Plastic. Plastic Everywhere!!!

‘The greatest threat to our planet is the belief that someone else will save it.’

 

IMG_0498

A month ago or so we did a litter pick around the edge of Farlington Marshes, dragging the accumulated detritus off the foreshore. This was a difficult and rather smelly job for the volunteers. There are pinch points around the marsh where lots of flotsam and jetsam accumulate, telling a long story of activities on the high seas for those of an imaginative bent. Stories of shipwrecks and piracy abound and the odd drinks can from the 70’s or foreign object allows one to marvel at the stretch of the currents and the force of the sea to move objects long distances. Our education teams would have had a field day, spinning tales for the kids in the fantastic way that they do, capturing their imaginations about the natural world.

Unfortunately for me when embarking in a life based around conservation, you get rather cynical. What this litter pick brought forth for me was not a dramatized romantic notion of the sea but the disturbing truth that plastic is a major and growing problem out there, one where the true reach cannot be seen.

Some of it is visible and what I found most shocking was the fine, sand like multicolored strand line around the edge of the site. Billions of pieces of plastic forming a rainbow around the edge of the concrete wall. This ranged from pieces the size of a grain of sand to small floating pieces of polystyrene but all massed together as the calm sea slowly receded, leaving the evidence of several life times of wasteful and excessive plastic use.

IMG_0496

billions of fine grounds of plastic and polystyrene 

What you have to bear in mind is that this is the tip of the iceberg. Not even the tip, the first ice crystal at the very tip. Plastic is a colossal problem in our oceans one that is going to have long lasting effects, perhaps even irreversible ones.

Recently a cuviers beaked whale drifted into a harbour in Norway. It was clearly in distress and despite valiant attempts to help it was eventually deamed the best thing to do was to kill it. It was promptly shot and an autopsy was carried out. What was discovered, I found shocking beyond belief. 30 plastic bags knotted into a mass within it’s stomach . The poor whale starved to death. I’m very fond of whales and beaked whales like this are not only truly magnificent animals but so little is known about them, it is nice to have something still mysterious out there.

This is not an isolated incident. either. A cuviers washed up on Skye not too long ago with the exact same issue.

I was confused over why they would eat plastic bags. Cetaceans are generally quite clever animals. Surely they could tell apart a plastic bag from a squid? I then read up on the subject and it makes a lot of sense in the end. Cuviers dive to great depths to hunt squid and other such deep diving cephalopods. At that depth visibility is poor and the way that they feed is through echolocation. A series of clicks and whistles rebound off their prey and they can essentially see what they are hunting but in this method, a plastic bag looks, (or sounds I suppose) just like a squid. Hence a stomach full of plastic. How are plastic bags at that depth! It shows that at all levels of the ocean, plastic has penetrated and is causing issues.

One of the most disturbing things that I have heard is the reference to marine plastic flour. This is the term used for the plastic floating around the ocean that is so minuscule that it is likened to flour. A scary thought when you think of the accumulation within the bodies of sea going animals. Even scarier is the thought that if you eat seafood, you are potentially eating accumulated plastic. That can’t be good!

Well what is the solution? Is there even one? With all these things, mass species decline, global warming, loss of habitat, uncontrolled development, mass agriculture and pesticide use, it may seem like there isn’t one but I fully believe that we can curb it and even reverse it but it requires effort from all of us. I found a quote the other day which I feel is so important I have put in in bold!  Dramatic I know but I feel necessary

 

The greatest threat to our planet is the belief that someone else will save it.

 

This is one of the most pertinent phrases out there and a trap that we all fall in to. It is that classic mentality that you carry on an activity because the millions of others around you are and if you were to stop, at minor inconvenience to yourself, it will make little difference. The trouble is, most of the other people around you are thinking that and the wheel of self destruction keeps turning.

