Today I took 3 of our regular volunteers out to the north of the reserve to re-survey some plots in grassy habitat, to look for harvest mouse nests.
During the winter of 21-22, the Mammal Society asked people UK wide to go out and survey for harvest mice nests. It’s now time to head out again to find the nests that were built throughout 2022. This ‘National Harvest Mouse Survey’ is helping to build a picture of where they are found, their associated habitats, and will provide an idea of how much they have declined and what work needs to be done to protect them. To find out more have a look at the link below, and if you want to go out and survey in your local area please do!
We found 3 nests today, all woven into the grassy stalks and still suspended. One was the size of a golf ball – this is a solitary nest. Then another beautiful, newer nest that was much larger – this one was definitely a breeding nest. Then in another plot we found an older nest hidden away which could have been from spring 2022, or more likely we think could be from 2021.
We would like to survey more of the reserve to see whether harvest mice are present, and it was fantastic to find these nests in the same plot that was most fruitful last year. We need to ensure that the habitat doesn’t get encroached by brambles, so this will probably be one of the winter jobs for our conservation volunteer groups.
I go into the education area fairly regularly, to set-up activities for groups, and to check whether there have been any branches down that might cause an issue, or to see whether there are any precarious ones dangling over our log circle which we need to deal with. When I am there I always wonder, just how much goes on when it’s quiet and still. Turns out…. quite a lot of mammal activity!
Grey squirrel…. who very much likes to jump around the log circle, red fox, and fallow deer demonstrating just how much they can vary in colour. Taken with a Ltl Acorn camera trap. I have a Bushnell also set up to take videos of the badger set, and am looking forward to sharing those soon (although only photos on here, as videos don’t upload).
As a bank holiday treat during my work day at Blashford Lakes, I popped down to Hillview at Linwood, to take a look at the wonderful art on show at Angela’s Hampshire Open Studios event.
For many years, Angela and Arthur have opened their gates and welcomed members of the public to experience the wonderful art and garden. Sadly, Arthur passed away in June 2022, and this Open Studio event was in memory of him.
I wandered through the gates and was warmly welcomed, and took my time marveling at all the beautiful works of art in the studio, wooden cabin and in the tent. It was a sunny day to walk around the garden, where there were metal sculptures and hanging glass works to see too.
I won’t profess to knowing much about art, but I thoroughly enjoyed getting lost in the textures of the landscapes Angela has painted, and admiring the woodwork that Geoff Knott had made (some of which is made from Blashford wood!).
I went into the garage, which had refreshments and a ‘garage sale’, in aid of the Wildlife Trust. We will be forever grateful at Blashford Lakes for Arthur’s enthusiasm in setting up this sale to raise money for the Trust, and for Angela and Arthur’s support over so many years.
If you missed this Open Studio event fear not! Hillview will be opening again on the 12th and 13th of November from 10:30am – 4pm for ‘Hillview Art Christmas’, with ceramics, glass, sculpture, painting, wood turning and more. Visit the website at: http://www.angelaperrett.co.uk for more information, or grab a leaflet from the Welcome Hut at Blashford.
When did Blashford Lakes become such an important place for you?
Blashford Lakes is a little jewel of greenness and beauty. It was one of the first places I ventured out to with my Dad when I was recovering from my second mental breakdown back in 2013/14.
I always remember we were sitting in a lake facing hide and had two Bitterns fly from the other side of the lake straight over the top of us. I didn’t know then how important this place of beauty would become to me. Years have passed now and I am off all medications and have been for some years now the only drug I crave is nature.
What has helped your struggles with mental health?
You see when I was going through my second mental breakdown all my worries and anxiety were constantly spinning around in my head, the only time when it wasn’t was when I was surrounded in green, with my camera around my neck. Photography and nature gave me a distraction and a focus, when I was taking my photos it gave me some much needed headspace.
How does visiting Blashford Lakes help you?
Nature, photography and Blashford are still my self-help therapy tool to this day. Blashford has even become more important to me as I’ve got two little feathered friends, Mr and Mrs Robin.
I’ve been hand feeding this ‘on and off’ couple of love birds for a couple of years now. This year Mrs Robin went off with another fella, and Mr Robin went off with another lady for the mating season. Both have now been dumped, bringing Mrs Robin back into the fold slightly to the annoyance of Mr Robin. I’ve had a talk with both of them and hopefully we’ve come to an agreement to let bygones be bygones….. it’s almost like being on Eastenders with my two little friends!
