Assistance For Creatures Great And Small Provided.

Summer is normally a very busy time for our group as we strive to improve survival prospects for wildlife and the natural world. Two of these wildlife species are small in size but huge in value. They are birds and dormice and our work this year to assist them is described as follows.

In the time we were spending in ‘lock-down’ from March to June this year our feathered friends were getting on with their normal lives and undertaking their annual mating/breeding cycle. This was especially evident at the small nature reserve at Talbot Field in Hassocks. Here in August 2019 the number of bird boxes were increased all around the site.

 

One of the boxes newly installed in summer 2019.

This year at the end of their breeding season, group volunteers returned to clean out the debris and old nests from each box. This allowed further use to be made of them either as a late brood this year or in readiness for spring next year.

 

Locating the boxes can be difficult amongst the foliage.

The old nests can harbour pests like mite or maggots which flourish on old droppings. For the boxes not to be cleaned out can allow these species to multiply deterring their use as attractive residences for future breeding by birds.

 

Varying sizes and shapes of boxes attract different bird species.

Each box was visited in turn and duly cleaned out. Every box in the reserve was found to have been used and contained an old nest.

 

Each one is emptied and cleaned out.

The nests were mainly from species like nuthatches, blue tits and great tits and proved the area was a location valued by wildlife and provided enough natural food to support the raising of their young.

 

Care had to be taken that the prevailing wind was blowing away from the volunteer…

 

…otherwise the contents were generously dispersed in their direction.

  

The whole nests contained were easily removed…

 

…but the debris beneath was sometimes difficult to dislodge.

This continuing effort to assist our wildlife to survive and flourish extended also to the monitoring of our dormouse boxes which are erected in woodlands across our local countryside.

 

A dormouse box is checked by a licenced volunteer.

These boxes encourage the survival of these now very rare mammals in this country where any breeding presence detected is a huge reward for the conservation effort expended. Often signs of their previous box visits are the only indication of an area presence such is the elusive nature of the species.

‘Lock-down’ due to the coronavirus robbed us of many valuable months of monitoring these boxes this year when any presence would have been at its highest to detect. Never-the-less we resumed in late summer when restrictions were lifted and were able to visit all boxes monthly to record their occupancy.

 

Boxes are mounted throughout local woodlands and can be difficult to locate…

 

…so maps are drawn of the area and the numbered box locations added.

Due to the lack of earlier checks any box that had been used by blue tits for nesting (and there are usually many) their redundant nests after the broods have flown were not cleaned out as normal to allow use by dormice. We therefore knew that this would mean a lean year for dormouse sightings and this is how it proved to be.

 

The checking volunteer is always accompanied by a helper who records the findings.

 

Each box found is removed into a bag for closer examination so that any quick-footed mouse inside cannot escape.

 

The checking party can walk many miles to achieve these results but the surrounding beautiful woodlands make the task a pleasurable experience. 

 

Any box checked has a plug placed in the entrance hole initially…

 

…which remains in place until the box is examined.

 

When the check is completed the box is placed back on the tree.

We did find many wood mice nests which compensated to a degree, for even though they are not rare they are an endearing addition to our woodlands.

 

One of the boxes found containing a wood mouse nest.

 

Another wood mouse nest carefully built.

 

This one contains a number of eaten nut shells…

 

…and this one has become a food store.

We also found boxes damaged by our old adversary the grey squirrel who is responsible for destroying the majority of our tawny owl boxes. This dormouse box had a nest in and was badly damaged by the squirrel intent on getting to it. The one pictured below was removed and repaired by one of our skilled volunteers before being returned to site.

 

Squirrel damage found on one box…

 

...which when repaired, the damage could not be detected when returned to the wood later.

The checks should have continued monthly from April until November but we missed half of the season and this was reflected in a poor year for dormouse sightings. Hopefully results will be better next year.

