photo – David Phillips

I was sent some lovely photos of one of Farlingtons most iconic birds the other day and it prompted me to do a quick bit on them as they really are very special.


Bearded Tits are a reed bed specialist and as such a pain to view. I would say though that Farlington has to be one of the best places in the area to see them, especially at this time of year. On a sunny day with little wind they will venture on to the top of the reed to feed upon the seed heads. There is a growing population down there and a lucky encounter from the viewpoint on the western sea wall can mean anywhere from 15 to 30 can be seen.

But what makes them so special and such specialists? Interestingly they are not tits at all, like blue tits or great tits. In fact they aren’t even called bearded tits. Panuris biamicus in latin has been the only constant name. Bearded reedling originally it has now been lumped in with the parrotbills as the bearded parrotbill and hence not really related to any other bird species in the UK.

It is a beautiful and illusive bird. They are communal, especially in the winter when they form a large flock or several smaller ones. In the summer they breed in loose colonies, building nests in the dead layers of reed near the base of the stems. They’re preference for this lower nest sites leaves them very vulnerable to fluctuations in water levels.

Like many farmland birds they swap their diets according to the availability dictated by the seasons. In summer when they are feeding  young, they pluck invertebrates from the stems of the reeds and surrounding vegetation. They are particularly fond of spiders according to one study. During winter when bugs are less prevalent, they turn to the main staple of the reed bed, the seed.  During this time they are very fond of consuming grit which they need to help grind the seed up.


photo – David Phillips

The birds themselves are sexually dimorphic meaning that the males look different to the females. Males are obvious with their striking blue head and black moustachial stripes. Females and juveniles are much duller but still a beautiful chestnut brown.

They are a very niche species, only occurring in reed beds but not in all reed beds. There are a number of factors that must be there for them to colonise. Water stability is a key factor. I worked previously on a reed bed much larger than Farlingtons but there were no bearded tits. This was in part because the water constantly swung widely from flood to drought all through the year. This not only makes nesting incredibly difficult but also washes away the invertebrate communities upon which they depend on in the summer. Another important factor is seed quality. Some reed beds are mostly formed from clonal reeds, meaning that they do not breed and hence create little or poor quality seed. The seed heads at Farlington seem to be bursting with seed and so favoured by the bearded tits.

We do some management of the reed bed but not huge amounts. I plan to start cutting areas  next winter. This maintains the quality of the reed and the health of the reed bed, which would dry out over time due to the accumulation of dead reed. there is also evidence to suggest that newly cut areas are favoured by many bird species, including beardies as the new growth attracts more invertebrates. Certainly you get a higher number of reed warblers nesting as they like to nest near the edge of reed beds and cutting areas increases that reed edge.


Wood Pasture, What its all About?

Wood Pasture is a particularly interesting habitat type. It is one of my favorites and one that we deal with a little bit in the Solent reserves so I thought that I would write a little bit about it.

What is it?

Well, the font of all knowledge (Wikipedia) describes it as:

Wood pasture is a historical European land management system in which open woodland provided shelter and forage for grazing animals, particularly sheep and cattle, as well as woodland products such as timber for construction and fuel, coppiced stems for wattle and charcoal making and pollarded poles.’

My Higher Level Stewardship document ( the grant system that governs most of what we do in the Trust) suggests that tree cover should be between 50 and 75 trees per hectare with areas of meadow interspersed.

So you can see, wood pasture is both an historic habitat type and somewhere in between a woodland and a meadow. It is an open habitat, with either meadows or heath, interspersed with trees, widely spaced but with patches of thickets, denser trees and scrub.

It is considered a man made habitat and for much of medieval times, the predominant woodland type in northern Europe. In the UK, people were free to graze their livestock in these areas, harvest fuel and fodder from the trees. Indeed, within the Solent area there was the Forest of Bere, much retracted in size nowadays but once stretching across a large swathe of the county.

