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.

Information from CPRE Sussex

The Woodland, Flora & Fauna Group are posting this advice received from CPRE Sussex to help support the invaluable work they do in striving to protect valuable countryside from being damaged or disappearing beneath building and other development. Please read and support if possible. Thank you.

 

CPRE Sussex Spring Festival of Countryside Talks.

Looking for lockdown entertainment? From the comfort of your armchair, hear from inspirational people who love nature, the countryside and the Sussex landscape and help raise vital funds for a beautiful and thriving Sussex countryside that enriches all our lives! 

We have local crime novelist – William Shaw, Sir Charlie Burrell – rewilding pioneer, Prof Dave Goulson – author and campaigner for Bumblebees and all small creatures, and our local Sussex historian and landscape expert Dr Geoffrey Mead will bring his enthusiasm and knowledge to bear on all things Sussex.

Find out more and book your tickets at: https://www.cpresussex.org.uk/news/cpre-sussex-festival-of-spring/.

 

Meadow Care Applied

With a queue of seasonal tasks still remaining after the delay caused by the first coronavirus national lockdown, we quickly moved on to tackle the annual meadow cut required at Pond Lye Site of Nature Conservation Importance (SNCI). An advance contingent of volunteers had attended to cut the knee length grass that was covering the car park area and begin the annual meadow cut. This was undertaken in parallel with work being undertaken at other sites.

This work is necessary to maintain the rich quality of the meadow which is in evidence throughout the summer. When the blooms come to the end of their flowering season we return to provide the care needed to maintain it.

 

Summer blooms flourishing in the meadow.

 

Our first task was to clear the car park of the long grass that had grown unimpeded during the coronavirus lockdown to enable access for volunteer vehicles.

 

The car park was cleared in readiness.

 

We are very grateful to our regular volunteer scythe operator, who attended site at 6.00am every morning before beginning work elsewhere. This early start also allowed him to avoid the heat of the late summer days. He started on the cutting of the area of the meadow which was punctuated with anthills and which always proves so difficult to tackle by any other means.

 

Our skilful scythe operator tackling the difficult areas of the meadow.

  

He succeeded brilliantly and by the time others began working at the site a few weeks later, had scythed the whole of this section giving us a head start with the cutting of the remaining area.

For the remaining cut we were equally fortunate to obtain the help of one of our long-standing helpers who uses his tractor and cutter to cut the rest of the meadow for us.

 

Our tractor volunteer then began the task that has previously taken months to complete by other means.

 

For this he attended several days at the end of August and completed all the areas that were accessible with his tractor.

 

He methodically mowed the huge meadow to keep it in prime condition for distinctive flora to flourish.

 

His effort saves us months of attempting to cut the meadow with brush cutters and scythes alone and we are extremely grateful to him for this help.

 

When completed the meadow looked impressive…

 

…in all the areas he was able to access.

 

Once this was done, volunteers with brush cutters moved in to cut the meadow perimeters and areas too uneven for the tractor to cover.

 

The brush cutter operators were soon tackling the remaining difficult areas.

 

Armed with their equipment….

 

….the cutting task was eventually completed.

 

Then it was time for others to move in with rakes to gather up and dispose of all the meadow cuttings. This final stage can take many weeks with us recruiting as many of our volunteers as possible to complete the task before any meadow regrowth occurs to make the task difficult.

 

The amount of meadow cuttings to be cleared were considerable….

 

….and for this many hard-working volunteers began the raking task.

 

Armed with rakes, hay forks and a lot of enthusiasm….

 

….they methodically worked in teams….

 

….and despite the difficulty of the task….

 

….still found the energy to have fun.

 

Working together they raked in lines….

 

….and then gathered the hay into heaps….

 

….which were then burnt….

 

….on previous bonfire sites to minimise the damage to the meadow area.

 

With so much energy being expended, breaks to revitalise the volunteers were important….

 

….as were pauses to ease aching muscles.

 

Raking for long periods is very hard work….

 

….as is the transporting of the cuttings to the allocated bonfire sites.

 

This task can take months to complete….

 

….and relies on the support and regular attendance of many people.

 

We are a volunteer group….

 

….who are committed to conserving countryside and wildlife….

  

….but can only achieve this….

 

….through the dedication of  such people….

 

….who are prepared to turn up….

 

….week after week to ensure our goals are achieved.

 

Our gratitude to them for this is considerable.

 

This work stage can become very protracted as it often coincides with the advent of the autumn rainy season which forces many of the weekly volunteer days to be cancelled when dry weather forecasts suddenly deteriorate. This year proved no exception.

We also had the introduction of the second period of coronavirus lockdown which prevented any working parties assembling to complete it. This has once again put our countryside and wildlife work schedule into delay despite the hard work our volunteers with rakes and cutters had put in to remedy and for which we are very grateful.

 

Many arrive by car as the meadow is located far into the countryside but many others regularly arrive by bicycle to join in the work effort.

 

The current situation is that a small amount of work to complete the task is still required now that the lockdown period has expired before we move on to the next conservation activity. This report highlights the effort that has been expended to date so that the meadow can once again flourish next year.

 

Hopefully next year will provide the same rich tapestry of  flora to justify the effort spent on nurturing the meadow condition. With wildflower meadows generally in severe decline, the remaining ones require as much help as possible to survive and to sustain the wildlife populations that flourish in them.