Project SHRIMP Kicks off on Saturday at Sherston Boules day

8 Jul

One of the key goals of the WildSherston event last May was to create a project to improve our local natural environment. One of the organisations that attended WildSherston was the Bristol and Avon River Trust (BART). BART is a community-led organisation, which aims to deliver education, land and river based management advice and practical river restoration work across the Bristol Avon Catchment. You can find out more about them on their website – www.bristolavonriverstrust.org.  They are only a small charity but they have already successfully completed several habitat enhancement and river restoration projects and are really keen to encourage people to develop a sense of ownership of our waterways by working with communities on stretches of their local rivers.

Over the past few months we have been in discussion with BART about project(s) to improve our part of the Avon together with some local landowners. You may remember Harriet Alvis who used to live in the village who is now the Project Officer for BART. Harriet is a biologist first inspired to work on rivers by seeing the Environment Agency sampling down at Forlorn, and is excited to be part of a project to improve the river in the village!

The SHRIMP project (SHerston River IMProvement) will work with local volunteers with the aim of improving a popular section of river close to the village, running at the foot of Grove Wood and will also be creating a wildflower meadow. We are able to do this thanks to grants from Wessex Water, the People’s Postcode Lottery, money raised from the WidSherston event last year and the local farmers.

 The river already supports small population of fish such as brown trout and bullhead. However, low flows, particularly during the Summer, are insufficient to deal with sediment deposited after the higher flows after heavy rainfall. This sediment has resulted in gravels being smothered, conditions detrimental to spawning trout and habitat for invertebrates.

The project will succeed if local people want to help restore the river banks and help make improvements to the river for the benefit of people and wildlife. We have already seen evidence of otters, kingfishers and water voles in the area and the work will help secure their future. (It was Harriet who first spotted the Otter Spraint which prompted us to put camera’s in the river)

We will be at the Boules Festival talking about our project as well as trying to raise some funds and hoping to find people who wish to sponsor their own wildflower plug patch which will help create a community wildflower meadow. You can donate on the day or through our website (www.bristolavonriverstrust.org) if this is easier.

SHRIMP will need a number of volunteers to complete both the in-stream river improvements and the wildflower meadow. If you are interested in volunteering with this project, please email harriet@bristolavonriverstrust.org  or Geoff Carss at geoff_carss@hotmail.com – No experience needed, just enthusiasm and a basic level of fitness! Similarly, if you have any questions about this project, feel free to drop us a line.

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Walk on the wild side….   Do you know your neighbours?

22 May
Sometimes it’s surprising who lives next door! You think you know who your neighbours are and you get a big surprise.

One group of animals we don’t see much of here are reptiles although there are two species that live around the village namely the Grass Snake and the Slow Worm – see pictures both of which were taken in the village. Grass Snakes are completely harmless although can emit a horrible smell if they are threatened and play dead. They are reasonably common but are hard to spot even though they often live in rough pasture, along the edges of streams and in gardens. They can get up to a meter long and have a distinctive yellow and black collar.

The Slow Worm is actually a legless lizard and is much more metallic and can live for up to 35 years. Curiously I recently saw a crow scavenging next to a bush on the Cliff and it found a Slow Worm. It promptly flew off with it presumably to feed it’s chicks.

One surprising local resident recently discovered is an Otter. Harriet Alvis (ex Sherston resident) is now the Project Officer at the Bristol and Avon River Trust (BART) and was carrying out some river sampling when she came across what she thought was some Otter spraint or droppings. Following confirmation based on some pictures, some wildlife camera’s were set up along the river a couple of weeks ago by Nic Fisher and Nick Holland.

Within a couple of days the somewhat grainy picture of a female Otter was taken much to everyone’s amazement given (as far as we know) otters hadn’t been seen here for many years. They are very secretive and typically nocturnal it’s not surprising they hadn’t been seen and they may have been here for quite some time given they have been filmed in Malmesbury and one was seen on the road in Easton Gray. Although the Otter hasn’t been seen since, Nick has some great film of a Kingfisher eating a fish – it’s on the village Facebook site as is the film of the Otter.

