Friday, 8 April 2016

Spring Arrivals

As the weather warms up and the  clocks go forwards we're all starting to see and hear the signs of spring around Wicken Fen. The flowering plants are just starting to peak out, braving some of the early morning frosts we've been having recently. Primroses are popping up in Gutter Bridge Wood, while celandines are appearing all over the paths at the Fen. the hedgerows are also coming into blossom as the hawthorn as their little white flowers come into bloom.

These early flowering plants are an important food source for many of the first pollinators that are also starting to appear. I saw my first butterfly of the year last Saturday, a Peacock out on Burwell Fen, and as I've been writing this blog a male Brimestone has fluttered past our office window. My first Bumblebee sighting beat the butterflies by a matter of days, again on Burwell Fen, but as I was driving a tractor at the time I couldn't watch it for long enough to identify the species.

The annual Ranger bird spotting competition has started, seeing who can spot the migrating bird species first. Carol already has Chiff Chaffs and Grasshopper Warblers under her belt, while Alan spotted the first Swallows this morning. I don't like this game, mostly because I'm no good at it, but it does get you thinking about looking up and listening out while out doing work around the fen. Sedge and Reed warblers have also been heard but the rules state that you have to see it to claim first spotted so we'll all be watching the ditches carefully over the next week.

We're also expecting the arrival of some cuckoos imminently. We have started to follow the BTO's tracked cuckoos on their website. It an exciting race to see which of the seven will make it to Britain first, two having taken the lead by crossing the Sahara first. I'm rooting for Stanley who appears to be the only one who spent anytime in East Anglia last year.

Our resident birds are also gearing up for spring. The bitterns can be heard booming from the reedbed, and the males will continue to boom until they find a mate for the summer. Snipe can also be heard drumming at the moment, a very weird wound when you first hear it, but one you'll never forget once you know what it is.

Not to be out done by the rest of the wildlife the Koniks and Highlands have also been getting in on the spring action. We've had three new foals in the last few weeks, all girls call Bela, Hinny and Merrylegs. Our foal naming theme for the year is horses from books, though some of them are slightly obscure! They have all been born into the same family group to experienced mums, Nanja, Kaluna and Yara.
Hinny and Bela with mums Kaluna and Nanja

Gale is the first cow to calf this year, and has had a little boy. He's her first bull calf, though she has had two little girls in the last two years. As cows tend to do, she is keeping him away from the herd until he's a little surer on his legs, but Apple and Raven, Gale's previous calves, have joined her. They make a lovely family picture on the fen looking after little bro while mum has a bite to eat.

We've called him Winfrid, after Sir Norman Winfrid Moore, who died at the end of last year. He was on the Wicken Fen committee for many years and was an incredibly valuable source of knowledge. He had a huge impact on the ecological science, most notably discovering the impact of DDT pesticides on food chains and top predators.
Baby Winfrid soon after birth
and with mum Gale the next day

Wednesday, 3 February 2016

Wicken Winter Highlights

Since the start of the year, the Rangers have been cracking on with lots of odd jobs around the Fen. We've carried on pollarding in North Field, which we started before Christmas, and we've started lots of fence repairs that need to happen before the Livestock come back to Tubney, Hurdle Hall and Oily Hall in the Spring.

While we've been out all over the reserve, we have been enjoying all the wildlife that can only be seen in the winter. Of particular note are the Short Eared Owls (Asio flammeus) on Burwell Fen. The rangers who check the livestock are usually lucky enough to see these lovely birds every time they go to Burwell at this time of year. These owls can be found in the UK all year round, but only come to the Fen in the winter. Though some Short Eared Owls breed in Northern England and Scotland, the birds in East Anglia have probably migrated here from Scandinavia, Russia and Iceland.  They are most often seen hunting during the day at Burwell Fen, looking for small mammals to have for supper, most probably field voles. If you pop over to Burwell for a look, also keep an eye out for Brown Hares (Lepus europaeus. Hares are on Burwell all year round, it's just slightly easier to see them at this time of the year when the grass sward is slightly lower. They don't burrow like rabbits, instead they hunker down in the longer grass tussocks, relying on their speed to escape from predators if they're flushed up. Its also coming up to Hare boxing season. It's the time of year when males get particularly frisky and the females literally have to bat them away, stand up on their hinds legs batting at their amorous opponent with their front legs. This behaviour is normally seen around March time, hence the expression "mad as a march hare".

