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.

 

 

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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!

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.

 

 

Storyboards at Samphire Hoe

The classroom at Samphire Hoe, at Dover, beside the white cliffs of Dover, looking out across the English Channel

Another great location for a meeting – the Education Shelter at Samphire Hoe has fabulous views of the white cliffs of Dover and out across the Channel.

Kent Wildlife Trust conservation team working on storyboards for a video clip
Home-made biscuits, provided by the Kiosk, and a steady supply of tea and coffee fueled our creativity.

With some trepidation, the conservation team gathered in the Education Shelter at Samphire Hoe, a country park on the outskirts of Dover. They had provided me with a long list of things they really wouldn’t want to do on a team building day, and a quick internet search had added to the list of activities widely considered to be uncalled for. Luckily, Bryony, Paul, Vinny and I had come up with (we thought) an excellent idea – to get everyone to work on producing some video clips about the work of the team. It seemed to meet with general approval, provided certain people didn’t have to stand in front of the camera.

 

Kent Wildlife Trust's conservation team making a video
Paul checks the first bit of footage, introducing the Conservation Team

 

 

By the time we had got our ideas together, it had stopped raining long enough for us to risk taking the ipads we had borrowed from the marketing department outside. We headed out to various locations, braved the cold and our fears of being in front of the camera (for some of us; but it turned out that some of my colleagues could be doing this for a living!) I will share the end results once Gordon, social media guru, has turned our various clips and re-takes into the seamless footage we had planned.