Also along the river are a few Water Voles (aka Ratty in Wind in the Willows) with their typical holes and lawns. The females graze the area at one side of a hole so it’s much shorter than the surrounding area – hence being called a lawn. Water Voles are getting scarcer and scarcer so we are lucky to have some living here.

All of this excitement has lead to discussions with BART and various people in the village about developing the work that was started with Grove Wood and extending it to other sites and environments. Local landowners and farmers are being very supportive. Things are still at the planning stage about what can be done to improve the river and some of the adjoining water meadows and we aim to have a stand on Boules Day (11th July) to share our plans. If anyone is interested in helping on the stand or afterwards, when the real fun starts, please do let me know.   

P.S. A number of the nest boxes we installed last year are in use by Blue Tits, Bats and something is in one of the Barn Owl boxes. I don’t know what yet as they are protected and you need a special licence to open a Barn Owl box – which I don’t have but I know people who do!!

Grass Snake July 2013

Slow Worm on Sherston Cliff May 2013

Slow Worm on Sherston Cliff May 2013

Otter somewhere near Sherston May 2015

Otter somewhere near Sherston May 2015

Water Vole April 2015

Natures going nuts

21 Mar

I missed last months article as I was on a trip seeing exotic birds and animals such as the Forty-spotted Pardalote, Eastern Quoll and the Duck-billed Platypus – and spring is really getting started with some early warm weather which bodes well for a great breeding season.

Our summer breeding birds are really starting to get into the swing of spring with our resident Rooks taking centre stage. Rooks are one of four members of the Crow family around the village – we also have lots of Jackdaws, some Carrion Crows and a small number of Ravens. Jackdaws are the smallest and are often seeing on top on the houses on the High Street and nest in gaps on roofs or chimneys while Rooks build nests in trees such as those next to the Church. They are very social birds and have a distinct bare patch of skin at the base of the beak unlike a Carrion Crow. There are a number of rookeries around the village and they may move location from year to year with a couple of new ones at the back of Grove Road.

The rookeries we get in the village are relatively small (although you may not think that from the noise) with one in Scotland having some 2,500 nests with rookeries of up to 50,000 nests being recorded elsewhere in Europe. There are a number of collective nouns for Rooks and include building, parliament, clamour and storytelling (great pub quiz question!!)Chiffchaff on Sherston Cliff March 2012

Male Chiffchaffs (see the picture) are already singing along a number of hedgerows and the ones I saw along the Cliff may be one of the few resident birds who are claiming their territory early before the migrant Chiffchaff’s return from southern Europe. The early warm weather has encouraged butterflies as well with a number of Brimstone and Small Tortishell’s along the cliff. Both these species over winter as adults typically in sheds and garages and can be seen on warms days even in January.

Many birds will start to nest in March and April although some birds have adopted a different strategy. Both Wood Pigeons (of which we have lots and lots) and Stock Doves can nest all year round and I found a freshly hatched egg on New Years day!! Our local Herons will be well though the nesting season by now. They are also communal breeders with large nests and typically lay their eggs in February. A heronry is quite a sight and there is an easily accessible one at the Wiltshire Wildlife Trust site at Lower Moor Farm in the Cotswold Water Park – so get along and have a look. Otters are often seen from the viewing hide.

While in Australia I was fortunate to visit Tasmania where there is necessarily a very different approach to wildlife conservation. The lack of any significant predators for millions of years means the local marsupials and birds are easily killed by cats, stoats, rats etc and on Bruny Island, like many parts of Tasmania, they have regular cat trapping training sessions!!! They also have a fascinating concept of Men’s Sheds….. something new to me!!

WildSherston won’t be happening this year as we have other things happening – hopefully a few talks and a joint project with the Bristol and Avon River Trust to improve our local rivers – watch this space..

Spring Bluetit 1

How do they cope?

