Update – things are very late!

Just a quick update on what has been going on over the solent reserves, as I haven’t blogged for a while. It has been busy, though I think I always say that!

I haven’t manged to get down to Farlington to check the breeding birds nearly as much as I would have liked but it is a mixed bag from what I can gather. The two primary species, lapwing and redshank, seem to be on their third attempt. I am relieved to say that there are some larger chicks which look like they’re going to make it, but there are still some small ones and even lapwing on nest! Very late for this species.

Our major problem this year has been two ravens. They set up home on the marsh and I have personally watched them eat three chicks. They polished off the avocet nests too! This is a very complicated problem as there isn’t much you can do with them. On one hand its great Ravens are making a come back but not such good news for Farlington. There are also more crows around, which hasn’t helped.

To distract them I have been supplementary feeding them with dead things, eggs and tinned mackerel. I think that this has helped slightly, giving them an easier source of food.

Smaller birds seemed to have faired well at the marshes. A great number of linnets, whitethroats, sedge and reed warblers, reed buntings can be found around the edges of the marsh and skylark and meadow pipits can be heard singing from the middle.

Management-wise we have been busy with infrastructure improvements. We will be replacing the benches soon which have mostly seen better days. We will also start thistle cutting. This was very bad last year, taking over most of  the north of the marsh. This year it is slightly better I am pleased to say. There is still a lot there but reduced. Our trouble this year is the later nesting birds. Given a few weeks we should hit it before it goes to seed and when the chicks are mobile.

We have also been busy on Hookheath. We have started cutting parts of it early, targeting the hemlock water dropwort (HWD). This is a brute of a plant and constituted the bulk of a couple of the emadows a few years ago. I tested one meadow last year, cutting early to see the difference. That field this year saw a much reduced cover of HWD and much higher diversity. I am hoping a few years down the line and it will look much better.

The first meadow is stuffed full of orchids which is a result!

Worryingly, very little butterflies have been seen or reported. Swanwick, usually a hub of butterfly activity, is very quiet. This seems to be the case everywhere. Hopefully things are just late and hopefully this doesn’t effect them too badly.

Fingers crossed for a late rush in many of our species

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Loads of southern marsh orchids

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walking out very carefully through a sea of orchids

 

 

 

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Microbiology

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I have recently been listening to a few interesting shows on Radio 4 looking at our microbiomes and quite frankly I was blown away! For starters, there are more bacteria in our bodies than actual cells that make us! What! How??!

What is the microbiome? Well it was described as the collection of bacteria within your digestive system and respiratory system. These aren’t just passively sitting there though, they help with digestion and more things than we know, still being discovered. Each microbiome is independent to the individual person and reflects the diet you have, where you live, what pets you have and they change on an almost daily basis but you still have the general ecosystem that you have had for a long time. This is what it is, an environment inside you and studying it is more ecology, well micro-ecology than it is parisitolgy or the other ‘ologies’ that there are.

We are only just discovering the effects that these little beasties are having on us, how they not only change us internally, fixing conditions and illnesses but how they also affect our moods and how we think. People with high fibre diets, especially  those who do not eat meat had a tendency to have a better, more diverse microbiology and as in the wider environment, diversity is key.

It has even been shown that you don’t just get more bacteria from ingesting them but from the very air we breath and that people who visited cleaner environments with less pollution such as woodlands, had a better microbiology. If these bacteria can change the way we think, reduce depression and other mental health issues and just make us feel better, well, we all need to walk in woodland more, in open country, the wilder places.

So, another reason to make sure that the nature reserves we look after, the copse down the road, the grassy margins to our fields not only stay for the wildlife but because it physically changes us and WILL make you a happier, healthier person.

 

New Raft

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Following a big joint push for developing tern sites this year, with organisations such as Natural England, The RSPB and Chichester Harbour Conservancy all in on the action, I was on the search for new sites to establish or improve the potential for breeding terns. Late last year I cast my eye over a map of the area for suitable locations and the first to catch my eye was Budds Farm Sewage Works, directly next to Southmoor, one of our reserves. It had a large lake that was only a stones throw away from the sea and sandwiched in a very productive part of the harbour, with the Oyster Beds and Farlington on either sites and the islands in front. It would form a very nice part of the jigsaw. It also has the added bonus of being sheltered and completely independent of the tides, meaning no storm surges.