If your headed for a day out from the Visitor's Centre don't worry, not all the wildlife action is on Burwell Fen. Field fares (Turdus pilaris) can often be seen in the hedges and scrub around the boardwalk, and look out for Redwings (Turdus iliacus) also hiding away in those flocks. If you hang around the Visitor Centre at sunset you may also see Hen Harriers (Circus cyaneus) coming into roost for the night. Hen Harriers only spend the winter at Wicken Fen, preferring to go to the Northern parts of the UK to breed on upland heather moorland. These harriers are very rare in the UK, and in 2014 there were only 4 breeding pairs. We are very lucky to see at least three at the Fen every evening. The grey males are a beautiful sight to see soaring over the sedge fen scoping out a good place to bed down for the night.

Our two long term Ranger Volunteers have been taking advantage on their on site accommodation to go out wildlife watching during the dusky hours. Below is Alex's account of the Burwell Fen Starling murmuration they witnessed a week or so ago:

That season has arrived again. It is time for the starlings (Sturnus vulgaris) to start collecting together and roosting on the fen. Over the past few weeks an estimated 20,000 to 35,000 starlings have been providing a stunning murmuration spectacle over Burwell fen. A few days ago two of our long term volunteer rangers headed down to the reed bed by the concrete bridge in an attempt to experience the fantastic display. Widespread and resident in the UK throughout the year, starlings are still considered one of the commonest garden birds feeding on insects and fruit. The reason for the mass aerial stunt is widely speculated. Many believe starlings group together as it offers safety in numbers against predators such as peregrine falcons Falco peregrines. Starlings gather at their roosting site to keep warm at night and to swap knowledge, such as good feeding sites. 

Other wildlife sightings that night included Mute Swan Cygnus olor, Marsh harrier Circus aeruginosus, Cormorant Phalacrocorax carbo, c200 Lapwing Vanellus vanellus, Roe Deer Capreolus capreolus, c50 Jackdaw Corvus monedula, Barn owl Tyto alba, Short eared Owl Asio flammeus.


Friday, 18 December 2015

Mostly Pollarding with some added Cranes

As the festive season draws nearer and everyone at Wicken is getting into the Christmas spirit, the Fen outside is feeling unseasonably warm.We had to mow the grass around the picnic tables near the cafe last week, a job we're normally finished with at the end of October. The odd queen wasp has been spotted, very sleepy and confused having been woken up by the warm weather. We have even spotted a snowdrop in bloom, which doesn't normally happen until late January to February time.

The warmer weather does mean that we Rangers have no excuse to not head out to work on the Fen. We have been working at getting a small area of scruby woodland back into a four year pollarding rotation. Pollarding is when you cut the branches off the a tree, normally at around shoulder height, which will stop livestock or deer eating the new shoots as they grow. By cutting one section every year, we are hoping to create structural diversity within the wooded area, the more diversity in the structure, the more habitats we create and the more species that can live there. By implementing this management scheme there should always be a variety of tree ages within the wood, which will be used by different species. When the section has just been pollarded, the canopy will be opened up to let more light in, helping flowering plants to grow in the glades and along the rides. By having plants such ox eye daisies, birds-foot trefoil and white clover there's lots of food plants for insects, bees and butterflies including Common Blues (Polyommatus icarus). There's also plenty of butterflies that will enjoy the long grasses in these areas, such as Gate Keepers (Pyronia tithonus), Small Skippers (Thymelicus sylvestris) and Speckled Woods (Pararge aegeria) whose catterpillars all feed on grasses such as Yorkshire Fog and False Brome. Brimstones ( Gonepteryx rhamni) will then use the Buckthorn  trees for their caterpillars. Once the trees have grown again from the stumps they form a canopy again, which provides lots of places for birds to nest. It also makes lots of aerial runways for small mammals to travel along, particularly when bramble has also grown up as this also provides a good food source for the mammals and birds.

There was great excitement around the fen on Wednesday morning when 16 cranes flew over the visitor's centre. There are estimated to be around 75 cranes (Grus grus) resident in the UK, with 9-14 breeding pairs and then a few more visiting from the continent in the winter. Breeding cranes are thought to have become extinct in this country around 400 years ago, with some still visiting over the winter since. In the 70s some of these visitors decided to stay and breed one summer in the Norfolk Broads. The population has been growing slowly since then, and the cranes have been spreading their territories, including two breeding pairs fledging young at Lakenheath Fen this year. There is also a breeding program in Somerset called the Great Crane Project, that has been very successful at releasing hand reared birds to create a stable population in the South West. All our native cranes are watched and monitored closely, and they can all be individually identified by the colour and size of their bustles (the long feathers that look like a tail, but are actually the tertial feathers on the wings). The Cambridge Bird Group website ( has lots of interesting info about which birds have been seen where, and where they think they've come from.
John managed to get a quick video of the 16 cranes flying over which can be seen here:

I hope you all have a lovely Christmas and a fabulous New Year!

