Extreme rock pool safari

Snakelocks anemone
Snakelocks anemone

It is often said that most children are interested in nature, given the chance, but this interest gets lost somewhere along the way to adulthood. My daughters certainly became less indulgent as time went on, of my tendency to stop and look at every unusual plant and bug on family walks; teenagers, quite rightly, have different priorities. I sometimes wonder, now that they are leading city-based, millennial lives, how much connection with nature they have retained. Our busy lives rarely lend themselves to the kind of shared outdoor activities we used to enjoy, so when M came to join us for a weekend during our wildlife tour, I jumped at the chance of subjecting her to a bit of old-fashioned, seaside, family fun – rock-pooling.

Strawberry anemone, common limpets, purple topshells and tortoiseshell limpets
Strawberry anemone, common limpets, purple topshells and tortoiseshell limpets

Devon Wildlife Trust was running an “extreme rock-pool safari” from Wembury Marine Centre, near Plymouth. Extreme in the sense that it was on a particularly low spring tide, so the rocks would be uncovered further down the beach than usual, exposing marine wildlife that usually remains  beneath the waves. It was also raining and extremely slippery. Cat, our Devon Wildlife Trust guide,  vetoed M’s shoes, so I lent her my new walking boots, after extracting a promise that she wouldn’t go in above her ankles.

Cat led a group of all ages down the beach, scrambling over rocks to the waters edge. She explained the importance of putting everything back exactly where we had found it, including turning back any stones that we decided to search beneath. Some species spend all their lives in one small area and might not survive if randomly re-located.

Father lasher
Father lasher, also known as the short-spined sea scorpion

Seasoned explorers then grabbed a tub and spread out to investigate the nearby pools whilst those of us who were less experienced gathered around whilst Cat pointed out some of the rock pool wildlife and explained how to identify it. Soon, there were cries of discovery, and we peered into the tubs to see the amazing creatures that people were bringing to Cat for identification.

At first, we had trouble finding anything, half-glimpsed shadowy shapes darted under seaweed and into crevices in the rocks as soon as we leant over pools. But we soon got the hang of turning over boulders to find all sorts of creatures clinging to the underside, or amongst the rocks and pebbles below.

The stars of the day were the velvet swimming crabs, so-called because their  shells are covered with fine hairs. Cat explained why these two were locked together:

Many of the animals we found were tiny and marvellously delicate. One of my favourites is the blue-rayed limpet. You  find this at very low tides, clinging to the thick brown leathery fronds of kelp, a little translucent jewel with neon-blue dashed lines running along the shell.

We could happily have spent hours on the rocks, but the tide turned and eventually we had to head back up the beach. It was a brilliant way to spend an afternoon, and I learned that poking about in rock-pools never loses its charm.

Devon Wildlife Trust runs rock-pooling events at Wembury Marine Centre throughout the summer, many other Wildlife Trusts will run similar events, check their websites for details. You don’t have to wait for next summer, though. At Kent Wildlife Trust, we also have a year-round programme of Shore-search events, where you can come and help us identify and record the marine wildlife around Kent’s coast.

 

 

Hazy days of summer

Heather in the valley of Bystock, Devon Wildlife Trust
Looking across a purple haze of heather in the valley of the Bystock nature reserve, owned by Devon Wildlife Trust.

“Where would you like to go?”, Matt Boydell, the Land Manager, had asked when we spoke to arrange a visit to one of Devon Wildlife Trust‘s 50 nature reserves. A difficult choice, but I decided it would be good to see some lowland heathland, a habitat I’d not visited yet on my travels, and one which is in very short supply in Kent and getting rarer everywhere else. So in mid-August this year Matt took us to visit two Devon Wildlife Trust nature reserves, Bystock and Venn Ottery, both of which are part of the East Devon Pebblebed Heaths Special Area of Conservation, an area of lowland heath (named after the rounded pebbles in the sandstone deposits that lie beneath the soil ).

Walking through The Copse at Bystock nature reserve
Walking through Brock Wood at Bystock nature reserve

Bystock is a beautiful reserve containing a mixture of habitats. We walked across a rabbit-grazed meadow and through shady green woodland to where the site opened out into a purple sea of heathland, in full bloom in August and alive with the buzzing of bees. Threaded through the grass and heather were yellow tormentil flowers and the occasional golden splash of gorse.