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The pursuit of a raft began and Southern water, who own the site, couldn’t have been more helpful. They even paid for the materials to build the raft! It took a little while to get all the permissions in order but last Friday, we braved the inclement weather and transported all our kit over there. This was following a long day launching the RSPB raft over at the Oyster Beds, which is no small task! The volunteers handled it admirably.

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Our raft was constructed by the volunteers and supported by eight big blue barrels. We, somewhat gingerly, rowed it out and anchored it to the bed of the lake with some rock filled cages. The lake itself is actually the old settling ponds and the silt would drift to the bottom. It is no longer used in that way and is set aside for wildlife. It is usually covered with ducks and gulls but is also an important Redshank roost. Fingers crossed over the coming years it will become an important Tern breeding site too.

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Dogs

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The subject of dogs can be a very tricky subject in the many lines of work in the countryside. Integral to some ways of life and purely recreational to others, they are part of the family and quite rightly, treated as such. However, the effect on the environment can, in some cases, be dramatic. I, however, do not want to talk about that in this post but I would like to share an experience that I had recently.

Last week I was in the highlands of North wales, gallivanting around Snowdonia with my dog in tow. We were heading up into the Carneddau, a quieter section of the hills and solid sheep country. I had head phones in and was running along, panting on an uphill when I glimpsed a farmer coming along on his quad bike. He was every bit a welsh sheep farmer and addressed me in his native tongue which, unfortunately, I do not know a lot of, so stared back blankly.

I was half expecting him to confront me. I don’t know why as I wasn’t doing anything wrong but panic swept over me that I may somehow have strayed from course and was in the wrong area or had made some transgression somehow. What actually happened was that he thanked me for having my dog on the lead which led to a pleasant conversation about his sheep and farming in Wales.

Now, I had passed two signs that had asked me to put my dog on a  lead. I was also in sheep country during lambing season so the thought of letting my dog loose did not occur to me. Unfortunately this is  not the case some of the time and he regaled me with stories of sheep that he had lost due to dog attacks recently and how he had shot five dogs, much to his regret. I took this with a pinch of salt as the propensity to over exaggerate is (in my experience) often a little common in this line of work. However, what I took away from this experience was the fact that on my reserves I often ask people to put dogs on lead to protect ground nesting birds or livestock but what I don’t do is thank the majority of people that do keep their dogs under control.

So thanks, to all those responsible dog owners and their lovely pooches for enjoying our reserves with care and giving nature a chance. This also goes out to those who do not walk dogs but again, enjoy nature whilst treading lightly.

Making space for terns

I tried to title this post with a witty play on the word tern.. terning the tide, terning up the heat but they all sounded rubbish so I kept it basic. We’ve been making space for terns, simple as that.

It’s been a crazy couple of weeks! If I see another bag of shingle, I may pass out! We have been very busy lugging it around and doing some management work to improve potential nest sites for terns across our sites.

Terns, mainly common and sandwich but also little and roseate nest, or used to nest, in the Solent area. There are still a number of colonies such as the ones on the islands off of Farlington. When you look at these colonies in the height of the breeding season with hundreds of screaming sea birds you would be forgiven to think that they are doing very well. Unfortunately there are some underlying issues resulting in the decline in all tern species in the Solent. Procutivity,(the number of chicks produced each year) is not at a sustainable level. Basically they are not producing enough baby terns to keep the population going.

Now, this is down to a lot of issues; over fishing, pollution, irregular weather and lack of suitable nesting space. Well, I can’t do much about most of these but I can provide some space and that is what we have been doing!

