Wandering by waterfalls

Overlooking the historic village of New Lanark is the Scottish Wildlife Trust reserve at the Falls of Clyde. A woodland walk from the visitor centre takes you through dappled green shade alongside the River Clyde and past the Corra Linn waterfall.

The Corra Linn waterfall
The Corra Linn waterfall

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.

 

Here is a short walk through the woodland at the top of the Falls of Clyde reserve.

 

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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.

Lake District

Our wildlife tour of the U.K. took us to Patterdale, in the Lake District.

A robin inside or tent
An inquisitive robin visitor

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.

Juvenile wheatear (photo credit Geoff Woolley)
Juvenile wheatear (photo credit Geoff Woolley)

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.

Skylark (photo credit Geoff Woolley)
Skylark (photo credit Geoff Woolley)

 

 

The view from the top was worth the climb, with lakes in all directions and the coastline in the distance.

Halfway there
Halfway there

 

 

 

 

A very old Hawthorn
A gorgeous and very old hawthorn tree

 

Wildlife Road-Trip

For an island, Britain packs a huge variety of landscapes and wild places into its 80,000 square miles. If you wanted, you could see craggy mountains, windswept coastal plains, bleak moorland and lush valleys, cascading waterfalls and meandering rivers, wide open spaces and tiny urban green gems, all in the space of one day. Although you would spend most of it in the car, to explore it properly takes more time.

A two week holiday makes just a small impact on the list of places I would love to visit,  so this year I am taking a three month sabbatical break from work, to see all those places. Travelling the length and bredth of Britain in a campervan, I will find out more about meres and mosses, limestone pavements, honeycomb reefs, and the Machair.

Released from my desk into the wild, I hope to see more of the biodiversity we are working so hard to look after. It is also a chance to find out more about other Wildlife Trusts, their reserves and projects. So for the next three months, this blog will feature a series of Wildlife Trust reserves from around Britain and the people that look after them.

Sabbatical survival kitFriday was my last day at the Trust for the summer. In a fabricated meeting about rubber ducks (don’t ask, I may post an explanatory picture next week), the Conservation Team presented me with a sabbatical survival kit. As well as providing camping rations, midge protection and emergency wine, they have set me the challenge of filling in a hand crafted I-spy book of things I should be looking out for on my travels.

Page of I-spy book

A glimpse of spring

Wednesday was one of those have to get out in the sunshine days, even if only for a 20 minute lunch-time walk.

And spring is on its way!

Lesser celandine by a hedge in Kent
Lesser celandine grows along the bank beneath a hedge
Snowdrops manage to push their way through the ivy, bramble and nettles.
Snowdrops have been out for a while, they look so delicate but still manage to push their way through the ivy, bramble and nettles.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Willow tree catkins, blue sky
Hazel catkins and glorious blue sky
Checking twigs to identify this cherry plum blossom
Ali is checking the twigs to see if this is cherry plum. The ends of the twigs are hairless and glossy green, as opposed to blackthorn, which has similar blossom but young twigs which are are downy and grey brown. Blackthorn is also a lot more thorny.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Queen bumblebee searching for a nest site
This queen bumblebee has just come out of hibernation and is looking for somewhere to build a nest. A hole in the ground, or some tussocky grass would be ideal.

 

snow waving
A flurry of snow at Tyland Barn on Thursday reminded us that spring is not quite here yet.

Good news and bad news

I have been on a roller-coaster of hope and despair for the natural environment over the past few days.

At the Westminster Briefing on Biodiversity in London last week, we heard that 40% of global GDP (a measure of the goods and services that a country produces, which governments typically use to measure their success) depends on nature. It seems bizarre then, that the message from Defra is that they will not be spending money on environmental work. I lost count of the number of times that the speakers from the public sector said “there is no money” for the natural environment.

We were told that the England Biodiversity Strategy, Biodiversity 2020, is an initiative from the last government, and that the new initiative, a 25 year strategy, will only partly be about biodiversity, it will expand to include farming and food. Meanwhile, progress on improving the condition of threatened habitats and sites has slowed, and there are 361 species that experts believe are at risk of becoming extinct in England by 2020.

