Stemming the tide

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Cattle in a sea of thistle

 

Thistle is the bane of my life. It used to be cows but the focus of my rage and annoyance has shifted. After our epic fencing work in early spring, we have had one bovine Houdini who managed to limbo through an old section of fence but otherwise, fingers crossed, we have had no escapees. 

When you look out across the main marsh, it is fairly evident that there is a good deal of thistle. Forming thick stands it will start developing a purple haze over the marsh in the next couple of weeks as it comes into flower. This is great for many of our invertebrate friends, providing plenty of nectaring opportunities and for the Goldfinches that flock in their hundreds in winter to feed on the seed heads. The problem is that it is getting out of control and muscling out the other plants. The cows, quite rightly, won’t touch the stuff and therefore neither will the geese, wigeon or other species that depend on a short, grassy turf to sustain them through the winter. 

It is vital, therefore, that we try and stem the tide of thistle on the main marsh. Unfortunately for me this means sitting in a non air-conditioned tractor, slowly topping the worst areas. This is not only painful because of, without being overly dramatic, the oven like conditions that I have to sit in but because it has to be done with the utmost care so as not to mow over any nesting birds.

The key to effective topping of thistle is timing. Get them before they go to seed so they don’t spread but late enough so most of the birds have fledged and are running around. This is tricky when species like skylark have several broods in a season. Lapwing however only have one but can be late. This means that I have spent a lot of time monitoring them throughout spring and early summer. I have a handy map where all the territories are and they can therefore be avoided. Skylarks and meadow pipits are a bit tricky but they tend to fly off their nests when disturbed. So before I go to top an area, I spend 5 minutes or so thrashing around and watching for anything to fly up. If they do, I make a note and avoid that area, hopefully missing any nests.

Unfortunately I may hit one. I am not aware that I have yet and would be devastated to find out if I did. But, you have to weigh it up. If I don’t top, the marsh will steadily become more and more unsuitable until eventually wintering birds will suffer and nesting birds will have a much harder time. If I batter back the thistle over the next few years, the amount of topping needed will steadily reduce.

As I mention in most of my posts, it’s all about balance.

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Swamped by Mediterranean gulls and black-headed gulls whilst topping

 

The Migrant, the Killer and the Alien

Although I left too early to check the trap this morning, I did spot an interesting migrant moth in the box as I covered it over. So when I got home I knew I had something of interest, although it turned out to be the only thing of note. It was the migrant Pyralid moth Palpita vitralis a very beautiful, pearly white species with glass-like wings.

Palpita vitralis

Palpita vitralis

I was in the office for most of the day, but I did get out for a short while later in the afternoon as I had agreed to check on the cattle at Hookheath as Rob was busy at Milton Locks. The cattle are looking well and doing a good job, although they were at the very furthest end of the reserve so it took me a while to find them. As there seem to be almost everywhere I go, there were lots of fungi about including one big group of what I think were honey fungus, growing on a dead fallen trunk. Honey fungus is a parasite that can kill even large trees, but will also attack shrubs and even perennial herbaceous plants.

honey fungus

honey fungus

One big advantage of having cattle grazing is that they eat the Himalayan balsam plants, these invasive garden escapees are especially problematic on wetland sites where they can dominate native plants, but they are very attractive to livestock, so grazing can control it pretty effectively. It is strange how some aliens species get lots of attention, while others seem to go about their business almost unremarked. One such is Michaelmas daisy, which seems to be increasingly common, I found a large clump just outside the reserve as I left.

Michaelmas daisy

Michaelmas daisy clump

 

 

Brown is the Colour

I was down at Farlington again this morning, to check the cattle, of which more later, and meet with Dave to discuss management over the next few months. I arrived early and had the best of the day as it was sunny initially and even fairly warm. Certainly warm enough for brown butterflies to be out, they are always keen to fly and their dark colouration means they warm up quickly in any sunshine that is going. In fact they often run the risk of getting too warm which is why they rather rarely bask with open wings like other species. However today was not that warm so they were trying to  catch all the rays that were available.

meadow brown female

meadow brown female

As well as meadow brown there were also lots of small heath about and a few small white. These were in the Bushes area, often a good place for small migrant birds at this time of year, but today it was fairly quiet. It was not only the butterflies that enjoy a little sunshine, I came across 2 magpie sat in a hawthorn, both were rather tatty birds in very active moult.

moth-eaten magpie

moth-eaten magpie

I also had to take some pictures of the old WW2 blockhouses for a possible small feature on the BBC “Coast” show, they want to see what there is to see and if it is worth coming here to do filming. I was also asked if I knew of anybody who had known them during their active period during the war, I do not, but do you? The east wall blockhouse is a very good vantage point for my cattle counts, as it is one of the few places that give a view of almost the whole Main Marsh.

