Moorhen eating his greens along the Lagan
February 2nd is a red-letter day for nature. Not only the ancient Celtic festival of Imbloc; (meaning ewe’s milk, it is a major celebration of spring and the lambing season) in the US and Canada it’s Groundhog Day. But more importantly for us, and all the rest of the planet, Feb 2 is World Wetlands Day. Nice to see wetlands getting a bit of attention, and their own special day, because they certainly deserve it.
The Cinderellas of nature, wetlands can get overlooked compared to showier hills, forests and seascapes. Even their descriptions: bog, fen, marsh, swamp, do no favours. But don’t underrate their beauty and value. Up close, these squishy, squelchy worlds are very exotic! In a few months the ponds and swamps along the Lagan will be teeming with buzzing, flitting jewel-like insects, the call and splash of birds, tall reeds, frogs and blooming irises.
February 2 has been declared World Wetlands Day to celebrate these vulnerable habitats everywhere. This date in 1971 marked the adoption of the International Convention on Wetlands in the Iranian city of Ramsar on the Caspian Sea. Over 120 countries are now involved.
Cormorants like a nice perch from which to view the marshes (and their next meal)
The best flood prevention is natural Set in a bowl and threaded with rivers, Belfast and the Lagan Valley has a diversity of wetlands – the salt marshes and mudflats along Belfast Lough, the Bog Meadows(originally a 1000 acre floodplain for the Blackstaff River), the mountain moors, and of course the Lagan ponds and marshlands. Back in the day, these soggy places were much more extensive, which is why the few remaining wetlands we have are all the more valuable and worth protecting.
Not only for their beauty and incredible diversity of plants and animals which rivals any rainforest, but for the valuable role wetlands play in protecting against floods and erosion. Floodplains and fens act as natural sponges to absorb extra water, prevent overflow and minimise damage.
David Scott, LVRP Information and Conservation Officer details how natural solutions can reduce flood risk.
Flooding is a natural process that cannot always be prevented and can have severe impacts on individuals and communities, but also on wildlife. Climate change is likely to increase occurrences, so we need to find new ways to deal with managing flooding. Natural habitats can be used to help us handle flood risk, bringing benefits for biodiversity as well as to communities.
Working with nature we can restore a catchment's natural capacity to deal with floods. Wetlands, floodplains and woodland all act to slow the flow of water, store water in the catchment and reduce the threat of flooding downstream.
Measures that use natural habitats and restore natural processes can work in combination with more traditional flood risk management measures such as concrete floodwalls. An advantage of working with nature is that these methods can deliver multiple benefits for people and the environment:
· Tackling diffuse pollution - for example buffer strips can reduce excess nutrients and sediment run-off entering watercourses and also contribute to slowing and storing floodwater
· Restoring natural processes and habitats in a catchment to improve biodiversity and geodiversity - for example removing flood embankments and reconnecting a river with its floodplain
· Creating a more attractive landscape and enhanced amenity.
Flood prevention can be beautiful
Case in point - The Bog Meadows has been undergoing major restoration as part of Belfast’s flood control plans, to harness its power to prevent flooding.
Along the Lagan too, the diverse swamps and water meadows play an essential role in flood prevention – without these places Belfast and Lagan city centres would be soggier places! Of course these wetlands are also essential to plant and animal life along the Lagan and beyond.
Wetland projects are an important aspect of the Laganscape conservation work, designed to protect these fragile habitats, restore their beauty and diversity, make them more accessible...and prove that Bog Is Beautiful!
Minnowburn Pond gets a marvelous makeover David describes the nearly completed Minnowburn Wetland Project, where volunteers and staff have donned their wellies and gotten stuck in.
Regardless of whether ponds are natural or man-made, millponds, peat cutting ponds, garden ponds, gravel ponds and the natural variety, are all important habitats. Small as they are, ponds may support a diversity of life, and are particularly good habitats for amphibians such as frogs, toads and newts, and invertebrates such as dragonflies, snails and water beetles. The Park has examples of both man made and natural ponds.
The Minnowburn Wetland Project has created access to and enhanced the existing pond site off the Ballylesson Rd. This includes the provision of a designated accessible footpath from the Minnowburn car park to the pond with further access to the adjacent field and beyond. This will link the site to the Giant’s Ring network of paths. A dipping platform made out of green Irish oak has been built to facilitate education groups and pond dippers alike.
Laganscape and National Trust volunteers will be working to further enhance the habitat through the planting of wetland trees and creation of a willow weave bird hide. The bird hide will be made from living willow, which will continue to grow and provide a natural screen for visitors to watch heron, sparrow hawks, wood sandpiper and a whole array of tits and finches.
