Thanet Wind Farm

The sun coming up over the meadows on 1st January 2020, heralding the start of a brand new decade:

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On a clear day, you can stand in the meadows, look to the right, and see the white cliffs of France. Look to the left and you can see Deal pier, the white cliffs at Ramsgate and the Thanet wind farm out to sea.

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Thanet wind farm from the meadows through the big lens

There are four wind farms in the mouth of the Thames:

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The rapid expansion of wind farms in the decade that has just ended has attracted much controversy. Research into the effect on wildlife is being done but it does seem as though it is playing catch up and I read of accusations of data being manipulated by those who stand to gain. All very depressing. I spent some time researching the subject on the internet but found it difficult to get to grips with. Birds striking the turbine blades is a big concern and, since the carcasses are then washed away by the sea, this is also difficult to quantify. However, there is now some evidence that birds do generally manage to fly around the farm rather than through it. Also, the prohibition of fishing in the area and the bases of the windmills forming reef-type habitats seems to be creating a rich marine environment within the wind farm.

It seems clear that the way forward for our planet is not to burn carbon to meet our energy needs and to stop doing this as soon as possible.  But the alternatives, such as harnessing the power of the wind, sun and tide, all come with their own set of problems and wildlife concerns and it is so important ensure that, in our rush to get these other technologies up and working,  we don’t overlook the welfare of species other than our own.

Boat trips to the wind farm leave from Ramsgate during the summer and we plan to go on one of these to get a closer look and maybe get some of our questions answered.

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Blackcaps used to be just a summer visitor to the UK, migrating back to southern Europe or northern Africa in the winter.  But in recent years it has been increasingly normal to find them here in the winter as well. Ringing re-catches seem to suggest that the Blackcaps that are here over the winter have come across from Germany and are managing to survive the UK winter with the support of our garden bird tables.

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Female Blackcap and her rings

The bird ringer is participating in a British Trust for Ornithology (BTO) Blackcap colour ringing survey this winter to see if more can be discovered about how and why Blackcaps are changing their migratory behaviours. The Blackcaps that he catches will  have extensive biometrics taken and colour rings put on. The idea of the colour rings is that the bird doesn’t need to be recaught in order to identify the bird – the colour rings can be seen from afar and a report of the bird’s whereabouts fed back to the BTO.

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A different combination of rings on a Male Blackcap

These two birds above were caught and ringed in his nearby garden. Yesterday he came to the meadows and played their call to try to catch some more here in the meadows but had no luck. This project will be ongoing throughout the winter.

Another ongoing ringing project here is to catch and ring birds using a lobster- pot type cage rather than a net. Here it is upside down on the strip:

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It is there to get the birds accustomed to it, whilst ensuring that no bird can accidentally become trapped in it when we aren’t watching. We are putting seed down close by every day so that they get used to looking for food there.

We have other cages on the strip that are protecting some of the seed from being quickly wolfed down by the larger birds so that it remains available for smaller birds. These small birds have well and truly overcome their initial hesitation to go in:

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House Sparrows eating seed in the cages

We know that four Kestrels successfully fledged from a nest in the nearby white cliffs last year and we have certainly been seeing a lot of Kestrel activity in the meadows ever since. But mortality is high in young Kestrels – only 20% will survive two years until breeding age and starvation is the biggest cause of death. Their survival is closely linked to the Vole population.

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Kestrel with prey by its nest site on the nearby white cliffs in July last year

Kestrel hunting over the meadows a couple of days ago:

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We had a Kestrel fall victim to a Sparrowhawk last year:

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We were away from the meadows for a while over New Year and we saw this adult female Sparrowhawk eating a Feral Pigeon on a shed roof in a Berkshire garden:

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I read that two thirds of Sparrowhawks also starve to death in their first year which I find very surprising since there always seem to be so many waddling Woodpigeons around that surely must be easy for a Sparrowhawk to catch.

Here is one taking a very long and leisurely bath this morning:

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There are plenty of Stock Doves around as well at the moment:

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The Badgers have gone into their normal winter torpor – they do appear on the cameras every night but they are not out and about for long.

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Scarface at the peanuts in the early hours of this morning

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Winter is a time of Fox dispersal and often these visitors seem to have mange. It is upsetting to see but they will have already moved on through before we even collect the camera in:

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Our resident Foxes all look healthy at the moment and are posing nicely on the rock pinnacle at night:

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and are still being caught chewing through the rope that we have strung across the pond to deter the Heron:

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The rope has been chewed and repaired so many times..

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but is still doing its job very well – very few visits from the Heron recently.

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Today’s last photo is of this very smart-looking Green Woodpecker. You can tell that he is a male because of the red in the moustachial stripe – this would be all black in a female. I love their blue eyes.

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Wondrous Worms

Christmas has come and gone and things here are quiet. The photo below from a trip into nearby Deal captures one of the dull, grey, leaden days that we seem to have been having so many of recently.

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It is asking too much of my camera equipment to take decent photos out to sea but hopefully it is possible to make out the line of Cormorants flying in formation just above the water. We have watched from the meadows and seen thousands of these birds go by like this over the last couple of weeks. But Cormorants often hunt together in large groups, diving down and chasing the fish underwater and so perhaps they are the same birds we are seeing time and time again.