Depressing news, but I’m not ready to give up. Fortunately, I had just returned from the World Forum on Natural Capital, where it is clear that other governments, and businesses, are waking up to the fact that nature is essential to business and to the economy. The things that we get from nature appear to be provided for us free of charge, but this is an illusion. If the environment becomes so degraded that some of these things stop working, we suddenly become aware of the cost, and it is huge. Flooding that is made worse by artificial landscapes that no longer soak up the water is on everyone’s minds at the moment, but there were many more examples showing how important it is to invest in looking after this vital resource.

Nat cap conference 1
At the World Forum on Natural Capital in Edinburgh

Natural capital is a way of viewing the natural environment as an asset that can be valued, and if it has a monetary value then it can be factored in to political and economic decisions. One of the most inspirational speakers of the conference was John D. Liu, a film maker and environmentalist, who believes that change is possible and it is starting to happen. He showed a film of a devastated landscape restored to health in China, showing what can be achieved with sufficient vision and support.

Throughout the conference here were many inspiring examples of nature being valued and then enhanced, although sadly very few from the UK; the challenge is to work out how we can get this happening here. I have a notebook full of ideas, just need the time and resources to put them into practice!

It was good to end the week on a positive note – this is just one of the maps that we covered at a Kent Nature Partnership meeting with notes of projects happening right now to restore and create new habitats for wildlife.
It was good to end the week on a positive note – this is just one of the maps that we covered at a Kent Nature Partnership meeting with notes of projects happening right now to restore and create new habitats for wildlife.

 

 

 

Oare Marshes

Kent Wildlife Trust’s Oare Marshes nature reserve on a sunny day © Bryony Chapman

On a wet and windy day recently, Vinny and I went to Kent Wildlife Trust’s Oare Marshes nature reserve, near Faversham, as part of his induction. We met up with Kevin Duvall, who looks after the reserve and several others in this part of Kent.

The reserve is designated as a Site of Special Scientific Interest and a Special Protection Area, because of its importance for populations of wading birds and wildfowl. This coastal grazing marsh reserve is made up of wet grassland drained by a network of ditches, reedbed, scrub, shallow lakes, saltmarsh  and the mudflats where Faversham Creek meets the Swale estuary.

Looking out over Faversham Creek and the Swale at Kent Wildlife Trust's Oare Marshes nature reserve
Looking out over Faversham Creek and the Swale at Kent Wildlife Trust’s Oare Marshes nature reserve

Kevin has been working at the Trust for 8 years now, taking on the management of Oare Marshes after having been involved in the site for many years as a volunteer. He also looks after another seven reserves, some of them wetland, some woodland and others chalk grassland sites. Like all of our wardens, he needs to have a wide range of expertise in managing different kinds of habitats. He also has an engineering background, which has been invaluable in dealing with the complexities of managing the hydrology of the site. At Oare Marshes, it’s all about the water levels: judging just how much water to retain in the spring to avoid the reserve drying out over a hot summer. This is essential for the wildlife of the damp grassland and ditches.

This is achieved through a system of sluices, I was intrigued to see that the sluices had bristle strips to allow elvers to negotiate the sluice and swim upstream. The sluice boards are set to maintain the correct water level throughout the year – any additional water flows over the top and out through the ditch system.

It is also important to maintain the right balance of scrub and grassland, each of which provides habitat for different species. Here, as on many of our reserves, we use grazing animals to help manage the grassland. Konik ponies keep the grass under control so that it is suitable for ground-nesting birds in the spring, when the ponies are moved to other sites. They also munch through scrub regrowth that would otherwise have to be cut back by hand. They are hardy, well adapted to the damp conditions and can be out all year round, even in snow. Kevin said that when it does snow, he battles the elements to bring hay to provide extra food for the ponies, but they often ignore this in favour of digging down beneath that snow to get to the grass and roots.  Unlike some hardy pony breeds, our Koniks are very easy going for the most part, but they do have one little quirk. They like to chew the tops of the gates, even when they have been protected with chicken wire, which means regular repair jobs for the reserve team. And you are strongly advised not to park your car next to their field gate, as you are quite likely to come back to find pony teeth marks in the paintwork!

Konik ponies graze the reserve, keeping the vegetation in check so that less needs to be cut back by hand.
Konik ponies graze the reserve, keeping the vegetation in check so that less needs to be cut back by hand.

