BARN OWL PROJECT BRINGS RECORD SUCCESS
The Woodland, Flora & Fauna Group is a volunteer group dedicated to protecting local countryside and wildlife. Since 2007 we have been fighting to conserve our local barn owl population with increasing year on year success. We are pleased to report that this year has been the best yet!
The barn owl is an endangered species which underwent a rapid and progressive 70% decline from the 1930’s due to loss of suitable terrain for hunting and a loss of sites for roosting and nesting. This reflected the progressive reduction in the area of remaining countryside, the reduction in farm land being used for agriculture, the small number of grain storage barns still being used and fewer hollow trees being retained nationally.
We have endeavoured to offset this in our local Mid Sussex countryside with the progressive installation of barn owl boxes in suitable locations in and around Hurstpierpoint and neighbouring parishes.
This has been achieved through grants and voluntary contributions, support from landowners and a tremendous amount of hard work and enthusiasm from a dedicated team of volunteers. It has resulted in 25 barn owl boxes being installed as part of an endangered species restoration initiative. 18 tawny owl boxes have also been erected to assist the survival prospects of a second owl species who although not yet similarly threatened could use all the assistance we can provide to overcome the same problems of diminishing roosting and hunting terrain. Our efforts to encourage the growth of more areas of flourishing rough grassland and prey rich natural habitat benefits them also, and areas where we have worked for meadow restoration is further boosting the survival prospects of both species of owl.
Team members recording breeding barn owls
The inspection team gather to appreciate their success
When undertaking our maintenance visits to every box during the very wet and windy winter months preceding this year to clean and repair them in readiness for summer breeding, we found either roosting owls or pellet evidence of occupancy in almost all of our barn owl boxes. This demonstrates the value this species places in these boxes for their shelter and continuing survival.
This was further demonstrated when we visited them again as part of a licensed team to check for young owls and ring them during the summer months. Despite nesting sites always being territorially well spaced apart, we found a record number of breeding owls and chicks and this has given a tremendous boost to their population number. 19 young owls, 2 eggs and 7 adults were found in various boxes across the local countryside. The total spread of boxes is being further increased in Pyecombe this autumn to give greater survival opportunities to this magnificent owl. Without such help it would perish.
RESTORATION OF A SITE OF NATURE CONSERVATION IMPORTANCE
Re-established meadows at Pond Lye
Our project to restore Pond Lye SNCI to its previous high natural value was paused last winter due to the atrocious wet and windy weather we experienced. No brush clearance work was performed apart from a small team of volunteers trimming back the annual regrowth in the previously cleared meadows with brush cutters.
The only other work that took place was in the early months of the year with the installation of two barn owl boxes on trees to the north of the largest meadow. The stand-alone trees were carefully selected and prepared to meet the preferred requirements of the barn owl.
With the excellent habitat created by the restoration of the surrounding meadows we knew that this was a perfect environment to encourage box occupancy and assist their survival.
Several months later we reaped the rewards of our labour with owl pellets found in one box and a female barn owl sitting on 6 eggs in the other. A return visit to the boxes 6 weeks later found the mother and 4 surviving young flourishing on the prey rich meadowland. Their progress had been monitored in the interval between when we had witnessed the female owl flying repeatedly to and from the box with food for her young as they grew. Her flight distances were less than 50 metres from the box and back again with mice, shrews and voles in abundance, readily available in the meadow to fulfil all her needs. This has become a rewarding success for the combined initiatives undertaken by our group.
The new entrance gate to assist our conservation work
Earlier in the year the Chairman of The Woodland, Flora & Fauna Group toured the site meadows with the landowner to update him on the nature conservation work our group had undertaken and explained all we were trying to achieve. Our conservation effort only proceeds with landowner approval, so it was a valuable opportunity to discuss all site aspects and share views. The struggle we were having transporting our tools and equipment to the working area was mentioned, which was becoming an increasing distance as we progressed across the site. The landowner was very supportive and kindly offered us our own access point closer to the working area and a small area to park our cars within it. To capitalise on this generous offer we replaced an existing rusty metal and overgrown gate with a new one and cleared the area around.
The picture above shows the new private entrance gate with a group notice board attached to direct volunteers to the correct access point on project days. The entrance is secured with coded locks and chains.
It was erected by a team of dedicated volunteers who possessed the necessary skills to undertake the tasks involved. Our thanks are extended to them for all their hard work and to the landowner for allowing us to undertake it. It has already made our lives much easier. Funding for this work has been provided from group reserves and voluntary contributions. The project work to remove further overgrowing brush will re-commence at the end of September.
WOODLAND POND RESTORATION
Volunteers cutting back the brush re-growth in & around the pond
Our restoration work on the woodland pond at Sayers Common was delayed this summer whilst we awaited a reduction in the water level to remove silt and deepen the pond. This reduction did not materialise so our work resumption concentrated on removing the regrowth of brush and sprouting shoots from tree stumps that had been cleared last year. Many surrounding trees had been blown down into the pond by the high winter winds and were progressively removed to restore the pond to the condition it was in when we finished our work last year.
The clearance of the pond has attracted a large amount of wildlife to the area which has included a pair of herons, dragonflies, frogs, newts, deer, rabbits, weasels, bats, ducks and moorhens. When our clearance is completed hibernaculums will be formed and indigenous aquatic plants introduced.
