Thursday, 26 March 2015

Bits and Bobs in the run up to Easter.

We've been busy doing lots of things to get the Fen looking tip top ready for the Easter Holidays.

John and Luke have been watching the Nature Trail carefully while the weather can't decide what it wants to do. When it's wet the compaction cause by people walking over the path can damage the peat along these areas. There is also damaged caused to the delicate plant communities along the edges of the paths when people skirt around the edge of the puddles, making the track wider and wider. These areas are where we get many of our spectacular flowers in the spring and summer, including early marsh and spotted orchids, marsh pea, devil's bit scabious, purple and yellow loosestrife as well as a variety of sedges. Luke and John, therefore, are watching to see if how much the paths are drying during the warm sunny periods we're getting. Hopefully, weather permitting, we'll be able to open the trail for the start of the Easter holidays, and we'll have to monitor it closely if we get any wet weather.

Lois had the help of a couple of our Wicken Fen Ambassadors on Monday when they came in to paint the new sign boards that a couple of other volunteers have made. These are our temporary, portable sign boards that go up all over the sedge fen during the spring, summer and autumn, with lots of information about butterflies, plants, dragonflies and berries.

The grazing team are waiting with baited breath for the first babies of the year. We've normally had a couple of foals by now and the mares tend to run on a yearly cycle, with an 11 month gestation meaning they tend to conceive about a month after after they have given birth. Yara had Swift in February last year and then Nanja and Kaluna had Merlin and Monty in April. There's also a handful of young mares, like Chelsea and Lottie who could foal at any time. We're also keeping a close eye on the cattle, particularly Mulda 2, Morag, Isle and Hedwig, but none of them are showing any signs yet. The cattle are slightly easier to predict when they are close to calving as they sometimes show a series of signs; looking low and heavy in the belly, their udders swelling and their behinds looking swollen and red.

The whole team at Wicken got very excited about the eclipse last Friday. We had pinhole cameras, glass lenses and binoculars ready to project the image of the moon moving across the Sunday, and then the clouds came! It did get darker and colder which was slightly spooky, but unfortunately that's all we got to experience.

Wednesday, 25 February 2015

The Ambassadors are back.

The Wicken Fen Ambassadors were on top form last Thursday when they came to Wicken to thin out some scrub in the Bog Oak field. They did a fantastic job and even kept smiling during the rain. The Bog Oak field is grazed for a short time in early summer so we were making the patch of trees more accessible to the cows. This will give the girls a bit more space to find some shade and to find some good scratching points. It also has the added bonus of opening the canopy up and letting more light in to the lower levels. We're hoping this will encourage more flora growth around the base of the trees, increasing the diversity in the field.
Ambassadors hard at work

An action shot of one of the trees putting up a fight

All still smiling at the end of the day, always a good result

In other news, Lois and I finished the livestock corral on Tubney Fen. We added rails to the culvert at the entrance, to make it more secure when pushing cows through. The Project has been a real group effort with UK Power Networks starting the whole thing off, Jason and John getting some of the poles installed over the new year, the Ambassadors helping us get the last rails on and then Lois and I adding all the finishing touches! Thank you to all involved and here's hoping the cows enjoy it.

Competed Corral
Stu and I have been trying our hand at some chainsaw crafting! We bought some large oak logs to turn into new benches to replace the picnic benches next to the bridge. We borrowed Anglessey Abbey's large chainsaw, which has a 24" bar which Stu used to carve out a surprisingly comfortable sofa style bench. I had our smallest saw, with a modest 13" bar and started work on the second bench. Stu made a fine job of his sofa, which now just needs rearranging so people can relax and take in some lovely fen views. My bench needs a little more work, so I'll be heading back out there soon.

The large logs ready and waiting to be transformed
The first chunk out
Stu racing through his bench

The final result
My bench is getting there!

Wednesday, 11 February 2015

Introducing the Livestock to the Whole of Burwell Fen

The end of January saw a new start for the livestock on Burwell Fen. On a blowy Friday lunch time the Ranger team opened the gates to the south side of Burwell Fen to allow the ponies and cattle full access. We have been building to this for a few years, building handling units, constructing fencing and moving the herds over from Adventurer's Fen, so it was very rewarding for us to finally see the animals being able to roam over the entire of Burwell Fen. We called the cattle over to the gate to show them where the new paths through were and to encourage them to explore the new area. They are all keen for a bucket of food so we managed to get most of the herd interested enough to come through the new gateway. We were particularly pleased with Apple, one of the youngest cows, who was very excited to see the new grazing, and completely ignored the food piles in favour of a big juicy patch of rush that she went head first into!

