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

 

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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.

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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!

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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.