The confines of wood pasture to a purely man made habitat has been questioned in recent years. Franz Vera published an in depth critique of much of the works in the 20th century on forest ecology and came to the conclusion that looking at pollen records and the composition of trees within Europe, the likelihood was that large herbivores kept a continual mosaic of open habitat, comparable to wood pasture that we have today. Otherwise shade loving trees such as lime and beech would have taken over much of the landscape. Pollen records however show Oak, Hazel, Birch to be present in large quantities.


Wood pasture in the New Forest

I confess that I am a follower of this theory, though much has been published since to challenge it. However, when I walk through wood pasture it feels primeval. It feels like its right, with such a broad mix of habitats, meadow, heath, scrub, veteran woodland, secondary woodland, it has to provide habitat for such a range of a species, that it could almost be seen as the optimal habitat type. That isn’t to say that this would have dominated. Vera suggests thickets punctuated the landscape and these ‘thickets’ could be hundreds of kilometers in size.

Why is it so important?

Well, from purely a landscape view, it is quite rare nowadays. We are lucky in Hampshire as we have places like the New Forest where grazing animals still roam free (though arguably in too great numbers but that is a different discussion). A lot of the country however has very little.

From a species point of view it supports a great deal. There are huge numbers of invertebrates and fungi associated and also many specific bird species such as lesser spotted woodpecker. Early stage wood pasture with scrub and woodland offers great conditions for nightingales and warbler species.

All in all it’s rather good.

What are we doing for wood pasture?

Swanwick is our main area of wood pasture restoration. It has gone through many changes in history, farming and quarrying being the most recent but historically it was part of the previously mentioned Forest of Bere. With that in mind it was decided to revert some of the site and this is why there has been so much thinning occurring in the north east meadow. It is looking good too. Over the past few years the meadow has established and the wooded areas are steadily opening up and you can see the trees reacting to the light, sending out new branches and morphing from their lollipop image to a much broader canopy.

As the years have progressed the woodland has become thinner but it still needs a bit more work, to give it that open feel. It does however not need to be even. This means that trees need to be irregularly spaced, with clumps of thicker cover and areas more open and some areas of dense scrub. This is what we are starting to do now. We will be putting up some areas of deer fencing so as to allow some scrub to develop without being chomped to death by deer.

wood pasture

Image of wood pasture structure, note openness between trees but also spacial differences where some trees form thickets and presence of scrub (dark shading).


It has been important to start thinking of the future of the wood pasture on site, not just adapting it to work in the present. That is why we have been experimenting with pollarding some of the oaks. Pollarding is the same as coppicing just done higher up out of the way of browsing animals. Here you can see an oak tree that I have cut at chest height and how it has reacted, throwing out regrowth. This will form the characteristic pollard shape, a round crown emanating from a high central point. Veteran pollards provide more niches than many trees that are left in their maiden state as they tend to develop more features characteristic of veteran trees such as rot and dead wood. You have to be very careful doing this as it may shock the tree and kill it. Older trees need to be pollarded steadily over many years whereas younger trees such as this one can survive and indeed flourish with pollarding, given ample light and good ground conditions.





A Busy Winter

Well, it’s been a while again since I have posted. It has been a busy season so far, winter being the time where we can get most of our work done. You can see this as there has been no posts since October, when we are allowed to start works.

The Work

Since then we have been very busy with mainly thinning works and scrub management, the usual. We started in Hookheath where we did some coppicing of some old hazel stools and opened up the a couple glades, extending the meadow system within the woodland. We also delved into the very wet alder car where we did some strategic thinning to encourage some age structure and ground flora back.


Thinning in the soggy alder carr


The team at Swanwick over Christmas, busy burning brash from the thinning


A wood mouse investigating what we were doing at Farlington

After that we have been working at Farlington, reducing some of the heights of hedgerows and removing scrub from the main marsh so as to open up sight lines and make the wildfowl feel more comfortable. We are now north of the road, reducing the bramble cover to a reasonable level. It has taken over and reduced what was a hot spot on the reserve for butterflies to a dark tunnel.






