Tuesday, 26 January 2016

Rewildling the nature reserve

The Safari hasn't been able to get out on Patch 2 so far this week, busy, duff weather and high tides have conspired against us. We tried at lunchtime today but only got as far as the front door when we saw huge waves crashing over the wall close to where we stand - that was enough to have us wimping out and fleeing back inside. Yesterday we did have a fly over Pied Wagtail (P2 #30) and a couple of Grey Wagtails while out supervising with our gardening volunteer.
From our previous post - The story of the wetlands is a story of rewilding and an attempt to prevent it becoming too wild. They were dug about 10 years ago, maybe more now as time flies when yer aving fun. Locally there's a population of Great Crested Newts that can always do with a helping hand and there's the other amphibians too. They like a bit of open water with some vegetation but without some intervention open water doesn't stay open very long as more and more vegetation arrives and grows. We are now at the stage where open water is at a premium and the poor old newts and their friends are running out of places to lay their eggs. 
Indeed the slightly less wet areas are now being 'invaded' by Willows so increasing the drying out - in time they'll be out competed by Alder and perhaps eventually other tree species. But we don't want that, we want our amphibians to do well so we've made a conscious conservation decision to halt the rewilding, succession is being stopped and if possible reversed a little back to some open water. The whole wetland could do with a little mowing (in the absence of grazing) if it were safe to be let loose on there. A robust pony and tougher old breed cattle would create open water, maybe prevent too many Willows growing and perhaps encourage a better diversity of wildflowers on the grassland - provided they weren't overgrazed. Sadly no chance of that so its muscles and tools and we could always do with some mechanisation to 'keep on top of the vegetation' - darned succession goes too fast for us. Rewilding it would seem is only going to work at large scales with a fully functioning ecosystem, small suburban areas will need some form of conservation priority (for a particular species or habitat almost arbitrarily deemed more important than any others) and management to hold the inevitable succession at pre-determined point.

