Monday 21st May

On Monday 20th May I took a walk around Fishlake Meadows after 2 and a half weeks off. I couldn’t believe how much had changed in such a short time. The thing that struck me the most were how many more flowers were out in bloom. There really is a wonderful array of flowers at Fishlake Meadows at the moment.

Walking along the canal I couldn’t believe how much greener the canal bank looked, and spotted this wonderful hart’s-tongue fern. Just across the canal from it, is where the culvert from the new houses flows in to the canal. I often see a pair of grey wagtails feeding along the flow of water there, but the vegetation has grown up quickly and covers the view now, I’m sure the grey wagtails appreciate the privacy though.

Harts tongue fern

Hart’s-tongue fern

Either side of the canal path there were lots of insects buzzing around the plants and flowers. Plenty of butterflies were in view, mainly whites, with some peacocks and commas. From the canal path I could see dense patches of yellow flag iris around the pools near the permissive path and I couldn’t wait to get a closer look.

Getting towards Ashley Meadow I could see that there was a huge spread of buttercups in flower, looking beautiful. I went in to Ashley Meadow to see what else was coming in to flower. I was rewarded with seeing red clover, common comfrey, cut-leaved cranesbill and 2 southern marsh orchids, although I’m sure there were more.

Buttercups in ashley meadow

Buttercups in Ashley Meadow

Red clover

Red clover

Common comfrey white

White common comfrey

Common Comfrey purple

Pink/purple common comfrey

cut-leaved cranesbill

Cut-leaved cranesbill

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Southern marsh orchid coming in to flower

Walking along the east/west path there were lots of warblers singing away, including a grasshopper warbler, sounding just as you’d imagine with its rapid fire clicks. At the corner near the gate in to the permissive path a hawthorn is in full flower. This one is quite pink and stands out beautifully.

Hawthorn blossom

Hawthorn in flower

Heading on down the permissive path, being shouted at by lots of cetti’s warblers I noticed even more flowers, this time 2 different vetches. Common vetch with its larger deep pink/purple flowers and tufted vetch with its smaller multitude of flowers tightly packed together.

Common vetch

Common vetch

Tufted vetch

Tufted vetch

There were then more buttercups, one with a lovely, shiny, male swollen-thighed beetle on it. Insects were clearly enjoying the warm weather as there was another beetle enjoying this chickweed flower, on closer inspection I think this may be a female swollen-thighed beetle.

Buttercup with male swollen-thighed beetler

Male swollen-thighed beetle

Chickweed spp with beetle

Beetle on chickweed flower, possibly female swollen-thighed beetle

Near to the screens in the ditch I always enjoy seeing the sublime blue of the water forget-me-not, its such a rich, beautiful blue. Photos never quite seem to do it justice.

water forget-me-not

Water forget-me-not

From the screens themselves, the yellow flag iris were truly impressive, and looks like more will be coming in to flower soon. A female mallard was very close to the screen with one duckling that had been resting in one of the vegetation tussocks.

Female mallard and duckling from screen

Female mallard and duckling

yellow flag iris from the screen

Yellow flag iris

The wildlife delights weren’t quite over for me, as I walked back along the permissive path a cuckoo began calling from very close by. Fishlake Meadows seems to be a very good site for cuckoo, with up to 5 being recorded again this year.

cuckoo

It was great to spend time just exploring Fishlake Meadows and really taking time to study the flowers and insects when I often end up just focusing on birds. The reserve is wonderful for a whole host of wildlife.

Yellow flag iris on pool near permissive gate

Yellow flag iris around pool near the permissive path gate.

 

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Birdsong central!

Fishlake Meadows is absolutely spectacular at the moment, there is so much to see and hear that I barely know what to focus on when I’m there!

