A little bit on grassland management

DSC_0846If you have been to either Farlington Marshes or Southmoor you will have noticed that last month our furry lawnmowers appeared. Cattle are now used extensively in conservation to graze sites to achieve the specific goals that are needed. In most cases this is to maintain grassland/heathland in a perpetual state of suspended animation. This is essentially what most conservation management is. You halt succession at a designated point that achieves certain goals for that site. This may be a flower rich grassland, grazing to stop woodland from establishing. It may be even earlier in the successional history, maintaining lichen rich heaths, early pioneering stages of habitats. It could also be for specific species, mixed height heathland for Nightjars and Woodlark for instance.

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The ins and outs and rights and wrongs of this type of management and the persuasion towards a more ‘natural’ management scenario is a topic for another post. This one really is for looking at how we graze our sites and why we do it.

From Spring until late Autumn, Farlington Marshes and Southmoor are grazed. The numbers are built up steadily until a peak in June/July when there can be as many as 200 on the main marsh. The overall aim is to get the grass nice and short for winter when the Brent Geese arrive and need somewhere to graze. Their short bills are perfect for tearing at grass up to 5cm. That’s why you see them on sports pitches so much.

You can’t however just shove 200 cattle on at the end for a few months, there are other aspects to look at, mainly our breeding birds. Lapwing, Redshank, Meadow Pipit and Skylark all use the main marsh areas to breed in. They need to have a mixture of short and long grass to feed and nest in. Too long and the young chicks won’t be able to find food easily. Too short and the nests will be easily found by predators. This means that a low number of cattle through their breeding season should provide a mosaic of sward heights, (or if you want to be fancy, structural heterogeneity). If you overstock it, you run the risk of the nests being trampled. A rather good study looking at Skylarks found that a density one cow every 3 ha has minimal effects on breeding success. This needs to be balanced out with the weather conditions. If you get a really hot spring with frequent rain, the grass will shoot up and you will need some more cattle to obtain the correct height and vice versa for a cold, dry one.

In a way Farlington is more like farming than many of my other sites. The overall picture is more about grassland structure rather than floral diversity, though the grazing method produces some excellent diversity on top of it being quite an interesting grassland anyway (coastal grazing marsh and transitional salt marsh). Other sites such as Swanwick Lakes and Hookheath are grazed very differently. Cattle come on in July for a few months, leaving around October. This has a much better effect on plants as they have mostly gone to seed by this point and then you are removing the main bulk of the vegetation slowly. This benefits invertebrates by not being as sudden as cutting by machine. It also means that there are more flowering plants throughout the summer for invertebrates to take advantage of, hence why both of these sites are so good for butterflies.

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Grazing isn’t the be all and end all though. Last year for instance I supplementary cut two meadows at Swanwick as I felt that the cattle had not eaten enough and over the years a thatch had developed. This is a layer of tougher grasses that stop other plants from growing up. I therefore had it cut and the cuttings removed. This will hopefully allow more flowering plants, especially annuals, to grow this year. Hopefully the effect of the cutting will not have detrimentally affected the invertebrate population. You do however need to balance out the effect of cutting with the benefit of having more flowering plants, as the more of these you have the more inverts you will ultimately support.

So you’ve looked at your site, thought about what you want from it, decided on the stocking density (the number of cows you need to do the job) and the length of time and time of year. Great, shove them on and let them do their stuff. It doesn’t however stop here. You get plants in all swards that become dominant and these tend to be the ones that are unpalatable or super tough. Creeping Thistle is a big problem at Farlington and has a hold on a big section of the main marsh. This has to managed separately to the grazing by cutting it with machinery before it sets seed, preferably a couple of times. Hookheath has a lot of Hemlock Water Dropwort which is a bit of a brute on wet pasture. This is managed in the same way, cut back after the cattle have done their bit.

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So, grassland management is a complicated beast as no grassland is the same, all have different facets to the sites that cause things to grow differently and a slight stray from the optimum management can have long lasting negative effects. If you churn up the ground in winter, for instance, you can ruin the soil structure which affects the sward for years to come. Managing the cows themselves can be an absolute nightmare – they escape, get ill, get stuck, give birth when you least expect it. That all said Hampshire has some amazing, hugely rich and diverse grassland sites, with colleagues at the Wildlife Trust doing excellent work on many of these (Winchester area and South Downs have some incredible grassland). So as we go into summer, get out there and take a look.

A big thank you has to go out to all our volunteer wardens and lookers, across the whole Trust who keep an eye on our cattle whilst we have them. We couldn’t do it without them.

A Helping Hand

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The Lapwing have been nesting across the marsh, as have a number of other ground nesting species such as Redshank, Skylark and Meadow Pipits. They are very vulnerable at this time of year and so we do a few things to help give them a helping hand.

I’ve had a few questions recently about some of the things that we have done so I thought a blog post may help answer some of these questions. The main one that has come across is to do with the spikes that we have put on many of the fence posts around the main marsh. These are to deter avian predators such as Crows, Buzzards and Magpies from perching all day and scanning the site for vulnerable eggs or chicks.

