Seeing the deer rut at Knepp

Those of you who follow the blog (not many I grant you), may have noticed that we go to the Knepp re-wilding project quite often. It’s just an hour’s drive from home and has a lot to see. However, this was our first time in the deer rut season.

Knepp is divided in to 3 “blocks”, the northern block, the middle block (where the owners of Knepp, the Burrells, country house is) and the southern block. All of our previous visits have been to the Southern block as that is where the camp site is and where most of the other “safaris” take place. We had previously walked through the middle block, but this was our first proper visit there.

We arrived for 8.30am on a very cold and frosty Saturday morning and was greeted by the site of a stag in the mist as soon as we drove through the gates and on to the estate. This was a sure sign of a great morning ahead.

Darren started off by giving us a presentation on the project at Knepp, about all of the different species on the site and how they all contribute to bringing the site back to a relatively natural and sustainable state. As well as all of the fantastic mammals on site, Knepp is home to a large (and growing) population of purple emperor butterflies, scarcely seen turtle doves and tuneful nightingales. However, it was deer rut season and we were there for the deer!

Darren told us about the three species of deer that call Knepp home, these are (in size order, smallest first) roe deer, fallow deer and red deer, the largest land mammal in the UK. I have to say I learned quite a lot in this introduction to deer. For example, did you know that fallow deer have twice been hunted to extinction in Great Britain and twice been reintroduced by foreign invaders? First by the Romans and then by the Norman conquerors who brought them over to form deer parks. Or that a deer’s antlers, even the really big ones, grow annually in the space of only 2 or 3 months.  Also, did you know that many terms used in common English today find their roots in the life-cycle of deer? For example “prick” comes from a buck in their second (or prickets) with unbranched antlers who generally behave like a nuisance or “pricks” in the rutting season.

Anyway, once the presentation was over, we piled into the ex-Austrian army transport that the guys at Knepp use for their safaris. We set off into the cold and soon found a herd of red deer, a large stag and his “harem” of hinds. The stag was in his element, grunting, roaring and sniffing the air. However, after just a few minutes a huge stag with antlers which seemed to be 6-foot across appeared. He looked like he had come straight out of an advert for scotch whisky. Our previously confident stag, knew he was no match for the newcomer and slowly sloped off, looking back ruefully every few steps. Although two males will fight over the right to mate, it is a last resort, they would rather not risk injury or death if they can help it.

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The victorious stag

Next we headed out to find the fallow deer. The mating rituals of the fallow deer differ from the red deer in that they lek. “What’s a lek?” I hear you say. A lek is where the males congregate in mating area, each claiming their own piece of territory (which they return to every year), scraping the soil and urinating in the area making it as attractive to the does as possible. The does will then come over the most desirable male to mate. We saw a number of males, each in their own lek groaning and calling out. We stopped there for a while, getting out of the truck and consuming the provided tea and sausage baps, which were very welcome on such a cold morning.

The safari finished with a drive round some of the other interesting feature in the middle block, the ruins of the old Knepp Castle, the old iron mill pond (now home to a number of water fowl) and the new Knepp castle, home to the Burrells).

It was great to see these mating behaviours for the first time and we’re looking forward to going back to Knepp again sometime next year.

Looking for wolves and lynx in the Naliboki Forest, Belarus, and getting stuck in the mud.

“I’m stuck” Heather said as I came to a stop in the mud behind her. As I stood there, I felt myself sinking deeper into the “dry” riverbed. The cloying mud was now up to the top of my wellies and I tried to lift one foot. No. And then the other, not a chance.

I was stuck too.

We had arrived in the Naliboki Forest earlier that morning after an hour and a half drive from Minsk, the capital of Belarus. We were greeted on arrival by Irina and her husband Vadim, who was to be our guide over the next 3 and a half days. Vadim and Irina run the Naust Eco Station, deep in the forest.

We were in Belarus to see the diverse range of mammals that exist in the Naliboki Forest, a huge, complex habitat that is home to wolves, lynx, bison, elk, deer, wild boar, beavers and a whole range of other creatures. Vadim is a professor of zoology at the University of Minsk who has switched to conducting full-time research in the field, much of which is funded by organising these eco-tourism trips. There were only three of us for most of this long-weekend, with another hardy-soul joining us for the last day and a half, although Vadim does have groups of up to 16, especially on the longer trips, which can be a week or two long.

Vadim is an engaging and knowledgeable guide, always with a story to tell or an opinion to offer on where the world is going wrong, but it’s clear that he has a passion for the forest and the research he is conducting that will help to understand the forest, it’s animal inhabitants and hopefully help to preserve them both.

The forest is also home to a number of people (including Vadim and Irina themselves), with a smattering of villages and homesteads dotted around. Although these numbers of dwindling with many houses in villages only occupied at weekends and houses deep within the forest are lived in by people in their 80s whose children have long since been attracted by life in the city. These homes will be abandoned when their occupiers pass away and they will be left to gradually fade and be consumed by the forest.

