Winter work and wildlife at Trelissick

Illustration of a great northern diver by Sonia Hensler

We haven’t provided our readers with a blog for a while – Christmas shenanigans seem to have got in the way – so this might be a slightly longer than usual edition as we catch up with all the goings on in the countryside over the last couple of months.

We’ve had a busy start to 2019, with winter being the time we carry out our annual woodland work. The return of the birds in March usually signifies the end of our forestry season although – with milder temperatures – this time creeps ever closer and we must keep watchful eyes (and ears) on the behaviour of our feathered friends. As a result, much of what we have to tell you is woodland or tree related…

During December, a trip to Windsor Great Park was arranged for NT rangers from the South-West so dutifully, the Trelissick countryside team hopped in a van and ventured over the Tamar for an educational/inspirational outing.

This tree is around 1300 years old!
A 1300 year old tree in Great Windsor Park
This tree is around 1300 years old!

The Great Park is home to many incredible and astonishingly ancient trees (we saw several oak trees that were over 1000 years old!) and were fortunate that our guide for the day was none other than Ted Green. Ted is the founder of the Ancient Tree Forum where he has tirelessly demonstrated the value of ancient trees and how they have increased our understanding of the relationships between trees, fungi and other microorganisms. Today, Ted is the Conservation Consultant to the Crown Estate and has been awarded an MBE for his services to ancient trees and conservation. It was both a pleasure and a privilege to hear him speak and learn about the techniques he has developed to both look after ancient trees and recreate the habitats they offer for other organisms.

Views from the South Woodland Walk
The view down Carrick Roads from Trelissick's South Woodland Walk, Cornwall
Views from the South Woodland Walk

Back home on the Estate we have been opening up spectacular views of the river by coppicing, thinning and removing trees that were obscuring light and interfering with our native canopy of oak trees. We have ‘opened up’ a considerable stretch along the banks of Lamouth Creek where increased levels of light and space will hopefully encourage a new generation of oaks to set seed and thrive.

You can enjoy the fruits of our labour on the South Woodland Walk where we have coppiced a dense stand of elm in order to open up a vista of the Carrick Roads and out to Falmouth.  With regard to the elm, this coppicing has another – more primary - objective and that is hopefully protecting these trees from the ravishing effect of Dutch elm disease. The disease only affects more mature trees (from 15 years old) and so managing our remaining elms on a regular coppice rotation means they are less likely to succumb to infection whilst preserving the root stock and the genetics of the tree.

For a simple overview on why tree genetics and provenance are imperative to our work at Trelissick, please read our previous article on woodland management (part one). Or, if you are interested in coppicing and other woodland management techniques, please follow the link to part two.

What is Dutch elm disease?

It might seem like a curious question to ask but – as there are many myths and misconceptions about this much publicised disease – it is also worth clarifying. Firstly, don’t be fooled by the ‘Dutch’; this disease didn’t come from the Netherlands and it doesn’t just affect Dutch elms. It was named after the team of Dutch plant scientists who, at the tail end of WW1, identified that the causal agents were a type of elm bark beetle who were spreading a fungus called Ophiostoma ulmi.

We also know that Europe has been struck not once, but twice by epidemics of this disease – the first peaked in Britain in the 1930’s and the second outbreak 1970s was apparently brought in on imported logs from Canada. A subsequent idea seems to exist that ‘there are no elm trees left; they have all been wiped out by Dutch elm disease’. This is far from the truth and we probably have more elm trees in Britain now than we did before the current epidemic which we think started in the late 1960s.  However, these tend to be relatively young trees whilst the grand, old elms that used to grace our countryside are more of a rarity.

Back on topic...

We’re sure the recent periods of torrential rain and high winds will not have escaped your attention and they have unfortunately resulted in the loss of several trees across Trelissick and the North Helford. One large beech that fell at the end of January led to the closure of part of the North Woodland Walk for several days. Tree surgeons were called in to bring the tree down to the ground and then our team of rangers and volunteers processed any good timber (much of the tree was affected by rot) into firewood whilst leaving much of the tree behind as invaluable habitat. Sometimes, trees such as this one can fall awkwardly above a path or on a steep slope and are potentially dangerous to work on. In the video below, the rangers and volunteers have rigged up a pulley system to safely lower sections of timber to the path without it falling into the valley below:

Wildlife to watch out for

Out of the woods and down on Trelissick Beach, next to our boat-capped bird hide, you will find that we have installed a new telescope. This is one of those proper, sturdy, seaside holiday type telescopes that you used to put a coin in and they would whirr away whilst you struggled to make out grainy shapes. Well ours is completely reconditioned, surprisingly good and free to use (although there is a slot for donations if you feel so inclined). This handsome new addition to the estate is also somewhat appropriate as most of our recent wildlife sightings seem to be birds….

What will you spot?
A telescope installed at Trelissick beach overlooking Carrick Roads, Cornwall
What will you spot?

It has been a wonderful couple of months for spotting wildlife out and about in the Trelissick countryside. Of course, the event that grabbed all the headlines was the day a large pod of dolphins made their way up the Fal and were clearly visible from Trelissick beach. These were common dolphins and their number has been estimated at 40 individuals leaping clear out of the water and evidently having a great time. What a fantastic sight to see!

Dolphins in the River Fal
Dolphins in the River Fal, Cornwall
Dolphins in the River Fal

Joining them on the river, there have been several sightings of our largest British diving bird, the great northern diver. An expert fisher (fish constitute around 80% of its diet), this bird catches its prey underwater and can dive as deep as 60 metres! A good moment to spot them is upon take-off with the large, ungainly bird needing a long run-up to gain momentum for flight or during landing, when the bird skims on its belly to slow down rather than using its feet.

Great Northern Diver
Illustration of a great northern diver by Sonia Hensler
Great Northern Diver

Cruising alongside their larger counterparts, we have also spotted several magnificent mergansers. At home on both salt and freshwater, the merganser has a distinctive long, serrated bill (they are sometimes known as sawbills) and is most commonly seen on the UK’s coastline during winter.

Merganser
Illustration of a merganser by Sonia Hensler
Merganser

Further down-river, tucked away in the comparatively quiet and secluded creeks you can peer through the gaps in the trees and see teal (our smallest dabbling ducks) keeping company with redshank, little egrets and solitary, stilt-legged herons whilst, up in the canopy, woodpeckers have begun the loud drumming that signifies preparations are being made for the breeding season ahead.

Returning to dry land, large groups of Curlew and Oystercatchers have come up from the creeks to make the private side of the Parkland a second home for the winter. Curlews in particular have undergone an alarming decline in Britain over recent years so it is reassuring for us to see them in such numbers.

If you enjoy exploring our wildlife fields at Tregew, you might notice that some birds like to flock together for the winter. This is ‘safety in numbers’ type behaviour with multiple pairs of eyes more likely to spot predators or find food during what is often a lean period. Our sacrificial crops in these fields provide a good amount of food and this is noticeable from the roaming bands of finches, skylarks and meadow pipits that billow from the hedgerows or array themselves on power cables. In the mix are buzzards, kestrels and the occasional sparrow hawk that, amongst the barley, find many a small mammal on which to pounce.

Thank you for reading, we hope you spot these creatures when you're out and about enjoying a day at Trelissick.

- The National Trust Ranger team, Trelissick and North Helford