Sion has been busy camera trapping and has come across a species only seen here once before, many years ago – the water rail. We can only hope that the wetland habitats we are creating with the help of the beavers are bringing these shy and elusive birds to the farm.
It’s been manic on the farm recently. This prolonged wet and windy weather has made silage making a gamble and Eirian just got the last lot in at two in the morning before the heavens opened yet again. Many big tree branches, heavy with wet leaves, have been blown down in the strong winds. The swallows and martins, and many other species that require insects for feeding their broods, are really struggling. Let’s hope second clutches do better. The wagtails love to nest in the turf roofs of the buildings and are successful there away from ground predators. Cats are quick to mop up fledgelings making their first fluttering flights.
On Tuesday and Wednesday the Countryfile film crew were here filming and we managed to shoot all the falcon flying shots in good weather before the rain came in again and we got soaked filming beavers. Various visitors have been visiting and watching the beavers and everyone has managed to see them. The family of beavers down at Skinny Dipping Pond have been particularly active and have two new burrows, one of which we think contains this year’s kits. They’ve been building a dam above their pond and it is interesting to see how much water they can hold back. The other two beaver families are also taking food into their lodges so we will soon be keeping an eye out for emerging new kits.
We have had 15 students here over the weekend led by Alicia. They are from Bangor, Aberystwyth and Oxford universities and are studying the effects beavers are having on the habitats. They’ve been camping at Waunlas in pouring rain but the canteen has been a life saver for them and they have been able to get on with a lot of species identification work in the dry.
Meanwhile we have had at least one mink around and have failed to catch it in cage traps. These very agile little aliens can devastate the water voles and the water fowl and are very versatile predators. Especially in this wet weather they lay up in rabbit burrows but while you are busy searching soggy hedges they can just as easily be watching you from up some ivy covered tree.
Down at Ricketts Mill Drew and I have been planting reed beds and these are settling down well. We’ve managed to keep most of the geese away because these pull up the reeds as fast as we plant them. Once the reeds are rooted and the beds thicken up, some geese will be welcome. We have harvested most of the reeds from the Penllynin lake but Drew has been successful at growing phragmites from seeds. Ross and the fencers started last week. Modern fencing uses only very weak chemical preservatives and rot away quickly so Drew has been busy soaking them in creosote for extra protection before they go in. The fence is designed to stop mink, otters and foxes getting in and to prevent beavers getting out, and will enclose about nine acres including four ponds. But it will be another couple of years or so before the habitat has developed enough to support beavers. In restoring ecosystems one has to work from the bottom up, literally. So bringing the raw clay exposed lake bed to life is the first task, with suitable plants that can host increasing populations of invertebrates that in turn will become food for predators such as dragonflies and kingfishers. Beavers of course are strictly vegetarian. At the moment they are targeting lush herbage but spend a lot of time steadily eating bramble leaves.
With this wet weather, the ground has gone soft again so I have taken the opportunity to plant out a number of trees that we have pot grown, or self-sown birches growing on the tracks that would otherwise get topped off. I’m under-planting areas of woodland that are suffering from ash dieback. The dying ash trees are acting as nursery trees for the new small trees and by the time the ash is completely dead the new trees will be waist high and on their way. We are leaving most of the ash to rot where they stand, but one or two big hedgerow trees will need taking down in the winter. Others seem unaffected so let’s hope we have some resistant ones here able to re-colonise.
Here on the farm we have a tiny vestigial piece of upland, it’s tucked away on a bank alongside a farm track and is so tiny you’d barely notice it. There are a few tufts of heather, some rowans and a fair sprinkling of blaeberries. It’s wonderful to see the tiny berries starting to appear but I’m pretty sure the birds will beat me to them (and so they should of course) but it would be nice to find the odd one or two they’ve missed.
With this dry spell the water level in one of the beaver ponds has dropped considerably and it’s a great chance to see how beautiful is the sub surface construction of a beaver dam. It doesn’t show too well in the photograph but the face is beautifully sculpted and faced with clay. The thickness of the bottom of the dam is so much greater than the top ensuring the water pressure at depth does not cause a breach. Amazing what instinct can do!
Spring has been slow, which is how we like it. Birds are nesting everywhere. The wrens in the Bevis Shed are nesting in the motor of the sawmill so we cannot mill any planks. An immaculate pair of bullfinches are busy shredding fruit buds in the orchard, which is not so good. I watched at the top pond on a lovely May Day evening. The moorhens are just hatching and a naughty chick had left the nest and was fossicking around. Eventually mum gathered him up and got him back up onto the nest in a clump of rushes where they settled down for the night.
