Stemming the tide


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.


Swamped by Mediterranean gulls and black-headed gulls whilst topping



Working on Hookheath


Shame to see these guys off the site, they were a happy bunch. Hope to see them back next year

There has been quite a bit happening on the reserves recently. It’s a busy time of year, with a strong changeover in our activities. Spring and Summer see monitoring and reserve infrastructure taking precedent, followed by grassland management near the end of the summer. Autumn and winter see us stepping up a gear and munching through our wooded areas and scrub – as mentioned in past blog posts.

It also means the removal of our cattle. Most of our sites lay very wet over the winter so to stop any lasting damage occurring to the ground and soil structure, all cows need to be taken to a comfortable dry site for winter. So, October onward we see a steady reduction of numbers until all are off around mid November.



Hookheath Meadows was our first site to see cattle removed. This requires a TB test to be undertaken so we had to get all five into the holding pen, including the lovely Curtis, our British White Bull. This was then followed up three days later with another test to see if they were clear. Thankfully they were.


Lots of work clearing, but pleasant in the woods

We have recently acquired a new felling licence for the site so we have started work thinning some of the woodland to open up the meadows. We need to do this before it gets too wet to access it, as being what is ultimately a flood plain or wet pasture, it gets a little soggy underfoot.


A coppiced hazel stool. This now has to be protected from browsing deer.

We started on Tuesday, thinning out some woodland areas and coppicing the older hazel stools. This revitalizes the tree, and what looks like a destructive act actually benefits the tree, with coppiced stools lasting much longer than un-managed individuals. It also grows back and produces a thick mid-layer throughout the woodland, favoured by species like Marsh Tit. This allows connectivity to be maintained through the meadows, joining the neighbouring areas of woodland. We also have to consider the canopy level, with important butterfly species and bird species predominately existing in this layer. Therefore connectivity is important, allowing these species to maintain a diverse and extended population.


Thousands of ladybirds were at Hookheath on Tues. They mostly ended up in our truck

Whilst working we found a huge veteran willow tree, not something that you see too often as they tend to collapse at an older age. There was also a lot of fungi around, it seems to be a good autumn for it.


Fresh Grass

On Saturday I did a Birdwatch Safari at Farlington, we had quite a good day, well four hours or so, although we missed a fair few things that I had hoped to see. I confess that I was not at my best being well and truly full of a stinking cold, but the air seemed to do me good and seventy species of birds was not a bad total. Amongst the birds seen were redstart, spotted redshank, whinchat, a close kestrel and a very, very distant osprey

Today we were at Swanwick again trying to move the cattle, with the help of rather more people it was pretty straight forward and they seemed to appreciate the new grass.

cattle enjoying new grass

cattle enjoying new grass

The north-east meadow, where they were is an area that had become colonised by trees and which we are intending to make into wood pasture, a habitat once common in the Forest of Bere. In essence it is just open woodland grazed by cattle or ponies, but it has a very distinctive character and wildlife. The picture below is a panorama of the meadow, the browse-line, the level the cattle can reach when eating the leaves off the trees is very evident.

North-east meadow panorama

North-east meadow panorama

I then went down to Farlington to investigate reports that one of the cattle had got out onto the seawall, there were signs alright, but not of the animal, it seemed to have gone back into the field on its own and I found a missing staple that had allowed the wire to droop, so hopefully it will not get out again.

Unusual sight of the day was at the Beechcroft office first thing in the morning, a peahen with what I, at first thought was a domestic hen, but then realised was a peacock chick, in the Trust yard where we keep the reserve truck.

peahen and peachick

peahen and peachick



A Day of Snails and Swifts

I was down at Farlington early this morning, had it been drier it would have been quiet pleasant, at least it was not cold. I went to count the cattle and found the fifteen in West Mudlands and the eighty-two on Main Marsh, I was just going to check the fifteen on the Bushes when I got a call to say that they had been taken off the reserve even earlier this morning. Next week we should be getting some more and probably we will have a general sort out as well.