We have been lucky to have some very special visitors to the reserve in recent weeks. A glossy ibis has been around for a few weeks now, often in the paddocks to the east of the canal and sometimes showing well at the screens. I believe this is the first time a glossy ibis has been reported at the reserve. I wouldn’t be surprised if they start to visit Fishlake Meadows more regularly, the habitat is ideal for them with lots of shallow pools and muddy areas for feeding. This bird is quite likely to be from the breeding colony in Southern Spain as they quite regularly winter in Britain.

Glossy Ibis photo by David Thelwell

Glossy ibis photo by David Thelwell

There has also been a male garganey seen regularly on the pool in front of the screens, the males in particular are very attractive with a distinctive white eye stripe across their brown head. They are slightly larger than teal and are summer visitors to the UK, wintering in Africa. They are typically very secretive so its wonderful so many people have had good views.

Male garganey photo by David Thelwell

Male garganey photo by David Thelwell

On Wednesday I had a walk around the reserve with some of the volunteer wardens, we were treated to the song of lots of warblers, all trying to sing the loudest and protect their spot. Lots of sedge warbler, reed warbler, cetti’s warbler, garden warbler and blackcap all singing away. They are typically quite difficult to get a view of so just standing quietly and listening to all the singing is lovely.

The flowers at Fishlake Meadows are really coming through now, in particular, cuckoo flowers, they seem to be everywhere. They are the food plant of the orange tip butterfly caterpillar and there are lots of the butterflies around at the moment. Cuckoo flowers favour damp meadows and ditches, so Fishlake Meadows is ideal for them.

Cuckoo flower

Cuckoo flower, also known as lady’s smock

I also spotted a flower I’m not familiar with, which I had some help identifying as Barbarea vulgaris or common winter-cress. There is a lot of it coming in to flower either side of the permissive path. There were also lots of buttercup species in flower, many of them being visited by lots of insects.

Common winter-cress

Common winter-cress

Buttercup spp

Another sign that spring is hurtling towards summer is that there are mallard ducklings along the canal again. I counted 8 ducklings with the female all feeding and chirping away. Many cuckoos have been seen and heard, at the moment the highest record is 5, which were all seen at the same time. Other birds to keep an eye out for are hobby’s and swifts which have both been recorded again recently.

Mallard ducklings on canal

 

Slime mould – A new kingdom

A week or so ago, on a piece of wood, next to the east/west path at Fishlake Meadows, I spotted this wonderful slime mould. Originally considered fungi, slime moulds are now classified in to a completely different kingdom. Slime moulds are formed by the fusion of single cells and are multi-nucleate. When slime moulds form the visible globule (as shown in the photo below), they are able to move…with purpose! Many studies have been carried out with slime mould, one study discovered that they always chose the shortest path in a maze leading to a food source. If you see one, take a photo, leave it for a while, and when you return it will probably have changed shape.

Slime mould

This slime mould is in its reproductive phase, the smooth white silvery surface develops before enteridium lycoperdon splits open and exposes masses of brown spores underneath. These spores then disperse by wind and rain until they are basically all gone. Enteridium lycoperdon is also known as the false puffball and is one of the more common species of slime mould.

slime mould 1 week on

Bittern not Stung

I am fairly sure that the bittern that spent a good part of the winter showing off by Ivy North Hide left on the night of Sunday 17th March, conditions were perfect and there were no records in the next couple of days. However a couple of brief sightings in since suggested I was wrong. This evening I saw a bittern from the hide, but it was not the bird that wintered there, being somewhat duller and, I think, smaller. This may be the second bid seen during the winter but which was chased off by the regular one, now able to hunt in peace, or perhaps a migrant.

The sun was warm today, although the wind was a little chilly. In shelter there were lot of insects about, I saw peacock, brimstone and small tortoiseshell and probably thousands of solitary bees. I was able to identify a few species, the commonest was yellow-legged mining bee then the grey-backed mining bee, nationally a very rare species, but abundant locally at Blashford Lakes. The only other I certainly identified was red-girdled mining bee. It was pleasing to see lots of female grey-backed miners as I had been seeing what I was convinced were males for several days, but they are very similar to the males of a commoner species, the females are much more distinctive. My first female was sunning itself on the new screen I was building beside Goosander Hide.