There is a  spring line running through the heathland; as we walked down the hill we came across two long ponds.  This mix of wet and dry heathland, ponds and woodland is what makes the reserve incredibly rich in wildlife. There are 19 species of dragonflies and damselflies on the reserve, I’m not sure how many different ones we saw as they didn’t sit around waiting to be identified, but we were accompanied by flashes of blue, red and green as they darted across our path.

Stonechats are common at Bystock
Stonechats are common at Bystock

The site is really important for birds, particularly rare ground-nesting birds such as nightjar and Dartford warbler. Because they nest on the ground they are easily disturbed; Devon Wildlife Trust works hard not only to manage the site but also to help ensure that everyone can enjoy the site without affecting the wildlife. One of the ways they do this is by promoting the Dorset Dogs initiative, which has a membership group and lots of information sharing to encourage responsible dog ownership, including a code for owners to sign up to.

Exmoor ponies at Venn Ottery
Exmoor ponies at Venn Ottery, in the hazy sunshine after a summer shower.

Traditionally, heathlands were kept open by grazing animals, which like to eat young growth including tree seedlings, so the heath didn’t become overgrown with trees and shrubs. Devon Wildlife Trust now uses Exmoor ponies to graze the heathland at Bystock and at Venn Ottery.

The dry open habitat is perfect for lizards and adders to bask in the sun, we saw lots of lizards on our walk round.

These are some of the heathland plants we saw:

e reservoir at Bystock
The reservoir at Bystock

Below the heathland we climbed down some steps to the edge of a lily covered lake. This is actually an old reservoir, as the site used to belong South West Water. Devon Wildlife Trust have been managing it for them since the 1990s and now own the site.

Quite a few people asked Matt about terrapins as we walked round the reserve. Terrapins were popular pets in the early 90s, when, inspired by the TV series and film, Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, people bought baby terrapins, about the size of a 50p coin. Actual teenage terrapins though, are bigger and feistier, so when they grew to the size of a dinner plate, many people abandoned their pets in local ponds and lakes. Unfortunately for the wildlife that already lives there, terrapins are voracious predators, eating just about anything they can swallow, and here they have a big impact on dragonflies as they eat their aquatic larvae.

Terrapin trap in a lily pond at Bystock
The terrapin trap, cunningly disguised as a terrapin basking spot.

As we got to the reservoir we found Ed and Andrew, the reserve wardens, lowering a terrapin trap into the water. The idea is that the terrapins, which like to bask on logs, will climb out to bask on the wooden frame which is mounted on plastic piping to keep it buoyant, and then plop back into the water and find themselves in the cage inside the frame. Any that are caught will be re-homed by a local tortoise collector. The terrapins aren’t the only introduced species found in the lake, Ed said that there are also Koi carp, one of which is called Henry by his fans.

Southern danselfly
Southern damselfly (image from http://www.british-dragonflies.org.uk/species/southern-damselfly)

The wet heathlands of the Pebblebed Heaths are fantastic habitats for dragonflies and damselflies including the very rare southern damselfly. This is only found at a few sites, and is very poor at colonising new ones. We went to Venn Ottery to look at the work  that had been done to restore habitat so that it would be suitable for reintroducing southern damselflies.

The name Venn Ottery comes from fen, and means a marsh near the River Otter.  We scrambled over the tussocky heathland and through a few boggy puddles to the middle of the reserve, where small streams have been dammed with wooden boards. This is to slow the movement of water and create suitable habitats for the damselfly, which lives in runnels –  tiny shallow streams – on the heath. We didn’t manage to spot any, but it might have been just a little late in the year for them.

Andrew Warren, Edric Hopkinson and Matt Boydell, from Devon Wildlife Trust
Andrew Warren, Edric Hopkinson and Matt Boydell, from Devon Wildlife Trust.

I’m incredibly grateful to Matt,  for taking the time to show us around the reserves and to Ed and Andy for sharing their knowledge of the site, even though Ed was standing in leaky waders and quite keen to get some dry socks on. We had such a great time we went back the next day to take some extra photos and admire the wildlife.

 

Gwaith Powdwr

Southern hawker dragonfly (male)

I was struck by how many of the sites I’ve visited during this trip have been reclaimed from industry. Of course most Wildlife Trust nature reserves are habitats that have taken hundreds of years to establish and are now saved for the future, but something the Trusts are very good at is bringing wildlife back to areas that have been used for quite different purposes.

Balistic Pendulum, Gwaith Powdwr
The Pendlum Shed houses a huge ballistic pendulum, used to grade the quality of the explosives produced on site. A canon, set with a charge of explosive was pushed into the hole in the pendulum and fired. The distance it swung would be used to calibrate the strength of the explosive. The heath around this area is now the main nesting site for nightjars.

