When I was growing up, I thought that orchids were exotic flowers, beloved of Victorian ladies in glasshouses and native only to tropical rainforests. It was a revelation to discover that they are found worldwide and that my home county of Kent held more varieties than anywhere else in the UK.
You have to look more closely to appreciate the flowers of our native orchids, but once you do, you will find that they are every bit as enchanting as the showy specimens you might buy from a florist.
The complexity of orchid flowers is due to their intricate relationships with insects, the structures having evolved to tempt insect visitors, sometimes even luring them with the false promise of a mate, in order to achieve pollination.
Darwin was fascinated by the evolutionary relationship between orchids and insects and it is thought that Kent Wildlife Trust’s Downe Bank nature reserve is the Orchis Bank he used to visit to study this phenomenon and that he immortalised in the conclusion of the Origin of the Species.
Although I didn’t need to leave Kent to try out the next of The Wildlife Trusts’ Top UK Wildlife Experiences, traveling in the north of the U.K. gave me the chance to see some species I’d not come across before, and practice my budding botanical skills.
Nothing prepares you for the sheer spectacle of 300 ft cliffs lined with thousands and thousands of seabirds perched precariously on the narrowest of ledges with their chick nestled underneath them. Well, that’s not quite true, the acrid smell of a seabird colony greets you a good hundred yards before you get to them. Now that the birds have been nesting for several weeks the cliffs are draped in swathes of guano (ok, bird poo). Then you hear the cries, screeches and grumbles of the birds as you walk along the grassy path and finally reach the cliff-tops where the air is alive with wheeling kittiwakes, fulmars gliding effortlessly and guillemots, razorbills and puffins darting purposefully from rock to sea and back.
Handa Island (managed by Scottish Wildlife Trust) is home to 56,000 guillemots, counted individually by volunteer researchers painstakingly scanning the cliffs on foot and by boat to note each nesting bird and their chicks. Puffins were also counted this year, 330 were found, showing that the population on Handa is remaining stable, despite concerns about decreasing food in some areas.
Nesting Arctic skua
We went to Handa Island to try out another of the Top UK Wildlife Experiences, which we are working our way through on our journey around the UK. It was absolutely amazing, the seabirds, of course, were mesmerising. The paths run close to the cliffs at some points, and Geoff, who is a much more patient photographer than me, took some great pictures. Our aim on this trip has been to travel light and take the minimum of equipment, so all the images and film in these posts are taken on an oldish digital camera with no extra lenses, or on an iPhone. (All today’s images are by Geoff Woolley, please credit him if you use any.)
The landscape is stunning, with a dramatic rugged coastline, flower studded grassland and views across the sea to the misty blue mountains of the Highlands.
From Handa towards Scourie
I love the way razorbills come in to land
Looking across Handa Island
Heath spotted orchid
Heathers, eye bright and tormentil
Cliffs and sea caves
Two guillemots and a razorbill
Guillemots on a ledge
Long horizontal ledges are packed with guillemots, the nesting birds pressed against the cliff with their chick tucked underneath them, kept warm by a warm spot (called a brood patch) on the parent’s tummy well supplied with blood vessels to pass on warmth to the growing chick.
Handa Island is the most magical and awe-inspiring place. We could have spent hours just watching the birds, admiring the rock formations or examining the flowers, but we had to catch a boat back or be stranded on the island overnight.
We think of the Scottish Highlands as being a wild, unspoilt, natural place, but in fact this is far from true. Most of the upland habitat has been changed by grazing, tree-planting and drainage, so that natural habitats are rare. More than half of the species found there are declining, some with a high risk of extinction.
Richard Williams and Boyd Alexander have a plan to turn this around. They are running one of the largest landscape restoration schemes in Europe, the Coigach-Assynt Living Landscape project. This long term project, led by the Scottish Wildlife Trust, aims to restore wildlife over 60,000 hectares of the Scottish Highlands.
I joined them for lunch at the cafe next to their office at Lochinver, in the heart of the project area. Richard explained that the project involves seven major landowners and several local organisations. They have recently secured a Heritage Lottery Fund Landscape Partnership grant, and are just starting to build a team to deliver the work. Having fallen in love with Scotland, I daydreamed briefly about applying to join them, but no, for many reasons, it is not to be.
