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Tree sparrows are thriving again – thanks to the Marlborough Downs Nature Improvement Area


Tree sparrow (Photo: David White)Tree sparrow (Photo: David White)One of the main projects undertaken by the Marlborough Downs Nature Improvement Area (MDNIA) has been to revive the downs’ much depleted tree sparrow population.  There is now statisticval proof that it is succeeding - and having an impact across the county.  

 In 2014 the number of tree Sparrows in Wiltshire has increased with a total of 170 nesting pairs raising 1542 nestlings that fledged. That is an increase on 2013 when 890 fledged from 125 pairs.

The MDNIA recorded 76 pairs within its boundary producing 623 fledglings (510 fledged from 62 pairs in 2013.)  The tree sparrow can be distinguished from the house sparrow by the black patch on each of the birds’ pure white cheeks.
Working with the MDNIA’s farmers, 1,000 nest boxes have been put up across 300 square miles, creating tree sparrow villages. Hedges have been planted that will give the birds appropriate cover.  And a winter feeding programme has been helping the birds through the cold and wet season.
Matt Prior with tree sparrow feederMatt Prior with tree sparrow feederSince 1999 about 14,000 tree sparrows have been ringed in the Marlborough Downs area.   Matt Prior, who manages the MDNIA tree sparrow project explains:
"Last winter's feeding has definitely helped the birds survive. A great breeding season last spring combined with us putting out large quantities of food again this winter means we are very excited about the prospects for Tree Sparrows in the Marlborough area next year".

The MDNIA covers 10,370 hectares (25,625 acres) of chalk downland to the south of Swindon, within the North Wessex Downs Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty.

For more information visit the MDNIA website.



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Orchard boards unveiled to mark National Tree Week

Members of Marlborough Community Orchard at the unveiling of the new interpretation boardsMembers of Marlborough Community Orchard at the unveiling of the new interpretation boardsFruit lovers can make better sense of Marlborough’s award-winning community orchard, thanks to a pair of interpretation boards, unveiled on Saturday to mark National Tree Week.

The information boards outline the project to create a Town in an Orchard by planting rare Wiltshire varieties of apple, which otherwise faced extinction.

The boards – designed for Marlborough Community Orchard by Mark Saunders and funded by Marlborough Town Council– also maps the 25 apple, pear, plum, damson, cherry, quince and medlar trees on the site, and acknowledges the sponsors who paid for the planting.

Besides preserving old varieties of fruit, the orchard is also intended as a free fruit larder for the people of the town – anyone is welcome to pick and eat the fruit.

The boards were unveiled by Alison Galvin-Wright, wife of the late Jeffrey Galvin-Wright, who designed the Diamond Jubilee Plantation on Marlborough Common.

At the heart of the diamond-shaped orchard is a mulberry tree – one of 60 trees granted to local groups nationwide to celebrate the Queen’s 60th year on the throne by the Tree Council of Great Britain.

Attendees - who came armed with gardening tools for a spot of weeding and mulching – were reminded that this year’s Britain in Bloom South West Cup for Best Community Initiative was won by Marlborough Community Orchard.

Interpretation Board 1Interpretation Board 1Interpretation Board 2Interpretation Board 2

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Crafty youngsters sculpt bugs at Stonebridge Meadow

Rosie and Lucy with their Stonebridge bugsRosie and Lucy with their Stonebridge bugsCrafty youngsters sculpted bugs from willow this morning (Friday) at one of a series of summer events to celebrate and educate local people about Stonebridge Meadow.

Led by artist James Aldridge, the Creative Ecology session encouraged children to examine the local environment - including participating in a spot of pond-dipping - before crafting their own creations from willow.

Adults and children who want to find out more about the 15-acre site can join a wildlife walk led by writer Peter Marren – author of Bugs Britannica, Nature Conservation and Twitcher in the Swamp – tomorrow (Saturday) from 2pm.

Milo, Rosie, Anna, Lucy, Sarah, Ethan, Puiyee, Wendy, Katie, Eva and Jerry with artist James AldridgeMilo, Rosie, Anna, Lucy, Sarah, Ethan, Puiyee, Wendy, Katie, Eva and Jerry with artist James AldridgeA moth hunt - rescheduled from Wednesday due to bad weather, will now take place on Saturday, September 6 from 9pm. So far, over 200 species of moths have been humanely trapped and identified at the site.

