Somerset Wildlife Trust

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March: Beginning the Bounds

 10th Apr 2017

Something has happened on our reserves. I’ve been charting it gradually over the last few months, but this month it has been moving slightly quicker. This something, this great annual occurrence, this monumental event taking place once each voyage round our local star, is the arrival of spring.

Spring is, to me, one of the most exciting times of year. Gradually, building to a crescendo over the next couple of months, we are reminded in a spectacular way of what we’ve grown accustomed to lacking over the winter season. This month, the wildflowers are beginning to become more prominent. They don’t have to be celebrated beauties to be worthy of note. Outside my front door, the trailing mats of ivy-leaved toadflax are in bloom. Along the road and woodland verges, violets hang from their curved stems, miraculously in the correct orientation in spite of their drooping aesthetic. On our grasslands, cowslips have thrust their stems into the air, sending forth yellow flower heads like a miniature botanical firework. The increased activity of the flowers is indicative of something else. Where there are flowers, there are pollinators.

The changes in the insect life are no less noticeable than the plants. The great bulbous queen bumble bees have become a more frequent sight, prospecting any nook or cranny for good places to site a new colony. Smaller winged insects are now beginning to swarm up from the grass on warm days, further indicating the advancing season. The most noticeable marker however came while burning brash at New Hill. Through the heat haze, flitting through the distorted air in a dancing flash of neon-bright lemon, came the first of the year’s butterflies; a brimstone. This individual would have overwintered, likely in a clump of ivy in Great Breach Wood, to come floating across my path on the first available warm and sunny day of the year. This was rapidly followed by other overwintering butterflies; the striking red admiral, the impressive peacock, the ragged comma, and the blue spangled small tortoiseshell. For many, the aerial dance of the first butterfly is nothing less than the epitome of spring, the first sign of the rousing of nature’s spirit. If you look closely, there are signs far earlier, but there is no denying the impact of the first butterfly of the year.


Not a butterfly, but a rather nice oil beetle

So what have I been up to? This is surely the reason you both all read this blog! Well, initially there was more burning of cut material. I don’t think there’s much more I can say about burning, critical to our reserves though it is. For those in real need of a burning fix, here’s a GCSE equation about combustion:

fuel + oxygen → water + carbon dioxide

Yep. That’s about the size of it.

But there has been a change. The change is to do with my rambling section on spring at the start of the blog. With increased vegetation comes an increased need for vegetation control. That’s right; we’re coming up to the season where stock needs to get back onto the reserve. Be it the crude scrub mashing of cattle feet, or the lawn mower precision of a set of ovine incisors, it cannot be denied that grazing is one of the most effective, and most utilised, tools in the reserve manager’s arsenal. Grazing has a number of benefits, primarily the keeping back of scrub and the opening up of dense areas (notably when larger stock is used). In short, the animals can do for free what a team of exhausted brushcutter toting reserve staff would demand to be paid for. With good reason.

In preparation for this, reserves need to be checked. It needs to be ensured fence lines are secure, as no grazier wants to find their animals have gone on a road trip of self discovery. Rotten posts need to be identified and replaced, to ensure a solid boundary that can deter anything a flock of wooly headed grazers can throw at it. We also need to ensure any troughs are working, for obvious reasons. This then is the immediate future of the reserves calendar; make it safe, make it secure, make it unbreakable by the combined wit of any herd of cattle. I’ll wait until next month to give you a full account of the fencing process. I don’t want to cover all the good stuff now.

In addition, I’ve had a couple of days of training, one of which was learning to drive off road in a 4x4 vehicle. The training was edge of your seat stuff, nail-biting throughout, and though I elected not to travel above 1.3 miles per hour, that in no way lessened the terror of cresting a blind, muddy hill with three other people in the car who are helplessly relying on you not to do anything silly. Frogs had spawned in an old wheel rut on the training course. We avoided it, and it proved beyond all doubt to me that frogs aren’t as faithful to their birth ponds as I once thought (though I gather toads are notorious for it).

Phil car
Getting it stuck; a rite of passage. For the first 40 minutes anyway…

My other training day was about orchard management. I learned about planting the trees, managing more mature specimens (apple trees, for reasons best known to themselves, seem genetically predisposed to grow into large knots, eventually rubbing limbs together and allowing canker to set in. Evolution at its best), and grafting different varieties onto a suitable root stock. It was a fascinating bit of genetic engineering, and an insight into what is essentially a traditional management process still alive and kicking. And also being propagated into the green spaces of Taunton, where the residents really seemed to take pride in the fruit trees growing in their midst. Add to this a wholly unexpected fly past from a female sparrowhawk, and it amounts to a pretty good day! Wildlife in a housing estate, marvellous!

I’ll see you next time, for a detailed account of how to knock a post into a hole in the ground. I fear I may have already given away the ending.

Enjoy nature’s awakening!

Bluebells breaking into flower in March