Spring has sprung!

I spent today with Crewe & Nantwich Conservation Volunteers on another task at Wybunbury Moss working for Natural England.  Heading out this morning, it felt that finally spring is here, with a clear blue sky, strengthening warmth from the sun and birds starting to sing at the top of their voices.

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However, the task today was still very much a winter one, with more trees to fell and burn.  The task we have been doing for the last two visits has been focussed on softening an area of woodland edge by removing some of the smaller trees. This should encourage regrowth of the understory which should in turn provide improved habitats for scrub nesting birds.  After working in the same area last year, the signs of this regrowth are already there.

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With bird nesting season upon us, this could have been the last fire until autumn, a pity as I enjoy them so much, but having a fire in the sun does seem a bit wrong. At the end of what has seemed like a long, dark winter, I’ll quite happily swap having fires for more nice, warm sunny days!

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From brash to ash

Another day spent at Wybunbury Moss with Crewe & Nantwich Conservation Volunteers burning brash left behind by Natural England’s tree clearance activities.

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It was a lovely spring-like day with blue sky and white fluffy clouds.  The woodland was full of bird song, not quite at it’s full strength but certainly starting to build.

Doing something constructive…

I was out with Crewe & Nantwich Conservation Volunteers today and rather than cutting down trees and setting fire to them, something we do often over the autumn and winter, we were planting them instead.  Much of our work to manage sites for nature involves destructive activities so it made a nice change to actually do something more obviously constructive.

Waking to snow on the ground, I reluctantly headed out. We spent the day outside in the cold but sheltered woodland around Brereton Heath Local Nature Reserve, near Congleton.   Working with Cheshire East Council Rangers, the group were helping to improve the woodland by planting understory trees including hazel, hawthorn and blackthorn.  When they have grown into thickets beneath the taller trees, it’s hoped that they will provide nesting habitats for summer migrants such as whitethroats and spotted flycatchers.

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CNCV: Christmas Task

Today was the Christmas Task for the local conservation group I volunteer with and like last time out we spent the day at Wybunbury Moss National Nature Reserve.

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Today’s task was to make good use of the burning platform that we built from logs a fortnight ago.  Natural England has been working at the site over recent weeks and our task was to burn the brash left behind by the tree removal operations.

It wasn’t all work and at lunch, with the fire having burnt through most of the brash, it was time to get stuck into the Christmas food.  Soup, potatoes and mince pies were followed some time later by the sausages I cooked over the hot embers of the fire.

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To finish off the day we had (non-alcoholic) mulled wine and chestnuts roasted over the last of the fire’s heat – proper Christmas food – and all consumed under a rare clear and bright blue sky.

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Crewe & Nantwich Conservation Volunteers: Wybunbury Moss

I spent today with CNCV working for Natural England at Wybunbury Moss National Nature Reserve.  Whilst I often go for a walk on the footpaths and permissive path around the outside of the Moss, today was a rare opportunity to spend time out on the Moss itself.

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Natural England employed us to thin the woodland cover on the edge of the Moss, taking out birch trees and using the large logs to build a fire platform.  Natural England has been much of the woodland thinning itself, so our task in two weeks time will be spent trying to burn as much of the brash as the fire will take.  Our next outing will also be our Christmas task – everyone chips in with some festive food and we use the fire to heat it, while keeping ourselves warm too.

Whilst today’s task wasn’t particularly cold to begin with, the driving rain in the morning soaked us and by mid-afternoon everyone was starting to feel the chill – an early finish was certainly welcome!

Working on the Moss itself is a real privilege as there is no public access to  the site due to the dangerous nature of the ground. Under as little as a metre of moss and peat, lies a lake which is up to 12 metres deep – walking across the Moss, the surface moves and ripples.  If it wasn’t for the odd house or two visible from then centre of the Moss, you could easily think you were standing in the middle of a wilderness area – it’s quite a special place.

Two visits to Bagmere

Last Sunday I went to Bagmere with Crewe & Nantwich Conservation Volunteers (CNCV) to work for Cheshire Wildlife Trust. We got on with our usual task of fighting back the encroachment of tree saplings onto the fenland landscape and burning what we cut.  Unfortunately, the wood has to be burnt on site due to inaccessibility for vehicles and the distance from the road.  However, it’s no hardship for most of us and some (well me, actually) always look forward to the colder months when we can have a big fire – there’s no better way to finish a task than sitting around a fire in the last of the day’s sun, as the flames die down and the last of its heat keeps you warm – marvellous!

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I returned to Bagmere on yesterday to start my winter bird surveys for the season.  Like the breeding bird surveys I do for Cheshire Wildlife Trust, I visit the Trust’s Bagmere and Blakenhall Moss reserves to record bird species.  Unlike the surveys in spring and early summer, the winter versions are simpler as I only note the number of individual birds of each species I see.

Walking around the reserve on Saturday was lovely, the sun had broken through the early morning fog and a bright blue sky emerged.  I spent just less than an hour walking from one end of the reserve to the other and recorded 22 species altogether.  I didn’t find anything unusual but it was good to start the surveys with a reasonably good list.