The work will be completed soon and a launch event is planned, so watch this space. And for more wonderful wetland images and info about the Lagan, go to http://www.laganvalleylearning.co.uk/Topics/ponds_10.aspx . Full of good stuff for people to go explore ponds for themselves.
Wetland residents can be pretty colourful - kingfishers like the quieter stretches of the river
Which of these adorable birds will bring colour to your garden this weekend? Bright blue tit?
Are the birds acting like it’s spring in your garden? Spend an hour taking part in the RSPB Big Garden Birdwatch this weekend and find out!
What a weird winter we’re having! (But I’m not complaining). Sunday along the towpath I saw beetles, sprouting greenery and grass, even dandelions. In my garden the daffodils are blooming and the snowdrops have been up for weeks. While birds are showing all the signs of mating. As I headed to the Bird Feeding Day (Saturday before last) at the Lock Keeper’s Cottage, the birds were in full dawn chorus mode, particularly a song thrush that was announcing his presence very beautifully from a prime perch – for any female thrush within half a mile!
Cuddly long-tailed tit?
The spring-in-January weather and the overall mildness of the winter so far will mean interesting viewing and results for this year’s Big Garden Bird Watch. It’s the world’s largest garden bird survey, as thousands of people across the UK spend an hour observing the birds in their gardens and recording the results. This year it takes place over the weekend of January 27 and 28th.
The results provide a snapshot of how some of our favourite garden birds, as well as more exotic visitors and winter migrants, are faring. The survey is also an opportunity to see how species that are endangered or in decline are coping. Though starlings may seem common, their numbers have diminished greatly, as have house sparrows. So the survey helps the RSPB set priorities for which species most need help to recover and advise on steps we can all take to help.
This year should be particularly interesting. The RSPB has been hearing from people who’ve noted fewer birds in their gardens despite putting out feeders. Are numbers down after the last two severe winters? Actually, there are probably more birds about, as young birds, which are the most susceptible to cold weather, have survived this year due to the mild conditions. They’re just not about in our gardens. Again, due to the unseasonal warmth, there is a greater food supply available in the countryside - berries, worms, even insects. So the need for seed is not so desperate and birds aren’t venturing into town.
Dapper wee coal tit?
Taking part in Big Garden Bird Watch is easy and fun. Simply visit rspb.org.uk to download a counting form, then submit your result online. Kids particularly enjoy nature on our doorstep, which is why schools make up such a big part of the survey every year. You don’t need a garden – your patio, local park, schoolyard – anywhere will do!
Put out food now and watch bird numbers increase for even better watching.
Best to stay indoors and keep the cat in too, so you don’t scare the birds away.
View on a sunny day when the sun is low (morning or late afternoon) and you’ll only see black silhouettes, which makes identification tricky to say the least.
Or a friendly neighbourhood robin? Photos provided by LVRP
So can we breathe a sigh of relief that we’ve made it through winter? Let’s see what February throws at us first. If it finally does turn properly wintery, count on nature to put on the brakes and the birds to forget about romance at least until after Valentine’s Day!
The Laganscape and Lagan Valley Red Squirrel Group have teamed up to investigate how our local red squirrels have been holding up against two fierce winters in a row, aggressive grey squirrel competition and the challenges of being a small, mild mannered picky eater in a big bad world.
LVRP Information and Countryside Officer David Scott tells us about their planned research project:
One of the most frequent questions people ask about Belvoir Park Forest is “are there any red squirrels left?” Well we hope to answer that question soon.
Working alongside the Lagan Valley Red Squirrel Group, the Laganscape scheme is involved in helping to conserve the red squirrel population in Belvoir Park Forest, one of the last strongholds of this native species in Northern Ireland.
As part of the project, expert David Tosh and his team will undertake an extensive survey of the red squirrels. Over the coming months he will observe the red squirrel population with a view to determining numbers and the capacity of the forest to provide a habitat now in and in the future.
This information will be used to develop a conservation management plan to help protect this endangered species both here in Lagan Valley Regional Park and nationally.
Laganscape’s dedicated group of red squirrel survey volunteers, who tirelessly remain committed to the Lagan Valley red squirrel, are supporting this valuable project, going out in all weathers to survey the forest.
Keep an eye out for future postings where I will give an update on our furry friends.
Along with the bluebells and the kingfisher, the red squirrel is one of the most loved and iconic features of the LVRP. We’re all looking forward to a bright future for this adorable and very vulnerable Park resident.
