I look back on my previous blogs from the north east of England and notice that they claimed both that ‘spring was in the air’ and that we were enjoying ‘hot weather’. However I also note my words of caution about ‘things returning back to normal’ and putting ‘woolly jumpers’ back on.
Well as across most of the country we are back to cold and almost wintery conditions. And what this means is that very little is happening on our grasslands. They still look pretty short and jaded, and except for a few cowslips on sheltered sunny slopes, and a few heads of lady’s smock there is very little to report. Even the birds are slow in returning – the fields, reedbeds and shrublands all seem rather quiet. In addition things are looking decidedly wet under foot and the cattle out on the land we manage at Arcot Hall Grasslands and Hesleden Moor are paddling rather than grazing!
Still as there is very little fresh young growth to eat, the Highland cattle and Exmoor ponies are munching through the rough grass/rushes, and the scrub is also taking a bit of a battering. Hopefully this will start to open up the sward at Arcot, which hasn’t been grazed for over ten years and we will begin to notice a few more flowers later in the spring. Amazingly these fields used to support a handful of pairs of lapwings, however now with scattered scrub and tall tussocky grassland these birds are now well gone.
Whitethroats, grasshopper warblers and willow warblers are now much more the order of the day, along with the occasional short-eared owl hunting for voles and mice. Of course as we are now re-introducing both grazing and scrub removal on the site, we will see a gradual change in the structure and composition of the grasslands. We will ensure that a balance of habitat is maintained, but of course there will be winners and losers, for both the birds, plants and invertebrates. The key will be keeping an eye on changes and being flexible in our management – and of course not trying to do things too quickly. The grasslands as they are now have taken 10-20 years to change from what was once well grazed pasture, and over that time the wildlife gradually changed with it. Perhaps we are looking at a similar length of time to move things back in the other direction while allowing the wildlife a chance to adapt with us. As conservationists we often want to make things happen immediately – but good things can happen to those who wait!
Paul Evans, Conservation Officer – North East England