South Milton Ley Nature Reserve, Five-Year Report and Management Plan 2022-26

A new Five-Year Report and Management Plan 2022-26 for South Milton Ley Nature Reserve has been approved by Devon Birds’ Council. The new Conservation Advisor, Graham Burton, a former RSPB Reserves Manager with considerable experience of managing reedbeds, has had a significant input and will be taking responsibility for future documents, a task which I am glad to be relinquishing. Nick Townsend’s contribution, both in practical terms, in relation to monitoring seasonal and short-term changes in water levels, and in considering options for restoring the water table, has also been invaluable.

Commercial reed cutting at South Milton Ley in 1989

No more reed cuts!

The principal change in direction involves the cessation of winter reed cuts from now on. This may come as a shock to all those who have turned up to assist with this labour-intensive process in the past. It has been agreed that small scale rotational cutting has a place but only because it brings in some structural and floristic diversity; it does not, on its own, arrest succession and can actually reduce the number of breeding birds in recently cut areas.

Cut reeds stacked against the walls of the old, reedcutter’s cottage in 1989.

It has also been agreed that dredging of the drainage ditches will cease and channels will be allowed to establish their own depth and routes. Over time, this should reduce their depth leading to a more natural flow and a wetter reedbed. Those hardy individuals who regularly turn up for the winter reed cuts may not have escaped entirely as it is likely that vegetation in and fringing the drainage channels will need to be cleared periodically.

The 2019 reed cut – one of the last!

The management team will now be concentrating their attention on options for diverting some of the flow in South Milton Stream back into the eastern Reserve, where historical ditching has significantly lowered the water table. Nick and our favourite contractor Rory Sanders are due to visit to investigate the levels later this week. For those of you with time on your hands I have made the full document available online at (PDF) South Milton Ley Nature Reserve, Five-year Report and Management Plan 2022-26 ( This can either be read online by clicking on “Full text available” or downloaded via the down arrow beside the “More” button. I only posted the document at the end of last week and it’s already been read 55 times. If you have any (constructive!) comments or suggestions for the future, please let me know.

Monday 15th August 2022

Rainfall radar 14:15am 15th August 2022.

An inevitable consequence of the introduction of a hosepipe ban, I knew that the prolonged hot, dry spell was forecast to break this week and a cursory glance at the weather radar at 04:15 this morning would have been enough to send most people straight back to bed. However, ringers spend a lot of time studying weather and years of experience taught me that, despite acres of blue on the chart, less than 0.5mm/hr were being predicted. In reality, virtually no precipitation actually reached the ground.

A pity in a way, as I was hoping that a heavy shower might have dropped a few migrants, particularly as Aquatic Warblers seem to be popping up in reedbeds everywhere else across the SW. The last one recorded at South Milton was way back in 2011 and was the 10th bird I ever extracted from a mist net. As the new trainee, I definitely wasn’t going to get to ring it though! On the whole, migrants were far from obvious today. Playing a Tree Pipit tape didn’t entice a single bird towards a net either.

There were compensations. My Marsh Ride nets stretch across the reedbed for 48m and are bordered on their northern edge by South Milton stream, a boundary path and scattered hedgerow trees. I have been aware for some time that some migrants moved from tree to tree along the hedge rather than through the reedbed. Taking advantage of a natural gap, I have been able to clear a short ride and install a 6m superfine net. This is just beginning to prove its worth and today’s bonus bird was my first redstart trapped at SML for three years.

48 Birds trapped today: 3 Blackcap, 4 Blue Tit, 8 Chiffchaff, 1 Garden Warbler, 1 Redstart, 10 Reed Warbler, 4 Robin, 6 Sedge Warbler, 6 Willow Warbler, 1 Whitethroat and 4 Wren.

Wednesday 10th August 2022

Keeping the blog up to date hasn’t been my highest priority recently. There’s only so much you can write when the catch is composed of the same species as last time. However, after a relaxing five-day break at Portland Bird Observatory, I’m sufficiently recharged to start writing. Many thanks to the warden, Martin Cade, both for putting up with three generations of my family, including my 5 year-old granddaughter, for the second year in a row and for giving me free run of the nets in the Obs. garden.

Back to South Milton Ley. The grass was cut yesterday! At last! It makes the net rounds so much easier. That was the highlight though. Blistering heat and a desiccating northerly wind made ringing uncomfortable and conditions were marginal at times today. Combined with a lack of migrants, I packed up early! Just 25 new birds and 4 re-traps of 12 species: 1 Blackbird, 4 Blackcap, 1 Cetti’s Warbler, 2 Chaffinch, 5 Chiffchaff, 1 Great Tit, 2 Long-tailed Tit, 1 Magpie, 4 Reed Warbler, 2 Robin, 2 Sedge Warbler, 2 Willow Warbler and 2 Wren.

Wednesday 27th July 2022


Temperatures were much more civilised today. Despite this the reedbed is rapidly drying out and I was able to walk across the entire width without wellingtons for the first time in years! Whilst this affords some relief to my feet in the hot weather, the groundwater levels are not yet low enough to inhibit the growth of vegetation on the access paths. This fact seems to have escaped the attention of the largely absent reserve manager. Now over six weeks since the last cut, the grass, docks and other plants are about 18 inches high and hold enough predawn condensation to thoroughly soak my trousers and feet.

Ringing was steady with 82 birds of 15 species processed: 3 Blackbird, 13 Blackcap, 3 Blue Tit, 1 Bullfinch, 1 Cetti’s Warbler, 10 Chiffchaff, 1 Dunnock, 2 Great Tit, 10 Reed Warbler, 2 Robin, 9 Sedge Warbler, 1 Whitethroat, 20 Willow Warbler, 5 Wren plus 1 Yellowhammer.