Reed Management

IMG_6178We have recently been cutting a lot of reed at Farlington. It’s a particularly big job but one of some urgency. Reed beds are one of my favourite habitats. Supporting a range of very interesting bird species they are also excellent refuges for many mammal species such as water voles and harvest mice.

We are lucky enough to have an excellent reed bed at Farlington, bisecting the site along the stream. It supports a fantastic populations of bearded tits which belies it’s size. It has to be one of the best places around to see them. The reed we are cutting isn’t in the main section. It is actually in the Hay Field in the north east of the site. As the name suggests, it was was once (and the lower section still is) a hay meadow. Quite flower rich and excellent for invertebrates, it is an important part of the site.

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Unfortunately over the years it has steadily become inundated with reed and this is because of several reasons. The main problem is that we believe that there is a leak in the sea wall, well actually two leaks. This means that there is far more water in this section of the reserve than ever before. It is great news for snipe who love wet grassland. The problem is it is also great for reed and over the years an established reed bed has developed on what was once a very productive hay meadow. We are now working with the Environment Agency to get the leaks sorted but that is only the start of the solution.

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Nice neat rows

I wrestled with the idea of what to do with it for a while. I love reed beds and they have such value but at the end of the day it comes down to a simple scale. What does the reed bed support and what would the grassland support? The answer is that this particular bit  of the reed bed supported some reed warblers (green listed) and one, maybe two reed bunting (amber listed) territories. The previous grassland supported a number of breeding lapwing (red listed), countless numbers of overwintering snipe (amber listed) and a great floral diversity. So in the end it has been a simple decision, the weight of the more endangered species out weigh the other. It is also worth bearing in mind that some of these species in the reed bed will just be displaced to other areas in the site or will carry on in the periphery of the the Hay Meadow, breeding in the remaining reed or scrub.

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Tools of the trade. The wonderful BCS

So the task of restoring this reed bed to grassland has started this winter. We first have to cut the reed so that it is not high enough for nesting birds in the spring and summer. It is hard work cutting reed and you have to burn the the cut reed in long piles. This is difficult as in the slightest wind the flames raise alarmingly. The fear is always with you that the whole reed bed could go up.

Once we have cleared the area we then have to go and re-cut in the spring and the summer. Hopefully this will suppress the reed and over time should revert back to grassland. Combined with some perimeter tree work, we will hopefully bring lapwing back to the hay meadow in the near future.img_6546

 

 

 

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Surveying Brent Geese

We have been undertaking some survey work at Farlington for the last couple of winters. This is to look at numbers of our primary species and their site usage, in particular brent geese. We not only want to know how many there are, a useful reflection on the health of the overall population locally, but where on the site they prefer. This can then influence management of the site.

For instance, last year it was quite obvious what areas the brent geese preferred as through the winter, these areas were logged and a picture could be built up. It tends to change throughout the winter as they eat the grass in certain areas but particular areas are definitely preferred. This could be for a whole number of reasons. Are the areas more open and therefore have better visibility for predators? Is the grass particularly lush in one area? A number of studies have shown that the geese can recognize lusher areas of grass and especially areas of protein rich clover. Is one area too full of undesirable plant species such as thistle or dock?

 

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Key locations of brent geese at Farlington in January 2018. They have followed almost the exact same pattern this year so far.

 

The fact that we know where the geese preferred meant that we could prioritize those areas and get them cut first, so if we ran out of time, had issues with machinery etc. (which we did this year) we could at least get the good bits cut.

Many, many factors influence the choice of feeding area for the geese and as creatures of habit, they can be tracked quite effectively throughout the year and over the years. It is important for us to record this so as we know that what we are doing is working.

Geese on site have shown a decline over the years. Historically we have seen 4000 geese on Farlington, the site acting as one of the most important inland feeding areas in the whole of the three harbours. Why has there been a decline? It’s not a question that is easily answered but may be as simple as the sward isn’t as good as it used to be or there in more scrub obstructing the views. It may be other more complicated issues such as nutrient value of our grassland or the composition of the grassland itself. Perhaps there are too many thistles?

