The Hedgerow Haircut

Managing our hedgerows here is one of the most important things to get right and we are happy with how wild and untamed they have become. They have even been admired by visiting naturalists!

The western boundary hedgerow

Tall hedgerows with wide bases provide food and shelter for all sorts of wildlife as well as being essential corridors linking habitats. Hedges support up to 80% of our woodland birds, 50% of our mammals and 30% of our butterflies as well as much other invertebrate life.

The hedgerow dividing the two meadows

But in order to stay as a hedge rather than growing up into trees, the occasional cut is required. Hawthorn and Blackthorn only flower on old wood, so the best practice is to cut a third of the hedgerow each year and it will be just this third that will not flower and produce fruit the next season.

It has been a while since we have done anything to our hedgerows, though, because we couldn’t find anyone to do the work. However, we have now been recommended a local agricultural contractor with a flailing arm on his tractor and he came to the meadows this week:

By January there is no fruit left on these hedgerows

We have 400m of hedgerow that is actively managed and the same again that has not been touched for decades, much of it now overgrown and heavy with ivy. We made the decision to get the tops trimmed from most of the actively-managed hedgerow, since it is at least a couple of years since any work has been done. However, the sides were mainly not cut and should still bear plenty of fruit to feed the birds next winter.

The tractor heading off into the second meadow

The aim was for the hedges to have a trim rather than a scalping and the contractor did such a great job. The flailing arm munches what it cuts off and this then falls back into the hedge and disappears meaning that there is not a big clearing up job to do afterwards.

In the seven years we have been here, the paddock hedges had not previously been cut and had become billowy and ferociously thorny. But this new, tidy look will take some getting used to
Kestrel with a backdrop of the freshly-neatened hedge

It is going to be some years before we will need to ask him to cut the 85m of new hedgerow that was planted in January 2020. This hedge still seems to be in the stage of establishing its root system rather than doing any growing above ground:

Regrettably, in places, the heavy tractor has made quite a mess of the soft January ground:

Now that we have discovered this reliable agricultural contractor, we hope to get our hedgerow management back on track and have the recommended third of it cut every January. Unfortunately, of course, it is a bit of a balancing act because we do need to give him enough work to justify his trip over here but we shall have to take each year at a time.

The average life expectancy for a Magpie is only three years but the oldest recorded individual is more than twenty-one years old. They mate for life and both birds build the nest together, although it is the male who gathers most of the sticks and constructs the walls and roof. The female will concentrate on the interior decoration, lining it with mud. The nests take up to forty days to build, usually high up in a tall tree, and they are unusual in having a domed roof of sticks with one or two side entrances.

Photo: Bengt Nyman under the Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic license.

This week I have been getting photos of a Magpie carrying sticks on this gate:

But are they building a new nest this year or repairing last years?

On searching the internet for the answer to this, I came across an academic paper on this very subject (Antonov and Atanosova in Acta Ornithologica, Vol 38, 2003, no. 1) 􏰀􏰁􏰂􏰁􏰄􏰀􏰄􏰅􏰂􏰃􏰄and it seems that the situation is not straightforward. Magpie nests are robust and often survive until the following season, yet most of the time the birds invest the effort into building a new nest. They found that nests were only reused 17% of the time in the urban areas of Sofia in Bulgaria, and 36% of the time in Manchester in the UK, but much less often than that in rural settings such as in our meadows.

The two year study investigated if the building of new nests each year was to evade parasites, avoid predation or was affected by the unavailability of good nest sites. However, it found no evidence to confirm any of these hypotheses and fledging success was the same with both new and reused nests.

Crows are probably the most likely birds to predate a Magpie nest here

But it did find that birds reusing their nests laid eggs a week earlier than birds building from new, giving them more time to start again if the nest fails. This suggests that it would be an advantage to reuse a nest, yet mostly this isn’t what they do. Clearly there are other factors at work that we don’t yet understand.

The 2021 Magpie nest at the top of a tall Holm Oak in the meadows

We think that the Magpies nesting here build a new nest every year and last year’s nest was high up in a Holm Oak. This is an evergreen tree and so, annoyingly, even now in the depths of winter, we are unable to see it properly.