They heard the call and came plodding.

Hannah leading the keenest through first

As the horses move around more than the cows, we felt they would find their way through on their own. They seemed a bit tentative for the first few days, with only the more adventurous younger ponies taking the plunge. Once they were all through, however, they haven't looked back. It has certainly made the checks more interesting, finding new routes through the fen to where the animals have decided to graze that day.

First taste of new grass

Apple's mad dash to fresh rush

The animals seem to be enjoying their new range, having not ventured back into the north side since we let them through. It has also been interesting to watch some of the behaviours that access the new widespread area has brought out in the livestock. The bulls are re-asserting their hierarchy, deciding which patch of land they want as their patch, and there has been some posturing and shouting at each other to decide whose in charge. Some of the horses are spending time away from the main herd, the young "bachelor" herd, who are more inquisitive. The main herd, with the young foals, seem to be moving too slow for them, so they go out on their own to investigate the furthest reaches before coming back to the herd.

Ewan and one of the girls venturing forth

The rest of the herd exploring more slowly

Saturday, 17 January 2015

Looking after the health of our trees

Ruby and I have been going around the whole site doing the tree health survey this week. It's a process that takes a couple of days, but as we are a site that has relatively few trees this is quite quick! We walk all the popular routes and busy areas of the property, eying up all the trees, looking for any potential dangers. We will be working on a few small actions arising from the survey over the next few weeks.

One tree was leaking sap from a wound
This interesting willow has lots of good nooks and crannies which makes great habitats for bats and insects
The first action we've taken was to reduce the height of the old hollow willow out the front of the visitor center. We were sad to have to take such drastic action on this iconic tree, lots of the staff and volunteers are very fond of it, but it was starting to become unsafe. All the new healthy growth was on the top of the tree, supported by a slowly rotting trunk, and with it being so close to a main path we didn't want it to crack and fall over the path.

The lovely looking but rather precarious old willow
We borrowed a large chainsaw form Anglesey Abbey and John got to work on Friday morning. He reduced the height in stages, taking the weight off the top slowly, stopping the whole tree splitting longways down the middle while he was doing the work. As he was cutting we realised just how rotted the tree was as the saw passed through parts of it like butter.

 John was able to push his hand through parts of the wood where brown rot had taken hold. Brown rot is one of the common methods of wood decaying. A fungus attacks the cellulose in the wood, leaving behind the lignin which creates part of the structure of the water transport system in the tree, the xylem vessels. As this drys out it gets a characteristic cubic appearance and the brown colour which gives this type of rot its name.

The finished job.

 The willow is still home to lots of creatures, a confused lesser stag beetle was found emerging from the trunk this morning, the sunshine fooling him into thinking it was spring already. We also found this fella as we were chopping the tree, giving Ruby a fright as he was the size of a tennis ball!

A rather hansom spider


Thursday, 18 December 2014

Wicken Fen Ambassadors

A note from our Assistant Ranger Stu:
   Last Tuesday I had the pleasure of leading Wicken Fen’s first ambassador work party. Armed with plenty of tools we headed off to the butterfly trail to help create the brand new glade. The previous week, with some help from friends at the RSPB and their reciprocating mower, we had cut all the Wood Small Reed (Calamagrostis epigeious) right the way to ground level and the volunteers’ task was simple, to pick up the mess we had created!
   As some important butterfly species, such as Common Blue (Polyommatus Icarus) and Holly Blue (Celastrina argiolus), hibernate at the base of the Wood Small Reed or on the ground, so we had to be careful to minimise the disturbance as much as possible, and as such, using rakes was out of the question. With a pitch fork each we had to carefully pick up the cuttings without disturbing the ground and carry it off into the nearby scrub.

Careful "raking" to avoid dormant butterfly pupae
   Whist not the most glamorous job, the work party performed admirably and finished the work well ahead of schedule. It is really starting to take shape now, and with the addition of a wild flower seed mix to be planted in spring, the glade should look fantastic by the end of 2015.