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Earlier in the month we found a large gathering of earth-coloured larvae under a reptile sampling square. We didn’t know what they were, but early December seemed a very odd time for them to be around:

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We have now learnt that these are Leatherjackets – the larval stage of the Crane Fly, of which I see there are 327 species in the UK. It is difficult to find information about Leatherjackets that doesn’t approach the subject from a pest control angle since they can be a nuisance for pristine lawns – but there are certainly none of those here and we welcome Leatherjackets with open arms since they are food for many birds, especially Starlings.

They were back under the same square this morning, squirming around:

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There has been a large amount of rain falling from the sky in recent months and the ponds are looking admirably full of water.

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The ground is so wet and soft that the worms have been making complete merry:

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Millions of worm casts cover the meadows and a lot of them have holes at the top. Does this mean that the worm extends itself out at night?

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We went out with torches last night but couldn’t see any. Perhaps it needs to be raining, or maybe they are extremely sensitive to ground vibrations and knew that we are coming long before we got there. I realise that I don’t know very much about Earthworms and the way they live their lives and will try to find out more.

When out with torches on our failed worm-watching excursion, we had a look in the hide pond, which seems devoid of life during the day at this time of the year. But in the safety of the darkness, there were lots of Water Boatmen swimming about and we counted seven Smooth Newts. How lovely.

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A Smooth Newt swimming in the pond at night

In a few days time, 85m of mixed native hedgerow is going to be planted in the second meadow. The route that it is going to take has been decided upon and the grass has been cut along this line:

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It isn’t just worms that love the soft ground – it’s great for metal detectorists too. It seemed a good idea to run the detector along the track of the new hedge before work commenced:

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A couple of metal buttons and the usual assortment of rusted iron and bits off tractors were dug up, but this was the first time this winter that we have been out detecting and it is really rather enjoyable.

Another result of all the rain is an amazing display of the weird, contorted White Saddle fungus this year, with hundreds of fruiting bodies coming up in both tree copses in the meadows:

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White Saddle fungus, Helvella crispa

I got two natural history text books for Christmas. This first one is going to be very useful:

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Over 25 million moth records from Butterfly Conservation’s National Moth Recording Scheme have been used to produce this book which has distribution maps for nearly 900 moth species. I am hoping that I am going to spend more time and effort on moths in 2020 and this book is certainly going to help.

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The second book I am a bit scared of. There are around 2,500 species of Ichneumonids in Britain – almost 10% of the British insect species, which is pretty astounding. These parasitic wasps are fascinating but it is difficult to identify them properly because there is such a shortage of information that is accessible to a non-specialist.

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I asked for this expensive book for Christmas because I would love to know more about the life cycles of these animals. However, rather than having lots of photos of the different parasitic wasps so that I could flick through to identify any wasp that I had found, it seems that it is not as simple as that. The book is, in fact, a biological key and will require a lot of work on my part to start using it.

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It is really quite daunting with lots of technical words but it is surely not entirely beyond me – I just need to put the time in to get to grips with it.

Today we went to the wood to do some more coppicing. At the moment there are reliably Buzzards to be seen in one of the fields attached to the larger wooded area. In fact, today there were four of them there:

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It is fantastic that the area is rich enough to support four of these magnificent animals. I suspect we are back to worms again and this is what they are doing spending so much time standing around in a wet field – worm hunting.

Worms are definitely what this Tawny is looking for on the woodland floor:

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We saw the Owl doing this a lot last winter but this is the first time for a while. I am so pleased that it is back again this winter – I had been watching out with eager anticipation on the cameras.

As I walked around the wood collecting in the trail cameras, I put up a Woodcock – another bird that relies on Earthworms.

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A Woodcock in the wood back in February

Of course Earthworms are also extremely important to Badgers, making up 80% of their diet.

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A Badger snuffling for worms in the wood

It is only now, in preparing this post, that the importance of the humble Earthworm in sustaining all these different types of animals through the bleak midwinter days has hit me for the first time.

We are progressing slowly with the coppicing in the wood:

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Today we were battling with a few stools, the canopies of which had been knitted together with Old Man’s Beard, making it all so very much more difficult:

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Luckily we had a Kelly Kettle with us to make a hot cup of tea and have sit down with some Christmas cake:

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As we sat, we were watching the very popular feeders with lots and lots of birds coming in – no wonder the seed disappears so quickly.

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A male Pheasant was poking around underneath:

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Then a male Sparrowhawk came in and took one of the birds under our very noses, causing alarm calling all around. That was a shock.

There was also a Kestrel flying above the regeneration area of the wood.

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This is a new species for the wood bird list and is especially exciting to see since we already have a Kestrel nest box up and a second one waiting to go up. So, really great to actually confirm that Kestrels are in the area.

The last wood photo for today is this one of the Jelly Ear fungus on Elder. There is a lot of this fungus around this year as well:

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Moving back now to the meadows. We have three cameras monitoring the goings-ons up on the strip.

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We have been putting food down on the strip and have placed cages so that all the seed is not quickly hoovered up, leaving none for the farmland birds we are wanting to support:

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Two different cameras caught this squabble between Crows. Here is the first:

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And here is the second:

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The female Pheasant has been very amusing:

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She has squeezed herself so many times between the cages:

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And she has a very long neck:

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It is now over a week since the winter solstice and we have definitely noticed the days getting longer. Two more short days of 2019 and then we are starting a fresh new wildlife year and watching out for the first signs of spring.

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Review of 2019 – The Meadows

This year with challenging summer temperatures and minimal precipitation, followed by seemingly months of wind and rain, has brought with it a wonderful mix of natural history delights and dramas in the meadows.

