Friday, 14 April 2017

Pollarding at Charleston Reedbed

Charleston Reedbed. What a lovely little postage stamp of a wildlife reserve! Small yet criss-crossed with a warren of reed- and scrubby woodland-bounded, water-bounded paths, this privately-owned patch of land, secured by the master of Eastbourne College in the 1930s to protect it from development, welcomes volunteers to winter work parties. I took the opportunity in mid-March to explore the reserve and spend a half-day pollarding willows.

For a small reserve, it quickly became apparent that there is a lot of activity here. The site's appeal has a wide reach. An array of neatly rolled mist nests informed me that this is an important bird-ringing site. Amongst the group of fellow workers were several people I know from various corners of the wildlife and conservation community, including keen bird-ringers. Tim and Sue were in charge. Their first piece of advice was offered very clearly: "Stick to the paths". A deviation to the side might well send you waist-deep into water. Some of the paths themselves had been laid with pallets and boardwalks where the water held sway over the land.

Our task was to check back the growth in successional vegetation; the many willow trees: sallow, grey willow and osier. Their thin 'withies', the whiskers and whips which sprout from the pollards, quickly thicken and drink up the squelch from the wet ground. This threatens the reedbed, the whispering Phragmites, which would be succeeded by fairly quickly by a wet but drying woodland. We spent two or more hours cutting and dragging the withies to a site where they will season before being burnt.

We broke for lunch and shared recent wildlife sightings, chatted about aberrant farmers and wildlife legislation after Brexit. Expecting to return to work, I was surprised by the offer of a site tour instead. We had cut back all that was required for one day. With the calls of Cetti's warblers and chiffchaffs, dunnocks, blue tits and goldfinches, Tim led us around and explained how thick blackthorn scrub had been eradicated by cutting it to the base, leaving it for two years to sprout anew and then treating it with glyphosate, and how reeds in some areas are cut back every three years.

Stigmella aurella mine on bramble
My eyes are inevitably cast downwards, in pursuit of moths and their signs - attuned to their bilinear symmetry, as a friend recently (and perfectly) described it. The silver gallery mines of Stigmella aurella were everywhere on the reserve that bramble occurred - on many of the leaves I encountered a silver river progressing in expanding breadth from source to glorious termination, pupation, the metamorphic flow from larva to imago. It was too cold and grey for butterflies; the optimist within pined for an early season Brimstone to emerge from the vegetative thatch in which it overwintered and to dart through the osiers, but none were expected nor seen. A single moth was seen: an Acleris hastiana, or Sallow Button; my first sighting of this species for five years and only my third ever. This is one of the most variable Tortrix moth species and, although I couldn't name the colour form, it was one that was new to me.

Like the ground beneath the willows, cutting through the withies was soft work, even when the loppers had to be downed for the bowsaw. Soft, enjoyable work and easy company and within walking distance of home. I shall return.

Whispering Phragmites

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