Blashford Lakes will always have a special place in my heart. I did my Sky News interview from here earlier this year as I feel so much at home here. Nature is a healer and still helps me to this day, take care all who read this.
Thank you so much to Trevor for befriending the Blashford Robins, and for taking the time to talk to me about how important nature, and connecting with nature is for our mental health. The whole team here at Blashford is so glad that we are able to offer people a place of sanctuary during difficult times, it really is a wonderful place. Chloe – Assistant Edu Officer
We had 50 people come and enjoy the Dockens Water last Wednesday, half coming along in the morning, and then another session in the afternoon.
Lots of kids, and big kids (….I should call them adults but really they like playing in the river too!) assembled under the shelter, and then we set off. On the way we found some rushes, and a small leaf each. Gathering in a circle, everyone had a go at making a rush boat, and we had some spectacular ones!
After the adults had perfected their boats… and the children had crafted tiny masterpieces, we headed to the river.
First a quick line up on the bridge looking over the water for an intro to the Dockens Water and how to river dip, then we all got into the river to sail our boats. We had some upright, some with top heavy sails which did some ‘sideways sailing’, and one absolute winner, made by education volunteer David. With ambitions of a ship akin to the Dawn Treader from the Chronicles of Narnia, David plaited strands of rush together and made the most impressive rush boat I have ever seen! Sadly no pictures were taken… I will just have to ask him to make another!
We spent the rest of both sessions river dipping, getting splashy, and putting on masks so that we could see what the underwater world had to offer! Some children chose to lie down in the water, and lots of people got very wet! Others went to peer into the water at the edges of the river, carefully lifting the larger stones to see if any creatures were hiding underneath.
Despite the river being very low (could we all try and do some extra rain dances please!!), we caught quite a few invertebrates, with cased caddis fly being a firm favourite. We even managed a couple of fish – a bullhead, and a minnow!
Our latest Young Naturalists session was all about photography. We were hoping to be joined by Clare, a local landscape photographer, who unfortunately couldn’t make it, so we are hoping to get her to one of our sessions later in the year. Meanwhile, we took out our phones and cameras and took lots of images of the wildlife.
We started with the moth trap, where we were joined by Simon, who is a moth expert, and who not only identified all the moths we found, but also gave good tips on getting the best photos. After a warm night, there were loads of moths to choose from, so here’s a selection:
One of the most striking moths in the trap was an Elephant Hawk Moth, and Fletcher caught this spectacular front-on close up:
Of all the moths which regularly turn up at Blashford, I think my favourite is the Buff-tip, which looks exactly like a broken birch twig:
We spent the rest of the morning in the wildflower meadow, where there were lots of insects to photograph, and we had sweep nets to catch and have a good close look at the different species. I think Rosie’s ground-level photo of the meadow captures it perfectly:
The damselflies were everywhere around us, though they were difficult to photograph, as they don’t settle for long. Here are a couple of shots:
After lunch, we checked the hoverfly lagoons (no sign of hoverfly larvae yet), and had a go at clearing some of the slime off the pond, before heading down to Ivy Lake for a final try to capture more images of the day. I finally got my camera out, and took a shot of one of the resident black-headed gulls (why isn’t it called a brown-headed gull?):
The Young Naturalists group is open to all 13 to 17 year-olds, and this month’s session gives you the chance to be a tree for the day. Its on Sunday, 31st July, from 10am to 2:30pm, more details and to book a place, click here:
We had another successful Sunday with the Young Naturalists group recently, looking at three very different aspects of the wildlife at Blashford Lakes. First we unpacked the overnight light trap, which is mainly used to keep a record of the moths on site, but the first insect out of the trap wasn’t a moth at all, but a cockchafer beetle (or May Bug, if you prefer). These large and impressive beetles are only on the wing for a few weeks each Spring, and this one was sufficiently sleepy to allow us to pick it up, and feel it tickle the hand as it tried to cling on.
Thanks to Fletcher for the brilliant head‐on photo. Most impressive of the moths was a Poplar Hawk Moth, and this time Fletcher gave us a profile photo. We also managed to identify Light Emerald, Treble Bar, White Ermine, Scorched Wing, Clouded Border, Nut‐tree Tussock, May Highflyer, and a couple of what we think were Orange Footman.
