Saturday, 16 May 2015

Konik Sponsorship

Last weekend saw the launch of Wicken Fen's new Konik Pony Sponsorship scheme. Organised by one of our dedicated volunteers, the scheme aims to generate extra funding to support the Konik herds that live here at Wicken.

One of last years foals enjoying some winter sun back in February

The Konik Ponies, along with the Highland Cattle, are an essential part of the management of the wider nature reserve. The Wicken Fen Vision Projects aims to create a 53km2 nature reserve. This large an area would be impossible to manage using only manpower and machinery so the livestock do the work for us. Their grazing creates a mosaic of habitats, stopping any one plant out competing the others. 

Cheeky Chelsea investigating the ruins on Guinea Hall
The herds are managed in a very hands off way, we leave them to express as many natural behaviours as possible. This means we don't castrate the stallions or bulls, we don't worm them and we don't supplementary feed them. By allowing them to behave naturally, they shape the landscape by more than just grazing it. The stallions will display to each other to win their right to breed with the mares, and part of this displaying involves creating very large piles of dung. Each of the stallions will contribute to this pile, using it as a sort of notice board to let other stallions know who they are and how recently they've been there. These dung piles have been surveyed for beetles (Coleoptera) and 120 species were identified to be associated with them. In 2013 15 species of beetle new to the fen were found on these dung piles, one of them being incredibly rare, and classified as endangered in the International Union for Conservation of Nature's (IUCN) Red Data Book. Margarinotus obscurus is a carnivorous species that predates on dung beetles that congregate on the stallions dung piles. 
Peanut, one of this year's foals

The Koniks were chosen as the best breed to graze this area for several reasons. They are a hardy primitive breed, closely related to the now extinct Tarpan horse, the native wild European horse. This means they can cope in the extremes of weather, and don't need routine medical treatment such as worming. This hardiness also gives them an incredible ability to recover from injuries without veterinary treatment. They also have a proven ability to cope in wetlands without getting any hoof problems. Importantly they have a friendly temperament which means they will tolerate people near them even with minimal interference. This is important for the way we manage them as it means we can get close enough to get a good look at any injuries and makes any treatments necessary less stressful for both them and us.

Egg, currently the only colt born this year on Adventurer's Fen

The ponies can play tricks on you while you're checking them. It took me a minute to figure out where one pony started and the other ended with these two sisters!
While the ponies are left to their own devices as much as possible, there is work involved in managing them. They are checked on every single day of the year to identify and monitor any injuries or illnesses. The vet will be called out in cases when the animal's welfare is in jeopardy. There are miles of fences to be checked, built and maintained every year. We are researching their DNA profiles to get a better idea of the way their social and family structures work. We test their poo 4 times a year so we have a clear idea of their worm burden and when we need to step in. 

Galaxy is doing well with first time mum Lottie
This is where the sponsorship scheme comes in. To support the Koniks and the vital work they are doing, we are asking for a £25 donation to sponsor the herd for a year. To see thank you, the sponsors will receive a welcome pack (containing a photo of the Koniks, a certificate of sponsorship and a fact sheet about the ponies), three newsletters through the year to keep them updated with the herds' goings on, an invite to an exclusive guided walk and the chance to enter a name the foal competition. For more information and to download an sponsorship form, please visit or by emailing

Out newest addition. A little boy on Burwell Fen. 

Saturday, 25 April 2015

Calf ear tagging

On Wednesday morning there was a call to the office to say that the first calf of the year had been born to Mulda 2. Then it was to battle stations. When we find a new calf, by law we have to have it ear tagged within 20 days. Plenty of time you may think! Not within an extensive grazing program. So Carol and I piled into a truck and headed out to Burwell Fen to meet Hannah and Julie who had spotted the calf.

Within the first 24 hours of giving birth a mother cow will stash her calf. This is an evolutionary adaptation to keep the calf safe from predators. After cleaning them up and giving them their first good drink of milk, the calf will hide away, while the mother goes and grazes far enough away not to give away the calf's location, but close enough to hear it if it gets into trouble. The mother will regularly go back to feed the calf, but more often than not when we're doing the checks the calf is hidden away. They generally stash the calve for about a week, but it can be 2 by which time they have a good set of legs under them! So we need to ear tag as soon as possible to stand a good chance of finding and catching it. If we can do it quickly after its been born, it is also less suspicious of people making it easier to catch and the whole thing a lot less stressful.

The general procedure for us is to distract mum with a bucket of food while we lift the calf into the back of a vehicle. This give us a bit of protection from mum while we're doing the tagging. Then we have to straddle the calf to restrain them, and quickly get the first tag in. Up until this point the calves are normally quite obliging, but it's almost guaranteed they will moo as the first ear tag goes in, attracting mums attention if they didn't already have it. So we then have to quickly get the second ear tag in the other ear, take a hair sample for our DNA data, and get little one out of the truck and back to mum. Some mums will then be content to finish the bucket of food, this also gives her a bit of a boost after pushing a calf out, but Mulda 2 only had a couple more mouthfuls before deciding she wanted to take her son far away from us.

The young man with his first ear tag
Calf and mum have been seen together since, and both seem to be doing OK, though she still likes us to keep a healthy distance at the moment!

And him about to be returned to mum. 
We have also got 6 new foals so far on the fen, and this week I've seen Greylag goslings, baby coots and herons feeding their young in the nest, so spring is well under way at Wicken Fen.

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