Saturday, May 29, 2010

Looking for water voles on the River Evenlode

Recently I accompanied two ecologists from the Gloucestershire Wildlife Trust, along with Tim Field (Daylesford Environmental Scientist) and John Field (Water Vole Officer, no relation!) to look for water voles on the River Evenlode. One of the main areas we were inspecting was a wetland ecosystem beside the river that has recently been created by Tim on behalf of Daylesford Organic. The project has already looked at several Cotswold rivers recently and is part of a nationwide scheme to help reverse disastrous recent declines in the mammal.

The highlighted area is the wetland reserve, photographed in May 2009. The Evenlode is visible as a thin line passing down through it. Until quite recently this water-meadow was very 'horse sick' - that is to say it had been heavily overgrazed by horses. Two years ago the culverts, ditches and pond (visible as lighter brown marks) were added using a JCB with valves to allow the water levels to be adjusted. Over the winter months the area is flooded, providing valuable habitat for migrant waders and waterfowl as well as flood alleviation for people living up- and downstream. In the later summer and autumn the regrowth is enjoyed by Gloucester cattle, an old breed hardy enough to handle rough grazing land.

Already a number of key meadow and wet meadow species have emerged in the sward, including meadow foxtail, marsh thistle, common knapweed, marsh woundwort and meadowsweet. The ecologists suggested that the sward could be further enhanced if a hay cut was taken off the site, followed by a transfer of wet hay from the fantastic wet meadows at Greystones Farm Widllife Trust reserve near Boughton-on-the-Water. This would provide seed from some of the rarer species (e.g. orchids and sedges) that are unlikely to naturally recolonise.

The main dyke and surrounding marsh. Exposed soil and algal blooms betray the young age of the water feature, but it will already have been colonised by many invertebrates, particularly dragonflies and damselflies. A pair of Lapwing were diving and calling over the marsh and perhaps had a nest nearby or were prospecting the site.

We looked for water vole latrines as the only sure fire way of confirming their presence (apart from spotting one obviously!). There are a number of secondary clues that can be used for further evidence such as,

1) their burrows - BUT can be old and uninhabited or confused with the brown rat's
2) piles of chewed grasses and reeds - particularly yellow flag iris - BUT also displayed by bank and field voles so unreliable.

Overshading of the riverbanks by trees and bushes has made many river banks unfavourable for the water vole, combined with the other big factor, American Mink. These hardcore predatory mammals are often foolishly released from farms into the wild by so-called 'animal rights protesters' (ha!). Unfortunately they have quite a taste for the water vole. This stretch of the river looked like quite good habitat so mink are probably why we didn't find any.

A mallard's nest in an old coppiced willow. Is this an unusually large clutch?

Otter spraint and footprints on the riverbank. They have very large territories (40 miles!) so it may not live nearby. The spread of the invasive signal crayfish may well have helped otters recolonise much of the country. A large contributor to their decline were the endocrine disrupting chemicals (EDCs) used as agricultural pesticides that accumulated in the food chain from the 1950s until recently. These are now banned and otters are doing well.

Monday, May 24, 2010

1920s orchard in full spring glory

Before and after shots of the 1920s orchard. The 'after' photos were taken two weeks ago and the 'before shots in the winter of 2008. Fifty trees have been pruned, the grass has been cut and the birds are nesting all over the place.

Areas of long grass have been left to provide nectar sources and cover for birds and small mammals. In combination with the short grass this will provide some variety of habitat. Better air circulation will improve the health of the trees and reduce scab on the fruit. Mechanical mowing is a short term solution - in the long term we will hopefully fence the site and reinstate sheep grazing.

Sunday, May 16, 2010

Bait hives for honey bees

My friend Tanya is a natural beekeeper- that is, one that does not use chemicals and tries to encourage as natural a life cycle as possible for her colonies. She has loaned me two bait hives, one for each of my orchards in Charingworth. Bait hives are the empty first story of a hive that has been used by a colony previously. Theoretically, the smell of residual amounts of propolis and wax attracts scout bees that are on the look out for a new home for a naturalised colony that is ready to swarm. This swarm then may colonise the hive, and as it grows you can gradually increase the size of the beehive to accommodate them. The bees will then help pollinate the orchard effectively, and you can harvest HONEY from them! Mmmm.

Have a look at this secret glade I made in the 1940s orchard last week using my strimmer. It is quite magical to be enclosed by blossoming trees on all sides.

Tuesday, May 11, 2010

Preparing for the blossom...

After all the pruning activity of February and March, spring finally arrived and it was time to clear up the enormous volumes of prunings that had accumulated. Issac, Will and Freddie helped me spend a day consolidating the piles. Pruning offcuts are very sappy and extremely difficult to burn en masse. We decided the best option was to make several huge bonfires and leave the wood through summer to dry out before burning most of it. Any larger diameter pieces have already been stacked under each tree and on the orchard perimeter to slowly rot down.

In the middle of those two piles you can see one of the new trees I planted in March. This one is Ashmead's Kernel - an old Gloucestershire variety that makes excellent juice.

The exciting revelation of the tidy up was that for the first time we could see down the length of the avenues in the 1920s orchard. This photo was taken about a month ago and since then the grass has grown considerably. I have arranged for someone to come in with a topper and small cabin-less tractor and cut in on Saturday. After that I should have the photogenic combo of freshly cut grass and blossoming trees to spoil you with!

We also cleared out both of the barn owl boxes. I had seen the Jackdaws going into one of them, and it transpired that both boxes we full with sheep's wool and sticks from their nest-building attempts. Jackdaws fill the boxes with material and then build a nest right at the top. Barn owls will only ever colonise a box that is empty and they do not make a nest. I think it will be an ongoing task to keep them clear until they are colonised - but once barn owls are in residence they can use the same box year after year. I have also found this Jackdaw-proof owl box design which may be something to consider if you are thinking of installing one yourself...

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