We thank all the various volunteers who have formed the teams necessary to undertake this work which is very time consuming and needs checkers, helpers and result recorders to undertake. We are also very grateful to our skilled engineer Alan Murray, who miraculously is able to repair damaged boxes to a level that makes them appear almost new again. His expertise underpins so many of our projects and he is highly valued and appreciated for this effort.

 

Alan fixing a box.

Thanks to his dedicated preparation of new boxes, a further 80 are ready to be fitted in other woodlands early next year where encouraging signs have been found, in readiness for the dormouse breeding season.

He was presented with a group award for this outstanding effort in 2010 and has maintained his level of commitment since which has helped us enormously in all our projects.

 

The original award justifiably earned for years of commendable help.

Sayers Common Pond Restoration Work Resumes

With a back-log of nature conservation work to complete before the end of the year, The Woodland, Flora & Fauna Group volunteer work force moved on quickly to the Sayers Common Pond location where unchecked brush and reed growth had begun to over-run the area.

Thistles had grown to 2.5 metres and joined with bramble, willow and stinging nettles on the pond banks to make access extremely difficult. Reeds had once again begun to spread and the surrounding tree growth and fallen branches  further added to the brush congestion. This had inevitably begun to dismantle the years of hard work that had been necessary to originally restore the pond from a tangle of fallen trees and woodland undergrowth.

 

In 2013 the pond was a tangle of fallen trees and woodland undergrowth before our restoration work began.

Determined that this effort would not be wasted, the volunteers quickly began clearing the area to ensure it remained the distinctive natural feature it previously was and a haven for wildlife once more.

 

Not wishing it to deteriorate again we returned to maintain it this summer.

Project days were held once or twice weekly to achieve this with volunteers armed with brush-cutters, forks, saws, rakes and loppers. Each visit that was undertaken achieved a lot of progress and even endured during several visits when the ambient temperature exceeded 34 degrees Celsius. This tested even the most enthusiastic attendee with perspiration running into their eyes, their clothing wet with sweat and every movement significantly more taxing than normal but all magnificently stuck to their tasks.

 

With a lot of energy and enthusiasm volunteers began the work.

 

The banks were cleared of unruly brush…

 

…whilst flora of value was retained.

 

Invasive willow was tackled…

 

…and all the cleared debris piled up for disposal.

 

Once the banks were restored the cuttings began to be burnt.

 

The surrounding trees had spread over the pond edges once more and needed trimming back.

 

The tree pruning results were reduced to a manageable size…

 

…and then expertly disposed of by others. 

 

All around the site heaps of cuttings requiring disposal were stacked.

 

Fires were started simultaneously in many places by some volunteers….

 

…with others transporting additional material to them.

 

Despite the heat which saw daytime temperatures soar to 34 degrees Celsius on some days…

 

…volunteers braved the additional close-quarter bonfire furnace-like conditions…

 

…to ensure no debris was left.

 

All fires were tended until only ash remained.

 This dogged effort certainly achieved excellent results and steadily the pond and surrounding area were restored to their former condition.

 

The cleared area was left once again in a healthy state.

 

All volunteers attending are to be sincerely thanked and commended for their dedication to our nature activities. This effort has allowed the next site requiring attention to be addressed in our effort to catch-up with our delayed 2020 work schedule.

Work Resumed In Nature Reserve

The work being undertaken in the Talbot Field small nature reserve was interrupted in March by the coronavirus ‘lock-down’. All work ceased suddenly leaving piles of cuttings all around the site and with wildflower plugs provided by Hassocks Parish Council waiting to be planted. The plugs were nurtured during this period but were fast becoming root-bound so at the earliest opportunity when Government restrictions were slowly being eased in June, two people returned to site to plant them.

 

Small areas of grass were cleared to allow wildflower plugs to be planted.

 

These were bedded in carefully to maximise their chances to flourish.

 

Some bigger plants were included to further enrich the meadow.

