Chilterns 3Cs: chalk, cherries and chairs

It’s easy to forget, as we hurry about our daily lives, the quietly heroic efforts of various people and organisations striving to preserve the best of where we live, and to find out more about it. The Chilterns Conservation Board is a key local player in these parts. So it’s encouraging to learn that the Heritage Lottery Board has awarded £2 million for a five-year conservation project. The three Cs – chalk, cherries and chairs – refer to some of the best-known natural and historical features of the region.

The press release gives fuller details of exactly what will be part of the project. Our first home in Prestwood was on the site of one of the cherry orchards which used to be a major local employer. Sadly, the orchards are almost completely gone, not only from Prestwood but from the Chilterns as a whole. So it’s exciting to read that restoring the orchards to some extent, and resurrecting the annual Cherry Pie Festival, is part of the project plans.

One of Helen’s ancestors was a bodger, otherwise known as a wood turner. Furniture making used to be synonymous with High Wycombe in particular (the football team’s nickname is still “the Chairboys”), and the bodgers were a key link in the production process. As with the cherry orchards, this part of local history is well overdue for revival and re-examination.

And the chalk? Well, the Chilterns Conservation Board is already working on our large collection of Iron Age hillforts.  Whichever one you visit – whether Sharpenhoe Clappers, for example, in the northern Chilterns – there’s nothing like an old hillfort for a bit of atmosphere and mystery. This new project promises to step up work on the hillforts, and we may even learn more about Grim’s Ditch – though, if investigations come up with anything better than that wonderful name, we’ll be surprised.

Rare birds and butterflies should benefit, too, with this project providing additional resources to try to ensure that rareness doesn’t turn into extinction. All in all, we think the HLF’s £2 million for this new project is going to be money well spent.

High as a (red) kite

“I don’t like red kites,” says one Chilterns resident of our acquaintance.  “Too many of them, and they make that horrible whistling sound.”

It’s a point of view.  There may now be over 1,000 breeding pairs of red kites in the Chilterns, so it isn’t possible to monitor all the nests and give an accurate figure for the local population. And they do make quite a bit of noise as they wheel merrily overhead.

The irony is that there may be “too many” red kites here because of an extremely successful programme of reintroducing them between 1989 and 1994, using birds from Spain.  The reason for needing to reintroduce them? The English had hunted red kites to extinction by the end of the 19th century, because of the belief that they killed lambs and gamebirds.  So if we hadn’t done that in the first place…

Image of red kite courtesy of Joe Pell via Flickr

Conserving a 20th century industry hub

It looks like a timeless scene, basking in the August sunshine.  In reality the Ewelme Watercress Beds ran as a going business concern for only just over a century.  George Smith, a publican from South Weston, a small hamlet just north of Watlington, bought the land in c.1886 and organised the digging out of the beds so that watercress could be grown.  From there it was packed and went by wagon or cart to Watlington station and on by train to the Midlands and Manchester.  Regulatory pressures meant that the site stopped selling watercress in 1988. Four years later, the Chiltern Society bought it and a team of their volunteers now runs the site as a nature reserve.

“You’re not seeing it at its absolute best today,” said Tom Stevenson, one of the volunteers, as he showed us around.  August is a couple of months too late to enjoy the 130 orchids, of five different species, which flourished this year.  Though Tom was reluctant to use the word “weed”, the team is keen to give wild flowers every chance to appear and has been using yellow-rattle in an effort to control the wild grasses which might prosper instead.  In similar vein, meadowsweet has become rather invasive and the team is looking at options to prevent it taking up too much space.

Animals and insects get a chance, too. Pupils from a local school have built a “bug hotel”, while the team at Tiggywinkles persuaded Tom to see if the site could be a good home for some of its hedgehogs.  “Sixteen of them,” Tom says wryly. “I had to get them here in my car. Have you any idea how smelly hedgehogs are?”

Smells notwithstanding, we wish the Ewelme team the best of luck as they work towards a diverse local habitat – hedgehogs, bugs, flowers and all.

How do you make a hedgehog blue?

Also, what flavour of food do they dislike?  These were a couple of the questions to which we heard the answers on a trip to Tiggywinkles, the world’s leading wildlife hospital.

Tiggywinkles – named after the Beatrix Potter character – became famous for its treatment of injured hedgehogs, and there were over 300 in for treatment on the day we visited. But clearly the organisation has expanded in recent years.  There is now a badger sett, for example. Just as each person in a hospital for humans has their own problems, the same applies to badgers. Rachel has fractures in both front legs, so she cannot dig and therefore can’t return to the wild), while Stevie is blind and Logan was found starving after the human family which used to feed him moved away. Christmas, meanwhile, is thus named for being found on 24 December, not for being white (but not albino)!  There is also a new Red Kite education centre and aviary, along with a hide for observing muntjac, Chinese water deer, roe deer and fallow deer in a paddock.

Having said that, Tiggywinkles is still closely associated with hedgehogs.  Its museum covers almost everything you can think of, including military formations, Royal Navy memorabilia… but not the “hedgehog sandwich” sketch from Not the Nine O’clock News.  The hedgehog talk revealed that hedgehogs typically have 5,000 spines and like cat food or dog food, as long as it isn’t tuna or other flavours of fish.  One resident of Tiggywinkles apparently enjoyed eating crisps, while another was known as Blue because – he fell into an open tin of blue paint.  As well as the talks, you can view, through a window, baby hedgehogs and other animals and birds as staff feed them.  You’d have to have a heart of stone not to say “aaaah”…