Well what a few weeks here at Rathfinny Wine Estate. The most notable of which being the Estate’s first harvest (and my first grape harvest too). It was a team effort, perambulating through the vines with a large blue bucket for company and the odd nod or verbal encouragement from a colleague in a neighbouring row. Interspersed with contrasting comments such as “wow, look at this bunch” to “b***** birds been at these ones!” It made for interesting times.
Above is my first ever ‘bucket’ of grapes – a mixed bunch, but made me smile.
I have in the past mentioned my Troglodyte friend, the wren, who usually accompanies me on my vineyard ventures. But this time my eyes were drawn to a more intriguing and rather dashing feathered friend. Whilst hunting for chardonnay I noticed out of the corner of my beady eye a bird flitting alongside my intended route. The wheatear.
Above is my poor iPhone shot of a male Wheatear (other mobile phones are available!!)
One of those animals you really wish could talk (or is this just me?), as it would be able to tell some fantastic stories over a glass of Sussex Sparkling. The male with his pale grey blue dinner jacket and black eye mask sits proudly on any hummock, as he dashes alongside beside you. Identification of this species is made far easier when they hop and fly off. They then reveal a very distinctive black T-bar on their tail. Now the interesting fact is that this rather sleek and diminutive bird arrives from African climes around early March and leaves about now from these shores.
And this image is how the professionals do it! Really highlights the distinctive ‘T-bar’ to the tail.
Breeding pairs are very rare now on the Downs, with only a couple of pairs just south of the Estate utilising old rabbit warrens above the Seven Sisters cliffs . But this was not always the case. From those that have been fortunate to read Gilbert Whites, Natural History of Selbourne or visited local museums, will know that wheatears have become ensconced in local history and folklore.
The Downs were synomous with expanses of arable land interspersed with grassland grazed by sheep watched by shepherds. These shepherds did not recount tales of the wheatear’s travels with misty eyes – it was the lust for money which opened their eyes! Wheatears were caught in large numbers across the Downs and sold for a premium here and in London. Wheatear pie was seen as a delicacy and commanded a good reward to those capturing them.
It is ironic that the wheatear has all but disappeared from the Downs, and so has the humble shepherd. My harvest companion will fly to warmer climes once his belly is full (of insects not grapes) and will return sometime in March. While you wait for our cuvee to come to fruition, I would highly recommend a walk on the Downs early next year to welcome back this rather enigmatic migrant. Why not come and stay at the Flint Barns for a few nights? Check out our website for details.
Mid week I left my jurisdiction to undertake a presentation to the local Natural History Society on our Estate and its wildlife. The audience knew the area well and appeared intrigued (they remained awake) as to what we have done, and what we have planned. Now the week culminates in our last Estate Tour of 2014. We commence again in April and its great to see that people are already booking up on-line, and from our cellar door in the local village of Alfriston. More people to view my wildlife friends.
Richard James, Landscape & Environment
Regular updates via Twitter: @rathfinnyrich