This planting in the heat of the summer was completed but to ensure their survival required daily watering. This was achieved by transporting cans full of water to site and for an hour or so every day, religiously watering each plant.

 

Many 5 gallon drums of water were transported to site daily.

 

They were individually carried to the planted areas….

 

….emptied into watering cans….

 

….to provide a nourishing drink to each plant….

 

…so that they were able to withstand the hot weather.

It also became a battle of wills with the indigenous rabbit population and moles who saw the new planting as a meal ticket and something to aim at with the boring of new tunnels respectively. Despite this adversity we remedied all damage as well as possible and most of the plants are now flourishing whilst still being watered daily. Next year will tell us how successful this has been with our effort to enrich the area with wildflower planting.

 

This Marbled White butterfly feeding on existing Knapweed will hopefully be given a greater wildflower choice in subsequent years as a result of this effort.

This return to site also allowed us to establish how much work remained to be completed to enable the August meadow cut to be undertaken by contractors. A large stack and 30 piles of cuttings were strewn all around the meadow area and were now complicated by being interwoven with the surrounding vegetation growth. These had to removed to allow cutting access, so initially two people returned in July to move the stack to the rear of the site out of the way because with the surrounding dry hay conditions in the meadow, burning it would have been risky.

 

The large area of surrounding dry meadow grass made any bonfires to burn the cuttings too risky to contemplate.

Full project days were then resumed as permitted by Government restrictions with all attending social distancing, wearing gloves at all times, arriving separately and with all tools disinfected after each session. The volunteers who gathered to undertake this work followed these guidelines meticulously giving us the confidence to proceed with our conservation programme which by now was very much in delay.

 

Work was resumed after ‘lock-down’ with everyone observing all social distancing and other safety precautions.

 

Volunteers quickly adapted to the new ‘safety working’ regime.

 

Wheelbarrows were filled by one person while the other stood back and then wheeled away when full while the filler rested.

 

Cuttings being removed from growing vegetation.

They tacked the difficult task of extracting the cutting piles from the surrounding vigorously growing vegetation skilfully and within a few weeks all piles had been transported to the main stack at the rear of the site.

 

Work continued until no obstacle to the eventual task of cutting the meadow remained.

 

All cuttings were heaped along the rear boundary for autumn/winter burning.

The daily watering of the wildflower plants continues to maximise their chances of survival but our volunteer effort here has temporarily ceased to enable us to catch up with an urgent work requirement at other sites caused by the continuing COVID-19 restrictions.

 

Watering continues however, to maximise the wildflower planting survival prospects.

The Owls Won’t Wait

With all human activity currently paralysed by the coronavirus pandemic our feathered friends are getting on with life as normal. This means that our local barn owls are getting on with their breeding season probably encouraged by the lack of human interference while COVID-19 restrictions persist.

 

Life carries on as normal for barn owls.

With a gradual easing of the lock-down precautions we are permitted to carefully venture out again in limited numbers to undertake the initial annual barn owl box inspections to establish whether any of them contain breeding youngsters. This task can only be carried out by licenced operatives as barn owls are a protected species.  With the disastrously wet weather we experienced earlier and the scarcity of roosting owls found on our winter maintenance visits, we expected it to be a dismal year for barn owl reproduction. To our surprise this was not the case, although numbers found were not as great as we have experienced previously.

 

Government safety measures are observed.

Strictly conforming to the rules and people number restrictions dictated by the Government, two of us ventured out duly masked , travelling in separate vehicles, wearing gloves, applying frequent antiseptic hand gel and remaining two metres apart at all times and began our tour of the boxes which normally takes at least 3 days.

 

We were apprehensive that with ladder work and the close contact routine that normally prevails this would make the task extremely difficult. Not so! We began carefully adhering to all these new requirements at a gradual pace and were surprised how quickly we created a routine way of working that met all the rules of operation.