Gwaith Powdwr, at Penrhyndeudraeth, is one such site. In the 1970s it was the most sophisticated nitroglycerin manufacturing plant of its kind in the world. Production stopped in 1995, and it was decontaminated before being donated by ICI to North Wales Wildlife Trust, Ymddiriedolaeth Natur Gogledd Cymru,  in 1998.

Heathland at the top of the site, overlooking the Dwyryd estuary
Heathland at the top of the site, overlooking the Dwyryd estuary

Due to the security requirements of the site, nature survived undisturbed in parts of the site, the heathland in particular has remained mostly ungrazed and is a haven for species such as adder and nightjar.

Lesser horseshoe bat (image Janice Whittington)
Lesser horseshoe bat (image © Janice Whittington)

Wildlife started to reclaim the rest of the site once the factory was closed, bats moved into the buildings and structures and the site is now designated as a Site of Special Scientific Interest because of its importance for bats, especially the rare lesser horseshoe bat.

 

 

North Wales Wildlife Trust volunteers and site manager at Gwaith Powdwr nature reserve
The volunteers meet regularly on Wednesdays to help manage the site. Today they were clearing paths, making space for visitors and making bat boxes in preparation for Party Penrhyn.

At the end of July, we joined Rob Booth, Living Landscapes Officer at NWWT, and his volunteers for their lunch break. They were busy getting ready for Party Penrhyn, an annual event at the site. Rob told us about the wildlife on the reserve and the work that is being done to encourage more wildlife.

Female slow worm
Female slow worm

The reserve provides ideal conditions for four kinds of reptiles. We saw lizards basking on old wood and bare patches of ground amongst the heather, and were given permission to peak under some reptile monitoring sheets, where bronze-sheened slow worms glinted in the sun before slipping further into the thatch of grass and old bracken. Adders are also to be found in the heathy parts of the site, but sadly not by us, although we searched carefully. In the midday heat they are far too quick for mere humans and would have been off as soon as they heard us coming. (Although snakes don’t appear to have ears, they can in fact hear, by sensing vibrations, including sound waves, which are passed through their jaw to an inner ear.)

Blast wall and building at Gwaith Powdwr
This storage shed has been re-roofed for bats. Many of the buildings are protected by blast walls. One of the volunteers had been researching the history of the site and told us about two serious explosions that had happened in the previous century.

As the reserve is so important for bats, much of the management is aimed at improving conditions for them. Lesser horseshoe bats use the tunnels and there are up to 30 hibernating on site but they don’t seem to breed there. The Trust managed to get a grant to re-roof one of the explosive storage sheds, and are hoping it will become a maternity roost. Since the work was done, brown long-eared bats have bred in there and Rob said that lesser horseshoe bats are already checking it out. The Trust is also working to make the bunkers more homely for bats, putting new doors on to prevent disturbance, reduce light levels and draughts and make them safer from predators.

The woodland on the reserve is particularly good for moths, the Trust  found 130 species in just one night. Where a stream runs through the woodland, the damp, shady conditions are ideal for ferns and mosses.

Ponds were part of the industrial legacy, providing water to help keep the explosives cool (and therefore stable) and also allowing contaminants to settle out of the water. These settling ponds are now a wildlife haven, we saw lots of tiny toadlets setting off on their journey into the big world of dry land, stragglers from the great toadlet exodus that happens during July. The grass snakes that have been seen around the ponds proved elusive, which is probably fortunate for the toadlets. Dragonflies and damselflies darted across the water, rarely settling long enough to have their photographs taken, except by the most patient of photographers. Fortunately I had one with me.

We had such a brilliant time exploring Gwaith Powdwr, everywhere we looked there was interesting wildlife. It is a fantastic example of how a site can be restored after such intense industrial use.

A Gannet Extravaganza

Swirling clouds of gannets
Bass Rock, off the Scottish coast, is Europes largest gannet colony
Bass Rock, off the Scottish coast. The entire rock is white with gannets at this time of year.

Clouds of gannets rise up from Bass Rock and fill the air with raucous cries, slicing effortlessly through the air on snow-white, black-dipped wings.

We bounced on top of the water beneath them, heads tipped back to gaze in awe at the graceful circus of gannets above our heads, holding on tight as the RIB (Rigid Inflateable Boat) met the waves with rather less grace.

