Secrets of the Solent

Cuttlefish waiting

cuttlefish

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.

 

https://www.crowdfunder.co.uk/wildandwonderful

 

 

 

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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.

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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

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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.

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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.

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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.

 

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Very dense areas of fleabane and meadowsweet

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).

Making Sure Another White Stays Great

Inbetween important emails and telephone calls I headed out onto the reserves to check on our cattle. It was a welcome break from the screen time and a good excuse to take in some nature along the way.

Firstly I popped in to see our British white cattle at Upper Titchfield. The hardy breed of the British white have no problem in grazing rough areas so are fantastic for our needs in conservation.

I then headed on to Farlington to catch up with our grazier who was moving animals around the reserve. Conveniently this timed well with lunch and high tide so I took the opportunity to eat my sandwiches overlooking the lake. The stiff eastern wind tried its best to dampen the experience but there was plenty of waders and ducks on the newly exposed mud to keep me entertained. My first observation was a Spotted redshank actually swimming down near the lake outfall for a short distance. Six Snipe were around the margins – four asleep while two were busy feeding. Fantastic numbers of Dunlin were busy feeding, showing off with mini murmuration before settling. In amongst the Redshank were four roosting Greenshank and beside the Godwits a single feeding Turnstone. 

Snipe & Black-tailed godwit on the lake

Snipe & Black-tailed godwit on the lake

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Black-tailed godwit, Dunlin & an active Turnstone

After finishing up lunch I headed up the seawall to look at a few other future jobs. I was greeted by a familiar sound; the gentle gaggle of the Brent goose. Yes they are back! Only in the harbour at the moment but already hundreds strong. They were very mobile but I managed to count around 300. Also on a close shingle island, one of the last remaining areas of dry ground in the harbour, I noticed a group of Dunlin with two Ringed plover. 

Dunlin & two Ringed plover

Dunlin & two Ringed plover