Red squirrels’ return

For a while during the last year we were worried that building works opposite the house and work to restore the garden and interior of The Larches following flood damage had unsettled our resident red squirrels and encouraged them to move deeper into the forest.

We need not have worried. Two weeks ago we saw three separate red squirrels during the course of an hour or so between 7.30 am and 8.30 am; and have been seeing individual ones for some time.

If you are up about this time of the day you’ll have a good chance of a sighting either from the kitchen windows as they run down the stone steps from the forest or on the wooden steps to the back of the house. From the front windows in the sitting room they are also often seen crossing the road to the feeding box in the cottage opposite or running up and down the road looking for hiding places for the hazel nuts they have found.

The photo above shows one of the squirrels tentatively approaching the feeding box across the road, while the one at the bottom is of the same squirrel dashing back to the protection of The Larches’ garden.

Warning – trees in danger

A report out recently from the Forestry Commission (See Guardian 31 October 2012) warning of the prevalence of fungal diseases affecting a range of native UK trees, will not come as a complete surprise to anyone walking in the Thornthwaite Forest vicinity.

Last year I was warned that larch forests were at risk from a fungal infection and as a result the Forestry Commission was having to cut down a three acres site above the footpath that leads across the fields from Thornthwaite to Braithwaite.

Now even more serious is the threat to the native English ash tree, which could be decimated if the spread of the ash dieback fungus, appearing last month in East Anglia, is not stopped. The cause appears to be unregulated importing of plants from other countries. The Government needs to act soon to address this serious threat to the countryside. Spread the word if you can.

One positive development to note (See story in Guardian, 29 October 2012) is that a group of academics and developers has just developed an AshTag app for smartphones, which will allow users to send details and photos of suspected examples of the fungus (the leaves of the ash droop and go black) to a central point for the Forestry Commission to investigate. It’s a great example of crowdsourcing to deal with a potentially country wide problem and the app is from today available for download by clicking on the AshTag app website.

The prodigal red squirrel

Here’s the good news! Just over two hours ago at 9.35 am I saw the red squirrel in the garden. Up on the new Buena Vista Crag, I suddenly noticed a red streak of a small animal on the path below, which leads up across the cottage lawns outside the kitchen.

“Was that really a squirrel?” I thought to myself and was tempted to hurry across to investigate further, but held back. It was a sound plan. A couple of minutes later I saw the squirrel climbing up from behind the belvedere and through into the Forestry Commission land. It slipped quickly into the forest, but was clearly visible on the initial slope where last month I had cleared a lot of old bracken and dead branches.

Why all the fuss? Well we’ve been wondering about the red squirrels, since they haven’t been eating the hazel nuts and we’ve had few recent sightings. The last visitors to have seen a red squirrel were in September 2011 when they arrived at the cottage. The previous sighting was by the Gretton family in July 2010, who saw them three times and took several photos of them. Several people have noted in the Visitors’ book that they have not seen a red squirrel.

We’ve been involved with the Forestry Commission in tracking the numbers of red squirrels in Whinlatter Forest and there appear to be about one red squirrel per hectare. So all in all this is good news for Seldom Seen. Let’s hope for some more sightings!

Flash & grab raid, seldom seen

I had heard of the phenomenon in these parts before, but the real thing took me by complete surprise. It would have had SAS trainers (had they been here!) reaching for the superlatives to describe the speed and precision of this evening raid.

I’m in the kitchen and watching intently through the window as a fine looking blackbird struggles to drag out from the green lawn a thin pink worm for its meal.

It lets go, then reaches forward again for a shorter pull, braces its feet and pulls its head back for the final coup de grace. I’m engrossed and can sense its frustration, as I had just been wrestling with deep rooted weeds from the vegetable bed.

Suddenly a whirl of feathers hurtles over the hedge from the road outside and swoops down on this small every day scene of garden life. Before I’ve time to wonder what is happening, the attacker has gone and with it the blackbird. All that is left of a second’s struggle is a pile of black and grey feathers scattered on the grass as the photo shows.

The attacker of course was a sparrowhawk, which we have not seen here before. Our excellent AA book of birds in The Larches library describes the signature attack of this small bird of prey, which commonly sweeps fast along a hedge and then does an inverted U flight over the top to surprise its victim.

It refers also to the “plucking post”, where they dismember their kill and I remembered the rocky area at the top of the garden where I had seen last week another collection of small bird’s feathers (See Photo opposite). It looks like the sparrowhawk has been here before, while we’ve been busy trying to see the ospreys from the belvedere!

Hidden hedgehog

[This is a guest contribution to our blog by nine year old Rose, who is staying here with us this week.]

It was about 5:00 pm yesterday when this happened. Poppy (our brown cocker spaniel) was barking away outside the cottage. My dad went cautiously to see what was the matter. A prickly hedgehog was curled up hibernating, intimidated by the noise.

“It was a shady spot under a Holly tree, the peaty earth was bare”, reported Daddy “and Poppy was standing in an angry pose, muzzle pointing down, barking aggressively at a small spiky ball”. This was all because Poppy had dug up his home!

Daddy took Poppy away and checked that she wasn’t hurt. Then he and Ian placed a stack of logs over the area to protect it from more attention from Poppy.

The floodlit photo below shows what the area of the garden looked like a bit later that evening and was taken from the loft of The Larches.