Frogs

As we have done tree work we have generated a lot of scrub and brush wood. We left it in piles to rot down and become a home for whatever might want to live there. Insects, Small Mammals, Amphibians and Reptiles all enjoy a good pile of sticks!

We are delighted to welcome our first new residents, who moved in this Autumn and brought a rather large extended family with them. Everywhere there are sticks, there are frogs. They are Common Frogs but vary significantly in terms of size and appearance, you could easily be forgiven for thinking we had many species, just by the different colours alone. That is because Common Frogs can change their camouflage to blend into their surroundings. A frog living in a pile of old leaves, will adopt an orange or brown theme; where as one by a river bank, pond or field maybe more green. We have some that are quite bright oranges and yellows, and other less spectacular greens and browns; possibly due to the vibrant colours of willow growing on the river bank. I wonder if and how quickly they might change colour, now they are in their new residence.

Hedgelaying

You often hear about traditional hedgelaying in conservation projects involved with landscape regeneration, such as NEWT. Which may seem strange to make manmade features into the land for the restoration of nature. Farmers of yesteryear certainly didn’t pay labourers to lay hedges up and down the country for the benefit of the birds either. It might be useful if we take a quick look at why it was done traditionally and why it is done now.

Tradition

Traditional hedgelaying is all about creating a living fence. Farmers need fencing to stop their expensive livestock from wandering off, or an even bigger problem, eating their other crops! Before that days when perfectly round and pointed treated wooden fence posts could be bought with a roll of barb wire relatively inexpensively, this was a problem. Stone walls are only feasible where a ready supply of stone is on hand. Sure primitive fences can be made of wood, but they are labour intensive and tend to not last very long in the elements. Especially where livestock is involved. Most animals are very curious and strong. Cows, pigs and sheep are no exception.

These days we have stock fencing to keep livestock in, traditional hedges were stock hedges. That is why when they are laid, they are often staked and woven to create strength. Different regions in the country developed different techniques that worked well for their local environment, livestock and materials locally available in sufficient quantities. They made their own billhooks that were tailored to work with the local style. Thus hedgelaying styles and types of billhook are often know by their county of origin. The benefit of it living is that it will not rot and need replacing like fencing, but grow stronger time; whilst at the same time, producing materials to maintain it with.

There are many hedglaying societies who compete in competitions, often with long historical backgrounds. Where you will see the different regional traditional techniques being used with a beautiful uniformity and precision that is an absolute pleasure for the eye.

Conservation

So what does this have to to do with people looking to restore natural habitats? Nature is rarely uniform and precise, and surely this is an aberration to rewilding the ‘natural’ environment? Well, there are many reasons…

I think it is a fair guess that ever since humans started rearing animals for food and husbandry, they will have needed fencing, as animals were even more wild then. With a lack of readily available barbed wire, it therefor comes to pass that hedges must have followed pretty soon after. Which is a long time ago. So they are in a sense part of our ‘natural’ habitat, some might say naturalised, and animals have come to love them. In response to centuries of us carving up the country, felling forest, draining bog and clearing scrub; nature has come to rely on the safe-haven of a trusty hedgerow.

They also form useful corridors for wildlife to move around, think of them as the road network for small mammals and the motorway service pitstop for the birds. This is perhaps even more poignant with the onset of climate change and the need for animals to relocate latitude permanently; but is certainly useful in the more mundane day to day and seasonal fluctuation of food sources and predators.

They often contain plants that blossom and produce fruit and berries, which is a good source of food for small mammals and birds. They inevitably contain some dead wood and leaf litter on the floor, which creates a haven for insects, arachnids and all the things that like to eat them. They create shade and moisture for fungi, and woodland bulbs such as snowdrops. Sunny field margins become a haven for perennial wildflowers such as Knapweed.

They are a great habitat for protection from predators when rearing young, where birds will nest in the dense thick thorns, and mice will find little hollows to hide in. With the hedge also providing the building materials they need to make their nests too.

And as for ‘why do anything?’ yes our ambition is generally about rewilding, but where space is at a premium a hedgerow can provide more benefit from the smaller plot. A hedge left to its own devices will after a few years, race away. That is where the trees that have been planted so densely for the hedge, have established good roots but are competing aggressively for light with each other. They will grow very long thin stems with little leaf or fruit as they strive to be the tallest. Traditionally this would have been actively encouraged as such straight long poles have many uses. Fencing for a start.

