Monday, 8 June 2015

Pony management at Arlington – a challenge throughout the seasons

One of the largest challenges facing the Equine Ranger is the summer management of our herd of native ponies.  In the winter time, we have 250 acres of rolling fields and river valleys for our ponies to live in.  They can roam freely and munch on a diverse range of grasses and plants and in doing so help us to achieve our conservation grazing objectives – mostly by keeping the scrub that threatens our species-rich grassland at bay.

In the summer time it is a different story.  Ponies such as Shetland and Exmoor are much more suited to the harsher lands on the top of Exmoor and on the Shetland Isles and if we gave them access to unrestricted grazing at Arlington in the summer we would end up with very fat ponies and risk serious health problems such as laminitis.  One solution many horse owners resort to is stabling the ponies or seriously restricting their grazing which leads to very bare and poached ground. 

We do not want to stable our ponies all summer, partly as this is a lot of work, but it also leads to further health issues as ponies are not designed to stand still all day either and can also develop breathing problems indoors.  To restrict their grazing to a level which would actually keep the weight off means we would end up keeping them on a very small patch of bare ground which is not very good field management as we end up with bare soil and lots of weeds and very sad looking ponies too.

So what is the answer? 

Well other than moving all our ponies to the top of Exmoor or off to the Shetland Isles – which might be nice for the summer! we have designed a plan for this season based on an established model of pony management developed in the United States called Paddock Paradise.  This system is trying to replicate as much as possible the wild horse model  - to enable us to keep horses in as natural a way as possible, based on how they would live if left to their own devices.  As prey animals they instinctively travel over known routes, to find forage and water and can move up to 20 miles in a day, picking their way through rough grazing on a variety of plants as they go.  They often travel in order of the herd, with the leader at the front.  

Our track keeps the ponies moving
A Paddock Paradise can be used in parts or in full depending on your circumstances, finances and available land.  The basic element is to set up a track for the horses to live on.  This way you can restrict their grazing but also keep them moving.   Other elements can be added to simulate ‘wild’ conditions, such as putting down rocks or creating wet areas, herb beds or even putting down Cougar poo to add that element of the prey!  We are not going this far, but the basic concept is good to keep natural and healthy horses, both mentally and physically.

We have two track systems which we will use this summer, one on the perimeter of the field, where we have also brought in a small herd of sheep to munch the sweetest grass and help with the worm (parasite) control.  The second is in the woodlands, where there is some grass and other scrub such as brambles and bracken and over time we may end up supplementing this with hay or straw as needed.  This year is experimental but it will be very interesting to see if it works and so far so good. 

We will also be trying to exercise the ponies as much as possible through some of our new work on the estate, such as mowing the lawns with the ponies and taking pack pony trekking tours.  If you are interested in finding out more about this model please look at the Paddock Paradise website or come and visit us at Arlington to see for yourself.

Tuesday, 28 April 2015

An Inspiration at Arlington

This week our Outdoors Manager Murray Sharpe is leaving the Arlington Ranger team along with him our Jacob Sheep and Red Devon Cattle.

Murray started with the National Trust when he was 16 as a volunteer at Alderley Edge in Cheshire, this was the start of just over 30 years working for the National Trust. Murray will now be taking on a farm tenancy on the estate and this will be bringing substantial changes to the ranger team itself. The Cattle, Sheep and grassland elements of the HLS project will all be leaving with Murray.

Murray Sharpe
The ranger team has been responsible for the livestock since Arlington was gifted to the trust in 1949, the Jacob sheep on the estate today are the direct descedants of Miss Chichesters own pedigree jacob flock. In 2002 Murray bought 4 in calf cows as part of a grazing project which has grown to our 8 breeding cows today.
Murray Sharpe has been head ranger here at Arlington since 2001 and has been an extremelly positive champion in regard to the livestock and the conservation grazing project.

Murray with his team in 2008

The key reason I applied for the role here at Arlington was because the ranger team managed the in hand livestock and Arlington certainly did not let down my expectations. It has been three years of hard work and I have loved every minute I have spent with the animals, extremely special moments have been watching my pet sheep lamb her first twins and watching the cattle graze through beautiful wood pasture.
There have also been times of emotional pain and throughout the highs and lows Murray has supported the whole team wonderfully throughout our learning and at times grieving process.

Without a doubt the biggest roller coaster was our cow Limmy who I have written an earlier blog about, she was special to all the team and her character meant she was a firm favourite; however in October 2013 she failed her TB test.  As she had walked through the race I had stroked her back and smiled looking up at the vet stating that she was in fact, the best cow in the world. 
But within a few minutes the vet looked up at me with trepidation and I knew the news was not positive, my eyes welled with tears and they continued to flow for the remainder of the day. Loading Limmy onto the lorry to take her away was one of the hardest things I have ever done in my job, even to the last moment I kept imagining a way of squirreling her away but unfortunately Red Devon cows are not the easiest to hide. 
Throughout this even though Murray was feeling his own great sadness, he supported me as his member of staff putting my feelings above his own, coming in early to load Limmy into our trailer so that I would not have to and of course dealing with the tears!