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A spectacular waterspout seen from the meadows in August

It is always difficult to condense a whole year of events into just one post but here is my best attempt to do that.

Predatory Flies

Can I really be starting with predatory Flies? We only really became aware them for the first time this year and I am now rather obsessed.

In early May, the hedgerows are always alive with St Mark’s Flies, distinctively flying with their legs dangling.

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St Mark’s Fly (Bibio marci)

Taking advantage of this bonanza, this year we noticed male Dance Flies, Empis tessellata, who caught them and held the cadavers across their bodies to await a female:

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When a female arrived, they offered the dead fly to her as a gift and mated with her as she ate it. Amazing stuff:

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We also saw Kite-Tailed Robberflies carrying Hoverfly prey:

Dune Robberfly. Philonicus albiceps.

Kite-tailed Robberfly Machimus atricapillus

But the grand finale of our predatory-Fly year was a brief sighting of this Hornet Robberfly (Asilus crabroniformis) in August – enormous at nearly 3cm long and with a loud, low buzz. It was a horribly magnificent thing.

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Birds

We added four more bird species to the Meadows List this year, bringing it up to 75.

In March, an Alexandrine Parakeet was around for a couple of weeks. There are four different species of feral Parrot populations in the UK – Ring-necked Parakeet I had heard of, but there are also Alexandrine and Monk Parakeets, and Blue-Crowned Conures.

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Alexandrine Parakeet in the hedgerow with its diagnostic red wing patches

In October, a Ring Ouzel was here for two days on migration. It was a juvenile and so its white bib was not pronounced, but the white edging of its feathers distinguishes it from a Blackbird.

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The other two new species were a Goshawk, flying over, and Siskin although I don’t have photographic evidence for these two new entrants onto the list.

In April, the RSPB delivered three large sacks of Turtle Dove supplementary food:

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and a strip of the second meadow was rotavated to be like an agricultural field edge:

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We started a second year of putting seed down to encourage Turtle Doves to come to feed and breed. In the event we again didn’t see a Turtle Dove, but this year we did see Yellowhammer.

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In fact, one was caught and ringed:

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Then, thrillingly, in August two juvenile Yellowhammer appeared at the strip:

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Other declining farmland birds were also welcomed as regular visitors:

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Linnets

 

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Grey Partridge
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Stock Dove

Swifts are another species in trouble. We made a Swift box and one of our sons rigged up some electronics so that we could play loud Swift calls from the box through the summer to alert the birds to this potential new residence.

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Although we didn’t have any Swifts nesting this year, we did manage to attract many groups of them to come up to have a look at the box. We hope that some of the juveniles,  needing their own new nest site, will remember this box when they return to the UK next year.

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Annoyingly, though, the only time we saw a Swift actually stop and have a proper investigation, it was looking into the nearby House Martin box rather than the box we had lovingly made specifically for it.

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A pair of House Sparrows nested in this House Martin box throughout the summer and successfully raised several broods:

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Needless to say, we didn’t see an actual House Martin anywhere near the box.

But House Martins were not completely absent from the year’s events. In October, 37 House Martins were caught, ringed and safely released to continue their migration. It is especially exciting to ring House Martins since little is yet known of their migration routes.

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I was surprised to see the size of their Flat Flies –  parasitic hitchhikers that these birds carry all the way to Africa and back. They are normally tucked down amongst the feathers but they have emerged because the bird has stopped moving whilst in the net.

The bathing technique of Green Woodpeckers provided much entertainment during the year, the bird often looking a more like a shipwrecked mariner staggering out from the ocean.

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In July, speckled juvenile Green Woodpeckers started to be seen:

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These juvenile Woodpeckers looked set to follow in their parents’ footsteps with regard to bathing technique:

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It was a bit of a shock to find the remains of a Kestrel, presumably having fallen victim to a Sparrowhawk. I was so surprised to learn that they take Kestrels:

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But in happier Kestrel news, one was ringed in the meadows this year:

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This young female has continued to visit the new shallow tray-ponds, three of which we added to the meadows this year and which have proved hugely popular. They did need topping up practically every day over the summer though.

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Magpies seem to be flourishing in the meadows:

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but to my mind they have a questionable lifestyle:

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Magpie with bird
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Magpie with egg
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Magpie with Slow worm

But it is good to see that even Magpies sometimes meet their match:

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Magpie and Sparrowhawk

May is a wondrous month and it is a time for a lot of nesting activity.

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Starling
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Dunnock
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Blackbird displaying his beautiful black tail
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It is the female Blackbird that builds the nest entirely on her own

There are a few more photos that I wanted to include before I finish the bird section:

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A female Bullfinch was caught and ringed in November
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A Firecrest ringed in October
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Lots of Black Headed Gulls circling over the meadows in August catching insects, possibly flying Ants. Delighted that the meadows were rich enough in insects to bring in lots of birds like that.
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Two pairs of Skylarks nested in the second meadow and seemed to raise several broods over the course of the summer
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Male Redstart on migration in September
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Again this year a pair of Mallards visited the pond every day for about two weeks in the Spring, the male acting as a bodyguard for the weakened female while she was egg laying
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A Meadow Pipit was ringed in February. What amazing rear claws they have. These are perhaps used as springs to propel themselves off the ground quickly.

