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After a busy week of hedgerows, harvest mice and River’s Week planning, time to relax…with a Dormouse Box Check!

9am in the woods at Furnace Place Estate (FPE), I met with Margaret, Wendy, Alan Mary and Nigel from the Haslemere Natural History Society (HNHS) who have been checking the boxes with me for the last two years. They were very patient through year one when we caught absolutely nothing vertebrate- not even a wood mouse! We’ve been rewarded this year with four individual dormice –two each male/female. We caught a pair in May, snoozing in their bracken and birch-leaf nest. We hoped they would breed but no sign yet. In June we picked up another male and July another female. We are able to identify individuals by giving them an individual fur-clip (requires L2 licence from Natural England).

I’m back from the site now where we found one individual but unfortunately it was too quick for the surveyor. We use a “stuffer”-a duster- which goes in the hole in the box to prevent its occupants fleeing before it’s taken from the tree for processing. This sharp-eared dormouse must have heard us coming and was out before stuffer was..er…stuffed. Still, good to know the animals are still about even if we can’t know which of our animals that was.

The Hazel Dormouse Muscardinus avellanarius is afforded the highest legal protection because of its declining UK population. It status as a European Protected Species (EPS) means that a licence is needed in order to survey and handle them. A Level 2 licence is needed to fur clip animals as part of a scientific study. Fur clipping helps us to identify individual animals and learn about their survival, breeding and dispersal (movement habits). This site will be registered as part of the National Dormouse Monitoring Programme run by Peoples Trust for Endangered Species so that our data can be used to keep track of the UK conservation status of these species.

 

49 dormice boxes at FPE set up in a grid pattern. By chance rather than by design the north-east tip of the grid eases out into more open habitat on Forestry Commission land (with their approval of course) which is regenerating woodland clear-fell. Of particular interest at this site is that all animals are being discovered in this habitat where birch, bramble and bracken dominates on very acid soils, and not in the oak-ash-hazel coppice woodland where the bulk of the boxes are. In fact we have caught nothing in two years in this habitat, not even a solitary wood-mouse. I’ve never come across this before in other sites I have monitored. Perhaps the dormice are hiding way up in the canopy and amongst the cavities and rot-holes in some rather splendid, rather tall oaks. Laughing.

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Oak/ash/hazel woodland with (44/50 boxes,  0 dormice)

 

<Pic of birch/bracken scrub to follow (5 boxes, 4 dormice)<

 

My own feeling is that the dark interior of this woodland provides less foraging opportunities than the scrub beyond. Studies from Europe show how Dormice respond very well to woodland management   opening up the canopy and letting light into encourage understory growth of brambles and shrubs (e.g. Ramakers_etal_2014; Juskaitis2008_CommonDormouse_pp90-93 ; Juskaitis2008_CommonDormouse_pp18-25). I don’t have the data to support this from our site however, and there continues to be a dearth of published studies in the UK since Morris/ Bright’s in the 1990s and therefore strong differences in opinion in what constitutes good woodland management with dormice in mind. Following the Forestry Commission’s Best Practice Guidelines is the current standard.

In the meantime however here are some pictures of dormice nests composed of bracken and birch leaves without a bit of honeysuckle in sight.

I’m very grateful to the The Barlow’s who own Furnace Place Estate for allowing Surrey Wildlife Trust to monitor these woods for Dormice in collaboration with NHNS who through their members Wendy and Allan Novelle, also dormice monitors, supplied the FPE project with boxes. Landowners, Communities and organisations like Surrey Wildlife Trust working together for the benefit of wildlife is an essential part of SWTs Living Landscape vision. Chris Packham claimed dormice were a “conservation con” a few years back to the outrage of the monitoring community, although I recall he was really just bemoaning the improbability of discovering one of these fascinating mammals in the normal process of being a naturalist. Its my hope that where schemes like these give people the chance to discover these sleepy characters in their own local woods along with other natural gems, a sense of value and pride can be fostered in local natural places, and a plan to invest in retaining them into the future can be drawn up.

