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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

 

Fishing in the Rain

The last two days have not been the best, I think it rained, even if only lightly, for the whole time I was at Blashford on Sunday. It did not put of the monthly volunteers, or at least not completely, four stalwarts came in and spent nearly two hours pulling nettles from along the paths and around the wild daffodil bank. The rain did stop everyone from coming to my planned “Late Summer Wildlife” walk though and so they all missed the two black tern that spent the afternoon over Ibsley Water and the thousand or two of house martin and swallow too.

Iblsey Water has had a lot of fish eating birds on it lately and Sunday was not exception with both grey heron and great crested grebe hunting close to Tern hide.

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Juvenile grey heron

There have been well over 70 grey heron on a number of days recently and my maximum count was late last week when I saw 153!

GCG in rain

Great crested grebe in the rain

I have also made some of my highest counts of grebes for  along time recently, today I saw at least 57 from Tern hide alone. There have also been at least 6 little egret, Walter the great white egret and as many as 193 cormorant, so life for smaller fish has been difficult, but equally there must be  a lot of them to have attracted the attention of so many predators.

Mouldy Old Day

On my way to open up the hides this morning I found another slime mould on a log near the Woodland hide. More regular readers will perhaps know I am rather fond of these bizarre organisms. This morning’s species was the coral slime mould Ceratiomyxa fruticulosa and it resembled a hoar frost in colour and shape.

coral slime mould

coral slime mould

I spent the day working with the volunteers continuing to develop the new area of grassland beside the path through the old concrete works. Before anyone asks, no I don’t have an opening date for the path yet, but I hope it will be reasonably soon. We were doing some cutting, but also a lot or raking up and it was remarkable how many young common toad there were in the area, certainly many tens and probably hundreds, clearly it is an important area for them. The seeding we did back in the spring has worked surprisingly well considering how dry it was, although it seems to be making up for that now. There are lots of young bird’s foot trefoil and ox-eye daisy plants coming up so it should look pretty good in a year or two.

At the end of the day I set off to lock up the hides and my eye was caught by something brilliant yellow, another slime mould! This time troll butter, it is almost dayglow in brightness.

troll butter and very small beetle

troll butter

It was only when I downloaded the picture that I noticed the tiny beetle.

 

 

A Clear(er) View

On Thursday the volunteers cleared the annual vegetation from in front of the Tern hide, we do this each year for a couple of reasons. The most obvious is that it improves the view of the nearest shore from the hide. Another is that it clears the ground for the nesting lapwing and little ringed plover next spring. There are also always some seedling bramble, birch and willow that need pulling out before they get established.

before

The shore before we started

after

and after a couple of hours of hard weeding

Looking out from the hide today this did not make much difference as visibility was seriously reduced due to persistent heavy rain. Despite this there were some birds to see, including at least 800 sand martin, 3 swift, 2 dunlin, a little ringed plover, 3 common sandpiper, 33 mute swan and 3 pochard. Ivy Lake was quieter with just a few coot, gadwall and great crested grebe, there are also still two broods of two common tern chicks on the rafts.

Today was not a day for invertebrates, but I do have one more picture from Thursday, spotted in long grass as I went round locking up, a wasp spider, my first of the year.

wasp spider

Wasp spider female with prey.

 

A Bit of a Catch-up

Apologies for a bit of a gap in posts, a combination of not a lot to report and too much to do.

The volunteers have been busy working in and around the former Hanson concrete plant site to get it into shape for the winter and to enhance the establishment of the plantings and sown grassland areas.  I am amazed how well the planting have survived considering the prolonged dry spell we have had and the almost unspeakably poor soil they were planted into, testament to how carefully they were planted. We have also been cutting nettle, bramble and thistle growth off the areas that we want to establish as grassland such as the shore to the west of Goosander hide where we were working on Tuesday in the oppressive heat.

before

The shore before we started covered with low bramble.

after

The shore at the end of the day.

It turned out there was quite a lot of grass and other plants under the bramble cover, so whilst there is still a fair bit to do I think we should be able to establish a grassy bank in the longer term, ideal for wigeon in the winter and lapwing in the spring.

The warm weather has been good for insects with butterfly numbers surging in the last week.

speckled wood

speckled wood

Moth trapping has also been good with several new species for the year.

Crescent

crescent moth

As well as good numbers of old favourites.

black arches

Black arches moth, a male with feathery antennae, the pattern seems to be slightly different on each one.

purple thorn

Purple thorn.

We are into a bit of a slack time for birds at the moment, although with autumn migration just starting things should pick up soon. A single green sandpiper has been around and common sandpiper reached at least six on Monday. Today there were 6 pochard, 4 more than recently. Almost all of the common tern have fledged now, just the three late broods remain, once again success has been very high at around two chicks fledged per pair. On Iblsey Water there are at least four broods of tufted duck and one of gadwall.

