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

Wednesday, 12 November 2014

A rave, cutting and slubbing

This time of year we are quite busy down the fen, trying to get the cutting finished before the water table rises, slubbing the ditches out, and getting ready for our winter tree work.

Rave at Burwell Fen

Over the first weekend of November an rave took place on Burwell Fen, clearly this had a considerable impact on the wildlife present on site as well as our ponies and cattle grazing the field next door. Dealing with it, the rubbish and vandalism has taken the best part of a week so far to sort out and is costing a considerable amount to repair.

The good news is that so far we have seen lots of signs that the wildlife is getting back to normal, owl pellets in the barn as well as Barn Owls and Short Eared Owls in the fields near by, kingfishers in the ditches, Marsh Harriers, and deer roaming about. The bunded wetter area is also doing well, I haven’t spent any time with the binoculars out but I have spotted Little Egrets, Kestrels and lots of ducks and geese.

We have filled a big skip up with rubbish and bits of fence that were ripped down to gain access in as well as out of the barn site. A huge amount of rubbish, mostly drinks cans bottles and boxes along with zillions of small gas bottles, balloons and toilet roll (shudder), the site also doubled as a toilet for the rave. Adding to the frustration was the fact that quite a bit of the litter was stuck to the barn floor and had to be pressure washed off, no tap or power on site so we had to fill a bowser and hire a pressure washer in.

I spent most of Sunday at Burwell Fen, making sure that people didn’t accidentally let our ponies and cattle out by attempting to leave the wrong way, chatting to people down there to let them know that the site is a nature reserve so they might have some inkling of the damage being caused and in general keeping an eye on things. One thing that was evident was the complete ignorance to the level of damage being caused, and the value of the countryside. Numerous people reassured me that they would tidy the mess up, and that they do after such events. Some apologised for the actions of others but were unable to rectify there impact as over 1000 people were estimated to have attended, and others just didn’t really seem to mind. An effort was made to tidy up by a small number of people, I would think that about 30 bin bags were filled. Those 30 bags did make a difference, and were collected in good spirits, I don’t want to completely disregard this assistance but it was in effect a token effort. People might have gone home thinking that they made good, that they cleared their mess and even some of the mess of others, but the collective mess of the rave was still strewn all over the place. No one should be under the illusion that the rave left us to deal with anything but a massive mess, an orange poo was discovered, 11 medical grade nitrogen oxide bottles were dumped on site, fences had to be rebuilt. If you visited for the rave please come back and see what a fantastic place Burwell Fen is and recognise the impact the rave had.

Here are a few pics and a video from Burwell Fen, sometimes the video isn't showing so sorry if you have a big gap here.

Looking forwards, the fences are fixed locks have been replaced and we are now almost ready to let our ponies and cattle have access to the whole of Burwell Fen.


Slubbing is the clearing out of ditches, in a conservation context it is usually carried out over varying intervals to promote diversity. At Wicken we have ditches cleared out from every 2 years up to every 12 if my memory of the management plan serves me correctly. Some ditches are also left to naturally succeed without being cleared at all. By clearing the ditch out the process of succession where different species slowly take over from one another over time is stopped and put back to the beginning. As different species depend on the various stages of this succession the different slubbing rotations provide as many species as possible the niches they require to thrive.

Here Jason is slubbing out the Wind Pump Ditch next to the boardwalk. The slubb is being put in a dumper and moved into another field. Often there isn’t anywhere to move the slubb to so it is spread out on the ground next to the ditch.


We have had a lot of trouble cutting the fen this year as it has been too wet to get machinery on to large areas of it. At the moment we are working on the two remaining areas waiting to be cut; the higher areas around the boardwalk and the Butterfly Trail. The sides of the boardwalk get cut on similar rotations to the rest of the Sedge Fen but just scaled down. The narrow bits next to the boardwalk are cut throughout the year, level with the boardwalk to keep them from growing over and everyone getting wet, at the end of the year they are then cut down to ground level and the litter removed and piled up, similar to the droves on the fen. This reduces the amount of nutrients being left on the ground and encourages a more diverse growth in following years. There are a also few sections of the boardwalk that run next to ditches, we can't get our tractors to these bits so they are cut with a brush cutter. As they are slightly higher than the rest of the fen most of them can be cut slightly later in the year than the rest of the fen as they stay dry. Cutting with a brush cutter and clearing by hand also means the ground doesn’t get too churned up.These sections are cut on a three year rotation like the compartments on the Sedge Fen.

