With a light south-easterly breeze forecast, I was at South Milton Ley by 07:30 and had the usual six nets operational before 9am. As expected it was those nets beside the sewage works, which provided the majority of interest, whilst the three nets in the reedbed added just two additional birds. There were an estimated 50 Chiffchaffs feeding in the trees surrounding the STW, including at least two Siberian Chiffchaffs, but the wind direction was not ideal for trapping. Despite this Chiffchaffs dominated the catch, making up 14 of the 24 birds trapped. Elsewhere on the reserve there were two each of singing male Reed Bunting, Cirl Bunting and Cetti’s Warbler.
The peace was interrupted by shredding machinery being operated by contractors engaged to cut the hedgerow on the southeast boundary of the reserve. This was planted in 2003 and had been sadly neglected ever since. Many of the spiral, plastic tree guards used to protect the young saplings are still in place 16 years later and have prevented new growth from sprouting at the base of the trunks, whilst the main trunks have become rather “leggy”. The hedge was about 6m high and has been cut to half-height. A massive twin circular saw mounted on a large tracked excavator was used and the debris mulched. This equipment was selected as it makes a clean cut and avoids the extensive damage caused by the more conventional flail. It is also more beneficial to wildlife. From now on the hedge will be cut every eight years or so. Now neatly manicured, with a flat top, the hedge looks rather tidy but the over-enthusiastic contractor was actually supposed to leave a few trees uncut.
Hedgerow trees provide a range of habitats in one small area. Together with the hedge they provide shelter, food, nesting sites, song posts and hiding places for birds, as well as stepping-stones between woodland habitats. One mature hawthorn can produce as many berries as 200 metres of hedge cut every year. Hedgerows containing a selection of mature trees contain a greater diversity of birds than those closely cut, which provide limited breeding opportunities for tree-nesting species such as goldfinch and greenfinch and limited feeding opportunities for a wider range of birds. It is recommended that mature trees are allowed to develop at irregular intervals on all suitable hedges. Although this recommendation has not been implemented at SML this time and the whole lot have had the chop, the trees are only 16 years old and there is plenty of time to allow a few to reach maturity in the future.
Never reluctant to blow my own trumpet, the Horsewell Ditch project, designed by myself and Nick Townsend with support from Natural England and practical advice from Rory Saunders, is looking fabulous. Excavated in September 2017 and landscaped in September 2018, this new habitat has already hosted a Green Sandpiper and today held a Grey Heron, 10 Mallard and 2 Teal. Even this project has had its setbacks with the weight of retained water breaching the earth banks at either side of the sluice. Multiple barrow loads of clay and much jumping up and down to consolidate them seem to have reduced the seepage to manageable levels and the experience gained will be of benefit when designing a sluice for the main drainage ditch in the future.