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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.
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.
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.
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
As I write this the devastating effects of flooding on individuals and communities, particularly in the south of Britain, can be witnessed daily through the media. In Somerset, and here in my own county of Surrey at Staines, Chertsey and Egham, homes have been damaged and people evacuated. 900 people have been rescued across the county since last Sunday. The political blame game is in full swing and the misguided call for dredging appears to be winning the day. But as one Environment Agency colleague succinctly put it, thinking that dredging would help alleviate these floods was like thinking you can fit four teapots full of tea into one bone china cup if you remove the spoon-full of sugar.
Thankfully, the Chartered Institute of Water and Environmental Management (CIWEM), together with the BluePrint for Water Partners that includes The Wildlife Trusts (for whom I work) have published “Floods and Dredging, A reality Check”. The report summarises the effects of dredging on river systems, highlighting that it can be a useful tool in the toolbox increasing channel conveyance and reducing water levels in small floods, particularly on heavily modified water bodies. However the report emphasises the need for a Catchment Based Approach (CaBA), with focus on natural practices to slow water and increase infiltration rates, including “planting woodland, shelter belts and hedgerows”
The first title for this blog was going to be “Apart from flood mitigation, soil protection, mitigating runoff and pollution of watercourses, hosting natural predators of crop pests, stock management, food, wood fuel and climate regulation, what have hedgerows ever done for us..? ?” A Hedgelink report summarises the ecosystem services provided by hedgerows (1), including identifying an important role in water management.
“A 50m hedgerow at the bottom of a 1ha field can store between 150 and 375 cubic metres of water during rainy periods for slow release down slope during dry periods”
Evidence points to hedgerows being useful in storing water and increasing its transit time across fields. A 50m hedgerow at the bottom of a 1ha field can store between 150 and 375 cubic metres of water during rainy periods for slow release down slope during dry periods. This effect is greatest in soils rich in clay or organic matter. Because of their deep roots, hedgerows remove water faster from the soil than crops during periods of excessive rainfall, through increased evapotranspiration.(2,3)
Since 1945 there has been a drastic loss of hedgerows through removal and neglect throughout the UK, especially in eastern counties of England. Between 1984 and 1990, it was estimated that the length of hedges declined by about 23% in Great Britain (4).As well as the decline in biodiversity, this loss could present a significant reduction in the services, such as flood management, provided by hedgerows.
But supporting evidence is still needed, and last year Hedgelink members proposed that ecosystem services provided by hedgerows as a top research priority. DEFRA have awarded funding to produce a research review to be undertaken which will be published in late Spring.
1. Wolton 2009 The importance of hedgerows and the services they provide to society. Hedgelink.
2. Provision of environmental services through the Environmental Stewardship scheme. Final report to Defra (research contract NR0121). By Land Use Consultants in association with GHK Consulting Ltd. March 2009 http://randd.defra.gov.uk/Document.aspx?Document=NR0121_8197_FRA.pdf
3. Trees, Hedges and Water. 2000. Document produced jointly by Solagro (France), Rural Development Department of Lower Austria, An Taisce (Ireland) and The European Natural Heritage Fund (Spain).
4. Barr, C.J. et al (1993), Countryside Survey 1990, Main Report, DOE London.
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.
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.
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!
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.
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!
Today I’ve been lucky to have two very different yet related experiences of Surrey Rivers and has underlined for again the importance of a vibrant and varied landscape for our wellbeing.
This morning and into the early afternoon I’ve been walking the River Mole with the second batch of 13 RiverSearch volunteers teaching them how to undertake walkovers to assess the status of a river for Water Framework Directive issues such as diffuse pollution and barriers to fish movement. We set up RiverSearch recently on behalf of the Wey Landscape Project to offer volunteers a way to become more connected with their local river and at the same time meet the need for more information about the status of rivers and the wildlife using them.
We started the day with talks at the Juniper Hall Field Studies Centre where staff are always friendly and helpful despite the fact they are themselves very busy with school groups most of the time. Then we moved over to Norbury Park and followed a stretch of the Mole into Leatherhead, recording the pathways for siltation and pollution, barriers to fish passage and the presence of non-native species like Himalyan Balsam. It was a beautiful sunny afternoon and the river was alive with Banded Demoiselles, chubb, trout and even a kingfisher. All the volunteers seemed happy with the day and are looking forward to taking on their own stretch of river to survey.
This evening I was down on the River Wey where I was challenged to change my view of the river, almost swapping over the half of my brain I was using! University of Surrey Theatre Studies students are holding performances of their piece called One Of Number as part of their Footprints festival from 5-7 June. Starting at the Britannia Pub near Millmead I walked up the River towards Godalming
with 15 others and was treated by 11 performances writen and acted by students which together explored the nature of experience and meaning as we our flow through our lives. We were welcomed to the Wey by a traveller who followed the rivers from her home in Wales ( I now have a stone from her home river). We were tracked from the opposite bank – i felt almost hunted-by the performers themselves-living storiesif you like-who were in a mixture of tatty linen and cordury with a victorian cut and seemingly washed in the silty water of the river. They shared stories about an attempt to save a drowning man; the lives of walkers who had cut their names into the bridge beneath St Catherines Hill; a King whose grip on power was as precarious and as doomed as his position on the hillside above as the golden sands shifted beneath his feet even as we listened; we met a woman paralysed by indecision over the choice to wait for the lover she abandoned or go and find him, paralysed by the fear she had lost him forever. Throughout the walk the river connected these disparate yet linked experiences; the river sperated lives of others experienced on the other bank and our own experiences forged by the impression of our own two feet in the sandy soils, recalling for me that old celtic adage:
“where is the centre of the world?”
“Between your own two feet”
Life can only be lived in the present after all, but its experiences can be told and retold, and each time we might find something new.
Its reminded me the importance of storytelling in my own work to protect our natural spaces. Not everyone is in tune with wildlife and the natural world in a direct way, but in each of the stories i heard this evening, a sense of place, a sense that all our lives are interactions with the landscape around us emphasises the importance of a rich and varied environment to stimulate our minds and enrich our lives.