There has been some very nice studies produced that show the effect of vantage points on nesting success in ground nesting birds such as Lapwing. One study saw that Lapwing would not nest within, on average,  50 metres of a potential perching point. Therefore to maximise the number of territories within a site you have to deter birds from perching on all the very convenient posts that we have placed for them with our fencing.

We have had to look at natural vantage positions as well. Hedgerows with standards and high points act in the same way, allowing predators to comfortably sit and observe. This in mind, we dropped the height on many of the hedgerows in strategic places around the main marsh. This will be a staged approach where we will do some each year so that there is still plenty of nesting opportunities for species like Sedge Warbler and Whitethroats but within a few years we will have all the hedges at a manageable height. Most of the work that we have done, the hedges are still bulky enough to have birds nesting in any way.

The next step is with the cattle. I have put in 36 cows into the main marsh. This is a fine balance between having too many and increasing the chance of squashing a nest and having too few and the grass be too long for the chicks to feed. Lapwing chicks need areas of short vegetation to feed on, gleaning invertebrates off the surface.

It’s an important balance that needs to be struck. Do you dissuade all predators across the site? Do you leave a natural level? What is a natural level? What you have to bear in mind is that when natural levels of predators existed there was a much more natural coastline where sites shifted and changed each year with coastal erosion and drift. This means that there were many more places for these bird species to nest. Now there is very few and Farlington represents an important site in the area. A bad year here has significant effects on numbers in the area.

Sightings week ending – Easter!

gv whiteNice to have a long weekend, it means that I can actually get out birding and hopefully do a bit of ringing!

It’s been another glorious week and you have to wonder when the run of good weather will break, though as I write this clouds are amassing over my house. Maybe a bit of bad weather would be good though, as the migrants seem to be flying straight through. A low cloud base for a few days and we might see a fall.

There have been some migrants around. A cracking male Wheatear has been along the south edge of the marsh at Farlington. There has also been a Redstart in the bushes, plenty of Whimbrel in the harbour and I saw my first Little Tern on Thursday. There are also Reed Warbler, Sedges and Blackcaps all over the site. The resident Cettis are very noisy and the Linnets are singing really well all the way around the point field. There was a Marsh Harrier on Thursday for half an hour or so.

There are still two Avocets on the deeps which is looking very promising but I don’t want to jinx it.

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Hook heath Meadows is currently glorious, full of Ramsoms, Bluebells, Wood Anemone, Red Campion and a number of other really nice woodland plants. There was also a Mandarin hanging around a suitable looking nesting hole. Not a native but an impressive looking fowl and I certainly have nothing against it if he fancies making a nest in an old willow. The butterflies are also building. I had a lovely Green Veined White on Tuesday.

Fingers crossed it’ll be a good Easter weekend for all the sites and hopefully everybody can get out and enjoy nature. Unfortunately there is a lot of antisocial behaviour going on at the moment. Some of our northern reserves have been hit really badly by arson. We’ve suffered down south but, thankfully, not quite as dramatically. Poaching, BBQ’s in areas where birds are nesting, people walking through the middle of the marsh and kids throwing rocks at birds are just a few things that will be taking their toll on our breeding birds. I am very sure that those of you who read this blog regularly are people who conscientiously enjoy nature but please feel free to report incidents to us as the more of the picture that we can build, the better we can deal with it.

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Sightings for week ending 09/04/2017`

What a glorious week it’s been! Well, apart from Monday which was highly dependant on where you were. I left the Botley offices in the morning in sunshine and tshirt weather and by the time I was at Farlington I was wrapped up against the mist and chill air.

A lot is starting to move now but the migrants are still holding back. The most significant influx has been the Sedge and Reed Warblers in the reed bed at Farlington. There is a good number chattering away and the Bearded Tits have been very active up the building end. There is a Cettis in the bush by the feeder which makes itself known occasionally.

I’m quite excited as there is a pair of Avocets hanging around. It has been a very good winter for Avocet on the reserve and to have a pair nest would be the cherry on the cake but its early days and they may just be hanging around until they feel strong enough to move to their breeding grounds. Fingers crossed.

There are around 80 Black-Tailed Godwits in glorious chestnut attire on the lake, well worth a look at in their breeding plumage. There is also a Marsh Harrier, two Short Eared Owls and the usual Widgeon,Teal, Shelduck, Redshank, Lapwing, Skylark, Meadow Pipits, Rock Pipits and Stonechats. There has been reports of an Osprey in the Isle of Wight today so that may head over soon.

Emma did a transect at Hookheath yeaterday and had a very good start. Green Veined White, Orange Tips,Speckled Wood, Peacocks, Brimstones and Commas are all on the wing as well as some Blues. The same at Swanwick.

All set to be a lovely weekend so worth a wander around the sea wall at Farlington I’d say.

 

Ringing in the Reedbeds

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An exquisite male Bearded Tit

On Sunday we started ringing in the reedbeds at  Farlington Marshes. The aim is to concentrate on the Bearded Tits to try and get an idea as to how the population is fairing. It turned out to be a reasonable start and we caught a good number of birds. The females all had brood patches which signifies breeding so things are looking good.

