An Excellent Spring

Farlington Marshes is an incredibly important site for waders and wildfowl within the local area. A lot of the focus on the site is in winter when thousands of birds descend on the site and feed, roost and bathe in the range of habitats that are there. If you take advantage of the site on a big spring tide, like the ones that we have just had when all the islands in the harbour are reduced to small spits of land, you will be treated to thousands of roosting dunlin, redhank and oyster cathers. With climate change, rising sea levels will see this as a much more regular feature.

What is often overlooked at Farlington is the spring and summer visitors. The site plays host to many species of breeding birds and arguably the most important are its breeding waders. This primarily constitutes lapwing, redshank and avocet, the latter being a very recent development for the reserve.

Lapwing

These are the main focus for the site in the spring. One of the first birds to breed, they desire a short, cropped sward so they can look out for predators. Our grazing regime through the summer, followed by a couple of thousand brent geese in the winter allow for perfect conditions by March for this species to call Farlington home.

Unfortunately, as in many of our ground nesting wader species, lapwing have seen a dramatic decline in the past couple of decades. Nationally, lapwing breeding populations have declined by 53% (according to the BTO BBS data). We have seen this at Farlington with pairs traditionally at around 30 pairs in the 80’s with more recent numbers around 15. There just aren’t many around. We have sites further inland which are perfect for breeding lapwing but just don’t have them. It poses a serious problem across the UK. We have good sites that can be utilised by waders but they are quite site faithful and tend to go where other waders go, therefore attracting them to new, safer sites which don’t already have lapwing is a significant hurdle that we need to address.

Redshank

This species has seen similar decline of 29% in wet meadows across the UK. These have a slightly different need to the lapwing, in terms of nesting habitat. They like a bit of a rougher sward, with tussocks that they can tuck their nests into. At Farlington this is often around the peripheries of the site where the cattle don’t graze as thoroughly, or in the rougher areas where we do not mow.

Avocet

This species has seen an increase in the last couple of decades, rising in numbers after a huge crash. Farlington has only played host to them for the last three years, where the population has grown each year. They nest in a similar habitat to Lapwing, in very open country and associated to water.

All these species are ground nesting making them very vulnerable to predation, both from the ground and the air. Even once they’ve hatched, the chicks are small fluffy snacks for a range of predators so survivability is very low. The main strategy for the parents is to mob any potential predator and this they do exceptionally well. Avocets in particular are extremely aggressive, seeing off crows and even buzzards by swooping down on them. They tend to nest in loose colonies so the effect is accentuated and can be very effective.

The problem in the current era of development and intensive farming is that many of these species are confined to small areas of land, especially nature reserves. This crush of breeding birds is a veritable buffet for a host of ever expanding predators. Farlington has foxes, crow, magpies, jackdaws, weasel, hedgehogs, buzzards, all of which can find eggs or pluck a chick without a problem. Recently ravens have become the biggest threat. Beefy and smart, they have no problem finding nests or gobbling chicks up until a late stage in their development. In 2018 I watched a pair of ravens take every single lapwing chick on the marsh over a few weeks. I watched crows the year before take many of the avocet eggs. All in all the odds are stacked against them. They are however long lived birds, so just one good year in the few means the difference between a declining and an increasing population. Several good years means a significant boost.

2019 at Farlington saw hopefully the first good year at Farlington in a while. In fact it was the best year in terms of breeding waders in the last 20 years. This has been a result of a lot of intensive management and probably quite a heavy dose of good luck.

What we did

Starting in the winter of 2018/2019 we did some quite dramatic habitat management works around the main breeding areas on site. We removed all the scrub with in the marsh and some around the boundaries. What was left in the peripheries we reduced down to fence height. the immediate effect of doing this meant we had brent geese feeding right up next to the fence line which we hadn’t had in previous years. The intention was to make it more attractive to breeding waders. Generally these species do not like areas in which they don’t have a clear view. If there is a big old bramble bush in the way, then they will be deterred. However, we don’t want to lose our hedges as they provide a home for species such as linnets therefore we now maintain them at a much lower level, about 1.8m. This allows space for more species. We also lay many of our overstood hedges to create better nesting habitat for small passerines and eliminate the nesting habitat and perching posts for corvids.

