Spring trickles in late February and March with small changes, steadily progressing in the fields. Early spring sees the annual amphibian migratory movements to breed in the field water spots. Then, in April and May, things rapidly speed up with the migration of birds from the south and the arrival of butterflies. This year’s spring events continue to amaze with the numbers of migratory birds arriving, singing and busy exploring.
The willow warblers and chiffchaffs flit through the hedges in numbers and the lesser whitethroat is back, singing with gusto. The dunnock is nesting in the honeysuckle by the hen run, cadging feathers to line its nest. Blackcap is yet to arrive and sadly not yet a cuckoo … but maybe a cuckoo next year as the population of willow warblers grows to provide possible nest sites.
This year in early spring we discovered for the first time the night antics in the scrape ponds in the fields with surprising finds and entertainment to equal BBC Spring Watch!
Using a trap camera to add understanding
The scrapes are now five years post creation and the hopes they would enable nature to flourish were borne out this late February and early March as early signs of spring started. Detailed recording and capturing the change in wildlife emerging in the rewilding of the ten acres has not been the highest priority. It seemed always second to the never-ending work in actual rewilding management, which takes priority. But intermittently, to supplement our visual and photographic records and irregular notes and to add more understanding to nature’s emerging activities, we started to use a trap camera, recording here and there over 24 hours through the weeks and months.
This time it was the large scrape to be recorded over a period of two weeks in late February and March. This was because the herons were seen regularly visiting every scrape and pond site three or four times per day as they were in ‘the know of’ frog and toad movements that were starting to happen.
Herons give late-night takeaway a 5-star review
Amphibians move mainly at night or in the rain, but what else happens? This was an ongoing question to explore in these four water places so recently created.
The trap camera revealed surprises beyond the wildest fantasy. There were 600 photos plus to look through. We discovered endless jackdaws and other corvids and many unwelcome pheasants who eat so much of the wildlife food sources, from berries to caterpillars. Around 580 photos of these birds were sifted through and then we saw that we had captured the day and nighttime activities of some of the more interesting visitors to the ‘water holes’, including the herons. The photos revealed the herons’ 24-hour eating pattern in times of plentiful supply at this ‘late-night takeaway’. Their dish of choice from the menu? ‘Frogs – no chips’.
And the Oscar goes to …
These photos also revealed the range of mammals who visited through the nighttime. There was a curious rat and a buck hare checking in for a drink in several photos. Then a fox showed up to see what the nighttime activity was all about. So now we knew that the emergence of the frogs moving to the scrapes to breed keeps other wildlife really busy through the night as well. Then a curious tawny owl… maybe frog activity and a food source enticed it.
And then the surprise animal of all time: an otter! Caught on the camera around 4am tucking into frogs for an early breakfast. What excitement and ‘whoops’ of incredulity at the sight of these photos. We live close to the River Ure about 500 yards away but we had not even thought about otters as a wildlife visitor. This was especially so as the rumour in the nearby village was that the male otters were often shot by the local game management staff to reduce river fish loss.
Incredibly, the otter was there with its usual feeding behaviour, captured as it tucked into a frog or two. This behaviour was instantly recognized from previous observations of them in Scotland when they catch their food in lochs. Seeing an otter visiting the patch felt like winning a wildlife Oscar – the ultimate reward for allowing nature to have space for itself to live in a more balanced way.
It has been an amazing insight into the cycle of life interconnected within the fields. Herons and otters know about the abundance of frogs and just arrive, with the heron appearing much less frequently the rest of the year. The ‘twitter feed’ in nature is exemplary in sharing know-how of abundance, food and water, and places to breed.
Managing the acres
Spring is time to ensure the growing trees are checked out and to see if they’re ready for tree guard removal now that we’re moving into the sixth and seventh year for some of them. Some trees, like the silver birches, hazels and rowans, are desperate to be out of the guards. So, several hundred trees are released from their safe micro-environments – no longer safe from bark nibbling and destruction by roe deer. The long plastic mesh guards provided great refuge for over-wintering insects, from five-spot ladybirds to several beetles. Notably this year already the ladybird count on warm days is good.
Bitter experience three years ago had taught us that deer are very destructive in their bark stripping in young trees with less than five years growth. Back then, in just a few days, one or two deer who accessed into the ten acres had caused a death blow with serious bark-stripping damage to several young rowan and alder buckthorn trees. There was further browsing damage that slowed the growth of other trees and bushes’ branches and growth.
Some barriers are necessary – even in rewilding
Allowing browsing as part of the wilding makes sense, although not in quite such an early vulnerable stage of growth of these trees and shrubs, especially with climate change increasing so rapidly. There is so little time for these trees to grow and they can only contribute to reducing carbon emissions effectively without such damage. A deer fence was therefore put up, which effectively excluded the deer for the past two years.
But then in April a deer was spotted by visitors. It was sufficiently scared to jump out through the one vulnerable place in the ever increasing wide and high hedges and fence. So more anti-deer fence and hedge barriers were put in place and there have been no further sightings since, but field patrols and regular binocular scanning continue …
It seems so strange to create such barriers to nature and yet the famously rewilded Knepp Estate had to do similar, as the heartache and work of years can be wrecked within days by deer at the wrong stage of tree growth and rewilding.
The trees released from their care containers have flourished with growth in more side branches and they now look less like lollipops on sticks.
The wildflower meadow: an ongoing challenge
The creation of a meadow with a variety of wildflowers continues and presents ongoing trials. The project is hampered by a lack of access to knowledgeable people with wisdom or experience in rich clay soil meadow management. We experimented with planting wildflower seeds, but the rich soil was feeding the grass growth which suppressed them. Our next option was to plant small wildflower plants such as field scabious, mallows, knapweed and so on directly into the soil with some protection.
The simultaneous use of yellow rattle sown into the soil in the late autumn, together with several hard frosts during the winter, has suppressed grass growth and enabled significant progress in the emergence of the meadow. This is the third year of the meadow and with the yellow rattle plants’ growth and expansion across the meadow area, the grass is being stifled effectively and the diverse native wildflowers are growing in numbers and plant size. More will come through the summer, as butterflies and insects move into pollinate and breed and the birds feed on the seeds and insect grubs.
Late News: Brimstone butterfly is a daily visitor all this last week … be amazed and wild.