The wetland on its opening day in 1997 - About as unwild as you can get
The point being that the work party volunteers are acting as a small population of very selective grazers/browsers would in a much larger ecosystem if there was a legitimate reason for them not to go there often so as not to overgraze/browse. That could be down migration routes/times or the presence of predators that deter but not totally exclude the grazers.
The reserve as a whole is an interesting example of rewilding with some conflicting species/habitat dynamics going on. There is a comprehensive management plan for all of the reserve broken down into several compartments with rotational treatments for the different habitats, reedbeds, grassland, scrub, woodland so that not all the same habitat gets managed in any one year so a patchwork of different aged and sized patches develop. But due to increasing lack of non-capital funding, machinery and a sufficiently large army of volunteers over the last couple of decades or more despite the will to do the management prescriptions it has not been possible to keep on top of the long list of projects required by the plan. That doesn’t mean the reserve is not in a good condition, far from it as it is an SSSI and has only recently been re-assessed as ‘Favourable’ for both its features of interest – Standing Open Water & Canals and (Lowland) Neutral Grassland.
This has resulted in many parts of the reserve looking nothing like what they did when the site was first designated as an SSSI way back in 1979. With the lack of grazing/mowing (although we did somewhat unsuccessfully try a bit of grazing a long time ago) there has been a succession from shorter more open grassland to ranker perhaps slightly less flower-rich grassland with some not insignificant Bramble development. We think part of the problem may arise off-site in the form of increasing nitrogen deposition from the air which enriches the soil allowing longer grasses such as False Oat Grass and Cocksfoot and other tall plants (often perceived as ‘weedy’ eg Nettles, Thistles, Willowherbs)  to out-compete the lower growing plants. This increase in ‘rankness’ may have contributed to the extinction of Small Heath and Wall Brown butterflies. Having said that Gatekeepers, Speckled Woods, Large and Small Skippers were unknown here at the time of designation so the losses have been more than counter-balanced by the gains – would be better if we could have all those species though.
Part of the opposition by ‘land-owners’ to rewildling is their perception that the land will turn to ‘useless’ scrub – well of course it will but then scrub is not useless, not from a biodiversity  point of view as it provides shelter, flowers, increased structural diversity so more ‘niches’, builds soil (from leaf-fall) and more…what they really mean is they can’t make any money from it, that’s probably what they are afraid of. But as can be seen on the nature reserve scrub is only another step on the journey through succession. 
At first it can appear to be ‘invasive’ smothering out more ‘interesting’ vegetation and species. In the old days there was less dense scrub and more Whitethroats but no Long Tailed Tits, Lesser Whitethroats or Blackcaps. Since then the trees and bushes have grown in some areas and begun to shade out the earlier successional Brambles. In the absence of sufficient volunteers and or cattle, Red Deer or Wild Boar to break up the thickets of Brambles it does appear that they are taking over areas of the reserve becoming a mono-culture and they are out-competing some of the more ‘interesting’ plants. Volunteer parties have recently 'become' the large herbivores and broken up some of the stands of Brambles to give the smaller species a fighting chance. Some of the trees have been pruned (equivalent to being broken by passing Wisents?), some have been coppiced and the brash piled up (similar to Beaver activity although the piles are on land not in the water). All that’s missing is the dung, but then as we said earlier there is nutrient deposition in the form of atmospheric nitrogen but that doesn’t help the dung beetles does it…and then species that eat dung beetles at the various stages of their life-cycle…what was it we said earlier about fully functioning ecosystems?  
Wild Boar would be great to have around the place grubbing up tasty Bramble roots, disturbing the soil allowing the seed bank to germinate, or perhaps not seeing as the reserve is on a former landfill site bringing more rubbish to the surface to be taken away. Not sure if the neighbouring golf course would be too chuffed to have their greens and fairways excavated, they'd have to go to the expense and inconvenience of securely fencing their perimeter - wouldn't do that would just apply to shoot the boar it's sooooo much easier to get rid of inconvenient wildlife than mitigate against it....isn't that so Badger cullers?
As for predators it’s unlikely we’ll ever get anything bigger than an Otter, (Fox on land) or a Buzzard, and they're only recent colonists. We can’t see anything as exotic or exciting as a Lynx turning up their within our lifetime unfortunately - go on bite the bullet get them reintroduced asap - and as for Wolves, well we can only dream but there is no prey for them locally….no they don’t eat cows very often not even in the USA apparently (eg 2.5 million cattle in Montana, 35 attacks in one year by 600 Wolves not all fatal and even fewer on sheep). What chance a Golden or White Tailed Eagle ranging over the nature reserve – no chance they can’t get past the grouse moors of southern Scotland to reach England, even the (fairly) locally reintroduced Red Kites (a scavenger not a predator) haven’t reached us yet – wonder how many of those have become ‘disappeared’.
If we did ever get more than the occasional visit from Roe Deer and excessive 'damage' to the vegetation started to be an issue there wouldn't be any predators eat them or move them on so us humans would have to take the role and that emotive word 'cull' might have to come into play. An unlikely scenario as all the unleashed dogs act as predators to keep prey species 'disturbed' on on their toes.
The reedbed areas similarly need breaking up and are difficult to manage with specialist machinery especially in deeper areas...we're thinking Moose! Be great to have a couple of those sploshing around creating open water patches for the amphibians and dragonflies etc and lots of reed edge margin for the Bitterns to fish in as well as forcing channels through the reeds for the fish to move along.
It would seem we're missing an awful lot of exciting wildlife but whatever it looks like now and however wild, rewild, or unwild you think it might be it’s deffo worth a visit as there’s a tremendous variety of exciting wildlife to be found at all times of year, most of the ‘small stuff’ we don’t even have a clue about.
Then we learn that the Glenridding Hotel is flooded yet again the 4th time this winter; if ever there was a time to seriously consider rewilding and mega tree planting on large areas of our National Parks this has to be it. The catchment for Glenridding is about 10 km2 (4 sq miles) and there's barely a tree in sight. Trees won't stop flooding altogether but they can slow flows and reduce the peak water. It's surely time the general public asked farmers to farm water and wildlife as well as sheep and cattle - we need them more than the little meat they give us from the marginal 'agricultural' land. The government need to set policies and incentives for farmers to be able to do just that. Trees in the hills what will The Ramblers say?
On this map there are place names of deer, Wild Boar and Heron (?=Erne = eagle) hint's of what used to live there and perhaps could again some day soon.
Any thoughts on any of the above anyone?
Apologies for the dodgy formatting - not sure what's going on there, been a nightmare!
Where to next? More rain, wind and wave wimping on Patch 2 probably
In the meantime let us know how wild your outback is being allowed to get.

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