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A Year at Shapwick by Simon Beard

What a Year It’s Been!

It seems so much longer than a year ago that my contract with Natural England was due to come to an end and Phil Holms asked if I would consider moving to the Hawk and Owl Trust for three days each week. Having worked on the Avalon Marshes with the RSPB & NE previously, I was keen to support the continuation of the community events that I had been managing. On that cold, February day looking out on bare fields with almost no signs of wildlife, walking along the main track because it was too muddy to drive, I had my doubts, but having worked with Phil for many years, I knew he was a person who ‘got things done’ and his legendary ‘manipulation’ of people resulted in me saying “Yes, I would love to do my bit!”

So what has happened over the past year? Although feeling busy, the first few months started slowly. The first visit from Natural England’s Conservation advisor was incredibly positive, and he suggested many exciting things we might consider doing in the future. All these ideas required vision as all we had was a shipping container with two empty plastic buckets in it and a few tools stored at various locations across the area. Our major asset was a dedicated and willing workforce of volunteers with real desire to get things moving at Shapwick.

Groups from local schools started visiting us each week in April, carrying out small scale management tasks on the reserve. The Shapwick Moor volunteer team litter picked and burnt odd bits of wood along the main (still very muddy) track into the reserve. These small tasks were important but often left people feeling that the task to bring the whole area back to a wildlife rich hotspot was still unrealistically huge.
By late August the pace of change moved up several gears! Various contractors started to arrive to erect gateways and replacing long neglected culverts and other simple infrastructure items. Field margins were marked out and established along the southern boundary. Over a fortnight more than eighty large lorry loads of stone arrived, heavy machinery levelled and laid a track and suddenly the reserve was ‘open for business`.

The new car park followed by Mid-September. The Woodland Trust kindly donated sufficient trees to hedge the parking area. We had a wonderful day working with families from the Avalon Marshes Youth Group planting these. The new ‘berm’ last cut into the fenny ditch was popular with dragonflies throughout the summer and it was good to see earlier management efforts giving wildlife dividends.

The noble group of Shawick Moor volunteers had grown seeds collected from the neighbouring Parish plot and in early autumn some of the plants were put out on the berm. Unfortunately our farmer, Rob, was unaware that he should not allow cattle in the field and many of the plants so carefully nurtured & tended were nibbled rather aggressively. A very contrite Rob has promised that his cows will stay away in future! Fortunately the Dorset school where I used to be deputy head came to the rescue the following week and helped to plant the rest of the plants and the berm was fenced (just in case!). The same school joined our volunteer team later the same month to collect freshly cut green hay from the parish plot and spread it along a freshly harrowed strip of our fen field. A huge quantity of hay was collected & spread, Devil’s Bit Scabious plants were put in and then…. someone (OK ..me!) got the vehicle stick firmly into the peat. Enough said!

Things have continued at the same ‘mad’ pace into the winter… an almost dry ditch was cleared, and water control mechanisms were erected, instantly creating a very wet and deep feature. A large pond was dug – fed with water from this ditch. Huge piles of excavated peat were piled along ditch edges to hold water in our fields (Hawk and Owl Trust are the only people in Somerset wanting water on our fields!). Two scrapes were also excavated the same week. They looked very bare and dry and I doubted that they would ever even get wet. Little do I know, within 2 days the raised water table resulted in both scrapes being full and a pair of swans happily swimming on them! The planning permission arrived for the hides the same week, hence our contractor was instantly able to put in the foundations ready for their building (once we had found a builder!). Our contractor rapidly learnt to recognise the words “whilst you are here could you just…”, These conversations resulted in a 2 extra berms being cut into the sides of the fen field ditch, log stumps being moved across reserve fields, a huge metal trailer being removed and lots of other tasks that were beyond the means of simple manpower!

