Saturday 31 December 2011

Bund burning by the book

You may recall, dear reader, the photo from the Imperfect and Tense HESC page. No? Well, here's a little reminder. It shows a view across the bund, the low bank separating the two halves of the main lake of the nature reserve. The image was taken a year or so ago. On closer inspection, a Fox can be seen wandering along the bund, but the focus of this blog post isn't the fluffy mammal/evil egg thief/member of the canine family (delete as your emotional reaction is applicable), it's about the trees.

View looking north across bund
In fact, there shouldn't be any trees at all, lest they discourage any form of wading bird activity by their very presence or give cover to predators. For the bund should be a shingle bank for waders, an open landscape sitting low in the water, with muddy margins where the birds can feed in safety. A place where they can roost and lay their eggs and raise their broods successfully. So in a small way, this is about the Fox too.

View looking south across bund. Photo courtesy of The Admiral
As you can tell from the photos, the maintenance of this particular habitat was so far behind schedule, it was in danger of meeting itself coming the other way. Willow and Alder had colonised the area, and although the bund is surrounded by water, predators could easily swim to it, safe in the knowledge that their approach to ground nesting birds would be camouflaged to perfection.

The irony of the situation is that after this river valley site was worked for gravel extraction, it became a wildfowl sanctuary in 1970. A twenty year research project was then undertaken by the site owner, Amey Roadstone Construction (ARC) and the Game Conservancy. In 1992, the results of this project were published in 'Wildlife After Gravel' by Nick Giles et al, which became the "go to" book for information on returning gravel quarry sites to a natural environment once more.

'Wildlife After Gravel' explained the annual cycle of reserve management, which included the need to remove Willow and Alder, grazing by sheep or cattle and the manipulation of water levels. The success of this endeavour is summed up in a sentence on page 111,

"The area now holds many more species than did the semi-open improved grassland which existed in the flood plain of the river Great Ouse when extraction began in the 1940s."

I believe that is what we now call "increasing biodiversity".

Here's another quote from the good book, page 51,

"Other features include... a broad bund, kept free of rank vegetation by winter flooding, where shallow pools remain into the breeding season. A good population of nesting waders has built up in these habitats, particularly on the bund, which is deliberately isolated from each shoreline by deep water channels to exclude foxes."

Ah, they must've been heady days.

In the late 1990s, Milton Keynes Council took on a 25 year lease of the site from Hanson Aggregates, to run the reserve as an educational site, Hanson Environmental Study Centre. Permits are available for members of the public who wish to explore the natural history of the reserve.

Recently, I think it would be fair to say that investment in the site has been sadly lacking. Management plans have come and gone, the number of staff has been reduced and habitat maintenance has been either misdirected or absent.

The establishment of a Friends group in 2011, has seen some added impetus to put things right and return the reserve to something of its former self. Volunteer labour doesn't affect Council budget, whilst passionate and knowledgeable permit holders can bring much experience to bear on the habitat problems that abound.

After much lobbying and too many credulity-sapping delays, some action was agreed this Autumn. A team from the British Trust for Conservation Volunteers (BTCV) rebuilt a bridge to the bund to allow access for the necessary habitat management. With this in place, contractors were able to move in and fell all the tree and shrub growth, instantly creating a much more open vista.

However, the problem of what to do with the felled material remained. Leaving it in situ was not an option, as given half a chance, Willow will regrow from the smallest of branches. Worse still, if any of this material floated away as water levels rose during the Winter months, further vegetative colonisation of the lake would occur. Manhandling all the brash and logs back to the mainland was not an option, so it would have to be dealt with on site. The BTCV carried out a controlled burn with some small success, but due to limited numbers and time, a large proportion of the felled vegetation still required attention.

This week, the Friends group and the local RSPB Phoenix group, (a youth club for nature loving, environmentally aware teenagers), stepped into the breech to add much needed impetus to the task. After two days of aching muscles, singed eyebrows and smoke-laden clothes, the work is almost complete, the bulk of the Willow and Alder being suitably combusted. A discussion will ensue as regards what action, if any, to take with the heaps of ash that have been generated, but the Winter weather may soon raise water levels before a decision can be reached and a plan put into action.

View looking east along bund - that's better! Photo courtesy of The Admiral
At least for now, the bund is once again an open space that waders can use. It is to be hoped that an annual cycle of maintenance can be put in place and, perhaps, return it to the halcyon days when it was an excellent breeding site for Ringed Plover, Little Ringed Plover, Lapwing, Snipe and Redshank.

This has been a somewhat heavier blogpost than normal, so as a little light relief, here's the Top Five songs for removing felled Willow and Alder from a bund by burning:

Smoke On The Water by Deep Purple
Come On Baby, Light My Fire by The Doors
Fire and Water by Free
Burn Baby Burn by Ash
Fire by The Crazy World of Arthur Brown

One or two of those may get an airing this evening, in the run up to celebrating the New Year!

Thank you for your company during 2011, dear reader, and I wish you all the best for 2012.


holdingmoments said...

Thank goodness for volunteers.
That's somewhere I must try and get to this coming year.

A wonderfully 'heavy' post Graeme.
The first track happens to be my ringtone :-)

All the best to you and your family for 2012.

Imperfect and Tense said...

Cheers, Keith. With a bit of luck, it will be worth visiting. Here's to 2012 and another trip around the wheel of the year.

Spadger said...

Great stuff Mr W - nice to see the admirals shot with most/all brash gone.

If only we could have some more fun like that and not be worried in the back of our minds the Council will still fail to maintain it after everyone has gone to such trouble.

Thanks for the help and encouragement - especially when I got fed up of lugging brash and decided something more drastic was called for with the help of mother nature! :0)

Imperfect and Tense said...

We had a bit of trouble starting the fire on Saturday (after all that rain). The kindling would burn really quickly with the westerly breeze, before the larger stuff caught fire. In the end, I stood on top of the pyre to ensure that kindling and branches came into contact. I only became worried when someone started singing "Summer is acumen in".

Martin said...

I can hear his lordship's voice in your quote!

Great work though, and if there is a bridge (with a fence to stop the fox I hope!!) then an annual or biannual bash should take care of the saplings with much less work than required to clear it in the first place.

Imperfect and Tense said...

Thanks, Doc! You're right, it isn't rocket science, just common sense. A very rare and precious commodity, me thinks.