On the first day of Spring…

A drift of wild daffodils near Woodland Hide

…what better way to celebrate and welcome it in than with, yes, you guessed it, more wild daffodils! If you’re fed up of seeing wild daffodils on these posts you may want to skip the next bit, but if like me you look forward to their blooming each year and mourn their passing, have a look at this short film I recorded a couple of weeks ago on behalf of a colleague:

Although the wild daffodil is unquestionably my favourite wildflower of late winter/early spring there are a number of close runners up, one of which is the tiny and so easily overlooked moschatel, or town hall clock:

It is tiny, and I think that’s why I like it so much. A bit like the scarlet male flowers of the hazel, seeing and appreciating their diminutive, perfectly cubic, flower heads is like discovering a secret known only to a select few every year.

Like the wild daffodil, and the bluebell whose leaves are becoming more prominent week by week around the nature reserve, moschatel is an ancient woodland indicator; i.e. a flower which indicates that you are in a woodland habitat that has survived as continuous woodland cover for a period of at least 400 years. The biodiversity of such a woodland is far, far greater than that of a newly planted woodland. The more ancient woodland indicator species there are present, the more likely that it is that that woodland is “ancient “.

As well as being Spring, today, the 20th March, also marks the first ever “World Rewilding Day”.

Rewilding is a relatively new term, but it is a concept whose value in helping to achieve the reversal of the climate change crisis through carbon capture, as well as, of course, helping to conserve biodiversity and reverse the terrible decline of so many species, has very quickly become a mainstream concept, no longer the preserve of a few scientists, radical landowners or guerrilla conservationists. Those few individuals in this at the start must today be incredibly pleased and surely also not a little surprised, that rewilding is now a world wide celebration!

What has the moschatel pictured below got to do with rewilding? Well, growing where it is within a small woodland amidst what was an aggregate quarry it is itself probably a rewilded plant. The Dockens Water river which flows through Blashford Lakes has retained and protected a narrow belt of ancient semi-natural woodland while all around it over the years man has farmed, constructed a WWII airbase and extracted sand and gravel. Once the quarrying activity stopped plants, animals, fungi and all the many other life forms which comprise our woodland ecosystem, are slowly, but steadily, recolonising the land.

It’s been rewilded.

The last couple of years has seen a huge drive to plant trees across the UK in a bid to slow or reverse the effects of climate change through the capture of carbon by trees. Planting tree’s is no bad thing, particularly in an urban environment. But in a non-urban setting nature can, and will, “plant” trees far better. Tree’s plant themselves if allowed to do so and if they are protected from intensive grazing or trampling. The resulting woodland will be more natural, more resilient and more diverse. And that is exactly what you can see happening on a small scale in the secondary woodland habitat around BlashfordLakes. It is far from being as biodiverse as the woodland along the Dockens Water, but, give it time… the moschatel and wild daffodils, and everything else, will come!

Of course in this time of enheightened awareness of climate change and rewilding we must remember that biodiversity is about far more than trees. Heathland, wetland, bog and grassland habitats can, and do, all sequester carbon and can, and do, all provide habitat for many rare species. Planting tree’s, or even allowing a woodland to develop naturally, in one of our few remaining ancient meadow habitats for instance would be as catastrophic for wildlife as ploughing it up or building on it. Indiscriminate tree planting, albeit with all of the best intentions, is not always the best or right thing to do.

Moschatel: the flowers are only just starting to open. Most are still just small green “pom-poms” and even the open one in this picture has yet to open fully. Well worth looking out for over the next few weeks – and “getting in” on the secret!

30 Days Wild – Day 12

A bit of a delay with Day 12, I managed a Tweet but not the blog. Friday was a decidedly mixed day, fine enough in the morning but with heavy rain in the afternoon, at least it refilled the water butts at the Centre after I had emptied them to top up the pond earlier in the week.

The last few days have brought at least some rain and a spurt in growth is just starting. Plants need both water and sunshine for growth, so where the ground remained wet from the winter growth is already spectacular, after one of the wettest winters followed by the sunniest spring plants like common reed will probably reach record heights.

reedbed

Reedbed

The reeds near Lapwing hide are already mostly overtopping last year’s maximum height and they should grow on a good bit more yet before they stop growth and start putting their energy into flowering.

