In Search of the Roman Villa

I had been meaning to go looking for the ruined Roman villa near Winchcombe for ages, and finally got around to it on Sunday. The villa is hidden deep in the woods up the valley from Sudeley Castl. There’s not much to see of the old walls especially with the vegetation so high, but a section of mosaic can be seen kept under a low roof canopy and protected by plastic sheeting. Pretty low-key compared to most Roman ruins in UK!

Aside from the local archaeology there were plenty of flowers to be seen. I found this pure-white albino pyramidal orchid among the common spotted, bee and purple pyramidal orchids in some very lovely wildflower meadows. Wood Vetch (.Vicia sylvatica) was a nice find; something of a local specialty along the Cotswold scarp.

Winter Thrushes

We get a decent selection of wintering thrushes in the village. Several (up to ten) Redwings are roosting in next door’s holly tree and are usually around eating berries or sitting high in the birch trees. So far, as there are plenty of berries, they stay up in the trees, but later on they will likely be down in the leaf little looking for insects. A few blackbirds are around too, also in the holly tree, or on the lawn. While there seem more redwings than last year, blackbirds didn’t yet get close to the max count of 11 last year. Fieldfares are plentiful in the orchards and wet fields around the region; we see them overhead but not often in the garden. Not unless there’s a snowfall. A Mistle thrush was around the garden earlier in the autumn, but there’s not much mistletoe so it moved on, but probably not far. The orchards round here are full of mistletoe, which these birds guard jealously against competitors. Rounding it off, I saw my first garden song thrush since the blog started in June the other day - as usual it keeps a low profile around the corners of the garden.

Grey Partridges at Calmsden Farm

Grey Partridges declined in UK by 90% between 1967 and 2008, according to BTO surveys, and are well and truly “Red List” birds While Red-legged Partridges are widespread, often released for game shooting, their native relatives remain scarce and localised in the Cotswolds. It was really interesting therefore to attend a FWAG South West (Farming & Wildlife Advisory Group) meeting at Calmsden Farm near Cirencester, where thanks to focused habitat management the population of Grey Partridges increased from initially 2 to 50+ pairs.

While the business of the farm is profitable arable agriculture, the land is managed very sympathetically for wildlife. In this environment partridges are dependent on having cover for nesting and to avoid predation over the winter period, insects to feed the chicks during the first weeks after hatching and food to survive the winter. The requirements for cover and food are provided by leaving a patchwork of habitats in narrow 3 or 6 meter strips along the field margins and in some cases through the fields. On Calmsden Farm these habitats are really varied, provided by annual, biennial and perennial sown wild flowers, strips of un-ploughed wildflower meadow and raised grassy beetle-banks. The field margin habitats are not natural, but instead are custom designed to provide for the year-round needs of partridges, such that they can breed successfully and maintain low mortality. Predators are controlled during the breeding season, especially foxes, rats, stoats and crows, and supplemental grain (laced with anti-worm medicine) is provided at feeding stations over the winter. Other practices, like drilling autumn sown oil-seed rape directly into the stubble from the previous grain crop and maintaining hedges over a multi-year cycle, also benefit the resident wildlife. The succession of planting and cutting ensures the field margins provide cover and feeding opportunity at all times, avoiding a situation where birds are left vulnerable to foxes and avian predators such as sparrowhawks.

This dedication to preserving Grey Partridges, which are not hunted on this farm, has been hugely successful. However, it doesn’t just benefit them, but also many other farmland species. For our visit the partridges were (ironically) keeping a low profile - maybe too much cover! - but I did see Roe Deer, Brown Hares, Yellowhammers, Skylark, Stock Dove, flocks of Linnets, Goldfinches, Swallows and Meadow Pipits, Buzzard and Red Kite. All in a short walk over a few of the fields.

I left feeling really optimistic that, with planning, expertise from bodies like FWAG and some financial support from government, farmers really can reverse some declines of farmland wildlife, while at the same time still maintaining viable businesses and feeding us.

Photos show examples of wild-life friendly field margins including natural wild grass, sown annual wild flower mix, deep cover for partridges and beetle banks.