The project is an exciting mix of nature conservation, archeology, training and education. Woodland is an important element of the project; increasing the extent of native woodland will provide new habitat for many threatened species. The project also aims to work with schools to encourage them to use woodland as a classroom for outdoor learning. Working with landowners and local community groups, native woodland will be extended through changes in land management to allow natural regeneration, and by planting of native trees.
How do you get enough native Scottish tree saplings to plant woodland on such an ambitious scale? Boyd took me to meet Nick Clooney at the Little Assynt Tree Nursery to find out. Nick collects native tree seeds from local woodlands. Some seed, like willow, needs to be planted straight away, whereas some needs a cold period before it can germinate. These are stored in layers of sand outside through the winter and then brought inside to be planted.
The trees are sold to landowners who want to create native woodland on their land. They can apply for grant funding to help with the cost of creating and managing new woodland, including putting up extensive deer fencing, needed to exclude deer while the young trees get established.
The Coigach-Assynt Living Landscape is such an exciting project, encompassing stunning habitats from mountain to coast, with fascinating wildlife and a rich cultural heritage. I can’t wait to come back and explore more of the area and see how the project is getting on.
We had hoped to see peregrines, but sadly the pair that have been breeding here were quite old and it is thought that they have not survived the winter. Scottish Wildlife Trust hopes that a new pair will soon colonise the reserve.
We happily watched the dippers instead, I love watching them bob up and down living up to their name, and casually plunging their heads into the cascading water to feed on invertebrates in the river. We took a bit of video, (click here) it works best on a small screen as it’s quite low resolution.
Ospreys are the obvious attraction when visiting Foulshaw Moss but I had heard a lot about the work that was happening to restore this site and hoped to find out more. We met Simon Thomas, the Reserves Officer and Grace who is on a placement from Cumbria University, on a wet Friday morning. I’m sure they could have retreated to a nice dry office but such is the generosity of Cumbria Wildlife Trust staff that they kindly showed us around the reserve despite the rain.
Rain is good news at Foulshaw Moss. A Moss is a raised bog in the lowlands. It develops when an area is constantly waterlogged and sphagnum moss grows there over many years, building up into a huge peat dome which rises up above the surrounding landscape.
Foulshaw Moss lies on an area that used to stretch over seven miles of continuous swamp, reedbed and bog. The peat is still up to 6 metres deep in some places. It was very treacherous to cross, and people used to take the guided path over the adjacent Morecambe Bay sands in preference. Much of the area was eventually drained and subject to extensive peat cutting (for fuel) before being used for farming and forestry.
When Cumbria Wildlife Trust bought the site in 1999 from the Forestry Commission a large part of it was covered with regimented rows of conifers. There was still a small patch of raised bog remaining, an increasingly rare habitat with plants like cotton grass, bilberry, cranberry and sundew, all growing through the wet sphagnum moss.
To restore the rest of the site, Cumbria Wildlife Trust had the trees removed and blocked up the drainage channels to keep as much water on the site as possible. That is why they like the rain – the bog is fed entirely by rainwater, and the wetter the better for sphagnum moss.
Cumbria Wildlife Trust are using other techniques to help the developing bog to hold more water: damming up large drainage channels to create pools, creating peat banks in the degraded peat bog to create water-tight cells, planting reedbeds and restoring wetter habitats on surrounding land to slow the water loss from the bog. All these things are helping to raise the water table and provide the right conditions for the bog specialist plants and animals to thrive. This has been so successful that they have been able to re-introduce the rare white-faced darter dragonfly (previously, in Cumbria, only found in one other site) to the reserve. In fact, if it hadn’t been raining so hard I would have been able to post lots of pictures of the dragonflies, damselflies and large heath butterflies we would have seen.
And what of the Ospreys? They are nesting on a specially built platform in a tree in the middle of the inaccessible and therefore safest part of the reserve. There are two chicks in the nest this year. The nest is too far away to photograph with our basic equipment, and the chicks were hunkered down against the wet much of the time, but we saw both parents as they took turns to guard the nest and the chicks did poke their heads up above the edge before we left, which was a magical sight. For amazing footage of the Foulshaw ospreys, click here.
Edited 14.7.16 to correct the date that CWT purchased the reserve.