The beavers emerged around 8pm from the corner of the top pond and I could see nipples on the female. Either she has just given birth or she is just about to. It is hard to tell when beavers are pregnant because they always look fat. All the herbs are growing now so there is plenty of fresh feed. They don’t touch the bluebells, but they nibble away fairly consistently at the brambles and are slowly making it retreat.
There are reports of some red deer around. Drew has seen the tracks in a neighbour’s garden. And we have fresh tracks through the Jubilee Wood along the north bank. We have not had deer around here in living memory. We found an old buck rabbit lying down yesterday, with no sign of injury. It was still alive so I killed it. Perhaps it has the haemorrhagic disease that kills quickly? I left it for the kites.
Down at Ricketts Mill, the ponds are beginning to settle in and the reeds and willows are all sprouting. The greylags have arrived with three goslings. Gradually the raw earth is healing over. Spring is here.
And I’ve just seen a pair of green sandpipers down at Ricketts Mill!
Nick has built a lovely new bench down at Skinny Dipping pond. It gives a gorgeous view of the pond and the valley. In the next couple of weeks beavers will start to become very active in the later daylight hours, usually from around 19.00. It’s the time we love the best, just sitting, watching and enjoying. We thought that other people might like to come and enjoy the beavers too…
We are offering a number of chances to come and watch the beavers, either at Skinny Dipping pond (above), on the big lake or at the top pond. There will be a charge of £20.00 per visitor as we have to give you a guide but you will be offered an unrivaled opportunity to see beavers in natural habitats exhibiting all kinds of beaver behaviours.
Skinny Dipping pond has the bench and is a good walk so suitable only for people who can cope with rough ground – it may be dark when you return and the hill is quite steep. Suitable for up to 6 or 7 people. You are about 30 metres from the pond and get great views of the whole beaver family.
The big lake has a lovely and comfortable hide which can hold up to 10 people at a squeeze. It’s a fairly east walk down from the farm through fields and woodland. It can be wet so suitable footwear is advised. You are positioned about 65 metres from the lodge and beavers can pop up anywhere. There is also the opportunity to watch other wildlife here…we have seen dabchicks, otters, badgers, kingfishers and water voles to name but a few.
Top Pond has a snug little hide, comfortable for 2, a squeeze for three. It’s a nice walk over the fields and you really get up close and personal with the beavers. In fact, the hide is over the water and beavers can actually be beneath you!
Whilst we cannot guarantee that you will see beavers, I don’t think we’ve ever failed to see them on a summer’s evening.
I’ve just returned from New Zealand where there has been a major crisis in wildlife management ever since mammalian predators were introduced in Victorian times. Rats, stoats, weasels, ferrets, cats, hedgehogs, possums, rabbits, hares, pigs, goats and deer all either predate native wildlife or wreck the habitat. Efforts have been made to control their numbers, particularly the brush-tailed possum introduced from Australia for its fur. It is the main vector for bovine Tb and New Zealand takes a much more robust no-nonsense approach to this. In steep heavy bush country, the controversial poison 1080 is dropped by plane, and systematic poisoned baits are laid on plastic bait stations on tree trunks. It is an ongoing battle that can never be won, but having said that, bTb has been significantly reduced to just a few areas now, and there are plans to completely eradicate it both from cattle and the vectors by 2050. UK on the other hand blows hot and cold on the Tb issue; it is increasing all the time, causing huge costs both financial and emotional to farmers as well as suffering amongst the badgers. The political vacillating has resulted in farmers just taking the law into their own hands from sheer frustration.
I am a Patron of Picton Dawn Chorus, a community group aimed at reducing the introduced predators around Picton in the South Island. A predator-proof fence has been constructed cutting off Kaipupu Point, creating a haven for wildlife and now kiwis have been re-introduced. PDC’s objective is to create a low predator buffer zone around this core area so that native birds can overspill and create at least minimum viable populations long term. The group makes and supplies traps to people of all ages and we try to have at least one rat trap every 50 metres in a grid across all areas of town and surrounding bush. A similar project has been run in Wellington, with good results, but there is no end to the battle. Retired folk, mums and school children are all soldiers in our army.
Kaipupu has been an inspiration to the Bevis Trust and we hope to start work on the predator fence as soon as the ground dries up. It will enclose about 9 acres of river flats and all the ponds. Meanwhile we have been taking down overhanging branches and removing all sorts of rusty wire fencing that is visible when the leaves are off. It is a race against time, this sunny weekend is warming the ground and the vegetation is coming alive again. Everything is budding and leaves are unfurling. Another couple of weeks and the landscape will be totally changed.