Make way for badgers!

While in some counties badgers are being culled, I am pleased to say that in Bucks they are being protected.

The road teams are out in force around Turville, filling in the potholes—work which is long overdue.

road works

Ready to start work.

At the top of Dolesden Lane, close to Summerheath Wood, I found this notice written on the road.

Badgers

It’s good to know that the badgers aren’t going to be shook up.

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Where drains have names

I was surprised to learn that parts of Switzerland are so dry that the inhabitants depend on an irrigation system for their livelihoods.  The drains are so important that they have names.

We saw some of these—Ahorn, Betschwasser, Bitscheri and Stockeri—as we walked down the valley between Blatten and Naters, in the Valais canton (see previous blog).  This is the driest part of Switzerland.

12 Path

The path between Blatten and Naters, looking north towards Blatten

20 Stockeri

The name of the drain, Stokeri, is fixed to an adjacent rock

 

We were to the south of the Jungfrau-Aletsch World Heritage Site, which embraces most of the Bernese Oberland including the Jungfrau and the Eiger.  Designated in 2001 it is the first UNESCO site in the Alps.

One of its many features is the Aletsch glacier which, at 23 kilometres, is the longest glacier in the Alps.  At its head is the Konkordiaplatz where four glaciers leaving the high peaks meet; it is 900 metres deep. The Konkordia- platz Charter was signed by the 25 municipalities located in the World Heritage Site’s protected area, in which they pledged to retain the natural beauty of the region.  Beat Ruppen, who joined us on the walk, is head of the Jungfrau-Aletsch World Heritage Management Centre.

It is the water from the glaciers (called ‘holy water’) which is channelled into the irrigation system and on which the inhabitants are so dependent.

14 falls

Waterfall on the Chelchbach river

13 diversion

Channel taking water from the Chelchbach

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

About 600 years ago the people established the system of water canals (suonen in German, bisses in French), originally from hollow tree-trunks.  We saw one of these on the walk down the valley.

29 wooden drain

Channel made from a tree trunk

In the early days they were cut into the sides of, and through, the mountains: an extraordinary feat and extremely dangerous.

Co-operatives
The drains belong to co-operatives who are responsible for keeping the channels clear.  Where the channels enter private land they are the responsibility of the owner.  Peter Jossen, who is head of one of the co-operatives, demonstrated the use of the watering axe to cut the channels.

25 Peter with watering axe

Peter demonstrates the watering axe

The drains are managed by sluice gates, and the water is allowed in from the first Sunday in March.

15 sluice

Beat at the sluice-gate at the top of a meadow

The farmers normally do not need it before May when rainfall tails off.  The farmer at the end of the channel gets first turn, and the amount of time per farmer is calculated by the size of the field.  Once the first farmer has had his quota, the next farmer up the channel has a go and this continues until the farmer at the far end has had his share.  Then, after about two weeks, it is ‘turn day’ and the process starts again.

The water is sold with the plot and there is a saying to the effect that when you look for a wife you look to see the size of her plot.

The community is required to help clean the drains once a year and those who participate get a small payment.

10 Ahorn drain

In the Nater Burgerschaft (the municipality where we were) there is a good system for the 33 channels and the co-operative works with the municipality.  In other places there is no co-op left and the municipality has to find others to organise and do the work.

There is a right to walk within 40 centimetres of the drain.  Many have hiking paths alongside them and there is a website advertising such routes.

21 Stockeri

With the irrigation system, farmers can grow hay for their animals and crops such as vines and saffron, herbs and grain for bread.  The meadows were lush and full of flowers, and will remain so throughout the year, thanks to the suonen.

16 meadow

The drinking water is managed separately by co-ops who organise transportation and distribution, but the government is responsible for keeping it clean.  It tasted wonderful, fresh from the glacier.

19 drinking fountain

 

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Alpine commoning

I joined the field trip to Naters, in the Valais canton of Switzerland, as part of the International Association for the Study of the Commons’ conference in Bern. 

We took the train from Bern to Brig 

1 trainand then the postbus across the Rhone, through Naters and up the steep hill to the village of Blatten.  The train was a little delayed but our leader rang the bus company to ensure that it waited for us.

