MDNIA Newsletter, Autumn 2014
Welcome to this edition of the Marlborough Downs newsletter!  There's been so much going on this summer that I hardly know where to begin!  In June, Open Farm Sunday was again a huge success with 800 people or so through the gate at North Farm, West Overton.  Thanks are due to so many people, especially the Community and Outreach Group, and the hosts Robin, Gill and Suzie Swanton.  Suzie and Laura Corbett put in an enormous amount of work to get everything right on the day and their efforts certainly paid off!

Altogether almost 4,000 people have attended events and/or talks about the Marlborough Downs project over the past two and a half years, and here's a flavour of what's been on offer this summer .....
Dawn Chorus Walk -  May
It was calm and still at 5.00am as an intrepid group of 17 bird enthusiasts (still wiping the sleep from their eyes) set off from David White’s house with the moon still shining in the sky. Our walk round the farm estate began as a more a listening exercise than a watching one with bursts of sound from all the traditional songsters. 
As the sun came up and the light improved we began to connect bird calls with more distinct sightings. On our return to the farm we adjourned for coffee and croissants with our kind hosts David and Diana. Most of the group drove on to Avebury for a walk from the High Street up towards Windmill Hill in what was turning out to be a beautiful morning. 
Once into open countryside we began to add new birds to a very respectable log of 36 species including; Collared Dove, Swift, Pied Wagtail, Canada Geese, Buzzard, Pheasant, Wrens, Song Thrushes, Chaffinches, Willow Warbler, Blackcap, Chiff Chaff, Wood Pigeons, Stock Dove, Robin, 
Great Tit, Greenfinch, Goldfinch , Goldcrest, Crows, Swallow, House Sparrow, Tree Sparrow, Linnets, Jackdaw, Dunnock, Common Whitethroats, Corn Bunting, Skylark, Red legged Partridge, Yellowhammer.

Why not set your alarm and see what species you can log on a dawn walk across the Marlborough Downs.
Robin Nelson
Vibrant Verges - June
Sue Everett ran a training workshop on Vibrant Verges: restoring wildflowers along tracks and verges. Sue explained how livestock droving in the past had maintained flowery banks on roads and tracks.  With more intensive agriculture, these verges are now especially important on the downs as nectar sources, as animal and bird habitats and as links between larger chalk downland sites.  
We'd much rather see verges full of flowers (below © Nick Upton, 2013) than smothered in rank grass (above © Sue Everett, 2014)
I had surveyed the tracks on the MDNIA and found a scattering of flower-rich verges with species-poor areas between.  Our once-vibrant verges have often become rank with tall grasses, hogweed and nettles due to lack of grazing or cutting and by nutrient enrichment from neighbouring fields

Sue's key management advice to restore and maintain them was:
  • reduce course or rank grass and maintain existing flowery verges by cutting or grazing in early spring and mid-to-late summer
  • control and manage scrub to specified limits (but check bird issues)
  • create protective fertiliser and herbicide free buffer strips on adjacent arable land 
During our walk along nearby tracks we observed that wild flowers were often hanging on under tall grass and that cutting would let light through to them and allow them to thrive.  We talked about using stock to graze the verges but this would require extra fencing and that the best time for mowing clashes with other farm operations. However farmers are often very good at overcoming such challenges
Restoring vibrant flowery verges is potentially a quick win for biodiversity within the Nature Improvement Area - if you are a farmer/landowner with verges in need of management or restoration, it would be great to hear what you can or plan to do to work around the challenges we have identified.
Richard Aisbitt - Wiltshire Botanical Society and MDNIA Wildlife Sites Group
Herb Hike - July
The herb walk was led by Max Drake, a medical herbalist from Urban Fringe Dispensary in Bristol, looking for plants that have for centuries had medicinal or culinary uses.  Taking us from Wiltshire Wildlife Trust’s new reserve at Kings Farm Wood on the edge of Wroughton and then into Clouts Wood.
Although hated by gardeners, farmers and hikers alike the humble nettle has a myriad of uses including made into bright green dye, cloth and paper, eaten like spinach and can relieve anaemia and arthritis when taken as an infusion. A nettle sting is from the silica hairs on the underside of the leaves which inject formic acid into the skin when brushed against. Dock leaves contain alkali juice, as do the leaves of plantain, which neutralise the acid, so not just an old wives tale! Plantain juice is also very useful because it staunches the flow of blood. Ladies Bedstraw was used to stuff mattresses and the sap of the common birch tree in Spring is rich in fructose making a useful base ingredient for brewing birch bark beer.  
Many of our pharmaceutically produced drugs have their origins in the plant world, for instance aspirin which contains a synthetic derivative of salicin which occurs naturally in plants, notably the willow tree. After the walk some of us repaired to the White Hart for a well- deserved drink and to chat more about the fascinating uses of the hop plant.
Cathy Williams - MDNIA Community and Outreach Manager
Kennet Valley Driving Group RDA picnic lunch - July
I attended the Kennet Valley Driving Group RDA picnic lunch with the kind invitation from Jilly and Ken Carter. I got to enjoy my first ever driving experience, that’s me with the beige reigns driving Drummer (although my companion Trish may have had a small hand in getting Drummer heading in the right direction). 
My fellow drivers were all of mixed physical abilities but all appeared far more masterful of a carriage than me; it is a rare discipline that allows both the able bodied and those with physical disabilities the same conditions, a true leveller. 