 

It could be that the geese over the years have learn’t to preferentially choose winter crops on Hayling or nutritious grass on playing pitches in Portsmouth. A lot of research has shown strong positive correlation between grassland that is fed fertilizer and the number of geese. It produces sweet, tasty grass, like candy to a brent goose. The geese are very site faithful and use learnt behaviour to govern where they go, passing the knowledge on through generations. Perhaps they are simply deciding to use other sites for now.

Could it be that the local population has decreased or changed its habits? Overall, the population of dark bellied brent geese in the UK has risen. It is well studied in the UK but along its entire flyway, from arctic Russia, there is less information. Perhaps birds from our population aren’t making it all the way down, especially with these current warmer winters? That said, Hayling, Portsmouth and Gosport all see good numbers each year. In the end, as long as there are the same amount of geese and they are feeding, does it matter?

It is therefore important that we monitor our site. It is my hope that improvements in the sward, combined with the the scrub management we have done over the last couple of years will open the site up to more geese. Farlington is one of the safest sites for geese to graze in terms of disturbance from people. It tends to attract predators which can be an issue but overall it is not going to be developed. It is therefore important that it can be all it can be.

On the upside, there has been more juveniles around this year. Last winter was quite bad in a string of bad breeding seasons. It looks like that there was some bad weather in summer in the breeding grounds, possibly meaning that for the lack of young. This should boost the numbers and hopefully, if we see the same trend as last year, we should get another thousand geese on the marsh by February.

Winter 2018/2019

img_6250I’ve not blogged in quite a while but as part of the New Year a resolution has been set to put aside time to write, one that will no doubt be swiftly forgotten by February. So enjoy it whilst it lasts!

The Solent team has been busy over winter so far and how it has sped away! Winter is our busiest time as we can get in and cut away scrub, trees and whatever else we feel like, without fear of harming nesting birds. We build up to it each year with excitement, get to Christmas and realise that we’re half way through and very far behind.

Farlington has been host to much of our work this year. With a strong argument for being our most important site, it requires more care and attention than others. It also has the added complication of winter being its most important time for wildlife. Where other sites bed down in October, ready to sleep away the winter months, shedding leaves or grassland going over, Farlington ramps up the volume of birds and attracts in all the waders and wildfowl. So far it has been slow but has recently picked up.

Many of my wonderful wardening team have taken on the mantle of expert bird surveyors as well as their usual tasks and we can see that the brent geese are following the exact same pattern as last year (I’ll do a separate blog on it later). We have seen a pick up in numbers this month, with 1500 brents on site. Hopefully this should grow by another thousand by February.

Due to its importance in winter, Farlington receives a lot of work to create opportunities for our wintering birds. We have been very busy this winter around the perimeter of the site, reducing scrub cover. This looms over the birds and blocks potential predators. The geese and waders get very anxious if vegetation gets too high and will abandon sites if it gets out of hand. This transfers nicely into the spring, when breeding lapwing use the same areas and are also put off by large areas of scrub. Over the years the bramble on the perimeter ditch has got away. our volunteers set to rectifying this.

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looming in the morning smoke. Vols hard at work on the eastern sea wall

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Tackling the western side of the marsh. Intertwined scrub and fence. Not easy to deal with

Over several weeks they hacked away with brushcutter and hedge trimmer and we have cleared a large section of the eastern sea wall and along the western boundary with the reedbed. I also had a contractor in to deal with the inner hedge. A flail arm achieving the work of several volunteer work parties in a day. Very nice if you can get one.

Normally I do not like flail arms doing hedge work but due to the fact that this isn’t a hedge per-se, more a very long line of bramble, I made an exception. We left the hedge on the inner side as it is still an important nesting space for species like Linnets. It is just reduced in height. I did however remove it on the southern edge so as to hopefully persuade Lapwing to return to a previously held territory. I am glad to say that the geese were straight in. The day after the hedge was cut we had geese right up close to it, something that I haven’t seen in my time at farlington.

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Flail arm in action

We have also been busy in the reedbed in the hay field. This isn’t supposed to be a reedbed but over the years, the water in this field has increased and therefore so has the reed. It is now encroaching into a species rich grassland and having a detrimental effect. We have therefore started cutting this winter to make sure that there is no high reed in the summer.We can then re cut it in the summer, without fear of nesting birds, and try to suppress it and return it to grassland. It has the added benefit of creating excellent habitat for Snipe. Flooded, slightly rough areas of grassland with with shorter areas for foraging , attract large numbers. Our last count turned out 50 odd and a few jacks.

