How Wild Should We Go?

I was asked recently “Why can’t you just let nature be nature?” from which I understand the questioner meant, why do we do management on nature reserves? It is a very good question and one that is being directly addressed by a number of “Rewilding” projects at present.  As someone who is called upon to manage nature reserves I can say that I am always looking for the least intervention possible to retain the identified site interest. Where possible allowing natural succession to run the show is the preferable option.

So why do we do any site management at all? One obvious reason is that most reserves have visitors and they need to be kept safe, have usable access and something to see without compromising the wildlife interest of the site. On a site like Blashford Lakes these issues would probably be the main driver of most of the reserve management done by the staff and volunteers. Nature reserves are where people get a chance to engage with wildlife, where education about the natural world can take place and where we can just enjoy the natural world.

Beyond visitor safety and quality of experience the priorities start to get a bit more subjective. Thankfully the days of managing a site for a single species are largely gone, today nature reserves are about habitats and the suites of species that might live within them. There is no question that fashion has been as much a driver in nature conservation as in most other fields of human activity. Certain species or habitat types being flavour of the month (or perhaps decade) and much else that is truly wonderful getting sidelined.

So how do we decide what to, or if there is a need to do anything? The first thing is consider the data, see what is available, collate all the information we can find and identify the gaps in knowledge that need filling. At Blashford we knew the lakes were of international importance for wildfowl, so management for these species was going to be important. The lakes are a recently created habitat and are changing so we also need to keep an eye on how they are developing, where changes are outside practical management control  this needs to be recognised so that we achieve the most sustainable future of greatest benefit of wildlife. Since we have been running the reserve we have discovered a number of notable species including several new to the county and this information informs management, either indicating that something should be done, or not done.

Most nature reserves are not in a climax habitat state, that is if they are left alone they will not stay the same, this is called habitat succession. This may not matter, except that most reserves were established because they had interest for wildlife and change implies potential loss of this interest, even if it might also include the acquiring of new interest. Importantly nature reserves exist in a context, they are rarely large enough to support viable populations of many species, so the habitat of the wider area is also a vital consideration. One undesignated (i.e. not SSSI) part of Blashford Lakes is the lichen heath, it turns out that this probably home to more rare species than any other part of the site. It will  slowly turn into secondary birch woodland without intervention, so in this case there is probably a good case for trying to halt this successions and “reboot” the area to allow continuation of this habitat beyond its natural lifespan.

Our new reserve at Fishlake Meadows is a great example of how nature can reclaim an abandoned area. A natural looking wetland developed rapidly once the pumps that sustained conventional agriculture were turned off. The reserve is now one of a string of important wetlands along the Test Valley, from the brackish transition marshes of the Lower Test through the standing waters of Testwood Lakes and on up through the Broadlands Estate, the string continues north to Mottisfont and beyond and all linked by the River Test itself. It quickly developed into an area of pools with reedbeds and tall fen, plants that could colonise freely from the species rich habitats close by. The existing trees mostly died as their roots became waterlogged, but new trees came in, mainly willows, well adapted to wet conditions. The resulting mosaic of habitats attracted many species, including a number of scarcer ones. Surveys at this time showed just how diverse the site had quickly become, its potential for wildlife was clear, the task was how to secure the site as a long term haven.

Now that Fishlake Meadows is a reserve new surveys are being conducted. What was immediately clear was that the fen plant communities were more restricted and less diverse than they had been a few years before, this appeared to be because they vegetation was taller and dominated by fewer larger species. It was also clear that the willow scrub has turned into woodland in many areas shading out the vegetation underneath and was continuing to expand. Closed canopy willow woodland will develop quickly in reed swamps and fens if the water is not too deep and although good for some invertebrate species it is generally less diverse than the earlier successional habitats it replaces. It is also not a particularly rare habitat and can be found widely along the less managed parts of many of our river valleys. Fen grasslands are much rarer and as are many of the species that depend upon them.

