Thursday, 10 May 2012

Mud, glorious mud.

Last week the river burst its banks and the Ouse Valley Way became impassable. Now the water has dropped, leaving a rich coating of mud and sludge. All of our paths are full of puddles and most of them are muddy, so please wear appropriate footwear for your visit: for me, this means wellies. We really needed the rain because the whole reserve was suffering from the drought, with trees dying and poor vegetation cover at ground level. The worst aspect was the dying back of our bramble bushes that provide vital cover and food for so many nesting birds. For the last two years summer growth has not been good enough to compensate for winter browsing by deer and rabbits. 

Over two summers, habitat loss due to drought was compounded by a lack of insect food also due to drought, so it's no surprise that our nightingale numbers are down this year with only 16 to 18 singing males on the entire site. Ray Matthews has organised and intensive survey of the Heronry Loop where we have 12 singing males, while there is one on the Meadow Trail and 2 or 3 at the Sailing Lake, and perhaps 2 or 3 more up in the quarry.

The immediate impact of all the floods was to bring earthworms to the surface where badgers and birds could gorge on them. It's not hard to find a brimming badger latrine almost anywhere along the paths at the moment. The flooded fields have attracted flocks of black headed gulls, a few ducks and some waders such as oystercatchers, redshanks and the star of the week; a rare, migrant black-winged stilt which fed on a field that we had just pulled our cattle out of. Normally, bird watchers would have been able to view this bird from the Ouse Valley Way but, because the path was flooded, they climbed our fences and trespassed on the quarry, which is of course, unacceptable to either HDC or Aggregate Industries. All the same, what a fabulous bird! It seems to have gone now, but it might turn up again somewhere nearby.

Plants are bound to benefit from rain and so we can expect bumper crops on our fields and perhaps a lot of bee orchids and marsh plants later.

Despite the mud we continued with our springtime tasks on the site, especially finishing off our new barn and building a viewing platform overlooking Heronry South Lake. This will benefit small children, adults in wheel-chairs and birders and photographers who want to use a tripod.

This is our peak time for visitors who come to see nightingales and they don't seem to be put off by the weather. In April 3073 visitors came through the centre and we had 18 visiting groups with nearly 400 participants. I bumped into people from Cheshire, Lancashire, Yorkshire and even Canada; all here for nightingales. I also had a visit from my new boss, John Craig, who is head of Parks and Countryside Services, which we have combined under the name "Green-space". Ray and I showed him around the "top end" for half a day.

Like farmers and rangers, anglers are always complaining about something and often it's too much weed.  The Hayling Pit features large floating masses of soldier weed, which is a native plant but it's a garden-escape here. I attended a meeting between the anglers, Natural England and the Environment Agency at which we hatched a plan to physically remove the biggest patch using nets. This is the best solution for us as the total eradication of soldier weed with chemicals would be too drastic a measure. Anglers pay for their sport and so, in my view, are entitled to have reasonable opportunities to catch fish where this is permitted..  

Milk-maids or Ladies Smocks thrive in wet grassland.
This coot's nest was eventually flooded out.
Oilseed rape crops brimming over the hedges at Brampton.