 

One put the ladder up and stood back while the other climbed up to inspect the box and record whether there was a young owl presence. When known he climbed down and his colleague removed the ladder and placed it back on the vehicle.

 

We then drove separately to another location. The landowner of each location had been duly telephoned in advance to ensure they were agreeable to us attending and were given the reassurance that we would maintain social distancing at all times.

 

The ladders were clamped back on the vehicles and the next box  location was driven to.

 

The inspections revealed a reasonable number of barn owls had mated and produced a brood, although the first box we visited revealed 4 very young kestrel chicks. They hadn’t been hatched long and possessed none of the normal fieriness they develop as they grow.

 

Four very young kestrels found in the first box visited.

The initial inspections identify which boxes have owl broods in and allow us to establish their size to determine when they are old enough to have identification rings fitted.  Due to the variation in sizes even in one box brood this is quite complex and means many return visits to specific boxes to ensure the birds receive their rings at the required stage of development. Often this is based on noting the size of the smallest member of the family and calculating when it will be ready. This is complicated further on some occasions when food is in short supply by the smallest one being eaten by its siblings in the meantime. It also often means that the smallest one’s bigger brothers and sisters are very large and a handful to deal with on the return visit.

Kestrels develop much quicker than barn owls so these had to be visited again a week later when they were the right size to ring without being too large and give us major handling problems. Even at the size they were a week later they were sufficiently aggressive to shred the fingers of the ringers with their talons and beaks. That is when the hand sanitiser gels become useful to disinfect the wounds.

Despite the pain inflicted and the difficulty it is to remove the talons and sharp beaks which are embedded in the flesh of the handlers, it is always felt to be a privilege to be in close contact with such magnificent creatures.

On our initial tour around the scores of boxes we found that many contained old jackdaw nests which we duly cleared out as we progressed. Jackdaws always fill them full of twigs and mud which prevents barn owls who breed later, from utilising them. This operation is time consuming and extremely messy with the long twigs jammed in making them difficult to remove. The mud by the time we visit has become so dry it has turned to dust and the large quantity contained often blankets the whole of the immediate vicinity under a dense dust cloud as it is cleared out. It also covers the person clearing it making the masks we were wearing doubly beneficial.

 

Three barn owl eggs in another box.

The barn owl chicks discovered were generally very young with a number still revealing eggs waiting to hatch. One box had 3 newly hatched young in with one egg still unhatched. If the food supply becomes scarce the unhatched one being the smallest, is the one likely to be eaten by its siblings.

 

These chicks had only just hatched with one egg awaited.

Some boxes had roosting adult owls in with no young in evidence whereas others had the mother in the box with the young with the proud father often in residence in a neighbouring box. Sometimes the young owls are found in one box with the two adults residing in a neighbouring box. The male stays close to assist the female with food gathering for the young.

However quietly we approach, the acute hearing of the adult owls invariably detects our presence leading to them fly out before we are able to get near. They return as soon as we have finished to either tend their young if chicks are found or to roost if not.

The following pictures show some more broods we discovered this year.

 

Three other chicks. Note the larder of prey left in the box by the parents for the youngsters to eat.

 

Further chicks found with development still required to assume the classic features of their parents.

 

When very young, as in this box, movement is limited.

 

A single very young chick was found in this box.

 

Another box found with a single chick in which was still little more than a ball of fluff and far from the size we would be able to ring it.

 

Two chicks huddling together in a far corner of another box. Facial characteristics have begun to form in them.

 

These in a further breeding box were the most advanced of all the young found.

The two pictured above (one is shielding the other) were judged to be nearing the size to be ringed. We therefore returned a week later to undertake the task.

The picture below shows how much they had grown in a week and the adult feathers that had formed.

 

A week later they were looking more like adults.

 

Now recognisable as one of the most beautiful birds in the British countryside.

The whole breeding check/ringing activity occupies several authorised people for many months of the summer in our area before all are satisfactorily recorded. The results are then forwarded to allow population records to be kept for the whole country.