And an exhibition of photographs taken by local photographers of and around Stonebridge Meadow will be held at St Peter’s Church from September 15 to 20.Entry is free.

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A rural business helping to conserve Savernake Forest – and making ‘equine obstacles’

The Gold CupThe Gold CupIt's the last obstacle of the feature race at Cheltenham, a long distance chase, the horse lying second ploughs through the top of the fence - and a little bit of Savernake Forest flies out of the jump.  What would the Gold Cup be without Savernake birch?

The Willis Brothers are a family firm based in Malmesbury and they've been cutting young birch in Savernake Forest for decades - Ken Willis, now in his seventies, says he's been coming to the forest for 47 years.

The Forestry Commission, which holds the lease on most of Savernake Forest, needs the young birch cut before it gets out of control strangles hard wood trees and the Willises need it to make jumps for racecourses and horse trials.  

Savernake Forest is a good source for spruce which is another raw material used in jumps.  It's either self-seeded growth or trees that need thinning out.

It’s all about conservation of a much loved and walked through forest: the Commission's forester gets the Willises to cut young birch growing round the Forest's ponds - so the dragonflies get better access to the water.

The Willises provide birch from Savernake - and from other woods around the South West - for jumps at Cheltenham, Chepstow, Taunton and other racecourses.  Their bundles of birch went to Greenwich Park for the obstacles on London 2012 Olympics’ cross country course.

The day before MNO met Ashley Willis and his father Ken in Savernake, they had been down to Portsmouth cutting young Christmas trees. Not, they explained, for next Christmas, but to make guidance wings for jumps at the Bicton Horse Trials in East Devon (April 25-26.)

And with the Badminton Horse Trials approaching (May 7-11) they are getting busy to make sure the obstacles on that world famous cross country course and the jumps in the arena are in tip top shape.  They have also supplied birch to Barbury Castle and Gatcombe Park.

They supply many point-to-point course and dozens of trainers - including Nicky Henderson at his Lambourn yard.  They don't supply Aintree, but they do make Grand National style and size training jumps so trainers can give likely entrants a taste of what's to come.

The business was started by Ashley's great grandfather.  Ken and his three brothers (Brian, Gerald and Alan) have four sons: Ashley, Richard, James and Tom.

Ashley & Ken Willis with a sheep hurdleAshley & Ken Willis with a sheep hurdleIn great grandfather's day their mainstay was making traditional sheep hurdles from split chestnut or hazel.  And they still make them for the National Trust and, amongst other clients, for the Priddy Sheep Fair. Sadly this long-running Somerset fair has been cancelled this year for financial reasons. It moved from Wells to the Mendip village in 1348 because of the Black Death.

Sheep hurdles made the traditional waySheep hurdles made the traditional wayIn great grandfather's day they sold for a shilling each. Now they fetch £34 each.  The Willises taught Matt Baker to make a sheep hurdle for the BBC's Country File and he was so pleased with the result he took it home to use on his farm.

More recently, relatively speaking, the firm has branched out from their staple of steeplechase jumps and hurdle fences for the racing industry, to make all manner of jumps around the world.  The organisers of the Olympic Games in Atlanta, Sydney and Barcelona have relied on the Willises' expertise.

They provide a service that supplies portable cross country jumps - from the traditional to the colourful and the whacky.  These can moved when a field is coming under cultivation.

And the Willis Brothers will remove, maintain and store jumps at the end of the season. All their jumps are made with the safety of horse and rider in mind.

When MNO saw Ashley at work in Savernake, he was cutting two year-old birch that had grown to shoulder height.  Birch for steeplechase and hurdle jumps must be no more than the thickness of your little finger so it has the necessary 'give', but won't get broken by the horses' hooves.

Their main cutting season is from November to January.  But they then get busy again for the point-to-point season which runs from March to June.

With practice you can cut about 35 bundles of young birch in a day.  So it takes a lot of hard work to supply Cheltenham racecourse's 1,000 bundles a year.

