Saturday, 28 February 2009

Rangers' team visit to the Fens

At the end of February, 17 Rangers from Huntingdonshire District Council went out on their annual study day. We usually visit another Ranger Service in a neighbouring county, or go to sites with a common interest. This year we visited The National Trust at Wicken Fen, a private reserve at Kingfisher Bridge and then the Wildfowl and Wetland Trust at Welney for the evening swan-feed. Despite all of these fenland sites being close together and sharing the same broad objectives, using many of the same tools such as grazing by livestock, they each illustrate quite a different approach to management.

I have been visiting Wicken Fen for over 30 years and the core area has changed little in that time. In fact, Wicken is the oldest reserve in the UK , and possibly the world. Because of that it has a strong tradition and a large number of people, including academics, conservationists and Trust staff, are involved management decisions. There are several long term studies ongoing, and Wicken has produced a host of important scientific papers. It's a very important site because it currently holds a significant proportion of the country's remaining undrained (rather than restored) fen. The core area, near the wind-pump may not have changed much but there have been changes in recent years around the site as the Trust has acquired adjoining farms. It was one of these new areas we had come to see.

We were met by Carol Laidlaw, who is the National Trust's livestock manager on the site. She looks after their Konic ponies and Highland cattle, which are the main management tools for restoring these "lost wetlands" that were drained and farmed in the "Dig for Victory" campaign of World War II. We were impressed with the scale of the project which I felt was like a game reserve in South Africa. Standing on the southern bank of the reserve and looking north, we could only see half way across the site. We are talking about serious landscape management here.

Being a National Trust site, you would expect the priority to be landscape and heritage conservation, and you would also expect the infrastructure (paths, signs, fences, gates, buildings etc.) to be of a high standard; and so they are. For example, the corral, used to gather cattle and horses, is state of the art.
I expected to just glimpse a few wild horses galloping off into the willows, but they were quite accepting of us and went about their business all around us. One pony, called Eric, was a bit too friendly, but the others had a look and then went off again. The Highland cattle hardly bothered to look at us. We saw large numbers of dabbling ducks which had fled from the Washes where the water is too deep for them, and we heard skylarks and a Cetti's warbler, but the only birds of prey we saw were a kestrel and a sparrowhawk.

We were especially interested to see this part of the operation at Wicken because we now run our own Highland cattle on similar ground in the Great Meadow at Paxton Pits, and, more recently, at the Great Fen in which HDC is a partner with Natural England and the Wildlife Trust. The similarity with Darlow's Farm, (near Woodwalton) where our cattle are grazing at present, is striking. We asked Carol what the management objectives were for this new area and she told us that they simply wanted to restore the fen to its pre-war state. There are no conservation targets for particular species and the Trust is confident that the area will be recolonised by fenland species from the core area. I believe that this is also the plan in the expansion zone at the Great Fen.

In contrast, during my years at the RSPB we were very aware of, and driven by, measurable biological outcomes or targets. For example, we might expect 3 pairs of bitterns by 2020, or 15 pairs of redshank, or 20 pairs of snipe. Management of the site would be geared to achieving these species-specific goals. But you have to remember that RSPB is first and foremost a bird conservation organisation: Members expect to see birds on RSPB reserves. The National Trust has a broader remit. In addition, Wicken Fen has built a strong tradition for plant and invertebrate conservation, so some areas are managed for rare butterflies, plants and dragonflies. There are two species of rare fish in the Lode too. In summary, the site is vast, and still growing. Traditionally, management of the core area has been very intensive with prescriptive operations to manage every section of sedge, reed, grass or willow, but in the new acquisitions, management has become extensive. The Trust takes a very long term view and they are not going to rush to attract a few extra birds; in great contrast to the site we would visit after lunch; Kingfisher Bridge (KFB).

The project Manager at KFB is Roger Beecroft. He immediately took us off to "The Mountain" which looks just like "Mount Jim" (our spoil heap) did at Paxton until last month when we took it away. From the top we saw the whole site, which is only about 1/4 the size of our current area at Paxton. It's basically split into two parts; the scrapes and ponds which favour wildfowl and waders; and the 20 acre reedbed which has been a major success for bitterns and marsh harriers. Indeed three bitterns had been heard booming that morning and we saw at least four harriers in the air.

In this tiny reserve we saw more varieties of birds in the first minute than we saw all morning at Wicken and Roger quickly explained why. Kingfisher Bridge has been designed with certain key bird species in mind and management is geared to maximise their success in this direction. Bitterns are top of the list as these are a European priority and Roger reported three booming males within three years of creating a rather modest reed-bed. How did he do it?

The 20 acre reedbed area drops about 1 metre from one end to the other so it is designed to draw down in the summer. Reed seed was brought from Chippenham Fen and broadcast by hand. The reed spreads happily as the water level fluctuates and there is a network of ditches and hollows to keep some open water all over the reeds. For bitterns it's important to have lots of fish of the right size, so the area has been stocked with eels, rudd and perch and the size and species mix is monitored and controlled. No pike are allowed, for example. The fish can move all over the reedbed as it is riddled with open patches. These random pathways are mostly created and kept open by water buffalo which feed in the reeds after the birds have nested each year.

Breeding success is maximised because eels are high in protein and there are lots of small fish to feed chicks with. Predators are controlled; mink are trapped and there is a fox proof fence around the site.

On the day we visited the marsh harriers (which are polygamous) were displaying, so we asked Roger how many nests there were. "Too many," he replied. We were rather shocked as I would give my right arm to get harriers breeding at Paxton. His point was that if you create habitat for bitterns you get harriers as a bonus, but, if you have created habitat for waders near by, the harriers will take them out. It's an important lesson for us. Our reedbed area will be half a mile away from our best wader islands, but will that be far enough?

Now, if you have read and absorbed what I've written above, you may think that Kingfisher Bridge was a sort of bird-zoo or a place where they farm bitterns. . It's testimony to the design of the site that one of our team remarked that it looked more natural than Wicken Fen which is mostly laid out in rectangular sections. Roger more or less "took a pencil for a walk" to create curves all over the site.

Some readers may have reservations about such a manipulative approach to nature conservation, but I believe that, when you are dealing with seriously endangered species, such an approach has its place. Even on landscape-scale sites you may have to take drastic measures in some compartments to benefit key species.

The Wildfowl and Wetland Trust (WWT) is no stranger to the hands-on, manipulative approach. Their captive breeding programmes have been vital to the conservation of globally threatened species like the Hawaiian goose and they are bold in conducting research using ringing and satellite tags. They unashamedly scatter food for wild birds at Welney, and the result is a wildlife spectacular that everyone should see at least once a year. We don't plan to copy this at Paxton, but we already scatter grain for yellowhammers and finches with some success. We looked at the small-bird feeding station at Welney and were astonished to see that they had scattered a couple of month's worth of feed on the ground. We have been putting a little out every few days. The result for us is a lot of pigeons, up to four muntjac and a few yellowhammers. Welney has tree sparrows and corn buntings; so it's worth a try next year.

The evening swan feed was great, but, because we were late in the season, and there was virtually no dry land it wasn't Welney at it's best. Those who ducked out (pardon the pun) for a coffee in the cafe were rewarded with a barn owl flypast. I missed it: I'll just have to go back.

We are extremely grateful to our hosts at all three sites, particularly Carol at Wicken and Roger at Kingfisher Bridge. After this "taster day" we will be back to look in more detail.

If you would like to see the pictures of the day, click on the title at the top of the page.