The drive took us from Maisey Farm where the group is based to Manton Grange for a delicious lunch. It was a beautiful day, we were so lucky with the weather and the views across the Marlborough Downs were simply spectacular. The very short time we spent on the A4 was interesting but motorists seemed to enjoy a sight they don’t get to see every day so were very patient.

Many of the routes driven are with the kind permission of the Marlborough Downs estates as they are bridleways or private land. Jilly Carter was able to use her NIA connections to contact the estates for these fantastic routes to be made available to the group. 2 new access points have been provided with the assistance of the NIA which enable safe passage from adjacent holdings avoiding busy roads these works included cutting back vegetation and installing field gates and culverts.

Grants from Landfill Community Fund and Public Health and Wellbeing will be used for 3.5 miles of track repair work around Rockley and Ogbourne Maizey managed by Wiltshire Council. Having experienced driving over a pot hole in a carriage I can now personally appreciate the necessity for these works.

I would like to thank everyone at the Kennet and Valley Driving Group for welcoming me so warmly including Janet’s lovely dog Bobbin and to Trish for her patience. I look forward to the next picnic. 
Ali Roberts - MDNIA Proejct Management Team
Launch of carriage driving route - September
2 September saw the official opening of the new Marlborough Downs carriage driving route! Thanks to the Hills Group and the Community Foundation for Wilts & Swindon for helping to fund the £21k project.
The track links the Old Eagle to Barbury Castle and down to Ogbourne Maizey and the improvements allow more off-road access for the carriage drivers all year round and thus offer a safer, more enjoyable experience. Kennet Valley Driving Group is affiliated to Riding for the Disabled and is based at Maisey Farm, Rockley, in and offers adults with a wide range of physical disabilities the opportunity to learn to control a horse and carriage. 
Now having access to far longer excursions on the Downs KVDG are able to offer outings to other groups including servicemen and women injured during conflicts in places like Iran and Afghanistan who are residents of the Help for Heroes Tedworth House Recovery Centre in Tidworth
A KVDG volunteer enthused “It will make an enormous difference to our driving as we now only have to go down the lane from Maisey Farm rather than holding the traffic up on the busy and fast Rockley/Marlborough road, thus ensuring a safer outing for our disabled drivers.
The track is now negotiable easily for the horses and is so completely beautiful when we are up there.  For people who are wheelchair bound it gives them a taste of freedom rarely available to them, and a chance to see all sorts of wildlife.  It is completely wonderful.”

The new tracks were officially opened by General Sir Mike Jackson.

"Having served the British army for over 45 years, I have witnessed the devastating effect a disability can have both physically and mentally," the former chief of the general staff said. This driving route provides a remarkable opportunity for anyone with a disability as they can access the Marlborough Downs and experience its stunning surroundings within the peace of a horse-drawn carriage."

Upcoming events to look out for:
  • 11 November - Hedgerow management for farmland birds
  • 29 November - Tree sparrow village construction
  • 4 December - Willow wreath making workshop
  • 17 February - Winter owl prowl
For further details about these events visit the website 
Keep an eye on our facebook page for up-to-date information on what's happening, photos, events and lots more!  You don’t need an account to browse the page so just click on the link below to find out more. Alternatively, take a look at out website (link below) for a more in-depth overview of the project.
The Marlborough Downs NIA Project has been supported by Defra, DCLG, Environment Agency, Forestry Commission & Natural England
Copyright © 2014 Marlborough Downs Nature Enhancement Partnership, All rights reserved.

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