The winter work has just begun

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Winter habitat management on the DWT’s reserves is under way, enhancing the ecology and supporting endangered dormice, butterflies and newts

Fieldfare on hawthorn.
Image: Chris Gomersall 2020VISION

While summer may be the time for ‘making hay while the sun shines’, the dormant winter season is when the dramatic habitat management on Dorset Wildlife Trust’s nature reserves takes place. Darker damper days see the tough work of coppicing and hedge laying and the scrub and pond management. This month, Dorset Wildlife Trust (DWT) reserves manager Neil Gibson and reserves ecologist Steve Masters give BV readers an insight into their vital winter season work.

DWT reserve scrub management using robotic machinery. Image: Ben Atkinson

Hedge laying
Nature reserves: South Poorton, Bracketts Coppice, Kingcombe Meadows
Target species: dormice, yellowhammer
The traditional method of hedge laying (or plashing) has long been in existence to maintain hedges as dense barriers for livestock – but it also prolongs the longevity of a hedge. Over time, hedges can require rejuvenation; they develop gaps, become top heavy and no longer provide good shelter. They can also spread out and suppress flower-rich grassland.
The maintenance process entails cutting back the vegetation but selecting the best stems or pleachers to partially sever at the base, leaving some living tissue. Those are then bent over and laid down onto the earth or the previous laid stem. Once intertwined to hold in place, what remains is a thick, living hedge, which will provide cover for nesting and roosting animals and birds. Products resulting from hedge laying include firewood and flexible rods for hurdle and fence construction.

Scrub management
Nature reserves: Fontmell Down, Powerstock Common, Townsend, Upton Heath
Target species: insects (especially butterflies), wildflowers
In simple terms, scrub can mean anything from scattered bushes to closed canopy vegetation. On DWT nature reserves, it tends to be a mix of smaller woody shrubs, such as hawthorn, blackthorn, dogwood and hazel, encroaching onto a species-rich grassland. Scrub is a valuable habitat in itself – providing shelter and nesting sites for a wide variety of wildlife. Generally, the aim is to manage the scrub to provide a range of ages of shrubs, rather than eradicating it. Many DWT reserves are internationally important for their grassland, so we must strike a balance between the two.
A good example is Fontmell Down, a chalk grassland with a vast array of flowers, including ten species of orchid – plus, of course, the many animals (especially butterflies and other insects) that rely on them. Scrub constantly grows, so, if not kept in check, this habitat would eventually be lost.
Grazing animals can help, but other management methods include volunteers with hand tools, staff or contractors with chainsaws – and very occasionally big machinery when appropriate. Often, valued nature reserve habitats need intervention to keep them in top condition for the wildlife they support. These interventions often replicate the conditions of the past, which may have been due to human activity or or now-extinct large animals.

DWT reserve scrub management using robotic machinery. Image: Ben Atkinson

Scrapes
Nature reserves: Winfrith and Tadnoll Heath, Sopley Common
Target species: heath tiger beetle, scarce blue-tailed damselfly, pillwort, marsh clubmoss, heath sand wasp, sand lizard
Wet scrapes are shallow ponds that hold rain and flood water seasonally and remain damp for much of the year. They are created by digging into the soil and they work better with uneven edges and varying depth. These often-overlooked habitats are important across our nature reserves. There are a variety of species, especially some very rare invertebrates and plants, which depend on these areas.
We create dry scrapes on heathland, for example, by scraping off shrubby ericaceous growth, while digging down to expose sandy soils beneath. The excavated matter is banked up to form a south-facing mound, with a sandy face. This helps to ensure that plenty of consistent bare-ground habitat is available for wildlife across the site.
Wet scrapes can benefit plants, birds, and more wildlife. For these, we create areas with shallow water grading through to muddy edges. These habitats are often created by ‘re-scraping’ existing scrapes as they become vegetated – sometimes all it needs is a bit of ‘roughing up’!

DWT reserve hedge, post-laying, being double-fenced. Image: Neil Gibson

Ponds
Nature reserves: Powerstock Common, Kingcombe Meadows
Target species: great crested newt
Ponds are a habitat that often needs attention to ensure they do not become inhospitable for species which depend on some open water. Sometimes, donning waders and hand tools is just not enough, and the job calls for bigger machines.
Winter is the optimal time for this – species such as newts are away from the ponds on land. It is crucial for some ponds to maintain deeper open water. This allows the pond wildlife to disappear into the depths for safety.
Tougher plants and sediment can be removed easily with a digger, ensuring that work doesn’t need to be carried out again for years to come and the pond will gradually re-vegetate. Where possible, we also try to expand the network of ponds available on a nature reserve by creating new ones. This is beneficial, as ponds at various stages of succession provide a habitat for a wider variety of wildlife.

  • Visit our website to plan a trip to a Dorset Wildlife Trust nature reserve where you can see first-hand how our winter management work benefits wildlife
    dorsetwildlifetrust.org.uk

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