Friday, 12 September 2014

Exploring North Devon in a Sea Kayak

For the last 5 years I have spent the winter months escaping by kayaking down rivers on Exmoor, North Wales and the Lake District.
Many a time when I get off the river shivering and unable to change due to the fact my fingers have frozen into claw like shapes I have asked myself why I want to suffer yet I continue to put my self through it. 
This summer I had the opportunity to go Sea kayaking in forecasted glorious sunshine but I was strangely nervous and apprehensive about going. Did I think a mutant fish was going to leap out and eat me? No, but the butterflies were there. 
The unknown always causes apprehension and the sea has always terrified me slightly with its ability to seem so dangerous to a novice such as myself. Therefore it was with trepidation that I set off on the drive with friends; the sea kayaks were loaded onto the roof and our supplies packed.
I work in North Devon but we rarely get the chance to explore other National Trust properties, we planned to kayak from Lee (near Ilfracombe) to Woolacombe this meant that I would get to explore the coastline owned by the National Trust from an entirely new angle.
As we arrived at Lee I looked out on a perfectly flat sea glistening in the sunshine. My nerves were abated until I saw Darren packing flares and a VHF radio. I immediately imagined he knew something I did not but in fact I was just being paranoid and Darren was being sensible.
As we carried the boats down to the beach and launched ourselves into the water I started to settle into familiar paddle strokes. The sea was crystal clear allowing itself to reveal the hidden world on the sea bed that is so often hidden from the human eye.
The sun blazed down onto the water and the beautiful North Devon coast came into view I knew I had made right decision that day.
As we silently moved through the water we saw two peregrines flying close to the rock face gracefully hunting. Raptors have always held such wonder in my mind due to their precision and speed that has enthralled me since being a young child.                                                                                                          We continued our progress along the coast and we spotted something bobbing in the water and then disappear with silence beneath the surface. To my utter joy we then noticed we were being followed by two seals, as they lifted their heads and watched us pass by I felt as if we were being scrutinised.
We headed along the coast to Morte Point where we came across a group of 10 seals basking on the rocks as we passed. One by one they heaved themselves into the sea, watching our every move.  They were always behind us as if observing us by stealth. I felt as if they were willing us on annoyed at having had their midday rest disturbed.

Spot the Seal

We reached Woolacombe in time for our Lunch with a small 1ft wave propelling us towards the beach. The beach was busy with people enjoying the heat wave and who were seemingly amused at people arriving in rather unusual looking boats.
We waited for the tide to turn to help us ease the journey back to Lee and feeling refuelled we set off on the journey back. As we reached Morte point the incoming tide had caused a change in our route back across, the rocks that reach down into the sea from the point had become submerged causing strange currents to appear. Morte point is known for its treacherous nature having caused many a ship to ground out as they were lured into land by wreckers who patrolled the coast in years gone by. Although on the calm seas we were travelling that day they caused nothing more than the need for a few determined paddle strokes.

I got to return to Morte point only a few weeks later due to the fact the North Devon Team run an annual Smugglers and Wreckers walk and this year we were asked to take part. I took the part of the lead female Elizabeth Berry a well know wreckers from the mid 1850’s. This time however looking out into the sea I could understand just how dangerous the point could be. The seas were rough and the waves were crashing into the rocks below causing a wonderful atmospheric setting but I was rather glad that I was safely on the land on that visit. 

Dressed as Miss Berry

Continuing on our sea kayak trip we travelled back along the coast line hugging the rocks as we went, we weaved our way through rocks being pushed onward by the rising tide. We stopped at an isolated beach not far from Lee to cool ourselves down from our exertion.                                                                                                              
I stepped into the water I marvelled at the world beneath me and putting on a snorkelling mask I could see for the first time the flurry of activity that was happening below the tide line. We swan and dived into the refreshing sea embracing the beauty of that moment in time.
We climbed back into our boats and made our way around Bull Point and headed towards Lee bay where we were met with the sight and sound of families jumping off rocks and relaxing on the small beach.
My arms and back ached with a vengeance but sitting in the pub garden enjoying a drink. I was truly astonished that day that I had never explored this bit of coast before and felt completely at wonder with the landscape and wildlife around us.