Mammals

Twin baby Badgers were born in February. Very often Badger mating happens immediately after young are born and this photo below was taken on 4th February. One of the younger female Badgers wanted to be involved as well:

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We knew that it was twins that had been born because we saw two babies being moved on three separate occasions over the following weeks, getting larger each time:

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13th March
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28th March
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5th April

Then, on 16th April, they appeared above ground properly for the first time

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These delightful young animals spent the summer playing rough and tumble with each other and tormenting their mother, all the while being taught how to be Badgers.

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Unfortunately in September one of the twins got killed on the road below the meadows. This was one of this year’s low points.

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Winter is a time of dispersal for Foxes and, upsettingly, every year our trail cameras photograph Foxes with mange passing through. However, this poor animal stayed for a while:

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I pulled out all the stops to try to help it. There is a medicine, Arsen Sulphur, that can be sprinkled onto honey sandwiches and will cure mange over time but my problem was trying to get the sandwiches into this particular Fox.  Ultimately I was unsuccessful, although I expended a lot of time and emotional energy worrying about it and seeking advice from wildlife organisations. Our resident Foxes ate all the sandwiches, the hierarchical nature of their society not letting this outsider to get a look in. However, this will have protected our home Foxes from catching mange themselves which is one positive thing that I take comfort from.

Here are some lovely Fox photos from around the meadow this year:

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Reptiles and Amphibians

We agreed to provide a new home for Slow Worms that Dover County Council required to be safely relocated from land that was being developed nearby. Log refuges were dug into the second meadow and the newly arrived Slow Worms were released into these.

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An arriving Slow Worm

The relocation process went slowly on over the whole summer and, in the end, the project was signed off with a total of 104 Slow Worms having arrived. Their progress here will now be monitored for three years by a Reptile ecologist to ensure that they are thriving.

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In a different area of the meadows to the newly built refuges, our resident Slow Worms start to come out of hibernation in early April

This is a most unusual sight for the meadows – a Toad:

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That is only the second Toad that we have ever seen here although there is a healthy population nearby in Walmer Castle grounds and so, with time, we could have them breeding in our ponds. We do have a lot of Frogs, though. Or rather we did have a lot of Frogs, before a Heron arrived in February and ate literally hundreds of them and also newts as well:

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We put some fencing in to protect the Frogs but it was useless

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Late February and early March is when Frogs gather together to mate and lay their spawn and so they were easy pickings for the Heron who is a very patient and adept hunter. After a while, there was not a single remaining Frog to be seen. A year earlier, in February 2018, we had been amazed by the large concentration of Frogs that there was in the pond:

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The Frogs in 2018

Some Frog spawn did get laid though and so hopefully the Frog population can regenerate fairly quickly again, if we can resolve the Heron issue.

Towards the end of the year, the bird started returning regularly to the pond again but this time we were prepared with a plan to properly deter it:

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We have formed a grid of string across the pond which we hope will restrict the Heron to hunting in only one sector. So far this seems to be completely successful and has actually stopped it from visiting entirely at the moment. We suspect that we will need to increase the number of strings in the grid during the temptation of Frog Spawning time, but for now we are tentatively calling this a victory.

Dragonflies

As well as all our regular species, we saw two new species of Dragonflies here this year. Neither are rare but it is always exciting when new species arrive:

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Black tailed Skimmer, male
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Southern Hawker female, egg laying

The Red Veined Darter below is a rare species for Britain and may well have come across from the continent. The blue lower eye is something to look out for to recognise these Darters:

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I got a new lens for my camera in July and that really helped my Dragonfly photography which was, quite frankly, previously pretty bad.

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Common Darters egg laying
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Broad Bodied Chaser, male
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Azure Damselflies egg laying
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Emperor Dragonfly emerging with Frog foreground

 

Butterflies and Moths

2019 was a Painted Lady year and we certainly saw a lot of them here:

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They also laid eggs on our Thistles that grew into caterpillars

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These caterpillars turned into Butterflies that will now have migrated south because no stage of the Painted Lady lifecycle can survive a British winter.

We also had a good year for our Small Blue colony:

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Small Blue laying an egg on its larval food plant, Kidney Vetch
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Small Blue caterpillar feeding on the Kidney Vetch flower

I spotted several Small Blue caterpillars in Kidney Vetch flowers in July.  In October, I planted out many more Kidney Vetch plants that I had grown on from gathered seed to ensure that we will have sufficient plants next year to support the colony.

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Some other lovely photos of Butterflies and Moths from this year:

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Six-Spot Burnet Moths
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Mating Marbled White Butterflies
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Wall Butterfly
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Buff Tip and Elephant Hawkmoth
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Privet Hawkmoth and Poplar Hawkmoth
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Vapourer Moth caterpillars hatching in the nest

 

2019 has been another really good year of discovery for us as we continue to learn about all aspects of the wildlife of the meadows. There are several projects lined up already for 2020, one of which is to plant 85m of new hedgerow in January and we are really looking forward to what the New Year brings.

Happy Christmas and a fantastic New Year to all.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Review of 2019 – The Wood

On 3rd January we completed on the purchase of a 6.5 acre wood over towards Canterbury. The purchase had taken months to complete but this date, coming as it did right at the very start of the year, seemed a very fitting beginning and has allowed us to spend a complete calendar year observing the wood as it rolls through the seasons. It’s a beautiful wood, two sides of which overlook farmland. A third of the wood is a regenerating area where mixed native species have been replanted within the last 20 years. The remaining two thirds are mature woodland with a central core of Silver Birch surrounded by many varied tree species.

