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Grebes – Catch of the day!

November 16, 2014

Author: James Miekle

Two species of Grebe could be seen on The Vyne ornamental lake recently – Little Grebe and Great Crested Grebe. The former have bred successfully this year but the last time Great Crested Grebe bred successfully was in 2012. Last year a nest was built but abandoned and until late August this year, Great Crested Grebes were occasional short-stay visitors. Then a singleton took up residence and stayed for nearly 2 months before taking its leave. With luck it will return – hopefully with a mate and we will be treated to their elaborate and beautiful mating ‘dance’.

In both Little and Great Crested Grebe, sexes are indistinguishable but there is a considerable difference between summer and winter plumage. In spring, Little Grebes develop rich chestnut panels on their neck and face which disappear in winter while Great Crested Grebes develop black and deep orange plumes on their heads which again, disappear in winter.

At 25-29 cm. Little Grebes are the smallest adult birds on the lake: rotund and highly buoyant, they bob around like corks even in the slightest ripples. Their presence is betrayed by loud, pony-like ‘whinnying’.

Great Crested Grebes are elegant birds with long necks, held upright when they swim. At 46-51 cm. long, they can look quite large but are actually slightly smaller than Mallards. Less vocal than Little Grebes, they do make grunting and croaking noises during the mating season.

Great crested grebes and Little grebes

Great crested grebes and Little grebes – Copyright James Meikle

Thankfully now quite common, the Great Crested Grebe population plummeted in the 19th century through egg collecting and the use of feathers to make ladies’ hats. They were one of the first birds to benefit from the formation of the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds.

Both Little and Great Crested Grebes dive for food and can remain underwater for 20 or so seconds, often surfacing a considerable distance from where they submerged. Their food consists of fish, aquatic insects, molluscs and other invertebrates. Both are capable of swallowing fish which seem disproportionately large, given their body size.

In the photographs, the Great Crested Grebe is swallowing a large Perch. The Little Grebe is eating a small crayfish – probably a Signal Crayfish – an invasive American species which has displaced our native crayfish in many lakes, rivers and streams.

Little grebe tucks into what appears to be a small Signal crayfish

Little grebe tucks into what appears to be a small Signal crayfish – Copyright James Meikle.

Reflecting on my time in the gardens

November 4, 2014

Author: Dennis Ward – (Seasonal gardener)

I love the outdoors and so having an opportunity to work as a seasonal gardener with the National Trust is something I consider a privilege and an honour. The Vyne sits in a quiet corner of Hampshire but a stones-throw away from the village of Sherborne St John.

Behind the scenes I’m mowing lawns, finely manicuring Yew hedges, pruning and tidying, attending to stubborn machinery, yes, we do have fun with this. However what’s really important is the people you work with, volunteers who come in despite the rain, cold, wind, snow and sometimes howling gales even when they are not feeling well. With aching limbs they still give their time to the ensure the gardens always look their best. This I find truly humbling and a reflection of their love of these special places.

All in a days work - Dennis Ward ensures the summer garden looks it's best.

All in a days work – Dennis Ward ensures the summer garden looks it’s best.

In my time here I have discovered friendships, camaraderie and wonderfully warm and sincere staff and volunteers full of enthusiasm, always willing to share their knowledge and thus I have learnt much in what is only a short time. The summer has rolled away once again and as I reflect on the months spent at The Vyne, I smile knowing that I have become part of its long and twisting history.
I know we are all here to conserve and preserve the past and that’s part of what attracts people who come through our gates. To enjoy the peace and tranquillity, to spy into the past and wonder at the many souls who have trodden through the gardens over the centuries.
Modern life is very busy so it’s good that there are places like these where you can switch off and enjoy the slow lane with friends and family, watch the wildlife, listen to bird song and let summer gently caress your cares away, even for just a short while.

Left: Dennis with Volunteer gardener - Victor Gardener...yes really. Right: The Yew hedge receiving loving care.

Left: Dennis with volunteer gardener – Victor Gardener…yes really. Right: The West garden  Yew hedge receiving loving care in good time before winter sets in.

I may have contributed my bit in the gardens this year but it’s a drop in the ocean to all the wonderful work that goes on every day from so many dedicated people. Seeing smiling faces young and not so young as they enjoy the sights and sounds of our gardens is the icing on the cake for me. It makes all the hard work in all sorts of weather worth every minute. I shall miss this place and especially the people who have made my time here so special.

Buses long past

October 23, 2014

The Vyne is a frequent attraction for coach tourists however it is rare indeed for us to host such a wonderfully preserved vehicle as the one that arrived on Wednesday this week.

Guernsey Albion 1958

Guernsey Albion 1958

Guernsey fleet number 77. This Albion bus from 1958 was supplied to Guernsey Motors and Guernsey Railway and licensed to carry 35 seated passengers and 7 standing.

Powered by a four cylinder Albion diesel engine it proved reliable, powerful for its size and economical (15 to 17mpg!!). The Guernsey Albions are a preservationist’s delight, apparently due to the limited use of wood in the interiors. This particular example has appeared on film sets starring David Suchet as Poirot. The driver recounted how David Suchet would during his filming breaks take time out in the drivers seat to eat his lunch onboard.

