Hedleyhope Community Association cares for Hedleyhill Colliery Wood and Meadow Nature Reserve.

East Hedleyhope is a small rural community of mostly terraced housing 8 miles west of Durham City.
Hedleyhope Community Association works with Hedleyhope Parish Council to improve the lives of people in the area.

The Community Association manages a small playground and runs social activities and events.

The Association also runs a History Group and manages a 13ha nature reserve on land leased from Durham Council.

The Nature Reserve - Hedleyhill Colliery Wood and Meadow - includes woodland, meadow and riverside and incorporates two designated Local Wildlife Sites.

Monday, 15 August 2011

Don't Make Hay While the Sun Shines

If you've been tempted by the Sunday supplements to recreate your own wildflower meadow you will know how hard it is to raise a field of dreams.

All wildflower images from Community Nature Reserve
Sow a meadow seed mix into an existing lawn, let the grass grow and before long your meadow may be a spectacular crop of Perennial Ryegrass, Broad-leaved Dock and Stinging Nettles.

Nettles and Docks may have their admirers (especially if you need one after the other!) but they aren't in the same league as the wildflowers associated with old meadows and the role-call of plants with such idiotically English romantic names, they sound like they belong in the cupboard of a medieval Apothecary.

Consider the following English common names of meadow flowers - they make an interesting found poem! Lady’s Mantle, Eyebright, Meadow Sweet, Lady’s Bedstraw, Rough Hawkbit, Devil’s Bit Scabious, Yellow Rattle, Quaking Grass, Wild Thyme, Melancholy Thistle, Sneezewort, Selfheal.

If we want to sympathetically create and manage wildflower meadows we need to understand the key characteristics of  these habitats.

Meadows – Key features of wildflower meadows

Greater Knapweed

Meadows are fields where grass is grown as a crop.
Wildflower meadows have arisen out of our long need to provide herbage for farm animals over the winter. They have evolved in the UK due to a pattern of long established management dating back hundreds, and in some locations thousands of years. Meadows managed for nature conservation have lower inputs and yields than agriculturally improved grasslands.

Species-rich Meadows thrive on poor soils.
The number of wildflowers found in a grassland is almost inversely proportional to the fertility of the soil. That is the poorer the soil the greater the diversity of the types of flowers found growing there. An extreme example of this is the chalk grasslands of the Downs, which are reported to have as many of 40 different species per square m.

Notable wildflower grasslands in Co Durham include the rare alkaline magnesian limestone grasslands  found along the coast and nowhere else in the world and the upland meadows of the Durham Dales, the ultimate example of which is Hannah's Meadow.

Planted cornfield annuals Blaydon Burn

Wildflower meadows are dominated by perennials.
Meadow wildflowers tend to be dominated by perennials ie plants that regrow year after year (although some like Oxeye Daisy are short lived). This enables the plant communities to cope with continual cutting and to compete with the grasses.

Cornfield annuals - Cornflower, Common Poppy and Corn Marigold are annual flowers and are not found in the competitive world of meadows - unless the soil has been cultivated.

The soils of ancient meadows are relatively undisturbed and this is often indicated by signs like the growth of very large circles of Fairy Ring Mushroom etc.

Meadows need management
It is generally accepted that to thrive meadows need the following management processes
·    Annual mowing only after the flowers have set seed.
·    Removal of the hay crop off-site.
·    Grazing by farm stock following hay making.

Leave a meadow uncut or fail to remove the cut hay crop and it is generally accepted that most meadows will eventually over time come to be dominated by rank grasses, shrub and ultimately woodland. In the current economic climate many of our neighbourhood grasslands, including road verges, will start to be left uncut as a cost saving measure. Unfortunately this will not necessarily have conservation benefits unless the grass is cut and removed from site annually.

Common Bird’s-foot Trefoil
 Without grazing meadows can develop a dense ‘thatch’ at ground level which makes it difficult for new flowers to germinate. Old meadows were traditionally grazed with 'aftermath' grazing from Lammas (August 1) to Candlemass.(February 2). The biodiversity of some attractive grasslands can eventually be lost because of the difficulties of organising grazing - such as on village greens which may have been grazed in antiquity but which are not now normally fenced or grazed.

Even In Shakespeare’s day, and no doubt since mediaeval times, the importance of sound meadow management was well understood. In 'Henry the Fifth' the Duke of Burgundy laments the impact of war on the farmland of France after the Battle of Agincourt.