2 bus

31 postbus logo

 

 

 

 

 

In Blatten (1,300 metres above sea level and about 500 metres below the snow) it was raining, so we went indoors to learn a bit about commoning from André Summermatter (his name translates as ‘summer meadow’), who is an agronomist and farm consultant for the state of Valais, but also runs a sheep farm part time, and is a member of the Naters Burgerschaft (council).  In 2013 Naters merged with Birgisch and Mund communes.

9 Andri

Andre demonstrates the whip used for rounding up sheep on the mountain

Naters is to the south of the high Bernese Alps, which since 2001 have been designated as the Jungfrau-Aletsch UNESCO World Heritage Site.

3 WHS sign

André told us that there are 1,400 farmers in the upper valley of the canton of Valais, but only 150 are full time.  The farms up the valley are very small, five to ten hectares. The grazing is managed by co-operatives.  The government of Naters organises summer grazing with shepherds and volunteers.  They do not use dogs because the land is too steep.

The livestock is mainly black-nosed sheep and black-necked goats.  The livestock spends the winter low down and then is gradually moved up the mountain.  We were told that this Saturday (14 May) they will be moved up to 1,600 metres above sea level.  The next region in altitude is open from June to August, when the sheep are gathered from the mountains by young men using whips (demonstrated by André) as the land is too steep for dogs.  The sheep are left for one night in stone paddocks, färricha, and their owners come and sort them.

30 black-faced sheep

Black-nosed sheep

We also talked to Beat Ruppen (who is head of the Jungfrau-Aletsch World Heritage Management Centre) and his brother-in-law Peter Jossen who have lived all their lives in Naters.  They told us how their family moved seven times a year with the animals, up and down the mountains, and continued this practice until 1985 when Peter went to work for the bank.

8 Andri, Beat, Peter

Andre, Beat and Peter

We walked through the village of Blatten, with its attractive wooden buildings roofed with slate.

4 Blatten

7 Blatten with crane

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

There is some new building going on.  The Burgerschaft owns the land and buildings and decides who can rent land; people can only rent for 50 years at a time.  Most of its income comes from the property and the rent paid by the Victorian Belalp Hotel, a popular tourist spot overlooking the Rhone valley.

The Swiss government recently passed a law restricting the building of new second homes to no more than 20 per cent of a municipality, which is a good thing.  Beat expressed concern about an ugly new building near the hamlet of Geimen.

18 new house

There were many footpaths leading out of the village, and we followed one down towards Naters.

5 FP signs

On our way down the valley we looked at the irrigation systems, which I shall write about separately.  We came to the farm, Geimenblatt, occupied by Beta and Peter’s family, next to where a glacier had flowed down to the Rhone, leaving beautifully smoothed rocks.

26 house

 

27 rocks after glacier

Glacier-smoothed rocks

 

 

 

 

 

 

We went into the lovely farmhouse, 20 of us squeezing around the kitchen table.  Beat’s wife Marie and her sister Anni provided us with a sumptuous lunch of local meat, cheese, bread and wine.

23 Lunch

24 Marie and Anni

Marie and Anni

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

We walked on down the valley to meet the bus, through lovely meadows.  I heard a cuckoo and blackcaps and saw a woodpecker similar to our green woodpecker.  It was a great walk, but too short.

Although farming has of course changed, and for most farmers it is a part-time activity and not their main source of income, it was interesting for me to learn that there is commoning in the Alps and that transhumance is still practised.

22 black bovine

24a meadow

Meadow at Geimenblatt

Posted in common land, common rights, International Association for the Study of the Commons, Switzerland, Uncategorized | Tagged , , , , , , | 2 Comments

An airport in three nations

I am in Switzerland for the European conference of the International Association for the Study of Commons (IASC).  This is the sixth IASC conference I have attended.

We flew into Basel-Mulhouse-Freiburg airport which sits on the boundary of three countries: France, Germany and Switzerland—literally.  You have to follow the signpost for the country you want.

Basel airport

When you reach the information desk you are separated from neighbouring countries’ information desks by a wall of perspex.