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The Birds in the Wood:

Soon after taking over in the wood, we put up Owl and other raptor boxes along with some smaller bird boxes:

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One of the Barn Owl Boxes going up
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Kestrel box

However, perhaps we were too late because the big boxes have remained empty, but we now have got hopes for next year. All of the six smaller boxes, though, were occupied successfully by Blue and Great tits and we have recently put another six up as well.

We know that we have got Tawny Owls in the wood because, in the spring before the ground got too hard, we saw them hunting for worms.

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In the heat of the summer, a Tawny also regularly came to drink and bathe in the shallow pond that we dug:

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We also know that we have got Buzzard – they are often heard and seen overhead.  In fact, there is a Buzzard nest in a Silver Birch at the heart of the wood and this had fresh Rabbit bones under it when we viewed the wood last year. However, it was not used this year – a pair will have several nests and don’t occupy the same nest in successive years:

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In the long summer drought, a Buzzard was also coming down to use the shallow pond:

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Other birds have been ringed here during this first year:

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Female Great Spotted Woodpecker
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Male Sparrowhawk
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Coal Tit
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Marsh Tit

The female Woodpecker that was ringed went on to nest in one of the Cherry Trees at the edge of the wood. We put a trail camera on the nest:

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Here is one of the juveniles with its red cap looking out of the hole:

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A pair of Bullfinch also started coming to one of the ponds every day in the spring:

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Then, at the end of July, we are delighted to see three juveniles starting to come as well:

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Woodcock overwintered on the floor of the wood and every time we explored in January and February we would put a few up:

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There used to be a large shoot here until recently and we have seen some species that they would have been aiming at:

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Red-legged Partridge
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A male Pheasant displaying to a female

Other birds seen that I got excited about were Lesser Redpolls:

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And a Pied Flycatcher on its autumn migration through the area:

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At the end of our first year, we have 32 bird species on the Wood List.

The Mammals in the Wood:

Although other parts of the larger wood have reported seeing Deer, we have not seen any in our wood. We have, however, seen Badgers, Foxes, Rabbits, Grey Squirrels, Stoats and Weasels as well as Rats, Wood Mice, Voles and Shrews:

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Badgers in the wood
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Two cubs were born this year
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Fox Cub
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Young Rabbit
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Weasel

We put a Mustelid box with a trail camera inside into deep vegetation to see if we could get a Stoat or Weasel to come in and have their picture taken. This hasn’t happened so far but all sorts of other animals have popped by:

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Rabbit
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Wren

The Plants in the Wood:

In the September before we bought the wood, we were very fortunate that an expert Botanist came round it with us and recorded 73 plant species that she could see evidence of at that time. Of these, 14 were indicators of ancient woodland and 8 were labelled ‘worthy’ plants (a few fell into both categories). Some of them have fantastic names such as the Ploughman’s Spikenard (Inula conyzae), whose roots are spicily aromatic and were used as a poor-man’s aftershave by country folk in simpler times.

It has been so interesting watching how the wood became clothed in different plants as the weeks rolled by.

In March and April it was all about Primroses and Violets:

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In May, a dauntingly luxuriant growth of Nettle came up in an area that we suspect may have been used for feeding game birds in the past:

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In another part of the wood, Lady Ferns, Male Ferns and Broad Buckler Ferns flourished amongst the Silver Birch:

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In July, the understorey was dominated by Enchanter’s Nightshade (Circaea lutetiana) with its delicate flower spikes floating above the foliage:

Circaea lutetiana. Enchanter's Nightshade.

Two other memorable plants were Moschatel (Townhall Clock) in March:

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and a patch of Twayblades – a type of Orchid –  in April:

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The Insects of the Wood:

We have been identifying lots of woodland-specialist insects throughout the year. But the insect highlights were seeing White Admiral and Silver Washed Fritillary Butterflies in July – both are exciting woodland species.

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White Admiral – larval food plant is Honeysuckle
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Silver-washed Fritillary – larval food plants are Violets, especially the Common Dog Violet

We saw a total of 12 Butterfly species over the course of the year.

Woodland Management and Future Plans:

In October we went on a coppicing course in the Malvern Hills and we have now started coppicing the Hazel in our own wood on an eight year rotation. We hope that this is something that we are going to be able to manage on our own, but my goodness it is very hard work:

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In November, an expert on Dormice from the Kent Mammal Group visited the wood to advise on how best to manage it for Dormice. The Hazel coppicing rotation is important for them but we are also going to plant more native Honeysuckle – Dormice use Honeysuckle in all sorts of ways.

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She also talked to us about the best ways of finding out whether we already have Dormice in the wood – they are nocturnal and mostly live up in the tree canopy when not hibernating and so they can be tricky to spot. She recommended footprint tunnels and we will put lots of these up next spring.

Towards the end of the year we had the most fantastic news. The farm that surrounds the wood changed hands and the new owner intends to take it out of agriculture and manage it for wildlife.

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The plan is to plant lots of new hedgerows and thousands of trees. This should also have a really positive impact on the biodiversity of the wood and it is going to be so interesting to see how this project progresses over the coming years.