Of course the Koniks do a great job, but what came across really clearly was how much Kevin values his team of volunteers. Time and time again he would point out work that had been completed with their help. There are a team of around 9 regular volunteers, who carry out regular maintenance on this and other reserves in the area and help on projects such as creating a series of ponds across several sites at Wilderness Down, one of the Trusts Living Landscape areas. Without the help of the volunteers it would have been impossible to get all the ponds finished on time, in fact without our dedicated volunteers we wouldn’t be able to anywhere near as much management on reserves, or all sorts of other work. If you want to be thoroughly appreciated check out our volunteering page and find out more.

Shoveler duck
The Shoveler gets its name from its broad beak, which it uses to sieve from the water various small crustaceans, insect larvae, molluscs, worms, plankton and bits of plant. Image © Kevin Duvall

Oare Marshes is one of the best places in Kent for bird-watching. I’m still very much an amateur, and was very keen to get some advice on how to tell apart all those long legged birds silhouetted against the shoreline. Kevin is clearly an expert, with quality equipment – he brought his telescope, and the difference between the image through that and my binoculars was amazing.

Kevin Duvall at Oare Marshes crop bright
Proper kit – Kevin sets up the telescope to show us the birds on the shore

It is fantastic to walk  around a reserve by the warden, you get to see things that you would probably never spot otherwise. At one point, Kevin stopped near a line of pylons and started scouring the tops through his ‘scope.  Try as I might, I couldn’t see anything special about them but suddenly Kevin said “got it” and there, right on the top spar of the pylon was a peregrine, invisible from the ground and just a blob in my binoculars, but through the scope its striking grey and white markings and even its black moustache were clear.

 

Redshank © Tom Marshall
Redshank are found on the reserve all year round, nesting in the damp grassland. They use their long bills to probe in the mud for worms, crustaceans and small molluscs. Image © Tom Marshall

As we approached the mudflats, which from a distance seem barren, I  realised there were birds all over it, feeding on the molluscs and worms hidden in the mud, and these are in turn feeding on microscopic life which is sustained by the nutrients washed down by the river carrying sediment and organic waste from the landscape upstream. This time of year, migrants like the black-tailed godwits are passing through, and hundreds of wildfowl are arriving to spend the winter here. We got plenty of bird identification practice in, spotting things like shellduck, shovelers, pintail and teal in the estuary, and curlew, lapwing, redshank, dunlin, black-tailed godwits and avocets feeding on the mudflats.

There is lots of other exciting wildlife to discover at Oare – we looked out across the water to a distant sandbank, and again, without the powerful ‘scope, wouldn’t have been able to tell that the dark shapes outlined against the horizon were actually a dozen or so basking seals.

It was fantastic to get out of the office for a few hours and see some of the wildlife that we are working so hard to protect. At the end of our wander around the reserve, I felt refreshed and relaxed, all traces of stress blown away, demonstrating the truth of the advice that contact with nature is good for you. Try it yourself – if you live in Kent there is a Kent Wildlife Trust nature reserve within 10 miles of your home; if you have never been to one, go explore, and let me know if it worked!

 

Creative ecology

pumpkin carving
Feeling a bit guilty – having volunteered the team to spend a lunchtime carving pumpkins for the Trust’s Sights and Sounds of the Night event last Friday, as part of our team building efforts, I wasn’t able to join them on Thursday. Seems to have gone well though. Thank you Sam, Paul, Hannah, Fiona and Ewa for giving up your lunch break!
This is what happens when you ask a bunch of ecologists to carve pumpkins: beetles, bats, centipedes and marine wildlife.
This is what happens when you ask a bunch of ecologists to carve pumpkins: beetles, bats, centipedes and scary marine wildlife.
Batty pumpkin lamp
Bats and pumpkins, a winning combination!

Ten to One

Once or twice a week, at 10 to 1 pm, the conservation team (or those of us who are around at the time) climb the precipitous stairs up to the Sunley Solar. This is the informal meeting space at the top of the farmhouse offices, named after a generous benefactor of the Trust. The ten to ones, as they have come to be known, are a chance to share knowledge and help us keep up to speed with the latest in conservation, or simply to ask if anyone knows the answer to question that has cropped up in our work that day.

meeting in the Sunley Solar
Half of the Conservation team gather in the former attic of the 17th century farmhouse that now houses our offices, so that Chloe can update us on the latest in wetland conservation.