There's a ready market for this natural resource and they are always on the look-out for fresh areas of young birch that need clearing.

Below: Ashley Willis cutting and bundling birch in Savernake Forest:



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Put and end to the Starbucks philosophy of efficiency that rules – and ruins us – says Mark Rylance

Mark RylanceMark RylanceOur economic plight – and that “dreadful word efficiency” -- are dominating people’s lives to a dangerous degree. And the continual search for new achievements is ruining our society because it means we are losing contact with nature.

That was the essence of an urgent message – and a mission for the future -- that came from Mark Rylance, the legendary actor and director at Marlborough town hall on Tuesday.

He was the star turn at an Open Day held by Wiltshire CPRE under the banner Protect Wiltshire during which the 53-year-old supporter of Survival International pinpointed the dangers of a world without nature.

And he highlighted it by declaring: “Each of us has an indigenous soul, a indigenous nature, your county has an indigenous nature, your town is formed for each of us. And that’s complete counter-culture now.

“No self-respecting chief executive wants a world now where everyone has a different desire. They want a world where everyone wants a Starbucks cup of coffee.

“And if everyone just wanted it with milk and not all the other things they offer, then they would be even happier.”

And he added: “My life at the moment is dominated by concerns about my efficiency. I have been listening to the news for so many years now.

“And if I came and talked to one of you, and if 50 seconds of the 60 seconds of each minute you talked about your economic problems, your debts, your investments, I would sooner be talking to someone else.

“I mean where in the media can you go without being told this is the most important thing that we have to look at and listen to. I feel there is so much more to the quality of life than those things.”

Lord Lieutenant Sarah TroughtonLord Lieutenant Sarah TroughtonIntroduced by the Lord-Lieutenant of Wiltshire, Sarah Troughton, who is CPRE Wiltshire’s president, Mr Rylance read telling extracts of his own collection of books about the parlous state of the world and the environment.

He referred to one of them and explained: “It is about the on-going theft of common culture, of common lands, from the waterways to the markets in our towns, to the pubs and the common activities which are being increasingly moved into private hands.

“And all under the rule of this dreadful word efficiency.

“The idea of civilisation as some kind of mountain we’re climbing separates us further and further from what we call nature and the countryside. This idea of man’s manifest destiny has come to the point of saying maybe we’ve really gone high enough.

“May be the deeper question is that now is the time for us to go down, to go down towards the earth instead high towards the sky, heading for the stars.”

As a City boy, an outsider as far as Wiltshire was concerned, he was linked by the fact that his mother was a passionate amateur archaeologists who worked at Stonehenge before it was fenced off.

“I have travelled to many places in the world but I have found few places that have the justification to be called a sacred paradise as is your Wiltshire,” he said.

“While my mother’s stuff was about Stonehenge, I know that is but the tip of the iceberg. I know there are so many places under hedgerows, under construction and in other places that are a powerful expression of nature’s living past and the many cultures and societies that have lived in this county and who have celebrated this county in so many ways.”

More recently he had travelled to see Wiltshire crop circles, a mysterious phenomenon that was like science fiction and exposed the nature of the land. His wife too had told him of a field at Avebury left fallow by the farmer that was so polluted it no longer attracted animals and insects – or any crops.

“What was being done to the soil was responsible,” he explained. “And it connected my mind with the apostle who said it was time we looked down at what is happening beneath us, instead of always aiming for the stars.”

Answering questions, he said there was an enormous hunger among young people for wildness, for something that wasn’t controlled.

“The revelations last week thanks to this American whistle-blower, a young person by the way, is an example that there was some very wonderful young people out there,” he said.

“One can see that there’s almost no place one can go where you are not spied on by a government.”

He praised the painstaking work of CPRE towards changing people’s psychological thinking “and making us aware of the mythologies that are deeply wired into us”, pointing out:

“I believe passionately in the small steps that are being made and why they need to continue.

“I see you as warriors, I suppose, in a way that comes from my imaginative nature as an actor. But very, very prudent and careful. Yours is a long struggle.”


We must work together to protect “fabulous” Wiltshire says the Mayor

Mayor Guy LoosmoreMayor Guy LoosmoreWiltshire is a “hidden treasure” in Britain but only by working together can it be protected, Marlborough’s Mayor, Councillor Guy Loosmore, told the CPRE’s open day at the town hall on Tuesday.