After all the scary politics dominating the headlines for the last few days, I have really enjoyed escaping and immersing myself in the wood to write this review. I will also do a Review of the Year for the meadows before the end of the year.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Back in 55 BC

An Archaeologist has come to visit the meadows

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Field walking in the adjoining ploughed field

In 55BC, Julius Caesar sailed over to Britain with a fleet of 80 ships. He arrived off Dover but didn’t like being overlooked by hostile tribesmen on the cliffs and so came around the corner towards Deal. However, the Britons tracked him by riding their chariots along the cliffs, including through our meadows which paints a captivating image in my mind. Where he finally decided to land has not been established to the satisfaction of all and there is an argument for saying that it was in the wet meadow alongside Walmer Castle, which may have been more of an inlet back then.

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The Britons put up a fight to try to stop the Romans landing but were eventually defeated and forced inland. Caesar would have set up some sort of camp nearby to protect his shipping because he didn’t intend to stay long and would have been trapped here if his ships had been damaged.

He returned again the next year, 54BC, this time with 800 ships, landing along the shoreline a bit to the north of here and stayed for a couple of months. Nearly 100 years later, in 43AD, the Romans led by Claudius landed for a third time and stayed for four centuries.

But it is that very first landing in 55BC that potentially has significance for these meadows. If it was indeed near here, then there may be evidence to be found.

We haven’t done any metal detecting this winter yet because we really should be coppicing in the wood if we have spare time like that. However, from now on, we will be  on the look out for lead Roman slingshot which is quite distinctive:

 

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Internet photo of Roman slingshot

The Archaeologist who visited us last week hopes to return next year to do some geophysical work to look for ditches or other evidence of the potential 55BC Roman encampment.

There was a big collection of these larvae under one of the reptile sampling squares a few days ago. Pretty amazing that this would be happening in December, surely? And what on earth are they?

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They were completely earth-coloured. They also don’t seem to have legs and so I am thinking that they are probably more at the fly end of things rather than the butterfly or moth end. However, more than that, I really don’t know, although I would love to. If they were butterfly or moth caterpillars, there are books to refer to or people I could ask but information is much less available for flies and other insects. I suppose I could have taken a couple of the larvae away to try to hatch them out in a tank but my chance of success has to be small with so little understanding of what they are and what they need.

I will keep these photos handy should I ever chance upon an entomologist.

There was also this Smooth Newt under one of the Reptile sampling squares:

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All of our native Amphibians don’t actually hibernate through the winter but tuck themselves away somewhere frost-free and come out to forage when it is mild. This Smooth Newt is nocturnal and will be out and about looking for Earthworms, Slugs and other insects on the winter nights that are not too cold.

We continue to put peanuts on this stoney pinnacle at dusk:

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I suppose what I am really hoping for is to see a Badger getting itself up there, but that is a long way from happening. However, the Foxes indulge me every night:

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In recent days there has been only one sighting of the Heron:

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Again, it seemed very discombobulated by the anti-Heron string that we have set up around the pond. But we frequently have to repair these strings because they are chewed. We knew it was the Foxes doing this but only now do we have the evidence to convict:

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There is now a small-mesh and a large-mesh cage up on the strip to preserve some of the seed for small farmland birds:

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However, it appears that the large mesh is mostly not safe from Crows:

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Unfortunately there was dew on the lens but the ringed Kestrel has also been up to see what all the fuss is about:

 

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There have been many days recently that can by summed up by this trail camera photo, where the sky is darker than the sea:

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The weather has not been suitable for bird ringing, but we have been busy making a ‘lobster pot’ bird catcher to the bird ringer’s design:

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The idea is to put seed down on the ground to get the birds used to the idea of that and then putting this cage down over the seed and hoping that they will go in but not be able to work out how to get out. Obviously the cage will be closely observed while it is down and any bird that is caught like this can be ringed and released.

Also, from the meadows:

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There are a lot of Long-Tailed Tits around at the moment
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Song Thrush and House Sparrow
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A patch of the convoluted White Saddles
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White Saddle fungus

Over in the wood, there is a darker Pheasant that I don’t understand:

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Is this a juvenile male? Actually, I realise that there is much about Pheasants that I don’t understand. I presumed that we were going to see smaller, juvenile Pheasants over the summer but I don’t think we did. I will ask the bird ringer what’s going when I next see him.

Also in the wood:

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Jelly Ear Fungus on dead Elder
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Beautiful Green Woodpecker
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Great Spotted Woodpecker on the new peanut feeder
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An amazing bit of fungus growing on a rodent dropping on the trail camera in the Mustelid box

The bird ringer may not have been able to ring in the meadows recently but I finish today with some fantastic photos he took from a hide on a nearby reserve on the River Stour and has allowed me to include here:

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What a fantastic bird, although we could never hope to see a Kingfisher in either the meadows or the wood.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Half a Decade Ago

In a couple of days, it will be five years since we bought the meadows. That’s half a decade under our management. Looking back at some of the early posts from when I started this blog, I am amazed and embarrassed at how little we knew back then – five years of obsessively studying two meadows has worked its magic.

Here are the meadows on the day we took them over at the end of November 2014:

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And here we are at the end of November 2019:

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The first impression may be that there is not very much difference, but the wild pond down by the gap in the hedge, the new linear wood down the right hand boundary, the insect hotels and the mosaic areas of longer grass hopefully tell the story of wildlife-sympathetic management over the last few years.

The linear wood in the meadows was planted in the winter of 2017/8 and since then there have been two hot drought summers and it has been a bit of a struggle at times. But on the whole, it is doing alright:

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A few of the trees have been lost but most remain.

An ecologist from the Kent Mammal Group has come to visit the proper wood to give us advice on how to find out if we have Dormice there and how to best manage the woods for them.

