well there. In conservation terms, however, it is poor and the fields are short of wild flora and birdlife. Improving it is a challenge we look forward to.
Our mainland base near Upham does not form part of our formal conservation management but we take care to encourage all forms of wild life. This year our garden and paddocks have again had a good show of cowslips. Patches in our lawn and fields are left un-mown until they seed later in July or August. For about six feet out from the hedges, field margins are left un- topped until September.
Spring time is always active and this year was no exception. A further 10 cows calved successfully, making a total of 47 for the year. Only one or two will be born in May.
The quality of the stock got by our Oban Champion home-bred bull, Iasgair of Mottistone, is encouraging. There is a particularly well grown bull calf.
April is very much a month of movements. The breeding females are grouped together for their bulls and preparations are made for moving stock out from winter to summer grazing. In addition, all the fencing for the summer grazing has to be checked and repaired as necessary.
The yearling steers were moved from Rew Farm toWroxall, where they will remain until sold. They are a particularly fine bunch of beasts; well grown, in excellent condition, and with quiet temperaments.
Ruairidh of Glengarnock (Rory) was pleased to gain his summer freedom and was put out with his herd on the 14th April. Our new two year old prize-winning bull, purchased at Oban in February, Eion Mhor of Miungarigh, was put out with his heifers on the 18th at Rew. He has the 10 heifers purchased from Oban and Islay in February plus Iasgair’s former heifers and others taken from Sandy’s herd. We aim to have between 20 and 24 cows and heifers per bull.
We are pleased with Eion. He has good conformation. He is large for his age and has obviously out grown his strength. He was very subdued for some weeks after his arrival, possibly because of the trauma of the show and sale immediately followed by the long journey to the Island. He has now perked up and we have high hopes for his future. His previous owners used him as a yearling and his first stock were born immediately before the sale.
Richard Jackson, who retired from veterinary practice last year, still likes to keep in touch with us. He and his wife are noted Aberdeen Angus breeders and his enthusiasm for our cattle is always encouraging. His advice, based on long experience, is invaluable. He and Barry saw all the stock together. He was most complimentary and was particularly impressed by Iasgair’s first bull calf.
The farm maps as prepared by DEFRA have still not been properly corrected. The danger is that we will miss the deadline for applying for Higher Level Scheme grants which replace the Countryside Stewardship Schemes due to expire at Mottistone and Brighstone this summer. Henry McCowen will be visiting the Mapping Office at Reading to try and sort it out. In the meantime, we must rely on the goodwill of the local DEFRA officers who, in contrast to their seniors in Whitehall, have our utmost respect.
An example of the inefficiencies: Our Single Payment Scheme applications, sent in many months ago, were amended by DEFRA as they stated the field sizes we had entered were too small. Great because it meant we would receive extra income! During April, however, they about turned and revised the field sizes back to our original submission!