The rest of the morning was spent searching for snakes. A team of Blashford volunteers has laid out a number of tin sheets and felt squares for snakes and other reptiles to use. They are tucked away well hidden around the reserve, and only checked once a fortnight to minimise the disturbance for any snakes which might use them as shelters and places to warm up. We had special permission to lift a few felts and look underneath, and we had also heard that a baby grass snake had been spotted underneath a log in the Badger Wood area, when a visiting school had been on a search for minibeasts. So we were delighted when we turned over a log, and there was a small grass snake curled up underneath. Again, Fletcher was quick enough to capture a photo before the snake wriggled away into cover. The photo also shows the snake’s nictitating eye membrane, a translucent protective cover over its eye. We found another four grass snakes under another of the felts, all of which looked to be youngsters, but they didn’t hang around long enough for a photo.
After lunch we headed over to the north side of the reserve, to have a look at places where adders have been seen basking in sunny spots in the undergrowth. We didn’t see any adders, but while we were out we took a look at the tern rafts which have been moored in the lakes to attract breeding Common Terns. The terns don’t seem to be in charge of the rafts on Ibsley Water, where the Black‐headed Gulls have taken over, but back on Ivy Lake we counted between 8 and 10 terns which appeared to be sitting on nests on the rafts. We also checked the rafts out on Ellingham Pound, where again the Black‐headed Gulls were in charge. While we were looking at them, Geoff spotted a Hobby, hawking above the trees, and we watched as it appeared to eat a dragonfly on the wing.
Not content with only getting into the river the week before, I decided Monday’s Tots session would also be river themed! I am delighted to say that we had a fully booked morning session for Tots, and ran an afternoon session as well – one boy enjoyed himself so much that he came to both sessions.
Our first was to make paper boats (or rather, my task the night before).. was to learn how to fold a piece of a4 paper into a boat. PAPER! I hear you cry! But PAPER SINKS!? Ah ha, well…. at Blashford we are rather clever you see.
A4 paper at the ready, we scribbled and scribbled and scribbled and scribbled.. and … you guessed it…. scribbled some more…. with wax crayons, until both sides of our paper was completely covered, and WATERPROOFED!
Once we had waterproofed our paper, everybody followed along with my folding (well done parents, and children!) until we had created some lovely little boats.
We walked to the campfire area and sat around in a circle, heard a little bit of a story and then meandered our way to the river, picking little ‘passengers’ (flowers, grass heads etc) for our voyage down the river. When we arrived at the river we got in, lined up and with an assortment of adults to ‘field’ for boats so we didn’t lose any down the river proper, we let them go and had a boat race. Well, we actually had about 5 boat races!
Once we had finished racing, and ‘passengers’ had gone overboard, we all had a go at river dipping. The Tots loved splashing in the river finding all sorts of tiny creatures, and we didn’t have anywhere near as many full wellies as I had imagined. A huge thank you to the parents in the afternoon session, I was helping the children wash their hands at the tippy tap, and as I got back to the riverside all the equipment was rinsed, packed up and ready to go back to the centre. A busy day, but a wonderful one.
We couldn’t let half term pass without trying to soak some children in a river… and so that’s (almost) exactly what we did!
The weather has been quite changeable recently, but thankfully this morning began bright and sunny. I got to Blashford and enlisted the help of Jacki one of our wonderful volunteers who was here for the regular volunteer party, to help me take all the equipment down to the river. Wheelbarrow full (although maybe not quite as full as Jim manages), and we trundled off to the river. ‘Danger’ deep water flags were set out… we don’t actually want to lose children in the deep bits, and nets, trays, ID guides too.
On arrival at the Education Centre the children engrossed themselves in colouring and water-themed word searches, and once we had everybody we got started. Our first stop was to find some rushes to make some rush boats to float down the river. After demonstrating how to fold the rushes and wrap them to secure the ‘boat’ and create a mast we all searched for a suitable leaf to be a sail. Some rush boats ended up a little top heavy!
We walked down to the river and followed the meander to race our boats and to see how the water feels whooshing past our boots in the deeper sections of meander. As we walked back to the bridge we hunted for pooh sticks, and with a yell of THREE, TWO, ONE, DROP! we raced them under the bridge.
I explained how to river dip, and what we might find, and then everybody got into the river again! It wasn’t long before the depth of water inside some people’s wellies was actually deeper than the water they were stood in, but they didn’t seem to mind!