Although these trips are for paying visitors, you are just there for the ride. It is clear that Vadim would be out there driving and hiking through the forest daily, checking his 50 or so camera traps and collecting data for his books and papers whether you were there or not.

Each of the days was fairly typical in format, but visiting different parts of the forest, with different sites and environments to see and, of course with any sort of wildlife watching adventure, with random chance playing its part on what creatures you may see.

Each morning started early (pre-dawn) with a home-cooked breakfast, always with something hot, such as the traditional and delicious syrniki (a kind of thick pancake made with cottage cheese), supplemented by cereal, fruit and coffee or tea.  This would then be followed by a drive in one of Vadim’s 4×4 cars to one of the open field areas within the forest, with the morning being one of the best times to possibly spot wolves, lynx, bison, elk or deer. This was followed by one of two daily hikes, typically 8km in the morning and 4-5km in the afternoon, into different parts of the forest to check on Vadim’s camera traps, checking what it has been snapped and replacing batteries. These walks traversed through different landscapes, from dense forest treks, to river beds, alongside reed-trimmed canals or across open fields. All of these walks are pretty tough and Vadim, a natural woodsman, sets a spritely pace, with the thick foliage, deep mud or uneven ground all contributing to slow and difficult progress.

The day would then finish once darkness has set in, by searching out at a likely wolf spot and with with Vadim re-creating his best wold-howl and listening to see if they would respond.

Lunch was often prepared by Vadim himself over a wood-fire out in the woods, offering the chance to fuel up and have a rest before the next trek, and dinner would be prepared by Irina in the evenings, these included traditional Belarusian beans and pulses, sausages, salads and fried potatoes. Beer and a local spirit was also always on the table!

Sadly, we didn’t see any wolves or lynx on this trip. They are both elusive creatures, but we did see signs of them, including scat, tracks, bones of prey and “wolf cub toys” and we saw incredible images of them on the camera traps. However, we were lucky to see bison, elk, red deer, roe deer, a wild boar, capercaillie, a great grey owl, a spotted eagle, a peregrine falcon and a grass snake in 3 and a half days.

My wellie, stuck in the Naliboki mud
My wellie, stuck in the mud…

And the mud? After a couple of minutes of “no-show” Vadim came back to see where we were, to be confronted by Heather and myself almost up to our knees in mud. First he took many photos of our predicament and then helped us, bootless, out onto the river bank. Our boots were then literally dug out by hand. It was embarrassing enough to be stuck in the mud, but not as much it happened to me again on the way back 20 minutes later!

A weekend’s camping at Knepp – Buzzards, pigs, deer and a kestrel?

This was our second trip to the Knepp re-wilding project in West Sussex, the first was an afternoon’s dusk safari, whereas this time we went for a weekend’s camping with a self-guided wall around the project.

We arrived on Friday evening and quickly set up our tent. We bought some firewood and kindling from the on-site store, so we could get a fire going in the fire-pit that comes provided with each pitch.  On the way back to our tent we saw a bird of prey hovering and hunting over the heath-land next to the campsite, we’d left our camera and binoculars with the tent so couldn’t identify it in the dusk light, but hoped it would come back the next day.

We got up early on Saturday morning, had a shower in the great facilities and made breakfast over the camp-stove. We decided to do a walk round the grounds to, see what we could find for ourselves. Last time we camped we did the “country-pub walk”, so this time we chose the Castle loop, which is about 8.8 km long. The site provides some handy printed maps of the walks you can do around the grounds and the way is marked with colour-coded stripes on sign posts along the way.

Almost as soon as we first strode on to the trail, we saw (and heard) a couple of common buzzards, soaring and circling looking for prey. Not long after, we came across a couple of Tamworth pigs, fast asleep by the path. They woke up when we approach, but didn’t seem too bothered, and as they stirred, a piglet came trotting on to the scene.

Dotted around the project are a number of wooden viewing platform, built into the boughs of trees, acting like high-rise hides over the ranges and we climbed up into a view as we trundled around. We stopped for lunch at the Countryman Pub in Shipley around half-way round for much needed refreshments. After lunch we passed the Shipley windmill and on to Knepp castle. Close to the castle we saw a large herd of fallow deer, complete with very impressive antlers.

There was also another tree-top viewing platform near the castle and as we descended we heard a deep, rumble coming closer. Soon a Lancaster bomber came past us, low and slow. I believe there are only 2 of these incredible aircraft left flying and only 1 in the UK, so this was probably the rarest sight we would see all year!