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Some of the team from Haslemere Natural History Society earlier in the year with Mary Stuart-Jones (Surrey Dormouse Group etc etc)-Margaret and Alan Tomsett, John Rees (also Surrey Moth Group), Martyn Phylis (also Surrey Bat Group), Margaret Hibbard, Wendy Novelle (better picture coming soon!)

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Yours truly with the first dormouse at FPE captured May 22 2016

 

I started this blog back in 2013 to explore my interest in connectivity and how connections, being connected and conversely the state of isolation, is expressed throughout the living world. The hedgerow that joins to woods; a river flowing through the landscape; a story that brings together two communities. I think a lot- too much some might say, and blogging helps me to organise thoughts and also practice writing, which I have loved since I was a youngster but have done less of in my adult life. I became an ecologist in my 30s so came to a scientific way of thinking after years of intuitive living, and I feel keenly a loss of a creative side of my being. What better way to explore these ideas than connecting with others, and in the process reconnecting my left and right brain.

My blogging has been at best sporadic and at worst non-existent; however, with the encouragement of the good people at WordPess with their Blogging101 course I’m going to invest in my blog in 2016! I am already nearly a week behind due to a house move, but rather than quite we will just accept and move on!

To start off, bearing in mind this late start, I thought I would just list the things that got in the way of blogging regularily

  • Making time to blog
  • Writing style- I tend to write longer mini-essays!
  • Perfectionist streak- I don’t like posting things that aren’t high quality.

And here’s some of what I hope to bring you in the near future:

  • New ideas about ecological connectivity through peer reviewed journals
  • Insight into the application of science though my job as Living Landscape Manager at Surrey Wildlife Trust, and in particular how research is translated into practical delivery methods. One of my core interests is to what degree ecological connectivity is woven into the life stories of our society, and how we can use these to build a more resilient and connected community.
  • Local and national case studies about how communities are connecting with nature and natural resources in a more sustainable way.
  • Stories, Pictures and practically anything else I can think of relating to this idea of connectivity.

I hope you’ll join me and interact with your own experiences and ideas.

Let’s stay connected.

Jim

 

View across the River Wey to the main scrape (1) at BCF

View across the River Wey to the main scrape (1) at BCF

In October I signed up to monitor Burpham Court Farm, Guildford, for the BTO Wetland Birds Survey (WeBS). This Sunday gone was my 3rd Core Count (the first Sunday in the month) and the first on my own. As a relative newcomer to wetland birds- I am mammal ecologist- I enlisted the support first of Ken Ankorn, SWT Planning Officer and Surrey Bird Club member: and on my second outing in November, Mike Waite, SWT Living Landscapes Manager (my boss!) and in the best way possible all-round nature know-it-all!
Burpham Court Farm is owned by Guildford Borough Council, and is connected to the wonderful corridor of wetland habitat along the River Wey which includes Riverside LNR, Parsonage Meadow North of Guildford and sites that make up the Wey Valley Meadows SSSI to the south. Regular sightings so far have been large flocks of Canada Geese, Lapwing, Teal and Widgeon with growing numbers of black-headed gulls. Last month we spotted a solitary Snipe. This morning I logged 160 Lapwing, 100 Teal, 22 Widgeon and 45 BH Gull, and the snipe was there again. Last month it had been skulking in the rushes, today he was happily at his business drumming that long, long beak into the soft mud. Other sightings today were two grey herons, 1 lonely mallard, 2 pied wagtail, 2 moorhen and a Greater Black-backed gull.

View from Riverside Nature Reserve across BCF. The water feature in the foreground is part of a ditch line that joins the Wey at Burpham Weir

View from Riverside Nature Reserve across BCF. The water feature in the foreground is part of a ditch line that joins the Wey at Burpham Weir

I’m glad I had come on my own today. It was great to have the support of Ken or Mike but even with two it was hard to get close enough to the 3 scrapes at Burpham without disturbing the birds. This time however, I was able to get down to the north side of the Wey, bending here in a large U as it leaves the Navigation, without sending anything flying. I was therefore surprised to see through my scope, as bold as brass, a dog fox nosing amongst the rushes on the other side of the ditch line towards Slyfield. The birds didn’t seem the slightest bit bothered by him. But when I edged out from behind an alder to get a better view…boom! 150 lapwings went skyward. An amazing sight.