After my experience I would advise everyone to step a little outside of their comfort zone and try a new way of exploring our beautiful countryside.

I know that I will be getting back into a Sea kayak and exploring more of North Devon very soon.

Morte Point

Thursday, 5 June 2014

Lambing time

We welcomed our first lamb this year on the 24th of March and we have been kept busy ever since.

           Murray enjoying a quick cuddle with one of our Triplets

As we approach the ewes due date we increase their feed and feed them supplementary hay. The first signs you expect to see that they are getting ready for their new arrivals is that the udder bag increases in size. Within 12 hours of a ewe getting ready to give birth you will also start to see behavioral changes. She may take herself away from the rest of the flock, refuse to come for food and as the time shortens before the birth she can be seen circling, bleating to herself and pawing the ground. A water bag emerges from the ewe once she progress and within an hour you would expect the lamb.
Lambs can present themselves in a number of different ways but we would hope to see two front feet and the nose of the lamb. The diagram below helps to illustrate the numerous positions that lambs can present themselves in.

As a Shepherd you must get involved when an unusual presentation is seen due to the fact the lambs or the ewe can die from a traumatic birth. This year Murray had one ewe with twins both in breach presentation. It was necessary therefore to push the lambs back inside the uterus and realign the lambs and then assist with the ewe with the lambs birth. 
Once the lambs are born the ewes immediately start to clean their lamb and within a few minutes the lambs are trying to stand and get their first drink, The video below shows Mildrid's first lamb seconds after it was born. 


Once the ewe has cleaned her lamb off we then give them time to bond with their lambs. Although we lamb outside we bring all the ewes in with their lambs to make sure the lambs are healthy and we make sure the ewe is producing enough milk. Some first time mums are also a bit shocked by the process and this gives them time on their own with their lambs.

Before the ewes go out we trim their feet and worm them, this is to make sure they stay in a good condition due to the fact they can soon loose body condition if they are not in full health especially when they are feeding two fast growing lambs.

The lambs will stay with their mums until August when we wean all the lambs and separate the ram lambs from the ewe lambs.

Mildred with her twins

This year we have achieved a 180% lambing percentage with our Dorset Ram Dirk which is fantastic for our Jacobs. Unfortunately we were disappointed with the results from our Jacob Ram Ussian with only 10 out of the 18 he had ended up pregnant.
Which in comparison to Dirk who had 49 ewes of which 46 were pregnant means Ussain performed poorly. The limit for one ram is about 50 ewes to one ram, so therefore we were very happy with the fact the fact Dirk had covered 46 in total.

It was Ussian first year as a working ram but this was very disappointing for us as it is vital that we continue to bring new pedigree ewe lambs into the flock. And therefore we only have 7 new pedigree ewe lambs born this year.

Myself and Murray now have a hard decision to make, looking forward into the winter breeding season of whether to give him another chance.

                                                            Our Dorset x Jacob Lambs

Friday, 14 February 2014

Controlling the Scrub Invasion

Combeshead is an area of unimproved acidic grassland on the eastern edge of the estate, it is a group of three fields hidden in the bottom of a valley. When I first started at Arlington I was introduced to Combeshead and I shuddered with the thought of the amount of work that the site needed.

Combeshead during the summer months becomes a thicket of bramble, gorse and 6ft tall bracken occasionally broken up by patches of grass. Searching for the cows often takes a significant amount of time due to fact they appear to treat it as a game of hide and seek when they hear you call.

One of our cows who took 10 minutes to find.

This winter we decided to tackle the scrub that was dominating the fields, we gave ourselves the target of cutting and burning all the bramble and gorse within the first two fields. Which I am pleased to say  we have finally managed. In total it took us 15 man days to cut the scrub using brushcutters.

