Wednesday, 20 May 2015

New lambs to nibble for nature

David Tallentire, Conservation grazing manager at Norfolk Wildlife Trust

When the cold weather of winter finally breaks, nature doesn’t waste any time in responding to take advantage of the sunshine. The arrival of spring brings back an abundance of colour and life to our countryside with a myriad of birds, flowers, butterflies and all sort of our favourite wildlife. But this got me to thinking, what best signals the arrival of spring? Is it the early white blossom of the blackthorn hedges, or the frogspawn appearing in our garden ponds? For many years I have associated the arrival of spring with the distinctive whistling call of curlew returning to their summer breeding grounds, however, for me this year, it is the arrival of our first lambs of the season which has signalled that spring is here. Norfolk Wildlife Trust’s flock of sheep have now started lambing and before anyone says ‘ahh’, let me make clear that these pint sized nibblers have a job to do.

NWT manages a wide range of semi-natural habitats which represent some of Norfolk’s finest nature sites. Our ‘flying flock’ was set up 20 years ago to move around our nature reserves, preventing areas which are important for wildlife becoming overgrown. This name reflects the fact that the sheep are highly mobile and are ‘flown in’ (via road rather than air!) wherever they are most needed. NWT has two shepherds, who manage the flock, checking the animals on a daily basis to ensure their welfare. A team of six working sheepdogs are on hand, enabling the shepherds to easily gather and move the sheep around our nature reserves. In any year, you can see them right across the county, grazing on the Broadland marshes, or on the coast at Holme Dunes, or across several of our Breckland heath reserves, which are the main home of our flock. By munching their way across our nature reserves, the sheep maintain open habitats, allowing a whole range of plants, insects, birds, reptiles and mammals to flourish. Without this regular removal of vegetation many our nature reserves would be at risk of being swamped by just a small handful of the more dominant plant species.

The flock currently numbers just under 1,000 sheep and includes Shetland and Black Welsh Mountain breeds. Despite being quite small, these are very hardy traditional breeds that are able to thrive on the nature reserves. By using native breeds NWT is also helping to secure the future of these breeds, many of which are at risk of extinction due to the influx of higher producing, more commercial breeds within UK agriculture. However, as well as their strong heritage, these animals have a number of important genetic traits, and need our protection for future generations. Our breeding program for the flock has seen NWT become one the largest owners of pedigree Shetland sheep across the whole of the UK.

Head of Nature Reserves at Norfolk Wildlife Trust, John Milton adds, ‘Amongst wildlife organisations NWT has been one of the early pioneers in introducing grazing animals including sheep, cattle and ponies throughout many sites and habitats, as a sustainable way of preventing areas from becoming choked with growth that smothers fragile species. The Flying Flock is a valuable conservation tool.’

But it’s not just their nibbling that has value; they also produce some fantastic fleeces. The Shetlands, in particular, are highly regarded for the quality of the wool that they produce.

The ewes were introduced to a few of our newly bought tups (rams) at the end of last year. The tups arrived from Hereford in October, looking very handsome as they did. They were clearly very keen to get on with their new job, as the lambs are now arriving thick and fast. Coming in a range of colours and markings, including some stand out white hairstyles; the lambs are quickly up on their feet, often giving our two shepherds the run around within hours of being born. We have had over 100 born so far this year, but plenty more are expected throughout the next month. The breeds of sheep that we keep are well adapted to lamb outdoors. The area that they lamb includes lots of shelter, plenty of food, and with minimal disturbance the ewes are free to find a secluded spot to give birth. However, our shepherds are on site as much as possible to assist the odd few ewes that run into difficulty. The new mothers and their lambs are then penned into a separate paddock to encourage a close bond, it also allows our shepherds to keep a close eye on them and make sure the lambs are getting enough milk.

The lambs will spend the summer with their mothers, predominantly grazing on the Breckland heaths and in autumn the ewe lambs will enter into the main flock and ensure that this nibbling for nature continues for years to come.

You can come and see some of these young conservationists in action this summer by visiting NWT East Wretham Heath nature reserve. Or stop by at the nearby NWT Weeting Heath visitor centre, where the flock grazing works to maintain the unique flora and fauna of the heath, including nesting areas for breeding stone curlew which can now be spotted daily from the bird hides.

Dartmoor and Konik ponies together,
photo by Lynda Simpson
Away from the flying flock, I am also involved in managing our herd of ponies which can be seen at several NWT nature reserves, such as Roydon Common near Kings Lynn.