It is reasonable to ask “Why intervene to try and keep short-lived habitats?” We could just step back and watch. It is also interesting to ask “How come these species that depend upon early successional stages are here at all?”. If we try to look back in time much of the country would have been covered in woodland, trees are the natural climax vegetation type for this part of the world. This cover would not have been continuous though, the landscape would have included large herbivores, such as wild cattle, wild boar and other species that would have changed the plant communities like beaver. These along with natural flood plains would have resulted in areas where trees were fewer, indeed beaver dams may well have had the same effect on trees in valleys that turning off the pumps had at Fishlake. These lost species would have prevented ares from achieving their potential climax vegetation type resulting in scrub, glades and perhaps extensive grasslands in suitable locations. Work at the Knepp Estate in Sussex is showing how having a range of large herbivores, in this case domestic animals that mimic the activity of wild species, produces a varied mosaic of habitats, very like that aimed or by most nature reserve managers. They maintain areas of early successional habitat without the need for constant intervention.

Many other valued early stage habitats are entirely man made, hayfields would be an example, even though the species could have survived in grazed grasslands they would not have achieved the densities experienced in managed hayfields. So sometimes we are managing to maintain historic land practices that happen to be good for wildlife, although they are not natural.

So we undertake management for people, in an attempt to mimic the likely impacts of  larger habitat changing species which we have now lost from our environment or to maintain historic human activities which have produced habitats which we deem to be of interest. The less work we have to physically do ourselves to achieve this the more land we can manage for wildlife. Low density grazing by hardy cattle breeds seems to be a fair substitute for the impact of wild herbivores, which is why the Trust has a herd of native breed cattle. If we can get the regime right the fen habitats at Fishlake should require very little intervention to be maintained, grazing will open up ares of shorter vegetation and reduce scrub invasion. Together with other areas where succession will continue this will hopefully maintain a complex and diverse habitat for many years to come.

How wild should we go? As wild as we can, if we allow space for nature it will thrive, but space is everywhere, if we confine nature to nature reserves many species will not survive. We need to remember that to survive a species needs continuity of the resources needed for survival. Maintaining habitat diversity is key to maintaining species diversity and the greatest range of resource continuities. Extinction is a once in a lifetime event best avoided or at least put off for as long as possible.

If we can start to set aside really large areas we might actually be able to step back entirely and let things go properly wild, but perhaps we are not yet ready for wild cattle, lynx, wolves and all the rest. We may like our wildlife, but not be ready for it to  be properly wild just yet. In the meantime we will have to manage habitats and continue in our roles as proxy aurochs and substitute beavers.

yellow loostrife bee

Yellow loosestrife bee, nectaring on creeping thistle. A species that depends upon lush, sunny, wet fen habitats.

 

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Wetlands

This week has been busy working with volunteers at both Blashford Lakes and Fishlake Meadows. Both are wetland sites, rich in wildlife and the tasks have been aimed at maintaining this diversity of habitat and wildlife. The value of many wetlands lies not in the water itself but what grows in it or immediately around it and how these species and habitats interact. They form a mosaic including open water with lush marginal vegetation, these plants act as the support for a huge foodweb, although it is often only those species such as reed warbler or marsh harrier near the top that we notice.

So what were the volunteers up to? on both Wednesday and Thursday each team was managing scrub willow, to recreate open areas, allowing in light and restarting the habitat succession. In the past such work might have accompanied by a roaring bonfire, something I moved away from a good few years ago. I have several reasons for avoiding fires, they pollute the atmosphere, they sterilise the ground with their heat at the fire site, the ash acts as a fertiliser for hungry plants like nettle and thistle and the twigs and branches burnt are potential habitat for lost of species. For years we left log piles for beetles and other wood boring species, but the smaller diameter branches and twigs were ignored, despite the fact that they support even more species. So now we avoid fires and use dead hedges wherever we can. Ultimately the wood will break down and the carbon in it be released, but much more slowly and only after use by many other species.

volunteers working at Fishlake Meadows

Fishlake’s volunteers getting stuck-in shifting willow from a reedbed area to a new dead hedge.

At Blashford Lakes the terrain was a little drier and the areas opened up will support a mixed reed and dry fen vegetation, there is also an additional reason for clearance as this habitat is favoured by adder at Blashford. Many adder populations are in trouble, with some rarely producing young, luckily Blashford’s adders seem to be doing well and we see young snakes quite regularly.

Blashford volunteers

Blashford’s volunteers clearing scrub willow.

At Blashford we have combined the clearance of small willow with pollarding of larger ones to keep some dense willow growth favoured by many species. The dead hedges here provide valuable wind breaks for lots of wildlife including snakes and log piles placed in shelter are used for basking.