The Yarrow flowering late due to dry spring.

'The even mead, that erst brought sweetly forth
The freckled cowslip, burnet and green clover,
Wanting the scythe, all uncorrected, rank,
Conceives by idleness and nothing teems
But hateful docks, rough thistle, kecksies, burs,
Losing both beauty and utility ….'

Meadows are easy to loose and hard to re-create
It is often quoted that 97% of our traditional hay meadows have been lost since the 1940’s mostly due to agricultural intensification and the application of chemical fertilisers, pesticides, inappropriate grazing or drainage.

I have a personal memory of a meadow in Tyne and Wear of such antiquity and permanence that you could not place a foot in it without standing on a Pyramidal orchid.  

The site was rumoured to  be associated with a long demolished Country House which originally dated back to an 11th Century Nunnery. It is therefore surprising that it only took one spray of a selective herbicide from a prospective agricultural tenant to permanently kill all the flowers.

Pyramidal Orchid

A Community Meadow
The Meadow at East Hedleyhope could not have had a more different history and is the result of a reclamation of the East Hedleyhope Colliery which closed in 1959. The reclamation of the site was carried out by The National Coal Board in 1972. As was common at that time the pit was capped, the pit heaps levelled, the buildings demolished and the area was covered with a very thin layer of topsoil. The Meadow may have been fertilised and sowed with a standard agricultural grass mix.

The site was than conveyed to Durham County Council in 1977 as a possible site for a picnic area, although this never came into effect. 

Ragged Robin in marshy area.
An annual hay crop was taken from the unfenced field until 1996 when the County Council fenced the meadow and sprayed it with sewage sludge. Initially grazed by sheep the site was later grazed heavily by horses which unfortunately resulted in a decline in the diversity of wildflowers which had developed over the years since the reclamation.

In 2004 the site was leased to the Community Association as a nature reserve. The first action of the Association was to reinstate a traditional regime of hay making and aftermath grazing. We were particular fortunate in this matter by having a very helpful and co-operative local farmer to carry out this work.

Common Knapweed still not flowering in Aug
 In autumn 2005 volunteers from the Association seeded 6 experimental plots into the existing sward by hand. A standard wildflower mix was sown including Yellow Rattle. Yellow Rattle is semi-parasitic on grass and reduces the vigour of grasses and encourages other wildflowers to grow. As a general rule habitats are best left to nature to develop in their own way but in this case it was decided to recreate the biodiversity of the meadow which had been lost after the spraying of manure and overgrazing on the site by the Council.

The Meadow at East Hedleyhope is in many ways typical of the type of grassland which can develop on derelict sites but which has been in part artificially seeded to increase biodiversity. The sward is very short due to the poor soil conditions and in some areas there is bare ground while in other areas just flowers and no grasses grow. This is of course a fantastic habitat for invertebrates! It does also, because of its position on the fringes of the North Pennines, have something of the upland about it!

Flowers on the Meadow include Red and White Cover, Bird's-foot Trefoil, Common Knapweed, Common Sorrel, Greater Knapweed, Eyebright, Meadow Buttercup, Meadow Vetchling, Oxeye Daisy, Ribwort Plantain, Rough Hawkbit, Selfheal, Yellow Rattle, Crosswort and the occasional Pyramidal Orchid along with about 19 species of grasses. In the wetter areas Ragged Robin and Northern Marsh Orchid are found. 

An annual survey of plants is carried out and the Meadow has been shown to have increased floristically in the last 6 years … but it has been the last two years that have been particularly interesting.

After an incredibly cold, snowy winter in 2009/2010 and an exceptionally cold spring the grass just did not grow. By July the growth in the Meadow was declared too poor to be cut for hay. Instead the Meadow was grazed in August and September by sheep.

To our surprise the early sheep grazing encouraged the development of 1000's of Waxcap fungi. The Waxcap Meadow habitat is a UK Biodiversity Priority Habitat which we only discovered by accident by bringing grazing forward due to the cold spring. Waxcap meadows are normally associated with old parkland and where low nutrient grasslands are well grazed. For more information on the conservation of Waxcap Meadows see Aberystwyth University.

The Cowslips fared poorly in the dry spring.
In 2010/2011 after another exceptionally cold snowy winter we had a unusually warm and dry spring, the water ran quickly through the thin soils and again the grass did not grow. The Cowslip were stunted and put on a quite frankly pathetic show and the wildflowers were very late to flower. 

