Odd jobs and enjoying the view

On Sunday it was time again for our monthly Young Naturalists session, and we began the day by choosing a few items for our new Welcome Hut. These would hopefully be a talking point for both our new welcome volunteers and visitors, both young and old, and make the hut look more inviting. As we are still waiting for the interpretation we didn’t get too carried away and the group chose one item each. As a result, the hut does still look pretty empty, but we’re looking forward to filling it properly once the signage is all in place.

They selected a nice mix of items, including a pike jaw bone, roe deer skull, barn owl, fallow deer teeth, long tailed tit nest, badger skull, sea urchin fossil and three ducks, a widgeon, mallard and teal. I think they managed to convince Bryn and Jan that all the items were worthy of a place in the hut! We also gave the volunteers a peacock butterfly which was perfect for looking at in more detail under the microscope and popular with visitors throughout the day.

With the weather warming up we are running the light trap more regularly. Looking at and having a go at identifying moths has always been a popular activity with our Young Naturalists so it was great to have a rummage through the trap and see that they were still as enthusiastic as ever.

We had a number of different species including Hebrew character, Clouded drab, Common quaker, Small quaker, Twin-spotted quaker, Frosted green and Brindled beauty.

The group then treated the willow dragonflies they had made last month with artist Kim Creswell. The wasps made with the Home Education group and the dragonflies have now had two coats of a natural preservative so are ready to be positioned around the reserve on our ‘Wild Walk’. Watch this space to find out when and where you can see them.

Treating the dragonflies

Treating the willow dragonflies

We then headed over the road to see the new Tern Hide, and check out the view over Ibsley Water from the new viewing platform.

After lunch we spent a bit of time pollarding willow and bundling it up to store and use at a later date. It was getting a bit late in the year to harvest the crop but as last summer had been so dry it had not grown as well as previous years, so we just concentrated on the larger, longer whips and left the smaller ones. We will see how it grows this year, but I think there will be plenty for us to pollard next Winter.

Our Young Naturalists group is kindly funded by the Cameron Bespolka Trust. The Trust is sponsoring another Wildlife Camp in the New Forest from 31st May to 2nd June and spaces are available. The camp is aimed at young wildlife enthusiasts between 12 and 17 years and details can be found on their website here.

Our new Tern Hide, viewing platform and Welcome Hut have been funded by public donations and Veolia Environmental Trust (with money from the Landfill Communities Fund).

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Making the most of it…

Over the last few weeks we have been utilising our willow crop, making the most of the many withies our osier bed produces. Sometimes referred to as basket willow, common osier has traditionally been coppiced or pollarded for its withies: thin, pliable rods used for making baskets or hurdles, screens or sculptures.

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Willow withies, cut and ready to be woven!

Willow is of value to wildlife, with the caterpillars of a number of moth species feeding on the foliage, the catkins providing an important source of early nectar and pollen for bees and other insects and the branches making good nesting and roosting sites for birds.

Our volunteers were busy harvesting the willow over the winter months. Some are left to grow for longer, producing large poles which can be used for fencing stakes or den building poles, whilst our main bed is pollarded each year, providing us with toasting sticks for cooking food over the campfire, bundles of willow we can sell to willow weavers and Forest School leaders for willow craft activities and lots of withies we can use ourselves.

At their February meeting, our Young Naturalists had a go at constructing a living willow dome to the side of the Education Centre. Although it may not look living now, the willow rods pushed into the ground will hopefully take, producing lots of side shoots we can then weave into the basic structure.

We began by pollarding the last few willows in the osier bed and rummaging through the piles of cut withies to select a number which were nice and long and straight.

Using a piece of twine tied to a stick pushed into the ground, we measured out our willow dome and pushed a number of withies into the ground in a circle. We then pulled in the tips of those rods and tied them together at the top before adding some horizontally part way up the structure to pull in the shape and create a dome.

Megan had made willow hoops on a Natural Wellbeing session in January whilst with us for work experience and shared this new found knowledge with Mollie and Will, producing a number of hoops we could use as windows.

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Making willow hoop windows

We added in two archways for doors and our willow hoop windows then, having run out or time, admired our creation.

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Our willow dome

Hopefully the willow will grow and over time we will be able to strengthen our structure with the new growth, giving it more shape and definition. I know it will be a welcome addition to the area by the Education Centre, our Wildlife Tots in particular loved the structure when they joined us at the start of the month. Thank you to volunteers Geoff and Roma for your help, and to volunteer placement Sarah who has added in more willow over the past week to fill in some of our gaps!

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Our willow dome with a few more willow rods – thank you Sarah!

We have also used the willow to make hedgerow baskets on an adult workshop and simple platters with children from Moyles Court School as part of their Global Development Day.

On our hedgerow workshop we harvested the willow on day one, using it to create the framework of our baskets before foraging for other materials on day two, including bramble, holly, ivy, sedge, rush, broom, birch and larch, experimenting with these materials when weaving the body of the basket. Here are some of our participants finished creations:

At Moyles Court School we made simple willow platters with the children as part of their Global Development Day, introducing them to the material and discussing the many uses of willow. They really enjoyed their willow weaving experience and everyone went away with a willow platter they had expertly woven:

Whilst we’ve used a lot of last year’s willow growth, we still have plenty left for other creations, projects and campfire cooking – and there will always be more of this wonderful natural material to harvest next Winter and use in the Spring!