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female grey-backed mining bee catching some rays

I later went to see if there were any around the sandy bank we dug for bees a couple of seasons ago and there were, loads and loads of them!

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grey-backed mining bee female checking out a likely site to dig a nest hole.

The sound of the masses of bees was amazing, there really was a “Buzz in the air”, although solitary bees can sting they do not often do so and the vast majority of the bees around the bank were males, which have no sting, so it is possible to enjoy the experience with little risk.

I had the first report of sand martin at the nesting bank today, hopefully we will have a good few nesting pairs again this year.

Elsewhere reports of a glossy ibis at Fishlake Meadows was impressive as was that of a white stork very close by at Squabb Wood, Romsey

Super Volunteers!

This winter we have been able to get a huge amount of winter scrub cutting done, thanks to the tremendous efforts of our dedicated volunteers. Altogether the volunteers have clocked up 587.5 hours on winter work parties between the 24th October and the 27th February. One block of scrub has been completely cleared and a second is very nearly cleared. This has opened up views across the reserve beautifully, and looks wonderful.

View from canal where scrub cleared 2019 3

View across the reedbed now opened up and lovely large dead hedge.

You may have noticed that the stumps have been left quite high, there are several reasons for this;

  • it’s easier for staff and volunteers to cut the stumps a bit higher.
  • if the stumps do regrow vigorously, it gives us scope to cut the stumps down lower and then still be able to treat them with herbicide.
  • as the stumps die off there will be standing dead wood created.

We have created more dead hedges and increased the size of existing ones with the material extracted. This is great habitat for many birds to forage for insects, get shelter and to nest. Keep an eye out for wrens, blackcaps and dunnocks in these dead hedges.

Spring is now fully on its way, in the last few weeks I have spotted many lovely signs of spring. The catkins on the willows have been out for quite a while and look lovely. At Blashford male adders are beginning to emerge quite regularly to bask when the temperatures are high enough.

Lesser periwinkle is in flower near the old pond to the rear of the centre at Blashford. Periwinkle are lovely flowers with asymmetrical petals so they look like fan blades or a windmill.

lesser periwinkle blashford march 19

The weather is staying mild and doesn’t seem to be showing any signs of turning, so we could have a very early start to nesting and breeding season, and a very successful spring for wildlife. Although, this is an indication that climate change is having a real impact, I’m not sure our wildlife will cope very well if we have another summer as dry as last year.

A race to the end of February

I’ve had a very busy few weeks trying to get through as much scrub cutting as possible before the end of February. Since the 4th February I’ve had a student from Sparsholt with me on work experience. Chloe is studying Ecology and Conservation and is in her first year, so we have spent a lot of time out doing practical conservation work and talking about why the work is needed, and the species that may benefit from the different work we’ve been doing.

Working with the Fishlake Meadows volunteers we have been trying to get blocks of scrub cleared, and the material added in to the dead hedges. This winter has been much wetter than last year and there have been several days when the water has been too deep to get to the scrub. Clearing the scrub prevents succession in to wet willow woodland, allows the reedbeds to expand and improves views from the canal path. Building the dead hedges with the cut material creates wonderful habitat for birds and invertebrates to find food and shelter in.

 

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Scrub cutting in deep water

Fishlake meadows building dead hedge

Dead hedge built from cut scrub

At the end of Chloe’s first week, we headed to St Catherine’s Hill to help the Winchester team with some hedge laying. This turned out to be a very wet and windy day, so was a little miserable being on top of a hill! It was a great opportunity for both of us to practice our hedge laying, and we were able to get quite a bit done. The day had to be cut short when the wind picked up in the afternoon and it began hailing. Fortunately it didn’t put Chloe off enough not to come back the following week.