We were on the home stretch now, dipped into a bird hide overlooking the mill-pond, which seemed well stocked with swans and coots, before seeing the single-wall that is left of the Norman keep at the old Knepp ruins. We arrived back at camp for a bit of a rest before making another well-earned supper on the fire-pit. Luckily the mystery bird of prey did make a comeback that evening over the heath and I had my camera ready. The light was failing and it was at the extreme range of my 300mm lens, but I fired off a few shots and am pretty sure it was a kestrel. The first time I had ever seen one.

Knepp is one of our favourite places to visit whether its camping or safari and I’m sure we’ll go back again. I think we may try glamping next time!

 

Back to Blandford – Is that an Otter? No, it’s a mink!

So, yesterday we had a free Sunday and made the drive down to one of our favourite haunts in Blandford in the hope of seeing some otters and maybe kingfishers too. We arrived late in morning, bought some supplies and set up some camp chairs by the river in a spot where we had some success previously.

Before long a loud splash was heard to our right. No otter, but a dog jumping in, chasing a tossed ball and cooling itself in the river. This was repeated throughout the day,  with various pooches. We began to think that this was not to be our day, there is no way an otter is going to come out when the river is full of dogs! Or maybe it was just too hot?

Late in the afternoon, we strolled to a few other points along the river, but no sightings. Finally, we tried one last spot, more secluded and with more shade. Moments after we sat down by the bank, some dark, willowy shapes appeared on the opposite bank, slivering down into the water and beneath an overhanging outcrop of rocks. 1, 2, 3? Are they otters? Aren’t they a bit small? Are they pups?

 

I fired off a few quick shots before they disappeared and zoomed in on the screen. No, not otters. Are they weasels or a stoats? Hmm, don’t think so. With the aid of a google search, it turns out they were mink. A non-native species, now found over a lot of England.

We headed off for home, happy that the day wasn’t a complete blank and then also spotted a little egret, before it was scared off by another dog jumping in the water.

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Brownsea Island & Jurassic Coast – red squirrels, seabirds and peregrine falcons

So, last Friday evening, we took the train down to Poole for the weekend. We arrived at around 9.30pm and made the short walk to our accomodation. We were staying at the RNLI college and to be honest, we were not sure what to expect. Would it be like university dorms? We were wrong to worry, it was really nice en-suite accomodation with a view over Poole Quay. There was a nice restaurant and a bar and balcony also looking out over the quay. We’d definitely stay again.

The next morning, after a good buffet breakfast (they even had veggie sausage), we walked a short 10 minutes to the harbour to catch the ferry to Brownsea Island. There are a couple of companies that run the ferry, but we got our tickets with Brownsea Island Ferries. The trip is only 20 mins, with commentary along the way of various sites around the harbour (although the trip back takes 40 mins, going round the other side of the island and round the rest of the islands in the harbour).

Go to Brownsea Island, go now! It’s beautiful with shady woods, wild beaches and is also home to a nature reserve managed by the Dorset Wildlife Trust. It’s owned by the National Trust, so if you’re a member its free to enter, otherwise you’ll be asked to pay £8 on arrival. We looked round the ubiquitous National Trust shop and then bought some drinks and snacks to take with us as we explored the island .We made our way to the south shore path, past the church and the visitor centre (with peacocks and chickens strolling around outside).

We soon found a lovely wild beach on the shore of what is known as White Ground Lake. We laid out a blanket, had our lunch and watched the oystercatchers picking in the mud and pebbles for food. After this short rest, we resumed our walk back in to the interior of the island, passing through the campsite first used by Baden-Powell when he set up the scout movement and still used by scout groups from all over world to this day.

After about half an hour walking we came across some red squirrels, which is what we were really looking for today. We stayed and watched them for a few minutes, until they finally climbed up in to the trees and out of view. We only had a short time before the last ferry was to leave, so quickly entered the DWT reserve (suggested donation £2) and visited a couple of the hides to see what we could see, which was mostly black-headed gulls with a few oystercatchers in the mix.

After the ferry back to the harbour (again with interesting commentary, we headed straight out on another boat trip, again with Brownsea Island Ferries, but this time on one of their Puffin Cruises, which they only run a handful of times during the year. Puffins, this far south? We’d seen puffins in Skomer and the Farne Islands, but I was a little skeptical that we’d see any. the boat had some experts on board from the Birds of Poole Harbour charity, who provided insight to what to look for and knowledge of their behaviour. The boat took us out past Studland Beach, the Old Harry Rock, past Swannage and to and area known as Dancing Ledge. As we motored along we saw numerous guillemots, dotted with the odd razorbill, gulls and terns, including sandwich terns.

Sure enough, soon found some puffins both in the water and on the ledge, around 4 in total (there are apparently 4 breeding pairs in the area). No, it’s not the thousands that you see in the Farne Islands, but these are just 2 and a half hours from London!