It’s quite an exciting job, reed cutting. We cut the reed, rake it into long ‘sausages’ and set fire to it at one end, working against the wind to limit the spread. Reed in the winter burns extremely hot, rearing up in the slightest of breezes. It burns so hot and quickly that it doesn’t seem to have much effect on the ground.

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cooking ‘sausages’

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snipe heaven

The less exciting job was sorting out the drainage on site prior to this work. The beechcroft team gave a valiant effort in quite adverse conditions, digging through years of accumulated silt to free up water movement through the hay field. There were some old water control structures there that have, over the years, become redundant due to the increased water on site. We have removed them and will be seeing what we need to do in the spring to retain the correct levels.

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A messy job but somebody has to do it (not me, I was holding the camera)

Earlier in the winter we did some scrub management in the point field. Over the years it has spread out and out and so we just did a little bit of cutting to keep the rough grassland in tact so as to keep the short eared owls interested. They have been a little bit hit and miss the last couple of years but that’s owls for you.

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scrub bashing in the point field

All in all, a very busy winter so far at Farlington. The rest of the winter will be spent mopping up the last few pieces of scrub that need dealing with, the reed still and a big area of work north of the road, tackling some scrubby areas that haven’t been touched in quite a while.

Update – things are very late!

Just a quick update on what has been going on over the solent reserves, as I haven’t blogged for a while. It has been busy, though I think I always say that!

I haven’t manged to get down to Farlington to check the breeding birds nearly as much as I would have liked but it is a mixed bag from what I can gather. The two primary species, lapwing and redshank, seem to be on their third attempt. I am relieved to say that there are some larger chicks which look like they’re going to make it, but there are still some small ones and even lapwing on nest! Very late for this species.

Our major problem this year has been two ravens. They set up home on the marsh and I have personally watched them eat three chicks. They polished off the avocet nests too! This is a very complicated problem as there isn’t much you can do with them. On one hand its great Ravens are making a come back but not such good news for Farlington. There are also more crows around, which hasn’t helped.

To distract them I have been supplementary feeding them with dead things, eggs and tinned mackerel. I think that this has helped slightly, giving them an easier source of food.

Smaller birds seemed to have faired well at the marshes. A great number of linnets, whitethroats, sedge and reed warblers, reed buntings can be found around the edges of the marsh and skylark and meadow pipits can be heard singing from the middle.

Management-wise we have been busy with infrastructure improvements. We will be replacing the benches soon which have mostly seen better days. We will also start thistle cutting. This was very bad last year, taking over most of  the north of the marsh. This year it is slightly better I am pleased to say. There is still a lot there but reduced. Our trouble this year is the later nesting birds. Given a few weeks we should hit it before it goes to seed and when the chicks are mobile.

We have also been busy on Hookheath. We have started cutting parts of it early, targeting the hemlock water dropwort (HWD). This is a brute of a plant and constituted the bulk of a couple of the emadows a few years ago. I tested one meadow last year, cutting early to see the difference. That field this year saw a much reduced cover of HWD and much higher diversity. I am hoping a few years down the line and it will look much better.

The first meadow is stuffed full of orchids which is a result!

Worryingly, very little butterflies have been seen or reported. Swanwick, usually a hub of butterfly activity, is very quiet. This seems to be the case everywhere. Hopefully things are just late and hopefully this doesn’t effect them too badly.

Fingers crossed for a late rush in many of our species

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Loads of southern marsh orchids

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walking out very carefully through a sea of orchids

 

 

 

Microbiology

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I have recently been listening to a few interesting shows on Radio 4 looking at our microbiomes and quite frankly I was blown away! For starters, there are more bacteria in our bodies than actual cells that make us! What! How??!