Later in the morning I walked right around the reserve to look at up-coming tasks, although I will not be doing most of them as I am shortly to move on, I will be sorry to leave this fabulous place. It is not just the Marsh itself but the surrounding Harbour that give it such a special character. The whole is a remarkable survivor in the midst of increasing development and a truly amazing, world-class wildlife area, not half way across the world and seen only on television, but on the doorstep of tens of thousands in one of Europe’s most densely populated urban centres.

Langstone Harbour panorama

Langstone Harbour panorama

Having counted the cattle the grazier arrived and sorted a lot of them out and moved them into other fields as a preliminary step to moving some off site altogether, autumn is here and soon the cattle will be gone, replaced by brent geese.

On the walk round we saw a few birds on the Lake, including a juvenile curlew sandpiper and 11 pintail, along the Stream spotted redshank and little ringed plover, both also juveniles. There were few small migrants apart from at least 6 or so chiffchaff in the Point Field. I had a few whinchat and wheatear reported to me and out in the Harbour an osprey. As I arrived first thing, when the wind was less, 12 bearded tit were high-flying over the reeds near the Building, something they do as a precursor to heading off to look for new reedbeds.

 

A Windy Day in the Fields

Although it was bright  and sunny for a good bit of the time there was a constant threat of rain in the air and a wind that must  have been gale force at times, so it was not a classic mid-summer day at Farlington Marshes. I checked all the cattle quite quickly so had a look at some of the fields to try to decide when to move the cattle between the fields. The field behind the Building is looking very bright now, being full of buttercups, so far it has not been grazed this year but I decided to open it up for the fifteen that have been in West Mudlands for the last month to give them some fresh grass.buttercup field

As often happens on sunny but windy days there were great concentrations of insects to be found in sunny spots where there was shelter from the wind. The hoverfly Tropidia scita is a common species of marshy ground, but this was the first time I had seen a lot of them flying this year.

Tropidia scita

Tropidia scita

A number of other commoner species were also out in good numbers.

Meliscaeva auricollis

Meliscaeva auricollis

I came across the huge cranefly Tipula maxima, which as well as being very big indeed also has wonderfully patterned wings.

Tipula maxima

Tipula maxima

It is good to know what I am looking at but inevitably most of what I find is firmly in the “unidentified” camp. The bets I can do with this micro moth is that it is a Tortrix moth of some kind, I suspect with work I can get it to species but I have not done so yet, if you do know I would be delighted to hear from you.

Tortrix moth

Tortrix moth

Then there are things like beetles where my skills end at “A beetle of some sort”! Again if anyone can help…..

beetle pair on willow

beetle pair on willow

Many people who visit the reserve will know that brown-tail moths can be very abundant at times on the brambles, this year they seem to be rather few in number. The over-wintering caterpillars gather together in a silken tent but when they grow larger in spring they spread out and grow one on their own. I found this large caterpillar, probably fully fed and shortly going to pupate.

brown-tail caterpillar

brown-tail caterpillar

I went over to look at our neighbouring reserve at Southmoor, just to the east along the northern shore of the Harbour, some of the site is SSSI, but one field, a former playing field, is not and we have been working to try to see if we can manage it to make the grassland more like that found at Farlington. We have been grazing cattle there for some years and the ones there this year are looking very good.

cattle grazing at Southmoor

cattle grazing at Southmoor

At first the field had been ungrazed for years and was characterised by very coarse grass and thistles with a deep thatch of dead grass, it is much better now and looking quite promising in some areas. Some years I experimented with a couple of areas where I had the topsoil scraped away and these are now getting colonised by plants like marsh foxtail grass and others. Most exciting I found a plant of sea clover there today, this is a very rare plant in Hampshire and is only regularly found on Farlington Marshes, I think this is the first record from Southmoor.

sea clover at Southmoor

sea clover at Southmoor

Back at Farlington in the afternoon I made another, less interesting discovery, this was a group of adder’s tongue near the Double Ponds in the Bushes, I have never seen it there before and will have to find out if anyone else has.

adder's tongue at Double Ponds

adder’s tongue at Double Ponds

I also found some scarlet pimpernel, obviously not at all rare, but the flower in close up is about more than just scarlet.

scarlet pimpernel flower

scarlet pimpernel flower

I have already mentioned the very strong wind today, it actually made it very hard work to walk along the south wall, but these are winds that can bring in migrating insects and when I got how eat the end of the day I found both red admiral and painted lady butterflies on the flowers in my front garden, both classic migrants.

painted lady

painted lady

Perhaps there will be a lot more to come if the predicted southerly winds come to pass later next week.

In a Haze

A glorious sunny day, although not that warm in the south-easterly breeze but at least it felt spring-like with singing skylarks and displaying lapwings scattered across the Marsh. There had been some arrival of migrants as there were good numbers of whitethroat, reed warbler and a fair few sedge warbler around. In the Bushes as I checked the cattle I heard and then saw a lesser whitethroat, in fact there were two. The Bushes at Farlington have always been a good place to see lesser whitethroat, they are not rare but often quite thinly distributed so the regular three or so pairs in the Bushes make a reliable place to see and hear them.

whitethroat

whitethroat

I tried but failed to get a picture of the lesser whitethroat.