Again, these living lawnmowers play a very important role in managing NWT nature reserves by removing yearly vegetation growth and maintaining open habitats for wildlife. A good example of this is at NWT Buxton Heath, where the year round pony grazing has seen a marked increase in the number of marsh helleborine orchids over the past few years. By maintaining an open sward, the ponies have helped this beautiful plant to flourish along with a whole range of others. The mix of Dartmoor and Konik breeds owned by NWT, being hardy animals, are well suited to thrive on a range of heathland and Broadland nature reserves. At Hickling, the long standing pony grazing has helped to maintain the fen grasslands, home to numerous iconic and rare species, such as the swallowtail butterfly and the Norfolk hawker dragonfly.

Cattle are another important part of NWT’s grazing management and we work with over 20 local farmers to conserve our nature reserves. Many of Norfolk’s important wildlife sites were actually created and maintained by traditional agricultural practices dating back centuries. By working with local graziers, we can continue to maintain these habitats through seasonal cattle grazing which resembles the historic local farming systems.

With over 6,000 acres of grazed nature reserve across the length and breadth of the county, our team of grazing animals is an essential conservation tool for NWT. It is highly rewarding to see the lambs following in the footsteps of their parents, grazing across our suite of nature reserves and helping to protect Norfolk’s wildlife in the process, the ‘ahh’ factor this spring is just an added bonus.

Please support our Grazing appeal, to continue and develop NWT's conservation grazing

Friday, 15 May 2015

Lapwing chick conundrums and Biking Birder

Sophie Harrison, Weeting Summer Warden

In the early hours on the 25 April, the first newly hatched lapwing chicks were seen from the West Hide padding across the heathland. Currently we have a total of 12 chicks scuttling about with their proud parents keeping a close eye on them. In these first few days the chicks are especially vulnerable to predation and the cold. 

Lapwing chick, photo by Margaret Holland
Over the bank holiday, the wind picked up and the rain lashed down, the chicks retreated under the wings of their parents. Over the next few weeks they will independently feed on a variety of beetles, caterpillars and worms in the soil, and rely heavily on their camouflage and their parents’ protection to avoid being predated.

Unfortunately, I witnessed one that wasn’t so lucky, as it became a carrion crow's lunchtime snack. Only 25% of lapwing chicks make it to fledging stage. Over the next few weeks I will be keeping you updated on their progress. With a bit of luck and the right weather, they may just make it! Four out of our six lapwing pairs have successfully hatched chicks, so hopefully when the weather clears the other two pairs will hatch their chicks any day now.

Our tree creepers, Terry and Teresa, are currently sitting on eggs so if you’re lucky, you can glimpse them going in and out of the nest. The bandit thief has been seen on a daily basis outside the West Hide and from its calling and behaviour it is clearly nesting somewhere…

There has been a lot of action from the Woodland hide. Now with a newly felted roof and coat of paint, this lovely little hide looks out onto three feeders and two ponds, where a family of yellowhammers have taken residents. It is also a favourite feeding spot for our nesting great spotted woodpecker and nuthatch!

Grass snake, photo by Julian Thomas
This season we have set up a series of reptile tins to monitor and record the abundance of different reptile species in different habitats. Six corrugated tins have been placed around the reserve to encourage a variety of reptiles to shelter under them.

Six lucky visitors witnessed a huge grass snake taking advantage of the woodland hide reptile tin. It slinked in and out of cover with a hope of grabbing an unsuspecting bird coming down to the pond to drink! Common lizards have been taking advantage of the pine belt reptile tin and have also been seen sunning themselves in front of the visitor centre.

As well as our wildlife stars, we had a visit from the famous Biking Birder, Gary Prescott. Birmingham born and bred, Gary is out to break the European record (307) of the most birds seen in a year, travelling only by bike. To accomplish this, he is visiting every RSPB reserve in the country and Weeting Heath to see our famous stone curlews! Later this year he is appearing on BBC Springwatch and you can follow his blog on Our stone curlews helped boost his numbers to 207. To show his support he even signed up as a Norfolk Wildlife Trust member!

Friday, 8 May 2015

Signs of spring at Ranworth Broad

Jamieson Temple, Visitor Centre Coordinator at Ranworth Broad
Situated in the middle stretches of the River Bure, NWT Ranworth Broad forms part of the larger Bure Marshes National Nature Reserve. Visitors generally start at Ranworth village, with the village green looking out on Malthouse Broad; in the village there is Norfolk Wildlife Trust car park, and just off the green at the Staithe is the NWT Information Centre and ferry departure point. The next part of the journey is to visit the reserve on Ranworth Broad which is of national and international importance for wildlife, and has a very unique floating visitor centre with a beautiful thatched roof. 

