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.

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.

 

Sightings for week ending 12/03/2017

Its been a busy week down Farlington this week. Lots of Bearded Tits, a Marsh Harrier, Kingfisher, Barn Owl, tons of Curlew, Brent Geese and Shelduck and still a Short Eared Owl or two. There was a leucistic duck by the building Tuesday which I think was a Gadwal, despite being positioned next to a Pintail.

Today was particularly gloomy but there were 500+ Dunlin feeding on the mudflats west of the marsh with a few Black Tailed Godwits and Redshank mixed in. There was also one solitary Avocet roosting on the lake. I haven’t seen any Avocet around for a little while, despite the high numbers earlier in the year.

Spring really descended on Thursday. We were working in tshirts at Swanwick Lakes, basking in the warmth on the edge of the lakes. Whilst we were sat at lunch we had a Brimstone, Peacock, Comma and a Red Admiral pass by! These are the first butterflies that I have seen this year.

I think Saturday will be the better day this weekend and so will be a good opportunity to see the last of the waders and wildfowl. The numbers have certainly dropped significantly in the last couple of weeks and it will be sensible to keep an eye out for the first of the summer migrants. Reports of Wheatears and House/Sand Martins have been arriving across the country for a week or so now!

Sightings for week ending 05/03/2017

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It’s been a mixed week weather wise and I think that this will carry on into the weekend with Saturday looking good but Sunday turning grim. So if you are getting out, Saturday would be the best bet.

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I have managed to spend a lot of time down at Farlington this week which has been lovely. Thursday was a fantastic day where we worked in the reedbed and I am glad to say that we were absolutely surrounded by Bearded Tits. I waded into the reed to look for a ditch and four were sat in a tall stand. They were pinging around us all day. Unfortunately this does not help you if you wish to see them as my best views have been whilst standing deep within the reed. I have seen them regularly near the feeder by the building and I have tried to keep it stocked with grit. I have also put millet in and the Reed Buntings are often present.They have started singing as well, I had a lovely view of a pair today.

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With some reasonable spring tides the marsh has been alive with birds. Well over a thousand Brent Geese were in the deeps on Tuesday and today they moved onto the top of the north marsh. Wigeon, Lapwing, Teal, Shelduck and Pintail are still in high numbers and today there were a good number of Grey Plover and Dunlin on the deeps.

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I sat at the lake after checking the sluice today and I was graced with a fly past from the Short Eared Owl and then the Peregrine  put everything up. Later in the afternoon a Barn Owl floated up and down the eastern sea wall before heading in to the bushes. This combined with a Buzzard and a feeding Kestrel made for a good day for predatory birds.

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There was a Kingfisher reported by the deeps today and I saw one at Southmoor this morning, hovering above the inter-tidal area.

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All in all there are still plenty of waders and wildfowl in Farlington but they’ll soon be going so it’s worth getting down for a last look.

108th Post – The Big Reveal

Im not sure if Bob ever told the story about why he named this blog ‘the 108ft blog’ but to mark the occasion of my 108th post on these pages I thought I should do something to mark the occasion and what better than to answer all those questions of why these pages have such a cryptic name….    

Drumroll please………………

The reason this blog is called the 108ft blog is basically because the height difference between our reserves in the South East Hampshire region (or the Solent Reserves) is roughly 108ft. Farlington is the lowest of our reserves. Unsurprisingly, as it is reclaimed from the sea, it is mostly just below sea-level. Our highest reserve is Hook Heath Meadows, which isn’t really all that high, but is still a modest hundred or so feet above sea level behind Portsdown hill. Thus a difference in height of 108ft.

In double checking our reserves spot heights on an Ordnance Survey map (one way to spend a dark autumnal evening) it turns out our other reserves in the region are quite low too. Swanwick lakes highest  point is only 20 metres (65 foot) above sea level and of course our other coastal reserves (Southmoor, Milton Locks and Pewit Island) are only a couple of metres above the big blue. Indeed most of the south coast of Hampshire is very low and if we are to have the predicated amount of sea level rise in the coming years our coastline will look very different and it will be very interesting to see how we manage this change.