Location of main "scrapes"- areas of standing water. .Only (1) seems to remain throughout the year

Location of main “scrapes”- areas of standing water. .Only (1) seems to remain throughout the year

But Where are all the coots? And a surprisingly low number of moorhen too. There is not much fringing and in-channel vegetation along the Wey here, and even less since the Environment Agency undertook channel clearance as part of their flood recovery programme. But the situation can’t be helped by the resident American Mink. They are of course mostly known for their impact on water voles but there is evidence for impacts of Mink on water birds, and particularly coot & moorhen (Ferreras and Macdonald 19991)

“Mink presence significantly affected the density of breeding coots and the number of chicks hatched per pair of coots, as well as the average number of nests per pair of moorhens and the percentage of moorhen clutches hatched.  Mink diet during the birds’ breeding season (March–September) was studied through scat analysis. Ralliformes (coots or moorhens) represented 10% of the ingested biomass and were the fourth prey in importance after rabbits (45%), fish (25%) and small mammals (14%). Mink obtained 11% of their energy requirements from coots and moorhens. Impact of predation by mink during the bird breeding season was moderate to high for moorhens (16–27% of adults and 46–79% of broods) and high for coots (30–51% of adults and 50–86% of broods).”

In November, Mike and I were treated to a full floor show from these glamorous predators. Emerging from behind a thick alder coppice stool, not one but two of these dark destroyers made their way along the river bank. I suspect there are more, and records submitted to SWT over the last two years bear that out: the Wey (and Mole) have resident populations of Mink. There are no water vole at Burpham and at present there are no known water vole populations on the Wey. That said no county-wide surveys have been undertaken since 2007. A full resurvey of sites known to be populated up to then is underway, the bulk of which will be resurveyed in 2015.

 


Although there were plenty of signs, the mink didn’t show up today but instead as I hunkered down to survey scrape 3, I chanced a glance over my shoulder to see if the cormorant I had picked up on the last two surveys was around, Instead I caught sight of a large , slow-moving (dare I say lolloping?) shadow passing across the meadow, with jackdaws and crows in hot pursuit. I had my suspicions as soon as I saw it, having watched a field-full of these stunning birds of prey on a survey in Oxfordshire when I was a consultant, but only when it banked sharply to retaliate against a particularly brave corvid did I see the notched tail and confirm it as a red kite. That was a first for me for the site.

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It’s very pleasing in such a developed part of the UK that there are still areas like Burpham and the corridor of wetlands along the Wey. I’m looking forward to keeping track of comings and goings here over the winter and beyond.

1 Ferreras, P. and Macdonald, D.W. (1999), The impact of American mink Mustela vison on water birds in the upper Thames. Journal of Applied Ecology, 36: 701–708. doi: 10.1046/j.1365-2664.1999.00431.x

HarvestMouse1

Sunday

At 05:00 this morning I headed out onto almost deserted roads, the cars outnumbered by planes overhead on their final approaches: as I cruised up the A3 to junction 10 I waved farewell to those heading north into Heathrow and instead turned east onto the M25 with those Gatwick-bound. Our destination was the same, though I was not intent on the glitzy outlets for duty free shopping or awaiting a call, coffee in hand , for a flight to sunnier and more exotic climes. Instead I was headed for some grassy fields on the western side of the airport around the floodplain of the River Mole.

I had been invited to help out with some small mammal trapping at the airport by site ecologist Rachel Bicker and her friend and Sussex Mammal Group member Laurie Jackson. Rachel has been monitoring the site in order to make habitat management plans and has surveyed everything from moths to dormice to bats and herps. No mammal trapping had yet been undertaken, but Laurie and Rachel had found a harvest mouse nest on site. They had put 20 traps (locked open) in two locations on Thursday and the traps had been set on Friday morning by Rachel. On Friday evening at 5:45 I joined them with three others who were interested in gaining some trapping experience to check if the day had brought us any luck. We were rewarded with a bank vole!

