January on our reserves

Blog post by NWT on 04 Jan, 2024
January through to March is a busy time of year for reserves staff and volunteers, with much of the 'heavy lifting' being carried out. Whilst the cold, rain, ice, and mud make for sometimes challenging conditions, there are certain jobs that just have to be done in winter. It's also a quieter time in terms of visitors and wildlife, offering a good chance to get out the bigger, noisier machinery that carries out the more significant habitat restoration and maintenance jobs!

At reserves such as NWT Cley Marshes and on the Broadland nature reserves, a common post-Christmas task is reed-cutting. The reed is cut both commercially for thatching and as part of our conservation programme of work. This happens in blocks on a pre-determined rotational basis, with some receiving an annual cut and others just once in every seven years. This helps reduce the amount of scrub growth and encourages other reed associated tall-herb fenland plants to thrive. And as with all habitats, variety leads to greater biodiversity. Newly cut areas have been found to favour birds such as common crane and egrets, whilst bittern like a mixture of thick reed along dyke edges and cut / exposed reedbed dyke edges.

Volunteer pond restoration in the South Norfolk Claylands

Ponds are fantastic places for wildlife, and metre for metre they can support more species than nearly any other habitat. But, as ponds are left to mature they can become overgrown by small scrub, which means less light can reach the pond base and fewer species can thrive. Research has shown that an overgrown pond typically supports less than half of the number of species than a more open pond. The annual dropping of leaves into the pond also means that, over time, ponds can fill with silt and debris, reducing water depth and quality.

Cue our South Norfolk Claylands volunteers! This hard-working group set to work, cutting back scrub with hand tools to allow more light in and create space for wildlife. Work was done at two sites in South Norfolk: Gawdy Hall Estate, near Harleston, and Fir Grove, near Wreningham.

Ben Newton, NWT Wilder Landscapes Adviser, said: "It's always a pleasure working with our Claylands volunteers to improve habitats in South Norfolk. One of the landowners commented at what a cheerful bunch they were, and in two morning sessions we made a huge difference to the ponds on two landholdings.

"Clearing small scrub means that more light will reach the pond base which will improve plant diversity, thereby supporting associated communities like amphibians and dragonflies. At the end of one of the sessions, a kingfisher (Alcedo atthis) flew in and landed on a tree at the back of the pond – we like to think it was impressed with our handiwork!"

Restoration work at NWT East Winch Common

Scrape creation work has been taking place at NWT East Winch during early December, and is part of the Highways England funded 'Network for Nature programme'. The scrape includes calcium rich shelly clay and areas of sand and gravels. The irregular shape and different range of depths will maximise opportunities for the flora communities to re-establish themselves - calcareous fen on the shelly clay and mire on the sands.

In recent decades, due to agricultural run-off, atmospheric nitrogen and other pollutants, many of our sensitive plant communities, many of which are very rare, have become dominated by tussock grasses, bracken or rushes. To reverse this trend, and help restore many of the more delicate plants at our East Winch reserve, tussock stripping / peat rejuvenation work has also been carried out.

West Norfolk Reserves Manager, Ash Murray, explained that the work required a careful hand: "Just five centimetres of peat lay under the tussocks, so the digger needed to carefully scrape the tussocks off and ensure it didn't expose the underlying mineral substrate. A number of the tussock clumps were left in place as we identified vulnerable populations of wet heath / mire species such as heath milkwort and the mosses lesser cow-horn bog-moss (Sphagnum inundatum) and acute-leaved bog-moss (Sphagnum capillifolium), both of which are important peat builders."

The exposed peat, which should contain a valuable seed-bank, will hopefully see the restoration of many of the lost peatland plants that have been squeezed out by the dominance of these thick grassy tussocks.

Restoring peat habitats is essential for the recovery of a great many rare and vulnerable species, both locally and nationally. The formation of peat is also a proven weapon in our arsenal against climate change, as its creation forms a natural sink for the storage of carbon and, unlike most habitats, a healthy, functional heathland stores carbon indefinitely.

This work has been undertaken as part of the Highways England funded 'Network for Nature' programme.

Header image: Kingfisher on the River Tiffey (credit Jacob Kenworthy)
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