Visitors to Blashford over the last 5 years or so can’t have failed to notice that the boardwalk beyond Ivy South Hide has been deteriorating slowly but surely. It has had a multitude of boards replaced in this time but, with a rapidly failing substructure, this is no longer an option and it has been on the priority list for replacement as and when budget allows for the last two years.
Unfortunately budget has not allowed.
Like most businesses and other charities we have not been left unaffected by COVID and our income from both group visits and general visitor donations has fallen significantly over the last 18 months, the latter despite a significant increase in the number of visitors enjoying the site throughout a time when people have been feeling safer meeting friends and enjoying outdoor recreation as a safer alternative to indoor spaces.
Extra footfall is a great opportunity for a wildlife charity to engage and connect people with the wildlife in their local area, but it does also cause wear and tear on the footpaths and infrastructure which most of us just take for-granted, without considering the fact that there are costs, sometimes significant, to maintaining them.
As a Trust we don’t build boardwalks on a whim; they are expensive. But this boardwalk across the Dockens Water floodplain and through some wonderful wetland willow carr habitat, not only gives visitors a glimpse into this unique habitat in safety, it is also one of the lynchpins within our permissive footpath network which holds it all together – it’s loss would be great not just for our visitors but for many educational groups that use it too.
Sadly it is deteriorating fast and earlier this summer the decision was made that it was no longer safe for large electric wheel chairs or for mobility scooters to cross for fear that the weight of the machines would be too much for the weakened structure. As it is it won’t survive the winter for people on foot either, and may not even last the autumn before we take the difficult, and reluctant, decision to close it completely.
However, fortunately, it is not all doom and gloom!
A very generous regular visitor to, and supporter of, Blashford Lakes has pledged £10,000 towards the replacement of the old boardwalk and to also replace the original dipping pond behind the Centre which sadly no longer holds water following the ingress of reeds into it and through the liner (more on why the pond is so important to us, not just for wildlife, but also the irreplaceable educational opportunities it provides, to follow in a subsequent blog). We also have a further £5,000 secured but we need another £5,000 to complete the works – and this is where (I hope!) you come in.
The Trust has launched a public appeal to raise this additional £5,000. We have already received contributions totalling nearly £3,000 but we are hopeful that we can raise the full amount.
If you have already donated to this appeal, then thank you. Your contribution really is so very much appreciated!
If you have not done so, and indeed this may well be the first you have heard about it, and if you are in a position that you can afford to do so, then please do make a donation.
Hampshire & Isle of Wight Wildlife Trust has maintained the stance that our hides would re-open again in line with step 4 of the transition out of lockdown, ever since the Government revealed its roadmap in the Spring of this year.
That day has, finally, arrived, and as such the hides at both Blashford and Testwood Lakes will be open daily from Monday 19th July.
Clearly this transition out of COVID-19 restrictions is not without risk as the number of cases and hospital admittance continues to accelerate both nationally and, critically, locally, and for this reason, and in order to give ALL of our visitors the confidence to use our facilities we will be asking that everyone wears a face covering while using a Hide, that they open sufficient windows to ensure a reasonable air circulation and that everyone observes a 1m+ social distancing between themselves and others not of their party.
We know of course that our hides can be very popular with photographers as well as birdwatchers and respectfully remind EVERYONE that with the number of people able to safely use the hides limited, if the nature reserve is busy with lots people wishing to view the wildlife from the hides it will not be appropriate for any individual to “set up camp” in a hide, but rather they should leave and allow other visitors to enjoy the views after a reasonable length of time.
We will be reviewing how the reopening goes in light of visitor feedback and, of course, as circumstances and/or government guidance changes, and will amend the way we ask visitors to use the hides, or close them again, accordingly.
Since the pandemic started our income has plummeted – both that which we normally generate through our educational visits and events, but also that which we normally receive from our visitors in-lieu of a reserve entry fee.
Even on those days when the site has been busy, which has been often, our visitor contributions have been well down on what we would normally expect.
This may, or may not, be a perceived reduction in benefit which some visitors may have been feeling for as long as the hides have been closed, not appreciating the costs that are involved with our maintaining the excellent footpaths around the site, providing toilet facilities, wardening it in light of antisocial behaviour, particularly last Summer, and continuing to manage the site for nature conservation.
Regardless of the reasons for the reduction in donations that we have seen, we are very much hoping that with the hides open again visitors will dip their hands into their wallets again. We absolutely do rely on your donations to continue our work at Blashford Lakes so thank you in advance and anticipation of your future generosity!