Bearded Tits, actually called Bearded Parrotbills now (formally Bearded Reedlings) are one of Farlingtons iconic species. They draw in a lot of people as the site has a very good population, especially for its size. The only issue is that they are very difficult to see. Normally all you get is a fleeting view of them as they bounce over the top of the reed before quickly dropping down. This makes monitoring very difficult and really the only way that we have a chance of getting a population estimate is through ringing. This also helps us look at longevity of individuals and location within the reed bed itself. All very useful stuff which can help influence how we manage the site.

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A very handsome male Reed Bunting

It was a good session catching Bearded Tits, Reed Bunting, Cetties Warbler and Sedge Warbler. The whole reed bed was alive with the chatter of segdes and there were even some Reed Warbler there. These will build up steadily as they migrate in and then disperse leaving the breeding population.

The Lapwing have begun to settle down and there seems to be a good number of Redshank on the marsh and in the hay field. Hopefully we will see a higher than average year for these this year but its still early days. The Lapwing are in low numbers but this is the same across many sites at the moment so hopefully they are just late arriving.

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The very noisy Sedge Warbler

Sightings for week ending 19/03/2017

Spoonbill! That was the most exciting sighting from the week. Last weekend and the early part of this week there was one on the scrape and the lake at Farlington. It eventually flew west and Wednesday there was one at Pennington so may be this one. Still, worth keeping an eye out for and hopefully there will be some more.

Plenty on the Marsh this week. Still the usual suspects with the Spotted Redshank returning and two Marsh Harriers and of course the SEO’s. There was also talk of a little ringed plover down the stream at the start of the week and I’ve had reports of Wheatears turning up. Two Ravens flew in on Tuesday and there are plenty of Chiffchaffs singing across all the sites. The reeds on the deeps are excellent spots for watching the stunning male Reed Buntings singing away at the moment.

Still lots of Brents, Pintail, Teal and Widgien on the main marsh and the stream as well as a number of wader species. Black Tailed Godwits and Dunlin are still present and plenty of Snipe, Redshank, Lapwing and Curlew across the whole site. The Redshank and Lapwing are starting to settle down to  nest and you can hear them calling in the morning across the lower section of the marsh.

Plenty of butterflies have been seen this week. Swanwick seems to be the hot spot for us. Brimstone, Peacock, Comma and Red Admiral have been seen on every visit that was sunny. There has also been Slow Worm, Common Lizard and Grass Snake reported.

Luxury Penthouse to Rent, Riverside View, Fishing Rights and Natural Surroundings Included

DSC_0974We spent a very happy day last Thursday at Swanwick playing at the edge of the water. This of course was made all the better with the t-shirt weather that we had. The aim was to build a Kingfisher nesting cliff to entice them to stay on site all year.

Kingfishers generally nest in river banks and excavate nests out of loose soil, digging a long tunnel with a chamber at the end. I don’t think anybody who has seen a kingfisher would expect this of them and it does seem like a strange thing for a bird to do. It is however a good strategy as the small cliffs at the side of the river tend to drop straight into water and so are very tricky for predators such as stoats to access. I’ve also seen them nesting in the root bases of fallen tree. These often form pools where the root base has been ripped out of the ground and so creates a perfect little spot for them to nest.

A lot of sites have Kingfishers in late summer and through the winter but don’t have them in the spring and early summer. This is generally because of the lack of suitable banks in which they can nest. The late summer individuals will be the first brood which are then self sufficient and then all of them rove around a bit in the winter. You get a number along the coast as well, especially in cold times when fresh water is frozen over.

So if you have a site ‘sans bank’, you have to help them out a little bit if you want them to stay all year and everybody likes a Kingfisher so many reserve officers take on the challenge of enticing them in. Enter the fake Kingfisher cliff.

This is how we went about it.

Step 1. Find a suitable spot. This is on the edge of a lake with a some deepish water in front of it, preferably with a bit of a bank already. We found a good spot on toms lake.DSC_0962

Step 2. Dive in two stakes on the edge of the bank. You then clad the front with boards. You also need to box in the sides.

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Step 3. Back fill with soil. This builds up the bank behind it. It’s good to have a team of volunteers/minions to do this

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Step 4. Place the nest box. Once you have the soil high enough (the entrance hole needs to be a metre or so above the water) you then need to place the box at a slight angle, so the box is a tiny bit higher. You also need to line the bottom of the box with clay or soil so its a bit more natural.

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Step 5. Cover with soil. This surrounds the box and you want a good layer over the top. You can leave this loose so you can access the box to clean it out.

Step 6. Fill the tunnel section with loose sand/soil. The Kingfishers like to excavate a little themselves.

Step 7. Clad the front with clay. This makes it look more natural (we haven’t done this yet).

Step 8. Sit back and watch the Kingfishers flock in.

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Hopefully step 8 will be the case but they are tricky little things. I’ve seen boxes on other sites used but in other places they aren’t touched. There has been one at Swanwick for a few years now but has never had any success. It may be a number of reasons but we intend to put three up in total to maximise our chances of success. Hopefully one will look attractive.