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Pewit from offshore – looking less vegetated

 

It all starts with Pewit…

I’ve mentioned this little island in a blog post before. It is a reasonable sized island in Portsmouth Harbour and provides a significant opportunity for a serious seabird colony. It needed some work though. We went over in the autumn and removed all the gorse that had grown up. Wednesday was spent in the sunshine, moving gravel out and improving the existing shingle banks, creating perfect conditions for terns. We moved 40 bags of gravel out to spread on a higher area, well out of the way of any surge tides. For the effort involved in taking it out, it went a depressingly short way! At one point I moved 20 bags from the truck 20 metres to the beach and then onto a boat, at a run because the tide was going out.  It was a crazy day and a beer and a lie down was needed in the evening!

It will require more work in the future to get it into really good condition but I am very excited about the potential for this site. There are a whole bunch of issues we will need to overcome. Getting tehre is a mission in itslef, requiring good tides and a boat. (Thanks to Wez from the RSPB for shipping us over.)

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The new shingle bank, well out of reach of the tide but a depressingly small amount given the effort of transporting it

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The improved shingle spits with sand patches that terns love

There is signs that foxes have been out there which will stop a seabird colony in its tracks. As will people visiting the island. There is no access allowed and to give the birds a chance, I hope people will accept this. If we can keep it predator free with no disturbance there is no reason the seabirds shouldn’t set up out there and prosper.

Farlingon….platforms and islands

We have predator proofed two small islands within the deeps. These are good roost sites but with a little work could harbour a small seabird colony. Predation is a tricky one here as foxes regularly patrol the marsh. The solution was to put a fence around it but within the water, banking on a fox not wanting to swim over and climb/squeeze through. It won’t stop avian predators but that is a whole other issue.

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predator proofed, well hopefully.

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Little patches of shingle will hopefully attract the seabirds in

 

The overall aim is to shingle the both islands completely but given time constraints and  the shear amount of effort that we have already put into these projects, we couldn’t face moving more out. I aim to get that done in the Autumn when the breeding birds in the surrounding area are finished and not being disturbed by our presence on the marsh.

The shingle that we have used is fine 10mm shingle mixed with sand, hopefully giving the perfect conditions for terns, who tend to like the finer substrates on the beach, especially little tern, hence why they often nest on the strand line.

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the large platform under construction. This is now out in the deeps

We have also started putting out some raised platforms, two in the upper stream and one in the deeps. This is because  these are the two areas that don’t try out in summer.  THey are only small but hopefully they will work for a small number of terns. It’s worth a go. The one in the deeps is larger and offers the most promise but I have seen very small ones work on other sites nearby, so fingers crossed

 

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This is one of the small platforms, knocked together out of old pallets and bits of wood lying around. 

There are a couple of other plans in the  pipeline as well, a raft etc. on different sites but that still needs some work. Fingers crossed for a successful breeding season!

All in all, it’s worth a go. I’ve no idea if any of these plans will come to fruition but any space that can be provided is an opportunity that should be taken, especially given the dramatic decline of these species. Also, how cool would it be if Little Tern nested on one of these platforms!

 

Sightings week ending 25/03/18

Feeling like Spring finally! Thanks Goodness for that, lets hope the ‘Beast’ stays clear.

Lots of nice stuff around this week at Farlington. Spoonbill and Garganey seem like permanent features. The spoony is hanging around the scrape and the long central ditch line in the middle of the marsh. The garganey is as elusive as ever and frustratingly preferring the scrape again.

Velvet Scoter and Scaup have been hanging around off the point in the harbour. Nice little spot. We’ve been working out in the marsh a couple of days this week so apologies for the disturbance. When we were out there Thursday there must have easily been 200 Shelduck roosting and similar Pintail. Curlew are still numerous and approximately 1000 Brents still loitering.

All the usual elsewhere. The reptiles are starting to creep above ground. Grass snakes were seen at Swanwick this week in the sunnier spells. No common lizards yet but shouldn’t be long. Should see a butterfly or two soon as well. Chiffs are starting to sing and we should see the first of the proper migrants in soon.

Why we cut down trees

It’s the end of winter for us. 28th of Feb officially means we down tools and stop cutting as the birds are busy setting up territories to breed and nest. I feel its very important to stick to this, many people do not and fell into March but working for the Wildlife Trust, one must set an example of good practice.