More visible, more hungry at this time of year
Saturday January 14th is Winter Birds Day at the Lock Keeper's
With the lack of tree cover and natural food supplies, our feathered friends become far more conspicuous. And they would certainly appreciate the extra help we can all provide - that means food! The more food you provide, the more birds will come to your garden...and the greater the variety of avian visitors too!
Right now is a great time to learn more about familiar garden birds - how to identify them and their habits too. And of course, the best foods to feed them to help them through winter.
So come along this Saturday to the Lock Keeper's Cottage and find out.
This is your opportunity to have a go at making some seed balls and learn some basics about our winter birds. Why not bring along the whole family for a great morning’s fun? (Kids love making the seed balls, which are easy. And grownups - the suet in the seed balls is great for dry winter skin! It also provides essential fats birds rely on in cold weather)
Meet at Lock Keeper’s Cottage for our Feeding the Birds event at 11.00am (around 2.5 hours). Call 028 9049 1922 to book your place.
The award winning Laganscape project, dedicated to restoring, protecting and enhancing the Lagan Valley Regional Park’s heritage, wildlife and natural features (as well as amenities), has just completed its 4th year. As LVRP Information Officer David Scott tells us, new programmes are underway, established projects are making great strides, and visitors to the Park will be able to see the results and enjoy the benefits. (That goes for visiting and resident wildlife too!)
There is plenty of work still in progress, so even more good things for us all to look forward to in 2012. In future blogs we’ll be giving you more details about these developments.
As we completed another year, the Laganscape staff and volunteers are looking back on the last twelve months with some level of satisfaction. It has been a busy time with an ambitious programme of projects successfully completed. Some have been continuing previous work, such as our bird conservation project, with more bird boxes being put up and a new monitoring system put into place. In future updates we hope to reveal just how many of our feathered friends have taken up residence in the deluxe apartments built by our volunteers. Other new projects are nearing completion, including the riverside park in Lisburn. Watch this space for more details.
Again, our volunteers have been working tirelessly in the Regional Park and the Lock Keeper’s cottage. The Saturday Conservation Team (50 members strong) are a committed and highly motivated group of individuals who care passionately about the Regional Park. They have been involved in a wide range of projects throughout the year and have supported the initiatives of many of our partner organisations including:
“I appreciate knowing that in years to come I can proudly show other people the trees or hedges we planted and feel a sense of contribution to this beautiful park.” Carol Laird, Conservation Volunteer
Our Survey Volunteers have been out in all weathers taking part in our species survey initiative. They have been helping to build a picture of the health of populations of red squirrel, butterflies, birds and bees, which in turn feeds into conservation plans being developed by the Regional Park and other organisations, such as Butterfly Conservation Northern Ireland.
Thanks to the dedication of the Heritage Guides, the Lock Keeper’s cottage (LKC) continues to be a great success. Through our Guides’ passionate interpretation of the cottage and Lock 3, the public remain enthralled in the story - as the visitor numbers reflect. The cottage would not be open without our Guides’ input. In fact they are responsible for promoting the LKC on behalf of the project and Castlereagh Borough Council. This year the Guides met and helped the project team develop the future management of the LKC and garden. 2012 will see the Guides taking a more active role in the day-to-day care of the building and artefacts as well as weekend opening.
“Volunteering in the cottage is a great way to meet new people. I have particularly enjoyed having the opportunity to develop the cottage garden. Many visitors have complimented the work we’ve done.” David Scott, Heritage Guide Volunteer
However, we are not sitting on our laurels and have already started on Year 5. In 2012, we will see the development of a new wetland project and the creation of 3.54 hectares of wildflower meadow in Minnowburn. In partnership with the National Trust, these projects are already being developed with new accessible pathways being completed by the end of January 2012.
Laganscape is currently developing an Interpretation Strategy, which will look at the signage throughout the Regional Park. It is hoped that new interpretation can be produced, providing more information and helping visitors get more enjoyment from their surroundings.
We have exciting new community projects due to start this year. Local communities were asked to submit ideas for projects in their area, which would benefit local people and the natural or built environment. We have shortlisted the successful community groups and will begin work in the spring.
This year will see the end of the Ancient Oak project with the last 700 trees being planted. These young trees were grown from acorns collected from some of the oldest oaks in Ireland found in Belvoir Park Forest. To date we have planted out over 4000 with the help of our volunteers, school groups and local communities.
Our species conservation projects have everyone excited. We will be building artificial otter holts, swift, bat and barn owl boxes. We hope to have cameras in bird boxes and outside kingfisher tunnels with live feeds on our website. These plans are still in the early stages of development, so keep an eye on www.laganvalley.co.uk for further news. Or, if you'd like to volunteer this year!
Photos from LVRP show the many things our volunteers get up to!