25 Jan
January and February are typically the coldest months of the year although in many years we don’t get too many frosts. Our wild animals deal with the short days and limited food supply in quite different ways.
Hedgehogs (the few that are still around) hibernate while Badgers don’t, they just pile on lots of weight in the autumn and sleep a lot!! Sounds a bit like me….
Lots of other residents hibernate such as bats, frogs and a number of butterflies. Some 6 species of butterfly hibernate as adults in garages, sheds and anywhere its dry. I know a few people in the village who have a number of butterflies move in every winter.
Many of our insect eating birds will have long migrated to southern warmer climates in Africa and southern Europe where there are lots of insects to eat. Some species of moths only appear in the winter as they know there will be very few birds that will eat them. Like many months, our winter moths have been given some wonderful names such as the Pale Brindled Beauty, Spring Ushers and Mottled Umbers.
Some our birds are resident all year around but research has shown that birds we often think as residents such as Blackbirds and Robins also migrate and are replaced by other birds from further north. A number of our winter resident birds only come for the winter as it’s warmer here compared to their summer home in Siberia and Northern Scandinavia. The Redwings and Fieldfares find lots of eat in our hedgerows particularly berries.
Over the winter a number of species of smaller birds will flock together including Blue Tits, Great Tits, Coal Tits and various finches. They develop a regular feeding pattern each day and if they have found your bird feeders early in the season it’s likely you will have lots of visitors throughout the winter. If they haven’t found your feeders by now you may find (like me) you mostly get Jackdaws and Wood Pigeons. It often takes some really cold weather to cause this pattern to change.
While it’s really important you do put food out on a regular basis it’s also important to provide fresh water especially when there is a hard frost. A hard frost can kill many birds from the temperature but they can also die from dehydration as there isn’t any liquid water!!
If we get a really hard spell and the streams freeze over the Kingfishers, Herons, Moorhens and Egrets can really suffer as they simply can’t get to their food.
A couple of changes which has effected our farmland birds since the 1940’s is the increased efficiency of farming and changing planting times which results in less food over the winter. Over the last few years there has been a fascinating project on the Marlborough Downs where a number of local people have worked with cereal farmers. The farmers donate, or sell at a marginal cost, the poor quality grains that end up in the bottom of the hoppers and the volunteers carry out large scale regular feeding and the results have been really quite amazing. It started as a project to help the Tree Sparrows recover (they have declined by 93% since the 1970’s) and the population has increased significantly with many other finches benefiting as well. If any local farmers are interested in such an experiment over this winter please do let me know.

Fluttering and buzzing

12 Nov

(Originally published in the Sherston Cliffhanger September 2014)

This spring and summer have proven to be fantastic for our wildlife – warm spring to get everything started and a good summer so far (aside from the thunder and rain late July) so all our plants, bugs, birds and animals are having a great year so far.

This year has been particularly good for butterfly’s. This is one group who, generally speaking, can recover really quickly if the weather’s right and we provide them with the right habitat either at field edges or in our gardens and this is really quite easy to do. A fantastic example of this in on Silver Street in Sherston where Valerian plants have been left to grow and they have attracted a stunning display of butterfly’s.

The Cliff and Grove Wood, among many other places are alive with hover flies, moths, bees and bugs – just spend a few minutes looking around. There are lots of Marbled White butterfly’s around as illustrated. For those who do want to look around there is a Butterfly Walk on the 2nd August at Yatton Down near Castle Coombe kindly hosted by the owner of the site Maurice Avent. It’s an amazing nature reserve Maurice has been managing for some 30 years. Meet there are 11.15 am or call me for details.

The first migratory birds are just about to leave. Aside from the Cuckoo’s (anyone see/heard one for a few years?) which have already gone back to Central Africa, the Swifts are often the first ones to go that actually raise their chicks here, as opposed to the Cuckoo which lay’s it’s egg in someone else’s nest. The swifts are the black birds that shriek around the village in small flocks with swept-back wings and a forked tail. They nest under the eaves of a number of houses around the village and will be soon followed to Africa by the Swallows and House Martins which look broadly similar but have some white on their front.

This time of year can be really quite dangerous for many birds and animals with lots of young ones who don’t really know about many of the dangers such as cats and cars. There was a Buzzard injured near the church in mid July apparently hit by a cars and was subsequently put to sleep due to it’s injuries. You may see young hedgehogs out and about but please don’t touch them unless they are in danger such as on a road. There aren’t many left so every one is important.

The Holly and the Ivy

12 Nov

(Originally published the Sherston Cliffhanger October 2014)

Autumn has well and truly arrived with many trees dropping their leaves and the bird migration in full flow.