It all sound very preachy I know and I”ll be the first to admit that I fall in to the trap over and over again. Plastic is everywhere and unavoidable. Your weekly shop at any major superstore will mean plastic by the bucket load, despite the heavy reduction in plastic bags. Broccoli wrapped in clingfilm, oranges in bags, strawberries in punnets. It all seems a bit unnecessary and goodness knows I’m not going from one shop to another to get all the bits separately!

As with all these things, public demand drives the major distributors to change. Try and reduce and you will fall in to the habit. It takes time to work it all out, what you can buy and from where. In this day and age, nobody wants to spend two hours in a supermarket trying to work out how to buy stuff without plastic but over time, you can work it out.

So yes, there is no magic plan to reduce this. Just hard graft and steady but persistent change but it has to be from all of us.

And lastly, recycle. Recycle like you mean it.

A successful season

DSC_0877

Avocets

It is a turning point in the season and though many of you will be distressed to hear, it is swiftly running into autumn. In fact, the autumn migration has already begun! Farlington is slowly filling with waders, brightly coloured godwits, still clinging on to their rusty summer plumage, dunlin with their black bellies and common sandpipers up and down the ditches across the marsh. There was even a little ringed plover on the scrape the other day.

If you have frequented Farlington throughout the spring and summer you will no doubt have noticed the Lapwing and Redshank buzzing around, calling and dive bombing any crows or other potential predators. These are our regular breeders and both had a good year with 15 territories for the lapwing and 5 for the redshank. There has also been another addition this year to our breeding wader assemblage.

DSC_0897

I am very pleased to announce that we have had, for the first time ever in the known history of Farlington, breeding Avocets! This is a fantastic result for the reserve and we’re all very pleased.

There is no real reason that  I can point out as to why they have suddenly decided to breed. This winter saw record numbers roosting on the site so perhaps some took a fancy. With poor success at other sites in the areas due to a number of very tricky issues they may have just given up and moved on.

It hasn’t been a complete success however. I counted 10 chicks in total from potentially 4 broods. One of these was a second go from a pair that had all their eggs stolen by a crow. I watched it fly in over the course of 30 mins or so and steadily empty the nest. I was, to put it mildly, livid! Out of the 10 chicks, as far as I can tell, only two have fully fledged. Not a great success but when compared to other sites in the local area, a much higher percentage. There may be a few hiding but it looks like the younger ones have been picked off by a Buzzard.

Now, this may sound like a bit of a disaster but we have a bird that has never shown any sign of nesting at Farlington and we have had 4 pairs attempt. We have also had up to 16 adults around. These were probably failed breeders from elsewhere or non breeders that have helped protect the other nests and chicks. It also means that hopefully they will all come back next year and attempt to breed.

You also have to bear in mind that we were completely unprepared for this. They suddenly just appeared and started to breed. We can therefore put measures in place next year to give them a helping hand and boost the local numbers.

All in all it has been really nice to gain a breeding bird rather than losing one which is more often than not the case nowadays.

DSC_0929

Stemming the tide

DSC_0846

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.

IMG_1091

Swamped by Mediterranean gulls and black-headed gulls whilst topping

 

Summer is here

I’ve not posted in a little while. A mixture of being very busy, very relaxed (on holiday) and more recently very hot. Working in thirty degree heat over the last couple of days has been somewhat taxing.

FullSizeRender

It is starting to happen though. Invertebrate life is springing into action all over our reserves and as things quieten down with the bird life, we stop looking up and start staring intently into the long grass.  That isn’t to say that there aren’t any decent birds around.

Farlington Marshes nature reserve has had the usual, a mob of black-tailed godwits chattering away by the building or on the deeps. They were joined the other week by a stunning male ruff, in full breeding plumage. this chap has been frequenting various sites around the Solent for a few weeks now. There have also been a lot of bearded tits showing off in the reed bed.

The meadow browns have emerged en mass across most of our sites. Swanwick and Hookheath in particular. We have also seen silver washed fritillaries, white admirals and marbled whites, with at least one purple emperor reported as well.

