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.

A Bad Year for Humans but a Great One for Bats.

This year has been exceptionally difficult to manage all our countryside and wildlife projects with COVID-19 affecting all of our lives and normal practices. None more so than our bat conservation work throughout our local countryside.

 

 

One of the scores of bat boxes installed in our local woodlands.

 

In the months prior to the coronavirus ‘lock-down’ additional bat boxes had been purchased to install in another woodland in Hassocks. The well-insulated woodcrete boxes had arrived on a huge pallet delivered by lorry. All were prepared and numbered with labels ready for installation when we were suddenly halted by the national ‘lock-down’. They therefore remained exactly where they had been delivered for the whole summer, for when the ‘lockdown’ restrictions eased sufficiently for our group to resume activities, so many other tasks had been delayed and required our more urgent attention.

Work on these delayed projects were dealt with first but because of the tremendously high work effort that was necessary to deal with them, which often required 7 day working on a number of simultaneously occurring projects, we had to progress them on a basis of urgency. When all this hard work eventually permitted us to catch-up again we once again turned our attention to our local bat population.

 

 

Our bat populations are endangered and require our help to survive. We are committed to this objective. This is one of the many we found in boxes this year.

 

We began our initial bat inspections at the latter end of August in parallel with other projects. They were continued throughout September and were finally completed at the beginning of October.

The woodland locations where our bat boxes are installed are always carefully selected for suitability to maximise benefit to the local bat populations. These locations are spread throughout our local countryside and require a lot of volunteer effort to travel to and undertake.

 

 

A woodland view from one of our bat boxes high in a tree.

 

The timing and duration of these checks are usually difficult to fit into the ‘ideal window’ at the end of the summer when temperatures are still warm enough to sustain the insect populations which provide the food the bats depend upon. This is especially so when the autumn weather becomes wet and the number of suitable days within this period are lessened.

 

 

To obtain the best bat occupancy results checking has to be undertaken in suitable weather conditions. We were fortunate this year and this resulted in many like this one being found.

 

Due to the effort required and the time each woodland installation takes to check, only a single location can be completed on any one day. Often the formation of the teams of 3 to 5 people led by a licenced person required to undertake these are difficult, as they are restricted by the volunteers’ availability to attend several project days a week.

 

 

Teams of volunteers perform these vital checks.

 

The volunteers are essential to assist with the transportation of the sturdy multi-section ladders and equipment required over often very long distances. This year all the volunteers worked exceptionally hard in an effort to meet these demands, whilst often attending on other days in the same week to meet the requirements of our other conservation projects. This allowed the checks to be completed within the allotted timescale. We were undoubtedly helped by the initial warm, dry late summer days in achieving this.

 

 

Each box in the local countryside has to be visited and inspected.

  

The average time taken for each woodland to be checked ranged between 3 and 7 hours depending on the number of boxes installed. The checks on each box included recording all resident bats, cleaning out any old birds nests, clearing out hornets/wasp cones, old droppings, spiders webs, earwigs, slugs or any other insects occupying them to enable future occupation by bats. All the boxes and fixings are also checked for security or damage.

 

 

Hornet’s cones are often found in boxes.

 

With each box erected at a lofty height in the woodland tree canopy to provide maximum suitability for bats, a multi-section ladder is required. This has to be a heavy duty one to ensure safe working at the high heights required. Normally the erection of the 3 ladder sections are shared by members of the team to manoeuvre around tree branches, trunk protrusions and very awkward trunk configurations.

This year with all volunteers observing the Government’s social distancing rules, all tasks had to be performed with this in mind . This meant individuals travelling separately to each location and work-spacing apart. This made the ladder erection the sole task of a single person which obviously took much longer and was more taxing. Normally 2 or 3 individuals stand together at the foot of the ladder with one person holding the ladder away from the trunk while another person extends it upwards.

 

In previous years a ladder was extended with another person holding it away from the tree and any obstructions. 

 

 

To meet this year’s coronavirus requirements ladder erection was left to one person in each working party.

 

 

The heavy sections first had to be placed together and assembled….

 

 

…then each section was raised as far as possible against the tree.

 

 

Each section had to be manoeuvred over the trunk obstructions and around branches.

 

 

When one section had been extended as far as possible the next one had to be raised as far as arms could stretch…

 

 

…while still trying to ensure the ladder didn’t slide off the tree whilst being raised and tilted around obstructing branches. Watching both ends of the ladder simultaneously proved very difficult and guidance had to be sought from watching volunteers.

 

 

With this activity at each tree requiring so much effort it was a relief to eventually climb up to the box.

 

The whole activity is risk assessed and safety equipment is offered to all attendees in accordance with their individual roles. Intelligent assessment, extreme care and common sense is applied in all situations and it works well.

 

 

A volunteer recorded results as each box was visited…

 

 

…and performed the vital safety role of standing on the bottom of the ladder while the check was carried out.

 

 

Our local woodlands contain scores of our bat boxes all requiring annual occupancy checks, cleaning and any maintenance required.