I was travelling with John Powell from Gloucestershire University’s Countryside and Community Research Institute (CCRI).  John is president-elect of the IASC.  We took a bus to Basel’s Swiss station and bought our (very expensive by our standards) return ticket to Bern.  The helpful lady at the ticket-desk gave us two chocolates, ‘because you are visitors to our country’.  This is something I might suggest to Walkers Are Welcome towns, gifts with our logo for walking visitors.

6 chocolatesThe station had a nice, old-fashioned feel about it, with paintings to entice you to the nearby mountains.

3 Basel station

2 Basel stationThere is a nice sense of space and very long trains.

5 Basel station

It took only an hour to reach Bern. We are staying in the charming old-fashioned Hotel Landhaus on the Altenbergstrasse, on the north side of the River Aare’s meander which embraces Bern’s old city.

8 Landhaus hotel

Landhaus hotel

Behind the hotel is a steep hill with wildflower meadows, leading to the Rose Garden, a cemetery and park at the top, with a fine view over the city.

11 meadow

 

9 Bern from Rosegarden

10 Rosegarden

Rose Garden

 

 

 

 

 

I grabbed the opportunity to walk up the hill before the conference started, because it really is a question of carpe diem with such a full timetable. More to follow.

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The Enchanted Place

My saddest book-ending is the final chapter of The House at Pooh Corner—even more tragic than Hamlet or Tess of the d’Urbervilles.  Pooh and Christopher Robin go to the Enchanted Place at the top of the Forest and Christopher Robin explains that he is going away.  It strikes a chord, I suspect because it’s about lost youth.

They walked on, thinking of This and That, and by-and-by they came to an enchanted place on the very top of the Forest called Galleons Lap, which is sixty-something trees in a circle; and Christopher Robin knew that it was enchanted because nobody had ever been able to count whether it was sixty-three or sixty-four, not even when he tied a piece of string round each tree after he had counted it.

Being enchanted, its floor was not like the floor of the Forest, gorse and bracken and heather, but close-set grass, quiet and smooth and green.  It was the only place in the Forest where you could sit down carelessly, without getting up again almost at once and looking for somewhere else.  Sitting there they could see the whole world spread out until it reached the sky, and whatever there was all the world over was with them in Galleons Lap.

Galleons Lap
I went to Galleons Lap (which is actually Gills Lap) in Ashdown Forest last week to celebrate the 35th anniversary of the Vanguard Way.  I explained in my blog last year about the Vanguards when I wrote about their 50th anniversary walk.  They are a most cheerful and companionable bunch.

Hartfield church

Hartfield church

We started the walk at Ashurst station, just in Kent and soon crossed the Medway into East Sussex. We walked across the weald, through woods of emerging bright-green leaves and bluebells, accompanied by singing blackcaps and willow warblers.

After lunch at the Dragon in Withyham

Cheers!

Cheers from Brian Reader, Alan Smith and Linda Wright

we visited the church with its Sackville chapel.

Withyham church

Withyham church

Then on across fields to Hartfield and the Pooh Sticks Bridge, where Vanguards sort-of mimicked the EH Shepard drawing of Pooh, Piglet, Roo and Rabbit.

Pooh bridge

Pooh Sticks Bridge

We reached the edge of Ashdown Forest and climbed across the heath to the monument to AA Milne and EH Shepard.

plaque

Plaque to Milne and Shepard

The Enchanted Place is at the top of the hill, with an unusual sandstone trig-point nearby.

trig point

It isn’t quite as described in the book, the trees have become more dense and there is no view from inside the wood.

enchanted place 2

But you could sit comfortably, leaning against a tree as Pooh does in the drawing.

enchanted place

The Enchanted Place

A little further on, we were met by Graham Butler who produced a bottle of Drambuie (a Vanguards’ tradition because Drambuie was enjoyed in the guards’ van from which the group got its name in 1965).  I cut the red ribbon in celebration.  The ribbon is now quite short, having been cut and retied many times.  The way was originally opened by Alan Mattingly, then director of the Ramblers, in May 1981 but Vanguards enjoy a celebration so I suspect they have cut the ribbon and drunk Drambuie every five years or so since.

Celebration

Drambuie celebration

It was a lovely day out, and good to see Galleons Lap at last.

