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!


Friday, 18 July 2014

We're hitting the busy summer time.

As you may have guessed from how little I'm blogging at the moment, we have hit the busy summer time. All of the rangers have lots going, from fencing and mowing to rounding up animals!

So the first big news is that there are now cows across the whole of Tubney Fen. All the fencing is now cow proof, and so far they seem to be really enjoying there new space. It also means that they will be able to do their full grazing job, keeping the vegetation at a good level to let flowering plants germinate, while not letting other plants take over and out compete all the rest.

We've been gearing up for big changes with our own livestock in the last week or so. The grazing team are putting together the grand plan for moving our Koniks over to Burwell Fen. This is quite a major operation, that is planned with military precision taking into account which family groups will be moved in which order, and which stallions are getting castrated. It is an exciting time also though, as it is the next step in expanding the extensive grazing system run at Wicken with both the Koniks and the Highland cattle.

Last week I went to Fen Ditton Primary School to help one of our volunteer's, Lesley, make an insect hotel in their wildlife area. Every child at the school helped, filling each layer with different things. We had a wood layer, a pine cone layer, a layer with bricks and broken terracotta pots and a layer with bamboo cans and twigs. The different layers create different habitats for a wide variety of insects, with leaf litter layers near the bottom for woodlice and bamboo canes near the top for hibernating solitary bees and ladybirds. We also found lots of insects around the wildlife area that were getting added to the hotel, including a Violet Ground Beetle.

Fen Ditton's New Insect Hotel
I had rather nice day on Tubney on Wednesday, strimming round the gates and mounting blocks at the entrances. The weather was superb and the wildlife was abundant! I stopped on top of Reach Lode Bridge for 10 minutes and watched the dragonflies and damselflies fighting for ladies and territory. Then I spent lunch in the hide by the mere accompanied by a swan family, a coot family and a canada goose family! Then a Hobby pop in to catch his lunch, terrifying the baby coots and the lapwings near by. They had nothing to fear though, as he was completely focused on the dragonflies that were right in front of the hide. Then to add to the wildlife spectacular, Martin and I counted up to 10 grey herons on Burwell Fen yesterday morning.

The view from Reach Lode Bridge, looking towards Reach, with Tubney Fen on the right, and Hurdle Hall on the left

Tubney mere, with the swan family in the background

The calves on Tubney were getting very interested in my strimming!

Monday, 7 July 2014

Tree Work at Gutterbridge

We had the guys from Acacia Tree Surgery at Gutterbridge Plantation last week. They have been completing the work on trees that have been deemed dangerous by our tree health survey, because they had the potential to fall on footpaths or the road that runs along the front of the wood. We had done some of the work ourselves, but had to ask the experts in to deal with any trees that involved climbing, as none of the Rangers have the qualifications to use a chainsaw up a tree. I was told by Niki, that the Acacia guys are fearless, cutting tree limbs, while haning from the same tree, with the cut branches zooming past the to the ground.
The work involved felling a couple of trees that were rotted out at the bottom, thinning the crowns of a few more and clearing some that came down during the high winds last winter. One of the most important aspects of the task was surveying each tree before it came down. They checked there were no birds nests or bat roosts in any of the trees and have felled some in such a way that the main trunk of the tree has been left standing, providing ideal potential nest and roost sites. The small bits of wood that came down have been left in habitat piles for lots of different invertebrates and small mammals to find a home in, and the larger chunks are going to be used by the Swaffum Bulleck work parties as benches and table in the glade areas of the wood.

An Acacia Tree Surgeon, doing his stuff.