We have also been busy at Swanwick, thinning areas of the woodland, especially on north east meadow as we transition it into wood pasture, opening it up and enjoying all the benefits of meadow and woodland combined.

We aim to do a bit more now, especially behind the lakes so as to encourage some scrub regrowth and ground flora.The pics below show the gaps we have been creating in the canopy.

We finally managed to get some signage sorted for the building at Farlington and after a long absence I am pleased with the results. It has bought a bit of colour to the inside which was starting to look a little dated. We have also replaced the old stone bench with a more comfortable wooden one.


Fancy new signage

As we move into the final stretch we are going to be busy down at Southmoor, working on the central hedge. It isn’t really a hedge any more, it is a thick tunnel of blackthorn. My aim is to reduce the height and width and lay it steadily over the next few years. This should open the two fields up, but retain the nesting habitat for the smaller bird species such as robin. It will also break up the outline of people and dogs, making the waders that use the site more comfortable.

The Wildlife

Farlington has been unusual again this winter. We started off with hoards of waders on migration, filling the lake but this has died off now and the usual black tailed godwits, dunlin and redshank aren’t using the lake to roost in any large numbers. We did do some work there at the start of the winter which may have put them off, so hopefully they will return. Overall in the harbour, wader numbers have been low. Some species seem to be doing okay though. Lapwing and curlew are on the main marsh in their hundreds.

I had a wander around on Friday and watched everthing fly off as a peregrine and then a marsh harrier fly around. The latter bobbed over to the island and scared several thousand Dunlin up. There is a flock of barnacle geese present regulalrly. They can get over a hundred but are more regularly around 40 individuals. We don’t know if they are a feral popualtion or a migratory one that has moved south. They tend to be a much more noirtherly species.

The island off the south of the site seems to be a favoured wader roost at the moment. It seems to attract bar -tailed godwits regularly as well as large numbers of dunlin, shelduck, brent geese and curlew. Last there was reports of both  black brant and pale bellied brent  on the reserve.

If you venture north of the road and go into the aerial field, there is a scrape on the eastern edge. This is almost always inhabited by a green sandpiper.

Southmoor has been particularly good this year, with the usual large contingent of waders and wildfowl along the foreshore on a low tide. At high tide it has been very good for black knecked grebe, great crested grebe, red breasted merganser and great northern diver.

Swanwick has the usual woodland bird population and is probably the best place I know to see marsh tit. Bullfinch, nuthatch and siskin are all regular visitors as well as plenty of redwing.






IMG_2275Last week we launched out to sea and made a trip out to Pewit Island. This is a very small nature reserve in the middle of Portsmouth harbour and one we have seldom managed to get out to.

There are records that in the past, pewit was a large black headed gull colony, until egg collecting finally sore the end to them. Since then and certainly in recent years, it has scrubbed over to create more and more unsuitable conditions for waders and wildfowl to roost.

It is important to set the context of Pewit island within the harbour to convey how important it is and how important it can become. It is the only island within the harbour. If you look at the three harbours of Portsmouth, Langstone and Chichester, there are only a handful of islands with no human influence and that are fully cut off at high tide, it makes up one of these few. These islands are vital for overwintering waders to roost safely, away from disturbance and predation. They are also in peril from more frequent storms and sea level rise.


Before, a massed centre of gorse


After, clear and open

Suitability of these islands for waders is something that needs careful attention. Pewit, when we alighted this year, had a core of gorse, broom and bramble, blocking the sight lines that waders need to feel comfortable. This therefore had to be removed. The issue has always been getting out to the island to manage the ever encroaching scrub.

Thankfully we had to help of Wez from the RSPB who has a trusty little boat with a shallow draft, ideal for reaching the island and getting people and equipment ashore. He picked us up from the slipway in Fareham and we motored over with a few volunteers and some equipment on a rather blustery and damp Thursday.

