Herdship Farm Hands on Nature


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Herdship Farm

Janet Sumner visits Herdship Farm in Upper Teesdale.


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This is the wild North Pennines, the very backbone of England.

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As rugged as it's beautiful.

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And though it might look like a wilderness,

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it's here in the upper reaches of Teesdale,

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that you'll find one of the richest grasslands in the country.

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When spring arrives, this place just bursts into life.

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You don't find many farms covered in marsh marigolds

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but Herdship Farm is being managed for wildlife

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and what's great is the whole experience is laid out on a plate for us all to enjoy.

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There are guided walks around the farm.

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There's even a leaflet to help you on your way -

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it's got a handy little map in it - and everywhere you turn there's something different to see.

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The high rainfall and altitude give this part of Upper Teesdale its own distinctive feeling

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but it's what's underground that makes this place rather special.

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This is sugar limestone.

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About 300 million years ago, molten rock rose to the surface here,

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forcing its way through the limestone, baking it and changing it for ever.

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Now, today, it's pretty crumbly but it's rich in calcium

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and it supports some amazing plant life.

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The soil, together with the way the pastures are managed,

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has provided the ideal home for rare wildflowers

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and it's all happened under the careful eye of Kath Toward and her family.

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There's a plant in particular they're especially proud of.

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-Now, you've brought me here to show me one of the crown jewels of the flower world.

-I have.

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-That's the spring gentian, isn't it?

-Yes, that's the Teesdale gentian.

-That is incredibly rare, isn't it?

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It is. There are two or three places in Teesdale where you find this

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and we cherish it - it's the Teesdale emblem.

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But they're much smaller than I expected. They're tiny!

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I can't actually believe that I'm seeing this.

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It really is an incredibly vivid blue. It almost looks fake or artificial.

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-Yes, it does. Wax-like, really!

-It really stands out.

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What's amazing to me is that such a tiny plant

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can be so huge in the plant world.

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But there's another reason to come here.

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This place is just teeming with wading birds.

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A good place to base yourself is by the side of a stream.

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You've got to keep still and this is all about sitting patiently and waiting.

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There's my first customer.

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It's a common sandpiper. You can see him bobbing around in the rocks.

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See him just bobbing around?

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And behind him is, I think, a grey wagtail.

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They love these fast-flowing streams.

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Oh! And a redshank has just turned up.

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Easy to see where he gets his name from - his lovely, long, red legs.

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And there's something splashing around in the water there.

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I think it's a lapwing. Yep!

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Having a bit of a bath.

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See? I told you it was worth the wait. There's so much to see here.

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Looking after this landscape isn't something that can be done by the farmers on their own.

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The Towards work closely with other groups to make sure the delicate balance is maintained.

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But just what is it that makes this land such a good place to see so many birds?

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It's a question for Nick Mason from the RSPB.

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Nick, this is an unlikely environment for such rich wildlife, isn't it?

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I suppose it could be seen that way.

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When you start to understand why the birds are here

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it becomes clear that, although it looks unlikely,

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it is actually a fantastic place for birds.

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There's some very clear reasons why it's a good farm.

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We're standing in the midst of them right now.

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-I don't know whether you feel it under your feet, but the soil's quite springy.

-Squelchy!

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It shows that the soil's still very damp here,

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even though we're getting into the summer now

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and for the waders that come here - lapwing, the snipe, redshank, curlew,

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when they come up here in spring, what they're looking to do

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is probe down into the soil and extract things like worms and leather jackets from it.

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And later on in the season, birds like the meadow pipit, here...

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-That one, there?

-Up on the ridge side, if you have a look.

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What's it got in its beak?

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It's got its beak stuffed full of little insects like crane fly.

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Jammed, isn't it? So what, is it taking those to its babies?

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Typically, they nest on a bank side, just like this one,

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and usually under a little grassy overhang.

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All the structure of vegetation that you see, the rushes, globe flowers, the marsh marigolds,

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all of that adds up to provide just a fantastic structure for small flying insects.

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Let's have a quick look now and see what we can actually get hold of.

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I can see things flying over here,

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so if I have a few sweeps with my net...

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..not let anything get out and then I can... I've got something here.

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-Shall we try and get it into this little jar?

-It looks a bit big, actually!

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-There's one.

-Ready?

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Yeah.

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That one went up. Where did it go?

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There's just loads, isn't there? Masses and masses.

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Yes, just after five minutes of effort,

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we've captured seven or eight different species.

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Birds like meadow pipits probably capture 300-400 small insects a day

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to feed their family at this time of year.

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Although we've captured a lot very quickly here, birds need to find that volume of insects every hour

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to raise a family successfully. They've got to work really hard.

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So, all in all, it ends up being a fantastic place for birds.

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Definitely one of the best farms, I think, in England for birds like lapwings.

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A wonderful place to see them.

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You can do the farm walk around Herdship in just a couple of hours.

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It's the most brilliant place to spend a day

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and if you come in May and June, at the height of the season,

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this place is just guaranteed to blow your socks off.

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