Welcoming the organisation and its supporters seeking to Protect Wiltshire, he told them: “Marlborough, like all the other towns in Wiltshire, has its own unique identity. And we as a council are looking to open our links with the people in the town and with those in the surrounding area.

“I believe we can work together across all the boundaries, whether it is CPRE, Areas of National Outstanding Beauty, Wiltshire Council and others.  The more we can achieve as a community, that for me is absolutely paramount.

“We live in a time of huge change, vast change, and we need to work at a local level. So it is good this afternoon that we are also going to learn something about localism and how that can empower us at this level to make things happen.

“Clearly there are many issues that need to be resolved. But if we can work collectively together than these things can be overcome. And as a county we can actually be proud of what we have.”

Shona Ford of event sponsors Smiths GoreShona Ford of event sponsors Smiths GoreAnd the Mayor added: “Wiltshire is a fabulous county, it is a county which is a hidden treasure in this country. People need to recognise that and businesses need to recognise the quality of life that this county has to offer.

“As a town council we are but a small cog. We have limited resources in terms of what we can do on a day to day basis. But out heart and emotional soul is very much about making us as big a voice as possible.

“Historically, Marlborough has huge history attached to it. Not only is that of interest to local people but also nationally and internationally. Not to mention Stonehenge, not to mention the Avebury Circle, there are so many things here to celebrate.

“The importance that we do that in the future is absolutely paramount. So I welcome CPRE to Marlborough, its fabulous to have you here this afternoon, I look forward to working with you and see how we can move things forward in this town and the whole of the county.”

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Val Compton, Marlborough’s unofficial duckling patrol, saves two more tiny ones from death

Val Compton with the rescued ducklingVal Compton with the rescued ducklingTiny ducklings who suddenly find themselves lost on the River Kennet as it flows through Marlborough are being dramatically rescued by Val Compton, who lives on the river bank in Kennet Place.

The baby birds, often born to large families, sometimes get swept over the mill race and/or fish pass and become so exhausted that they lose contact with the rest of the family.

One real danger being that it might not be accepted back. “Ducks will kill a duckling they feel doesn't belong or that they've seen you return -- it's horrible to watch,” Val told Marlborough News Online. 

So it was that Val, the unofficial duckling patrol and equally well known and admired as a campaigner for Marlborough, saved a duckling only one day old yesterday (Wednesday) and another two days earlier.

And she explained: “All my life I've nurtured half dead and helpless creatures -- I kind of never grew out of that childhood phase.  When I came to Marlborough 17 years ago and lived by a river, it quickly became apparent that I needed to get a grip on what to do with ducklings and cygnets.

Just a day old, the duckling has been separated from its motherJust a day old, the duckling has been separated from its mother“The young water fowl have always washed over the mill race -- just as they do now over the new fish pass. They're not that easy to catch quite often, but I've worked out my own techniques. 

“The same with injured cygnets which sometimes need removing from the swans.  I found if I turn into a huge hissing swan myself -- with the help of an open umbrella -- I can get away with quite a lot.”

And she added: “There have been some memorable rescues -- times when I've slipped a duckling into my pocket to take to work, having got it through the night by taking it to bed with me. 

“I never quite expected to find myself sitting with a fully grown swan on my lap whilst a friend drove us to the vet though.”

The lonely duckling she discovered earlier in the week provided no problems in returning to his/her brothers and sisters near the Mustard Seed café in the Waitrose car park.

“I managed to pick it up minutes after it was swept over the fish pass.

Happily the duckling has been reunited with its familyHappily the duckling has been reunited with its familyThe second duckling, which was in an exhausted state, proved more difficult.

“I thought I’d found the right mum but when I popped the duckling back she immediately tried to drown it,” said Val. 

“I eventually located the duckling’s family down by Castle Court. I knew I would be looking for a big family – there were 14 of them – because I could see the duckling was only about a day old.

“Often a lot of ducklings hatch out at first and you get that number, the next day you are down to a lot less quite often.

And it continues to go down. I dropped my one in the middle of all the little ducklings.

