BARN OWL BOXES ARE MAINTAINED EACH WINTER.
The early wet months of last winter proved to be extremely difficult for The Woodland, Flora & Fauna Group owl team in early 2020. Not only was it difficult to find dry days to undertake the box cleaning and maintenance but so heavy had been the rainfall that the countryside was a quagmire to negotiate. With the target to complete by the end of February to let owls begin mating, the pressure on the team was intense. It meant grabbing every dry opportunity at short notice and on many occasions meant working up to three days a week. The volunteers faced a daunting task to transport all the required maintenance equipment over countless fields that were so wet that it was difficult to walk across them.
The equipment required was transported across the open countryside to the box locations.
Due to these severe wet conditions, they faced the additional complication that they were unable to get their vehicles as close as normal to reduce the distance they were required to walk.
Every location presented the same waterlogged terrain to overcome and boots were quickly overwhelmed.
The barn owls found seemed to appreciate this effort and were quick to return to the cleaned boxes afterwards.
Once the task was commenced it was pursued until completion. Progress was interrupted many times due to rapidly changing weather forecasts. Some sites were extremely waterlogged after days of heavy rainfall so the team had to miss them and move on to others that were more accessible. Working constantly in deep wet mud and waterlogged fields made clothing quickly resemble the terrain. The rungs of the ladders became as muddy as the ground and this transferred to their hands and clothing. Working was therefore difficult and had to be performed with extreme care. With 80% of our national barn owl population relying on boxes such as these to survive, the effort however problematical is worthwhile and justifies all the expenditure we incur annually taken from group funds. This is one of causes we appeal for help for from our supporters and others at our annual fundraising events. Without this help we could not fund this conservation effort. Failure to regularly undertake this task leads to a much-shortened lifespan for the boxes, thus increasing our costs and allows bacteria/insect infestation to occur within them to the detriment of the occupants and breeding success.
Each box is cleaned and restored with a coat of paint.
All tree growth impeding flight path access is removed.
The sight of a magnificent barn owl from one of our boxes sweeping across the countryside makes all our effort worthwhile.
NATURE RESERVE WORK CONTINUES DESPITE LOCKDOWN.
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. We began the task at this site in January. The weather had been very 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 intrusive brush clearance and renovation work was completed.
The aim had been to complete this activity before spring to give the spring flowers clear space to flourish and bloom. It had taken many weeks to remove the brush and a lot of volunteer effort to rake and pile up the cuttings. This was eventually completed and piles of debris were locally stacked all around the site. We then began transporting these piles to a central stack at the rear of the site where they would be burnt. Unfortunately, the first COVID-19 ‘lockdown’ occurred before we could complete the process so the site was left with many piles remaining. It resumed again when lockdown ceased but subject to social distancing and other Government safety restrictions. The volunteers worked hard to finally complete the task in July.
The woodland floor is tackled to remove brush and fallen branches with footpaths cleared to restore public access.
After a lot of hard work, two volunteers take a well-earned break. Sadly our valued colleague and committee member Eric on the right passed away unexpectedly in November. He will be greatly missed.
Volunteers remove all clearance debris in readiness for summer.
All this effort allowed the meadow to flourish and support local wildlife in the following months.
BARN OWL BREEDING CONTINUES IN OUR BOXES.
The initial inspections our group carries out identifies 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 siblings are very large and a handful to deal with on the return visit.
Barn owl young were found in many boxes on our initial visits.
The barn owl young found in the boxes were ringed when they reached a sufficient stage of development.
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. 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.
WOODLAND POND EFFORT REAPS REWARDS.
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 at the end of July.
Observing all 2020 coronavirus social distancing and other limitations, volunteers moved in to restore the pond.
With years of experience behind many of them, they expertly began to tackle the task.
Here 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 become very overgrown. Reeds had once again begun to spread and the surrounding tree growth and fallen branches had added further to the effort required. 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. Determined that this achievement would not be wasted despite COVID-19 restrictions making work more difficult than normal, the volunteers quickly began restoring the area to ensure it remained the distinctive natural feature it previously was and a haven for wildlife once more.
Regardless of prevailing summer temperatures in excess of 30 degrees Centigrade, all volunteers maintained their effort throughout the many weeks required to achieve completion.
On the final day of this effort the reward for all the hard work was plain to see with the pond once more a distinctive landscape feature serving the local wildlife populations.
DORMICE BOX CHECKS ARE LIMITED THIS YEAR.
