10 January 2017:
I was invited to the Little Tern groups post season meeting by Phillip Pearson (RSPB Conservation Officer at Minsmere) on the 16th of last September not because we have had any Little Terns nesting at Landguard, in fact they haven't nested at Landguard Nature Reserve since the late nineties I believe. The reason being is that the group are now looking at ways that Ringed Plover breeding successes can be helped. The Ringed Plover has now unfortunately been given red-listed status. This means that they are now considered to be 'of most concern'. In the Ringed Plovers case it is the decline in over-wintering numbers that has led to this.
I was pleased to be invited to the meeting especially as it was on the back of the recent success that we have had with fledged Ringed Plover chicks. Fledged chicks are the ones that have managed to dodge primarily the local Kestrel but also Carrion Crows, Gulls, Foxes, dogs and others. Each of these regard a Ringed Plover chick as a protein packed tasty morsel. Good job that Ringed Plovers generally rear two broods and sometimes three. Even then it's much more common than not for a pair of Ringed Plovers to have no fledged chicks at all, leaving it for another pair’s success to continue the survival of the species. The Landguard success was especially apparent when compared with other monitored Ringed Plover nesting sites along the Suffolk Coast. Below are the numbers of fledged chicks set against the different sites. We have achieved this because of: Ranger presence, a high degree of visitor compliance with Reserves requests, large areas of shingle enclosed by post and rope, partnership working with the Bird Observatory and volunteer Ranger help. Mostly it reflects the vast majority of visitors to the Reserve that are happy not to walk through closed off areas, to keep their dogs on leads and to not fish in front of the enclosure when requested. So if you are one of these people the figure below is your success as much as anyone's.
Kessingland 3; Shingle Street 1; Benacre 0; Deben 0; Benacre Pits 0; Felixstowe 0; Covehithe 0; Landguard 8; Easton 0; Levington Marina 2; Walberswick/corporation 0; Trimley 0; Dingle Marshes 0; Minsmere 0; Sizewell 0; Thorpeness 0.
I am sometimes challenged on the credibility of wildlife conservation with statements such as "You can't pickle everything in aspic, change is inevitable" etc. Yes change is inevitable but the biggest challenges to the wildlife we know in the UK have happened relatively recently, really since WWI and accelerating from WWII eras. The proliferation of the internal combustion engine and the intensification of agricultural practices, are important factors. At one time it was common practice for farms to 'lay' the boundary hedges of fields to form stock proof features. By default this is a great way to keep a hedge rejuvenated and provide ideal nesting opportunities for many birds. Now hedges, unless the management of them is in some sort of agri/environment agreement are managed in a less wildlife friendly way or not managed at all and left to 'grow out' if they hadn't already been grubbed out to make it easier to manage fields for larger machinery. The practice of coppicing in woodlands (harvesting the growth of trees by cutting them near to the ground and letting them grow again for a period before harvesting again). Coppice products have been unearthed and carbon dated at 4,000 years old. This is a long time for wildlife to have adapted and evolved around this woodland practice. Now with not much need for the products of coppicing it has all but died out especially on the scale that it once was. The ordinary every day practices that kept open heathland from afforestation for hundreds of years such as harvesting Bracken for livestock bedding, cutting (coppicing) leggy stands of Heather for kindling and extensive grazing of this habitat, just doesn’t happen anymore. Really the point that I want to make is that it has taken a long time for the wildlife in the UK to adapt, evolve and flourish around the countryside management that went largely unchanged for hundreds and sometimes thousands of years but it can take a relative blink of an eye to lose it. Personally I would like future generations to experience and enjoy the wildlife that I have and not leave a dearth of wildlife to slowly re-adjust over thousands of years.
We really must try to hang on to what we have got. The incremental losses of wildlife habitat that I have seen since the first awakening of my interest in wildlife as a primary school boy almost make me weep. I was lucky enough to grow up with an abandoned large Victorian garden just over the fence of our back garden. Having undergone years of re-wilding it was a wildlife treasure trove especially as it was situated in more or less a busy market town. Unfortunately the council decided to tidy it up with absolutely no thought to the wildlife that was being displaced. Gone went the over-grown Brambles where I had found my first Bullfinches nest, gone went the thick patches of Stinging Nettles where I found my first Butterfly chrysalis neatly enveloped in one leaf and the tangled growth within the Nettles where I marvelled at the nest and eggs of a Garden Warbler. Even the trees had their crowns lifted so that those nasty people that liked to hide and do nasty things had nowhere to hide anymore. We played there for years out of sight from all that cared about us and never met anyone that was 'nasty', perhaps it was all in the planner's imagination? Any way I digress but I think you get my point. Later in my life I found myself working for the same council as a Woodland Ranger. I had the joy of taking a hand in creating glades, rides and coppice coupes within the council owned woods that cling to the edge of the Chiltern Hills. The soft contact call of Bullfinches in the brambled edged glades can now almost be relied upon as can the White Helleborine Orchid flowers in spring coppice coupes. Please note that coppice coupes, glades and rides are all created by felling trees not planting them. A common misconception can be that planting trees is the only management necessary.