We also cut a large area of reed that had occurred due to a leak in the sea wall, causing the site to become wetter over the years. The 2.5 hectares of reed that had developed meant that this part of the site which historically was very good for lapwing, was no longer suitable. we therefore cut if back. This was a significant undertaking and took us almost a whole month of volunteer tasks.

Once we got into the breeding season we started a series of predator controls. we put nails into fence posts to prevent species like crows perching on them. This was mainly around keys breeding areas. These viewpoints allowed crows to sit and watch and being clever little things, they could easily work out where the nests were.

Our main solution to predation was diversionary feeding. The ravens were a particular problem so we set up a series of large bird tables where we put out eggs and road kill as regularly as we could. They were particularly keen on day old chicks, the kind that you feed your pet snake. I have footage of a raven taking three at a time!

By a stroke of luck many of the black headed gulls that nest out on the harbours islands were disturbed early in the season. About 70 odd packed up and moved onto Farlington, something that we have never had in such numbers. Luckily we had done some management works the previous year to entice terns (which we did) and so the islands on the lakes were a perfect alternative. The combined effect of all these gulls, the lapwing and the avocet meant that any predatory bird that flew over had a significantly hard time getting any where near the nests. Even the ravens were a bit put off!

Realistically the conditions were very poor across the marsh for breeding waders that spring. We had quite a dry winter followed by an incredibly dry spring and summer. There was less water at the end of winter within The Deeps than I have ever seen. This is important as it is our reservoir for feeding the rest of the sites ditches and allowing the wet areas needed for the chicks to feed in. This saw many of the chicks being moved quite some distance. In one case the chicks made it all the way through the reedbed onto  the lake, where they did very well. Adult lapwing move their chicks some way in order to find them the damp conditions that they need.

We had to very carefully monitor our water levels over that spring to maintain the conditions needed without lowering the water levels too much in The Deeps and exposing the nesting islands to predation from foxes. It was quite a tightrope but we managed it.

One of my more pleasing solutions to the arid conditions was the use of a solar powered pond water fountain. It could be put on a timer in the surrounding ditch line and for three hours every day it pumped water into a wet flush on the edge of the reserve where a couple of lapwing pairs had young. It worked surprisingly well for £60.

Results

As I have mentioned, 2019 was the best year in terms of breeding waders within the last 20 years. The last good year was 2010 and we had better numbers than that. Lapwing looked to be around 36 pairs, redshank in the early teens and the same with avocet. We’re just awaiting the exact data but I can say with confidence that not only did we have good breeding numbers, more importantly we had an excellent fledgling rate.

I took the tractor on the marsh from the building to the scrape (for some reason you can drive straight up to the birds in the tractor and they don’t mind, the don’t like the truck though). I counted 7 lapwing chicks within that 200 meters. That’s a fantastic amount.

The avocets were the only casualty. The islands that they and some of the gulls were nesting on were raided by a fox, only three chicks fledged. We have since fenced these islands and so hope for better numbers next year.

So, why are we so happy about this? Well its obviously good to see chicks survive and as mentioned these species only need a good few years occasionally. We havn’t had a good year for at least 9 years and that is one in a much longer time. It is a step in the right direction for us, we have new processes in place to cope with the new conditions that we find ourselves in within a very urban south Hampshire. I feel confident that going forward, we can start boosting the local population and when you look at Farlington within the local landscape, it is a good place for these birds to then spread east to Hayling and Thorney island where there is potential habitat and north towards the South Downs. We hope to work with other organisations to coordinate wader management within these areas to make sure that we can see these birds in years to come.

Going forward

We have already started our next round of works to improve the nesting potential. I’m confident that 36 pairs can increase  significantly as there is plenty of space, we just need to open it up. Before autumn I had a digger come in and repair some of our weirs and grade some of our ditches which had become steep sided over the years and less suitable for waders. We also cleared some ditches to allow the flow of water off the areas flooded by sea water. This will help us wit the reed control.

Recently we have worked hard on the northern fields, reverting them from scrub and thick rush with giant boundary hedges to a patchy mosaic of short and long swards, with low, dense boundary hedges that will hide people but provide nesting habitat for our small passerines. I am very pleased with the work as, though it may look dramatic at the moment, the potential here to provide homes for so many more species is great. Currently I am very hopeful for some redshank nesting within one of the fields, something that I have never witnessed.