Once this is all done, it is off to the Butterfly Trail. Plenty of care to protect the grass tussocks where lots of larvae spend the winter. The plan is also for a good deal of chainsawing to create a new glade and hopefully some stump grinding too.

Lots to do!

As usual you can follow us on Twitter @WickenFenNT @Vision_Warden or on Facebook.

Friday, 24 October 2014

Godwin Plots

We have been embarking on the massive rake-a-thon that occurs this time every year. When the fen is too wet to drive the tractors on to cut and clear the sedge, its back to good old fashioned elbow grease  and large portion of the ranger team took their rakes and went across the fen to the Godwin plots last week. 

The Godwin Plots are a reminder of the scientific importance and history of the fen. Sir Harry Godwin set up the plots as part of an experiment in 1927. He was investigating the impact of cutting vegetation on plant communities. He split the experimental sites into 5 plots, each with a different cutting regime; the first was cut yearly, the next every two years, the next every three, and then four and the final one was never cut. His results showed that management alone could have a great impact on the flora, with the plots cut more regularly showing a decline in the sedge species Cladium maricus and an increase in Purple Moor Grass (Molina caerulea) and tall fen herbs such as marsh thistle (Cirisium vulgare) and yellow loosestrife (Lysimachia vulgaris). The plant communities could be changed from mixed sedge characteristics to herd rich litter communities just by changing the frequency of cutting. These were ground breaking findings at the time, and helped support the new theory of ecological succession of which Godwin was a supporter. Godwin finished his experiments in 1940, the but plots were revived in 1955 for Cambridge University students to study, by which time scrub species like alder buckthorn (Frangula alnus) and brambles (Rubus fruticosus) were also appearing in the plots that were cut less often. To this day we continue to cut the plots at the same timings as first proposed by Godwin. We only had to cut the annual plot this year so, Ruby went up with a tractor earlier in the month, when the weather was a little drier, to do the cutting and then some of the other rangers went up to rake off the cuttings by hand last week.

Beautifully raked Godwins

It's not just the Godwin plots keeping us busy. We've also been raking up the cuttings along Wicken Lode, Drainer's Ditch and part of Sedge Fen Drove, as well as decorating the newly refurbished Docky Hut and supervising our contractors, JW Fencing, who are currently putting up some fantastic new fences for us. 

More raking!
Lois and I were happy to have a work party from BT back to help us spruce up the wild campsite. They’ve done a fantastic job fixing the toilet door, and have built some lovely new steps to make getting to the toilet slightly easier. So thank you guys and we look forward to having you again!

The BT chaps with their fantastic new steps and toilet door.

Friday, 3 October 2014

Let the Cutting Commence!

Two weeks ago the rumble of tractors returned to the Sedge Fen as we started the cutting for this year. This is very exciting as this is the main management technique of the old fen, continuing a tradition that has been going since the 15th Century. We now have a very different method, using mostly tractors to cut, turn and clear the litter.

The fen is split into different areas, called either droves or compartments. The droves are the paths around the site and get cut annually, which is where we have started the cutting this year. The compartments are all the bits in between the droves. These are further divided into strips which we have colour coded. If your walking around the fen and see fence posts with red, green or yellow tops, they are marking the different strips. These strips are cut on a three year rotation, which allows the sedge to grow and develop, whilst stopping any small trees growing developing into scrub. In the past it was also found that a three year rotation was better for the sedge being used for thatching, any longer and the sedge was too brittle when dried, any shorter and there were negative ecological effects.