Unfortunately, as with the four breeding bird survey visits between March and June and last of the previous winter bird surveys in January, I didn’t record willow tits, a red-listed species.  This means that I haven’t recorded them at all so far this year across all the survey visits and several tasks with CNCV.  The Wildlife Trust installed some nest boxes for them in the early spring, in the area of the reserve where I had last recorded them and I spent some extra time in that area to see if they were around.  It would be a depressing finding if they have disappeared – this is only the second full year of surveys I have done at the reserve, with my surveys being the first ever undertaken at the site.

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Crewe & Nantwich Conservation Volunteers

I don’t normally blog about the local volunteering I do with Crewe & Nantwich Conservation Volunteers – not sure why – but I think it’s about time I started.

I’ve been volunteering with the group for four years, heading out into the South Cheshire countryside every other Sunday to do practical tasks for a number of different organisations.

Our tasks are varied and focused on helping to conserve or enhance particular habitats and environments. We often undertake similar tasks over several Sundays to enable us to complete larger jobs. Our tasks tend to follow the seasons with our cycle of chopping, burning, invasive species removal and meadow raking being very familiar to long serving volunteers. We also do some more obviously constructive tasks such as the bench installing and path building we did last weekend.

Over the course of each year we generally do tasks for Cheshire East Council Ranger Service, Cheshire Wildlife Trust and Natural England, although for a past couple of years we’ve also done some tasks for a private landowner.

The group doesn’t have an official motto but ‘Conservation & Conversation’ works pretty well – although something related to fire or biscuits could be just as apt!

The group moved into the 21st Century a couple of years ago with the launch of our own Facebook page and Twitter feed through which we keep follower up to date with our latest tasks.

As we move into the latter part of the year, my favourite kind of tasks start again – cutting down trees and setting fire to them!  It may sound counter-intuitive to do this in the name of conservation but it is vital in helping to preserve some of the rarest habitats we have.  Whilst I’m a believer in letting nature have its way, I also understand that if we did so without any management at all, we would end up losing some habitats that are now few and far between in the UK.  That we have to do this at all is more than just a shame and entirely the fault of humans.  Sometimes we need to take what would normally be odd action to help undo the harm we have done – if we don’t do something, some habitats may be lost forever.

Anyway, for me, there’s no better way to spend a chilly Sunday afternoon outside than chucking a few logs on a fire and spending a few hours poking it.

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A hidden gem…

I spent most of Sunday with the local group I volunteer with, Crewe & Nantwich Conservation Volunteers (CNCV). I almost didn’t go; after a long day Osprey sitting on Saturday and getting up early to do a bird survey, part of me just wanted to go home and relax. What a mistake that would have been!

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Wybunbury Moss is a fairly regular haunt for CNCV and it’s always a good task each time we go there. However, this day was special. While I’ve been at plenty of tasks in the woodland and meadows around the outside of the Moss, I’ve never worked on the Moss itself and what a place it is!

The Moss is a schwingmoor or quaking bog – essentially, a glacial depression that has filled with water and then, over time, has been covered in a layer of moss, which in turn has become peat.  This has resulted in what appears to be a solid surface but in fact is just a three metre skin floating on a 13 metre deep lake.  The ‘solid’ surface does indeed quake and visibly wobbles if you jump on it.  It’s not a very safe place to be and is not open to the public but plenty of people in the group have experience of the Moss and know where to go, and more importantly, where not to.

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I arrived late after doing the bird survey and struggled to find the group but I eventually came across them lying in the Sun drinking tea and scoffing biscuits (not an unusual sight). When we decided to get back on with the task (they had already done some work to be fair), we spent the rest of the day pulling pine saplings from the surface of the Moss. Carried on the wind, pine seeds scatter easily and far from their parent trees, growing well where they land. If not controlled every so often, the woodland would start to encroach further and further onto the Moss.

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We spent a few hours in total, under bright blue skies, with a strengthening Sun and fluffy white clouds, pulling the saplings and eventually we cleared them all. We did a final walk around the site just to make sure and then headed home. I parked some distance away, so wandered around the rest of the reserve on the way back.

We recorded a great deal of wildlife while we went about our task, including 31 species of bird, 5 species of butterfly and common lizard. There were also signs of fox, badger and rabbit. However, the most special sighting was of the first swallows of Summer flying past.

The reserve is a truly lovely place to spend a day and standing in the centre I could easily imagine that I was in the middle of the Scandinavian wilderness, particularly when the ravens went ‘cronking’ past. I feel privileged that I could visit a place that not many people can. To be honest, it really was a joyful day – and I was absolutely buzzing (in fact I couldn’t shut up about it!).

So few people seem to know that this place is there – probably a good thing too, as a few visitors would start disappearing if they ventured out onto the Moss. It really is a hidden gem, somewhere special and somewhere worth working for and protecting – and just on my doorstep too!

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