You will see from the photographs that the hedge had been left for some years and had started to race. It was very thin and of fairly low value as a habitat. The idea behind laying it, is to create a dense, thick mass of hedge that is impenetrable to anything larger than our target species. We know we have mice, shrews and hedgehogs in the vicinity, but no signs of any living in the hedgerow. If we provide a decent habitat we have local residents waiting to move in, which is great for them and our goal. It could also provide some useful evidence to prove the benefits of such simple and easy conservation; which can encourage and inform others considering similar projects.

Technique

Firstly, thank you for all the informative hedgelaying information online to all the people who have contributed. I do hope you would like our efforts today.

We didn’t conform to any traditional style as such, I would say loosely Somerset, with influences of random ideas based on the challenges we faced. The hedge was laid some twelve years ago and had been cut about six years ago by a tractor and flail at about 6′. This meant the hedge was threadbare below that level, with a knotty junction of shoots where it was cut. These shoots had then raced, creating long, thin, tangled poles up to 20′ high. They weren’t really trees, but neither was it a hedge. What was more challenging, is that the trunks had become very wide, up to 6″, which is very thick to lay.

Regardless of style or finesse, the basic principal remains the same; we cut through most of the trunk, until we are able to bend the trunk down and lay the hedge. With each layer laid on top of the last, with some sort of uniform height and angle. This is what creates the density as you will see from the photographs. We then cut poles from our offcuts, that have a branch sticking out to create a hook and drive them in to fix the hedge in place whilst it regrows.

It looks pretty brutal. With cuts going about 4/5th through the trunk. You could be forgiven to thinking they will not survive. However, that bit we left intact is sap wood, alburnum by its proper name. A tree trunk has layers, the bark on the outside, the sap wood underneath that, and then heart wood in the middle, the proper name of which is duramen. The heart wood is the hard and strong bit, like your bone; but the sap wood is pretty flexible, so by cutting from one side through the heart are left with a bendy tree. The sap wood, which as my simplistic name implies, is where the sap is, like your arteries and veins. As long as we leave enough sap wood, the tree will happily reroute supply and continue to grow.

This also has a bit of a shock factor to the tree, which works in our favour. Many species of tree used in hedging, in particular Hazel, will form clumps of shoots from the ground. Cutting them an inch or two from the ground encourages this behaviour, such as in Coppicing; which is similar to hedgelaying in many ways. We could have just cut it all off at ground level and it would grow back denser. SO the stumps we have cut will produce more trees. Also, in shock, the tree will shoot more, flower more, fruit more, in a survival panic. Don’t worry the panic doesn’t hurt the tree, quite the opposite, it just fights harder and grows more shoots. But quicker thinner shoots, ideal for a dense hedge.

The trees cut to just sap wood are pliable and in some cases can be brought right down to the ground. In which case a hook is made from a tree y shaped tree branch, to push the stem against the ground. This will often result in it rooting, creating another source of nutrients, even though it is still supplied through what is left of its original trunk. Due to the age of this hedge and resulting width of trunks, we had very little opportunity to do this. There were a few long stems we managed to eave through and down to the ground, where they were dutifully pegged.

It was good to see that the hedge was already spreading laterally underground, with new shoots appearing next top established trunks. This all contributes to our densely packed hedge, that ultimately creates a safe and secure fortress for our beloved wildlife.

Seasonal

It was pretty cold today, we were all wrapped up; but this is the time of year for tree work on many levels. Most importantly there aren’t any birds nesting in the trees! But also many other advantages for us and the trees, because of their seasonal lifecycle.

Trees store most of their sap underground in winter. Roughly speaking, the volume of a tree’s roots underground are the same as you see above ground. But the weight moves around each year. A tree doesn’t simply shed it’s leaves, but extracts the energy from them when they are no longer useful in the shorter days, and stores that energy for next year. It is only once the tree has removed the energy that the leaf becomes brown and falls off. Equally the branches contain a lot of sap in the summer, which is stored underground during the winter. What remains of the tree above ground during winter is largely dormant.

So if we are to cut and injure trees, let’s do it whilst they are most dormant and most of their energy is underground. If we are to remove pieces of them, lets do it whilst they contain less energy. This means the tree will not suffer, but have the energy stored to respond to the pruning by fighting back stronger.

It also means that the trees are much lighter as they contain less sap, which is mostly water and heavy. So from our perspective it is safer and easier to work with. It is also the time of year where perennial weeds, such as stinging nettles have also died off to their roots; making pain free access to the stumps easier.

This is also why we lay the hedge uphill, so the sap can rise next year in a more natural fashion. Uphill in this case also means south; so I expect our rejuvenated hedge to continue to grow at this angle, creating a mass of habitat for all creatures great and small.