I couldn’t attend on Saturday because I was tied up with our annual PTES Harvest Mouse workshop at Thundry Meadows (traps I had put out only caught a vole and nest searches of two areas were fruitless, the first time in 3 years). Rachel had two common shrews Sorex araneus and a wood mouse Apodemus sylvaticus on Saturday morning.

I arrived at the Greyhound Pub in Tinsley Green to pick up Katie May from the Bat Conservation Trust who had offered to help out. As the fog lifted and the morning brightened to a gorgeous sunsparkle October morning, we drove round past the monstrous hangers and the sleeping dragon-like jumbo jets, some roaring into the sky. I wondered if any passenger might spare a thought as they passed over the river to the figures emerging from a battered blue Peugeot van, to don wellingtons and fluorescent jackets and head out along the woodland edge into the surrounding fields, glittering with dew-bedecked spiders webs.
SpideryField
Our first ten traps quickly bought us up to match yesterday morning’s total with a couple of common shrews and a wood mouse. Sadly one shrew had died, not unusual at this time of year. Shrews have a relatively short lifespan and even those born in the spring are unlikely to make it through to the following year. A shrew’s high metabolism also means it need to feed constantly, so a good supply of mealworms- shrews being insectivores- is always required in a trap. Our wood mouse was a pregnant female, not unusual to find one this late in the year but in recent trapping events I have been finding quite a few-dormice also seem to be breeding quite late this year. Perhaps this is to be expected after the very late spring.

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DeadCShrew

We moved on to our second site adjacent to the River Mole where the grass was long and fringing Phragmites reeds and soft rush made it ideal habitat for harvest mice Micromys minutus. Katie and I had just been speaking about harvest mice and then in our next trap we found one! A spectacularly tiny 3g juvenile( too small to sex!) the young of this year. the tiny creature tried valiantly to chew my finger, but his tiny teeth did little to cause me pain. The miniscule harvest mouse is not unlike the shrew in in its short lifespan. Most will be born and die in the same year, although research shows those born in October have the best chance of surviving over winter. Maybe this little chap will have that chance!
MistyMole

We found two more common shrews- one with a curious black rump which made it look half water-shrew! I wondered about the possibility of cross breeding between these two species but its unlikely as they are not even the same genus. Common Shrew –Sorex araneus, Water shrew Neomys fodiens.

 

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We did two ten-minute nest searches in 50m2 around the harvest mice location but failed to find a nest despite suitable habitat structure. I vowed to return with a few more bodies to help out since there was a lot of habitat to cover, not just the grassland but reedbed areas too.

Katie and I walked back to the van buoyant from our discovery. I’m certainly glad I’ve seen my first harvest mouse for the year, even if I can’t add the result to our Surrey dormouse map, Gatwick being just over the border into Sussex. We can however take the news to the River Mole Catchment Partnership newly formed to focus on a long-term vision for the river. Mapping the extent of harvest mice, which are known to fare better in well-connected habitat, along the course of the Mole will give us a way to gauge the success of projects to improve the ecological status of the river as required under the EU water framework directive.

Time for a bacon sandwich and a cup of coffee. Despite the still-early hour I’m too buzzing to snooze!

tarnava-land

In exactly three weeks time I will have arrived in the Romanian province of Transylvania and will be getting to know the rest of the Operation Wallacea team with whom I’m to spend the next month-and-a-half. Its not a country I’ve visited before, or even know much about, except through Bram Stoker and Hammer Horror films, and while immensely entertaining probably not the best introduction to a country which is one of Europe’s largest, with a rich mixture of cultures including ethnic Romanians, Magyars, Germans, Russians, Ukranians, Serbs, Slovaks, Bulgars, Gypsies, Turks and Tatars. As a lover of stories, I think I’m in for a real treat.