Ending
For completeness, I shall grit my teeth and write those sad words about Pooh and CR to end this piece.

So they went off together. But wherever they go, and whatever happens to them on the way, in that enchanted place on the top of the Forest a little boy and his Bear will always be playing.

Ashdown Forest

Ashdown Forest

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Nine kinds of warblers

On my visit to Otmoor on the morning of Sunday 8 May I saw or heard nine kinds of warblers, a record for me on one visit.  The only one I missed was the grasshopper warbler.

I saw chiffchaff, garden warbler, whitethroat, lesser whitethroat, reed warbler, sedge warbler and heard blackcap, willow warbler and Cetti’s warbler.

The place was alive with birdsong.  As I approached down Otmoor Lane I turned off the radio and wound down the windows to let the sounds of Otmoor greet me.  Two cuckoos, one with its tail missing, crossed in front of me.

3 Otmoor Lane

Otmoor Lane

As I parked I could hear the comfortable purring of the turtle dove.

I walked first down the Roman road to spot the dove perched in an oak tree above, and then went round by the feeders where I heard and saw him again flying over.

1 Roman road

Roman road

I saw my first whitethroat of the year along the Roman road, the first of many that morning.

2 location of year's first whitethroat

Where I saw my first whitethroat of the year

I passsed the field where I hoped to hear grasshopper warblers.  It reverberated with song, but not theirs.

4 car park field

Field where I have heard grasshopper warblers in the past

As I walked along the path to the hide, the reed and sedge warblers were noisy, the sedges flying across the path and sitting helpfully in trees, while the reed warblers remained largely hidden.  I love the way sedge warblers show you the pink inside their beaks when they sing.  The numerous reed buntings, for all their dapper suit-and-tie appearance, make a rather common, mournful sound.

5 way to the hide

Path to the hide

Further along the bridleway towards Noke I saw my first-ever lesser whitethroat, clearly much greyer than the whitethroat.  I spent ages tracking down a garden warbler which was singing clearly but remained elusive for a long time.  Every so often I got a burst of Cetti’s warbler song.

7 bridlway to Noke

Bridleway to Noke, close to where I saw the lesser whitethroat

I met a boy on the bridleway clutching the Collins birdbook; he was watching a sedge warbler at the top of a tree and then consulting the book.  I offered help but he didn’t want it.  Then I met his parents, they were over here for a year from India, and the boy knew the Indian birds and wanted to learn ours.  It was such a wonderful encounter, I wish I met more children who were so enthusiastic.

8 Indian birdwatching boy

The birdwatching enthusiasts

The warblers were the highlight of the day for me, but it was lovely to see marsh harriers, a heron with two babies, and three hobbies dancing overhead and enjoying the thermals.

 

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Peregrines’ places

How often my heart has soared to see a peregrine in some wild place.  

I have many good memories: Tavy Cleave on Dartmoor,

Tavy Cleave

Tavy Cleave, May 2012

Alport Castles in the Peak District,

Alport Castles

Alport Castles, April 2015

the Jurassic coast in Dorset,

Coastal access 2

Jurassic coast, July 2012

Seaford Head in East Sussex.

IMG_4731

Near Seaford Head, September 2015

Usually I have seen the male, perched silently on a rock, suddenly to pounce on prey.

Today I saw a peregrine in a very different place.  I was in the centre of Aylesbury, in the busy market square, with my bins focused on the top level of the 12-storey, brutalist, Pooley’s tower—County Hall.

peregrine platform with circle

Pooley’s tower, May 2016. Nest circled in red

There the peregrine’s nest is boxed in with a perching ledge.  The male was sitting patiently on the sloping roof to the left, just as I had seen them in those wild places. Suddenly he was gone, to reappear seconds later with meat (a pigeon?) in his talons, which he carried to the nest.

There is a webcam run by the Berkshire, Buckinghamshire and Oxfordshire Wildlife Trust, which enables you to see inside the nest. Three chicks have hatched so far this year.

The peregrines seem entirely happy, but I found it bizarre to be watching them in such a busy, bustling environment, instead of where the only noise comes from the wind, the sea or a rushing river.

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