We have spent a lot of time in and around the becks this year. In a year when we’ve all had to keep our distance from one another, spending hours exploring Tang Hall and Osbaldwick Becks from the water, as well the overgrown banks, has been a thoroughly rewarding but responsible activity to keep us busy.
So what have we been doing in the becks? We discussed Himalayan Balsam a few months ago which kept us busy from May right through to October, trying to find every last piece of balsam regrowth before it can set seed. While searching the under and overgrowth for the pesky balsam stems you can’t help but stumble across some fantastic wildlife in areas little trodden due to being so inaccessible. From stumbling across all sorts of amazing fungi (above images), wasps nesting in hollowed out trees, moorhen eggs hidden in forests of bur reed, iridescent damselflies darting back and forth, mysterious caterpillar webs covering mounds of nettles, prehistoric looking ferns enjoying the dark moist conditions and even herons stalking for prey, there has been much to enjoy and marvel at while getting lost (mostly metaphorically speaking!) in the wildness of the becks.
On top of conducting regular checks of the nature reserve and clearing any litter, the other reason to be down on the becks is when trees or branches fall. The main culprit on the becks which keeps us busy is crack willows. The Woodland Trust has a very apt description of this tree species on its website – “Scruffy and loud, the crack willow is named after its habit of splitting with cracks and fissures, and how noisy its branches are when they break.” These trees are often found along river banks as they are planted to stabilise banks due to being quick growing as well as happy underwater periodically. Where possible we will always leave fallen tree branches as they create fantastic habitat for a range of wildlife. Rather than just providing vertical habitat a fallen tree branch will create horizontal habitat and often a fallen branch will continue to grow if still attached to the main stem. If it breaks off completely this creates deadwood which is perhaps an even more important habitat for a young site like St Nicks. Sometimes trees will fall over the beck which creates different habitat in the water as well. Not quite a leaky dam but the odd branch in the water creates disruption to the regular uniform flow creating faster flowing riffles, while also holding water back in pools. As with all habitats, variety is key to support as much wildlife as possible.
We also monitor the habitats, species and issues along the becks which is vital for understanding the management and how habitats are developing. We conduct yearly monitoring of riparian mammals species which on our local becks means our furry friends the otter and water vole. But we also need to keep our eye out for signs of North American mink, the females of which are the only predator of water voles which can enter their borrows. We recorded mink at St Nicks four years ago which coincided with a large drop in water vole numbers. But we have recorded signs of water vole in a few different places this year so there is hope. Otters have made a hugely successful comeback to our rivers (including the becks) from nearly being wiped out. Hopefully, with some coordinated conservation action we will be saying the same about water voles within 20 years.
Other surveys include freshwater invertebrate which we conduct regularly to monitor river health. A less regular but more time consuming task is river corridor surveying. This requires getting into the water to walk the becks recording the different habitat, range of tree and plant species and structure and flow of the water to build an accurate picture. Understanding our rivers and becks is vital to ensure we are managing correctly while providing data to monitor for any future engineering works. With works having begun in Hull Road Park to naturalise the beck there, and the potential to create new beck habitat in the future at St Nicks, it is exciting times for our becks.