The notice board and road signs arrived just in time to go up before the members’ weekend and AGM. If only the dry weather had done the same. We had a lovely turnout based at the nearby Avalon Marshes Centre with exciting updates from the other HOT reserves and exciting presentations by Emily Joachin and Nigel Lewis about Little Owls & Kestrels. Our desire to show everyone the reserve developments was met with the heaviest ‘shower’ for months and our tour resulted in many VERY WET members!

Into November and we gained a new group of Duke of Edinburgh students from Shapwick School who visit us weekly. They have already done a great job repairing ditch edges with sandbags, cutting overgrown ditches and moving huge piles of brush.

Two Kestrel boxes arrived from Sculthorpe just before Christmas and immediately we erected two telegraph poles on the reserve and put up the boxes.. no residents as yet, but both buzzards & Kestrels have been seen perching on them already. After some persuasion (HOT speak for thumb screwing!) Melvyn Yeandle (former Shapwick Heath Warden) agreed to build our first major hide and he started work on 6 January. As I type this the finishing touches are going in and it should be finished and ready for the official opening in early March. Volunteers erected nest boxes and lined the pond by the hide recently: unsurprisingly, it is now full of water. Volunteer made bird feeders will go up soon.

Throughout the winter months lots of other smaller tasks were completed including erecting raptor perches, removing scrap metal structures, temporary damming of ditches into rhymes, designing & erecting way post signs across the reserve, producing a photographic record of the reserve, clearing willows from ditch sides ready for stump removal in winter 2014. The Natural England Conservation officer has continued to visit regularly and offer superb support. Our stock of tools has recently been greatly enhanced by a donation from the North Somerset HOT group of 6 pairs of heavy duty loppers.

So what next? Will things keep moving forward after the major changes of 2013? Most definitely “YES!” The official opening of the Barbary Handley Hide will be on March 8th. Before the end on March we have another 350metres of hedges to plant (these will screen the new scrapes and path to the hide) bringing us up to 1/2km of new hedges planted this winter. Plans are in place to build our second hide (for viewing the nearby Badger Sett) and this should be erected by the spring. In 2014 we will double the area of field margins and establish a two year cycle of cutting these. More water control structures will go in next autumn to continue with the rewetting our fields. Into the winter, we plan to cut ‘gutters’ into some fields to establish linear scrapes for wintering birds (all the more food for passing raptors!). Our reserve lacks many large trees for raptor perches and nesting, so standard trees will be established in our hedges, and extra hedges planted along the droves. If our green hay efforts of 2013 prove successful, we will repeat the task again in 2014, spreading the hay on new areas and also collecting seeds from neighbouring sites of key plant species to speed up the process of plant colonisation. We also hope to improve the visitor experience soon by adding to the number of seats on the reserve and erecting some information boards.

The Hawk and Owl Trust now leads all the public engagement & family events on the Avalon Marshes and we have three planned for the summer months, Sunday 27 April, Sunday 1 June & Sunday 14 September. After a year’s rest, we are planning another Avalon 24 event this year – 24 hours of guided walks & activities on the Avalon Marshes on the weekend on 24 -25 May, We are already looking out for volunteers to help us with leading walks and to cover the booking in and out of walks at the Avalon Marshes Centre (any offers of help will be gratefully received at any time – drop me an email or give me a call 07919 095705!) We plan to increase the monitoring of all species seen on the reserve and would like to form a group of volunteers who could start to coordinate this. Again, assistance with this vital task would be appreciated.

Hopefully with our greatly increased public profile in the area we will start to find ways of raising the vital funds to keep this work going. We have received huge support and expertise from our neighbours at Natural England’s Shapwick Heath reserve over recent years, but we are never sure how long this situation can continue, hence we need to ensure we are future proofed from the changes that might occur on neighbouring reserves. The more we do, the more we will have to do. All the work carried out in the past year means we need more volunteers with an increased range of skills. Please contact me – simon.beard@hawkandowl.org if you feel you can help out in ANY way – however small it may seem to you, it is likely to be really useful to the development of the reserve. If you are interested in joining our regular monthly practical volunteer team, please contact Baz (baz.gray@btinternet.com).

Photos from 2013

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