Net Gain for Nature Continues

The Government’s current policy for all new development to achieve a biodiversity net gain of 10% should be reassuring to those who are anxious about the loss of our natural environment and our dwindling wildlife. In practice it means less, for bringing human habitation closer to whatever close-proximity measures like small areas dedicated to nature and wildlife corridors next to estates of houses, are destined to be reduced to children’s play areas or a dog walking exercise facility over time, however well intentioned the initial concept might be.

That is why the continuation of work of groups like The Woodland, Flora & Fauna Group is so vital by enhancing areas of countryside and undertaking compensatory measures to keep wildlife populations flourishing.

Last month we revealed our installation of a new roosting habitat for bats in our local area. This month we are able to reveal similar initiatives for dormice as we have installed many new dormouse boxes in two further woodlands in Sayers Common.

 

The woodlands were selected as the most encouraging dormouse habitat locations in the area.

 

A team of group volunteers prepared and erected boxes following encouraging signs in the initial installations of temporary dormouse investigation tubes erected in previous years.

 

Two of the team members prepare to undertake the work which took three days to complete in the two woodlands.

 

The newly prepared boxes were transported to each site.

 

A marked-up location map was consulted to identify existing tube positions. 

 

The tubes were then located and removed.

 

Permanent box positions were placed as close to those of the temporary tubes as possible.

 

They were then fixed securely to withstand buffeting from adverse weather conditions.

 

Each new box was marked on a map….

 

….and its ordnance survey reference number noted.

 

The whole wood was steadily covered, installing boxes as the team progressed. 

 

All areas for dormouse habitation within the woodland were included in an installed grid formation….

 

….to meet national result monitoring requirements.

 

About 80 new boxes were mounted in total throughout the two woodlands.

 

All redundant dormouse investigation tubes were removed from site as the permanent boxes replaced them.

 

Dormice are very scarce nationally so every one found is recorded to monitor population numbers remaining. All positive results are entered on a national database so that further support can be provided if necessary.

 

+ MEADOW IMPROVEMENT EFFORT. 

 

Similarly our work restoring the valued local meadow at Pond Lye Site of Nature Conservation Importance has been continuing throughout the early summer.

 

Pond Lye Site of Nature Conservation Importance.

 

With an encouraging return of previously recorded distinctive flora species that had virtually disappeared due to encroaching brush prior to our intervention (including a record number of returning orchids this year), our latest attendance concentrated on reducing the number of less desirable species that were prompting complaints from neighbouring properties.

 

Thistles were increasing dramatically throughout the meadow.

 

Many were visible but others lurked amongst the grass waiting to shoot up when conditions were favourable.

 

A thorough search had to be conducted….

 

.…with volunteers collectively marking out sections of meadow and pacing every metre….

 

….to remove all that was found.

 

When one section was declared clear….

 

….all moved on to an adjoining section to tackle those flourishing nearby.

 

Local piles of uprooted thistles were created to minimise continuous walking to the main stacks.

 

Each person selected a portion of the current section…. 

 

….and determinedly cleared it.

 

With progressively more fluctuating wet and warm, dry weather occurring each week….

 

….the volunteers faced increasingly taller meadow growth to work within.

 

The thistles got larger….

 

…and appeared in varying sized clusters as big thistles often seemed to accumulate a family of thistles around them, making removal more difficult. 

 

The small individual piles were collected in wheelbarrows and transported to the main heaps.

 

By the time we reached the final sections to clear….

 

….the grass was so long that we occasionally lost site of each other….

 

….so as well as a tool count at the end of each session, we were prompted to conduct a head count to ensure no-one was left behind lost in the undergrowth.

 

When all thistles had been removed and stacked…. 

 

….the huge piles were transported from the meadow and disposed of.

 

We encountered many species of the indigenous wildlife during the course of our work including, frogs, toads and voles. All were treated with care. We after all, were the visitors to the area they regarded as their home.

 

A spider clambers across a thistle leaf within the undergrowth.