 

A newly recorded owl ringed and then carefully returned to its box.

Originally severely endangered, years of conservation effort have restored their population number but it is only with continuing nurturing by volunteers that it will be maintained.

 

A volunteer recorder proudly holding one of these valued birds. 

The Woodland, Flora & Fauna Group volunteers in addition to these summer checks, spend many months each winter maintaining our scores of group barn owl boxes in preparation for summer usage by breeding owls. This has been undertaken since 2007 when we erected our first boxes and began attempting to restore the local population. It has proved to be a huge success story for our group and justification for the considerable effort spent.

Our volunteers with their considerable experience now offer their help to capture data at breeding time for other areas of Sussex. This in addition to tending the large Southern Mid Sussex barn owl conservation area we have created and maintain ourselves. The overall commitment given to preserving this species therefore is huge and we are very grateful to our volunteers for the time and the hard work provided to achieve it.

We are also very grateful to Hassocks Field Society who generously contributed £500 towards the funding of our barn owl conservation programme at the end of last year. This has helped us enormously with our ongoing costs.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Nature Reserve Work Interrupted

Volunteers worked very hard on the maintenance of the small Hassocks nature reserve named Talbot Field in very wet and muddy conditions until March this year. Due to the progressive advance of Covid-19 working practices had been modified to include volunteers arriving on site separately, social distancing whilst working, wearing gloves at all times and with all tools used by individuals disinfected after every session. This worked well in the open air environment and volunteers observed the measures easily without it impacting on their enjoyment or ability to carry out their tasks until late March when the Government imposed ‘lockdown’ and all work ceased.

Normally our reports are written when a particular seasonal activity has been completed but in this case with this not having been possible the task has been described up to the point of interruption. Hopefully when the restrictions are eased further we can resume the precautions we were previously taking and return to site to complete the work.

We began the task at this site in January. The weather had been extremely wet for several months and the ground was waterlogged in many places. This made working difficult. Many volunteers attended despite the conditions and a lot of brush clearance and renovation work was completed.

The aim was to complete this activity before spring to give the spring flowers clear space to flourish and bloom. It took many weeks to remove the brush and a lot of volunteer effort to rake and pile up the cuttings. This was finally completed and piles of debris were locally stacked all around the site. We were in the process of transporting these piles to a central stack at the rear of the site where they would be burnt. Unfortunately ‘lockdown’ occurred before we could complete the process by the end of March so the site was left with many piles remaining.

Local people close to the site reported that the bluebells and other flowers that emerged later in the cleared ground looked wonderful despite the heaps we had left. We unfortunately missed the display this year due to our enforced absence but the safety of members is more important.

The work progressed over several months so the following pictures will record the people who regularly attended and work achieved.

 

The brush was progressively cleared.

 

The raking of cuttings began.

 

Teams of volunteers tackled the task.

 

The result at the end of each session was clear to see with the piles of debris stacked tidily for later removal.

 

The work was continued weekly.

 

The collective effort began to yield results.

 

We are very grateful to the dedication and enthusiasm of the volunteers and especially to the young woman pictured above on the left, who often travelled from Hove to Hassocks by train to join us.

 

Two of our volunteers taking a well-earned break.

 

The meadow area was also tackled.

 

Despite the hard work our helpers always appeared happy knowing that their effort was benefiting nature.

 

In the open air and the sunshine most found the experience rewarding.

 

All worked extremely hard until the coronavirus lockdown when we were forced to discontinue our activities.

 

The clearance and raking had been completed but the piles remained in position as we had been unable to dispose of them.

 

However, the site today shows the results of our effort with new growth abounding.

 

Hopefully when the virus pandemic subsides and it is once again safe to resume our activities, we will return to finish our work and to plant the wildflower plugs that Hassocks Parish Council, at our request, kindly purchased for us to enrich the meadow.