As it happens today is “World Wetlands Day“, this year’s theme is “Urban Wetlands – prized land, not wasteland“. Blashford Lakes is perhaps not an urban wetland, although it is not far from the town, but it is a prized wetland developed from a former industrial site, used for gravel extraction and making concrete products. Fishlake is perhaps a suburban wetland rather than a truly urban one, it is certainly right on the doorstep of Romsey town. In many ways it had been something of a wasteland since the abandonment of farming, but a “wasteland” that nature has reclaimed in a spectacular manner and well on the way to becoming a prize wetland site.

At dusk yesterday I was struct by just how valuable wetlands are for wildlife, from Ivy South hide I could see close on a thousand wildfowl, scattered all across the lake.

wildfowl on Ivy Lake

wildfowl on Ivy Lake

A little later still on Ibsley Water the huge gull roost emphasised how much wildlife depends upon wetlands, in this case as a roost site, as most of them spend the day feeding on farmland out on Salisbury Plain.

gull roost

A small part of the Ibsley Water gull roost with a few duck in the background.

Although the Thayer’s gull of last Sunday has not returned, this week has seen regular sightings of the regular ring-billed gull and on Wednesday and Thursday evenings a juvenile Iceland gull.

 

Making Preparations

Although it feels very much like winter there are preparations for the coming spring afoot. At Blashford Lakes I spent Tuesday working with our volunteer team clearing the Long Spit island and the open ground of the old Hanson plant making the ground ready for nesting lapwing, little ringed plover, common tern and black-headed gull. Lapwing can settle down to nest as early as the start of March and will be pairing up at nest sites well before then if the weather is suitable.

before

The Long Spit before clearance

after

Long Spit after clearance

It was very cold and we had feared we would also get wet as there were some fierce showers, luckily they mostly missed us and by the time we had finished the sun was out.

By way of proof of approaching spring I spotted a pair of blue tit checking out a nest box outside my kitchen window, luckily the Blashford boxes have all been cleaned out, a reminder for me to do mine at home.

blue tit investigating

Blue tit checking out the nest box outside my kitchen window at the weekend.

Today we were working with our new volunteer team at Fishlake Meadows, again we were making preparations for later in the year. This time it was scrub cutting in preparation for grazing parts of this new reserve. Although much of the reserve is open water and reedbed there are areas of wet grassland that is gradually getting ranker and invaded by willow and bramble. To arrest this we plan a light grazing regime to maintain the mix of grass, fen and small patches of low scrub. Today we removed some young willow and cleared small alder to leave a few larger trees that will provide valuable shade for cattle in the summer sun.

start

Making the first cuts – the Fishlake volunteers starting out.

We were lucky with the weather, it was cold, but we managed to stay out of the wind and in the sun making it feel rather pleasant, hopefully we will be as lucky next time.

finish

With the scrub removed these trees will provide valuable shade for the cattle later in the year.

As we walked out to the worksite I saw a distant great white egret and on the way back we watched 2 red kite sparring with a pair of crow.

In the afternoon I returned to Blashford Lakes and got a quick picture of a water pipit outside Tern hide, nit the best I have seen but the best picture I have managed,

water pipit

water pipit

I am very lucky to be able to see quite a lot of wildlife as I go about my working day, however there are times when I should definitely have been looking the other way. As we headed out to work on the Long Spit on Tuesday we apparently disturbed an otter from the lakeside and it then swam by the Tern hide, somehow none of us saw it!

At Blashford we are also at the start of preparations of a different kind, we are planning a number of improvements around the reserve. To fund this we are hoping to apply for a grant and part of this process involves sounding out our visitors for their experience of the reserve. If you have visited recently it would be very useful to have your views, a questionnaire is attached here: Blashford Lakes Questionnaire if you are able to complete it and email it to us it would greatly help us with our grant application.

 

Counting and Estimating

It was a very grey dawn that broke as I waited in Lapwing hide this morning in an attempt to count the goosander roost on Ibsley Water. Unfortunately I think a lot of them  had already left as I saw only 54, I would have expected over a hundred at this stage of the winter. Luckily, although it was very grey, there was almost no wind, making counting the wildfowl quite easy. Overall the counts on Ibsley Water were poor, a few years ago there could have been totals of a thousand or more, but poor weed growth has meant there is little food for many species this winter. The highlight was seeing both of the black-necked grebe together, although they then went their own ways very quickly, one remaining close the southern shore the other up to the north-west corner as usual.

