At the moment you can see the pink spikes of the common spotted orchids as you drive past. Last year, Gill’s volunteers counted 26,000 orchids on the Bluebell Hill Roadside Nature Reserve. As well as common spotted orchids, there are pyramidal orchids, man orchids, bee orchids, common twayblade, broad-leafed helleborine and white helleborine.
Not all chalk grassland flowers are as showy as the orchids, you have to look closely to appreciate the beauty of delicate fairy flax, eyebright and milkwort.
Chalk grassland flowers are adapted to grow on dry chalky soil that doesn’t have much in the way of nutrients. When the much of the Downs used to be grazed by sheep, most of the nutrients from grass and other plants went into the sheep, rather than back into the ground, and the orchids and other chalk grassland flowers did well, whilst plants that need a lot of nutrients couldn’t grow very fast. Shrubs and trees got nibbled before they could grow very big, and much of the Downs remained as open grassland.
Although road verges are cut back by highways maintenance to maintain visibility, the usual way to manage them is to mow a short distance from the road from time to time, leaving the cuttings to mulch down in situ, which, in effect, adds a nice composty layer and enriches the soil. Great for nettles and other fast growing plants, which then smother the growth of the more delicate chalk grassland flowers.
Gill and the RNR volunteer team cut the vegetation on the Bluebell Hill verges by hand, across the whole of the site and rake up all the cuttings. It’s very labour intensive, as is counting the thousands of orchid spikes that are the result of this dedicated work!
I’ve had meetings in a couple more interesting places this month – a few weeks ago I went to Brogdale Farm with Paul, our new Biodiversity Information Officer, who joined the team at the end of April. (Yes, it’s going to be confusing, two Pauls in the team, and neither of them own up to a nickname.) Paul’s job is to develop a more systematic way of surveying and recording how wildlife is doing, on our reserves and in the wider landscape. We want to demonstrate that not only are habitats being created restored and enhanced, but that this is increasing the success of species.
There is already a huge amount of information being collected about wildlife by Trust staff and volunteers, who record the wildlife they see on our reserves (including Roadside Nature Reserves), carry out regular surveys of particular groups of wildlife such as butterflies, birds and reptiles, survey the rare habitats and species on Local Wildlife Sites, and, through our Shore Search and Sea Search activity, record marine wildlife. The challenge is to make sure that similar things are being surveyed in a similar way, so that we can compare results between different places, habitats and years.
One of the things that we will need to do is to come up with a way of storing all the data. At the moment there is a mixture of ways being used, but having a single system will make it easier to analyse it. (Or even to find it in the first place; much of my amphibian survey data is still stored in a box under the desk, on slightly muddy and previously damp bits of paper that I will put in a spreadsheet as soon as I have a moment…) There is already an organisation that stores biodiversity information for Kent, and we don’t want to duplicate what they are doing, so that is why we were at Brogdale farm, visiting the Kent and Medway Biological Record Centre, and discussing the best way to work together, as well as getting some very helpful advice.
My next quirky meeting venue was a shed, at the Sussex Wildlife Trust offices at Woods Mill. Known as the Board Room, it provides additional meeting space, and no doubt useful storage space, as the need arises. I was there to meet Peter Anderton, one of the Sussex Wildlife Trust volunteers, along with Ian, the Conservation Manager. Peter is a geological engineer who has a long experience within the petrochemical industry and had offered to untangle the facts from the hype that surrounds fracking.
We have a number of policies and position statements, setting out Kent Wildlife Trust views on certain contentious issues, which are approved by our Trustees and reviewed regularly. I have been updating our position statement on Badgers and Bovine Tb, and the one on Offshore Wind Farms, and next on the list is the one on fracking. It is important to make sure that the Trust’s position is based on scientific evidence about the impacts of any process on wildlife, so I read various research papers to try to form a balanced and evidenced based view, which is then reviewed by our Conservation Committee. However, the technicalities of hydraulic fracturing are way outside my experience! Sussex Wildlife Trust had kindly invited me to meet their volunteer who could explain the principles of hydrocarbon extraction in layman’s terms. It was incredibly interesting, and once I’ve finished reading up on some other aspects the existing policy will be updated and submitted to our Trustees for approval.