Medlars at The Vyne

October 6, 2014

Author: Keith Gillings (Fruit and produce volunteer)

Sadly this year has seen the demise of both of our medlar trees at The Vyne. They were in the wild garden and had succumbed to disease which has required them to be cut down. Medlars are part of the Rosacea family and therefore related to the apple and roses. It has a rather ugly appearance rather like a large, ugly rose hip and it has the unfortunate nickname of ‘dogs bottom’ (when viewed from the base you can quite understand why).



Harvesting is interesting in that you pick them just before frosts are about and when ripe they are hard and green. They aren’t edible until they’ve become half rotten or ‘bletted’, when they turn brown and soft. In Victorian time they were eaten by scooping out the brown mush, mixing it with clotted cream and adding a little fortified wine.
A very nice jelly can be made from them that sets well and makes a good accompanyment to cooked meat such as cold pork.

A mystery solved – almost

September 25, 2014

Author: James Meikle

Little Grebes can be seen on the ornamental lake throughout the year. Even if you can’t spot them their distinctive whinnying call can be heard.

In spring and summer last year (2013) there were at least two pairs in breeding plumage but despite visiting frequently I did not see any young grebes. Nor to my knowledge, did anyone else. Then in the autumn, there were at least half-a-dozen fully grown immature Little Grebes on the lake and numbers increased with the onset of winter.

But where did they come from? Had they hatched around the lake or had they flown in from elsewhere? Little Grebes do tend to fly in for the winter and form small flocks.

By the spring this year (2014) the numbers reduced until once again, there seemed to be 2 pairs in breeding plumage. As the weeks passed, they became secretive and I saw them only occasionally. There were no chicks to be seen.

Then on 12 August, I saw an immature Little Grebe – well grown but with remnants of stripes on its head and accompanied by two adults; the stripes confirming that this was a juvenile bird and unable to fly.

So mystery partially solved. Little Grebes do breed on the ornamental lake but the mystery of where all the birds hide until the autumn remains. In summer there are several hours of daylight before The Vyne opens and several hours after it closes so maybe they confine their excursions onto open water to these hours and remain in the reedy fringes while people are around.

A few days later, while walking along the lake on my way out I heard a twittering from the other side of the reeds. More baby coots or moorhens I told myself but something made me go back and lo and behold – baby grebes. Birdwatching can deliver some memorable moments and one of the babies didn’t spot me. It dived under the water which happened to be crystal clear and I could see the little bird swimming powerfully to and fro under the water close to the bank.

Top left: Adult breeding plumage. Top right: Full grown chic, winter plumage. Bottom left: Near grown chic residual strips. Bottom right: Chic recently hatched

Top left: Adult breeding plumage. Top right: Full grown chic, winter plumage. Bottom left: Near grown chic residual strips. Bottom right: Chic recently hatched

At the time of writing (mid-September) Little Grebes are probably the most numerous (20-30) species on the lake and there is at least one brood which is just a few weeks old. Adults and juveniles have ceased their secrecy and can be photographed quite easily.

Autumn festival – 18th and 19th October 2014

September 8, 2014

A date for your diaries. Our autumn festival is fast approaching and you are all welcome to come join in the fun. Sample and purchase apples from a great range of local varieties, grown on here in The Vyne’s own orchards. Watch the workings of a traditional apple press, have a go at breaking up the apples and see the juice run. Held in our walled garden you’ll find various local craft stallholders and the chance to enjoy besom broom making and other activities for the whole family to get involved. There will also be a falconry display with various birds for you to see in action.

This is a wonderful social event so please do come along and enjoy the day with us in what is a beautiful part of the Hampshire countryside. See our events calendar for more information.

The delights of autumn harvest at The Vyne - Hampshire

The delights of autumn harvest at The Vyne – Hampshire


Keith Gillings our highly industrious and very knowlegable  fruit volunteer carefully selects ripe apples.

Keith Gillings our highly industrious and very knowlegable fruit volunteer carefully selects ripe apples.


The preparation for our apples in full swing in the orchard

The preparation for storage of our apples in full swing in the orchard

Aerial acrobats

August 31, 2014

Dragonflies (order Odonata)

Dragonflies are among the fastest flying insects in the world. They can fly backwards, change direction in mid-air and hover for up to a minute while maintaining a fixed position above the ground. There are almost 6000 species worldwide. Here in the UK there are 56 species, a figure that includes closely related  damselflies. Dragonflies are easily identified as they hold their wings perpendicular to their bodies whereas damselflies hold theirs closed above the torso when at rest.

We have a variety of slow flowing water habitats here at The Vyne most of which are fringed with reeds and grasses. These make a perfect spot to observe these acrobatic wonders of nature as they flit about there business of hunting other insects for food or finding a mate.

You can observe dragonflies as early as mid April through to September. Warm days are best and if you want to capture images of these wonderful insects you’ll need a camera with either a macro lens for detailed closeups or a 200mm zoom lens. The later will enable you to get in close without disturbing the subject.

As you can see below there are many interesting species that can regularly be seen around our lake and wetland areas. So why not pop by and see if you can spot a species we haven’t yet spied?

If you manage to capture that prized macro shot. Well, why not share it with us to be featured in a future article here on the blog?

Top - Emperor dragonfly, Black tailed skimmer. Bottom - Broad bodied chaser and Common darter.

Top – Emperor dragonfly, Black tailed skimmer. Bottom – Broad bodied chaser and Common darter. Copyright – James Meikle





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