Owl Box Maintenance Struggle

This winter has proved to be a ‘nightmare’ for The Woodland, Flora & Fauna Group owl team. Not only has it been difficult to find dry days to undertake the box maintenance but so heavy has been the rainfall that the countryside has been a quagmire to negotiate.

 

Every location presented the same waterlogged terrain to overcome.

 

With the target to complete by the end of February so that owls can begin mating the pressure on the team has been intense. It has meant grabbing every dry opportunity at short notice and on some occasions meant working up to three days a week.

 

Boots were quickly overwhelmed by the flooded conditions. 

 

We are fortunate to have dedicated volunteers to undertake this work who put the welfare of the owls as a very high priority in their lives. Without this dedication our breeding success would have been minimal and the survival of the local owl population would return to being very fragile.

 

The resulting wet mud quickly spread to clothing.

 

When beginning this work we were faced with the daunting task of transporting all the maintenance equipment required over countless fields that were so wet that it was difficult to stand up let alone walk. Due to these unprecedented conditions we had the added complication that we were unable to get our vehicles as close as we normally try to in order to reduce the distance we are required to walk.

 

 

Tools and equipment were gathered to mount on a purpose-built ladder trolley at the start of each expedition.

 

Once the ladder was tied on all equipment was placed on it.

 

When fully loaded we braced ourselves for the journey across the uneven slippery terrain.

 

Just holding it in position to start the journey was challenging.

 

On this occasion the ground was found to be too treacherous and uneven so the trolley reluctantly had to be abandoned.

 

 

Everything had instead to be physically carried over the flooded ground balanced on ladder sections.

 

Our clothes were damp and mud splattered up to our waists and with muddy boots climbing ladders when a location was reached, each rung became clogged with wet mud which further spread the sticky soil to our arms and chests. We quickly assumed an appearance more resembling mud wrestlers than owl box maintenance volunteers.

Each location presented us with difficulties that could be associated with running a marathon over an army assault course. As we progressed across expanses of waterlogged countryside manhandling the very weighty items required to maintain each box, we found our slipping feet were accumulating huge amounts of heavy wet mud which made walking feel as if we had lead weights attached to our boots.

This obviously slowed our progress to a crawl in most cases and expended huge amounts of energy to achieve. This had an impact on the number of boxes we were able to maintain on each day as the gruelling effort and slow pace took its toll.

Our plight however, rather than put us off from our task seemed to strengthen our resolve, and we even managed to laugh at the ridiculously severe conditions on occasions. Any laughter though, was often accompanied by some exasperated utterances when faced with each new difficulty. With the team being long established it works well and individual members slot into well-established methods of team working even when faced with such adverse conditions. It is this spirit and determination that has to date managed to cope with all adversity that has beset us with this annual task.

 

Some of the distances were so lengthy to carry the equipment that it felt like a day’s work had been completed before we reached the first box.

 

This spirit was tested on one occasion when we had needed to carry our ladder-loaded equipment over an extremely wet and difficult field which very nearly exhausted us. On arrival at the boxes we began our cleaning, repairing and painting only to be quickly interrupted by one of the most prolonged and vicious hail-storms we have experienced. We had no choice but to immediately pack up our equipment and retrace our difficult journey back to our vehicles as quickly as was humanly possible. So heavy was the downpour which further added to the already waterlogged ground conditions, that it was weeks before we were able to return to complete the job.

 

When boxes were reached the maintenance work commenced.

 

Any damage was repaired and all boxes cleaned out and painted.

 

The locations were left in a condition deemed to make box occupancy as attractive to the barn owls as possible.

 

The year generally has been one of the worst we have encountered in terms of numbers of roosting barn owls found. Some years we have found roosting barn owls in almost every location. This year the total number was only 7 which out of 42 boxes is very poor and has to be the result of the amount of rainfall that had fallen almost ceaselessly since September last year. Farmers hadn’t been able to plant their crops in their wet fields and voles, shrews and mice were not flourishing as normal as a result of the wet conditions. If there are no prey species to catch the owl populations suffer a decline. This has been the wettest year on record so far and we fear it will impact on this year’s breeding owl numbers considerably.

 

This box had been knocked to the ground by wind and falling branches. Fortunately the damage wasn’t severe and it was quickly remounted.

 

The few owls we have found in boxes have on most occasions been lone ones with the boxes showing a reduction in the number of fresh owl pellets they have accumulated around them. This further indicates a shortage of prey to feed upon which will surely impact on their breeding prospects as they tend not to produce young if food is in short supply. Unless conditions rapidly change this is the feared outcome for the coming season.

 

The occupants we did encounter were a welcome sight.

 

However quietly we approached their sensitive hearing detected us…

 

…and they glided away across the fields to temporarily roost in nearby trees…

 

…where they waited until our work had finished.

 

When their roost renovation had been completed they returned to the refurbished boxes to once again benefit from the welcome shelter they provide.

 

During our maintenance tour we also serviced some of the remaining tawny owl boxes that had survived the grey squirrel onslaught that has inflicted so much damage in recent years. We found this damage to be continuing and were forced to remove another 3 tawny owl boxes which were considered a waste of time to continue with further repairs on.

 

This was one of the remaining few to have escaped the squirrel damage.

 

With the barn owl boxes and tawny owl boxes combined, the total number of boxes maintained this year numbered 50 in total.

Despite all our difficulty this winter we somehow managed to finish on time in readiness for the owl breeding season but the relief felt after such effort was considerable.

Talk by Clare Blencow cancelled

The talk advertised by The Woodland, Flora & Fauna Group to be given by Clare Blencowe on April 3rd has been cancelled to conform to the advice received from the Government to combat Coronavirus. It is regret that this has to happen but we hope to restore it to our events calendar once the virus outbreak has been contained.