Over the next few years we shall look more intensely at predator management and whether we need to start putting in electric fencing for this. We shall also be looking at creating more standing water and wet flushes within the spring through new ditch works.

Its all very exciting and I am very hopeful for the next few years.

 

cutting and collecting

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We’ve been busy lately starting the summer works at Farlington. This mainly involves cutting things and raking them up and removing it. Its hot, arduous work for the volunteers and gets hotter and more arduous throughout the summer.

We’ve started in the field north of the building. Our aim here is to suppress the rush that has started to dominate there over the years. Due to a breach in the sea wall, it is wetter in this part of the reserve, providing optimum conditions for rush to take over. We therefore have to cut it quite early and then I’ll have to top it all again with the tractor later on, steadily wearing it down. The aim is to produce a sward that is structurally less dense and shorter but also providing more palatable plants to the cattle and ultimately to our overwintering wildfowl. This will in turn keep it short for the waders to nest in for the spring. After some work last year the front end of this part of the site provided a safe haven for two lapwing chicks and a few redshank which have all fledged.

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Our next job will be out on the marsh, topping the creeping thistle. This is a big job every year but every year that we do it intensely, the next year is a little bit better. Again this reduces the unpalatable plants and allows that short grassland that the wildfowl love. Its always a tricky balance between getting the optimum time (just before the thistle flowers) and trying to avoid the bulk of the nesting birds. Most of the waders are up and running now so this should not be a problem. There are a few on nest, (Oyster Catcher which have successfully bread, possibly for the first time on the marsh) but these are quite obvious. Strangely, none of the waders are the slightest bit bothered by the tractor so I can drive right up to them.

My main concern is for species such as skylark and meadow pipit which will still be nesting. Many will be on second or even third broods by now. The key to avoiding these is to keep the topper high enough to bounce over any nests. In the end the topping benefits more species than if we didn’t do it so as long as the greatest of care is taken it can be quite a small impact.

Our other big cut and collect job this year will be in the Hayfield where we have seen a huge invasion of reed. We cut it in the winter so as nothing nested in it over spring. As soon as it flowers we shall be cutting it again. This will hopefully suppress it over the years and return this part of the site to grassland. The cut this winter provided habitat for 6 pairs of lapwing so I am very happy with the direction of this.

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Strangely the islands on the scrape that were occupied by black headed gulls and avocets the other week have all abandoned. I assume that this was predation event, probably by a fox. This is a shame as we could have got our best ever number of avocets to breed. Unfortunately we are left with three avocet chick, which seem to be doing well so I guess that’s better than nothing.

 

Wader Farming

Given the current focus on rewilding or wilding or whatever form yo prescribe to, I think that it is important to address this in terms of what many of us do in conservation and how this works wonderfully in some respects and could be detrimental in others.

I’m a huge fan of rewilding and Knepp, in my humble opinion, is a wonderful place and an example of what can be done in many situations around the UK. In contrast, my work is very far removed from what happens at Knepp. Farlington is an extreme example of the other end of conservation. It is in essence completely artificial, being reclaimed from the harbour in the 1700’s and for most of its existence, intensively farmed. In fact now it is basically an intensively farmed landscape. I have up to 150 cows on there grazing over the key summer months, stemming the tide of grow in the grassland and maintaining optimum conditions for many of  our key species. There is a lot of intervention work carried out by machinery and tractor and we control undesirables for the betterment of certain species. Not very wildy.

Intensive farming immediately conjures up the image of the arable deserts and over grazed pastures that you see across much of the country. Farlington however is booming with life. When I go out onto the marsh in summer, there are skylarks and meadow pipits galore, nesting within the longer tussocks. Common blues and small heath butterflies are more abundant than on some of the well known butterfly spots in the county. This is more down to us not employing many of the damaging practices in farming that are now commonplace. No chemicals are every used at Farlington (the farmer who owns the cows worms them occasionally but we try to minimize this and use safer products). It is possibly a bit more like farming pre-intensification after world war two.