Please bear in mind that we will always endeavour to open our nature reserves but that, with our limited staff numbers against an ever increasing number of people being required to self-isolate, that it is becoming an increasingly likely possibility that there will be times when with very little, if any, notice, we will be unable to open on occasion.
Earlier in the year little did I know that when I locked up and left Blashford, somewhat appropriately as it happens, on Friday 13th March, that I would not be back until the 2nd July, thanks to a cocktail of a poorly child with a high temperature having to stay off school, subsequent quarantining of myself and family, lockdown and, later, furloughed leave.
A lot has changed in that time, at home, in the UK and across the World, for the Trust and, specifically, for Blashford Lakes.
Any regular readers of the Blashford Blog will know how Bob continued to manage and warden the site throughout lockdown, monitoring and dealing with the affects of ash dieback on the woodland despite, or in-spite, of the restrictions that lone-working imposed and his having to deal with the impacts that “cov-idiots” including poachers, dog walkers and cyclists were having upon the reserve and the wildlife.
As lockdown restrictions were eased he was joined by Tracy and they worked hard together to make and adjust to new socially distanced working procedures and hygiene arrangements whilst planning how the nature reserve might most safely be reopened to the public.
I for one am very grateful for all that they did and I am sure that our visitors are too, albeit that many won’t know that they are, or should be!
I returned to work from furloughed leave on 1st July, worked from home on that first day and returned to Blashford itself on the 2nd to reacquaint myself with the site and acquaint myself with new ways of working.
The site itself is much as it always was, although now displaying an awful lot more directional signage to aid visitors around the new one-way circular walking routes and with more of Tracy’s educational and insightful mini-interpretation notices which highlight particular aspects of wildlife as you explore the nature reserve.
The insects have been fabulous, none more so that the clouds of common blue damselflies which were particularly in evidence when I first got back at the beginning of the month.
The wilder areas around the dipping ponds as well as the relatively recently (last Summer) created ornamental raised flower beds and wildflower turf around the Welcome Hut at the front of the Centre have been, and are, full of insect life. Indeed our butterfly survey volunteers are finding that although the northern transect is doing well the southern transect is generally quite poor this year – with the exception of that area around the Education Centre.
One of the highlights of returning to work has been being able to view the moths attracted to the light trap over night, although always tinged a little with sadness that this summer we have not been sharing the same with our school group visitors:
The bird hides remain closed and are not set to open as normal anytime soon so glimpses of the lakes are infrequent and few but the view from the Ibsley Water viewing platform at the back of the main car park remains open and does still give a fantastic, if distant, view of that lake – and indeed it was from there that a number of visitors enjoyed views of an osprey perched on the perch placed out in that lake with just that purpose in mind. The sweet honey like scent of the creeping thistle which is growing in profusion there, alongside other fantastic nectar sources like ragwort and teasel is pretty special too:
So all in all, although the hides remain closed, there is still plenty of wildlife to see and you never know, you might get lucky and see something more unusual like an osprey, or, as other visitors have reported seeing on different days over the last couple of weeks, Blashford treats like kingfisher or treecreeper, or slightly more unusually, an otter or a family of stoats.
And visitors we are getting; plenty of regulars just like the “old days” before lockdown, but also lots of new visitors. Since restrictions eased further and holidays were allowed we’ve seen a lot of families and visitors new to the nature reserve on their holidays but we are also continuing to welcome local visitors who have and are staying close to home and who having done so are looking for new places close to home to explore and enjoy.
As a result the nature reserve is actually probably attracting more visitors this month than it would normally do so at this time of year and I suspect that this will continue over the next couple of months.
Tracy and I are continuing to develop the means by which we can engage with both visitors to the nature reserve and visitors, including schools, who might normally visit the nature reserve but are unable to do so at the present time.
A big step forward has been the installation of WiFi boosters outside the Centre which has not only allowed us to lead live virtual pond dipping activities (Tracy with her Young Naturalists meeting and myself with the Year 1 and Year 2 classes at Ringwood Infant School), but which will also enable us to offer other live virtual meetings, including “mini-beasting” or emptying the light trap for example.
Another benefit of the much improved WiFi has been our being able to re-open the Welcome Hut on an occasional basis, at least for now.
As mentioned earlier in this post, we are seeing lots of new visitors, but with the Centre and Welcome Hut closed and our Welcome Volunteers still stood down at present, there often is not someone available to provide assistance or guidance when required.
The improved WiFi coverage means that we can log on to the Wildlife Trusts remote desktop and continue to work on office and admin work from the Welcome Hut while being on hand to greet and provide assistance to visitors as needs be.