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At the end of her visit we knew a whole lot more about how Dormice live their lives. There are no records of Dormice in the immediate area. However, having seen the wood, she thought it was quite likely that we did have them – after all, they are nocturnal and live in the tree canopy when not actually hibernating and so they are easy to miss.

As a result of her advice, our plan now is to put out some Dormouse Footprint Tunnels in April in the Hazel-coppiced areas of the wood. Tape covered in an ink made out of a charcoal/oil mix is placed at either end of the tunnel.

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Internet photo of the equipment for setting up a footprint tunnel

Then we will have a bit of a learning curve to identify a Dormouse’s footprint but apparently they are very distinctive.

Honeysuckle is very important to Dormice, not least because they use the Honeysuckle bark to make their nests. Another job for next Spring is to plant more native wild Honeysuckle all around the woodland boundaries.

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An area of Honeysuckle in the wood

Establishing a rota of Hazel coppicing so that an area is cut every winter will mean that there is always Hazel of the right age producing heavy crops of nuts.

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It’s hard work

It is completely wonderful that busy people will give up their precious spare time to come and help us with the wood. It also turns out that she is really interested in Bats and will revisit the wood next May to teach us to use our Bat detector properly and help us survey the wood for Bats.

We have a few ongoing projects at the moment. The first one is to deter the Heron to protect our amphibians in the pond. We made a grid of string across the pond, hoping to restrict the Heron to just one area:

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However, the Foxes repeatedly gnawed through the string. We have now put logs down so that the string on the banks is down at grass level and this appears to have solved the Fox problem:

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When the Heron next arrived, it seemed very unsettled by the new set up and hasn’t now returned for several days:

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However, we have the feeling that we may have won this current battle but we haven’t yet won the war.

We are putting seed down on the strip throughout the year to support farmland birds. Our second ongoing project is to stop this seed being quickly hoovered up by the big bully boys meaning that there is never any left for the small farmland birds that we are trying to encourage.

This cage below protects some of the seed from the Crows, Magpies, Woodpigeon and Foxes. After putting down the seed, very quickly the only seed that remains is under the cage.

 

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Dunnocks were the first birds to learn to enter the cage, quickly followed by House Sparrows and Robin.

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There have also been Long Tailed Tit:

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Stock Dove are difficult because they are excluded from the cage but we want to encourage them so we always also put seed down outside the cage as well:

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Stock Dove and Wood Pigeon

The cage has successfully protected some of the seed, try as they might:

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Yesterday there was a Yellowhammer on the strip, although not in the cage:

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So, the cage looks like it is going to be successful and I have now ordered two more – another one with the smaller mesh that we already have, and one with larger mesh that should also let in Yellowhammer and Starling. They will arrive tomorrow.

The final project is a silly one – to get a good photo of a Fox on the stone pinnacle that we recently constructed in the paddock. I have been putting a few peanuts on it at dusk:

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This morning I saw that they had left me a message, telling me what they thought of my stupid experiment:

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We have seen Blue Tits emerging from the Swift box which reminded us that the box is meant to be blocked off when the Swifts are out of the country. Before inserting some bungs, we put the digiscope camera in to ensure that the box was definitely empty:

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This photo is on its side. The shallow scrape has droppings – presumed Blue tit –  but no nest:

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The box is now blocked off and the polystyrene bungs will be taken out next May as Swifts start to return from Africa:

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I have some more photos from the meadows:

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Kestrel
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Hierarchical shenanigans
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A Fox wondering if it should exit now Scarface has turned up. 
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A Jay coming to see if any of those peanuts are left
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Crows

From the wood:

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I think this must be a female Pheasant seeing if it can use the new peanut feeder. It couldn’t.
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A Wren in the Mustelid box
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Two Jays having a bath. Hard to distinguish them from the autumn colours.
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A Goldcrest
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Two woodland Badgers

The last photos for today concern Calais. On a clear day, it is easy to see across to the white cliffs of France from the meadows using just your eyes. But, on a really clear day, it is possible to see Calais Town Hall clock using binoculars which is pretty amazing:

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Internet photo of Calais Town Hall and its clock
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A photo from the meadows. The Town Hall clock can be seen on the left of the photo.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Farmland Birds in Winter

Our son’s partner recently visited Hope Farm in Cambridgeshire as part of her environmental MSc. The RSPB are running the farm to show that it is possible to successfully produce food and make a profit whilst still being a valuable place for wildlife. Additionally, as they work out how best to do this, they are developing new farming practices to share with other farmers. Since they took over the farm in 2000, they have recorded a 226% increase in breeding birds and also have many times more wintering farmland birds.

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One of the things that they are doing is ensuring that there are seed-rich crop areas to support birds through the winter and their approach certainly seems to be working –  in January 2001, Hope Farm counted 534 birds of 30 species. In January 2016, they counted 2,933 birds of 48 species. That’s a really heartening improvement.

I have been reading up about Hope Farm to see if there are things that we could be doing here in the meadows to help our birds through the lean times of winter. We are not growing crops for them but are continuing to put a seed mix down on the strip throughout the whole year.  However,  I am not sure that we are reaching our target audience:

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Magpies, Woodpigeon and Pheasant
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Crows and Pheasant

Most of the food is being quickly hoovered up by Magpies, Crows, Woodpigeons and Stock Doves and, once it gets dark, the Foxes move in to finish off anything remaining. The smaller birds do not get much of a look in and the large flocks of Linnets that were here through the summer have now gone elsewhere to find food, as they have disappeared every previous winter as well.