What is the microbiome? Well it was described as the collection of bacteria within your digestive system and respiratory system. These aren’t just passively sitting there though, they help with digestion and more things than we know, still being discovered. Each microbiome is independent to the individual person and reflects the diet you have, where you live, what pets you have and they change on an almost daily basis but you still have the general ecosystem that you have had for a long time. This is what it is, an environment inside you and studying it is more ecology, well micro-ecology than it is parisitolgy or the other ‘ologies’ that there are.

We are only just discovering the effects that these little beasties are having on us, how they not only change us internally, fixing conditions and illnesses but how they also affect our moods and how we think. People with high fibre diets, especially  those who do not eat meat had a tendency to have a better, more diverse microbiology and as in the wider environment, diversity is key.

It has even been shown that you don’t just get more bacteria from ingesting them but from the very air we breath and that people who visited cleaner environments with less pollution such as woodlands, had a better microbiology. If these bacteria can change the way we think, reduce depression and other mental health issues and just make us feel better, well, we all need to walk in woodland more, in open country, the wilder places.

So, another reason to make sure that the nature reserves we look after, the copse down the road, the grassy margins to our fields not only stay for the wildlife but because it physically changes us and WILL make you a happier, healthier person.

 

New Raft

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Following a big joint push for developing tern sites this year, with organisations such as Natural England, The RSPB and Chichester Harbour Conservancy all in on the action, I was on the search for new sites to establish or improve the potential for breeding terns. Late last year I cast my eye over a map of the area for suitable locations and the first to catch my eye was Budds Farm Sewage Works, directly next to Southmoor, one of our reserves. It had a large lake that was only a stones throw away from the sea and sandwiched in a very productive part of the harbour, with the Oyster Beds and Farlington on either sites and the islands in front. It would form a very nice part of the jigsaw. It also has the added bonus of being sheltered and completely independent of the tides, meaning no storm surges.

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The pursuit of a raft began and Southern water, who own the site, couldn’t have been more helpful. They even paid for the materials to build the raft! It took a little while to get all the permissions in order but last Friday, we braved the inclement weather and transported all our kit over there. This was following a long day launching the RSPB raft over at the Oyster Beds, which is no small task! The volunteers handled it admirably.

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Our raft was constructed by the volunteers and supported by eight big blue barrels. We, somewhat gingerly, rowed it out and anchored it to the bed of the lake with some rock filled cages. The lake itself is actually the old settling ponds and the silt would drift to the bottom. It is no longer used in that way and is set aside for wildlife. It is usually covered with ducks and gulls but is also an important Redshank roost. Fingers crossed over the coming years it will become an important Tern breeding site too.

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Dogs

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The subject of dogs can be a very tricky subject in the many lines of work in the countryside. Integral to some ways of life and purely recreational to others, they are part of the family and quite rightly, treated as such. However, the effect on the environment can, in some cases, be dramatic. I, however, do not want to talk about that in this post but I would like to share an experience that I had recently.

Last week I was in the highlands of North wales, gallivanting around Snowdonia with my dog in tow. We were heading up into the Carneddau, a quieter section of the hills and solid sheep country. I had head phones in and was running along, panting on an uphill when I glimpsed a farmer coming along on his quad bike. He was every bit a welsh sheep farmer and addressed me in his native tongue which, unfortunately, I do not know a lot of, so stared back blankly.

I was half expecting him to confront me. I don’t know why as I wasn’t doing anything wrong but panic swept over me that I may somehow have strayed from course and was in the wrong area or had made some transgression somehow. What actually happened was that he thanked me for having my dog on the lead which led to a pleasant conversation about his sheep and farming in Wales.

Now, I had passed two signs that had asked me to put my dog on a  lead. I was also in sheep country during lambing season so the thought of letting my dog loose did not occur to me. Unfortunately this is  not the case some of the time and he regaled me with stories of sheep that he had lost due to dog attacks recently and how he had shot five dogs, much to his regret. I took this with a pinch of salt as the propensity to over exaggerate is (in my experience) often a little common in this line of work. However, what I took away from this experience was the fact that on my reserves I often ask people to put dogs on lead to protect ground nesting birds or livestock but what I don’t do is thank the majority of people that do keep their dogs under control.

So thanks, to all those responsible dog owners and their lovely pooches for enjoying our reserves with care and giving nature a chance. This also goes out to those who do not walk dogs but again, enjoy nature whilst treading lightly.