It has come to the end of the season for me to think that I should explain why we do an activity that looks so destructive. I’ve touched on it in other blogs but a number of comments from members of the public across our reserves has made me address the issue in a bit more detail. (I probably should have written this at the start of winter!).

It is all a matter of structure. This is the key work for the day, both in terms of time and space. Structure in the age of the trees within a woodland, as well as structure within the physical state of that woodland. Structure breeds a robust and diverse woodland that can cope with disturbance and provide more niches for specific species to occupy.

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Diagram A

How do we achieve structure? Well, strangely I know, it involves cutting a lot of that wood down. It is however important to put this into context. Take Swanwick Lakes nature reserve for instance. Once a clay pit, before that a mixture of woodland and farmland, it has gone through many transformations over the years. When abandoned in the 70’s, the trees grew in place of heavy machinery and industry. This woodland developing on a site, where woodland has not been constantly is called secondary woodland. The problem with this if left untended is that it all grows up evenly at the same time, developing a uniform structure. Diagram A shows a simplified example of this. We call them lollipop trees as they grow tall and straight, battling for light, and form a little cluster of branches near the top and create a dense canopy with its neighbouring trees. Little light therefore penetrates to the understorey so no plants develop here unless they are very shade tolerant, ferns or ivy generally.

This isn’t to say that there is no value in this woodland, it is however more or less all in the canopy. It lacks structure. It would also mean that all the trees will reach maturity at the same time and all die, more or less at the same time.

So the solution is to cut some trees down. This is a process that we call thinning. How heavy you thin will depend on personal taste and what woodland you are dealing with but normally it is between a 1/3 and 2/3 trees removed. A forester would walk the woods and remove trees around the good looking, straight hardwoods that will grow on and produce a crop. We however aren’t interested in timber production. we want the trees that remain to grow on and become old and gnarly and rot in places. This adds more value to the tree in terms of biodiversity. In fact we regularly thin and leave the not so nice trees in tact so they grow in weird directions and produce biologically interesting trees.

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Diagram B

Diagram B shows a woodland after thinning. There are now gaps in the canopy that allow in light. A flush of ground flora will develop – bluebells or ramsons, lesser celandine or violets. In areas thinned more intensely, grasses and more light specific plants develop and create glades. Crucially whoever, a middle storey develops. Perhaps shrub species grow on such as nectar rich bramble or trees that have been cut back. Hazel, willow, blackthorn, species that live in the lower section of a wood will create a thick layer from the middle of the wood to the floor. This is vital for many bird species such as the dramatically declining nightingale and many mammals such as hazel dormice.

The trees that are left  grow on and expand, branching out and becoming rounder and more stable.The canopy is still there but is more fragmented so the canopy species persist. It has gone from a 2D landscape of canopy life to a 3D landscape where birds, mammals, invertebrates persist at all levels throughout the woodland.

Go on 50, 100, 200 years and the woodland will have grown and be in the latter stages that the woodland reaches where biodiversity is at its highest. (diagram C) Some trees have grown old and died and but remain standing, producing wonderful habitat for inverts and woodpeckers, holes for tree nesting species. Given a management regime such as coppicing the woodland will have different generations of trees, giving robustness for the future as well a diversity. The coppicing will have produced a continuous thick middle storey in ever changing parts of the woodland, creating open spaces for wildflowers and nectar producing plants .

 

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Diagram C

 

 

Often people tell me that I should be leaving the woodland just to do it’s thing. It’s complicated as other organisations tell people to do this, that trees shouldn’t be cut down as we lack trees within our landscape. And quite rightly too! We do lack significant woodland in the UK. However, this needs to be taken in context. We lack high biodiversity woodland as well as the physical quantity within our landscape. You could argue that less, well managed woodland would be better than lots of woodland left to its own devices as biodiversity per square metre should be higher. You can imagine that eventually woodland left to its own devices may become dominated by species such as rhododendron or sycamore, significantly reducing its value to our wildlife.

Management (crucially not over-management) is only replicating natural processes from species of large herbivores that no longer live in our country. Therefore it is important that we sympathetically cut down trees in some of our woodland.