Luckily some of the other lakes do have a good growth of weed, most notably Ivy Lake which held 356 gadwall and 318 wigeon, although only 31 coot was a real surprise as they are also weed-eaters. It seems the coot were mostly on Rockford Lake, where there were 340, but only a few dozen each of wigeon and gadwall. Perhaps they prefer different types of weed or maybe the coot are going after weed in deeper water. Recent conditions may mean that the ducks do not need to follow the coot around to get at the weed they drag up and can feed on floating fragments.

Wildfowl are relatively easy to count on a lake, they do not move fast and if you have a good viewpoint you can see them all, at least if they are not diving. Later in the I encountered birds that were rather more difficult to count.

In the afternoon I was at our new reserve at Fishlake Meadows, to look at what will eventually be the reserve storage area and yard. We will not have access to it for a while but it was valuable to see the site and where service entry points are. Setting up a new site is always exciting but dealing with all the elements that need to be in place to make things work at their best taxes my brain at times.

After dealing with the boring but essential site details we walked the canal path and witnessed the modest but still impressive starling roost. I say modest, but I was quite unable to count them, an estimate would be perhaps 8-10,000, nothing like the 60,000 or more that were seen a couple of weeks ago. They arrived in several groups, the largest landed quite quickly.

dropping down to roost

The flock dropping into roost

Shortly after this a buzzard flew low over the roost which took flight and then mostly landed in neighbouring trees and bushes.

starlings sitting in trees

bushes full of starlings

All the while extra groups of birds were flying in. Quite a sight and they attracted a fair crowd of local people, it is always good to see people able to enjoy wildlife on their own doorstep. There is something especially satisfying about being able to walk out from your own home and see wildlife, or better still be able to see it in, or from your own garden. Wildlife should really be living around us, not just experienced by travelling to special places, one of the great things about Fishlake Meadows is its proximity to the town of Romsey, wildlife on their doorstep.

Windy Fishlake

I made a short visit to Fishlake Meadows today, luckily it was dry and sunny, I managed to miss the squalls that came through earlier in the day and the showers that came later. The recent rain was evident in the increased mud on the paths, something we hope will reduce once the paths are resurfaced.

The wind meant that I saw rather few birds, I heard the odd water rail and Cetti’s warbler. A flock of over a hundred fieldfare were gathering, possibly to roost. Unfortunately I had to leave before the starlings arrived, I gather something over 55,000 came in to roost this evening. I also managed to miss the marsh harrier that was seen several times by others I met. I did see both sparrowhawk and kestrel, the latter are regularly there suggesting a good population of small mammals. The habitat would suggest that harvest mice could be common, I will have to look out for abandoned summer nests in the reeds when we are working later in the winter.

 

A Fishlake Wander, Recent sightings and Festive Opening

Work at the new Trust reserve at Fishlake Meadows is picking up, with the fencelines being cut out and plans being made for the start of willow coppicing, both to maintain some of the low scrub and to open up some new views across the reserve. As part of this planning process we were out on site at the start of the week, luckily we picked a good day.

P1090322

View across part of Fishlake Meadows

On our wandering in some of the damp fields we encountered a large number of Cetti’s warbler, the reserve has large areas of almost perfect habitat for them. We also flushed a fair few snipe including one jack snipe. Perhaps our most surprising sighting was of 2 hawfinch perched in a small tree near a flock of fieldfare. There has been a once in a lifetime invasion of hawfinches this winter with many thousands arriving from the continent. These two were probably some of these immigrants rather than local birds, but with the New Forest being the UK hotspot for the species they could have been more local.

P1090319

a view across the lower lake

 

mistletoe at Fishlake

Mistletoe on poplar at Fishlake

Around the drier margins and especially along the canal path there are still many live poplars and quiet a few of them have a festive bunch or two of mistletoe high in their branches.