Following The Wildlife Trusts’ advice on how to see gannets at their best, and a tip from Alan at Scottish Wildlife Trust, we were on a boat trip from North Berwick to Bass Rock, the biggest gannet colony in Europe.

Although they nest in dense colonies, gannets are highly territorial, each making it loudly clear to its neighbour that this is my patch. Gannets return to the same patch each year form long-term pairs, often for life. Bill fencing is a form of greeting behaviour that strengthens the bond between pairs.

As a wildlife experience, this was one of the best, plus being fun going out in the boat. Can’t wait to do it again next time I’m in Scotland.

Highland ambition

 

Moorland at Coigach-Assynt
Moorland at Coigach-Assynt

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 from the Coigach-Assynt Living Langscape Project
Richard Williams and Boyd Alexander from the Coigach-Assynt Living Landscape project.

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.

Ben Mor Coigach viewed from Stac Pollaidh
A blanket of cloud lies over Ben Mor Coigach, Scottish Wildlife Trust’s largest nature reserve, viewed here from Stac Pollaidh.

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.

An example of an Iron Age Broch
The CALL project will excavate and stabilise the collapsed Clachtoll Broch. This is a different Broch, at Dun Carloway on Lewis, but shows the double skinned construction of these mysterious Iron Age structures.

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.

 

 

Nick Clooney at the Little Assynt Tree Nursery
Nick Clooney at the Little Assynt Tree Nursery

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.

 

Red deer in Scottish Highlands
Red deer are an iconic part of the Highland landscape but are also one of the main reasons for the lack of trees. Grazing animals such as sheep and deer nibble away any tree seedlings before they have a chance to grow.

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.

 

Sunset
Sunset over the southern end of the project area

 

 

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.

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!

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.

 

 

Spring survey

Bluebells at Thornden wood in the Blean

I really should have known better – I had managed to plan a visit to Blean woods during the first hot and sunny week of the year, and was looking forward to a gentle wander through the woodland, dappled sunlight playing across carpets of spring flowers. How I actually spent the morning was scrambling through bushes, old bracken and bramble and falling down the occasional hole. Still thoroughly enjoyed it though!

Surveying dense scrub regrowth at Blean Woods
Can’t see the surveyors for the trees – Paul and Pica are in there somewhere. In a couple of years this will be even denser – perfect for nesting nightingales.

Paul had allowed me to gate crash one of his surveys, which turned out to be in an area of conifer plantation that was being restored to native woodland. Of course the thing about woodland restoration is that it takes time, and three years in, the area was thick with small birch trees, last year’s bracken and bramble, all growing fast now that the deep shade from the conifer trees has gone. It will be a while before the tree canopy lifts and the plants at ground level become more varied, but we found a fair bit of heather, which is an important part of the mixture of plants we hope to eventually see in this part of the woodland.

Thornden Woods in springArriving late, I had missed the chance for a lift from the car park to the section of Thornden Wood that Paul and his ecology group volunteers were heading for. Luckily, that meant a chance to walk along the track, flanked on either side with trees just erupting into that vibrant but ephemeral spring green. There were plenty of flowers along the woodland edge to satisfy my desire for spring colour; bluebells, wood anemones, bugle and the occasional lime green of a patch of wood spurge, almost fluorescent in the sunlight.

Wood spurge, Euphorbia amygdaloides
Wood spurge
Wood anemone, bugle and bluebell
Wood anemone, bugle and bluebell

After a lovely walk down the track, resisting the temptation to explore the Wild Art trail, I found Paul and Mark (the Canterbury Area Warden) with Alex and Paul, two ecology group volunteers, forging through the undergrowth in pursuit of science.

Mark is experimenting with different management techniques, to see which is most effective in restoring the woodland. In the three areas we were surveying, one had been clear-felled (all the conifers removed)  and left to regenerate, another had also been clear-felled  and was being grazed from time to time. In the third, some conifers had been taken out to thin the canopy and let more light in. At this stage, there was a relatively small variety of species to be found, but it can still be quite tricky to identify young plants that are not in flower – fortunately Alex is an experienced botanist and able to help with any unfamiliar species. I can’t report any unusual species in the bits we surveyed, but the presence of native birch, willow, oak and hornbeam shows that the restoration to native woodland is clearly underway.

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Edited 10th June 2016 because I got Paul’s name wrong. Unforgivable, because as well as being an ecology group volunteer he is a regular volunteer at Blean Woods and highly appreciated by the wardens. So sorry, Paul.

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.