Not one to leave a celebratory post on a downer – Farlington is still playing host to some spectacular bird highlights. Yesterday four Short-eared owls were giving some cracking views. One was using the entirety of the Point field. Quartering all the rough grass, unbothered by people on the seawall. Another three were in the Main Marsh. One concentrating around the deeps while the other two were using the far northern end often crossing paths, having a little squabble, upturning and briefly locking talons.

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A natural spectacle in The Point Field

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A stunning Short-eared owl. Not sure I’ll ever tire of seeing them.

Other highlights on the reserve yesterday were; 35 Snipe on the newly cut area of reeds at the Lake, 8 Pintail bobbed around in the centre of the lake with a good collection of Teal, Mallard and Wigeon. Looking the other way from the lake view point, out in the harbour were 17 Avocet.  2 Kingfisher also zipped by. Around at The Deeps were 6 Shoveler and on the grass were 80 Brent geese (only 6 were juvenile birds) – the first I’ve seen this winter grazing the marsh. Out in the harbour in a creek of Bakers Island was also a roosting Spoonbill. 

Beechcroft day out at Blashford Lakes

As the title suggests, yesterday the Beechcroft team, Emma and I had a day out over in the west of the county at Blashford Lakes. Our task was to help Ed (Blashford Assistant reserves officer) with some scrub clearance in the north of the reserve. The Isle of Wight team also joined in making a great sized team and getting a good amount of Willow scrub cleared.

Blashford Willow clearance

Blashford Willow clearance

Today the Farlington team and Emma concentrated on clearing back the seawall in the eastern part of the reserve, where the scrub had started to overgrow covering the majority of the path. I on the other hand spent the afternoon and evening giving a talk about Farlington to the people of Milton.

Langstone Harbour – Highest tides for nearly 18yrs

Before heading over to Portsmouth I did manage a quick walk around the seawall. The tide was incredibly high (5.3m for those interested in specifics) and most of the islands in the harbour were under water. Brent geese were close in to the seawall with a good group wading over North Binness Island and there were 58 on The Deeps.

Golden plover certainly living up to its name.

Golden plover certainly living up to its name.

Other highlights on the marsh today were a White-fronted goose (located in uneven ground making views tricky in the centre of the marsh), Short eared owl (using most of the main marsh), 350+ Curlew roosting on the scrape and 3 Golden plover roosting on the lake with good numbers of Godwit, Redshank and Dunlin.

Tales Of The Unexpected

Over the weekend I got a call that apparently something wasn’t quite right at Farlington. I had heard that someone was up to some funny business on the marsh so I headed down today to make sure everything was as it should be and have a good look at our cattle.

After parking up at the hut I headed to The Bushes to see the cows. Along the way I came across Pete Gammage, a local birder who had found a White-rumped sandpiper. I’d only been on the marsh for a matter of minutes but things had just got interesting! The news got around about the stunning little wader and before we knew it there lots of scopes and cameras watching its every move on the edge of the stream. It fed for a while, preened, had a little snooze and then took off to The Deeps.

After checking on the cattle in the bushes I headed up on to the seawall for a wander around the reserve. It was a stunning day to be down on the marsh and there were plenty of visitors soaking up the sun. Many were bird watchers, while a good proportion were people taking in the sunshine and sea air on a stroll.

Highlights on the lake were 18 Snipe, 41 Pintail, 9 Shelduck and two Kingfisher.

Short eared owl on the main marsh

Short eared owl on the main marsh

My walk around the sea wall was paused temporally by a Short-eared owl  sitting in the main marsh. After showing some passing visitors the smart Owl I continued around the point and on to the deeps, by which point there was a large group of birders, scanning every inch looking for the White-rumped sandpiper. We didn’t have to wait too long for someone to spot it fairly close in on an island of the main section of the deeps. Again it fed for a while before taking off, heading west, way off into the harbour turning into a tiny dot in the binoculars.

White rumped sandpiper on the deeps

White-rumped sandpiper on the deeps

White rumped sandpiper on the deeps

White-rumped sandpiper on the deeps

After all the excitement I returned to looking around the reserve and finding all our cattle. Luckily it turns out that the report I received about fishy goings on at the Reserve were unfounded but I’m glad it made me get down onto the reserve today.

Other recent Farlington highlights have been: Dartford warbler (25th Oct), and Hen harrier (24th Oct).