The little tractor with the disk mower attached
We clear the fen using a three tractor rotation. Firstly we send our little tractor with the disk mower which cuts the litter at the base and leaves it all lying flat. We then leave it on the ground for a couple of days to allow for seed dispersal. This also gives time for it to dry a little making the next step easier. Next we send out our oldest tractor, with the acrobat on the back. The acrobat is made up of four wheels that have lots of thin tines sticking out. As you pull them quickly across the ground they move the litter into rows. Finally we send out another tractor with a buck rake on the back to scoop up these rows and put them into piles located within the scrub line. These piles are great for insects and we need to get the cut litter off the ground to allow new seeds germinate and grow.

Drainer's as I arrived this morning
Drainers after I was finished cutting
At the moment we are focusing on the annual cut of the droves. These are cut more often than the compartments because we are trying to maintain a different flowering plant community. This is where we get the beautiful orchids earlier in the summer, and these flowering communities are one of the reasons we are designated a Special Area of Conservation.

In other news, Lois, Ruby and I have been at Ickworth for the past two days doing a Tree Health Surveying course. I am pleased to say we all passed, so can now help John do the surveys around the fen.

On Monday Lois and I went to Swaffham Prior School to install a very beautiful, but very heavy oak sign board in their outdoor area. To read more about it and see the finished article pop over to the Wicken and Anglesey Community Blog:

Monday, 8 September 2014

Wicken Welcomes some Old Residents

We have a guest contributor to the blog today, Stuart Warrington, our regional wildlife advisor:

On Friday 6th September, we had one of those days that makes our job so varied and interesting.

150 former residents of Wicken Fen were brought down the A1(M) from York to try to get them re-established on the fen. These former residents were beetles, called Tansy beetles, and they travelled in two buckets in the boot of car!

The Tansy beetle (scientific name Chrysolina graminis from the 'leaf beetle' family) is a very rare species and it used to occur at Wicken but it was lost from the Fen more than 3 decades ago. We don't know exactly why it was lost, but at that time the fen was rather dry and scrubby. After all of our work clearing scrub and getting better control of the water levels, and creating new habitats too, we are much more hopeful that the conditions are right again for this rare beetle.

The beautiful Tansy Beetle (Chrysolina graminis)

The project is a joint one between The National Trust, Buglife and the Tansy Beetle Action Group (TBAG), supported by Natural England. The beetle is currently known only in Britain from York and Woodwalton Fen, where a small number were rediscovered earlier this summer. The beetle’s only stronghold has been along a 30km stretch of the River Ouse, around York, where it mainly eats tansy (Tanacetum vulgare), a perennial herb which has given the beetle its name. It will also feed on water mint and gipsywort, which are both very abundant at Woodwalton and Wicken fens.

The tansy beetle had a bumper summer in York so there are many thousands of adults present. Thus a few have been released at Wicken Fen so they can feed up through September on their food plants and hopefully will emerge from hibernation next spring. We shall go and have a look next May. The re-introduction project, especially with a little insect, is partly an act of faith, as we really don't know if it will thrive at Wicken. But it is certainly worth trying to put the insect back into its former sites, to help bolster its population and reduce the risk of extinction.

The Tansy beetle is a very pretty iridescent green beetle, about 8-10mm in size. The project captured the interest of the media, and both Anglia TV and BBC East came along to film the release of the beetles. The camera-men were very pleased with how pretty the beetle looked in close-up, with the autumn sunshine bringing out the colours very nicely. The two presenters were also very happy to be out at Wicken doing a good news story, and they all stayed for tea and cakes in the café.

TV crews getting excited about the beetle
We tend to take the philosophy of the "Field of Dreams" in our habitat creation at Wicken, which is "if you built it they will come" (it's a 1989 Kevin Costner film). And many species have taken advantage of the extra space and wildlife habitats we have made south of our classic Sedge Fen. However, in this case, it is a very long way for a small rare beetle to get to Wicken Fen (especially as it is very reluctant to fly and tends to walk between its food plants), so it's been given a helping hand!