Come July the rains started and the Meadow got a real boost with species like Yarrow starting to flower in late July. The Yellow Rattle also got something of a second boost. The Common Knapweed, on which so many of the adult butterflies rely for nectar did not flower until the 2nd week in August, two months later that what would normally be expected.

Again there was not enough grass to take a hay crop, this time due to lack of growth caused by the dry spring. A clear case of not being able to make hay because the sun had shone.

One man mowed a meadow. Malcolm was 'ere keeping the paths open.

There is one area where the hay has been very well cut and that is by volunteer Malcolm who works so hard to keep the paths around the Meadow so pleasant to walk using the lovely Honda mower supplied with funding from the Big Lottery.

We are however expectant that we will get another bumper crop of Waxcap mushrooms. More of this in an Autumnal blog…

External Links

D Gamble and T St. Pierre, 2010, 'Hay TIme in the Yorkshire Dales'. 
Yorkshire Dales Milllennium Trust.

Monday, 13 June 2011

Tits Don't Ring us - We'll Ring You.

Tony has a very unusual ladder. Lightweight and collapsible it folds down to the size of a handkerchief and can be carried over stiles, up embankments, across rivers and through fields of nettles. A few weeks ago Tony fell off his ladder. Fortunately unscathed, Tony got up and carried on with the voluntary work that takes up much of his time - ringing birds for Northumbria Bird Ringing Group.

Bird ringing, which has been carried out in the UK for over a century, is the technique used to study wild birds. A small individually numbered metal tag is attached to the leg of a bird, so that aspects of the bird's life such as migration and population change can be studied. When a bird is caught, a ring of suitable size with a unique number is attached to the bird's leg. The bird is often weighed and measured, examined for data relevant to the ringer's project, and then released.

The rings are very light, and are designed to have no adverse effect on the birds - indeed, the whole basis of using ringing to gain data is that ringed birds should behave in the same way as the unringed population. The birds so tagged can then be identified when they are re-trapped, or found dead, later.

The method most frequently used to catch fully-grown birds is the mist net, erected between poles, and is designed to catch birds in flight. Birds can only be removed safely from mist nets by experienced ringers who have received special training. About twenty percent are ringed as chicks in the nest and this is valuable because the precise age and origin of the birds are then known.

When a ringed bird is found, and the ring number read and reported back this is termed a ringing recovery or control. Unfortunately only a tiny number of rings are recovered so if you ever find a ring on a dead bird please report it at Euring

Tony has been carrying out ringing for the Community Association for two years. The Association agreed to chicks on the nest being ringed but the decision to allow mist netting was controversial. It went to the vote at an Environment Group meeting and over half of the Group were against the proposal as members were concerned about the tiny, tiny chance of an accidental fatality.

Tony installed 31 bird boxes with a wide range of openings to attract some of the different types of birds that may be breeding in the Woodland. The boxes were built by a volunteer using recycled wood.

The Community Association is currently receiving funding from the Forestry Commission's Declining Woodland Bird grant so it is hoped that the ringing should provide important information about how management operations are helping woodland species. For information on the Woodland Bird Declining Species Grant see Forestry Commission

From the end of March the boxes were checked weekly or fortnightly until bird ringing at the end of May. Unfortunately the occupied boxes were exclusively used by just two species Blue Tit and Great Tit. Ringing was carried out on the young birds when they reached the correct age. The results from the 2010 ringing is as follows. 
Clutch size varied from 7 to 12 eggs which is quite large following an extremely snowy cold winter. There were 94 Blue Tit pulli (or chicks) and 21 Great Tit pulli. A total of 115 pulli were ringed which is a good result for the first year from 15 boxes.
The results from 2011 will be posted soon - when the more nerdy amongst us will be able to get a fix on raw data, tables and possibly graphs. 
One a site starts to be ringed it will continue to do so for as long as ringers are available to do so - and who knows perhaps one year we might even ring something exciting like a Pied Flycatcher or a Redstart!
In the UK ringing is supervised by the British Trust for Ornithology where over 2,600 trained, volunteer ringers ring over 900,000 birds in Britain and Ireland each year. For information on becoming a ringer see BTO 

This is not a commitment to be taken on lightly as it involves giving up thousands of hours in training, getting up in the middle of the night, working outside in all weathers and taking your life in your hands up ladders on uneven surfaces.