Friday, 27 November 2015

Scrub Clearance and Winter's Arrival

As winter has arrived, the Rangers have been donning their chainsaw kits and heading out onto the fen. We're clearing a section of scrub along Spinney Bank, the path along the west side of the Sedge fen. This section of the Nature Trail has scrub on both sides of the path, leaving it in shadow for most of the day all year round. We've been having some troubles with how wet the nature trail gets and this spot in particular becomes impassable much quicker than the rest of the trail. We have been combating that by putting out movable duck boards. This serves to protect not only our visitors shoes, but the peat they are walking over too.

By clearing the scrub from one side of the path we're hoping to open it up to the sun a bit more, so that it may stay drier for longer, and we wont have to use duck boards for the whole of the summer again, like we had to this year. The side we're clearing is also the side closest to the ditch, which is also a good thing as we're clearing some of the potential blockages from this ditch.

Luke and Phil after clearing their section in the scrub
On the first day of work four Rangers qualified to use a chainsaw went down to the site, with a team of volunteers to drag away and pile up the trees we cut down. We couldn't, however, start on the scrub on the ditch side of the path as we had nowhere to put the downed trees. So we set about making some hidden holes in the scrub on the other side of the path. We created narrow entrances of about 2m, to allow members of the team to gain entry to the area and then swept out to create a wide mushroom shaped space to fill with the cut down scrub. We then piled the trees from this space around the edges of the wide areas to make room for the rest.

Once this was finished the clearing on the ditch side of the path could begin. It has taken the team about 5 days to cut down and drag away all the scrub from this section. It can be a fun job, seeing how much you can plough through in a day and with a few of you on a team there's lots of people to talk to. At other times. though, with rain howling down and having to wear ear defenders while the chainsaws are running, it can be hard work. The volunteers, lead by Luke have done a fantastic job, and there's only some stumps left to be sorted, but the trees are all gone.

Elsewhere on the fen, we're starting to get ready for Christmas. The cycle path along from the Visitor's Centre to Norman's Bridge has had new drainage installed, so it shouldn't flood as quickly in the rain. Its also had a new surface rolled on top so it's looking ideal for a crisp winter bike ride.

New Drainage being put next to the cycle path
The lovely looking new cycle path
The Education team are getting things ready for Father Christmas' arrival at Fen Cottage. The Ranger team help out by bringing back any silver birch trees we've felled during scrub clearance as they make very pretty Christmas trees.

The winter migrant birds are coming in thick and fast now as well. Short Eared Owls are back on Burwell, Fieldfares and the odd Red Wing can be seen from the back of the Visitor's Centre. Our last WeBS count on Burwell Fen (wetland birds survey) recorded 2468 birds of 17 different species in just over an hour. Over 1000 Lawings, 850 Golden Plovers, around 100 Shovellers and 136 Wigeon. And they're just the big numbers! The Hen Harriers have also made a return to the Fen, with four seen regularly over the Sedge Fen just before sunset.

Wednesday, 7 October 2015

The Cutting Season Starts

If you follow the Wicken Fen Twitter account (@WickenFenNT) you will have noticed a lot of pictures of tractors. We have started the annual cut of the droves over the last couple of weeks. Where the ground is dry enough, this means a team of three tractors heading out onto the droves.

Clearing the end of Gardiner's Drove next to the Wind pump
Firstly a small light tractor heads out with a disk mower, slicing through the vegetation at the bottom of their stems. Unlike a flail mower, or a garden lawn mower, it doesn't mulch the cuttings so we can leave them to dry on ground over night. Then, the next morning the second tractor heads out. this could either be our old Massey Ferguson 35 with an acrobat on the back, or a slightly more modern Kubota  tractor with a PTO driven hay-bob on. These do the same job of turning the cuttings. This knocks a lot of the seeds out, creating a good seed bank for next spring, and also pulls the cuttings into rows ready for the next stage of clearing. The final tractor then comes along and pushes all the cuttings into a large pile called a Duffy pile.
The hay-bob
The Hay-bob in action, rowing up the cuttings
A tractor-eye view

One cleared drove, with the last pile waiting to be taken away
The rows get pushed away by the buck rake
We cut the full width (5-10m) of the droves once a year. This is for two reasons. Firstly to keep access to the fen open, and secondly to maintain the high biodiversity of the drove edges, with some species that only occur in these areas. The orchids that grow around the nature trail most commonly Early Marsh and Common Spotted (and hybrids of these) are mostly found down the droves. There are also a wide range of flowering plants that get out competed in the denser sedge fields. Such plants as Ragged Robin (Lychnis flos-cuculi), Water Mint (Mentha aquatica) and Yellow Rattle (Rhynanthous minor) are a common sight over the spring and summer, which creates and large bank of food plants for a wide variety of insect life.