IMG_1164

Swanwick Lakes nature reserve has also had its fair share of dragons. A walk through on Friday afternoon saw Emperor, black-tailed skimmer, red-eyed damselfly, golden-ringed, common blue, blue-tailed and small red damselfly. There have also been downy emeralds seen regularly, but not by me, despite a lot of trying.

IMG_1174

The orchids this year have been exceptional. North-east meadow at Swanwick Lakes nature reserve has had the most ever, as has Hookheath. Farlington has had a very good year, with common spotted and southern marsh orchids filling the top of the hay field and pyramidal orchids scattered along the path.

IMG_1157

All in all its been a good, yet warm, couple of weeks – and over the next couple, we should see a bigger emergence of species like marbled whites, gatekeepers and a few more silver washed.

Sightings for week ending 14/05/2017

It’s been a pretty mixed week, with the start nice and sunny and the end, some well-deserved rain and we still have migrants coming in! The swifts have started to turn up and there are generally more hirundines across all the sites. Swanwick Lakes had a big flock of house martins over it the other night whilst I was stomping around doing and evening survey.

The seals have been quite obvious recently. If you take a scope to the southern end of Farlington Marshes and look across the mud flats at low tide, there is almost always several, hauled out along the creek that runs near to the aggregates port. Whilst sitting having lunch at Southmoor yesterday, one popped its head up just off the shore. Always exciting seeing a seal. Love them!

For me, the stars of the show this week have been the grey plover on the main lake at Farlington. They are in their breeding plumage and are absolutely stunning. The little terns have also been making themselves known. At high tide they come really close to the sea wall, fishing right on the edge,. Perfect opportunity for some shots of terns disappearing into the water.

The usual around otherwise. A marsh harrier has been spotted a lot, the short eared owl is still around, surprisingly, and the yellow wagtails are regularly in among the cattle on the main marsh. In the bushes there are lesser whitethroat around.

There was a cuckoo calling at Swanwick on Monday, the only one across all my sites this year (that I have heard anyway). There has also been a garden warbler singing away and a firecrest. These are both good records for the site, with potentially breeding firecrest a new record.

We’ve had a couple of rough weeks for butterflies. We have struggled to get our survey work done as it’s actually been quite chilly during the days. Wednesday wasn’t too bad though with highlights at Swanwick and Hookheath being, green hairstreak, holly blue and small copper. There was also a hairy dragonfly and beautiful demoiselle recorded.

A little bit on grassland management

DSC_0846If you have been to either Farlington Marshes or Southmoor nature reserves 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.

DSC_0772

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 nature reserves 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.

DSC_0814

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.

DSC_0766

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.

Ringing in the Reedbeds

DSC_0016

An exquisite male Bearded Tit

On Sunday we started ringing in the reedbeds at  Farlington Marshes nature reserve. The aim is to concentrate on the bearded tits to try and get an idea as to how the population is faring. It turned out to be a reasonable start and we caught a good number of birds. The females all had brood patches which signifies breeding so things are looking good.

Bearded tits, actually called bearded parrotbills now (formally bearded reedlings) are one of Farlington’s iconic species. They draw in a lot of people as the site has a very good population, especially for its size. The only issue is that they are very difficult to see. Normally all you get is a fleeting view of them as they bounce over the top of the reed before quickly dropping down. This makes monitoring very difficult and really the only way that we have a chance of getting a population estimate is through ringing. This also helps us look at longevity of individuals and location within the reed bed itself. All very useful stuff which can help influence how we manage the site.

DSC_0021

A very handsome male Reed Bunting

It was a good session catching bearded tits, reed bunting, Cetti’s warbler and sedge warbler. The whole reed bed was alive with the chatter of segdes and there were even some reed warbler there. These will build up steadily as they migrate in and then disperse leaving the breeding population.

The lapwing have begun to settle down and there seems to be a good number of redshank on the marsh and in the hay field. Hopefully we will see a higher than average year for these this year but its still early days. The lapwing are in low numbers but this is the same across many sites at the moment so hopefully they are just late arriving.

DSC_0025

The very noisy Sedge Warbler