The damp weather meant that there were lots of swallow, at least 120 swift and 15 house martin feeding low over the fields and especially the reedbed. I had to go down to the Deeps to see the cattle on South Marsh, the raft still seems to be being ignored by all birds, but I did see a single avocet there. The wet had also brought out lots of garden snail which were wandering about all over the place, including along the seawall, perhaps they too like a wander by the sea.

snail by the sea

snail by the sea

Back at the Building I saw a party of 10 bearded tit, comprising one adult male and 9 fledged juveniles, which must have been from at least two broods. Farlington has a good track record of breeding success for bearded tit and it is always good to see the first independent young birds, albeit about three weeks later than usual. I also saw that the suspected nesting by black-headed gull had in fact happened, there were at least two broods of young and I suspect two or three more nests as well. I did have a bit of a surprise as well, when I saw a short-eared owl hunting along the back of the reedbed, it came close to a perched buzzard, at first I though the buzzard was going to leave it alone, but in the end it took off and chased it away down towards the Point Field. Whilst I was at it I thought I would also check on the lapwing in the Hayfield, both of the pairs that had hatched young still have at least one chick. In the wet areas of the north-east slip there are now good patches of celery-leaved buttercup.

celery-leaved buttercup

celery-leaved buttercup

The Hayfield itself has a good flora and one of the common species is the partly parasitic yellow rattle, these were the first flowering ones I had seen this year.

yellow rattle

yellow rattle

The hawthorn is now in full flower, I know I have posted pictures before, but the amount of blossom on some branches is amazing.



Near the east seawall I spotted one of the white rabbits, it took a while to notice me as I was directly behind it.

white rabbit

white rabbit

A number of flies were warming themselves on the kissing gate including the pictured one which had prominent spots on the thorax, I think it is Anthomyia pluvialis.



I then headed back to the Building along the east seawall and noticed the sea-kale plants are now flowering, these relatives of the cabbage and have bluish leathery leaves and dense heads of white flowers.

sea kale


sea kale flowers

sea-kale flowers

A Skip, a Raft and a Beetle

I drove to Farlington in a grim mixture of rain and mist, not a good start to the day, but I needed to be there in good time as I had ordered a skip to try to thin out the rubbish from the yard. As I waited at the Building I saw a good variety of birds, the female marsh harrier of the other day was hunting over the reedbed and disturbed several bearded tits and a green sandpiper, the first I had seen on a while, then 3 avocet got up from the Stream and flew over to the Scrape. I was still waiting for the skip when the volunteers arrived, luckily it did turn up soon after. It took only a few minutes to fill and I think we will need at least two more. During the rubbish shifting a fine ground beetle was turned up,  I think it was Leistus spinibarbis.

beetle Leistus spinibarbis

beetle Leistus spinibarbis?

The main tasks of the day after skip filling was to try to construct a raft for little terns. Tern rafts have been made with success at lost of site, not least at Blashford Lakes, but they are almost always for common terns and as far as I can establish the one thing that is known about rafts for little terns is that nobody ever seems to have made one that has worked! This, of course, will not put us off, so sign recycled timber from our old murals from the underpass, we set about the task. By the end of the day we had the main structure complete and lot of thoughts about the details of completion for the next couple of weeks, next week a test floating will be first on the agenda.

Rob raft building

Rob raft building

We also completed and put out our ten bearded tit nesting “boxes” and are looking at shelduck nest boxes as the next project.

During the day we had several more interesting sightings as we worked including 3 spotted redshank, the most I have seen in spring for many, many years at Farlington and a party of 5 sand martin. Although sand martins are common migrants we don’t often see them in spring at Farlington as they tend to follow river valleys on migration.

After the volunteers had gone I went to check the salinity in the ditches in the north-eastern part of the reserve, as I suspected these ditches are saltier than they used to be, not necessarily a bad thing, but something I will need to keep an eye on. Incidentally I came across 2 water pipit, 2 or 3 jack snipe and best of all a brilliant male yellow wagtail. The last takes me onto 142 bird species in Hampshire this year.

I also found the cattle and eventually counted them all after they gave me a bit of a game of hide and seek in the Bushes.

cattle in the Bushes

cattle in the Bushes

The last bird of the day was another greylag goose standing very alert in North Marsh, it was a very orange billed bird and quickly flew off eastwards, another candidate for a wild bird perhaps.