 

This frog was another of the many species of wildlife found in the meadow.

 

Initially we had tackled both the ragwort and thistle growing in the meadow but in due course we transferred our attention exclusively to the more troublesome and profusely spreading thistle. This attention each year will hopefully achieve the reduction necessary to prevent further complaints about airborne seed spreading to the properties of others.

 

Our volunteers have achieved the goal we sought over several months of hard work and we are very grateful for their effort.

 

A thistle free meadow as it appeared when we had completed our work.

 

Both the dormouse box installation and the meadow improvement work provide additional help in keeping our local natural environment in better condition to support the species that rely on it for survival, whilst addressing human concerns when ambitions conflict.

Another Boost For Local Bats.

The Woodland, Flora & Fauna Group is continuously seeking ways to enhance the survival prospects of local wildlife and when funds become available we undertake new initiatives. At the end of last year we provided bat boxes in a Hassocks woodland with a generous donation towards the total cost from the owner. This increased the roosting habitat opportunities for the surrounding area. We maintain and monitor them and record all usage and occupant species.

This year we received some similar generous funding from a supporter and transformed some of it into a further benefit for the dwindling local bat population in a different area of local countryside. The location we chose for this was an area we already have a high involvement with nature conservation at Pond Lye Site of Nature Conservation Importance.

One of the woodlands to the east of the huge lake is already benefitting from our previous bat box investment and supports, brown long-eared, pipistrelle and Natterer’s bats, so when we saw an opportunity to expand this benefit to another area of woodland to the north of the lake we pursued it.

 

 

The area was situated to the east of the meadow area.

 

The woodland had an existing avenue into the centre which allowed bat access.

 

 

The tree-lined passageway continued into the heart of the woodland.

 

The whole woodland was surveyed and suitable trees were selected and marked in readiness for installation.

 

 

The avenue linked into a clear area in the centre of the woodland.

 

Woodcrete boxes were selected to provide maximum durability and thermal insulation properties. The boxes were ordered and when delivered, were numbered and labelled. There was then a delay to fit the work required into a crowded seasonal conservation schedule without it delaying other important activities. We eventually organised a separate activity into one of our weekly schedules and a team was assembled to undertake it.

 

 

Volunteers assembled to tackle the task.

 

The chosen day was fine with temperatures reaching 26 degrees. The volunteers carried the required heavy ladders and equipment across the adjacent meadow to the woodland and the work commenced.

 

 

The marked trees were accessed with ladders….

 

….and bat boxes began to be mounted.

 

A suitable position was sought on each tree….

 

….and a team of helpers ensured height and orientation requirements were met.

 

The trees chosen were the most substantial ones….

 

….which were unlikely to sway or fall in high winds.

 

Clear access at box level was ensured….

 

….to allow free flight movement to each location.

 

Consideration was given to every requirement to maximise bat occupancy….

 

….and implemented thoroughly.

 

The boxes were arranged to provide various orientation choices to the occupants….

 

….to allow them to adjust to changes in temperature and weather conditions.

 

Boxes of varying shapes, sizes and types were fitted….

 

.…to maximise the differing occupancy preferences of individual species.

 

A lot of group volunteer time and money was spent to ensure adequate access and accommodation requirements were met….

 

….to try to enable maximum usage and benefit to the local bats.

 

The time taken to complete the task was longer than predicted due to the difficulties that often manifest themselves as work progresses. We eventually finished with all boxes erected in readiness for occupancy and looking forward to the check at the end of the summer to gauge how effective they have been.

This extends our wildlife support coverage across an even larger area of southern Mid Sussex and hopefully is boosting local populations accordingly. With the natural environment and wildlife generally under so much pressure both are reliant on such initiatives to compensate. To achieve these conclusions we are very grateful for the financial contributions and volunteer support received to assist us.

 

Back to working for nature.