The Farmland Bird Indicator monitors the populations of nineteen farmland bird species and, from 1970 to 2007, there was an overall 48% decline. This 48% can be broken down by species in this interesting list below:

Tree Sparrow -94%
Corn Bunting -90%
Turtle Dove -89%
Grey Partridge -87%
Yellow Wagtail -73%
Starling -68%
Linnet -58%
Lapwing -58%
Yellowhammer -54%
Skylark -51%
Kestrel -35%
Reed Bunting -27%
Whitethroat +5%
Greenfinch +23%
Rook +41%
Stock Dove +55%
Gold Finch +64%
Woodpigeon +125%
Jackdaw +136%

Although this list is now somewhat out-of-date, we want to be supporting birds towards the top of this list with the seed that we are putting down in the meadows.

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With this in mind, a few days ago, we put this cage on the strip to preserve some of the seed from being eaten by the more dominant larger birds and give smaller birds the chance to get at it.

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Looking promising – Crows peering in at the uneaten seed
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A Badger trundles up but cannot get at the seed
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The cage is supplied with short pegs to go into the ground. This Fox pushed the cage aside, pulling the pegs from the ground, and ate the seed.

Well, it is early days for this experiment. We have longer pegs or even screw-in pegs – I am sure that we will be able to stop the Foxes getting to the seed. However, of more concern is that we are yet to see a small bird go into the cage and I worry that they are finding the mesh size too small – there was an option to go for a larger mesh although I decided against it. But, should birds learn to go into the cage, my plan is to get a few of them and then be able to more effectively deliver seed to small farmland birds through the winter.

Another way to support birds over the winter is to provide bird boxes as sheltered places  in which to roost.

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We had a large number of boxes up around the meadows, some of which have been unused for several years. The lack of bird droppings in them suggests that, as well as not being used for nesting, they also are not being used as winter roosts.

Therefore, we have now transferred these boxes across to the wood to see how they get on there:

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We have also increased the variety of bird food that we are putting out in the wood:

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Niger Seed and two ‘Squirrel Buster’ feeders: sunflower heart and peanut. The weight of a Squirrel on the feeder brings an outer sheath down to close off the dispenser holes.
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Squirrel proof suet ball feeder

We have had fantastic news about the farm that surrounds the wood and that you can see in the background of the photo above. It has recently changed hands and the new owner is taking it out of agriculture and managing it for wildlife, planning to plant thousands of trees and creating a lot of new hedgerow. It is going to be so interesting to see how this project progresses over the next few years and how it impacts on the wood.

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The wood, looking so very lovely at this time of year

At any one time, we have a lot of trail cameras in operation, all of varying ages and states of repair. Sometimes it feels like we are running a trail camera hospital here dealing with many patients with various ailments that need nursing along. Recently we decided to consign several of the worst cases into final retirement and buy some more.

The new camera in the Beech Grove in the wood is a Victure and only cost about £30. Although it may be of some use to keep an eye on what is generally about, its daytime picture quality isn’t terribly good and we wouldn’t buy another of these:

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Fox hunting rodents – the night time quality is not bad

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Squirrel carrying a sweet chestnut kernel

Another of the new cameras is a Bushnell Core Cam with No Glow infra-red. This camera was expensive at about £200 and would be good to use for animals such as Deer that are sensitive to the low red glow that most of the cameras give out when taking an infra red picture in the dark. However, the downside is that the quality of the night time photo is not so good with a No Glow camera:

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Foxes taken with a Bushnell Core No Glow infra red camera
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As a comparison, Foxes taken with one of our normal Crenova cameras

Having now tried several other makes and types of camera, we have returned once again to the opinion that we are best off with the Crenova trail cameras that cost around £70.  These cameras are reasonably cheap, reasonably reliable, of reasonable quality and we are very familiar with them, having got through many of them over the years.

The female Pheasant is still in the meadows and becoming quite a familiar figure:

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She doesn’t have the worry of being shot here and she is too large to have to be concerned about Sparrowhawks, but she does need to be very careful of Foxes:

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It seems that she has had another lucky escape because she reappears half an hour later:

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The Heron continues to turn up here far too often for our liking:

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We have now strung a grid of string over the pond as a Heron deterrent to save our Frogs and Newts:

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The Heron will always land on the grass and walk into the pond. This string grid will not allow it to wade into the centre of the pond. We hope that it will be restricted to only one square of the grid and the amphibians in the other squares will be protected from it. At the same time, the Foxes and Badgers will still be able to use the pond for drinking.

Is this going to be good enough? We are not sure but we have put some cameras on it to see how the Heron copes with it the net time it visits.

This morning, however, we see that practically every string has been chewed and cut. The cameras didn’t catch anything red-handed but we have our suspicions:

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Obviously we are going to have to have a small rethink.

Here is a Fox going over the gate at one o’clock in the morning:

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and here is one eating some peanuts that I put on the new stone pile:

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Finally today, there is this large Gull. I am not an expert by any means on Gulls and got the bird book out to try to properly ID this bird:

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My conclusion is that this is surely a second winter juvenile Herring Gull. These large Gulls don’t reach maturity until their fourth year and their feathers pass through many stages on the way there and this can be used to age them. Actually all very interesting and I must make more of an effort to spot and learn the differences between them.