A volunteer checking for a dormouse presence
Following last year’s installation of 100 dormouse tubes in two woodlands to the south of Hurstpierpoint to determine whether we have any rare dormice remaining in our countryside, we have continued this year. The results last year were inconclusive so they were left in position for a second year.
These temporary nesting structures are being frequently checked by group volunteers until November this year.
A number of tubes have been found to be occupied by wood mice but to date no dormouse presence has been found.
If any dormice are found the tubes will be replaced with permanent boxes to assist their precarious survival. They now only survive in the south-east of England.
The tubes are suspended on horizontal branches in woodland and hedgerows. Each year the tubes will be progressively moved to other woodlands until all have been investigated.
A bat hibernation box in local woodland
The scores of bat nesting and hibernation boxes previously erected by The Woodland, Flora & Fauna Group to assist local bat species have continued to achieve encouraging results. The bats are declining due to natural habitat loss caused by the advance of mankind into the countryside, in a similar way to the plight of barn owls. This initiative is helping to reverse the trend and maintain their presence in our local countryside.
Each year we check and clean out all boxes in readiness for future occupancy and ensure sprouting tree growth is removed to allow clear access in and out of the boxes. Woodland flight paths to the boxes are also cleared to maintain access.
A number of boxes attract nesting by small birds and their nests have to be removed at the end of each season. Blue tits are the biggest culprits and can often fill some of the nesting boxes from floor to ceiling with nesting material. This prevents bats from using them so has to be regularly dealt with.
The task to visit every box in all the woodlands where they are installed is a very labour and time intensive task with most boxes mounted at an average height of 6 metres to encourage occupancy. Volunteers are hard pressed to achieve this at the end of each season with all other ongoing project work.
The number of nature conservation activities we undertake stretches our volunteer resource to the limit so we are very keen for additional volunteers to join us. If you can help please contact Michael Nailard. Tel: 01273 834001 Email: firstname.lastname@example.org
POND LYE CAR PARK PREPARATION
A volunteer using the digger to remove blackthorn stumps
The task of providing a new gate and car park area for Pond Lye SNCI took a lot of time and money to achieve.
It was made more difficult by a large number of felled blackthorn tree roots protruding from the ground within the car park area. This would have resulted in some cracked vehicle sumps if they had been left. The stumps therefore had to be removed so that group’s scheduled site visits could take place as soon as possible.
Graham Stafford, one of our volunteers was the mastermind behind this task as well as the gate provision, and used his knowledge and experience to allow us to deal effectively with the problem.
A digger was hired for a day to prepare the car park. This worked well although to complete the task in the allotted time the volunteers had to work extremely hard. Work continued into the evening to achieve this.
The area was cleared and flattened in a day and stone chips were subsequently added to areas that were persistently damp to prevent any vehicles becoming stuck when wet weather occurred.
SUSSEX LIVING MAGAZINE PROFILE ON OUR GROUP’S WORK
July Sussex Living
In July 2014 the Sussex Living magazine featured the work of our group as their main feature. Journalist Ruth Lawrence walked around the areas of Pond Lye and the woodland pond at Sayers Common with Michael Nailard and witnessed the nature conservation work the group was undertaking. She was also able to observe the results of the bat boxes installed in a nearby wood and the owl boxes erected in trees within adjacent fields. The tour allowed them to witness a young rabbit plunging into the pond at Sayers Common and swimming for its life away from a pursuing weasel. She skilfully captured this moment in a photograph that appeared in her well-written article.
The article promoted a lot of interest and gained the group some additional volunteers. It also attracted appeals for help in areas as far away as Forest Row and Berkshire which we have pursued to satisfactory conclusions. To see this on line click on the following link:- http://sussexliving.com/giving-nature-helping-hand/
GROUP ANNUAL PUBLIC TALK CANCELLED
Each summer in August The Woodland, Flora & Fauna Group normally hold a public talk supported by a visiting well-known speaker. This year the event unfortunately had to be cancelled due to extreme time pressure to complete other activities. The talk creates months of preparatory work and simply could not be included in our schedule. It is of extreme value to our group to allow publicity to be given to our most recent activities and to recruit supporters, so it is deeply regretted that this event could not be repeated this year.
The rescued young tawny owl being transported to a wildlife centre
We continue to pursue the well-being of all wildlife and warmly invite people to contact us when they find wildlife in danger, distress or injured. We get many calls for help or advice. A recent example of this was initiated by a telephone call from a member of the public after they had found a small tawny owl on a busy main road in immediate danger of being squashed by passing traffic. There was no tree in the area that it could have fallen from so it was decided to rescue it and remove it from its perilous situation.
It was carefully carried to the house of our Chairman, Michael Nailard to check for injuries and then when none were found, transported to a local wildlife rescue centre to be raised to maturity without the care of a parent owl. The group funded its rehabilitation costs. It eventually grew into a fine adult specimen able to fend for itself and was released safely back into the wild many months later. We hope this success story inspires others to intervene to help wildlife in need knowing that they can always contact us by phone on 01273 834001 for help if required.
CPRE SUSSEX COUNTRYSIDE AWARDS
Our Chairman was recently contacted by the CPRE Sussex Countryside Trust to advise that The Woodland, Flora & Fauna Group had been nominated for the CPRE Sussex Countryside Awards for their decade of project work to improve the countryside and wildlife habitat in Mid Sussex. Judges have since visited to witness the difference that this work has made to the natural environment and the survival prospects of wildlife species. Following the visit advice has been received that this has been selected for an award which will be presented to the group in October this year at Firle, near Lewes.