Combeshead if left entirely would turn back into woodland. We use a variety of tools to help maintain the conditions of our grasslands including scrub control, grazing and burning.
Grazing our cattle on Combeshead allows a natural mosaic of habitats to occur enhancing biodiversity. However due to several wet summers we have had to restrict our cattle to Combeshead and therefore this has caused to scrub to increase to a level where we needed to control the scrub.

After brushctting the bramble and gorse we make sure that we rake and burn all of the cut material. This helps to reduce the nutrients returning to the soil and allows areas of ground to become open allowing the grassland species of plants to expand into areas where the gorse and bramble have dominated.

It is a challenging slope to work on especially considering the driving wind and rain we have been having here in North Devon. At the end of each day we would be physically very tired but after a days bruschtting we then we had to face the climb back up the opposite bank to get to our vehicle. This involved climbing up a set of 30 steep steps that were nicked named 'the steps of doom' due to the fact that they were not only extremely steep slippery and extremely muddy and by the time you got to the top loaded with your brushcutter, fuel, first aid kit and rucksack you would feel as if you had been in a marathon.

We were very lucky recently when we received the help of the Woolacombe National Trust Team who helped us burn for the day. We were all motivated by the fresh legs and enjoyed catching up with our colleges from the coast.

Now that we have completed the cutting and burning, we must now make sure we get appropriate grazing next summer to help control the regrowth of the bramble. If we can then this will mean that the cattle and sheep will be able to keep the site in a good condition and hopefully we will not have to return with our brushcutters. However we do expect this first summer that we will need to complete a late summer cut on some of the regrowth to help the livestock keep on top of it. But the key to the success to our plan is a dry summer which unfortunately we cannot control.

Friday, 20 December 2013

Tupping Time

Our two Rams have been busy at work for the past few weeks as they have been put back in with the ewes.

We plan the time our rams go in with our ewes by working out when we would like our Lambs to be born. But we are also governed by the time of year, their estrus cycles (heat cycles) are affected by the seasons and the amount of light which enters their eyes sending signals to their brain which control the release of hormones.

Because we offer lambing talks throughout the easter holidays it is also important for us to coincide our lambing with Easter. If they lamb too early we will not be able to catch the lambs come easter and if it is too late we will have nothing to show the visitors.

Although we run a flock of pedigree Jacob Sheep, for commercial viability we put the majority to a Poll Dorset ram due to the fact the cross is a better quality of lamb.

In total this year we have put 66 Jacob ewes to our rams. 48 have gone to Dirk our Poll Dorset ram and the other 18 have gone to Ussian our Jacob ram.

Dirk our Poll Dorset Ram

Ussian is new this year to Arlington as we are attempting to inject some new Jacob blood into our flock. The last few years only ten ewes have gone to our Jacob ram but this year he was lucky enough to receive
eighteen ewes.

Ussian our pedigree Jacob ram

We went through a process of selecting the ewes that best fitted the breed profile as a way of deciding who went to Ussian and who went to Dirk. We also took into consideration the ewes history and their behavior. This is due to the fact that if we know for example a ewe has foot trouble then we do not want to breed pedigree stock from her. One ewe was heading to Ussian but due to the fact she threw herself madly against a gate for no apparent reason meant it was enough of a reason for me to send her to Dirk instead.

Once our ewes are separated they get put into their respective fields with their ram of our choosing. Each ram has raddle paint applied to his chest. Rather a messy process with Dirk due to his crazy nature. The only method to capture him was to contain him in a small stable and while Murray pinned him in the corner, I had to apply his red raddle paint on his chest. Unfortunately due to the fact the shed was dark he ended up covered in raddle paint all down his legs and belly and I looked like I had a major artery cut on my arm!

We use raddle paint as a way to check our rams are covering all of the ewes. Each week we reapply the raddle paint to make sure all the ewes are well marked. Some farms will change the colour of the raddle paint every week and therefore they will have a better idea of when the individual ewes are going to give birth.