 

One large tree housing a box in one of the woodlands was found to have blown down but fortunately the box had not smashed. It was prised from under the fallen trunk and released from its fixing. A quick survey of the wood found another suitable tree with satisfactory bat access and it was re-mounted.

Our findings in terms of bats occupation were extremely good this year which made all the concentrated effort worthwhile. Further pictures illustrating the task this year are shown below together with some of the results achieved:-

 

 

Volunteers carrying ladder sections between trees…

 

 

…and clearing the ground of  troublesome bramble growth that prevented the ladder being placed into position.

 

 

For coronavirus safety reasons one person performed the ladder erection…

 

 

…with the other volunteers in close attendance to meet any need that arises.

 

 

Each box was carefully opened…

 

 

…while the checker was assisted as far as possible by other members of the team.

 

 

Once the box door was removed…

 

 

…the interior was examined for residents.

 

 

The findings included a cluster of common pipistrelle bats discovered roosting in this box…

 

 

…with this one housing a soprano pipistrelle.

 

 

This was one of a number of common pipistrelle bats clustered in a further box…

 

 

…with another box containing a lively individual that immediately moved towards the open door.

 

 

All bats found, as this one, have care applied and if necessary are moved away when the door is replaced to ensure that there is no chance of them getting a limb trapped in it.

 

 

Some boxes were found to house lone bats…

 

 

…while others contained larger groups.

 

 

This box in a northern woodland contained a Natterer’s Bat. The Natterer’s bat is a medium-sized bat which feeds on midges, moths and other flying insects that they find in the dark by using echolocation. They often  forage on the spiders and beetles in the foliage of trees growing in the semi-natural broad-leaved woodland and also on insects along tree-lined rivers and ponds. They additionally use grassland habitats where they can sometimes be seen flying very low over the ground. Their flight is relatively slow.

 

 

The woodland where this bat was found has historically been favoured by several different species of bats as it skirts a large expanse of water which encourages a high insect presence for them to feed on. Although not rare, Natterer’s bats are less common than many others and their habitats in the UK merit protection. The additional presence of this species of bat in our boxes is some reward for the extremely hard work that we expend each year to support our local bat populations.

 

 

Yet another gathering of common pipistrelles utilising one of the roosts we have provided for them.

 

These are sample pictures of the volunteer effort required this year and some of the bats found in a very encouraging season. It has been the best year for box occupancy since 2009 when they were first erected to Bat Conservation Trust guidelines. The measures we have in place are assisting the bats to survive and flourish in a world that has pushed them into becoming endangered species. It is also a reward for all the hard work that we expend on them.

At the end of our inspections in early October we then turned our attention to the erection of the bat boxes we had purchased at the beginning of the year for a new woodland location. We are always trying to increase our support for endangered species and these would obviously boost the number and coverage of boxes we had already provided around our local countryside.

We assembled a team of 3 volunteers who worked together to enable the task to be completed within 5 hours, as the chosen day was the only dry one in a wet week. To achieve this they worked non-stop without any break for food. We are obviously very grateful to them all for their dedication to achieve the work as we are with all the excellent volunteers who have formed teams to help with bat box inspections this year and previous years.

 

 

The equipment and boxes were carried into the new wood where the first pre-selected tree was situated.

 

 

The ladder was raised to the required height and the installation began.

 

 

This woodland contained ideal habitat conditions and access routes from the outside and within.

 

 

The heavy boxes were carried with care up the ladder with the tools required to mount them.

 

 

Each ladder site was pre-cleared of brush vegetation by the volunteers to allow the ladder to be manoeuvred into position and enable a safe footing to be established.

 

 

In addition to the care was that was taken to ensure a firm footing for the ladder, one of the hard-hatted volunteers stood on the bottom rung while the box was fixed and handed up any additional items required.

 

 

At the lofty height chosen for the box and whilst juggling the heavy tools required to fix it using both hands, these safety precautions were essential.

 

 

When completed the ladder was removed leaving the box available for future bat occupation.

 

 

These precautions were followed for every selected location…

 

 

…regardless of the ground incline or wet or dry soil conditions.

 

 

Clearance below each box location was required…

 

 

…as was the removal of impeding foliage above to allow clear flight paths to and from the boxes.

 

 

A lot of attention was given to provide perfect conditions for box occupation to maximise the survival prospects of our endangered local bat populations.

 

 

The ground here was undulating, providing a ‘hill and valley’ woodland landscape. The volunteers performed magnificently in carrying ladder sections with one person on each end, up and down the slippery slopes and succeeded in transporting the equipment required to each of the selected trees without any mishap. Each demonstrated the personal interest and enthusiasm required to achieve this wildlife conservation initiative which is vital to bat survival in an increasingly hostile world.

Our group is reliant on its supporters and volunteers to continue our conservation success and we currently have some great people supporting our work in whatever way they can, so we thank them all. Any other people interested in helping us have only to contact us by using the link on this website. Additional help is always welcome.

 

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.