The coronavirus ‘lock-down’ robbed us of many valuable months of monitoring these boxes this year when any dormouse 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. 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 a dormouse presence such is the elusive nature of the species. Due to the lack of earlier checks, the many boxes that had been used by nesting bluetits and great tits were not cleaned out as normal to allow dormice to use them. We therefore anticipated a poor return would be the result.
Licenced volunteer teams visited each month to examine the boxes in each woodland.
Many boxes were being used as food stores by wood mice.
This was one of the many wood mice nests found this year built on a large food store of acorns.
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 finding any dormice. The clearance of redundant early spring bluetit and great tit nests are usually the first annual task we undertake to allow dormice to occupy the boxes. This wasn’t possible until very late in the summer this year. Wood mice and their nests were found in abundance however, together with many food stores. Hopefully dormice results will be better next year.
OUR BAT SPECIES HAVE FLOURISHED IN 2020.
We began our initial bat inspections at the latter end of August. They were continued throughout September and were finally completed at the beginning of October. It was found to be the best year for box occupancy since 2009 when they were first erected by us to Bat Conservation Trust guidelines. The measures we have in place are assisting bats to survive and flourish in a world that has pushed them into becoming an endangered species. It is also a reward for all the hard work that we expend on them.
Teams of licenced volunteers year visit each woodland to record the population of bats.
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 were shared by members of the team to manoeuvre around tree branches, trunk protrusions and very awkward trunk/branch configurations.
This year with 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. 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. This was achieved this year however, thanks to the concentrated effort and hard work of the volunteers who were willing to attend several days each week for a month. All results have been forwarded to Natural England to enable national population records to be updated.
Each box is visited to determine occupancy and the findings recorded. This year’s occupancy results included Natterer’s, Soprano Pipistrelle and Common Pipistrelle bats.
POND LYE SNCI MEADOW VOLUNTEERS WORK HARD.
The Pond Lye meadow sustains a rich tapestry of flora and dependant wildlife which requires constant nurturing.
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) in the early weeks of August.
An advance contingent of volunteers had attended earlier to cut the knee length grass that was covering the car park area to make it accessible for volunteer’s vehicles. This work is necessary to maintain the rich floral quality of the meadow which is in evidence throughout the summer. When the flora blooms come to the end of their flowering seasons, we return to provide the care needed to maintain it. 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 within them.
We are very grateful to our regular volunteer scythe operator, who attended site at 6.00am every morning before beginning employment work elsewhere. This early start also allowed him to avoid the extreme heat of the summer days that were prevailing at the time. He started on the cutting of the area of the meadow which was punctuated with anthills and always proves so difficult to tackle by any other means. 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 more of the meadow for us.
The scythe operator begins the task in the difficult areas followed by the volunteer with tractor and cutter.
For this he attended several days at the end of August and completed all the areas that were accessible with his tractor. 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. The brush cutter operators were soon tackling the remaining difficult areas and meadow edges.
The brush cutter volunteers then move in to tackle the remaining difficult areas.
While they tackled these areas, many other volunteers attended to begin raking up all the cuttings produced. This is necessary to ensure they do not decompose to enrich and alter the soil composition upon which the indigenous flora species rely. The cuttings are transported to peripheral bonfire locations to be disposed of.
Then large numbers of volunteers are required to rake up and dispose of all the cuttings.
This takes many weeks to complete and a lot of effort.
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 to contend with the introduction of the second period of coronavirus’ lockdown’ which prevented any working parties attending to complete it. This has unfortunately once again put our countryside and wildlife work schedule into delay despite the hard work our volunteers had put in to remedy it and for which we are very grateful. Prior to this second ‘lockdown’ the commendable effort of our volunteers had allowed us to catch up with our seasonal work schedule to be on target to tackle next season’s commitments. Now unfortunately we begin behind schedule again with the ability to resume previous working practices uncertain.
The completion of the meadow cut in readiness for next year.
SOME INTERESTING OBSERVATIONS THIS YEAR.
A barn owl pellet coated with red mould.
Fly Agaric fungus (Amanita muscaria).
A Southern Hawker (Aeshna cyanea).
NO GROUP TALKS HELD IN 2020.
No talks were held this year due to the COVID-19 pandemic and subsequent ‘lockdowns’ and safety restrictions applied by the Government. Next year’s events could be equally uncertain.
We thank all our supporters for their interest in our activities and our valuable volunteers for their help. If you too would like to volunteer please contact Michael Nailard. Telephone: 01273 834001.