Our Jacob ewes who are with Dirk

Our Rams this year stayed with our ewes for 5 weeks. Each ewe has an estrus cycle (or heat cycle) which averages 17 days, ovulation occurs in the mid to late part of their cycle. This is why it is important to make sure the rams stay in to allow the ewes to cycle twice in case the ram has missed her the first time round.

Now the rams have been taken out it is just a waiting game until Easter.

Friday, 1 November 2013

Limmy's Lookout

For those of you who know the Arlington Estate well, you may have seen a small hut appear hidden within the gardens.

Murray first had his vision for this hut in 2012. He wanted to create a wooden structure that would blend in well within the gardens which could be chanced upon by visitors as they walked through the grounds where they could sit and enjoy the views accross the parkland.

The first phase of the project was in the winter of 2012 when with the help of a working holiday group we cleared the area of bramble and removed any trees that needed to come out. We then quickly followed this up by the planting of bluebell bulbs amongst the trees.

We wanted to use wood from the estate and decided to create the main frame out of sweet chestnut. So Stuart and I were sent to Cott wood for a day felling, cutting, bark peeling and hauling back long and very heavy lengths of sweet chestnut. Murray set to work building the roof frame and by the end of the winter we were all set to start. However due to time constraints and Stuart and I getting carried away on Monkey Puzzle Mania, no further work was done on the hut in till summer this year.

We decided to utilise the help of our working holiday groups this summer and began by putting in our main structure in July.

The hut quickly took shape and the phrase, many hands make light work, never rang more true. By the end of the two weeks with our working holidays the main structure was up, the roof on, floor in and our walls had begun to take shape.

For the floor we used large rounds of monkey puzzle wood from a tree which had been taken down by the lake and sweet chestnut logs to fill the gaps. We also decided to use sweet chestnut for the walls, all of which was from Cott Wood.
Hours and hours of chainsawing was involved to create enough log rounds for walls and I am sure our seasonal Ranger Rich would tell you he would never want to cut another log again in his life!

Work began on the path to the hut, it was decided to be a wooden path winding its way to the hut. I must say I was very skeptical about how long this would take us but I am very glad it was created because it is absolutely beautiful. Our contractor Dennis first dug us a path with his mini digger and then we lay in large log rounds with smaller log rounds along the edge. Each log had to be tamped down and made as level as possible. We then back filled with soil, tamping as we went and finished with a stone dressing on the surface.

And for the final phase with our final working holiday we created the green roof and walls, As we had built the walls we had deliberately left small gaps so that we could plant ferns into the walls. A double layer of turf was used on the roof and ferns were also planted into the turf.

The finished product

This project took us hours of time and without all the volunteer hours put in by our working holidays and our own volunteers we would still be working on it now. What began as only as vision by Murray is now a beautiful structure.

A very pleased Murray Sharpe with his completed hut

The hut can now be a place for people to sit and enjoy the view for a quick rest or a long lunch. I even manged to squeeze 22 school children in the hut recently so they could all draw the view.

We struggled and debated with the right name for the hut for a while and it did become the Woodman's Hovel for a while. However due to a sad turn of events in which our oldest cow failed her TB test, it was suggested by Natalie (Visitor Services Manager) that it should be named after Limmy who has been at Arlington and looked after by Murray for the past 9 years. So our hut is now know as Limmy's Lookout and hopefully will go someway to preserving her in our memories.

So next time you are here at Arlington search for Limmy's Lookout and spend a few minutes relaxing and enjoying the views out accross the parkland.

Wednesday, 25 September 2013

Meet Limmy

Meet Limmy our Red Devon x Limousin cow.

Limmy ended up in our herd more by accident than planning. When Murray was setting up our herd of Red Devon cattle he asked a local farmer to buy some pedigree Red Devon's at a local sale and she was one of the cows who was brought back.

Limmy is now 11 years old and has had 9 calves with us here. Her calves always finish off on grass well and one of her offspring is now in the herd as a breeding cow.

Limmy with her newly born 9th calf, earlier this year.