The gorse, which formed the bulk of the scrub was leggy and easy to cut down so we managed to blitz through it, creating a large bonfire in the centre of the island. We also cut down the bramble and gorse and then started cutting the longer grass so that a short sward was left. The key is that the waders can sit comfortably and look in multiple directions so as to watch predators approach. Whilst we were there a peregrine bombed over, sending the remaining birds into a frenzy.


a big bonfire

As we approached the island in the morning, 300+ oystercatcher were roosting on the edges as well as a number of curlew and brent geese. We took it as a good omen that a sandwich tern was fishing off the shore whilst we worked for the site has substantial potential to become a tern nesting colony, with very little work needed. there are a couple of shingle banks that already exist. Our hope is that with the gorse gone, the terns may feel more confident and take up residence.


nice shingle bunds with tern potential

Our biggest issue will be from people landing on the island. There is a history of groups sailing or kayaking over for picnics as well as anglers overnighting there. We hope to educate people on this and show them the importance of leaving this site undisturbed and left to prosper



Secrets of the Solent

Cuttlefish waiting


I’ve never been much of a seafarer. I love a good boat trip, especially if there is a chance of seeing a pod of dolphins or watching shearwaters graze the water with the tips of their wings. However, my knowledge of the marine environment generally stops at the end of Langstone harbour and a mild panic ensues if I can’t see land.

Recently my eyes have been opened to the wonderful array of life that is within British waters and not only nationally but within that murky brown pool that sits off our shore. It turns out that the Solent is an incredibly diverse and interesting place, with swathes of seagrass meadows complete with herds of cuttlefish, (i’m aware herds is not the correct term). The common concept of murk that I have just mentioned is totally wrong. There are even sharks! Big ones!

My knowledge is poor of the underwater world and I think this is true of many people, even those keen naturalists as it is not an accessible place. It is therefore easy to let it decline without realizing and declining it is, rapidly and alarmingly so.

The Trust have therefore embarked on a crowdfunding campaign to raise awareness and help protect our sea. If you can get on board and donate, you will be taking a step to protect our marine environment, often overlooked yet vital to our lives.

 All the info you need is below

Velvet swimming crab & snakelocks, Dev 1

A velvet swimming crab


It is the final few days of our crowdfunder appeal raising money for our Secrets of the Solent project. This project is all about protecting the fabulous marine wildlife and habitats of the Solent, including seagrass meadows, chalk reefs and rocky sponge gardens, which are home to seahorses and sea bass, seals, colourful anemones, sea squirts and cuttlefish.


Every £1 we raise gives us the chance to unlock an extra £9.85 from the Heritage Lottery Fund, which will allow us to work with local people and partners to keep the Solent special.


The crowdfunder page closes at 11.59pm on the 12th October, find out more using the link below and please support the sea life of the Solent if you can.




It’s been a while

It’s been just over a month since I last posted and what a busy month it’s been. I have not really lifted my head and my view has either been through the windscreen of a tractor or the front end of a brushcutter. My body is broken but we have got an outstanding amount of work done.

This has really all revolved around sorting out farlington for our rapidly returning birds. A week or so and the Brents will be returning, in small numbers at first but we should start seeing the first few pioneering geese coming in. Widgeon and Teal are already turning up and the waders have been fantastic. On a high tide the lake has good numbers of Black Tailed Godwits, Grey Plover, Dunlin and Redshank. Many of which are in their breeding plumage still. The Grey Plover looking especially resplendent and worth a wander just for these. There has also been a number of more unusual birds around, Spotted Redshank, Garganey, Green Sandpiper, Common Sandpiper, Yellow Wagtails, Hobby, Peregrine to name but a few and of course, we had our american vagrant for a bit. A Pectoral Sandpiper showed up for a few weeks. It drew in a good number of birders, who I  hope will remember how good Farlington is and come back for some more.


team hard at work cutting grass

So, we’ve been mainly cutting grass for the past several weeks, much to the despair of my volunteer teams, who haven’t uttered a word of complaint in their valiant efforts to rid the marsh of thistle and fleabane and get the grass to a suitable height. I’m sure the image of a rake or a brushcutter is keeping them awake at night in a cold sweat. What we are aiming for is a nice grassy sward, short but with a fresh autumnal flush ready for the geese to arrive and take full advantage.