This week, however, it has started to rain. This has made things a bit trickier. One of the most important considerations we have while doing the tractor work, is whether we are causing too much ground damage while working. Wet ground conditions caused by the recent weather makes damaging the ground more likely, so we have had to stop taking the tractors out to do the work. This is where some of our hard working volunteers come in. We have been using brush-cutters and a ride-on mower to cut some parts of the drove, then raking the cuttings into piles, which are moved by hand into the scrub boundaries. The team have been great at really motivating themselves to get out onto the fen and get the job done, and it is a good job to really see the progress you've made in a day.

The wettest sections are being cleared by hand. 

 All the hard work pays off though. We were reminded how lucky we are to work at such a fabulous site last week when we could pop out if the office to watch a large flock of Bearded Tits feeding in the reeds along the board walk right next to the visitor centre.

Joan Childs managed to snap this lovely photo of them. 

Thursday, 20 August 2015

Buzz and Lark go off to Scotland

One early morning in the middle of August, a team of bleary eyed rangers waved off two of our Konik Ponies as they set off on a journey up to Scotland.

Buzzard (Buzz for short) and Lark are two yearling, male Koniks that were born at Wicken Fen. They started life out on Baker's Fen, and were part of the herd that were moved over to Burwell Fen last summer. All of the other males in that group were either castrated or vasectomised, to stop any further breeding in that herd. Buzz and Lark were too young to have this done however as their testicles had not yet descended. This meant that this summer they started to show interest in the mares in the herd, which presented the rangers with a situation. We had two choices to keep the herd non-breeding, either castrate these two boys, or move them out of the herd.

Luckily we had been contacted by the Wardens from the RSPB at the Loch of Strathberg asking whether we could sell them some Konik Ponies to help with their breeding herd of horses. Buzz and Lark were ideal, young enough that them leaving our herd wouldn't affect the hierarchy and social dynamics to much, but old enough to be able to stand their ground and earn a new position in a new herd in Scotland.

We then had to prepare Buzz and Lark for the journey. Once Stan and his little herd had vacated the hospital paddock near the Visitor's Centre, we moved Buzz and Lark in, about a month before they were due to leave. The vet came in to help with this move, sedating them to keep them clam for the short journey from Burwell Fen. Once they were at the paddock we could spend more time with them, getting them used to people being around more often than they saw on Burwell Fen. We also introduced them to a new food, a minty lick, so we could use it as a tasty treat to tempt them to go where we wanted. Our herds don't recognise many foods that domestic horses go wild for as they have never experience anything but grass so it can take a while for them to work up the courage to try new foods. As young boys though, Buzz and Lark are particularly curious, so soon discovered how yummy the licks were. This meant we could call them over to a corral every morning, getting them used to walking in and out of the structure, where they got a little treat.

Using the minty licks to try and convince the boys trailers aren't all that bad
Buzz was convinced, but lark not so much. 
Sometimes you can have the head in the trailer, but the back legs are not moving any closer!

The morning of the big move arrived and as the horses were being picked up at 7am, the rangers had to be at work even earlier to get them ready to go. This meant calling them over to the corral, shutting all the doors behind them before they noticed and then loading them into our trailer ready to be transferred to the larger transport vehicle. The work over the past month must have paid off as we managed to get his all done in about an hour and we pulled up into the car park with the horses, at the same time as the transport guys pulled up. After some fiddly reversing to get our trailers bum to bum, we opened up the doors and pushed Buzz and Lark over into the more comfortable trailer for the long journey.

Peering out for his last look at Wicken. 

Sussing out the new trailer
 Buzz and Lark had an over night stop on the way up to Scotland and arrived the next evening at the Loch of Strathberg. They are doing well and are getting used to their new home before being introduced to the mares in a few weeks.

Bye bye boys!

Tuesday, 7 July 2015

Stan rejoins the herd.

If you’ve visited Wicken Fen in the last six months you might have stopped to say hello to the three cows in the fields next to the car park. If you’ve then visited in the last two weeks, you’ll have noticed that they have gone. All three cows are now back out on Burwell Fen, and have joined up with the breeding herd of cows out there.