Broads Wildlife Centre, photo by David Marney
Our Broads Wildlife Centre can either be accessed via a boardwalk trail leading through woodland and reedbed. The boardwalk starts along Broad Road, which is a five minute walk from the village. There is also a ferry that will take visitors to the centre, this sails four times per day from the Staithe. The centre is open from 10am-5pm; please note there are no dogs allowed and no toilets at the centre.

swallow, photo by David Marney
Ranworth Broad is home to a great variety of wildlife, over the past month the winter migrants have left, and the summer migrants have arrived. At the Centre, fascinating live camera feeds can be viewed which offer an unrivalled insight of the artificial rafts of nesting common terns, and also some of the multiple swallow nests around the Centre. Away from the screens the swallows and common terns can be seen hunting for insects and fish respectively over Ranworth Broad; along with the majestic great crested grebes.

Great crested grebes, photo by David Marney
is easy to fall in love with the great crested grebes, from the elegant physique, prominent colouring, and special mating display; this display is one of the true signs of spring! It starts with a male grebe catching the eye of a female by exaggerating its ruff; the pair then swims face on and they start mirroring each other’s alternating head movements. If the male is successful in this display, the pair swims away, dive down and appear again with mouths full of reed; they then come back together, almost vertically, to start their ‘dance’.

Other wildlife highlights at Ranworth Broad are regular sightings of otters, kingfishers and marsh harriers, along with fen orchid, marsh marigold, and yellow flag iris. Any day now we are expecting the first sightings of our famous swallowtail butterflies, with their large yellow and black wings; and the startling bright green caterpillars feeding on the milk parsley. 

Marsh harrier, photo by David Marney
Come visit NWT Ranworth Broad over the next few weeks to see these incredible species, their magnificent mating displays, and see the intimate footage of nesting swallows and common terns. A great way to see the internationally important wildlife is via the 45 minute ‘guided’ water trail; the expert boat operators on the 12 person Damselfly vessel will help identify all the wildlife, and all the history of the reserve and Broads habitat.

Monday, 4 May 2015

Operation Sock Cam!

Sophie Harrison, Summer Warden

Over the last few weeks the stone curlews have started to settle on the heathland. There are now three established pairs all on scrapes. Pairs 1,2, and 3. But it is pair 3 that is to be the star of the Brecks! Our enthusiastic visitors have become quite fond of this pair, naming them Cynthia and Hue.

This year NWT Weeting Heath is part of one of the exciting Breaking New Ground projects called ‘Wings over the Brecks’. This project has been formed between the RSPB, The Forestry Commission and Norfolk Wildlife Trust. Weeting Heath is the first site to have a camera up and running recording live footage of our secretive stone curlews!

Before the arrival of the stone curlews, 150m of camera cable was set up on the heathland. Many different designs were explored by the team to find the best possible disguise for our camera...

In the end, our Reserves manager sacrificed one of his socks to expertly camouflage the camera… and Sock Cam was born! 

The launch of Sock Cam onto the heath was scheduled for a hot and sunny day. This is vitally important, as it minimises the risk of the eggs getting cold when the adults temporarily leave the nest. With radio communication between the team, we found the scrape and set Sock Cam into the ground at a suitable distance. To our delight, Cynthia and Hue returned to the scrape only 20 minutes after Sock Cam was in place.

Sock Cam went live on Friday 24 April and has already captured some interesting behaviour.

Last Friday, it captured a stoat being bombarded by lapwings. Just as it thought it had escaped, it ran into a pair of rabbits! The lapwing and rabbits joined forces to form a two pronged attack against the stoat. After a lot of scraping and the stoat leaping in the air, it hot footed it back across Sock Cam with both lapwing and rabbits in hot pursuit. While this was all going on, all the stone curlews managed to do was turn their heads and watch the drama unfold!

Other footage captured has included nest changeovers. Both Cynthia and Hue take turns sitting on the eggs, and generally swap over every two hours. The timescale of one bird arriving to the initial swap over is usually 30 seconds to a minute. However, one wet and windy day Cynthia was very reluctant to leave the nest so made Hue stand in the wind and rain for an extra two minutes. In retaliation, he then shoved her off the nest to sit down.

Both stone curlews and lapwings nest on the heathland, often in close proximity. They may join forces to see off a predator, but do not get along well with each other: stone curlews will quite happily kill and eat a lapwing chick.

During my morning’s observations I saw an unpaired male stone curlew get a little too close to a lapwing chick. Naturally the lapwing parent went ballistic: bombing, pecking and flying at the stone curlew. Reluctantly, with wings and beak outstretched, the stone curlew gave up and the lapwing chick escaped!

One of my favourite bits of footage from Sock Cam is a drake lapwing leading his four chicks across the heath. They come right behind the scrape and Hue doesn’t even bat an eyelid, as he was more intent on sitting on his eggs.

The stone curlew eggs are soon to hatch, so watch this space for future Sock Cam updates!