To add to the excitement, we also saw a family of peregrine falcons, the first time I had seen the fabulous birds. We saw a mother and 3 or so juveniles being fed on the ledge. Amazing.

We headed back to Poole, having dinner at the Banana Wharf restaurant before heading to bed for a decent nights sleep.

Back to Burnham – Will there be seal pups?

So, only 2 months after our last trip, we’re back in Burnham-on-Crouch to see the common seals. The difference this time is that there might, just might be a chance to see some pups, even opthough they’re often not born until July.

We stayed the night before at our usual haunt, the White Harte Hotel, for a comfortable nights stay and some poached eggs for breakfast. The day started with some bright weather, but just before 11.00 when the boat (Discovery Charters 2 hour boat trip) was to pick us up to begin the trip, the clouds darkened and we felt a few spots of rain on our faces. There was also a strong, constant breeze coming in off the sea, but this helped to drive the clouds away and it thankfully stayed dry. We were accompanied on the trip by Noodles, the boat’s resident dog, complete with his own little life-jacket. Noodles takes a keen interest in the seals and seems to love the tours.

As usual, the trip started off with an update on the work to develop the RSBP reserve at Wallasea Island. This area is becoming an increasingly important area for seabirds and waders which was evidenced by the large numbers of black-headed gulls we saw, along with some common terns, Canada geese, brent geese, oyster catchers and little egrets. We even saw 5 avocets on route to and from the seal area.

We soon saw our first solitary seal on the bank of Wallasea Island before heading further along the river and spotting a group of 12-15 on the Foulness side. As we neared the group, what looked to be bits of driftwood next to the seals, sure enough, turned out to be seal pups. There were 4 or 5 in this group, with the bigger ones only 48 hours old and the smaller ones, according to our skipper Steve, only having been born the night before. The pups were incredibly cute, and both mothers and babies didn’t really seem too bothered by us being there.

We stayed slowly cruised a couple of times past this group, before heading a little further up, back on the Wallasea side, to see another group of 12-15 seals which, again, had a few tiny pups with them. We another cruise past them, so both sides of the boat could get a good view, before heading back to to the harbour past the other seals.

It was another lovely trip with Discovery Charters and great to see pups for the first time on our trips to Burnham. I’m sure we’ll be back again in the future.

Knepp Safari – Red Deer, Rabbits & Bats

It was Heather’s birthday at the weekend, so as a surprise I took her to one of our favourite places in the UK, the Knepp rewilding project near Horsham in West Sussex.

Knepp is one of the largest lowland rewilding projects in Europe and they operate safaris from Easter to October. As the land is also crisscrossed with public footpaths, you can also explore much of the area by foot. As it was a special treat, we stayed at the lovely Ghyll Manor hotel in Rusper, but Knepp also has a camp site, (which we enjoyed last year) as well as some cool glamping accomodation.

This year we did the 2-hour dusk safari, starting at 8pm. We arrived a few minutes before it was due to start and had a quick briefing with the guide about the project, what we might see and the usual health and safety stuff before joining the other 10 visitors in bundling into the Austrian Pinzgauer (an ex-army 6-wheeled all-terrain vehicle) in our tour round the southern range of the project.

Soon after setting off, we saw Exmoor ponies (obviously no-longer in Exmoor) along with a load of rabbits. Rabbits seemed to be everywhere around the estate, which I’m guessing is one of the things that attracts the many birds of prey that inhabit the estate including buzzards, barn owls, osprey and goshawk. Although, we only saw a buzzard on this occasion, swooping low through the trees.

There are a few tree-top platforms around the estate and we stopped at a couple as we went round, with the great elevation giving great views of the environment and allowing you to fully appreciate the size of the estate. The guide was a keen birder and when we were on the first platform he pointed out all the birdsong we were hearing, including nightingales, robins, whitethroats, blackbirds, cuckoos and owls. We descended the platform and strolled into one of the fields to see if we could get closer to the cuckoos. As we stood there, one of the group spied some massive antlers belonging to a red deer sticking up from behind some scrub. Soon another huge stag appeared from the tree-line, followed by another. The dusk light made for a beautiful viewing and a good photo-op!

Back in the vehicle we made our way further round the estate, seeing more red-deer and some roe deer. We were also lucky to see a couple of turtle doves, one just strolling along the track. At another field we got out and checked on some corrugated-iron sun-traps to see if we could find some reptiles. No luck on the first one, but at the second we found a slow-worm and grass-snake. Some adders have also been reported at the estate, but we haven’t seen any on our three visits.

We ended the tour as the sun-light was almost gone with a sun-downer drink of white wine (or an elderflower soft-drink) and some home-baked cheese nibbles overlooking the pond. the guide also had a bat-detector which we used to track bats as they flew from a nearby house to the pond and back.

It was a great end to a beautiful early-summer day and we are planning to return to Knepp later in the year for the deer-rutting safari.