There are a number of benefits to this new working environment, not least of which is that it is a very pleasant place to work – with the doors fully opened and side windows ajar there is a lovely natural “air-conditioning”, the sound of bird song with an accompaniment of Roesel’s bush-cricket and grasshopper from the adjacent wildflower “meadow” fills the air and there is a lovely view of the tree’s around the Centre car park. Of course if anyone needs assistance we are there to help – and, as an added bonus should any further incentive to work out there be required, although it’s a bit early to be sure that it is a pattern and not just a coincidence, visitor donations seem to have gone up since I moved “office”.
This latter point is actually really important – the Wildlife Trust relies on its income from membership contributions as well as donations and at Blashford we especially rely on donations to help fund all elements of our work, from administration, to conservation, to education to access repair and improvements. Our income has been hit hard with none of the donations from group visits that we would normally receive throughout the summer, nor the usual donations from our “every day” visitors, despite there being more of them in recent weeks. This is, in part at least, because fewer and fewer people are carrying or using cash in our post-lockdown world. Bob recently made up some new “donation ask” signs with a QR code that visitors can use to make a donation to the Trust electronically and this too may have prompted more visitors who can to make a cash donation during their visit.
Time will tell whether it is my welcoming face, the new QR code or something else which will help our coffers over coming weeks!
From earlier posts you may already know that over the past few months we have undergone many changes here at Blashford. Thanks to generous donations from local people, together with funding from the Veolia Environmental Trust (with money from the Landfill Communities Fund) and LEADER (part-funded by the European Agricultural Fund for Rural Development) we have been able to update reserve signage, create a new pond, replace the old Tern Hide and add in additional new features for visitor engagement, including the ‘Wild Walk’ sculpture trail and Welcome Hut. Today’s blog will highlight some of these new developments just as they are coming to completion, so please do venture down to the reserve to discover them for yourself along with friends and family.
When visiting make sure to pop in to our Welcome Hut, which is now a little fuller than when it first opened. With the help of our welcome volunteer team, we have created a friendly and engaging space where members of the public can talk to individuals about the reserve and local wildlife. The Welcome Hut is open on Friday, Saturday and Sunday each week and can be found next to the Education Centre.
The Welcome Hut
Inside the Welcome Hut
Around the Education Centre much thought has been given to making the space accessible and beneficial for all, with a safer area for visiting groups and families to congregate and enter or exit the building and more picnic benches. The wildlife has not been forgotten, with three large planters filled with many pollinator friendly plant species. Particular favourites are the Salvia and Marjoram, both of which are regularly visited by many types of familiar insects including the bumblebee (both shown in the photograph below). When visiting next make sure you stop by to look or take a few photographs of your own. In addition, wildflower turf had been laid next to the Welcome Hut and this is currently being frequented by a dazzling array of damselflies.
Bumblebee on Salvia
Azure blue damselfly
As some eagle eyed readers may have already spotted from the photo at the start of this blog, we have also increased our offer to our youngest visitors to the reserve. Re-surfacing the car park to improve the drainage has removed the almost permanent puddle that was so popular with our Wildlife Tots groups and other visiting toddlers, so hopefully to compensate for the loss of this water feature we have built a sandpit, with leaf stepping stones leading from this to a tunnel (which used to be uncovered and behind the Education Shelter) and then on to the boat.
Sandpit, tunnel and boat
The sandpit is now the first part of this mini adventure trail leading up the bank to the boat, and children can follow the oak leaf stepping stones through the wildflower tunnel.
Stepping stones leading to the boat
The centre lobby has also been refurbished to include a new wildlife camera screen which currently lets visitors switch between live images of the new bird feeder station in front of the Woodland Hide as well as the popular pond camera.
New feeder station & Camera by Woodland Hide
New interpretation inside the Centre encourages visitors to think about how they can work towards making a wilder future and inspire not only themselves but also friends and family to take action, no matter how big or how small. Do share your pledge for wildlife with us by filling in a feather and adding it to our egret.
One of the biggest changes has been to the Tern Hide, which was replaced in Spring with a whole new structure. The Tern Hide now offers a panoramic view of the lake, new seating and most excitingly a living roof which is looking brilliant as it becomes more established.
From the viewing platform and the hide you can also see our newest tern raft which was just moved into place last week. Hopefully next year we will see some nesting pairs using the raft, with the aim to increase the colony numbers and to further chances of successful breeding, with the birds occupying more locations around the reserve.