Once more coronavirus ‘lockdown’ restrictions are eased gradually and we are able to turn our attention to the seasonal activities that have been delayed. Normally we return to the small nature reserve called Talbot Field in the winter months to control the brush that has developed. Bramble and other unwanted brush continuously appears and needs to be controlled. In the woodland area especially, failure to control this growth creates an impenetrable tangle which stifles woodland flora development and makes access later into the area with ladders to check and maintain the bird and bat boxes extremely difficult.

 

Brush emerges to blanket the area each year.

 

This year we were obviously unable to progress this work at the allotted time so had to make it one of our top priorities as soon as we were able to resume working, whilst once again observing coronavirus safety precautions.  Volunteers gathered again to achieve this and attended weekly with brush-cutters, loppers, saws, rakes, hayforks and wheelbarrows to tackle the task.

 

Volunteers return to address the problem.

 

One of the first tasks was to remove all fallen and broken branches that the wild winter weather had displaced. They were gathered up and stacked in piles in the woodland to provide future habitat for small wildlife species and insects.

 

Fallen branches were gathered up….

 

….and stacked in piles.

 

The whole woodland floor was scoured to remove the fallen branches.

 

This then cleared the wooded area of large obstacles so that the removal of the brush could be started. Care was taken to preserve any emerging flora species that were appearing due to the seasonal lateness of our activity. This in turn allowed the inter-woodland pathways for public access to be made accessible once more as the bramble growth was cleared.

 

Once cleared of the large obstacles brush clearance commenced.

 

Any emerging flora species found were duly protected from damage.

 

So much debris was raked up into piles by our that most of it had to be transported in wheelbarrows to a central bonfire site and disposed of. Some of the piles of cuttings were retained to provide habitat for other wildlife species.

 

Volunteers then grappled with the task of removing the cuttings.

 

All debris was first raked into piles…..

 

….and then transported to the bonfire site in wheelbarrows.

 

Due to restricting the bonfire to one site to limit meadow damage….

 

….a lot of journeys were required to transport the raked-up debris.

 

The bramble and other brush cuttings were removed efficiently by the volunteers.

 

Simultaneously other volunteers tackled the meadow perimeter to prevent advancing brush emerging from the hedgerows into the wildflower meadow area. All resulting debris was transported in barrows directly to the bonfire site where a volunteer was working hard to burn it.

 

A central position at the back of the site was selected for the bonfire.

 

Where one of the volunteers ensured that all cuttings were burnt.

 

Attention was given to every metre of the site.

 

All hedge boundaries were tackled to create space for emerging flora.

 

Work continued until each section was completed satisfactorily….

 

.…and all rubbish was disposed of.

 

When the task was finally completed after many weeks of hard work The area looked impressively clear and ready for the wild flowers to emerge freely.

 

A quick check was given to the site when completed….

 

….to ensure all public pathways were clear….

 

….and free of any remaining brush.

 

This was the woodland as it appeared when it had been finally cleared of all impeding brush and was ready for the flora to emerge.

 

Within a short period of time the hard work of the volunteers had begun to reap the desired rewards. Now unfettered by the oppressive brush growth, the underlying woodland flora began to emerge again. In the next week or so the area was transformed as shown below:-

 

With all brush removed, in a short time bluebells sprang up everywhere.

 

Their sweet scented aroma permeated the woodland understorey.

 

Figwort grew profusely beneath the trees.

 

A woodland pathway flanked by bluebells.

 

Bordering banks laced in blue provide an ornamental picture frame to the woodland.

 

The woodland wildlife heaps become engulfed in a sea of blue flora.

 

Flowers emerge in every section of the woodland floor.

 

Stitchwort provides a contrasting addition to the area.

 

Patches of ground ivy produce a colourful display. 

 

The meadow borders also provide a spectacular picture of flora species.

 

Every hedgerow provides a rich bluebell border beneath.

 

Ladies smock grows freely in places across the meadow.

 

Garlic mustard thrives beneath the bordering hedgerows.

 

One of last year’s cowslip plug plants emerging in flower.