We caught a lot of little freshwater shrimp, and all the families did well at using the guides to identify what they caught, and then we manage to catch some tiny little bullhead fish too.
Nobody really wanted to get out of the river, so we overran a little bit, and did a final pooh sticks challenge to finish. Once the welly boot water had been tipped back into the river it was time to wash hands and have some lunch. Well timed too, as not long after we stopped it started to rain.
For several years now volunteers and staff have been keeping an eye on the reptile population at Blashford. And we are delighted to say that we have a pretty healthy population – at least of some species. The habitat on the reserve is not conducive to all UK reptiles (Smooth Snakes and Sand Lizards have very specific habitat requirements) but we do have thriving populations of Adders, Grass Snakes and Slow Worms.
As part of ‘keeping an eye’ two teams of volunteers regularly carry out surveys on the reserve. One team does the morning surveys and the other the afternoon, during the active reptile season from March to October.
Surveys involve both visual searches of the site and the use of artificial refugia – namely corrugated felts and tins. These are placed in the areas most likely to support reptiles and in sunny locations, providing a solar heated refuge and protection from avian predation. Generally they are away from public view to avoid unnecessary disturbance. The disturbance of these refugia can significantly affect our ability to determine the presence of reptiles. The higher levels of disturbance cause them to increase the time spent under dense cover and results in them using less optimal habitat. This has both a negative effect on surveying, and on our populations of reptiles as a whole. If you do happen to come across refugia (here at Blashford or anywhere else on your travels) it is very important that you keep your distance and do not disturb them. Sometimes reptiles are found close to, but not underneath the refugia. If you have binoculars and/or a camera with a good lens, it is occasionally possible to get photos of these from quite far away. Please do heed the ‘DO NOT DISTURB’ notices on the refugia and keep a good distance away – we pride ourselves at Blashford on contributing to science, conservation and education, and hope that visitors to the reserve will respect this.
By doing regular monitoring we not only see what types of reptiles are on the site but we learn a bit more about their behaviour and how this changes throughout the year. We get to know the numbers of different populations of each species around the reserve, particularly by where they first emerge after the winter hibernation period. For those nerds amongst you the term for hibernation amongst snakes and amphibians is ‘brumation’. Brumation is the term used for the hibernation of cold-blooded animals.
We generally see how the reptiles at Blashford respond to the temperature. In the morning they will emerge into the sunlight in order to raise their body temperature and enable their muscles etc. to become active. But during the day, a good time to see them could be in the sunshine after a dull, cloudy or damp period, when they will come out into the open to bask and warm up. Once warm they will often move off to carry out their daily business, look for food, find a mate etc.
An extended period of hot weather is not usually good for sightings, as the reptiles have less need for the added warmth of the refugia. Snakes are usually found on the sunny sides of vegetation, along the edges where they are seldom far from dense cover for protection. But once warm it is not uncommon to see a grass snake swimming across a pond or a lake. They are sometimes known as ‘water snakes’. Any of the reptiles could be seen crossing paths and verges, so don’t rush your walks, you never know what you might see if you are walking softly.
Although snakes may eat a wide variety of food depending on what is available and how hungry they are, adders and grass snakes tend to prioritise different types. Adders mainly eat small rodents and lizards, whilst grass snakes’ preferred foods are frogs, toads and newts.
Slow worms are, of course, NOT worms or snakes, but are actually legless lizards. Characteristics include the ability to shed their tails and blink with their eyelids, which snakes are unable to do. They have a different diet to snakes and feed on a variety of invertebrates; slugs, snails, spiders and earthworms.
One of our puzzles at Blashford is that we haven’t recorded any common lizards even though the habitat would seem to be suitable; that is woodland, grassland, brown field sites. We do have woodland, there are some grassy areas and we are a former airfield and quarrying site after all. There have been a couple of suspected sightings and one or two reports but no regular confirmation. If you see any do let us know. Time and place would be good to know and if you can get a picture that would be brilliant …although they are pretty quick to disappear!!
For those of you who are interested in learning more about any of these species, surveying procedures etc. you can visit ARC, Amphibian and Reptile Conservation. https://www.arc-trust.org. Thank you to Jacki for writing this blog post, and to all the volunteers that are dedicated to recording and protecting the reptiles here at Blashford.
Don’t forget, if you’re uploading photos to Twitter please write Blashford Lakes within the post so that we can find it and retweet it!