February starts with a pattern that has become familiar this winter - strong winds, mild temperatures and periodic rain. There was a brief cold snap in January, with even a light snow covering on the night of the 16th. It didn't last long however. I was intending to take some photos of the marsh in the snow the following morning, but by the time we had finished clearing up the last of the pollard loppings and burning the waste, the snow had all but disappeared!
Discussing water vole release
Although we have had some rain and even occasionally some flooding, generally this winter has been slightly less wet than last year, to the extent that, with care, you can walk around Great Valet Homes - all but impossible last year until well in the spring as a result of the high water levels. It was then that I realised that it would be advantageous to be able to control the water levels on this part of the reserve. Many years ago in the 1990s, a succession of dry years meant that the extensive ditch system in Great and Little Valet Homes always dried out during the summer. To improve this, great efforts were expended to build up the water levels in this area with a series of clay bunds put in place at the outlets to hold up water and prevent it escaping. These days, we could do with a bit less water, especially in the summer.
There is a possibility that Sawbridgeworth Marsh could be selected as a second release site for water voles either this year or next year and the purpose of the visit was to inspect the ditching work carried out last summer and assess the potential of the marsh to support water voles now that this work has been completed. Everybody was making favourable noises as we eventually progressed to the southernmost part of the reserve - the borrowdyke in Great Valet Homes. As we chatted on the bank, one of the HMWT officers, Martin Ketcher, started to look more closely at the vegetation and discovered what looked very like water vole feeding signs - cut sections of rush and sedge, followed by what looked like vole droppings in several places. The presence of water voles on the site was a complete surprise and remains to be confirmed. Whether they are a relict population or the result of a recolonisation from the Thorley Wash population is also unknown. Very exciting times though, which put me in mind of two events where the target species beat the ecologists too it - namely that Cornish chough reintroduction project and the abandoned plan to reintroduce the Silver Washed Fritillary to Hatfield Forest. Not often that happens, but very exciting when it does!
Pollards in the snow
Luckily, funding may soon become available to carry out more ditching work on the reserve, including the extension of the impressive wide ditches northwards through the reedbed and the installation of flexipipe sluices into the bunds currently sealing off the drainage ditches in Great Valet Homes from their former outlets into the borrowdyke running alongside the railway. The Essex Wildlife Trust (EWT) reserve staff paid a visit to the marsh on the 1st February to look at the current system and see whether this would be feasible. Flexipipe sluices are a relatively inexpensive way to control water levels and, if the funding bid is successful, work on them could begin as early as this August.
The marsh was actually very popular that day. Not only were there EWT staff on the reserve, but two representatives of our neighbouring Trust, the Hertfordshire & Middlesex Wildlife Trust (HMWT), were also in attendance. The HMWT is the sponsor for the Stort Valley Living Landscape Project and took a lead part in last year's high profile water vole translocation project to Thorley Wash nature reserve, just upriver from the marsh. The voles were translocated from a coastal realignment project on the river Colne on the Essex coast, led by Darren Tansley of the EWT, also present among our visitors.
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