Is wildlife conservation only important for people with a natural history bent? I really don't think so. Take the family that go on a picnic. It's a warm sunny day and Skylarks are singing high above them over the adjoining hay meadow providing an almost continual sound track to their day even though they are not really consciously aware of the birds. The colourful wild flowers in the meadow ensure that the air is full of flies, some colourfully fluttering others flying fast and buzzing. The family have no real wildlife interest but their sub consciences have been deeply ingrained by their picnic experience and there enjoyment of the day has been heightened by the wildlife around them. Some years later the family return to the same spot for another picnic but the old hay meadow is now in intensive arable production and the birds, flowers and flies are missing having had their habitat dramatically changed. Inwardly the family are not enjoying their time so much, then one turns to the other and says "I don’t know but I’m sure there were more birds about last time we were here" and of course they were right. On the other hand people that take a little time to recognise the song of a Skylark or the name of this or that plant or fly are much more richly rewarded when heard or seen. I won't broach the subject of wildlife webs and food chains which demonstrate how one organism is reliant on another, which is though completely relevant, as this blog entry will never end. Follow this link for a shining example: https://youtu.be/ysa5OBhXz-Q
Time has changed and the day to day necessities of people living near Sutton Heath, for example, no longer include having to cut leggy stands of heather for kindling and the once extensive grazing that played the biggest role in keeping the heath from afforestation is no longer economically viable. Bracken which once in some places needed a license to harvest is not used anymore. This example is reflected in the change in management of many other habitats and makes the work that conservation groups do country-wide all the more vital. Take the work of 'Footprint' volunteers on Sutton Heath, largely a group formed by people that have retired from their working lives. If it wasn’t for their hard work on the council owned part of Sutton Heath over the last seven years it would be a very different place. And without the grazing provided by Suffolk Wildlife Trusts sheep the same can be said. The Government realise the importance of maintaining habitat for wildlife as they wouldn't be in the business of handing out grants through Natural England to help maintain and enhance these places. But the beating heart of wildlife conservation is its volunteers, whether it is with the Wildlife Trusts, RSPB, National Trust, local authorities etc. Without these people’s dedication and commitment our wildlife would be a lot worse off and so would we. Wildlife conservation volunteers are not completely selfless though and come back time and time again because they enjoy it. If you haven't tried it before why not give it a go? You might get a mention in the Queens Christmas speech as volunteers did in 2016. What ever your views are on the Monarchy are it's still nice to get a mention from the 'head of state'. Volunteers in her words are "unsung heroes" and that I find is a completely fitting description for the many conservation volunteers that I have and still work with. As a Ranger I like to think of myself as working at the sharp end of conservation with volunteers. You can have all the supporting bodies in the world but without all the volunteers and Rangers/Wardens leading the practical tasks needed to maintain and enhance habitat they won't add up to much.
So of course wildlife conservation is not only credible but completely worthy, I mean why wouldn't you coppice an area of woodland and provide the right habitat for Chiffchaff or Blackcap that has flown from Africa, dodged being killed by hunters around the Mediterranean and now looking for suitable habitat to nest in. Or in the case of Landguard ensure that shingle nesting birds go undisturbed and plants flourish by using large beach enclosures. Responsible dog walkers can make a huge difference by respecting our request to keep their dogs on leads. These wildlife gains through practical habitat management can sometimes be almost instant. I hope this pro 'wildlife conservation rant' has been persuasive in its argument for any doubting Thomas's to doubt no more.
Stephen Harper, not content with working long hours and busy shifts at the Port of Felixstowe offered his services volunteering on the reserve. When I first met Stephen on the Reserve, he was taking photos of birds at the time and has since supplied me with some superb photos for my library. He was also a winner in the Landguard Photography Competition with a cracking image of an Oyster Catcher in flight. Stephen worked for two days helping out with such tasks as putting up fencing rails and the inevitable scrub clearing and was much valued help. Catch up with some of his photography on Twitter at www.twitter.com/tourerstephen
The arduous task of removing Bramble scrub from the Permanent Conservation at the Point has been completed. This was very much helped along by another lunch time session with nine Port of Felixstowe volunteers who were already in the festive spirit, sporting Christmas hats and jumpers! For the 'Footprint' volunteers that I was already working with their arrival was a bit like seeing the proverbial cavalry appearing over the hill and gave much needed help and boost to finish the task. Thanks to Jessica Briggs (Environment and Energy Manager) for making this happen. The work will reduce to a minimum any herbicide needed to deal with any follow up growth. In this part of the Reserve the habitat is most valued for its' botanical diversity and shingle nesting opportunities, hence the management prescription of removing all scrub.
I managed to catch a glimpse of the elusive Purple Sandpiper that has been coming and going, mostly at the Point and the estuary shore and almost managed to get a photo of a Rock Pipit and Turnstone in the same photo, on a particularly foggy day.
From all of us on the Spit, have a great New Year!