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!

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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.

 

 

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!