A dry windy week and spring is definitely in the air. No more trees down so with a bit of luck I shall be back onto bridge building next week. The fish in the hatchery are growing apace; they are now around an inch long, with round fat bellies. The tinning in the river is also going smoothly, the river has dropped an inch this week which is a good thing for the stretch that you have already cleared of silt, but reduces the “silt clearing” action of the tin, slowing the whole process down.
Because the weather has been dry and windy, it has given me the perfect opportunity to burn off several areas of Spearbed. Chiefly made up of Phragmites – Norfolk reed, the reed beds are a home to all sorts of flora and fauna. Burning the dead reeds off thickens the reed bed as well as supplying certain minerals to the growing red bed. Left unburnt the reed bed will still grow but a certain amount of new growth will be inhibited by last year’s dead reeds lying on top of them. In the years that I have been burning the reed beds, numbers of Orchids have risen along with various other wild flowers that grow amongst the phragmites. Once burnt the reed beds look a little stark for a few weeks before turning green almost overnight as the new shoots come through. The practice was frowned upon for a few years, but is now seen as an accepted method of managing spear beds in the Test Valley.
On a windy day, after a dry spell it can take only a couple of minutes for an acre of Spearbed to burn off, with a little bit of damp in the bottom it can take hours. While working as a student on the middle Test, I once spent the morning with one of the keepers burning up a tree that had come down. We went home for lunch at twelve, returning at one to a moonscape, several acres of Spearbed had disappeared as the fire we had left gaily burning, had sent sparks into the neighbouring Spearbed that had caught light and vanished in a matter of seconds.
With the weather warming and spring just around the corner, the Hares in the field behind our house have started to lose their marbles. For much of the year they prefer their own company, coming together to herald the impending spring. Several times I have witnessed a Parliament meeting in the fields bordering the river, up to a dozen hares gathered in an area thirty feet across. Oblivious to my presence just checking each other out before a bit of boxing and reproduction, behaviour not dissimilar to a Friday night in Andover or Winchester. They don’t look much but they are fascinating animals, full of quirks and foibles, they will favour one field one day and another the next. Sometimes they will fancy the wood, other days a small bit of plough completely devoid of food that turns their feet to balls of mud. They are seen as a pest on some estates, although, to me, crop damage from Hares appears minimal. Some estates will cull hares to deter the Pikeys and illegal Lurcher men who are out to run their dogs and check out the local area. While other estates will offer Hare shooting as a days sport. An estate local to our area regularly kills between two and three hundred hares a year with no apparent affect on the population. Myself I am not keen on shooting Hares, I don’t care much for eating them and they are bloody heavy to carry around once you have shot one. I can look out of my bedroom window most mornings and pick one out in the field behind our house, snuggled down in his scrape against the harsh weather, leaping around in his mid march madness, or cruising across the field in first gear on his morning commute to the neighbouring field.
Three years ago at this time of year, while walking the dogs up the river I came across three Otters, the first I had seen in my time in Hampshire. There had been prolonged efforts to reintroduce them to the Test and Itchen, and today they are resident throughout both rivers. The three I came across looked like a mum with two grown youngsters, I had only occasionally come across signs of Otters, the odd spraint or a half eaten fish. These three looked like they were passing through, Otters have a huge territory, and an Otter seen down in Stockbridge can quite easily be an Otter seen on the Dever. Despite the Conservation Officer’s protestations that Otters only eat Eels, they will decimate numbers of valuable stockfish held in a stew pond if given the chance. Many keepers now surround their stew ponds with a low electric fence, and at the moment fish losses to Otters are minimal, The real damage will occur if Otters are allowed to reach unnatural numbers through over protection, as was the case with the Cormorants and Herons several years ago. I remain unconvinced that the Conservation Officers of the Environment Agency and English Nature are the right people to make that judgement, which will be to the detriment of the fish populations in the Test Valley. On a lighter note we are due to get a new Labrador puppy in May. Zebo will be ten next year and is steadying up considerably. His brother Jacko, who works with a keeper friend of mine at Stockbridge is due to be a dad for the second time and we have first choice of the dogs. Jacko is slightly smaller than Zebo, as is the Dam, so our new pup shouldn’t be the big-footed chunky monkey that is Zebo, but should hopefully be as intelligent and hard working.