Most of our summer residents have gone, such as the House Martins and Swallows, while not many of the winter migrants like the Redwing (a bit like a Thrush) have departed their breeding grounds in Northern Europe.

Believe it of not but some of our butterfly’s also migrate. The Red Admiral butterfly, which is quite common here in the summer, migrates north in May and then goes south again in September. In early September I was fortunate to spend a week on a small island off the coast of Wales and there were literally thousands starting to move south across the Bristol Channel.

Even more amazing is the migration of a closely related butterfly – the Painted Lady – which is quite common here in the summer. Not only does this small insect migrate from tropical Africa to the Arctic Circle, which is a feat in itself, but it takes six generations of them to achieve this. Each generation migrates only part of the way with the following generation continuing the circular journey. This was only discovered fairly recently using, amongst other things, radar data. This just goes to show how little we know about even common insects that we take for granted.

The Ivy growing over walls and up trees is another part of our natural habitat that’s easy to overlook. The Ivy flowers in October and November and has flower buds that are greenish-white and often look like small drumsticks and are in little groups. The buds open to display tiny little green flowers which smell like Elderflower and produce pollen and nectar and consequently are a really important late autumn food source for many insects. By December the Ivy is covered in black flat-topped berries which are a really important source of food for the winter bird visitors such as the Red Wing and Fieldfare as well as our resident birds.

This warm reasonably wet summer has been fantastic for many birds and insects so we may see larger than normal numbers of migrant birds arriving here in the next few weeks so a large food supply over the winter is really important.

The Ivy and other berry producing plants often live the hedgerows and consequently hedgerows are a major source of food. These, however, are often trimmed/flailed in the autumn by farmers to keep things tidy which can be a disaster for wildlife – taking away important food sources just when they are needed. As a plea is it possible to trim the hedgerows every few years rather than every year? It will start to look messy but nature really needs messy.

Finally – time to get the bird feeders out with a variety of seeds, fats etc. Please do wash them out on a regular basis as there are some quite nasty diseases that spread from bird to bird. Last winter my feeders weren’t used much (aside from the Jackdaws and Wood Pigeons) as it was quite mild. This winter may be harder so please keep the feeders topped up!!

Of irruptions and hazy days

12 Nov

For the more experienced (i.e. older) amongst us, cast your mind back to your childhood going on summer days out with your parents. I have vivid recollections of the windscreen getting covered in squashed insects leaving smears and all kinds of marks on the front of the car which my father would spend ages trying to clean off. I also seem to recollect you could buy plastic covers to go over the front of the car to stop the paintwork being damaged… (OK – where is he going with this one..)

The point being is that we simply don’t get the number of insects we used to and, as a consequence, there isn’t as much for food for insectivores (Shrews, Swallows, Blackcaps etc) – so we don’t have as many insect predators as we used to – so we don’t have as many higher level predators such as birds of prey and stoats. (This is what’s known in ecological circles at trophic layers). Given a chance nature can recover quite quickly from population declines but in reality nearly all our countryside is quite heavily managed especially when you compare it to rural France or Poland where there is still lots of messy and unimproved bits as there isn’t as much pressure on farmers.

The more long-term deeper concern is what our children will see a lack of insects as normal.

On a more positive note the autumn bird migration will be almost complete in November with the usual suspects here in good numbers such as Fieldfares and Redwings. Many other continental birds such as Starlings, Jays, Wood Pigeons and Goldfinches will have arrived. In some years the number arriving is quite incredible. For example in November 2010 some 161,000 Wood Pigeons flew over a site in Dorset in 1 day!! (This wasn’t a typo..). In 2014 some 50,000 Swallows also flew over a site in Dorset in 1 day and in 2011 some 10,000 Goldfinches flew over a site in Kent in 1 day.

Sometimes these large numbers are due to the shortage of food for the birds in their summer grounds, or having a couple of successful years breeding when the numbers of individuals can significantly increase. This is known as an Irruption and in some years some unusual birds can arrive here such as 3 years ago when we had lots of Waxwings in the apple tree next to the village school.

If this winter proves to be a cold one and, just having completed a great breeding season for most birds, we may get all sorts of strange immigrants in the village.