 

Many of last year’s other wildflower plugs are emerging throughout the meadow having survived the rabbit attacks, burrowing moles and inclement periods of weather, but are not yet in flower. The coming months will hopefully reap a reward for their nurturing with daily water visits last year to enable them to survive the long, dry periods of summer.

Other wildflower plugs have been planted this year and are being provided with the same attention as their predecessors to allow them to establish. It is hoped that additional plugs can be planted every year to enrich the area’s flora display and to provide a diverse habitat to support an increasing range of wildlife. Such opportunities to support and improve our natural environment must be seized upon to relieve the detrimental pressure human beings are placing on both wildlife and countryside.

 

 

Fungal Reflections

With the COVID-19 lockdown restrictions preventing any group activity in the early months of 2021, we take a moment to reflect on the natural beauty provided by fungi in our countryside and share some of the images we have previously collected. It is not intended to provide identification of individual species which is adequately covered by reference books, but to appreciate the wonderful colours, shapes, sizes and formations they provide.

Generally, fungi are a large class of organisms which have a structure similar to plants but lack the chlorophyll which would otherwise enable them to build up the carbon compounds that are the essence of life. To compensate for this they draw their sustenance ready-made from live or dead plants and animals.

The composition of fungus to enable this takes the form of minute filaments like hairs which are called hyphae. These develop into a cobweb-like net formation of fine, hairy strands which grow through the material that contains the required nutrition. It then extracts this nutrition from it. These strands are referred to as the mycelium. The fungi that we observe are the fruiting bodies that result from the conjoining of two mycelia of the same species when the conditions of humidity, temperature, light and nutrition are met. The resulting mushroom or fungus formation is the part of the organism which develops to form and distribute spores to enable them to reproduce. This stage is seen mostly in the late summer or autumn.

The resulting elegant formations we witness are usually the reason we pause for a moment from our conservation activities to admire and often record them. We take this opportunity to share some of these images with you.

 

Some grow on wood.

 

Some grow in soil.

 

Some species are found only in woodland.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Some species thrive in grassland fields.

 

 

Some appear on the trunks of trees.

 

Generally they all form in soil, woodland or manure.

 

 

Some grow under or near different species of plant or tree.

 

Some require either acidic or chalky soils.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Decaying wood is a good foundation for many species…

 

….especially if it is damp.

 

 

 

Some have a mat appearance….

 

….whilst others have a waxy surface.

 

 

 

Appearances can vary considerably.

 

 

 

 

 

Some take a blanket form on the bark of dead trees.

 

Others appear as colourful enrichment to surrounding natural terrain.

 

 

 

 

 

There are approximately 3000 species of larger fungi found in Great Britain. They grow in a multitude of shapes, sizes, colours and patterns of growth. They have varying preferred locations for growth and are mostly poisonous to eat. These are a few of the many that we have encountered during our nature conservation activities and photographed.

 

 

Owl Box Maintenance Gets Tougher.

With national coronavirus pandemic restrictions ebbing and flowing like a tide on the seashore, we faced a dilemma about undertaking our seasonal maintenance on our scores of barn owl boxes whilst conforming to all Government restrictions.

 

 

All owl boxes in our conservation area are visited during the winter.

 

This maintenance is extremely important to ensure the boxes are in good condition, waterproof and clean to provide an attractive appeal to barn owl breeding occupancy in the spring. When not cleaned and adequately maintained they can become very dirty, congested with old nesting material or wet inside from prevailing weather through the entrance, all of which encourage mould and maggots to flourish.

 

 

An owl pellet covered in mould. (Note the bones and fur contained as residue from prey consumed which is initially retained and then ejected in pellet form via the mouth as it can’t be digested).

 

Dirty boxes can also encourage infestation from parasites like red mite which if allowed to become extreme can affect the health of the occupants and in some cases kill them. The mite suck the blood of their hosts and this can severely weaken them. These parasites can also transfer to the person cleaning the boxes out and causes large parts of the body to be covered in a ‘nettle rash’ of lumps and red blotches which is extremely itchy and uncomfortable for days afterwards.