We have also had quite a few days with the Blashford volunteers, allowing Chloe to see a different reserve, experience working with different volunteers and to see how work can differ between sites. With the Blashford volunteers we have been doing more tree felling of sycamores and grey alder and clearing up larger trees felled by contractors. In between all of this we were able to have a look around the hides so Chloe could get a good look at the birds and learn a few more of them. This included a very good view of the bittern as it moved from one area of reeds to another.

Snowdrops

Snowdrops at Blashford Lakes

Along the way we’ve seen some great wildlife, lots of flowers are coming in to bloom, including some lovely patches of snowdrops at Blashford. While walking to the hides at Testwood Lakes we saw some lovely bright pink hazel flowers. There have been plenty of birds around at the Fishlake Meadows screens we’ve seen pintail, teal, shoveler and pochard. We’ve heard lots of cetti’s warbler, water rail and reed bunting, and have in fact had a few very good views of cetti’s warbler, which as many of you may know is a novelty. At Testwood Lakes around 200 lapwing were flying around or resting, giving us a good look at their beautiful green colouring and crest, it was also a delight to hear their squeaking calls.

Hazel flower 2019 close up

Hazel flowers

There seems to be a lot of colour appearing already as many spring flowers are coming through, primroses are now in flower at Blashford, as well as lesser celandine and wild daffodils. At Fishlake Meadows some violets are flowering and scarlet elf cups are adding to the colours to be seen, they are getting particularly large now.

Yesterday on Chloe’s penultimate day of work experience she was very lucky to get some even better views of the bittern at Blashford Lakes. I went along a bit later to see if I could get a glimpse and hopefully a photo too. I did manage to get a photo, but was only a record shot at best, it was lovely to see it again and I may get a chance next week to get a better photo. We finished Chloe’s placement with a final walk around Fishlake Meadows, it was a bit of a grey foggy morning but there was plenty of noise coming from the reed beds. There were lots of reed buntings singing away, which we didn’t hear on Wednesday and many cetti’s warblers and water rails joining in. We even got another very good view of a cetti’s warbler as a wren chased it away. At least 2 great white egrets were moving around, and lots of geese and gulls were making a lot of noise, I suspected a bird of prey may be troubling them, but we didn’t manage to spot one.

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Not a very good photo of a bittern

Dead wood

I have been asked many times why there are so many dead trees at Fishlake Meadows, so I thought a blog to shed some light on this would be a good idea. Fishlake Meadows used to have the water pumped off so crops could be grown and the land farmed. The trees, primarily poplars, would have been planted as wind breaks and  along field boundaries. When farming stopped and pumping the water off the site ended, the area gradually became wetter and wetter. Poplars do well in quite wet conditions, which is probably why they were chosen for Fishlake, however the site eventually became too wet for them. This has meant they have slowly died off and began breaking apart, some still have a bit of life, noticeable by leaves growing in the summer.

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View of dead trees from the 2nd viewing platform

The dead trees are a wonderful feature of the nature reserve and are so full of character. When you see a photo with the lines of dead trees amongst reedbeds and open water you immediately know which nature reserve it is.

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Line of dead poplars in the reedbed

In addition to being a wonderful feature, they are fantastic for birds. Many of the birds of prey, osprey, marsh harrier, peregrine falcon and hobby, use them as perching posts while resting of keeping a look out for their next meal. Cormorants use them to roost and dry out their wings, great white egrets and herons are regularly seen perched in them.

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Dead trees through the middle of open water

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Peregrine falcon making use of the dead trees

The dead and dying trees also provide nest sites for many birds, the softer wood is easier to hollow out and where branches have fallen away a hole is often left.

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Small hole and dead branches of an old oak tree provide great habitats for a wealth of wildlife.

Invertebrates benefit from the ample deadwood at Fishlake, many beetles lay eggs on deadwood so their larvae can hatch and bore in to the dead wood. This gives them, warmth protection and food. There are up to 2000 invertebrates in the UK that are saproxylic, which means they are reliant on deadwood for part of their lifecycle. Around 330 of these are Red Data Book listed because they are rare, vulnerable or endangered.

