Embracing the Mosaic

The country’s dormouse population has declined by a half since the year 2000 and unfortunately it is still falling. This weekend I attended a dormouse ecology and conservation course at the Wildwood Trust, a wildlife park in Kent that showcases British wildlife and is home to over two hundred native animals, including a precious population of captive dormice. The young from these captive dormice are used in reintroductions each year, releasing them into suitable woodland in counties where dormice have previously become extinct.

A dormouse that we found last autumn when clearing out the bird boxes in the wood

These reintroductions have proved to be mostly successful so long as correct woodland management continues to be maintained. I have now learned that dormouse wood management should be aiming towards producing a mosaic of small areas of hazel all at different ages, with a 15-20 year coppice rotation for maximum nut production and a vibrant, mixed-height understory. We shall now have to have a rethink about the work that we do in the wood this coming winter, because this is different information to what we had previously learnt was best woodland management. We had formerly been advised to coppice on a seven year rotation and try to get the coppiced areas large so that a lot of sun reached the woodland floor.

The course involved us going out into East Blean Woods in the afternoon to check the dormouse boxes there. We didn’t find any dormice unfortunately, but we did find this wren’s nest.

A mosaic approach is also what we should also be working towards in the meadows as well, according to an entomologist who visited this week to advise on ways to best manage the land with invertebrates in mind.

By creating mosaics, we will be creating habitats for a larger diversity of invertebrates without necessarily having to know what they are. He will be submitting a report in due course but we already have some food for thought, such as doing a spring cut in some areas once the grass first starts to grow strongly. This will accelerate the nutrient depletion in these places, producing additional variety in habitat.

The mosaic approach in the meadows seems to make a lot of sense to us and is one that we had in fact already started, by leaving areas uncut each year and having a different cutting regime for the reptile area. It does, however, represent quite a departure from aiming for wholesale reversion to chalk grassland for the second meadow and classic hay meadow for the first that was recommended to us by Kent Wildlife Trust as a result of their survey soon after we arrived here.

Photo from June 2021

Once again this year we have failed to interest any swifts in nesting in the boxes on the side of the house. For several summers now we have been playing swift calls up into the sky through a loud speaker, positioned near the nest boxes. The birds are certainly very interested, and squadrons of them frequently and repeatedly shoot past to see what all the fuss is about. It puts us in mind of this sort of thing:

Hawk fast jet trainers – my father-in-law was in the RAF and worked on these aircraft when they were first introduced the mid 70s. Photo courtesy of Cpl Paul Oldfield RAF. Wikimedia Commons

But we are yet to see a single swift enter a box.

A swift flying close to this very desirable semi-detached residence, but sadly deciding not to buy

Some days we forget to switch the calls on but still the birds come. They seem to be nesting in one of the houses down on the beach – perhaps they are amply provided with nesting opportunities there and don’t need these additional boxes. But, if they ever do, then they definitely know where to find ours by now. At the start of the season this year there were a maximum of six birds coming up to us on the cliff but this week there have been fourteen at times. I hope this means that they have had a successful breeding season and their young are now fledged and flying with them.

Of the four swift boxes here, only one is occupied by house sparrows this year. They have been nesting in there for many weeks now and have raised at least two broods – it is nice that something is using the boxes.

House sparrow emerging from her swift box

It is often very breezy here but, on those rare still days, an orangey-yellow blanket of pollution can be seen sitting out in the North Sea over the shipping lane.

When at sea, ships burn dirty, sludgy leftovers from the refining process and it has been estimated that, before 2020 anyway, a single giant container ship could produce as much cancer and asthma-causing chemicals as fifty million cars. But it is reassuring to know that progress is starting to be made towards addressing this problem – in 2020 a Global Sulphur Cap was imposed upon the world’s shipping, demanding that the maximum sulphur content for marine fuels be reduced from 3.5% to 0.5%. But by the look of that pollution blanket sitting over the shipping lane this week, there is still much work to be done.

This next image was ‘digiscoped’ from the house – that is, taken on a mobile phone attached to our telescope. It is another chance to appreciate the brown badger on the right that we have here this year:

One morning we saw a green moth fluttering in the meadow. It realised we were interested in it and was trying to hide and so sadly this is the best photo I managed to get:

However, the red checkerboarding on the wing margins is enough to identify it as a Sussex Emerald Moth. This is an extremely rare moth in Britain – there is a small colony on the vegetated shingle below the meadows and also at Dungeness but nowhere else in the country. The light of the moth trap at night has brought a Sussex Emerald up here once before, but we have never seen one spending time in the meadows of its own volition. There is plenty of its larval food plant, wild carrot, here but it also needs the vegetated shingle habitat that we can’t provide for it.

Magpie with small bird prey:

A group of mainly juvenile starling remain in the meadows. Ordinarily we would have expected them to have moved on by now:

Bullfinch like to nest in mixed deciduous woodland and I believe that we might be having a good year for them in our wood. Bullfinch are frequently being seen at various ponds throughout the wood and up to three adults at a time – there is surely more than one breeding pair here this year.

Three adult bullfinch

In this hot weather, the ponds in the wood are very popular:

Fox dangling its front paws in the water
A pair of badgers

There are two old tree coppices in the wood where the cutting has created watertight bowls. For most of the year these form natural pools of collected rainwater that we suspect are valued by the woodland animals as water bowls. In the summer these do tend to dry up, but this week we refilled them and put cameras on them.

One pool is at the centre of an oak coppice:

Checking the cameras just a couple of days later showed that they were already being well used by all sorts of creatures:

The other natural pool looks a bit different:

But it too is now being well used:

It has been hot and dry for so long and now we find ourselves immersed in a red weather warning for extreme heat for today and tomorrow. In the hot summers of my childhood, my father would rig up the sprinkler on the back lawn and we kids would repeatedly run through it – it was such simple fun. This may well have been what my sister and I had just been doing here in this photo taken by my grandfather in the 1960s, although we had temporarily stopped for refreshments:

Photo by John Williams. My grandmother and brother, too old and too young to join in the fun, sit in the background

Back then, my father used to water the lawns through the summers to keep them nice and green. We wouldn’t think of doing that these days but we did decide that we had to water the 85m of new hedgerow in these exceptional circumstances. Even though it has been planted for three years and hopefully will have established an adequate root system, we inspected it and realised that we were at risk of losing parts of it unless action was taken.

The meadows are yellow, parched and crispy, the understorey in the woods is wilted and the ponds are gasping. We long for some rain.

One thought on “Embracing the Mosaic

  1. It’s crazy hot isn’t it, even here up North. Possible chance of light rain showers soon. I can’t imagine how gasping hot it must be in the South. The mill opposite my house has a good nesting Swift population, which is a joy to see. I did watch one swift make about five attempts to get to it’s nest though once, think it was at an awkward angle!

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