Of course what it is about for us is the spring breeding waders and the overwintering wildfowl and what they like is something not necessarily produced by natural processes within the confines of Langstone Harbour. Perhaps once, in a free flowing coastal environment, suitably grazed salt marsh and coastal grazing marsh would have existed in suitable quantities to support lapwing and avocet, in fact it must have. Look at Oostervanderplasn in the Netherlands. Perfect habitat. Perhaps natural levels of these species were always quite low anyway. We can’t ever know. What I do know though is if we don’t intensively manage farlington, these species will be lost from Langstone harbour and eventually from  a lot of south Hampshire. My colleagues locally in Natural England, Hampshire County Council and the RSPB all so similar work on a number of key nature reserves.

Wader conservation is hugely intensive and is essentially wader farming. We’re doing our best to rear as many waders as possible, through whatever means necessary. It isn’t just the grazing that is intensive. We have to attack scrub with vigor. Every winter we take out more in the key areas. Last years work paid off with our best ever wader year. This winter we shall take out more and hopefully see another rise. In my opinion we must optimise every part of Farlington to maintain the highest possible population of these species, that way recruitment into the wider population is more effective and will go to bolster surrounding populations and hopefully we can see an increase overall.

This spring has been so dry that I have had to install pumps in some of the ditch lines to maintain pools for the lapwing chicks to feed on. Otherwise they would all congregate on the more open lakes and get predated. I have installed predator fencing around the islands in the deeps, this has been very successful and I will role this out across the site this winter. We’ve improved some of the islands as well and the avocets have taken to them happily. We’ve put huge efforts into distracting corvids, especially the ravens,. There is a lot going on just to produce a few chicks and this year is the first year in a while that it has all come together. Between the building and the scrape I counted 7 fully fledged lapwing chicks on Friday. Very good numbers.

We could let natural processes take over Farlington. I suppose that we’d end up with scrub patches within a mostly rank field  and this would benefit a number of species. Perhaps all the scrub warblers would rocket in their population here. This would be severely detrimental to the breeding wader populations within the area. This year Farlington has probably been one of, if not the best, breeding sites for lapwing along the south coast of Hampshire. By taking a step to rewild it we would be choosing other species over the current species and given the nature of south Hampshire’s coast, there is no place to replicate Farlington, especially if it were left to natural processes.

Seabirds

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Farlington marshes in the spring is a place for breeding waders and some wildfowl species. As the previous blog post suggested, lapwing, redshank and avocet fill my attention for the spring period and this year is looking to be a very good year.

Last autumn and the previous spring we did did some projects around the site and on a few others to start looking at what we can do to assist in the breeding success of some seabirds within Langstone Harbour. Gulls and terns of a variety of species call the harbour home and due to sea level rise and disturbance, lack of space and development pressure, seabirds are suffering  in terms of breeding and productivity (producing enough young to sustain the population). 

The harbours islands, managed successfully by the RSPB, have always been the bastion of seabird success in Langstone but in recent years, with a burgeoning Mediterranean gull population and pressures from freak storms and sea level rise, the populations of some of these birds have shown some decline, especially the tern species. Little terns, species of ephemeral, quite often tidal, habitats have suffered the most.

Rafts seem to be the answer. We have helped launch the RSPB raft on the Oyster Beds for many years now and each years it astounds me at how successful it is. So last spring and autumn we did some improvements to The Deeps on Farlington, placing shingle on an island and predator fencing them so foxes couldn’t get on. We also placed a raised pontoon in the middle of the lake. The result has been an influx of nesting black headed gulls which have had wide ranging benefits in predator deterrence, helping out our other breeding species.

As of last week we can add another new breeding species for the reserve. A common tern pair has nested on our raised pontoon within the deeps. I know this is just one but I am hoping that this is just the start of a colony that can be established in the relative safety of Farlington Marshes, protected from tidal surges and to a large extent, predators. It could of course just be a fluke from a very strange year for breeding seabirds in the harbour.

A Good Start

We’re well through Spring now and everything is settling down at Farlington marshes. We have most of our migrants in but some are still funneling through. We have sedge and reed warblers in the reedbeds and scrub areas. There seems to be a whitethroat inhabiting every available bush and hedge and the bearded tits are nesting and well on their way.

