RSPB Marshside’s regular volunteers had a helping hand on Sunday from a team of enthusiasts from the Wirral Countryside Volunteers. The WCV brought along some experienced hedge-layers to lay a section of hawthorn hedge alongside Marshside Road which crosses the Nature Reserve. The hedgerow, which was planted by RSPB staff some fifteen years ago has now reached the ideal size for laying.
Hedge-laying is a traditional method of prolonging the life of a hedge and creating a cow-proof barrier. It also creates a fantastic wildlife habitat at the same time. The new vertical growth of stems that arises in the spring to cross the laid horizontal branches provides a wonderful nesting and feeding area for smaller birds and animals that are then protected from predators by a thorny screen. The shrubs will also flower and fruit more vigorously (incidentally, this technique will also work well in your garden too!).
The training received on Sunday will mean that RSPB Marshside staff and volunteers can continue this management technique on other suitable hedgerows around the reserve in years to come.
Remember, if you are planning any hedge–cutting at home, you only have a couple more weeks left to do it before the birds start nesting again!
We carry out this kind of management on most of our reserves every year but we sometimes forget that it is not familiar to everyone and can shock and upset some of our visitors.
The scrub around the fringes of the reserve is an important habitat for some of our smaller birds as well as for a lot of other wildlife. We manage the habitat with two key bird species in mind, linnet and reed bunting, as well as for all the other wildlife. Crucially, we also bear in mind the impact that this habitat has on our most important habitat at Marshside, the coastal wet grassland.
The scrub at Marshside is a mixture of species and ages. Some shrubs were introduced to the site when the road embankment was constructed and subsequent fly-tipping took place. The remaining native shrubs have been planted since it became an RSPB reserve in 1994 and we still plant a few new shrubs every year. Broadly speaking, scrub matures after about 15 years and much of our scrub could now be described as mature although some of the plants are stunted in the more exposed locations.
We cut the scrub back in a rotation to create a patchwork with some areas that are mature, some that are developing and some that are newly cut back. We do this because our favoured birds prefer open, scattered scrub and the clearings are important habitats for a range of insects, including the butterflies that love the sheltered sun-traps.
Scrub is a ‘temporary’ habitat. If left unmanaged, it progresses to woodland and so, funny though it may sound, by cutting it back we are ensuring it survives. Marshside is a coastal grassland site of immense importance for its wintering and breeding wet grassland birds. We do not want to allow woodland conditions to develop as woodland would not be an appropriate habitat at this type of location. Furthermore, taller trees would provide look-outs for avian predators like carrion crows and a dense understorey will provide cover for foxes and other ground predators. For all these reasons we consider regular management of the scrub to be essential.
When you cut back or coppice a shrub it reacts by producing a burst of new growth. This creates ideal nest-sites for small birds as well as providing an effective screening for the nesting birds. In some locations it is also ideal for hiding the human visitors from the shyer waterfowl. Cutting the shrubs back also prolongs their life and encourages them to flower and fruit more enthusiastically, providing food for insects and birds throughout the year. We try to do most of our cutting back after Christmas when the berries have been taken. We also try to do the work before the birds think about nesting again in March.
There is another very good practical reason for cutting back the scrub before it gets too big: that way we are able to do the work with our volunteers using hand tools. If we leave it too late, we will be forced to employ contractors with chainsaws which is expensive and uses fuel and makes a lot of noise.
We are at the lowest point of the year now and any work we carry out on the reserves inevitably does leave a ‘scar’. Fortunately, we are only a few weeks away from the start of the growing season and it will surprise you, (as it surprises us every year), just how quickly those scars will heal.
Today was very wet and windy on the reserve with the odd hail shower added for good measure, but the wildlife (birds especially) definitely made up for it.
Views from Sandgrounder's out across the marsh were difficult first thing but eight European white fronted geese were spotted in amongst the pink feet.
The usual Water rail made fleeting dashes out in the open seemingly undeterred by the Sparrow hawk sat right above its head.
Kestrel and Peregrine added to the raptors for the day and a Short eared owl created a spectacle as it flew right over the hide followed by a Magpie in hot pursuit.
Throughout the day there were great views of Hares, some quite close to the hide.
At the end of the day 16 Little egrets passed in front of the hide on their way to roost on Marine Lake with one Great white egret bringing up the rear.
As I was about to leave Marshside today I thought I'll just check the saltmarsh from the end of the sand works. I'm glad i did!
First was a Peregrine perched up, then a buzzard also perched up, then a Marsh Harrier flying/hunting over the marsh and then a Kestrel also hunting. But the best was when the Buzzard decided to leave its perch only to be mobbed by the first Harrier joined by a second. The Buzzard dropped down and perched again on a fence post but both Harriers kept flying. Meanwhile I think the Peregrine thought there was far too much action out on the marsh and had left its perch unnoticed.
What a great sight before heading home!!