Our wildlife tour of the U.K. took us to Patterdale, in the Lake District.
Although we didn’t get to a Cumbria Wildlife Trust reserve for a few days, there was plenty of wildlife to see, especially in the campsite. During the day, the air around the buildings was filled with house martins and swallows and flycatchers darted from the trees. At night, bats circled above our heads, and Geoff was surprised by a toad wandering toward him in the washroom. Unfortunately he declined my suggestion that he go back and take a photo. Probably wise.
My wildlife photography skills limit me to capturing things that are close and standing very still. Plants are generally quite obliging in that way. What I love about the plants that you see on the high fells of the Lake District is that they are so tiny and delicate looking, but actually have to be very tough to withstand the conditions on the mountainside.
On our climb up to Dove Crag, we were accompanied by wheatears, many of them this year’s young birds. Skylarks soared up from the grass, their song lifting our spirits as we toiled up the steep slopes in the drizzling rain.
The view from the top was worth the climb, with lakes in all directions and the coastline in the distance.
The first thing that strikes you about Potteric Carr is the sheer scale of the site and the work that must have gone into creating the rich wildlife habitats there, as well as the amount of work still underway to extend and enhance the site. This 250 hectare nature reserve, on the outskirts of Doncaster, is a haven for wildlife. The wetland habitats attract over 70 species of breeding birds as well as lots of other wildlife.
I met Andy Dalton, the Reserve Manager, and Nic Scothern, South Yorkshire Regional Manager, to learn more about how the reserve is managed and what Yorkshire Wildlife Trust have been doing there.
Ironically, Potteric Carr in its current form owes its existence in part to the history of industrial activity in the area. This low-lying part of the Humberhead Levels had been partially drained and was being used for farming and forestry. In the 19th century, the Great Northern Railway was laid across the site, and soon rail lines criss-crossed the site, isolating small areas of land. These could no longer be accessed for farming, and became wilder. In 1951, coal mining activity nearby caused subsidence, creating marshy areas and pools.
In 1968, Yorkshire Wildlife Trust took on 13 hectares of the site and worked with local volunteers to manage the area for nature conservation. Over time, the nature reserve has been extended and now includes a remarkable diversity of habitats including several different marshland areas.
At Huxter Well Marsh, a huge area of reed bed has been created specifically to attract bittern, which used to overwinter on the reserve but never stayed to breed. It has been a resounding success, the first breeding bitterns were seen in 2014 and two juvenile birds have been seen this year, confirming that breeding has been successful.
While we were looking out from the Piper Marsh hide, I saw a golden brown bird with chocolate coloured markings rise up just above the reeds. It was so quick that I just got a glimpse of pointed wings and a head coming to a sharp point before it dropped back down into the reedbed. Andy confirmed that it was a bittern and said it was probably a juvenile, looking for food.
The reedbeds have also attracted other wildlife; marsh harriers started to nest in 2014 too, the first marsh harriers to breed in Yorkshire for 350 years. Unfortunately Geoff and I failed to spot one of these on our way round, although we were looking out for them after Andy had spotted one flying across a field as we were chatting in the cafe.
We didn’t mind though, there was so much to see as we wandered round the site, stopping off at various hides to look across the pools and marshland. Each marsh seemed to have a different character. Huxter Well Marsh is full of noise from the raucous black-headed gulls which nest on the islands. Others are havens of tranquility, little egrets silently stalking in the shallows whilst a heron stands motionless waiting for a hapless fish to swim into its reach. On Willow Marsh, we watched the coots busying back and forth, their half grown chicks piping shrilly as the ventured away from their parent.
Wet woodland in another important habitat on this reserve (hence the name: Carr is a type of wet woodland) and Yorkshire Wildlife Trust aims to restore more of this habitat, which should be good for willow tits. The Dearne Valley is a stronghold for this rapidly declining species.
The rich variety of habitats are the product of 48 years of hard work by the Trust and its volunteers, but it doesn’t stop here. The Trust is now working on the next 60 hectares of grassland restoration, and plans are afoot for a new visitor centre. I can’t wait to come back in a few years and see how it is all getting on.
Edited 29th June to correct names. Sorry, that will teach me to write better notes next time!