The Results

This will now take off in spring and be covered in new growth. As ever, we need to monitor the regrowth and usage by species, to provide evidence of success and further promote DIY wildlife friendly landscape rejuvenation. But we are really pleased with the results of our labour today, and can see a new habitat emerging as the fruits of lour labour.

Mowing

We have three separate meadows that are all quite different. We need to formulate our approach to management and it is clear the strategies for each one will vary somewhat by its unique characteristics. Traditionally they would have been maintained as water meadows for growing hay for animal feed, but this practice has long passed and the area has been left largely untouched since.

As with anything our plan centres on a gentle touch approach with monitoring to learn what works well, it is often the case that doing nothing would be better than misguided good intentions with unforeseen consequences. With caution as our guide we can adapt our behaviour and repeat our successes, rather than our mistakes. All of our meadows have a wide variety of species, but some have come to dominate and create mono-cultures.

Monkey Bridge Meadow has been managed for a number of years with conservation grazing by a small herd of Dexter cattle and is mown once a year. The cattle prune the willow trees and brambles preventing the land becoming scrub and they kick the ground up nicely allowing less dominant plant species a chance to establish. It has the best mix of wildflowers of all our meadows but it is dominated by Ragwort, Buttercups, stinging nettles and thistles. There are certain species of moths that only lay their eggs on certain varieties of thistle, so we still want some of these things, they are native and part of our ecosystem after all. The yearly mow is done in mid June to target the Ragwort, Nettles and Thistles before they flower and seed. It does seem a shame as there are many insects that benefit from those flowers, but they are exceptionally dominant and not all areas are mowed to be sympathetic to species who depend on them. Other wildflowers benefit from this and flower after the dominating perennial weeds have been taken out of there way. This year it has caused a second bloom of Ground Ivy that had finished flowering anyway.

Northcroft Meadow (wet) is the largest of our meadows and regularly floods in winter. This area of land is a classic traditional water meadow and hasn’t been touched for many years by the looks of it. It is a beautiful wilderness but not particularly accessible. In attempting to find the edge of the lake we walked through vegetation up to our armpits. It has a great mixture of riparian plants in the wetter areas that are perfect just as they are. Watermint, Gypsywort, Loosestrife, Iris, Reeds, Rushes, Hemp-Agrimony, Water Forget-Me-Not. It would be nice to mow a path in so the public can actually get to the lake and see it. The drier side of this meadow is dominated with thick marsh grasses and bindweed. There are occasional patches of Vetch, Birdsfoot Trefoil, Clover and other flowers. I would anticipate a mow here and there on certain sections would benefit the diversity. The area is obviously popular with Badgers, Rabbits and Deer so we need to be careful to to upset them too much. There is also some old waste dumped which sounds bad, but actually this is another case of think before you act. Rusty tin sheeting lying on the ground looks unsightly and dangerous but a lovely place to warm up in the sun if your a reptile. The basic plan is to mow a path to provide the public with a pleasant and safe circular walk, then maybe yearly mow a certain area avoiding the badger set. Maybe transplant some wildflowers in from other areas.

Northcroft Meadow (dry) on the north side of Moor Lane would also have been traditionally a hay making field. It has old hedgerows that are more like avenues of trees now and areas that have started to return to scrub and woodland. There are many paths of desire cut across the field by the public who walk here and evidence it is well used. Lots of evidence of small and large mammals and birds of prey, so again wouldn’t do too much here, above mowing paths. Progressive small area mowing and plug planting could be considered to improve wildflower diversity. There are occasional clumps of Scabious, Knapweed, Vetches, Oxeye Daisy and a single Poppy; but these are heavily out-competed by dominant grasses and perennial weeds. There are some young Oak tress growing in the upper reaches. The hedge has grown way beyond even being a hedge again, it is a dense compacted line of mature trees, it might be an interesting idea to plant a hedge either side and create a wider strip of super hedge.

Treework

This isn’t the ideal time of year to be doing treework, ideally I would do this in winter as there is less vegetation so less effort clearing your working space, the trees have less sap which is stored in their roots over winter and no leaves so are lighter, thus less dangerous and easier to work with; plus there are more other things to do in the summer, like mowing. But the land was too flooded in the winter. Luckily the cows have kept the meadow clear and we aren’t working on anything to large, so decided to crack on now as we need to get the trees clear in order to start planting river and riparian plants which need the light that the trees are blocking.

We borrowed a long arm chain saw which is a great tool for dealing with the out of reach small willow we needed to clear at a nice safe distance form falling branches. It even had a new chain so made very light work of the willow in no time at all.