We had them in the paddocks because Stan, the black calf, was orphaned at Christmas. Before he was born the Grazing Rangers noticed that his mum, Wendy was looking in poor condition out on Burwell Fen, but was also looking very pregnant. We decided to moved her up to the paddock so we could give her some extra feed and mineral licks, knowing the winter would only get harder for her once she’d had a calf. The hope was that we could fatten her up a bit ready to go back out to the herd in the spring with her new calf. She gave birth to Stan, in mid-December and for two weeks they both seemed to be getting along fine. One morning, however, she was found lying down, unable to stand, and we had her put down. It was a very sad day as Wendy was one of the original cows that first came to Wicken from Scotland way back in 2005, and she had a reputation of being particularly friendly. I remember when I first met her thinking she was the most dog like cow I had ever met, as she used to wag her tail while she was getting a good scratch. She reached the grand old age of 13, which is pretty good for a cow, our oldest is currently 19 and she isn’t breeding. We couldn’t wallow in our sadness for long though, as we had a two week old calf relying on us for everything from this moment on.

Wendy and Stan after Stan's Ear Tagging. He wasn't that small for long
We built him a small pen with straw and shelter, and set about trying to convince him that the bottle of milk we were offering was as good as his mum’s udder. A lot of time was spent sitting with him in his pen, getting him used to us and eventually he trusted us enough to start sucking on our fingers. Calves have a strong natural instinct to suckle so once they are sucking your fingers it’s not too tricky to swap your fingers for the teat of a bottle. Once he was feeding regularly, with feeds four times a day, he grew, and grew quickly into a very sturdy little fella.

Stan enjoying a milk feed
While the Rangers could provide him with food, water, warmth, shelter and company, we couldn’t teach him how to be a cow, he needed some cow friends. For this reason, we rounded up Bramble and her calf Ennion, and brought them up to the paddock to help teach Stan what cows do. Ennion was only 10 days older than Stan, so we were hoping that they would make friends, giving Stan someone to tag along with when he joined the rest of the herd. It wasn’t plain sailing. Stan was used to people giving him lots of fuss, attention and milk and generally being the center of attention. He had a bit of a shock when he went bumbling up to a fully grown cow who had very little interest in him, and who quickly became irritated by the little black calf trying to play games with her. He got a few tellings off, a few taps on the bum with her horns, but he learnt quickly to stay out of her way. He and Ennion did make friends though. They were tentative at first, Ennion being quite shy, but they soon started grazing next to each other, exploring the fields together and could often be seen sunbathing side by side. Ennion, with the support of his mum, quickly gained in confidence, and was seen winning a lot of the play fights he and Stan were having. They were quite the attraction along Lode Lane as the visitor numbers rose with the good weather. They managed to convince a lot of people they were looking hungry and the rangers spent some time talking to visitors to explain that they were well fed, and feeding them grass through the fence would only encourage them to approach people when they were fully grown bulls.

Bramble, Ennion and Stan once they had all made friends
We gave them a little bit of extra hay when the grazing got very low at the end of winter
In June the day came when Stan was weaned off his milk, and looking strong enough to join the rest of the herd on Burwell Fen. We put him, Bramble and Ennion in a field where the rest of the herd could peer over the fence to look at them and smell them. the herd were called over to the field to make sure they got to see each other. This gave all three of them a safer introduction back into the herd, as having 15 cows all interested in one cow at the same time can result in a few arguments. After a few days in this field we let Parsley and Mulda 1 into the field with them and they soon settled down which was the signal to let them into the main area with the whole herd. Even with the soft introduction Ennion got himself into quite a few tussles, possibly because he was used to being boss over Stan and hadn’t realised that these bigger cows wouldn’t stand for that. He had a sore leg for a few days, but has now learnt his place and settled down. His mum was no help, as she was so exciting about seeing bulls again that she was spending all her time flirting with them. Stan did a fantastic job of staying on the edge of the herd, not pushing his luck and just saying hello to a few of the younger cows. He has been learning where he sits on the hierarchy running away from the big cows, but sparing with the younger ones so he’s not bottom of the pile. All three of them are doing well, though all the cows have been looking very warm over the last week, its hot weather at the moment if you’re made with an in built woolly coat!   
The boys were a bit wary of their new home on Burwell Fen
The rest of the herd having a good look at old and new friends
Stan is loving life with his new herd
The whole herd is using the ponds as good ways to cool down in the warm July weather.