You can imagine with the last months weather, any grass cutting, (which cannot be done effectively in the rain) has been pushed back and back and any that has been cut has grown so vigorously that it will be in need of a cut again. The thistle is putting up a strong offensive and I have topped most of the marsh at least twice and I am currently on the third round in the attempt to wear it down. Some of our other sites are still awaiting their hay cut, a month behind schedule as there just hasn’t been a week of stable weather. This has all been compounded by a continual cycle of broken equipment. As I write this, the tractor is sitting in the shed with several bolts missing from it’s wheel.

But things aren’t all bad. We are getting there and we will be ready for autumn. I’m looking forward to a brief lull where we drop off from the grass cutting before we enter the full force of the winter works. I will spend this time wandering the reserves to see what the new season has to offer. Autumn has to be one of the best, with a change over of migratory species, anything can turn up! A lovely couple of hours yesterday at Farlington saw a Ruff, several Greenshank, three Spotted Redshank and two Little Stint as well as a number of Wheatears. Good stuff.





The Annual Hair Cut


Busy at work, the vols lug a lot of grass around

Last Monday we embarked on the task of cutting the orchid meadow at Southmoor. This is called the orchid meadow because, as you may have guessed, it has orchids in it (we’re not the most imaginative). It has a lot of orchids, well it used to but due to a high turnover in staff over the last few years and the uncertain future of the site (rectified now I am pleased to say and a blog post in the near future) the maintenance of the site dropped  off the radar. This lead to the vegetation getting away a bit as the cows chomped all the good stuff, inadvertently selecting the tough, less palatable species such as meadow sweet, fleabane and hard rush to steadily take control.

It was high time to do something about it and with a borrowed BCS (big mower) some brushcutters and some hardy volunteers we made a start cutting, raking, removing. I was going to get a contractor to cut it but I thought it my be fun for the volunteer groups to do as a project. However,  in my mind the field was much smaller than in reality and it turned in to quite a mission. The volunteer teams did an absolutely stunning job and we have cleared the vast majority of the field, leaving some patches and a good margin to act as safe refuges for the invertebrates.


How much grass can you fit on a truck

The aim of cutting it is to break the back of the tougher vegetation that would not be removed by the cattle. In a natural system this is okay as there are several herbivores that eat different things and some areas become tough but this is fine as its part of a larger, more fluid system where habitats change over time. In a small reserve in an urban area it has to more stationary to provide the best ecological potential.


Harvest mouse nest whilst cutting, narrowly avoided


With the tougher vegetation removed, spaces in the sward are made to allow the daintier, nectar rich flowers to flourish, giving a huge source of food for invertebrates and the cascade effect up the trophic levels that this has, i.e. feeding birds, reptiles  and mammals that then feed other species.


The sward is currently very thick and not as diverse as it could be. Speckled throughout is ragged robin, southern marsh orchid, marsh marigold, knapweeds and other lovely plants. These just need some help to flourish.

Cutting is quite sudden for the invertebrate communities to cope with, kind of like a natural disaster like an earthquake. If it knocked down an entire city we would be in a bit of trouble but if it came in waves and only knocked down a few at a time we would have somewhere to shelter and survive. Cutting is like this but if you leave patches, don’t cut too short and do it over a number of days you can dramatically reduce the impact that you have. This also benefits species such as harvest mice and other small mammals as well as reptiles.

The key thing is that removal of vegetation is necessary to get the most out of your meadows, grazing is great but supplementary cuts are necessary but can be done right to reduce the impact on the species that you are trying to promote. They will benefit in the end as there will be more flowers and therefore a greater food source.

This isn’t just for nature reserves. You can do this in your garden as well. Leaving lawns to grow long and improving them with seed mixes and cutting is great for wildlife. Don’t let anybody tell you that they look a mess. They look amazing in the summer and are cut by autumn and will enrich you garden and lives. Just remember to leave a few little patches long when you do cut it.



Very dense areas of fleabane and meadowsweet