Meanwhile at Blashford Lakes latest reports are that the ring-billed gull is now being seen regularly in the gull roost on Ibsley Water as is the first winter Caspian gull, with a 2nd winter bird also reported recently, the roost also includes 2 Mediterranean gull. The starlings have been putting on quite show, with some estimates of up to 50000 birds coming into roost, usually just to the west of Ibsley water so seen from the hill at the back of the main car park. On Ibsley Water itself there have been up to 104 goosander roosting, 14 goldeneye and a single black-necked grebe. At least one of the pink-footed geese can be seen on and off with the greylag. There continue to be something like 90 pochard and 25-30 pintail as well.

On Ivy Lake “Walter” the great white egret is being seen fairly regularly and was joined by a second bird the other day. From Ivy North hide water rail and Cetti’s warbler are regular, although we have yet to get a report of a bittern this winter. The Woodland hide has one or two brambling and lesser redpoll as well as the occasional and less desirable report of brown rat.

robin

Robin

CHRISTMAS OPENING: We will be open as usual over Christmas apart from Christmas Day itself when we will be closed. In addition on New Years Day we will have the Pop-up Café again in the Centre, so you can start your birdlist for the year and get a hot cup of something and some excellent homemade cakes.

 

Reserve Visiting

I have just returned from a holiday up north where I visited a few reserves myself, but the title here refers to a visitor we had at Blashford today, an avocet. Not perhaps quite the rarity they once were, but still very unusual, unfortunately I missed it. It flew in in the early afternoon and gave good views for  a short time from the Tern hide, I am told there are pictures too, so perhaps some will make it here. I then discovered that there had been an avocet at the Trust’s new Fishlake Meadows reserve in Romsey at about 11:30 and that it had flown off heading west, it seems highly probable that these two sightings relate to the same bird travelling between the two reserves.

The one problem with going away is the number of things that have to be caught up on when you get back and the dread emails kept me in the office for a fair bit of the day, which is not to say that I did not get out on the reserve as well. The sun had brought out a few butterflies, but numbers are on the decline now. I did find a very smart comma near the Goosander hide.

comma

comma

Not far away I also came across a female Roesel’s bush-cricket sitting on one of our benches.

Roesel's bush cricket female

Roesel’s bush-cricket

Looking from Tern hide I saw Walter the great white egret now looking very relaxed with a large group of grey heron. The herons seem not to take so much notice of him these days, at one time they would constantly be chasing him around, perhaps they have just got used to him. It is a curious thing that when little egret were first turning up they were often mobbed by gulls but now they are just ignored. Perhaps there is something about the unusual that elicits these responses and once something is regular they just become part of the scenery.

Locking up I was pleased to see that at least one of our wasp spiders is still going, I am not sure if something has predated the others or if they have laid their eggs. This one looks a though it will not be long before she lays her eggs and disappears.

wasp spider female

wasp spider, female

From Lakes to Lake

Last Sunday I spent the day at Hampshire & Isle of Wight Wildlife Trust’s new reserve at Fishlake Meadows on the edge of Romsey. The reserve is so new that we don’t yet have a reserves officer in post, but it is good to have some presence on site, so for the day I got to swap Blashford Lakes for Fishlake.

The site is around 60ha of abandoned farmland that has flooded to produce a mosaic of open water, reedbed and fen, wonderful habitat for a wide range of species. At present views across the site are limited by rapidly colonising willow and bramble, but tantalising glimpses can be had across the area from the old barge canal that runs north from the town.

The day was much finer than had been forecast and instead of dodging showers I got to enjoy a huge range of insects enjoying the flowery fen vegetation. One species that I was very pleased to see was the yellow loosestrife bee. This species is dependent upon the yellow loosestrife, not for nectar or even for pollen, but for its oil. Why would a bee need oil? That is the really clever part of the story, the bees collect the oil from the flowers on special hairs on their legs and use it to waterproof their nest chambers. This allows them to make their nests in areas that are prone to flooding, so they can nest close to the flower rich fen rather than having to nest elsewhere and waste energy flying in.

yellow loostrife bee

Yellow loosestrife bee, nectaring on creeping thistle.

The huge number of flowers attract lots of different bees and I saw many species, although identifying them is a bit of a challenge. I think this one is a patchwork leafcutter bee, but I could be wrong, also nectaring on a thistle, this time a spear thistle.

patchwork leafcutter bee female

Patchwork leafcutter bee

I also saw lot of wasps, these are even more of a challenge to identify and I have not even tried with this one.

parasitic wasp

parasitic wasp

There was an osprey on site when I was there but I managed very skilfully to miss it entirely.