Personal invitations had been prepared for our supporters but fortunately not issued. All local and social media advertising has been withdrawn. If you are aware of anyone else who was intending to come could you please advise them of the cancellation? Thank you.

We apologise for any inconvenience this may have caused.

Talk by Clare Blencowe

The Woodland, Flora & Fauna Group is holding an illustrated public talk given by Clare Blencowe on Friday 3rd April at 7.30pm. It is to be held in the Club Suite of the Village Centre, Trinity Road Hurstpierpoint, BN6 9UY.

It will follow immediately after a brief introduction by The Woodland, Flora & Fauna Group.

Clare is the manager of the Sussex Biodiversity Record Centre and her talk is entitled ‘Making Nature Count’ in which she will describe how her team meticulously record wildlife and flora species that have been identified in the Sussex countryside and how this benefits their welfare. She will illustrate some of the species discovered and recorded.

 

 

Clare was the Record Centre Manager who was instrumental in ensuring that all the data collected in our group’s countryside biodiversity study was included in the Sussex records.

She is a very busy person so we are privileged that she has found time to speak to us. If you want to learn more about our local countryside and wildlife and how the collected data helps with their protection, this opportunity should not be missed.

Entry is free and all are welcome.

Bat Conservation Effort Continues

The Woodland, Flora & Fauna Group began championing the welfare of our local bat populations in 2008/9 when we recognised their need for assistance. A grant was obtained and scores of roosting and hibernation boxes were installed in a wide area of local woodlands by our volunteers. They have provided safe havens for roosting bat species continuously since then. Each year they are all checked by a licenced team and the results recorded in our local data-base and copied to Natural England and the Sussex Biodiversity Record Centre.

 

One of the bat hibernation boxes mounted on a woodland tree.

 

Each box is visited annually.

The latest checks undertaken reveal that they are continuing to support our bat populations. Teams of volunteers accompanied by a licenced person visited every location with 3 section ladders to inspect the boxes. It requires a high degree of fitness from each person to carry, assemble and raise the ladder to the required high elevation the boxes are mounted at.

 

Ladders are positioned to be at the right height and standing on stable ground for safe working.

 

Team members carry ladders sections to each box location.

 

One person foots the ladder while another examines the box.

 

Some boxes are found to contain hornets each year and have to be avoided when their presence is detected.

 

This one was sufficiently late in the season when the hornets had become drowsy.

The work also is undertaken within a short time scale to enable all locations to be visited, so several days each week are necessary to complete the activity. Our progress with these checks was complicated by the long period of continuous wet weather that limited the number of dry days available to undertake them. Ladder work to these high levels can be extremely hazardous in wet conditions as well as very uncomfortable to the volunteers. With no advance accuracy in the predictions of the weather forecasters, project days to carry out these visits had to be organised at very short notice when a ‘dry window’ suddenly appeared. Trying to match that with the differing availability of volunteers at short notice proved very difficult but the task was achieved eventually.

With weather conditions so unfavourable to bats we braced ourselves for lower levels of occupation than usual, however we were pleasantly surprised by the number found, probably due to the dry sanctuary and stable environment the boxes provided.

 

Fortunately many boxes contained bats like the one above and were duly recorded.

 

This shows one of the many common pipistrelle bats found roosting peacefully within a box.

 

They are often found in huddled groups either hanging from the roof or clasping the walls.

 

This box like many others showed evidence of frequent use by the number of bat droppings found within.

We continue to expand our conservation effort with an increasing number of boxes and by covering new locations at every opportunity when funding becomes available. Our ambition is to make a significant lasting improvement to their survival prospects despite the shrinking areas of natural habitat they require to sustain them.

 

2019 SNCI Annual Meadow Cut Undertaken

Having rescued the meadow at Pond Lye SNCI from the blackthorn and bramble growth that had virtually destroyed it, we now have the on-going responsibility to maintain it in good condition to encourage back the previous distinctive flora species that earned the site status it holds. This is a massive task for our volunteers with a site so large and takes us a long time to complete. The cut took place in August initially by volunteers with scythes and brush cutters as the anthill punctuated terrain made other methods of cutting difficult.

 

Volunteers tackle meadow edges and anthill terrain with scythes & brush cutters.

 

All cut areas are raked and the hay stacked in piles.

 

Scything between anthills is extremely difficult.

The volunteers worked extremely hard in the large area they covered and we eventually reached a point where we were able to request help from one of our volunteers with a tractor and cutter to tackle the flatter main area of the  meadow which was less affected by the anthills.

 

The arrival of our volunteer tractor driver with his cutter was really welcome.

 

The amount of ground he was able to cover in a short time relieved us of months of work to complete the task by hand.

The progress he made with this was phenomenal and within two weeks the work was completed leaving only the raking up and disposal of the hay and the cutting of the tree lined borders the tractor was unable to reach.

 

The raking of the resulting hay is tackled as quickly as possible to ensure it doesn’t decompose and enrich the meadow soil to the detriment of current flora species.

 

It is a task that is often hard work but is made easier with many hands to help.

 

 Cuttings are heaped into piles and then disposed of on completion.

The borders have now been completed by our brush cutting and scythe operators but the final tidying of the site and hay collection is proving a tediously long job for the volunteers as we are being frustrated by the continuous wet weather over this recent period. We are having to grab every brief dry opportunity and try to marry it with the differing availability days of our volunteers. We are desperately trying to recruit more help to allow us to complete it and move on to the seasonal demands of our many other activities. If anyone is able to help please contact us on our website contact link. Any additional help will be extremely welcome.