Getting ready for the visitors

PUBLISHED: 16:45 07 April 2009 | UPDATED: 15:54 20 February 2013

Ragley Hall

Ragley Hall

Sheep have had free run of the Ragley Hall parkland over the winter. Now it's time to get the park and gardens ready for thousands of summer visitors, and that involves 'persuading' the wildlife to move on, says head gardener Ross Barbour.

Sheep have had free run of the Ragley Hall parkland over the winter. Now it's time to get the park and gardens ready for thousands of summer visitors, and that involves 'persuading' the wildlife to move on, says head gardener Ross Barbour.

Spring flowers are blooming, trees are bursting into life and the gardens are all go! However, it's not just the gardens that need attention. The historic parkland also needs to be kept in tip- top condition during the open season.

There are 162 hectares of parkland surrounding the Hall which bear the hallmarks of the 18th century landscape designer Lancelot 'Capability' Brown. Until 1872, when the current gardens were created by garden designer Robert Marnock, the park would have come right up to the hall. In winter the park is used mostly for sheep grazing, but come the spring over 25 hectares are used for picnicking and playing down by the lake side, as well as outdoor events such as music concerts and the Game Fair.

It falls to the gardeners to keep the grass cut and the area generally tidy. Like the grass in the gardens, the cutting regime in the park takes place weekly at the height of the season and may become slightly less frequent in a hotter year as the growth rate of the grass slows. The whole job involves a healthy dose of teamwork. Robert cuts the large areas with a tractor and mower, covering a width of nearly 4 metres in one cut, while Martyn nips in and around the awkward bits with a nimbler ride on mower. We then use strimmers to tidy up the long ends.

The whole area is teeming with wildlife. Rabbits, hares and moles are commonplace and muntjac, fallow and roe deer can often be seen. Now as much as I like to encourage wildlife into the garden, none of the aforementioned are welcome and cause me great consternation if any are discovered there.

The iron fence surrounding the garden was installed through Marnocks original plans and looks great, but it won't keep any of the smaller vermin out, so we have had to improve this with wire netting. Unfortunately our resident badgers don't care much for this idea, and rather than use the nice swinging doors we installed for them, they prefer to just rip through the netting as they come and go, leaving an open invitation for other nocturnal prowlers!

Fallow deer sometimes wander in if a gate has been left open. They are fairly obvious and can be chased out, but some of the smaller mammals are a bit more covert and once in the garden can take a little more persuasion to leave. Hares and muntjac can be a menace if they find a nice bit of cover, loitering in the gardens for some considerable time. This is where my terriers Jock and Mouse start to earn their keep, patrolling the gardens every day, alerting me to the presence of any unwelcome visitor who may be in hiding.

Neglecting the fence maintenance recently we have suffered rabbit damage in the garden, especially in the Rose Garden .The fence has now been repaired, but unlike our other unwanted visitors rabbits can establish themselves very quickly underground making them troublesome to move on!

The snowfall in February provided an unexpected opportunity to see exactly what goes on at night in the garden, with all our nocturnal visitors leaving footprints wherever they roamed. At first I thought there must be hundreds of rabbits all over the garden, but I soon realised that it is was more like two or three extremely busy little bunnies! A hare it seems, takes the notion to pass through on occasion and also the tracks of a fox tread a regular beat round the garden. I hope he likes rabbits!

Unfortunately before we got control of the rabbits they managed to give the Wallflower in the Scot Garden a good hammering, almost spoiling the overall effect of the spring bedding this year, just as the tulips are coming into flower.

There are 4,000 tulips planted in the Scot garden and another 5000 up in the Rose Garden. They really come into their own in April and are a striking precursor to the main summer displays. When they have finished flowering, we dig our tulips out and replace them with a new batch in November. This means we have the best show of flowers possible every year and allows us to change colour schemes each year.

A more permanent show of spring flowering bulbs are the 200,000 crocus which sweep down the South Bank and around the Scot Garden to create a mesmerising display. We use only two varieties of large flowering Crocus in this scheme, 'Mammoth', a rich eggy yellow and 'Remembrance', a gorgeous deep purple. However, since they were planted in 2005 a war has been raging with yet more wildlife. In this instance it is the grey squirrel that we have had to contend with. Very prolific in the garden and a pest at the best of times, they appear to be a connoisseur of crocus; I get quite vexed when I find big lumps dug out of the lawn and the remains of crocus bulbs lying around.

However, when all's said and done I do think it's great to see such vivaciousness at this time of year from both flora AND fauna! I like to think there is room for all of us, the animals come and go, but there will still be a good display in the garden and in small way I think it's flattering that they show an interest!

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