And I hope its mum didn’t notice its return. So, in the end, we had a happy ending – just like a Disney movie.”

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It's official - August was a chilly wash-out

RainfallRainfallAugust was a chilly wash-out, but Marlborough’s summer was saved by a better-than-average June and July, according to town meteorologist Eric Gilbert.

Only eight days in August - all of them at the beginning of the month - hit the 30-year mean, according to Eric, who has been taking recordings at his Windrush weather station since 1984.

Many days in the month were several degrees below the long-term average. The mean was 1.7C below the long-term average so it is not surprising that it was the coldest August since 1993. The maximum day temperature was 25.2C, which was the lowest maximum since 1986.

There were only 11 dry days in the month, and the total rainfall for August of 101.4mm was 157 percent of the norm.

It was the eight wettest since 1984 with August 1992 holding the record when the total precipitation was 139.5mm.

However, says Eric, June and July produced above average temperatures so although August was cool, the mean for the three summer months was 0.3C above the 30-year average.

The total rainfall for the summer was 186mm, just 4mm above the 30-year average.

In the longer term, the consecutive eight months from January to August have produced a total rainfall of 787mm, which is the highest total since Eric’s records began.

“It is interesting to note,” says Eric, “that there are only three years that have totals in excess of 700mm, all recent years – 727mm and 707mm in 2009 and 2008 respectively.”

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ANALYSIS: Marlborough's infrastructure blues - do all development projects rely on improved services?

Elcot Lane Sewage Treatment WorksElcot Lane Sewage Treatment WorksThe Town Council rejected the planning application for the development on the old council depot site east of Salisbury Road for a care home and assisted living homes. They cited "insufficient infrastructure being in place, specifically in regards to water and drainage."
They also cited "over development of the site with insufficient parking provision."
It may be that their argument on water and waste water drainage was based, in part, on a misunderstanding.
First, Thames Water had said the supply of water was not a serious problem.  They could provide a specific minimum pressure which the developer should take account of "in the design of the proposed development."
The problem Thames Water foresaw concerned waste water/sewage.
In March 2014 they told Wiltshire Council's planning department: "Waste: The impact study which has been funded by the developer has recently been completed and identified a lack of adequate capacity within the foul network to serve this site without infrastructure improvements."
And early in June Thames Water said "no short term solution was available to ensure no detriment to the existing network and requested the developer make a contribution to the long term solution to solve flooding in Marlborough."
But where precisely did the problem lie? Did councillors think the development would be too much for Marlborough's sewage treatment works to cope with?
Were they influenced by a submission (not by Thames Water) to the Wiltshire Core Strategy process about the Salisbury Road West/Crown Estate development?  This acknowledged the need to make "improvements to the works and expansion of the Marlborough Waster Water Treatment works."
However the treatment works have recently been improved and enlarged.  In part this was to protect the River Kennet.  But as Thames Water stated in 2012, the upgrade "will also make the works more resilient in the event of heavy rain and will allow for future predicted development and population growth."
This rationale behind the upgrade was repeated in Thames Water's planning application for a new building as part of the upgrade: "The upgrade works are necessary to increase treatment capacity in line with anticipated population growth in the catchment ..."
Asked about the old council depot development, Thames Water told Marlborough News Online that  it is the network of pipes that needs improving to cope with the extra flows, not the sewage treatment works:  
"We've asked that a planning condition is applied to the proposed development at the Wiltshire Council Depot site to ensure the sewer network is upgraded before the development is occupied."
"We cannot allow residents in other areas to be put at risk of sewer flooding so it's important that the sewers are of a standard that can deal with the increase in waste water which will come from the new homes."
If "infrastructure not being in place" was one reason for rejecting the proposed development for the former council depot, it is hard to see why Marlborough councillors gave such an overwhelming welcome to the much larger Salisbury Road West/Crown Estate development.
The infrastructure requirements acknowledged on behalf of the Crown Estate for that development included: insufficient gas pressure, sewage, a bus service, additional school places - possibly primary and certainly secondary, an extra GP and a half-time dentist, children's play area, 'accessible natural green space', 'sports (facilities) and allotments to be made to Wiltshire standards'.
But that development is for some 220 new homes - most of the new homes that will have to be built within Marlborough by 2026 under Wiltshire's proposed Core Strategy.
In many respects Marlborough's infrastructure is pretty well all used up - but the Elcot Lane sewage treatment plant is prepared for the town's expanding population.
However, with so much of the infrastructure now in the hands of companies and their investors rather than being publicly run services, it seems that much needed new housing developments are now very reliant on costly extensions to infrastructure.