Tern raft on Ibsley Water
The new pond which again was dug earlier in the year is the only project yet to reach completion. The pond, located behind the Education Centre and next to the existing pond is awaiting a new fence which hopefully will be constructed over the next few months. This however has not stopped the wildlife from taking advantage and we are looking forward to being able to dip it once it has become a little more established.
Female Emperor dragonfly egg laying in the new pond
This Female Emperor dragonfly was spotted laying eggs upon the fringed water lily beneath the surface of the water. Moreover this stunningly vivid Common Darter also paused to land on the boardwalk by the old pond – just long enough for a beautiful photo!
Common Darter on the Boardwalk
We also have a new donations box for visitors in the main lobby located between the office and kitchen. If you visit and enjoy all the developments to the reserve please do help us to continue improving the site by donating to the Hampshire and Isle of Wight Wildlife Trust. Without public donations the daily running and upkeep of the reserve would not be possible.
We would like to thank everyone who has helped us so far: our visitors for their support and patience during the interruptions which took place whilst the new infrastructure was being built and fitted; our lovely volunteers who have worked so hard to help us make these changes a reality; as well as to our funding partners and everyone who donated towards the Blashford Project who ultimately made these developments possible.
This week the project work has definitely taken a leap forward, with landscaping progressing well outside the front of the Education Centre and new signage and interpretation springing up all over the place. I am really enjoying our smart new look, in particular the bird silhouettes that are now up on all the hides and our new entrance sign.
Our new sign on Ellingham Drove
Of the hide cut outs I think the stalking Bittern may be my favourite on Ivy North Hide, but they all look wonderful:
The new Tern Hide is also looking smart with its share of silhouettes and the map of the reserve is now in place.
The way markers are still a work in progress but a number are now up, although a few tweaks need to be made with these so please do bear with us whilst this takes place. Regular visitors to the reserve and anyone eagle eyed and studying our new map will know about or notice the footpath which links the main nature reserve car park by Tern Hide with Goosander Hide. This footpath is I’m afraid still not yet open to the public so please do obey any locked or blocked access to this route – opening the path is still in the hands of the land owner (Bournemouth Water) and various solicitors, but we hope at some point soon access will be granted as it will really make a difference to the walking routes available and I know will be welcomed by many, us included!
The interpretation has certainly given the reserve a fresh new look and it will look even better once it’s all finished and in place.
Richard the landscaper has been busy building raised planters outside the front of the Education Centre, improving the look of this area which will become a safer meeting and gathering place for visitors, families on events and children on school visits.
He will be back next week to finish off the fencing. The sign contractors will also hopefully be back next week with the interpretation for the Welcome Hut and the area outside the front of the Education Centre whilst the car park here is also still awaiting its final surface, so some disruption is likely to occur over the next week or so. The Centre and toilets will remain open as usual.
The landscaping and signage have both been made possible thanks to generous donations from local people, together with funding from the Veolia Environmental Trust (with money from the Landfill Communities Fund) and LEADER (part-funded by the European Agricultural Fund for Rural Development).
Tuesday is one of our volunteer task days, but the forecast was not promising, however as it turned out the morning was not as bad as predicted. We were felling sycamore from the edge of the car park near the Centre to give the oak a bit more space, luckily the poor forecast kept visitors away so we did not have to hold up too many people as we cleared the trees from the entrance track. Towards the end of the morning the rain set in and we decided to call it a day, just as we did a visitor arrived to tell us that the white tailed eagle, that has been up the road in the New Forest, had paid us a visit and was perched on an island in Ibsley Water.
White-tailed eagle with crows
It really was a huge bird! with a massive hooked beak and feet to match, magnificent and if the possible introduction project on the Isle of Wight comes to fruition perhaps a regular sight in the future. The very definition of “Charismatic megafauna”.
White-tailed eagle with crow
The crows did not seem obviously intimidated, and strolled around within a few feet, the gulls were a lot more circumspect, even the great black-backed gull only made a few, quite distant, mobbing swoops.
Showing off a seriously big pair of wings!
It was a good way off but we could clearly see that it had a metal ring on its right leg and no colour-rings. It is a juvenile so will have been ringed as a nestling somewhere last summer. A lot, perhaps even most, ringed eagle chicks receive a coloured ring or wing tag at the same time as being ringed with a standard metal ring, as this enables their movements to be tracked more easily. This bird seems to have been an exception so we have no idea where it might have come from, it could be from Scotland, but is probably more likely to be from Scandinavia somewhere. The juveniles move much further than the older birds and the adults will usually try to stay on their nesting territory all year if the food supply allows.
