Foulshaw Moss

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.

Sphagnum moss mound
Simon explained how sphagnum is structured to collect and hold rainwater – he squeezed a strand of moss to show us how much water trickled out of just a single strand. It also creates an acid environment, which means that as the tip of the plant grows, the older parts don’t decay, they are preserved so that it starts to pile up to form mounds.

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.

Sundew plant
There are few nutrients available in the acidic peat soil. Sundews trap insects on sticky hairs on the leaves and digest them to provide vital extra nutrients.

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.

Low growing cranberry plant
Cranberry is one of the specialist bog plants found at Foulshaw Moss.
a pool on Foulshaw Moss with cotton grass
Pools like this are great for dragonflies, including the rare white-faced darter. Common cotton-grass and hare’s tail cotton grass both grow here.

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.

Wildlife Trust staff and volunteers at Foulshaw Moss
Simon, Grace, me and Colin at one of the osprey viewing points. Colin volunteers at the reserve on Tuesdays to point out the ospreys to visitors, who can get a good look at them through the viewing ‘scope.

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.

Looking across the oldest part of Foulshaw Moss
Looking across the oldest part of Foulshaw Moss
actual size model of an osprey nest
Osprey nests are huge. Staff from Cumbria Wildlife Trust built this one on the ground to demonstrate just how big they are.

 

Edited 14.7.16 to correct the date that CWT purchased the reserve.

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Potteric Carr

Looking across Willow Marsh
Looking across Willow Marsh at Yorkshire Wildlife Trust’s Potteric Carr nature reserve

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.

Andy Dalton, Potteric Carr Reserve Manager, Yorkshire Wildlife Trust
Andy Dalton, Potteric Carr Reserve Manager, Yorkshire Wildlife Trust

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.

Volunteers at Potteric Carr nature reserve
Nic explained how important volunteer activity has been in the creation of the nature reserve at Potteric Carr. I met two of the volunteers who are hard at work on a Tuesday work party, luckily they were happy to pause for a photo opportunity.

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.

Coot and chick
Coot and chick

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
Carr woodland is dominated by alder, willow and birch, with shrubs such as dog-rose and hawthorn. The woodland is damp and shady with its of ferns and mosses, and is a very rich habitat for invertebrates, including many rare species.

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!

Partying with the puffins

Flamborough Cliffs Nature Reserve, Yorkshire Wildlife Trust
Flamborough Cliffs Nature Reserve, Yorkshire Wildlife Trust

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.

Kittiwakes and chicks in nest on cliffs
Kittiwake nests perched perilously on the cliff ledges, with chicks like tiny balls of fluff

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.

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.

 

 

Brandon Marsh

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.

Bird book and Brandon Marsh 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.

East Marsh Pool at Brandon Marsh Nature Reserve
Looking out over East Marsh Pool.

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.

kingfisher pole at Brandon Marsh Nature Reserve
Look carefully to see the kingfisher pole which allows the birds to pose obligingly for photographers, although the reserve’s kingfishers were far too busy to pose for me that day.
Newlands Reedbed at Brandon Marsh Nature Reserve
Newlands Reedbed at Brandon Marsh Nature Reserve

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!

 

Karl Curtis, Reserves and Community Engagement Manager at Warwickshire Wildlife Trust
Karl Curtis, Reserves and Community Engagement Manager at Warwickshire Wildlife Trust

 

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.