The higher light levels are also apparent in the woodland, here light levels are typically low and many plants rely on just a short period of sunlight a day, or even no direct sunlight at all. With such high light levels this year growth even in shade has been good so long as there has been enough water. The shaded vegetation under the trees by the boardwalk often struggles, there is plenty of water but light is at a premium, but ever here growth has been vigorous. The variation caused by the different sized openings in the canopy where trees have fallen produces a wonderfully mixed vegetation  and wonderful habitat for lots of species. This is one area of the reserve where there is almost no habitat management and we let nature takes its course, a miniature rewilding.

willow swamp

Willow swamp vegetation

I am sometimes asked why we don’t rewild more of our reserves, it would be a great thing to do, but we are limited by the demands of safe public access, so it is only really in areas that the public cannot access that we can safely leave things. Although a passion for tidiness in some quarters is a significant factor in the amount of habitat such as deadwood and especially standing deadwood that is left for wildlife, the need to provide what is seen as a safe place for people I at least as significant. Certainly at Blashford there would be  a lot more standing deadwood habitat if the only consideration was the needs of wildlife. The irony is that although all trees will fall eventually most of them actually fall when they are not dead. This I found myself when I came to leave yesterday and found a willow had fallen across the entrance track. A combination of a large load of leaves, a weight of water from the rain and some gust y winds had proved too much for it. Willows do this a lot and rarely break off, they go from vertical to horizontal and just keep on growing, or at least they would if we let them. As I wanted to get home this one was cut back, rewilding is all very well but I was getting hungry!

fallen tree

fallen willow blocking the way

30 Days Wild – Day 9

The moth trap at Blashford was run last night, in fact we run it almost every night and have done so for many years. The advantage of doing survey over long periods is that you get some idea of changes over time. Although one moth trap in one location is not a controlled dataset when the data from lots of traps run all across the country is combined a picture of change begins to emerge.

The longest running systematic survey data for moth comes from the Rothamsted traps, which have been run every night at locations all across the country since 1967. A summary of the results of this work was published (Macgregor, C.J., Williams, J.H., Bell, J.R. et al. Moth biomass increases and decreases over 50 years in Britain. Nat Ecol Evol 3, 1645–1649). The traps are of a standard design so the catches can be compared between sites and between years. It turns out that moth biomass, the total weight of moths of all types caught, actually increased between 1967 and 1982. Since then there has been a steady decline to the present. However there still seems to be almost twice the biomass of moths now that there was in 1967. Catches varied widely between years, with hot, dry years, such as 1976 resulting in large increases, so we might expect increases following the last two summers, time will tell.

Although the data does not go back before 1967 in such a systematic way, the evidence that is available suggests that the really big declines had already happened by 1967, following the large growth in pesticide use in the years following WW2. Comparing habitats the poorest are urban and arable areas, arable perhaps due to their uniformity and continuing pesticide use, urban areas although more diverse are still subject to light and chemical pollution, both of which probably have impacts. More natural habitats such as grassland and woodland have larger catches and might be expected to be more stable, but have actually suffered 18% and 15% decline respectively since 1983. Although numbers are lower, catches have been stable on arable land over the same period.

great oak beauty

great oak beauty – a moth of old woodland

It appears that the continuing declines are ongoing in the richest habitats but stable on the degraded ones, perhaps indicating that all habitats are declining towards an impoverished base level of bio-abundance, at least for moths. A similar pattern is suggested for other insects too and is supported to some degree by observations of long-term changes in bird populations across a range of habitats.

In recent years there has been a lot of enthusiasm for “Rewilding” and this does seem to be one way to start to reverse the wholesale declines impacting many species. It is certainly true that typically small, isolated nature reserves cannot maintain our biodiversity, but they do still have a vital role to play. They are biodiversity islands in a generally impoverished landscape. If the impoverishment can be reversed this biodiversity can start to spread out from the reserves and repopulate the wider countryside and urban areas. Nature reserves are not just slightly nicer bits of countryside, they are where we have effectively “Banked” much of our wildlife and so need special treatment if we are ever to rebuild wildlife richness across the country. Far from being irrelevant in a time of rewilding, nature reserves remain essential to rewidling achieving its full potential.

The breeding season seems to have been a good one for most bird species at Blashford Lakes. There are now well grown broods of little grebe, coot, moorhen and wildfowl all around the reserve.

coot family

coot family

One group that as fared less well are the ground nesters that use the lake shores and islands. Black-headed gulls are nesting only on the few available rafts, for the first time in over a decade none are using the islands. This may be due to predation last season, but in combination with no breeding around the lake shore by lapwing, I suspect that heavy disturbance, especially at night, is a very likely reason. Unfortunately lockdown started just as the breeding season got underway, which might seem a good thing, but it brought a huge increase in nighttime poaching activity on the reserve as people had more time on their hands and legitimate angling sites were closed.

gulls on a raft

Black-headed gulls are doing well on the rafts with lost of fast growing chicks

Luckily poaching activity has now declined again as angling lakes have reopened. Lockdown has seen lots more people out in the countryside and seemingly a much greater value being put on local greenspace, which is all positive. However, as has been widely seen in the media, it also seems to have resulted in a large increase in more careless use. Many reserves have suffered incidents, with fires being perhaps the worst in terms of wildlife impacts. It would perhaps be ironic if, just as more people have recognised the great value of greenspace, inconsiderate use resulted in some of its value being lost. If we value something we should be looking after it, ultimately nature reserve do not look after wildlife, we all do, we have banked some nature on our reserves, not so we can go in and burn a few pounds from time to time, but so we have seed capital to invest in a better future with wildlife across the whole landscape.

