As October begins, the weather remains mostly drier and slightly warmer than would normally be expected at this time of year. We have had a few useful longer spells of rain, which have served to fill up the ditches and ponds, especially the dry ones at the southern end of North Mead.
The peatbank has been cut and the vegetation removed by burning on tin sheets and then taking the ash off site for disposal elsewhere. Before the reintroduction of cattle grazing in 2009, the whole of the peatbank on Rush Mead was cut and burnt on a series of sometimes spectacularly large bonfires. Aside from the obvious smoke pollution, this was not ideal as the burning of material on the ground added nutrients to the soil. It was also often the case that the sites chosen for bonfires in successive years were not in the same places as those of previous years. The result of the enrichment was to encourage vigorous grasses to grow in place of the blunt flowered rush, sedges and fine grasses previously found and the whole character of the peatbank flora was changing. These days, those parts of the lower peatbank which are considered too wet to graze, are able to be cut successfully without incurring damage to the flora.
There has been more bovine "bovver" in the lower field of Rush Mead, where the two white steers again escaped, both outside the external fence bordering Hallingbury Road and also onto the boggy cut section of the peatbank. By only putting the cattle into that field for a few days to graze the regrowth, I was hoping to avoid this situation as I was planning to take them back to the larger field before they ran short of forage and were tempted to explore. Additional posts were put in along the perimeter fencing to help confine them, but I am not willing to take the chance for what remains of the grazing season and I have put them back into the large field until they go off in mid-October.
The marsh still seems quiet with regard to wildlife, although there is a definite sign of autumn in the 9 snipe which I flushed off the smaller of the grazed fields last week, These were a very welcome sight as we have not had snipe on the marsh since spring now that they no longer breed here. Another welcome event was the presence of two singing Cetti's warblers, one in Great Valet Homes and the other in the scrub by the reedbed. I hadn't heard them for some time now, so I am pleased that they are still on the reserve. Other recent highlights included a large dog fox in broad daylight on the path by the recent ditch excavations in the reedbed.
The main work task in October is coppicing and pollarding the numerous crack willows on the reserve. By cutting these on a 5 - 6 year rotation, the plan is that the poles do not get too long or heavy and then split the stock down the middle. However, since I began as warden in 1990, these same willows have steadily got taller and taller, and I find it difficult to cut anything but the lowerst poles with my chainsaw from the ground these days. Luckily, we also have polesaws, both mechanical and manual versions, which make the job of cutting the higher poles a little easier.
The oldest of these pollards are now at a stage where they can provide good habitat for a variety of species, with rotholes appearing on the trunk where birds can nest and epicormic plant growth on the bark and in small recesses between the branches. The foliage is also host to a multitude of insects, willows being second only to oak as a valuable host habitat.
Willow pollards in Little Valley Homes
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