Aiming to try out as many of the Wildlife Trusts Top UK Wildlife Experiences, we went to Flamborough Head this weekend to see the seabirds nesting on the towering chalk cliffs.
It was a stunning spectacle. Guillemots, razorbills and kittiwakes clung perilously to the tiniest ledges; it seems impossible that they can raise chicks here, but they do.
And of course puffins! Not in such great numbers as the other birds but easy to spot with their bright orange feet and colourfully striped bills. I was particularly enchanted with the way they trail their feet splayed out behind them like little orange flags as they fly.
Nesting Kittiwakes with chicks at Flamborough head
Chalk cliff coastline at Flamborough Head
Yorkshire Wildlife Trust’s Flanborough Cliffs nature reserve is well worth a visit at any time of year, but during the seabird breeding season it has to be one of the top wildlife spectacles in England.
One of the most precious books in my collection is a battered, brown hardback edition of the Field Guide to the Birds of Britain and Europe, published in 1966 and bought by my father not long afterward. A checklist at the front tells a hidden story, bringing back memories of childhood holidays and shared moments, as well as being Dad’s lifelong bird list.
Brandon Marsh starts to appear alongside the ticked list in the 90’s and was a favourite haunt of Dad’s, who moved to Coventry at that time. He always planned to take me there, but somehow we never got round to it. Whilst I was rummaging through a box of his books recently, a leaflet for Brandon Marsh dropped out from between the pages of a book on wetland birds. So it seems fitting that my first stop on a tour of Wildlife Trust reserves should be the favourite site of a person who nurtured my own passion for nature.
Karl Curtis, the Reserves and Community Engagement Manager at Warwickshire Wildlife Trust, showed me round the reserve in a timely break between downpours on Wednesday afternoon. As we made our way around the lakes and pools which make up a large part of the reserve, Karl explained how the site had originally been farmland, but subsidence due to coal mining locally had created a large lake, known as Brandon floods, linked to the River Avon which flows to the south of the reserve. Sand and gravel extraction created more lakes and pools and the resulting wetland habitats attracted a wide variety of birds and other wildlife. A group of local enthusiasts came together to look after those parts of the site, and the Brandon Marshes Voluntary Conservation Group was formed. Warwickshire Wildlife Trust took on the site in 1989 and works with the Brandon Marshes Voluntary Conservation Team to look after the site.
There is something about an expanse of shining water that instills a great feeling of calmness. As we sat in one of the many bird hides looking across a lake, the stresses of work, packing and travelling melted away.
From one of the reserve’s eight hides, we watched lapwings strutting, smart in their metallic green-sheened plumage and single, show-off curl of a crest. Oyster catchers, black and white with striking orange beaks, peep-peeped as they swept round before landing. Elegant common terns flew gracefully down, one of the many species nesting or feeding on the shores of the islands in the East Marsh Pool.
An exiting ongoing project at Brandon Marsh is the creation of the Newlands Reedbed. This summer, 20,000 plugs of reed will be planted to extend the habitat. It is hoped that providing this huge area of reedbed, open water and marshy grassland will encourage bitterns and marsh harriers, which visit the reserve from time to time, to stay and breed here, as well as attracting other rare wetland species. The work has taken place over many years, and funding has now been secured to complete the final phase, fulfilling the long-held ambition of Alban Wincott, one of the volunteers instrumental in setting up the Brandon Marshes Voluntary Conservation Team and leading the work of the team. Sadly, Alban is no longer here to see the work completed, but Karl told me of plans to name this area of reedbed in his memory.
As we looked across the developing seedbed, a hobby swooped back and forth before settling on a branch. I was thrilled, as this was my first really good look at this beautiful bird.
Like many of my colleagues working in the Wildlife Trusts, Karl grew up somewhere where he could always be out exploring – up a tree, down a hole, and these experiences started his love of nature. He seems to be passing this enthusiasm on to the next generation; after being promised a snake hunt, his children were excited to find three grass snakes under corrugated iron refugia and a sloughed snake skin to take into school. I bet not many children get to report a snake hunt at show-and-tell on Monday morning!
Never one to turn down a snake hunt, I also got a peek at the grass snakes – a perfect end to my tour of the site. Thank you Karl for taking the time to show me round and explain how Warwickshire Wildlife Trust and the team of volunteers are looking after this fabulous reserve.