I will try and include more pictures and less verbiage in Day 10’s post!

 

30 Days Wild – Day 30!

Another 30 Days over. I was at home doing various domestic tasks, but decided to do a home “Bioblitz” and managed to record just over 200 species, with one or two more yet to be identified. In many ways it was a disappointing day, despite sunshine and warmth, hoverflies were very few indeed, both in number and species, in fact insects generally were few.

I only included plants that are native or established in the wild and that are either in the garden without my assistance or if I have seeded them here they must be established and seeding themselves. This allows me to include the plants in the mini-meadow, such as knapweed, field scabious and ox-eye daisy, which we added by me.

I started with the moth trap, so twenty species to start with, not a great catch, but not bad for an actinic trap in a suburban garden.

Dioryctria abietella

Dioryctria abietella

Dioryctria abietella is a fairy common Pyralid moth, the larvae feeding on various conifers in gardens and plantations.

I did not stay at home all day though, I wen to the tip, now the traditional Sunday activity in suburbia, since the decline in home car washing. I also ventured out to Lepe Country Park., where there were a good range of butterflies including my first white admiral of the year. I did not manage a picture of that, but I did get a male green-eyed flower bee which had stopped for a brief spot of sun bathing.

green-eyed flower bee

green-eyed flower bee

So the end of another 30 Days Wild, hopefully lots of people have got involved this year, it seems to be a growing thing year on year. There is no doubt that concern for environmental issues had grown and it is even starting to pop up on the political agenda from time to time. I have worked in nature conservation for forty years and throughout this time the objective of the movement has been to try to save and enhance habitats whilst changing hearts and minds. The hope being that some of the best has been saved for the time when there is general agreement that we need to do thing differently and we learn to live with nature not compete with it.

So how far have we got in forty years? Honestly not far, awareness of the problems might have increased, but the problems have worsened dramatically. If we are to have much at all worth saving the next forty years are going to have to be very different, the pace needs to pick up dramatically. Even then the twin juggernauts of money and power are not going to give up their grip over the direction of travel easily, whilst there is profit to be made from “Dewilding” I suspect hopes significant of “Rewilding” are going to be unfulfilled.

We do know more now, we are better informed, but much of what is coming to the fore now has been around for the entirety of my working life without making much impact. The “Bigger and more Joined-up” ideal for conservation sites results from work done and published in the 1960’s – it just took forty years to catch on. Rewilding projects date back even longer, but are only now receiving much attention. Climate change and global warming warnings have likewise been around for longer than I have been working, the term “Global warming” in this context was coined in 1975.

So pretty much all that we have manged to get over into the wider public domain is what was already available when I started working. I like to remain positive, in fact there is nothing else to be, but we need the hearts and minds to be stirred to action if things are actually going to change meaningfully.

It is still possible to spend 30 Days Wild, but we need to looking to spend 30 Days not just Wild but Wilder, each and every year. So enjoy your local wildlife, try to make space for more of it in your life at every level, every tiny action that is positive for wildlife is  Rewilding, don’t leave it to the big landowners and conservation charities. It is only mass participation in action that will bring results, leaving to the well-meaning just is not  going to be enough.

sunset crows

the sun going down on 30 Days Wild

 

30 Days Wild – Day 6

The Blashford volunteers were out in force today and we were pulling Himalayan balsam along the Dockens Water, I am delighted to say that we found very little until we got down to the very lowest part of the stream, just where it leave the reserve. All the years of work seem to be paying off. This lower part of the stream is an area where we have been allowing the stream “to do its own thing” a little bit of rewilding, if you like. This has been the approach for over ten years now and all we do in there is clear rubbish washed down the stream and control invasive alien species, such as the balsam. It has developed into an amazing area of habitat.

20190606_114105

Wet woodland along the Dockens Water

We came across a strange patch of red in the stream at one point, I think it is a red alga presumably exploiting some mineral seepage, but I may very well be wrong about that!

20190606_115044

The red stuff!

The reserve was generally quiet, but as I locked up the Tern Hide I noticed a second calendar year Mediterranean gull close to the hide, it had a colour-ring on the left leg and luckily it was showing well enough to read the code.

colour-ringed Med gull

colour-ringed Mediterranean gull

I think it was ringed in Ireland and I will update when I have found out details form the scheme organiser.

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.