Friday, 29 August 2014

More movements and an impressive Caterpillar

We've been finishing up the last of the animal movements for the end of August. This time we were taking four horses and three cows off Verrall's Fen to reduce the grazing pressure on this sensitive area. While they have been doing a good job at keeping some of the scrub down, but it has started to impact the tall herb fen flora. So in a last in first out manner, Percy, Tommy, Snotters and George were the chosen ponies and Isle and her two children Hedwig and Will were the cows. They have all headed to Harrisons farm to join the 5 ponies left behind from the last animal movements. Being made up of very soft and delicate peat we couldn't drive vehicles onto Verralls fen. This meant we had to give two of the ponies a standing sedation and walk them on head collars to the small corral. The other ponies then followed lead by their curiosity. Then we managed to persuade them all into trailers and shipped them around by road to Harrison's on Adventure's Fen.

Horse walking selfie!

George helping Percy up the trailer ramp when Percy had a nap at an inappropriate moment.

Snotters looking very attractive with his added reed

In other news, we borrowed our neighbour's hydraulic log splitter. We, especially Luke and Tony, had a very enjoyable time splitting some old logs we had stored from cutting down a dangerous, for the fen cottage fires and some for the wild campsite at Oily Hall.

Tony and Luke enjoying splitting logs a little too much!

Congratulations to Ruby for passing her trailer test this week! Luke and I are also now qualified on the brush cutters as well after training this week. 
Ruby passed!

This blog has taken me a while to write as I keep getting distracted on other jobs. On one of my trips out I met this little fella determinedly making his way towards the visitor centre along the boardwalk. While we welcome a wide range of visitors in the centre, we did put this chap out in the grass as we thought he'd be happier there. Issy informed me that he is a goat moth caterpillar.

Thursday, 14 August 2014

Horses are Roaming on Burwell Fen

As you may have noticed, if you have ventured out to Burwell Fen recently, the Koniks have now joined the Highland cattle. Two weeks ago, the Ranger Team, with assembled helpers, spent two days moving the horses from Harrison's over to Burwell. It was planned with military precision, with the order the horses were moved being very important. We had to get the family groups, or hareems, over as close together as possible. In our herd the hareems are usually made up of one or two stallions, who look after and get to mate with up to four mares, and then the mares foals and sometimes the foals from the year before. They need to be moved over at a similar time so as not to affect the hierarchy structure too much. All the males on Burwell have now been castrated or vasectomised so we can control the number of animals on Burwell a little easier. We vasectomised the stallions so that we didn't lose their dominance behaviour which helped to create new habitats on Adventure's Fen. Last year a species of Dung beetle was rediscovered at Wicken Fen on one of the dung piles the stallions create. All the stallions dung in the same spot, leaving a sort of olfactory calling card. So the other stallions will come along and smell who was there before and then add to the pile. This leaves large piles of dung about the place which are great for dung beetles. The new dung beetle that was found predates on the dung beetles feeding on the dung pile, meaning we have a very healthy population of dung beetles and the dung piles are the start of a long food chain!

The vet and his nurse preparing one of teh stallions or the operation

The actual process of moving the animals involved penning the horses with mobile hurdles, with the vet sedating any that were a bit feisty. The trailer was then reversed up to this pen, and the horses were encouraged into it by making the pen smaller and smaller until the horses decided trailer was the nicer option! It has to be done in this unusual way because the horses aren't trained to wear halters or come to food, so we have to use gentle persuasion instead. At the other end, on Burwell Fen, they were then released into a small holding pen to get their feet back under them, before being released into the fen.

two horses penned and waiting to be transported

One of the horses being pursuaded onto the trailer

As I was on holiday when all this happened, I want to say well done to all the guys involved as they did it so efficiently they had a day spare at the end of the week!

I would also like to thank the team from Mathworks who came in for a work party at the end of July. They did a great job refreshing our education area, painting the shelters, fixing the roofs and creating a new log rolling area. And I know they had good fun doing it as well!

A welcome to Luke, our new long term volunteer, and a big thank you to Pete and Andy, our previous long term volunteers who both left us at the end of July for new jobs!

And finally, when I plugged the camera into the computer today to find the pictures of the horse movements, I was greated with this, clearly Ranger Jack very much enjoyed his day with the grazing team!