Unsurprisingly this was a first record for the reserve and although relatively few people were about to see it due to the poor weather, I know it was a new bird for quite a few. Some lucky people went on to the Ivy North hide and had very good views of bittern as well, not a bad bit of birdwatching for a bad weather day!
Other birds today included a water pipit at Tern hide whilst looking at the eagle, the black-necked grebe was also seen in the distance and there were 112 pochard there also, with 57 more on Ivy Lake. Locking up at dusk in the tipping rain, there were two great white egret roosting in the dead alder trees beside Ivy Lake.
All in all not a bad day for birds on the reserve, or any site in the UK. As most will know access to the reserve is free, but we do still need to raise money to keep things going and hopefully improve them so donations are always more than welcome, in fact they are essential! So if you visit and have a good time please consider making a donation. We have a had a lot of generous donations to our appeal for various improvements, including a new Tern hide and dipping pond, but it is the year round donations that keep us running day to day.
On Friday evening we had our annual volunteer get together, our chance to say “Thank you” to all our many, many volunteers on whom the smooth running of the reserve depends. Volunteers do practical tasks, help with education groups, lead and help with events, take photographs, carry out survey work and even do some of our admin.
The evening started with a choice of two walks or helping Tracy in her attempt to make the official Blashford coracle.
As you can see they did a great job, so far at least, it will still need covering with something waterproof.
I lead one of the walks and we were lucky enough to see the bittern and a few brambling, I got no pictures, but have one sent in by Lorne Bissell (many thanks Lorne) and taken at the feeders by the Woodland hide.
Over the weekend both the black-necked grebe and Slavonian grebe remained on Ibsley Water, while the ring-billed gull was joined at the roost by a first winter Caspian gull.
Today dawned bright and cold and there was some ice around the edges of the lakes.
It being Tuesday we had our smaller practical volunteer team in, the task was to try and make repairs to the roof of the Ivy North hide to stop the water coming in. For this task we have to thank not just the volunteers who carried it out but also a donation from the Marden Charitable Trust, which paid for the materials. Donations are an important part of the funding for the running of the reserve. It is an unfortunate fact that it is much easier to raise funds to buy a bit of infrastructure than to look after or replace it. So keeping a site running is much harder to fund than setting it up in the first place. Our volunteers’ work and donations play a vital role in keeping things together in the long term.
I will sign off with a picture taken from the office, somewhere I have been spending rather a lot of time recently.
The picture was taken through the rather dirty window, but is not bad for all that. There have been at least 9 long-tailed tit on this fat feeder at a time recently, in this cold weather this high energy food supply is likely to be very important for very small birds like these.
As most of you will know Blashford Lakes nature reserve is managed by Hampshire & Isle of Wight Wildlife Trust one of the many charitable Wildlife trusts around the country that between them manage tens of thousands of hectares of our very best wildlife habitat. As charities we seek donations from supporters, visitors and others to enable us to keep going. Perhaps contrary to the belief of some, membership income only supports a very small part of the work the Trusts do. So it is at Blashford that we ask for cash donations from our visitors, in addition some people also give us useful things like a sack of bird food or their time as volunteers.
At other times we get “Donations” that are less welcome, one such was a large drinks chiller that was “donated” out of the back of a van this morning.
This is one donation that may well cost us a bit to dispose of. However they don’t call me “Sherlock” for nothing (or actually at all), but I have some leads as to how it got there and even where it might have come from. You can watch this space for further exciting instalments!
Dealing with this kind of thing is just one of many ways that we end up having to spend money on the reserve that brings no benefit to either wildlife or visitors, very frustrating and unfortunately not at all uncommon.
The reserve is run as a partnership with the two water company landowners (Wessex Water and Bournemouth Water) and New Forest District Council and they provide the site and pay some of the running costs. However the Wildlife Trust also covers a share of the costs and raises all of the money for facilities such as bird hides, paths etc. and their maintenance.
Our average donation per visitor is about 30p, which annually amounts to just about sufficient to cover the costs of emptying the cess pit, filling the bird feeders and providing a tern raft. It is perhaps not surprising that at a lot of reserves you will be asked to pay £3 or £4 to get in, actually not bad value for half or even a full day out. A few years ago we asked people what they thought a visit to Blashford was worth and the average came out at £3.75, or about the price of a pint of beer or a fancy coffee (or perhaps a not very fancy coffee!). So if you can make a donation when you visit it will be VERY welcome, although we have all the white goods we need, so no more of those please.
Today’s birds were, like the visitors, rather damp, but they included the bittern at Ivy North hide and the black-necked grebe out on Ibsley Water.