Limmy is not the biggest in the herd yet she is the leader of the pack. Cows have a hierarchy structure within the herd with the young heifers tending to be a the bottom and the older larger cows at the top. You often see them having a scuffle amongst themselves which is their way of showing their dominance over one another.

Since I started here a year ago Limmy has become my favourite cow due to her friendly nature and leadership qualities.
We often move our cows through the estate by calling them and walking them along the forest tracks to their new field. This approach is very stress free for our cattle and we also get to enjoy a walk through part of the estate.

The older cows are invaluable when we move them due to the fact that they often remember where they are are heading on a particular track and therefore they help to lead the younger herd members to the new fields.
Limmy's leadership qualities are essential when we are moving the cows and they make our lives a lot easier, she is always the first to hear your call, and the first in line to leave the field. In the photo below Limmy demonstrates her patience due to the fact she had responded to my call much quicker than the others and she had to wait for 10 minutes at the gate while the others crossed the stream and came up the bank. The whole time she stood at the gate waiting for it to be opened where as normally a cow would have become bored and impatient and walked off.

Limmy always has a spare time for you and often enjoys a scratch when you go to check on the cows. Limmy has easily become my favourite cow in the herd due to her friendly nature and I enjoy nothing more than spending a moment with her everyday.

Me and Limmy saying a quick hello while her calf watches on


With much sadness I must share the news that Limmy failed her TB test last week and therefore will be leaving us here at Arlington. She will be forever remembered by Murray and I.

Tuesday, 23 July 2013

Arlington School Spy Day

As a Ranger team we have spent a significant amount of time creating a schools program, so that school groups can choose from a list of sessions we run. We have created varied sessions for a variety of ages including habitat and natural art days.

We have also created a day known as our wild play day, the sessions enable children to fully understand what the outdoors can offer them in a series of fun cross curricular play sessions.

Last week we got the chance to do Arlington Spy School with Shirwell Primary School. Shirwell also came and spent a day with us last month doing our music day, they were even subjected to our now infamous 'Sheep Rap'  and therefore we knew we had to really pull out all the stops to impress them again at Spy School.

Steve and I decided to get into character for the day which involved us getting agent T- shirts and camouflage face paint. We decided to create agent names based on British wildlife; Agent Shrew, Agent Dormouse and Agent Otter.

Shirwell School soon settled in when they arrived having themselves adorned with camouflage face paint as they were introduced to spy school and instructed that they were now training to be top Arlington agents.

The spy school morning session is designed to teach the students skills they will need in the afternoon surprise challenge. They were split into three groups and each group three sessions. One being an assault course designed to improve their team work. A map drawing exercise which will teach them to draw and use a map by following directional arrows. And the third exercise is to create a 'secret' trail using sticks and stone to mark the way.

Following a successful morning session the trainee agents were then informed that they had a written exam for the afternoon to prove their agent skills. However as they are being set up for their exam an emergency call over the radio came through from Agent Otter; He has been captured by the evil Dr Worm!

Agent Shrew and Agent Dormouse told the trainee agents that they will have to assist with the rescue. The Trainee agents are organised into six groups and given their mission packs to help lead them around a  pre laid trail guiding them to Agent Otter. Each group had a teacher as a leader and they are all started at different locations on the clue trail.

All the groups got into the competitive spirit especially Mr Allen's (Shirwell's Headteacher) group who were seen leaping over flower beds. The groups completed the trail following clues and collected letters to gain access to Agent Otter's final location. The first group managed to complete the trail within 30 minutes and rushed down to find Agent Otter who had been tied up by Dr Worm in the Wilderness.

Each group was allowed to find Agent Otter and then went back up to wait for all the groups to complete the trail. Following completion of the challenge each student was awarded with Arlington Spy School pass certificate with their own secret agent name.

All the students went home in high spirits from their day of spy school training. Steve and I were also very happy that the day went so well but exhausted from an extremely busy day. And we packed away our shirts untill the next school books on the Arlington Spy School Day.