 

 

Large distances have to be covered to reach the boxes.

 

This maintenance is normally undertaken in the winter months from November to February. To overcome the anticipated severe restrictions to follow the Christmas regulation easing, we endeavoured to undertake this while it was permitted for two people from different households to meet in open spaces following all social distancing and other guidelines. It is normally a very protracted exercise fitted in between bad weather days but this year we had to accelerate the pace to capture the limited opportunity.

 

 

To conform to social distancing requirements, ladder erection had to be undertaken by a single person.

 

 

The terrain to be covered is always wet and muddy in the winter.

 

The task was commenced at an extremely fast rate working up to three days every week during November and December in an effort to complete before the anticipate lockdown after Christmas.

 

 

Extreme care is taken when opening the boxes in case a roosting owl flies out.

 

This activity has been performed every winter since 2007 and so is now very familiar to those who undertake it. Using this experience, we swiftly covered miles of terrain over fields carrying all the ladders and equipment required. The pressure to complete was intense and energy levels diminished as the work effort continued.

 

 

Interiors are initially checked to establish the internal as well as the external  box condition.

 

 

Bird dropping streaks and dirt are removed from the outside of the boxes.

 

 

Each box is surface prepared, with any damage repaired, and has a coat of paint applied.

 

 

All dirty nesting material is removed and replaced with clean.

 

 

Each interior is finally inspected to ensure it is in the best condition to attract owls before leaving.

 

 

Different locations present differing access difficulties.

 

 

Some trees have smaller trunk diameters and are on sloping ground making ladder positioning difficult…

 

 

…whilst others are much more substantial and on level ground.

 

 

Sometimes on wet ground, ladders can sink a full rung’s depth as the weight of the climber is added, so extreme care has to be taken.

 

To add to the difficulty, several boxes were found to have been badly damaged and required replacement or removal for repair off-site. This slowed our progress considerably but it was still hoped that we would complete before Christmas. Towards the end of December our pace slowed further as we had to contend with several sites with extremely long distances to walk to the boxes, as our vehicles were prevented from getting near due to wet weather conditions.

 

 

On return to our vehicles after each visit much of the mud encountered was attached to our boots making it much more difficult to walk.

 

 

Many boxes were found to have roosting owls in them.

 

 

Each one left to perch in a nearby tree…

 

 

…to await our departure before returning again afterwards.

 

 

At our arrival at each box we try to capture the occupants in pictures…

 

 

…but many of them hear our approach from a distance away…

 

 

…and depart before we can quietly place down our equipment to photograph them.

 

With only four boxes still to complete, one of which required a full replacement, we unfortunately ran out of time. The severe lockdown we had anticipated to be likely to follow Christmas duly materialised and we were therefore prevented from completing this 2020/2021 winter month activity due to its extended duration.

 

 

We did however, also manage to maintain some of our tawny owl boxes on route.

 

My thanks goes to my fellow group member Alan, who put aside many of his own commitments to help with this task in an effort to complete in the reduced timescale and in accordance with applied coronavirus restrictions. With 14 years of experience in owl box conservation in our area, his presence is one of main reasons our initiative is so successful.

 

 

Invaluable help was provided with this task by Alan.

  

We now have the satisfaction of knowing that almost all of our boxes are in good repair and in a clean condition for the coming breeding season. We hope that survival prospects are good for the barn owls in our large conservation area this year with plenty of prey available to catch, to encourage them to fully utilise our boxes and breed successfully.

 

 

The boxes were restored to a near perfect condition before each door was finally replaced and we departed allowing the owls to return.

 

The few boxes we were unable to complete before the current coronavirus lockdown will have to remain as they are until we are able to resume later in the year. With many barn owls beginning their mating season from the beginning of March, any further disturbance could affect their successful breeding this year.

Hopefully life for everyone can return to a degree of normality in the year ahead and we can resume all our normal countryside conservation activities.