Wednesday, 20 May 2009

Ranger Training

On Tuesday we cancelled all our volunteers (except one, anyway: Sorry David.) All the Paxton rangers rushed off to an urgent traffic jam in Peterborough for a few hours. After that, we drove behind a convoy of tractors to a fascinating farm visit at Spilsby in Lincolnshire where we were joined by colleagues from Rutland Water, the Wildlife Trusts and Natural England.

The day was organised by flora locale which is based in Wiltshire, but was run by the local Farming and Wildlife Group (FWAG) officer, Roger Wardle, who gave his introductory chat in the spacious farm kitchen. Outside, in the fabulous garden, there were tree-sparrows feeding their chicks in nest boxes and a profusion of flowers, fruit trees, ponds and interesting corners. We would have had a very pleasant day out if we had just stayed there. However, Roger had a tight itinerary planned for us so off we went to a neighbouring field which he, with the farmer, had put into a grant-aided agri-environment scheme. The objective was to re-create lost botanical diversity in a ridge-and-furrow field within the short time frame of the grant scheme. This had been achieved by slot-sowing a specially selected wild flower seed-mix into the existing meadow. To give the newcomers a chance, the slots were sprayed off with herbicide at the time of sowing. This resulted in a "pyjama stripe" effect at first, but most of the new plants spread quickly, with the exception of cowslips which stayed in strips for some years. Following a regime of hay cutting and grazing, the old resident plants (mainly grasses) soon recovered the lost ground, and, after four years, there was, to all appearances, an ancient hay meadow.

After lunch, we drove through a maze of tiny lanes to visit two wet grassland sites which demonstrated the effectiveness of fairly drastic re-modelling and "laser surgery" to ensure that rainwater is kept on the surface for as long as possible and maximising the edge effect by having a lot of small bodies or strips o0f water in a mosaic, rather than just a large scrape. It certainly works, given the number of lapwing chicks and other birds we saw. Avocets, redshanks and ringed plovers breed too.

This part of Lincolnshire has quite a lot of clay and so it is relatively easy to keep water where you want it. At Paxton, we have very porous soils, so we have concentrated on creating large bodies of water and we have increased the edge-effect for waders by using wandering edges on islands and shore lines.

Our herd of Highland cattle is due to be back in the Great Meadow today. Last year we spread seed from the meadow near the visitor centre and this has resulted in some improvement. Roger Wardle suggested that we try cutting early hay from a donor site, using a drum mower that does not chop or shake the crop. Then bale it without hay making it, to keep the seed in. The bales have to be unwound and spread on the recipient meadow as soon as possible, to prevent the seeds "cooking" in the bale. To give the new seed a chance to germinate, he said that the ideal method would be to create a sterile seed bed by spraying and cultivating. However, where this is not possible, or perhaps desirable, he recommends that we cultivate strips, or spray them off, or burn them off.

By co-incidence, ranger Roland Fletcher has just been put in charge of a new tractor, a drum mower, turner, round baler and trailer to work on a suite of HDC grassland sites. We plan to experiment with grassland improvement (in the conservation sense) throughout the District.

Back at Paxton, we will soon be getting the grassland around Pumphouse Pit under our management and we now have a much better idea of what we could achieve there, and how to do it.

So, thank-you, Roger and team, for a very useful day, that has come just at the time we need it.

There are some pictures that you can access by clicking on the title above, or here