Clearing up always takes longer and this is ideally where volunteer working parties will come in, but unfortunately not practical during the pandemic. We haven’t progressed with setting this up yet. If you would like to help, please still let us know and we will be in touch when the parties do start.

So only two of us doing the tidy up. As the willow was heavy and green, literally wet to to the touch with sap, we have left it in a pile in the meadow for now. This works to our favour as firstly the cows will munch on it and break it all down into smaller pieces, it will dry out in the sun and become lighter and easier to move; then when we do move it, there will be a patch of soil that could allow wildflower seeds to get established.

You might ask, why we need to move it at all? If we leave it in the meadow willow will take root and grow into new trees. Willow is almost indestructible in natural conditions, a small bit in contact with soil will take root and shoot, it then grows big and falls over, with fallen branches taking root and spreading further until you eventually have no meadow or river just a dark mass of willow. This is why we have top manage the willow in the first place, so leaving it in the field isn’t an option.

What will we do with it? Many people doing this sort of work would simply burn it, it is a very simple solution to not having to tidy up and who doesn’t like a bonfire. But ultimately I would rather the carbon rots into the ground than get burnt into the air. The vast majority will be stacked in shady areas of dense willow such as the ditch running between the two meadows. As it dries and breaks down it forms a dense pile of rotting wood that is a great habitat for all manner of species, literally bacteria, fungi, invertebrates, insects, reptiles, birds and small mammals up to the size of an otter. Many of those being food for the others!

Willow that has dried and is in no chance of coming back to life can be used to create faggots to protect the riverbank and establish riparian plants. A small amount will be used to cook pizza in the clay oven for our volunteers when we do eventually have working parties. Willow makes quite good kindling when dry, but it is a poor firewood for heating a home so of no commercial value. However the bugs and beetles, birds and bats, will thrive in it for years to come.

Surveys

I believe to improve something, you must be able to measure it in some way. Surveys of nature are inherently time consuming and suffer from huge statistical variations. For example try and count how many bees are in a 1 metre patch in a minute and you will hit a multitude of problems. For a start bees don’t stay still and look very similar, how many have you counted twice, or 5 times even. Which one metre patch, season, weather, time of day will significantly effect the data, making it fairly meaningless for statistical comparison. Then if you try and extrapolate the bad data to predict a population of a wider area from a few samples, any data anomalies will be amplified.

It is important we do something though, but I think we just keep it simple. I for one am not counting how many buttercups we have in the meadow ­čÖé so our methods need to be quick and simple. There needs to be some continuity in our methodology and some record keeping so we can make year on year comparisons.

Keeping a simple list of species is a good start. Then putting them into three groups; things we have lots of, things we have some of (a few here and there) and things we only have 1 or 2 of. Then we try and move things up the list so we have more of everything, and maybe encourage new ones to move in. You could go as far as to have forth category of species that are native and local that we haven’t got any of and would like to introduce, but we already have all the right species here, just not enough of them. Year on year we can measure progress by the number of species in each category. It doesn’t need to get much more scientific than that to demonstrate improvement. Obviously the three tier system is a bit subjective, especially when the same system is applied to fish and flowers, but probably no more so than counting bees.

Photographs are another good way to make year on year comparisons, so I endeavour to take lots throughout the seasons in a slightly more structured way than I do normally. Capturing key events like may fly hatches. This can be used to supplement anecdotal witness evidence such as our memories of previous years.

One thing we are keen to measure with a little more detail is invertebrate life in the rivers and lakes. So to add a bit of consistency we are going to take a hand full or foliage from the river such as Watermint and roughly count the number of things living in it. A few samples from the same area and host plant should work out roughly the same and we can average it out. Then we record that at the same sorts of times of year each year. Keeping records for different locations and the host plants, will allow us to learn what works for the wildlife we want to encourage and hone our efforts to get the best gains.

Anyway, this work has started in earnest, we have been surveying wildflowers which is an all summer job as different ones flower at different times of year, so it was important to start this at the end of winter when the first snowdrops poke their head through the soil.

We have also had our waders on and got in the river. This was for a few reasons, firstly I wanted to try my new chest waders out, but more importantly we wanted to survey the river bed to allow us to create a plan for planting. We were very happy to discover that the bed is mainly loose gravel with areas of course gritty sand. Perfect for fish spawning and also makes it easier for us to plant. One area at the top 30 yards of the river is compacted however, it is more akin to concrete as you can’t even pick individual stones out with your fingers. This is bad but at least it is only a small area. We may choose to clean this gravel with a high pressure jet at some point; this blasts the compacted material out and loosens the gravel and grit left behind. The good news is that the vast majority of the area we are planning to plant this year is in a ready to go, perfect condition.