We got an extra lot of cattle today, so now there are 30 out on the Main Marsh as well, hopefully the grass will start to grow in earnest soon, it is certainly looking greener for a few days of better weather.

Walking round the seawall in the morning I saw at least 4 wheatear, a male yellow wagtail and lots of whitethroat. I also had a good look for nesting lapwing, I reckon there are at least 25 territories with at least eleven sitting on nests, there also seem to be quite a few pairs of redshank displaying, although some of these will nest out on the saltmarsh. Other birds of interest in the morning were 2 avocet on the stream, 10 or so whimbrel and an adult male peregrine.

In the non-bird category a sea slater on top of the seawall at the Point was a bit unusual, these giant woodlice usually stay closer to the tide line.

sea slater

sea slater

I ate my lunch by the Building, outside for a change at the viewpoint, one of the local mute swan had designs on my sandwich, but got none of it.

The Stream with mute swan

The Stream with mute swan

By the afternoon the heat haze over the Harbour made looking any distance very difficult although it did give a curious quality to everything.

looking down the Harbour in a haze

looking down the Harbour in a haze

Running Around

I spent the day travelling around collecting bits and pieces for up-coming tasks. I started at Beechcroft to sort out a few emails and collect the truck, then I was off the Blashford Lakes. At Blashford I had a quick look over Ibsley Water and saw the 4 black-necked grebe and ten or so goosander from the Tern Hide. I had gone there to collect some floats for a raft we want to build at Farlington. As some will know we built rafts for common tern at Blashford some years ago and they were very successful, I want to try a raft for little tern at Farlington. The trouble is that whereas rafts for common tern are known to be quiet successful at lots of sites I don’t think anyone has succeeded in getting little tern to nest on rafts, but that is not going to stop us from trying.

Before I left I had a quick look at Ivy Lake and saw my first sand martin of the year, I really must count up where the yearlist is up to. Then it was off to buy some materials and drop off a couple of things at Swanwick Lakes before heading on to Farlington Marshes.

At Farlington it was as cold as ever, with a bitter wind, needless to say the brent geese are all still with us and the overall feel is still very wintery. Despite this the first cattle are due to come onto the Marsh on Friday, of course we need to have grazing to maintain the grassland in good condition. In fact without grazing it would quiet quickly scrub over with brambles and thorn bushes. The cattle graze the spring and summer growth so that the grass is the right length for grazing brent geese and the geese make it even shorter and so just right for nesting lapwing.

The Hayfield had well over 2000 brent geese in it when I left, as well as the red-breasted goose. I suspect they will go at the end of the week when we are promised a change in the weather, they have already been here a month longer than usual. They are probably not in such good shape as usual for making the first leg of their journey as the grass has not been growing. Let’s hope they have a better time at their stop over areas in Holland and Germany, they need to be in top form before they head up to Siberia in six or so weeks time.

A Damp but Interesting Morning

It was not really a day to be out on site, so I was not at Farlington today, unfortunately this did not mean I was not out. I spent the morning looking at a couple of sites north of Winchester where colleagues have been working on riverine habitat restoration projects with partner land owners. The first was a section of winterbourne where the channel has been modified to restore a variety fo features such as depth variation, eddies, riffles and a wide variety of flow rates. This provides a wide range of habitats for lots of wildlife, the “new” stream replaced a cleaned out and uniform channel that was actually more prone to causing flooding than the more natural channel now in place. It was a really interesting scheme that had produced very impressive results in a short time. It was also designed to be self-sustaining, that is there should be no need to intervene again, it should maintain itself. This is a vital goal and one that has been exercising me recently in planning management for a number of sites.

I am trying to work out how to maintain grasslands that we are restoring from scrub and woodland invasion. We can remove the trees and bushes but how to stop them coming back? We graze cattle but when the site is small and wet we cannot use very many and then they often do not want to eat the young tree growth. The result is we can end up where we started or at least having to go in every year to cut the young trees, very  labour intensive and not very sustainable. I suspect there is a very fine balance to be struck if the goal of a sustainable restoration is to be achieved.

One factor that is certainly very important is what type of animal is grazing, not just a choice between sheep or cattle, but which breed of what age. Thew second site we visited was a fenland meadow being grazed by British White cattle, an old breed and one of the multi-purpose ones that would have once been so common. multipurpose breeds were those that could be used for milking and beef, now most farms will either keep specialist beef or dairy breeds and the old breeds have largely gone. Another advantage of these animals is that they will eat a wider range of vegetation than fussier specialist breeds, making them very useful for the diverse swards we find on nature reserves. These are the very type of cattle that are most likely to be of use in grazing our restoration sites. Although these cattle had done a great job, but I actually think the Red Devon cattle we used this year might actually have been better for our purposes, so it was pleasing that perhaps we are already getting something about right!

I am at Farlington tomorrow, hopefully the seawall will all be restored to us and today’s tide and wind will not have washed away the Envioronment Agency’s recent works.