My main concern over the Spring period at Farlington is always our breeding waders. In decline across the country, they are an important component to our reserve and one that needs a lot of attention. Lapwing and redshank in particular are key at Farlington and since 2017 avocet as well. There is an intense period of worry for me through March, April and into May and this can last up into June depending on what happens in the breeding season.

Lapwing are one of my favourite birds but their nesting strategy could be seen as somewhat ambitious. They like to nest in short grassland with a good view out, quite often on a small raised area. This allows them to scan for predators such as foxes and crows. They then aggressively mob any predators that come near them and, hopefully, scare them off. This strategy works best when several birds nest in a loose colony or are around other birds that exhibit similar behaviour.

I wasn’t sure how this year would go. The last few years have seen around the 12-15 mark on breeding pairs. 2010 was a bumper year with 32 pairs but has seen a decline since and evened out at about half that. Last year produced no chicks due to heavy predation rates from a pair of ravens that had set up home. There were also more crows around since the loss of a dominant pair. So I was not entirely sure how things would pan out, the ravens were still around in March and we had more crows than I have ever seen. On the other hand, we had done some significant management works over the winter, opening up the site with a lot of scrub management around the periphery of the site. The grassland was very short after a hot dry summer and grazing from the geese over the winter. There have been negatives and positives and realistically with conservation, there are so many outside pressures on these birds, it really is anybodies guess as to what will happen. I was happy with the condition of the site and I had a plan to deal with the predation issues, time has taught me though not to get optimistic.

The ravens constitute a significant threat to our birds at Farlington. I watched the pair last year take several lapwing chicks, ignoring any mobbing behaviour from the adults. It was quite heart breaking. It is great that ravens are doing well in the UK again. Once a common bird across the county their decline is a sad one but their return is not without its issues. The modern landscape of pockets of productivity on nature reserves and no spreading space for these species means that entire colonies can be wiped out very quickly, having long lasting  impacts. They are long lived birds however so a good year every few years is enough to keep the population going. The dramatic decline over the last fifty years is however suggesting that this is not happening at all. What can you do about this predation? Not a lot really in terms of management. You can’t shoot ravens, quite rightly. You can’t currently shoot crows. The option that we have left is to distract them. I have been feeding the ravens regularly at points across the reserve. A mixture of eggs and day old chicks (the kind you feed to pet snakes) has seemed to work for now.

I am pleased to say that this year looks to be very good. In fact it looks to be the best year in a decade for breeding waders at Farlington. It looks like we’re in the mid thirties for pairs of lapwing and we already have a number of chicks running around. I am very enthused by the number of pairs that have inhabited and area that we have restored to the rear of the site. It had been engulfed by reed and the plan was to restore it to suitable lapwing nesting habitat. I assumed it would take a few years for them to adopt the site but it has happened immediately. The good thing here is that the reed is regrowing and the chicks a extremely well covered so they stand a good chance of survival.

Another area in which they are doing well is a n area we have reclaimed from a significant rush invasion. Rush had swamped the area and made it unsuitable for waders. A number of tasks from the volunteers over a few years has seen a great change in this area and breeding lapwing again.

In fact the lapwing have spread out across thee entire site, even occupying the northern end of the main marsh which they haven’t done in quite some time. I believe that this is a result of the scrub management around the edges that we did over winter. There have also been other factors that have affected this flush of chicks. Black headed gulls seem to have set up residence on the marsh, in two small colonies. these have significantly added to the mobbing effect when crows go over, adding additional protection. The avocets seem to be in their highest numbers ever. These are exceptionally aggressive parents so will help greatly.

All in all it is currently looking rather good and I hope for a productive year in terms of breeding waders. There is, however, still a very long way to go. A big thanks goes out to all the wardens and surveyors who are helping me monitor the situation this year and help feed the ravens. It seems to be paying off so far.

Spring jobs

IMG_7464Lots to do at the moment at Farlington. We have to prepare for several things throughout the spring. One of the big events is the return of the cows. These come on in April and we need to make sure all the fencing is up and ready to go. Bits that got broken last season and things that have weathered over the winter need to be fixed and replaced and given that there is several miles of fencing at Farlington, it is a continuous loop of replacing posts and old barbed wire.

