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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

Sightings for the week ending 15/01/2017

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Spotted Redshank (courtesy of Alan Dunk)

A wet end to the week, none of the snow that we were promised though. I suppose that is good, though I do really enjoy the snow. I spent the week at Swanwick mostly where the feeders were overflowing with feeding Blue Tits, Bull Finches, Great Tits, Coal Tits, Marsh Tits, Nuthatch, Great spotted Woodpeckers and Long Tailed Tits. So, if you want some nice photos of some nice woodland bird species, this is an excellent spot.

A quick walk through Hookheath on Friday didn’t turn up a lot, a few Marsh Tit and Bullfinch but not a lot else.

Nothing has changed much at Farlington this week. Maybe this cold weather will push some more birds down but so far Brent Geese numbers remain low but wader numbers are consistently high. The Spotted Redshank is being very obliging and feeding by the building. I was down there last weekend and the Bearded Tits were at the southern end of the reed bed, flitting around near the outlet. Usually they are up by the building this time of year.

 

Working on Hookheath

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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.

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Curtis

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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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Michaelmas daisy clump

 

 

A Quick Note

A busy few days with not  a lot to report, or at least not much that I have seen. I understand there were at least 10 curlew sandpiper at Farlington yesterday, roosting on the Lake at high tide, which is good news for the waterfowl count this weekend. I will give a full rundown of the figures later in the weekend.

I was at Hookheath yesterday, checking the fences in preparation for the arrival of some cattle (at last!) today, the fences were fine, unfortunately I was there during the afternoon deluge, so I got soaked through. The rain meant I saw very little wildlife, a roe deer and several marsh tit were the best.

I have been asked again why the “108ft blog” and I know I said ages ago that I would explain, and I will before I move on. The blog will carry, I might even do a few sneaky posts myself if I am over in south-east Hampshire.

A Tiger, an Admiral and an Emperor

I did not get to post last night so here are two days in one. Yesterday I was only out for a short while as I had several bits of office work to do, although the office is not necessarily a poor place for encountering wildlife. It was hot again and my quick visit to Farlington to check the cattle resulted in my seeing  a few black-tailed godwit and hearing bearded tit calling near the Building and seeing some very hot looking cattle. On leaving I noticed that the everlasting pea by the entrance gate was looking particularly good.

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everlasting pea

Back at the office I had a meeting to discuss artwork for Farlington, as it was so hot we held the meeting in the shade of a tree in the garden, near the pond. Just before we started a scarlet tiger moth flew into the long vegetation by the pond, a bit worn but always good to see even if the scarlet hind wings were hidden when it was perched.

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scarlet tiger

The moth was not the last thing of interest though, a red kite flew overhead, always a good sight.

Today was another very hot day and we decided to cancel the work party as it was just too hot to do the planned task. WE decided to go out on site though to have a look at work done, plan things for the future and check the cattle. I had set up a moth trap at Swanwick yesterday and we checked through that first, there were a few interesting species including a lunar-spotted pinion. They were all very lively and getting pictures was difficult but I did manage a few including grey arches,

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grey arches

and one of a number of clouded brindle.

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clouded brindle

We then set off for a walk around the site hoping to see some butterflies, soon after we set off we saw white admiral, always good to see, but not quite the purple emperor that I was really hoping for. Then up to the north-east meadow to check the cattle, as we approached Rob spotted a butterfly landing on an oak trunk, and there it was a purple emperor, we walked towards it and found it was feeding from a sap-run and quite approachable, even allowing a picture.

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purple emperor

This was just about the best view I have ever had of one and it is always great to see wildlife doing something interesting.

On something of a high after this encounter we set off for Farlington, where things were again quite and all the cattle seemed well. We checked out one of the populations of annual beard-grass and found it to be doing well, this is a species of coastal grazed marshes that, oddly is common around the old silt ponds at Blashford Lakes, where it was presumably accidentally introduced.

On our way back to the office we called in at Hookheath Meadow and completed our “big butterfly trio” with lots of silver-washed fritillary and more white admiral. It was almost too hot for lots of insects and many were hiding in the shade including a fine hoverfly with a golden-haired tip to the abdomen, Xylota sylvarum.

Xylota sylvarum

Xylota sylvarum