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Bore holes in deadwood from insects

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Soft deadwood dry and sheltered on a wet day

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Dead wood is in decline around the UK which isn’t good news for the 7.5% of species directly associated with dead wood. This decline is due to changes in woodland management. Dead wood is now regularly removed from woodland as its often thought of as messy and needing “tidying”. Many wooded areas in the UK are plantations which means the trees are in blocks where they are all the same age and then harvested before any die off. Traditional practices such as coppicing and pollarding would open areas of woodland floor on rotation allowing flora to thrive. Pollarding and coppicing also created a woodland with trees of every age, including creating dead wood habitats each year, unfortunately these traditional practices aren’t used much anymore.

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Dead trees that are beginning to break apart.

At Fishlake Meadows there is truly an abundance of dead and dying wood which is a real asset to the nature reserve and the wildlife. In a time when dead wood is sometimes in short supply I am very proud to manage a nature reserve that has plenty. There are several old oak trees that have broken and dying limbs which will have a whole host of micro habitats suitable for many species.

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Dead oak tree near the viewing screens

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Oak tree with dying branches near the east/west path.

Much of the dead wood on the ground around Fishlake is also being colonised by a variety of fungi and lichen, yet more wildlife that thrives when there is a healthy supply of dead wood around.

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Bracket fungi species on a fallen branch

Dead wood is a wonderful thing and is beneficial to have in gardens too, it provides shelter and protection for invertebrates, mammals and amphibians. A small pile of wood in a partly shaded area with some dead leaves around it will soon get lots of visitors.

 

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Blue Monday Medicine

I heard on the radio yesterday morning that it was “Blue Monday”! Supposedly due to gloomy weather, still being weeks from pay day, the festive period being over and broken new years resolutions to name a few of the reasons. I have to agree that it feels like there have been dark mornings and evenings for a long time and I’m certainly looking forward to spring. Fortunately for me I have a job that allows me to get outside in day light hours and see some lovely wildlife. This, as we know, is very important for our wellbeing and mental health.

Yesterday I decided to try and combat blue Monday by getting out to Fishlake Meadows to do some odd jobs and have a walk around. Heading to the screens, at first glance there wasn’t much there, just as I was about to walk away, a marsh harrier came in to view. It flew low over the reeds and gave me some wonderful views of it, I believe its a second year male. I don’t have a particularly good camera, so unfortunately my photo’s aren’t very good.

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Marsh harrier

A great white egret then flew in and landed at the edge of the pool. 4 were seen together at the weekend, and it’s quite a while since I’ve seen one at Fishlake Meadows, so I was very pleased to see one again. It was spending a lot of time fishing at the edge of the pool and looked like it was having a successful time.

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Great white egret seen from the screens

A peregrine falcon then shot in to view and landed in one of the dead trees near the great white egret, showing very well, staying there for quite a while. Usually I’ve only seen them later in the day as the starlings are gathering.

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Peregrine falcon showing well in the dead trees

After the peregrine flew away I headed back along the permissive path being serenaded by cetti’s warbler and water rail. The stonechat pair came in to view, they don’t seem to be a shy bird, quite often coming very close. This allowed me to get some slightly better photos.

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Female stonechat

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Male stonechat

Nearly back to the east/west path and a kestrel flew overhead from the west and landed in its favourite spot on the pylons. It is quite often seen perching along the cables or tower of the pylons throughout the year.

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Kestrel making use of the pylons

For a walk that first seemed like it wasn’t going to offer much, it really brightened my day to suddenly see all these amazing birds and to get such lovely views of them, it certainly stopped my Monday from being blue.

Work parties, waxwings and where’s that otter?

