BSNHS

©BSNHS 2014

Despite being 10 days after the Summer solstice, the weather remains cloudy, cool and showery. As a result, there are few good opportunities for large numbers of butterflies, dragonflies or damselflies to appear on the marsh and numbers of these have been disappointing.

Marsh in April Marsh in June

Sawbridgeworth Marsh

View from the Marsh - July 2016

Andy Sapsford Reserve Warden

Marsh in Oct

Restored drain

Marsh in Nov

Some earlier views from the marsh

Marsh in DecMarsh in JanMarsh in FebMarsh in March

There have been some highlights, including the brown argus seen by John Slee and fair numbers of the grassland species six-spotted burnet moths, ringlets, meadow browns and large skippers have also been seen recently. Hairy dragonfly, broad bodied chaser, large red damselfly, azure damselfly, banded demoiselle and blue-tailed damselfly have been present both in the ponds and the newly enlarged drains. Recently, a black-tailed skimmer appeared, which is another new species for the reserve.

Large Skipper on thistle

The new drains are looking impressive, with luxuriant bordering and emergent vegetation, including abundant celery leaved crowfoot, water figwort, blue and pink water speedwells and starwort. It was hoped that they would attract a variety of damselflies and dragonflies, hopefully including new species, and this has been borne out. Of course, the drains were improved mainly in order to improve the habitat for water voles and the good news here is that signs of voles have been found near Tednambury Marsh, which is only about a mile north of the reserve. So, hopefully we may well have water voles back on the marsh by the end of the year after an absence of nearly 20 years!

This spring has also seen the return of the turtle dove to the marsh, albeit briefly. One was heard calling in Great Valet Homes in early June, again the first record here since 1997. It has not been heard since, however, so it may have been a fleeting visit. Other bird highlights have included grasshopper warbler, heard reeling several times from different locations, and a honey buzzard, seen gliding over the marsh one Sunday morning in May.

The main summer task on the marsh is to keep the network of footpaths clear, both for access and for visitors. This time of the year, it is a constant job as vegetation is at its maximum growth rate. There are two connected circular walks, one going around Little and Great Valet Homes and the other around North Mead, the lower sedgebed area of the reserve. Due both to the high rainfall and the constantly high groundwater level, parts of Great Valet Homes and the footpath at the northern end of the reserve seem to be constantly underwater and are nearly impassable, however.

It is not entirely clear why this should be. It seems like the groundwater level on the marsh is constantly high these days. Back in the 1990s, the marsh appeared to be drying out following a series of hot, dry summers and low winter rainfall. The downside of this was that it was hard to maintain summer water levels and great efforts were made to stop up drains in an attempt to keep water in the ditches during the summer months. The upside was that species such as quaking grass and bee orchids were present on the peatbank, species which would normally not be associated with wet meadows. These days, quaking grass and bee orchids have disappeared and cowslips are much less common than they were. In fact, the dry grassland belt near to the roadside boundary appears to have shrunk, with sedges, rushes and marsh orchids present much further up the field than they used to be. Scrub species such as hawthorn and blackthorn are visibly struggling where they appear and are steadily dying off. The question of water level control has been discussed at length with the Essex Wildlife Trust, but as the issue appears more to be related to groundwater level than to lack of drainage, it is difficult to see how installation of the preferred solution, a sluice in Great Valet Homes to control the outlet into the backwater, might help.