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

 

Collaborative Efforts

DSC_0065At the Wildlife Trust we’re firm believers in helping out where we can. After all, conservation is our main function and many species don’t respect site boundaries so helping out on other sites often helps out on our sites in the long term.

With that in mind we have been helping the RSPB out with the Little Tern project in Langstone Harbour. These fantastic little birds live a precarious existence, preferring to nest on bare, fine shingle that is prone to getting washed away in any high spring tides. They are also very vulnerable to predation and being muscled out by the gulls.

The RSPB have been protecting the tern colonies in Langstone for some time now but with an increase in gull nesting numbers, especially an increase in the very impressive Mediterranean Gull, the Common Terns and Little Terns have had a rough few years.  This year it was therefore decided to create a raft to put out on the Oyster Beds, one of the main sites off the west side of Hayling island.

DSC_0074DSC_0080In my mind this was a relatively easy task, tying some barrels on and covering with shingle. In my mind it wasn’t going to be a big raft. Turns out I was mistaken. The four metre square (!!!!) raft arrived in four pieces with 24 barrels to be lashed on and bolted together and shingled. It took a long day but our Thursday team worked extremely hard to get this done, well into extra time. I know Wez (Langstone Reserve Officer for the RSPB) was very grateful for their help.

Eventually it was floated and rowed out to its designated spot just off one of the islands. It was then covered with a tarpaulin to deter the gulls, who nest earlier than the terns. It would then be unveiled at the crucial time to allow the terns on.

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Next we headed out to Baker’s Island, just off the eastern side of Farlington. This is one of the main Little Tern breeding areas and consists of a small spit of shingle, surrounded by salt marsh. The shingle had been put there a few years ago and the northern tip is finer grained, the southern consisting of larger pebbles. We had to firstly weed the entire area, removing any vegetation that would deter the terns from using the site. We then spread out the finer sand to occupy as wide an area as possible. The larger shingle is unsuitable for the terns, therefore small dinner plate sized patches were added to provide suitable opportunities. The old electric fencing was removed and it shall be restrung soon. This is to prevent foxes from decimating the colony which it could do over night. Encouragingly we saw two Little Terns whilst out there so they’re starting to arrive. Little decoys were put out to encourage terns to use the site as it already looks like their mates are there.

DSC_0142DSC_0145DSC_0148I learned a lot this week about the management of seabird colonies and what is involved in their upkeep and success. I also learned a lot about tern ecology which I am very grateful to Wez for. Hopefully with potential on many of our sites for establishing sea bird colonies, I can use this in the future. I know the RSPB were very grateful for the efforts of the Wildlife Trust volunteers for getting this work done, they really did do a sterling effort over some very tough days.

Whilst writing this I got an email off Wez with this link:

After a matter of minutes of removing the tarp from the raft there were Common Terns landing on the raft and showing signs of settling down. A great result.

Damp

Very little to report from Farlington today, the persistent drizzle reduced the number of volunteers and everyone’s enthusiasm for spending the day outside. Luckily I have been wanting to give the old office in the Building a clear out for ages and so today we did it. Although we actually threw out very little we gained an immense amount of space and found all sorts of items, including some mystery ones. I was pleased to see that the pile of pottery fragments I collected years ago from near one of the hearth sites was still there, they are likely to be Romano-British. It was a bit disappointing to find that the 19thC shrapnel and musket balls had gone  along with the old clay pipes dug up from near the Scrape years ago.

Unsurprisingly there were few birds to report, the Stream was being visited by a lot of gulls all day and these included at least 10 Mediterranean gull and all three large gulls.