They have braved ice, wind, sleet, snow and even floods, but our small group of conservation volunteers have persevered regardless, helping to manage our nature reserve this winter, supporting wildlife and their community during a time greenspace has become more important than ever for wellbeing. Of course there have also been plenty of sunny and sparkling, frosty mornings and even a rainbow so it’s not all dark and gloomy.
The main focus over the last few weeks has been scrub management which means our volunteers have had to wrestle with a lot of bramble, rose, blackthorn, hawthorn and other prickly plants. Scrub is a very important but often overlooked component of our landscape. Though this sort of thorny habitat may not sound very appealing to you and me, it holds incredible wildlife value; it is cover and shelter, it is nesting habitat and it has vital blossom, fruit and seeds for foraging, supporting small mammals, birds and a wide range of invertebrates.
In order to maintain the character and wildlife value of scrub habitat, it does need a little helping hand as unfortunately we don’t have large herbivores roaming and managing the landscape in urban areas like St Nicks! For scrub to be as supportive as possible it needs to be as diverse as possible. This means different structures, ages and species within the scrub. This even includes bare ground which is valuable for insects that will burrow into it for food and shelter.
Due to its rather invasive nature, if left to its own devises, scrub will encroach other habitat and can quickly take over. If left for long enough it will eventually become woodland. Woodland is also fantastic habitat but having a variety of habitats if far better for wildlife, creating a wealth of different niches and harbouring many more species. Luckily our volunteers have been on the case, cutting back and clearing patches of scrub as part of our rotational management regime. It may seem a little extreme but cutting the scrub actually encourage new growth. By cutting a certain percentage of scrub each year (we take out roughly a 10th) you soon get those different structures and ages within the habitat. Our volunteers have also been planting into the cleared areas, introducing scrubby shrubs like blackthorn and rose into areas that once were only bramble. This will provide an absolute feast for foraging creatures.
You might notice our volunteers have cut scallops (a semi circle or D-shape) into the edge of the scrub, this avoids creating wind tunnels, provides shelter and creates micro-climates. The cleared scallops trap heat and so it is a little warmer there than surrounding habitat. Though we might not be able to detect this temperature difference, invertebrates like butterflies and bees really benefit from these sheltered, warm pockets.
Though scrub management is essential for nurturing this incredibly important habitat, it is also really important to cut at the right time. As of March we enter the bird breeding season at which point, birds are often found nesting within the thick, safe cover of scrub. Disturbing breeding birds could be disastrous for our feathered friends so it is best to finish scrub clearance by the end of February. Thanks to our volunteer’s incredible efforts, we have nearly finished all of our scrub clearance until next winter!
Our team have also been doing a lot of tree planting preparation. Those subzero January nights meant we did not have many planting opportunities over the last few weeks but once the weather warms slightly, we’ll be able to carry on planting up hedgerows and improving our woodland understory. Come spring, you’ll be able to see our hedgerows and woodland burst into life as trees blossom and bloom and the bees buzz merrily enjoying the sweet nectar and basking opportunities.
And it’s not only habitat improvements the volunteers have been working on, they have also helped us to keep the site clear and tidy. Sadly we have seen a lot of litter and flytipping at St Nicks already this year but, never afraid to get their hands dirty for the benefit of others, our team have dived in, armed with litterpickers and bags poised to clear the way for our amazing wildlife and for those who use the nature reserve.
We could not ask for a better team of volunteers, working hard despite restrictions and doing the work that we’d usually have twice as many people doing. We can’t wait until we can start welcoming new volunteers safely again. But in the meantime we’d like to say thank you to everyone who has helped us out already this year, we don’t know what we’d do without you!