We have spent a couple of days working in the reed bed at Farlington. I love reed beds, they’re one of my favourite habitats. Once your in a few metres, you have a huge sense of isolation with all the reed towering above you. The best part of the Farlington reed beds is that as soon as you step in, you are surrounded by Bearded Tits making their classic ‘ping’ call.
Reed beds are an unusual habitat with lots of interesting traits. They are essentially effemeral, only existing naturally for a reasonable short length of time (in the grand scheme of landscapes). They doom themselves as they grow each year, die and steadily raise the level of the soil, eventually drying out the area within which they are growing and then getting out competed buy more vigorous plants. I suppose that you can say this about many habitats as succession eventually changes them into the climax community, normally a woodland.
So, if you want reed beds to stay as reed bed in the long term you have to manage them and the key to reed bed longevity is to cut them and remove the cuttings so that they don’t build up. Some places even graze them, short stocky ponies that don’t sink are often the beast of choice. The simple rule is if you cut the reed in winter, you promote the reed. If you cut in summer, you suppress the reed and allow other species to grow. Like most things it isn’t all together that simple but that is the basic premise.
Water levels throughout the year play a vitally important role.You don’t want to flood freshly cut reed in the summer as it will drown. You also need to flood the reed bed, preferably in sections to allow invertebrate species to thrive and support the species higher up the trophic levels, species such as Bittern, Bearded Tits, Reed and Sedge Warblers, Cetti’s Warblers. These are all reed bed specialists, many of which are in decline due to the lack of large reed beds in the UK.
Bearded tits are one of the most iconic species at Farlington. I meet a lot of people who have come to the site just to see them. They are however very tricky to see. A warm still day is best and you can see the floating over the top of the reed or between the patches of reed by the sluice. During winter they feed on reed seed and therefore need grit to help digest this. During the breeding season they switch to high energy invertebrates to feed their nestlings.
They nest quite close to the ground , preferring older dense stands of reed. There is evidence to suggest that newer reed stands, (reed that was cut that winter or the one before) have a higher seed density and support higher invertebrate numbers, suggesting that a mix of older and newer stands will yield the highest number of birds.
With this all in mind we have cut some small patches of reed bed this year. This also creates edge habitat which species such as reed warbler prefer, nesting very close to the edge of the reed. Cutting sections maximises this usable area. It also allowed us to collect the cut reed to turn in to nest boxes for bearded tits.
Last year there was big issues with the water levels in the reed bed and we think that the bearded tits may have really suffered as their nests may have been flooded out. They are also restricted to the dryer sections of the reed bed in which they can nest. An RSPB reserve up north called Leighton Moss have used nest ‘wigwams’ to great success, opening up more reed bed to the bearded tits and maximising the area that they can use. We though that we’d give it a go. they may not get used and they are certainly doing quite well but I was keen to have somewhere safe that they can nest in as a back up in case of severe flooding again. It’s also quite cool.
Making the nests was surprisingly difficult. You bundle a load of reeds together. You then tie off both ends. The secret is to tie them off super tight. I mean SUPER tight. This stops the reed slipping but also makes the next stage really hard. You have to tease the reed out into a wigwam shape with a nice little cavity in the middle in which they can nest.