The other thing we tried was invertebrate sampling. Taking a handful of Watermint in my hand I estimated how many things I had squirming around in my hand. I would say 50, but they were all shrimp. Samples taken from different places all had very similar results. Which is great to see we have life already. Also quite a few fish shooting off as we disturbed them, nothing of any size but a good number of fry.

We also gained a much better understanding of the topology of the river and main current flow. It varies quite drastically from 1′ deep to nearly may armpits. The flow undulates around obstacles creating strong flows which hollow out craters and other areas of more protected calmer water. It is a very beautiful river and it is very exciting to finally be getting stuck in with our plans.

We are a charity

I very pleased that we have successfully navigated the charity application process and are now a Registered Charity Number 1189097 NEWBURY ENVIRONMENT AND WILDLIFE TEAM. Thank you to people who contributed towards this. There is still much to do on the setup side, such as bank account, insurance, etc. But getting the registration was the prerequisite for many of these other things. Not least of which we can now enter into an agreement as a legal entity with the landowners, which would secure the long term use of the land so that none of our efforts are wasted in the future.

Charity Application

Become a charity we must. It will allow us to enter into long term agreements with landowners, apply for grants and funding and get insurance for our volunteers. We also get a 75% discount on trees from the Woodland Trust if we are a charity.

I must admit that I am happier with a billhook than an application form; especially one that spans many sections and requires supplementary evidence. Still it is clear that to make our dream a reality, applying to the charity commission to become a registered charity is our next step. So I create myself a login an start with question 1, knowing that once question 1 is answered I can move on to question 2; and eventually I will run out of questions.

OK, I’m being melodramatic, its quite straight forward, the hardest part needing some evidence or expert advice of the value of the land for conservation and the benefit of doing so. Luckily our growing network of friends were able to help out and pointed me in the direction of TVERC http://www.tverc.org and DEFRA’s magic map https://magic.defra.gov.uk/

It turns out that all of the river Kennet tributaries are already designated as SSSI (Site of Special Scientific Interest). The lakes and reed bed wetlands area of Thames Water’s land is also a local wildlife area. This is a major bonus as it backs our case up beyond doubt and highlights what a real treasure this little pocket of land is.

The report from TVERC and DEFRA maps will be submitted with our application to the Charity Commission.

Meeting West Berkshire Council

Another afternoon away from the office for a stroll, in what was this time, a much wetter place. About 1′ deep too wet in places!

The council was a similar experience to our previous meetings, where all our ideas were met very positively. Again it would be necessary to be a registered charity and have insurance in place for our volunteers. They would like us to have formal risk assessments in place but nothing more onerous than we would require ourselves anyway.

The outcome of the meeting is that we can start the river and hedge projects immediately and have the thumbs up for the trees project once we have provided a bit more detail on what species where.

Meeting Thames Water

Another welly boot meeting on the ground but this time with Thames Water. I am really enjoying this new found alternative format for business meetings to the office, as it was another chance to get some fresh air in daylight hours and appreciate nature on a nice walk. This was also the first time I was ‘officially’ allowed to walk around the site, or at least as much of it that we could physically get to.

Again the company was great too. The head of their delegation was a very positive and bouncing personality, who was delighted to talk about the environment at length! They were accompanied by a senior ecologist and the site manager.

The meeting was very positive, which was great because I was expecting to have to sell this idea to them. The idea that they were going to just let us turn 35 acres of their land into a public access nature reserve. Turns out they were actually rather happy that I wanted to.

We happen to have approached them at a moment in time where Thames Water are currently reviewing all of their property for potential to benefit nature through management. This has been done before, the most well known is perhaps Kempton Nature Reserve https://corporate.thameswater.co.uk/about-us/community/great-days-out/recreational-sites/Kempton-nature-reserve

The next step now is for us to become a formal charity. Thames Water will need us to a be a legal entity as an organisation so that we can enter into a long term agreement with them on the land, get insurance for our volunteers and receive funding.

Meeting The Environment Agency

We had a welly boot meeting on site with the Environment Agency. We walked around the whole area that our projects cover. It was obvious they share the same passion as we do for the environment and were incredibly supportive of our plans. It was particularly useful to understand their approach to managing the watercourses from an environmental and flood perspective; and how our plans might dovetail with them.

We all really enjoyed the walk too as it was a chance to escape our offices during daylight hours and explore a very beautiful wilderness.

They have offered some practical assistance such as materials we may need, but perhaps more valuable their help and advice navigating how we do all this with the right permissions in place and in accordance with regulations.

I suspect we have found some new friends, that will enjoy being involved in something so close to our hearts.