The 2020 nest was towards the top of a Corsican Pine and again it was impossible to see clearly. In fact we only got a good look when the remains of the nest fell onto the grass in high winds just before Christmas:

Over the next few weeks we hope to be able to work out what is going on and see if they are building a new nest or have decided this time to renovate the old one.

A pair of Magpies making a Kestrel feel uncomfortable during her daily ablutions

The flock of around a hundred House Sparrow continue to be very busy up on the strip:

But I am delighted to report that the Yellowhammers are definitely now back to join them. The highest count last year was seventeen birds and there are are currently only five here so far, but it is early days:

A lovely group of Stock Dove also visits:

The two birds on the right in the foreground are Woodpigeon, though, slightly larger with white edges to their primary flight feathers

And of course all this bird activity is always of interest to the Sparrowhawks:

We are seeing a bit more of the colour-ringed female Herring Gull X9LT, ringed at Pitsea Landfill Site in Essex on 24th January 2015, just over seven years ago now:

A bedtime snack of a Short-tailed Field Vole for this Kestrel before calling it a day:

On both of the past two years I have successfully treated the One-eyed Vixen for mange. But it is with a sinking heart that, once more, I notice her tail is starting to show a few telltale signs. Am I going to have to serve her up medicated honey sandwiches yet again?

Maybe I am worrying unnecessarily but her tail was definitely pretty uniform until recently

The time is fast approaching when badgers give birth in their warm burrows underground. But, in the meantime, there is certainly time available for some lounging around and a spot of tummy scratching:

This week’s highlights from the wood include what I think might be a Tawny Owl investigating a nest box. There is a series of three photos and, in the first, the owl is sitting on the branch. In the second, it flies up to the box:

In the third photo of the sequence, taken thirty seconds later, it has returned to the branch:

This is definitely no basis to get our hopes up that an owl will soon be nesting here, but these photos are at least evidence that the bird knows the box is there if ever it should need it.

The group of Fieldfare are still coming at dusk every day to bath. Six birds here:

The Woodcock over-wintering in the wood are seen every night on the cameras and we also regularly put them up from the undergrowth as we walk round the wood during the day:

The camera on the small, new pond has been triggered by a Great Tit but it is the background that is more interesting. Once again, there are two Great Spotted Woodpeckers working their way up the trees looking for insects:

This was the weekend of the 2022 Big Garden Birdwatch, the world’s largest citizen science survey which has now been running for forty-three years. Last year more than a million people took part, counting seventeen million birds, which is really rather amazing and uplifting. We always look forward to the excuse to spend an hour quietly observing what is going on here.

In preparation for the count, the hide was set up two days beforehand to give the birds a chance to become accustomed to it

In the event we had a very exciting birdwatch this year. Perhaps it helped that it was a sparkling, calm and warm day with deep blue skies. We divided the hour between time in the hide overlooking the feeders and watching the birds visiting the seed up on the strip. Our final tally was twenty species and ninety-nine birds.

This trail camera was taking photos of the strip during the hour. There are six Yellowhammer here but actually we spotted nine of them at one time
A Skylark was up doing glorious song flights – the first time we have heard him this year
The Kestrel was hunting at various locations throughout the hour. She kept being moved on by Magpies
The grand finale was the arrival of the Sparrowhawk who came in high and landed on the feeding cages
Unfortunately I disturbed him and he took off across the meadow

Our final tally, that we have now reported in to the RSPB, was: Crow 3, Magpie 4, Herring Gull 2, Stock Dove 1, Collared Dove 1, House Sparrow 42, Dunnock 4, Linnet 1, Blackbird 4, Chaffinch 5, Yellowhammer 9, Woodpigeon 10, Kestrel 1, Blue Tit 3, Great Tit 3, Robin 2, Green Woodpecker 1, Greenfinch 1, Skylark 1, Sparrowhawk 1.

Let us hope that once again a million people or more have taken part this year and lots of useful information will be gleaned on the current state of British birds as a result.

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