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How to recycle what you don’t want guide – or perhaps even give it away – is now online

Shirley PorterShirley PorterA recycling directory aimed at helping people to reduce, re-use and repair items in their homes before sending it off for recycling has been launched by Transition Marlborough’s recycling group.

And it is now working on a new idea of a “Freegle” site enabling residents to give away unwanted goods to others who might benefit from them.

Creating the directory has been a long task, suggested by Shirley Pryor when the recycling group met for the first time in October, 2011. Shirley proposed that they might update the local recycling directory, originally published by Wiltshire Wildlife Trust in 2005, and now out of date.

“Most of the charity shops in town had changed, several websites were obsolete and Marlborough now had its own Household Recycling Centre and a more comprehensive kerbside collection,” Shirley told Marlborough News Online.

“If you make a suggestion at a meeting, people usually give you the job of carrying it out – and, true to form, that’s what


 Progress was slow until February this year, when Shirley was galvanised into action by the arrival of a new member to the group, Jo Payne, who offered to help the project.

Shirley uploaded the rest of the original directory and then worked on it daily to update existing details. They researched and added more information for the next few months until there was enough to publish, although they say there is still more to come and ask visitors to the site to contact them with ideas, other information and comments.

“It is more than a recycling directory,” added Shirley. “We’ve tried to focus on reduce, re-use and repair, with recycling as a last resort.

“The directory has been created for the Marlborough community, but the ‘reduce and re-use’ tips and the on-line links can be used by anyone.

“They just need to substitute their local charity shops, businesses and recycling facilities.”

And Shirley revealed: “Several other ideas are growing out of the directory, such as setting up a Marlborough Freegle site, where people can give away things they no longer want -- (similar to Freecycle. It might be particularly useful for items that you can’t take to charity shops, such as oddments of wood. 

“We’d love people to come and help us make these ideas a reality. We always welcome new members and our next meeting is on Wednesday 24 July in the Green Dragon at 7.30 p.m. – or drop by the Give and Take stall at the Communities Market and have a chat.”

For the recycling directory see 

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Our Wiltshire summers ain’t wot they used to be – but no expert really knows what will follow

A tree peony flourishing in George Lane, MarlboroughA tree peony flourishing in George Lane, MarlboroughOur miserable summer is continuing unabated and even Marlborough weatherman Eric Gilbert, like experts round the world, doesn’t have a clue as to why they may continue – both here and elsewhere.

But he has some evidence to support the poor summer syndrome that has hit us and told Marlborough News Online: “I would not dare to give an opinion as to what our weather prospects are for the near future. Even the experts appear baffled from time to time and I still feel that forecasts more than a few days ahead are very unreliable.”

The last couple of years or so have been disappointing and the data he collects supports this, he points out. The summers of 2011 and 2012 were in fact the coldest since 1998.

Although lower than the average, many of the summers over the previous 10 years or so were a degree or more above the average, making such a contrast.

“More detailed analysis shows that the really hot days, say around 30C, have occurred several times each year and even up to eight or nine times a year in the decade from 1995,” he adds.

“However, over the last six years the thermometer never reached those heights, other than in 2005, but even then only on two days.”

Closer interrogation of each summer month, June through to August,  does support the poor summer complaints that have built up.

Summer daisiesSummer daisies“From year to year, since my records began in 1984, there have been record-breaking daily highs over this three-month period,” he added. “But during 2011 and 2012 there has not been one record high.

“In fact quite the opposite is true, as in June 2012 there were two record breaking low maximum temperatures, another five in July, 2012 and for August, two in 2011 and one in 2012.

“Based on data since 1984, the hottest day on average is July 28 followed closely by August 1. The record for the hottest day is a maximum of 35.9C on July 19 2006.”

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