This year we have added some electric fencing into the mix, just to complicate things a little. I’ve never used electric fencing and so it has been somewhat of a learning curve. Thanks to a few colleagues and many YouTube videos, I think that I now have a fair idea of what to do. The plan is to install an electric line on a temporary basis through the bushes. This will allow us to graze the stream edge but leave the rest of the site until later. I hope that this will benefit the invertebrates a lot more within the scrubby area but maintain the stream edge as a potential nesting area for lapwing and more importantly as a wader and gull roost which is what is mainly used as. Come July we shall take the wire off and the cattle will have free roam of that whole compartment. We grazed it very late last year and I enjoyed seeing all the butterflies that were using that compartment. The new set up will mean a slight rejig of the path at one end. We hope to install a viewing platform to improve the view.

The other section is behind the lake. An area of very rough grassland, it has seldom been grazed. This is partly because there is no way to stop the cattle going into the lake and reedbed and causing havoc. We are therefore putting another electric line through to allow us to graze effectively. This section will only be lightly grazed as its an important area for redshank to nest who like it a bit longer.

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The other big job on site at the moment is the preparations for breeding terns. We have a couple of areas at Farlington that we’re hoping to attract them onto. Each area needs a little TLC each year. Last Monday we re-shingled the raft off the point field. It had lost all its shingle over the winter and the storms. Unfortunately I did not check the forecast and the storms last week have emptied the raft. So we shall be back again.

I am currently putting together some speakers that will [play common tern calls and hopefully call the birds in and make them aware that there is good nesting habitat at Farlington.

 

 

The Importance of Partnerships

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our volunteers launching the rafts at the Oyster Beds

It’s great to get out and help other groups in the county and every year we normally do some partnership work with a few other organsisations on exciting projects. I really like working with other groups and conservation organisations because you get to do something different and its usually on a project that has potentially big benefits for targeted species or habitats. During last winter and the end of this winter, in my patch,  we have worked with the MOD, Hampshire County Council and the RSPB, delivering conservation work or giving advice.

Across the whole of HIWWT we have worked with many more organisations such as HOS, producing work on other reserves as well as other organisations helping out on ours. Its great to bring fresh eyes and a new perspective onto our reserves.

Over the last couple of years we have delivered some work for the RSPB in Langstone Harbour. This consisted of some habitat management work on the islands and most importantly launching their raft at the oyster beds and bringing it in and storing it for them at Farlington Marshes. This is an extraordinarily arduous job but one that has had tremendous results for the common tern breeding success in Langston Harbour. We are lucky to have wonderful volunteers that can deliver very complex tasks.

 

Nightingale and Nightjars

 

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A brand new glade at Botley Woods

Recently we have partnered up with Hampshire County Council to help them at the vitally important woodland site, Botley Woods. This is a wonderful woodland and easily one of the most important woodlands in Hampshire for biodiversity. This is in part due to it’s size. Combined with neighboring Forestry Commission land, it forms quite a significant chunk of wooded area. This isn’t all great quality as some of it is plantation but on the whole, its a fantastic woodland, with some ancient areas.

It also has a number of very important and very threatened bird species and this is what we have been helping with, doing some habitat management for nightingale and nightjar. There are a number of hidden glades in the woods and these have historically held both species. they have got a little overgrown over the years so we met up with a couple of the HCC rangers and their volunteers to have a couple of days cutting back and coppicing around the edges. In turn they will come over with their volunteer groups and give us a hand with a few jobs on our sites, so it all works very nicely.

The overall aim it to maintain the glades for the nighjars, keeping them cut back but also allowing a thick edge to develop which allow the nightingales to nest safely. Its really important work and the HCC team do great work over there, despite having a huge amount of sites all over the county. We are based very locally so are happy to help out when we can spare the time as Botley woods, for both these species, forms one of the most important sites in Hampshire.There has been a dramatic decline, especially in nightingale and last years survey was pretty stark in its findings. Very few birds turned up last year, all over the county. We also lost some very important sites in Hampshire so hubs of nightingale activity are very important.

Hopefully in a couple of years we can go back to these glades and hear the warble of the nightingale and the churr pf the nightjar, as well as many other species that will benefit. Willow warbler and blackcap will all utilise this habitat and butterflies will find the sheltered glades extremely beneficial.