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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

 

Weaving willow for birds

Today our Young Naturalists were back at Blashford for their December session and we began the day with a quick look in the light trap. It really was a quick look, with only two moths present, a December moth and a Red-line Quaker:

We then headed over to our willow wood for a morning of pollarding the willows and turning our cut stems into a number of simple platforms for nesting birds. In particular, Bob has Little egrets in mind, so fingers crossed they may be tempted by our creations! Little egrets tend to nest in colonies, with coastal birds preferring small colonies or even nesting alone. Their nests are usually small platforms made of sticks, 30-35cm wide and 10-15cm high. Hopefully our platforms will be a good starting point for nest building once they have been carefully positioned out on the reserve.

We began pollarding one section while volunteer Geoff carefully strimmed another part of the area, so we would be able to see all the hidden holes and dips in the uneven ground.

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Edie and Poppy pollarding

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Will and Jackson pollarding

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Geoff strimming

We then used some of our cuttings to weave the nesting platforms, trying out both a round and circular design. I’m not sure which, if any, the birds will prefer!

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Weaving a round platform from the pollarded willow

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Three of our finished platforms

We will have to see what the birds, and Bob, make of them, but they’re a good start!

After lunch we visited Goosander, Lapwing and Ivy North hides and were rewarded with a good mix of birds including a kingfisher, a number of goosander and flocks of siskins jingling around the tree tops in search of seeds. Sadly there was no bittern to be seen, but one was seen yesterday.

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Great crested grebe by Talia Felstead

 

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Snoozing Tufted duck by Talia Felstead

Thanks everyone for your hard work today and to volunteers Geoff and Nigel for helping out.

Our Young Naturalists group is generously supported by the Cameron Bespolka Trust. Do visit their newly re-launched website to find out more.

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Stripping the willow

Yesterday, Thursday, was volunteer day and I’d love to tell you that mid-way through the task everyone broke into some spontaneous traditional dancing, but sadly(?) that wasn’t the case and the blog title actually refers to the fact that we continued the osier willow pollarding that was begun last week…

Pollards before...

Pollards before…

...and after.

…and after.

As always everyone worked really hard and by the end of the morning, although there is still some to be cut, particularly around the margins, the bulk of this block has now been cleared. Over the next few weeks that will be finished and work will begin on re-coppicing some of the surrounding willow blocks. The willow poles, or withies, that are cut are stacked into a number of cradles (one of which is pictured in the foreground above) ready for use either on-site or elsewhere. The cradles lift them off the ground, mostly to lift them out of the reach of the rabbits who will gnaw at the bark and wood rendering them useless, but also partly to stop them rooting into the soil and growing.

Although probably not true osiers the withies that are harvested are almost as flexible and can be, and have been in the past, used in basketry work by local basket makers and on courses at the centre.  Some of the willow will be used by Michelle and myself with school and community groups or events to make everything from toasting sticks, to wreaths and bird feeders, but there is always far more than we have a use for, so every year we will sell what we can (for a donation) to schools, youth and community groups and private individuals. If you are interested, or know someone who might be interested, please do let them know and get in touch with us to arrange collection (01425 472760 or BlashfordLakes@hiwwt.org.uk). The smaller stems are approximately 0.5cm in diameter and 1.5m long, the larger stems approximately 1.5cm in diameter and 3m long. In addition to the a fore mentioned use in baskets and crafts these willows are ideal for planting to create living willow sculptures.

Sherry modeling some freshly harvested willow!

Sherry modeling some freshly harvested willow!

While most people were engaged in the pollarding work mention should also go to Russel and Phillip. Russel stoically helped Michelle tackle the ever ending bramble “seedlings” in what should be one of our meadow sweep netting areas, but as long as it is as bramble infested as it is, with out reinforced sweepnets(!) it is not really useable as such. Between the two of them they removed loads, but sadly, there are still plenty more to go…

Russel getting to the root of our bramble problem

Russel getting to the root of our bramble problem

Phillip meanwhile was armed with the leaf blower and managed to clear the leaves from the paths between Ivy North, Woodland and Ivy South Hides, as well as making good headway along the woodland/Dockens Water footpath between the Tern Hide and Goosander Hide. It may seem a little strange to “waste” time, fuel and effort on removing leaves from the footpaths on a nature reserve, but the truth is that the consequences of not doing so will prove far more expensive both in terms of time and resources in the long run. One of the great things about Blashford Lakes as a nature reserve for many people is the accessibility of the paths – unfortunately if leaves are left on the paths they really quite quickly get trodden in and decompose down to a nice organic substrate that is perfect for grass and other plants to root into and in a relatively short space of time what were easily accessible gravel paths become grown over with far less accessible tussocks of grass and other vegetation. This has happened already on other, more remote, parts of the reserve which we know are going to need some attention over the next 12 months to improve them and bring them back up to spec.

Phillip - armed and ready to blow!

Phillip – armed and ready to blow!

Bird wise I’ve not much to report from yesterday – I’m not even aware of bittern having been seen, but as I type I have just had a visitor report seeing the red-crested pochard and four goosander on Ibsley Water. Not that the goosander are unusual, but it is less common for them to be seen on the lake in the middle of the day except in inclement weather.