I’ve had a busy week and a half back at work after the Christmas break. I started the year with meeting one of our ecology team to survey some of the trees at Fishlake Meadows for bats. It was interesting getting to see some of their different gadgets in action, including an endoscope camera. This allows the ecologists to check inside small nooks and crannies to see if there are any bats or signs that bats have been in there.

On the 4th I managed to go and see the waxwings in Totton. It was great to see them, it’s been about 6 years since I last saw any. They weren’t at all bothered about the crowd of people that came to see them, which was about 50 strong! Waxwings first arrive along the East coast with Scotland and the North getting the higher numbers. They then spread South and West in the search of their favourite food, berries. Amenity planting around car parks draw them in as they often have lots of trees with berries on.

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The 6th of January was the first work party of the year at Fishlake Meadows, and thanks to a dry festive period we were able to get back to scrub cutting in the reedbed. We are working to clear a thick block of scrub over a few years. This will hopefully allow the reedbed to extend to the cleared areas, which has already begun to happen in the sections cleared last year. This work also has the added bonus of improving views across the reserve from the canal footpath.

After the work party I took the chance to have a good walk around the reserve to see what was about. I had a pretty successful walk, seeing a few pintail and teal from the screens, whilst there I also heard an otter bark, followed by a splosh in the ditch, hopefully I will see one soon! Walking back along the permissive path I spotted a marsh harrier circling high over the body of water nearest the Fishlake Meadows road. Near the gate on the permissive path I stopped to get a look at a kestrel on the pylons, as I scanned up I noticed there was a kingfisher showing well at the edge of the small pool. There have been quite a few sightings of them recently.

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Kingfisher – not the best photo, taken on my phone through binoculars.

Just before leaving the starlings began gathering and murmurating in pretty good numbers. On the whole it was quite a relaxed murmuration as no peregrine appeared to give chase. Its likely that the starlings will continue to gather and murmurate at Fishlake into February. A good place to watch from is the platforms along the canal path or near the screens. starlings 6 (6th jan)starlings 7 (6th jan)

It’s Christmas!

This has been a lovely last week at work before finishing for Christmas. There have been some good breaks in the rain to be able to get out and see Fishlake Meadows and Blashford Lakes. It even stayed mainly dry for the Fishlake Meadows work party on Wednesday which doesn’t usually happen! However, due to the heavy rain, we still haven’t been able to get back to the scrub cutting near the canal. Instead we tackled some of the scrub on the canal bank itself. This is to improve views across the reedbed and fens from the elevated barge canal path, and to keep the banks from getting too overgrown. The material cut was again used to make some dead hedges. At lunch time we enjoyed a treat of mince pies to get us in the Christmas spirit.

Work party 21.12.18 before

Just as we were getting started.

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Once we had finished the view was much more open, and easy to see across the meadows.

On Thursday I was at Blashford for a Christmas treat work party, where we cooked some jacket potatoes on a fire and had them along with some lovely home made mince pies, a very nice way to spend the final work party before Christmas. After the work party I headed to Ivy North hide with the hope of catching another glimpse of the bittern… Fortunately I was very lucky and got a very good view of it, fully emerging from the reeds in to a little bit of an opening for a couple of minutes.

Today I had a walk around Fishlake Meadows to get some photos from around the reserve and to see how it was looking. There wasn’t a huge amount to see, but there was a lot of lovely noise, amongst the usual water rails and cetti’s warbler, as I was leaving I could hear a good number of teal whistling away.

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View from the road, lots of gulls!

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View from the 2nd platform along the canal.

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View from the left hand screen at the bottom of the permissive path.

I would like to say a huge thank you to the Fishlake Meadows volunteers! In the last year the wardens have clocked up 548 hours (starting in April) and the work party volunteers have given 284 hours from October until the work party on Wednesday! Volunteers have also managed to carry out 12 butterfly transects, a habitat condition assessment and fixed point photography. I hope they all have a wonderful Christmas and New Year and rest up ready for more in 2019!