I’m going to Romania as a mammal ecologist on the first Operation Wallacea expedition to Tarnava Mare to provide annual data on a series of biodiversity performance and farming criteria that need monitoring on the ground. This data will be used to test the effectiveness in maintaining the traditional farming practices and in protecting the biodiversity in this outstanding area. The work is being completed with ADEPT, a Romanian based NGO and with Oxford University Biodiversity Institute -are responsible for the satellite monitoring of change in habitats and farming practices (eg crops, field size, hedgerow length).

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Sighisoara-Târnava Mare is a Site of Conservation Importance declared under the EU Habitats Directive and is one of the most important High Nature Value Farmed Landscapes in Europe. It is characterised by traditionally managed dry grassland habitat type which are threatened in Europe in a mosaic with ancient oak and beech forests. Unspoiled villages centred on fortified churches lie peacefully in the valleys. Traditional farming is carried out in ecological balance with nature. This landscape supports an astonishingly rich wildlife of plants, birds, mammals and insects.

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Threats

A significant part of the habitats in the project area are either abandoned or overgrazed for economic reasons. Farmers do not get sufficient economic return for managing them traditionally. Overgrazing causes loss of species richness. Abandonment leads to the spread of thorny scrub, and accumulation of dead grassy material. In both cases, loss of habitat condition of grazing land and in hay meadows leads to loss of associated flora and fauna including important bird and butterfly species. These effects are obvious but still easily reversible by re-establishment of traditional management.

 Operation Wallacea (OpWall)

runs a series of biological and conservation management research programmes that operate in remote locations across the world. These expeditions are designed with specific wildlife conservation aims in mind – from identifying areas needing protection, through to implementing and assessing conservation management programmes. OpWall concentrates large teams of academics with specialisms in various aspects of biodiversity or social and economic studies at the target study sites giving volunteers the opportunity to work on a range of projects. In each country, a long-term agreement is signed with a partner organisation to achieve a survey and management development programme at each of the sites.

 Fundatia ADEPT

 ADEPT’s mission is to preserve these Hign Nature Value Farmlands by promoting nature friendly farm management with local involvement and local benefits. They deliver a package of measures aimed at educating local communities in the practices that maintain high biodiversity value landscapes which in turn provide benefits for people (ecosystem services).

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Living Landscapes

 I have trained as an ecologist with a special interest in the role that connectivity plays in supporting biodiversity in fragmented landscapes. My current work as the Living Landscape Officer for Surrey Wildlife Trust involves the delivery of a landscape that is rich in opportunities for both people and wildlife. At the heart of my work is the education of local communities to deliver an ecologically coherent landscape rich in wildlife. In this the goals of Surrey Wildlife Trust are very similar to those of ADEPT

 This expedition will be a chance for me to learn from my conservation colleagues at ADEPT about the tools that they use to promote biodiversity and engage their community. I hope through my own skills and experiences to enrich their work too. I am very much looking forward to meeting the much richer mammal fauna of the region- probably species like the white toothed shrews (Crocidura spp) , the southern birch mouse Sicista subtilis and the European suslik Spermophilus citellus but perhaps if I am fortunate the Steppe Polecat Mustela eversmannii and if I’m inappropriately unfeasibly jammy a Eurasian Lynx Lynx lynx, Grey Wolf Canis lupus or Brown (Grizzly) Bear Ursus arctos.

 

Bicolour White Toothed Shrew Crocidura leucodon

 

Marbled Polecat Vormela peregusna

Marbled Polecat Vormela peregusna

 

Eurasian Lynx  Lynx lynx

Eurasian Lynx
Lynx lynx

I’ll be posting blogs as much as internet connection and charging points allow (I am taking a freeloader for solar charging), so sign up for updates and join me on what I hope will be a thrilling and educational trip.

LINKS 

OpWall http://opwall.com/about-us/what-is-opwall/

 Fundatia ADEPT http://www.fundatia-adept.org/?content=activities

 Tarnava Mare http://www.discovertarnavamare.org/discover/nature/

 Surrey Wildlife Trust www.surreywildlifetrust.org

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