I had hoped to feature some of the many fine pictures I have been sent in recent days and I will do so soon, I’m afraid tonight that the technology has defeated me.

30 Days Wild – Day 26: In the Woods

A day of meetings for me today, but at least one of them was in a woodland on a small reserve where we are looking at some works to rejuvenate a mire that is getting shaded out by willow, birch and pine. The area has a lot of fallow deer and although we saw only a couple of adults we found two fawns lying up in the bracken.

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fallow fawn

There were a few butterflies out including meadow brown and ringlet, but it was reptiles that stole the day. We saw a very large female grass snake and as we were leaving a fine male adder.

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adder

I had to wait until I got home to see my other highlight of the day, when I checked the moth trap it contained a small elephant hawk-moth, one of my favourite species.

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small elephant hawk-moth

 

30 Days Wild – Day 23: Priorities

Finally a day when it was cool enough to get out on site with some machinery to get some of the paths trimmed. This is not the most glamorous of reserve management tasks but it has to be done. Managing a nature reserve is full of conflicting demands and dilemmas. No management is without impact and what is positive for one group of species will be negative for others. Trimming the paths often means cutting back nettles, as most will know these are the food plant of peacock and small tortoiseshell butterflies, so I try to avoid cutting the patches in full sun which they prefer and to do larger scale cutting only after they caterpillars have finished feeding.

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a fresh summer brood small tortoiseshell

The clearance of dense nettlebeds promotes patches of grassland and other herbage which is preferred by a wider range of species such as small skipper, which have just started to fly this year.

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small skipper

Over the years I have managed many different sites used for various purposes, ranging from nature reserves, long distance paths, picnic sites and Country Parks and these dilemmas occur at all of them. In truth all land management involves conflicting interests and all land is in multiple use. On a nature reserve wildlife will take precedence over most of the site, but access and safety will be paramount in some areas. I do believe that whatever the land use, it is wrong to deny the multiple interests, land management is about balancing interests not ignoring some entirely. Above all management should be about maintaining and enhancing the possibilities that are available for the future, good management is about increasing potential not applying a full stop.

Following Day 22’s horsefly picture I got another, this time of a male Hybomitra species in flight. This one is Hybomitra distinguenda and they fly very fast indeed, the picture was taken at 1/4000 sec and the wings are still in motion.

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Hybomitra distinguenda

It is reputed that a species of this genus, albeit a rather large one from Southern Africa is the fastest flying insect having allegedly been clocked at 90 mph!

I have noted before how Blashford has many species that have come in from elsewhere, often due to the somewhat chequered industrial history. We have a number of coastal species including a very large population of annual beard grass, perhaps the largest in    the county, the natural habitat for it is poached upper saltmarsh, such a scan be found at Farlington Marshes.

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Mayweed flower in annual beard grass.

 

 

 

All Clear

The Blashford volunteers were hard at work today and we finally finished the clearance of the western shore of Ibsley Water. As an old gravel working it has taken a long time for the area to settle down. The bare ground left at the end of extraction was a seedbed for a forest of ragwort and after we got this under control nettle and bramble proliferated. Mowing and grazing is increasingly establishing grassland over larger and larger areas, but getting it too a state where we can readily manage it as long term grassland has been a challenge. Hopefully today we had our last day of this clearance work, so long as I can get a suitable mower for the job from now on it should be easier to maintain habitat suitable for breeding lapwing and feeding wigeon.

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The last patches at the start of the task.

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Part way through

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Nearly there, just a bramble clump to go.

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Just the raking up to do.

Managing the habitat around the reserve and maximising the opportunity for people to enjoy the wildlife from the hides is a constant task and the input of the many volunteers is what makes it possible. They don’t just do lots of the work, they also come up with all sorts of ideas. Many of our volunteers are also regular visitors to the reserve, which gives them a different perspective from that of staff. Lots of ideas keep the reserve moving forward and encourages us to try new things and hopefully improves things for wildlife and visitors alike.

We have tamed the western shore of the lake just in time as we are shortly to take on the old concrete block works site between Tern and Goosander hides. This will be another area of disturbed ground, no doubt full of weed seeds and with added concrete, metal reinforcing etc. to boot. Although the major groundworks are now complete establishing vegetation is going to take time and effort. Several people have asked me when the new path between the main car park and Goosander hide will open. The short answer is I don’t know yet. Although the large scale works are done there is still things to finish before we will be able to take possession and open it up for use. I am hoping it won’t be too long now and rest assured that I will post details as soon as I know.