Wheeling the cuttings away into the scrub
  In addition to this work, we also had a go at pollarding some of the trees around the trail. We do this to add a bit of diversity to the tree structure, and the fresh growth that will pop up next spring is brilliant for a huge variety of different insects.  Again, keeping up the hard work, the ambassador party managed to achieve a huge amount of work in the short amount of time given. It might look a little extreme at the moment, but when the trees start growing the effect will be quite beautiful.

   Everyone seemed to have great fun, and we will hopefully see them next month for another work party. Well done team, you did a brilliant job!
The happy team after a days work

    If you would like to join us as a Wicken Fen Ambassador then please email for more information.

To finish up:
   We also had some Christmas calves over the last couple of weeks. Bramble has had a red bull calf that will be called Enion, after the naturalist Eric Enion who grew up in Burwell and wrote the book “Adventurer’s Fen” about the changing ecology of Burwell Fen over the 40 years before it was drained as part of the war effort in World War 2.
Enion hiding behind mum on Monday, it took me ages to find him!
Wendy also calved this week. She is the proud mum of another bull calf called Stan. 

Mum and Stan reunited after ear tagging

Friday, 5 December 2014

New Corral on Tubney

In preparation for a work party last Friday, Stu, Lois and I moved some very large reels of old stock netting. We had to use the big tractor as the reels were so heavy and Stu managed to achieve the ultimate goal and get a reel onto each prong of the pallet forks. 
Stu with his "double pronging"!
So with the fencing out the way UK power networks were free to come in and help build a corral as part of their Helping Hands project. They've done a fantastic job and three quarters of the corral is fully built. The clay was so hard that even their massive auger was struggling to dig down to six foot deep, which is why we didn't quite get it finished on the day. They did do a great job though and we are very grateful for all their hard work.

Team photo at the end of the day, with the new corral in the background

A close up of the corral
Once finished the corral will help our tenant farmers get their cattle on and off the site. It will hopefully make things a lot easier as once penned up you can push the cows into a trailer. We're also putting a fancy gate system in the middle so that the herd can be split once in the corral.

I had a couple of training session at Anglesey Abbey last week so ended up filling an hour in the evening between courses by wondering around the gardens. It was very atmospheric with the mist coming in and the sun setting behind the trees. I also got a sneak preview of some of the Winter Lights things that the Gardeners were putting up and testing. It looks like it will be another fantastic event and I hear the first weekend has already gone down a storm.

Sunset over the Anglesey Abbey gardens

Friday, 21 November 2014

Winter Water Fun

The beginning of winter is the signal for a few jobs to be done around the fen.

Firstly we start abstracting water onto the fen in November. We have a few abstraction points dotted around, the most obvious being the wind pump on the Sedge Fen side of Wicken Lode. I turned the water onto Burwell Fen last week, filling up the scrapes next to Reach Lode. These areas create excellent habitat for wildfowl and waders, we’re already seeing a lot of our winter migrants, like widgeon, coming in. The abstraction mimics the winter flooding that would occur naturally if the water ways weren’t so closely controlled. Maintaining these water levels is important to the plant communities and, along with the sedge cutting, is one of the most important management tools we use to preserve fen conditions.

Water turned on onto Burwell Fen
Ruby and I did another winter job this week and removed the temporary pontoon from Wicken Lode. The pontoon is used over the summer for the boat trips during the day. As it is up by the junction with Monk’s Lode it reduces the amount of traffic going down the Wicken Lode spur, which has a delicate balance of rare aquatic plants and invertebrates. Even though it is a cold job having to submerge your arms in the water to unscrew the shackles, it was fun riding on the pontoon, keeping it away from the banks, as Ruby towed it down the lode. We then pulled it out of the lode with the tractor, and have hidden it in the scrub ready to be pulled back out in the spring.

The pontoon emerging from the Lode.
There are some beautiful sunsets occurring over the fen at the moment, and some impressive starling murmurations. I’ve already seen lots photographers out, and even I’ve managed to get some good pictures on my phone.

Baker's Fen looking pretty in the sunset
We had the grand opening of our newly refurbished docky hut on Tuesday. It is looking superb, with fresh green walls, a new dishwasher and fridge, and a fancy hot water dispenser. Well done to Ruby and her troops who have done a fantastic job.

The fancy new Docky Hut