For example, last week, Chloe fed back to us about a conference she had just been to, Wetland Futures, which was focused on those areas where the rivers meet the sea. These wetland areas can look desolate, but the marshes, mudflats and saltmarshes that characterise them are some of our most wildlife rich areas. We are looking at what we can do to improve wetland biodiversity, it is an important area of our work at the moment; Chloe brought back lots of information about projects that are happening around the country, and ideas for things that would work in Kent.

Marine species like the sea walnut can be carried in ballast water and in the absence of local predators, multiply and form extensive populations. The sea walnuts then consume zooplankton, including fish eggs and larvae, reducing the food available to native species, and having a knock-on effect along the food chain and a devastating impact on local fisheries. Image from: http://ocean.si.edu/ocean-photos/sea-walnut-mnemiopsis-leidyi
Marine species like the sea walnut can be carried in ballast water and in the absence of local predators, multiply and form extensive populations. The sea walnuts then consume zooplankton, including fish eggs and larvae, reducing the food available to native species, and having a knock-on effect along the food chain and a devastating impact on local fisheries. Image from: http://ocean.si.edu/ocean-photos/sea-walnut-mnemiopsis-leidyi

She also provided an update on the problem of invasive non-native species, which are particularly difficult to deal with in these environments. It is vital to track the spread of invasive species, to understand how they colonise areas and where we should target work. Anyone can help to do this, simply by recording species that they come across and sending this information to the various recording schemes which record the spread of invasive species. There is even an app for that to make it really easy to do -download the That’s Invasive app.

Ivy bees have only recently been found in Britain, and are spreading across the South.
Ivy bees were first found in Britain in 2001. Since then, they have spread throughout the south of England. If you see a very stripy looking bee, with a furry thorax, on ivy in the autumn, it is almost certainly an ivy bee. They are mining bees, which means they create a nest in the ground. Although they are solitary bees, each creating a single nest, you can get large aggregations of bees nesting in one area.

Sometimes, at ten to one, we go for a wander instead. It gets us away from our screens, provides some low level exercise, gives us time to catch up with what other people are up to, and we usually learn something new as well, or at least I do. It’s the good kind of multitasking. Last week, on a lunchtime walk with some of the conservation team, we were practicing wild walks, Greg was spotting spiders, Paul found a badger latrine and I learned about ivy bees.

 

A lunchtime walk

Bluebell Hill
Our office at Tyland Barn sit at the foot of the North Downs, which would be a picturesque location if it wasn’t for the nearby M20 and the dual carriageway running up Bluebell Hill.
Bluebell Hill RNR
On the other hand, it is perfectly placed for a lunch time stroll along one of our most high profile Roadside Nature Reserves.
It is spectacular at this time of year; even driving past you can see the pink flower spikes of the orchids. 
It is spectacular at this time of year; even driving past you can see the pink flower spikes of the orchids.

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.

Breaking news... Fiona shows Alison how to tweet an image of an orchid. As you can probably tell by this blog, some of us are arriving fashionably late to the social media revolution.
Breaking news… Fiona shows Alison how to tweet an image of an orchid. As you can probably tell by this blog, some of us are arriving fashionably late to the social media revolution.
How much ground can a bunch of ecologists cover in a lunchtime? The answer is not much, as we stop to examine something every few yards.
How much ground can a bunch of ecologists cover in a lunchtime? The answer is not much, as we stop to examine something every few yards.
Milkwort, oxeye daisy, bird's-foot-trefoil
Milkwort, oxeye daisy, bird’s-foot-trefoil

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.

Or to see why this plant is called hop trefoil.
Or to see why this plant is called hop trefoil.
This patch of columbines and oxeye daisies is tucked away in a shady corner.
This patch of columbines and oxeye daisies is tucked away in a shady corner.
This is what the Roadside Nature Reserve would look like without all the hard work of Gill and her amazing team of volunteers.
This is what the Roadside Nature Reserve would look like without all the hard work of Gill and her amazing team of volunteers.

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!

This is just one of the many Roadside Nature Reserves in Kent, looked after by Gill, Zoe and a dedicated team of volunteers and honorary wardens.