Murray took the decision last year to follow his own dreams and applied for a farm tenancy on the Arlington Estate and the decision was taken that he would manage the in hand land and livestock. Of which part of this would be taking the Jacob sheep flock to continue their association with Arlington. Therefore to the visiting public nothing will have changed, everyone will still be seeing the cattle and sheep graze our grasslands.

However for the team the changes are great, it is with sadness on my part that we say goodbye to Murray who has lead the team with great passion and drive. I truly believe throughout his time in the National Trust Murray has inspired others, passing on his knowledge and passion for conservation and livestock. In 2013 we were interviewing for a seasonal ranger and of which one of the questions within the interview was; what was your inspiration to become a ranger? Steve one of the candidates who had volunteered here 10 years earlier replied “You Murray”. 
It is a great loss for the National Trust to no longer have Murray within the organisation and the team will miss him.
In fact seeing Murray so happy encouraged to follow my own dreams and so I handed in my own notice to take on a partnership on my family farm taking with me the knowledge I gained from Arlington and Murray.

Murray has been an inspiration here at Arlington and his time here has helped Arlington become what it is today, a stunning property with high conservation value for all to enjoy.



Monday, 15 December 2014

Our Intern's Experience

Back in January this year we were contacted by a German University Student hoping to come over and volunteer for the National Trust here at Arlington. 

And it turned out to be a wonderful opportunity for all of us, we were extremely impressed with Annika and her bravery at coming and living here for 5 months speaking constantly in a foreign language for her. 

Annika worked across the property in all departments and in particular really supported the Ranger team with our Education work. 

In fact follow this years success we are hoping to offer another Intern position at Arlington.

Here is Annika's account of her experience here at Arlington;

Hi, my name is Annika, I’m 25 and I was a volunteer at Arlington Court for five months (from May to September). I'm writing this piece in retrospect as I'm back in Germany now but enjoyed my time at Arlington immensely! As it had been part of my studies to spend some time abroad in an English-speaking country, I had chosen to apply for a job as a volunteer at Arlington. What can I say? I got extremely lucky and was given the opportunity to work with and learn from all of you which was an amazing experience!
What did I actually do at Arlington? Apart from working with the Rangers, I had the chance to spend time in the House and in the Carriage Museum, thereby gaining an insight into several of the estate’s different working environments.
Among other things, volunteering with the Rangers involved assisting during school group sessions, helping with the sheep and cattle as well as supporting the new Equine Ranger’s work with the ponies. 
In the House and Carriage Museum I undertook the task of translating both English interpretations into German to contribute to the German visitors’ experience. Furthermore, I learned about conservation in many different areas while packing and re-packing lovely gowns and dresses in the textile store (after removing mould if necessary), doing light readings and cleaning ships and carriages. In addition to that, I tried my luck at room guiding in both the House and Carriage Museum. Hopefully, the visitors had as much fun as I had! ;-)
Nevertheless, the work was always varied and interesting. I liked all aspects equally well, be it in the outdoors or inside. If you asked me about any kind of preference, I really couldn't name one!
During my stay I was also able to visit a few beautiful National Trust properties (Finch Foundry, Dunster Castle, Cotehele, Coleton Fishacre) and travel to other exciting places like Plymouth, Southampton, Exeter and Looe.I had such a good time thanks to all the people who took me around with them. Thank you very much for that!
What am I planning to do now? Well, university has started again and I'm back to continue my studies of History and English. By the looks of it, the lecturers are definitely not going to go easy on us this year! However, I’d like to be a secondary school teacher (eventually) and encourage students’ interest in History and English – definitely something to look forward to!

I’d like to thank everybody who contributed to make my stay an unforgettable experience. Thank you very much and hopefully see you soon!

                                            Annika and Kitty

Friday, 24 October 2014

Life after TB

In March 2013 we had 30 cattle in our herd by April 2014 we had just 15.
TB affects thousands of cattle a year and our herd here at Arlington also became infected.

We lost 15 animals 3 whom were pregnant including our oldest cow Limmy who was one of our foundation members of the herd here at Arlington. Murray and I watched in agony as our cows were loaded into lorries every 60 days and taken from the farm.
Looking after the cattle you get to know their personalities and quirks and you do feel great affection for them therefore every time one leaves it is like you are loosing a friend.

Limmy and I 

After 12 months and no sign of any let up we became extremely weary of this situation having lost 50% of our herd in such a short space of time.

May however gave us new hope as our three pregnant cows gave birth to three heifer calves which is so vital for the future of the herd.

Ranger Dave with Rosalie and her new born calf.

But in June of this year we finally got the news we had hoped for; we had a clear test. In that moment as a team we high fived each other and I for one felt complete euphoria.

Having been cleared of TB it also gave us the opportunity to hire a bull which would help increase our pregnancy percentage in our cows.
A Bull has been very kindly loaned from a local farmer who breeds pedigree Devon's. He is only a 18 month old so we were a little bit worried he would be a little small for the job but he seems to be managing.

He has got all of our 9 heifers and cows who are old enough to go to the bull and we are very excited at the prospect of new calves in May and June next year. Our cows play a vital role on this estate grazing for conservation purposes and it is run as a viable farming business bringing in profit to help us pay for the upkeep of our estate.

Our cows telling me they are ready to change fields!

We have our next TB test in December having gone onto a 6 monthly testing cycle and we are all keeping our fingers crossed.

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.