The Last Cypriot Dragonfly.

Dragonflies are the only insects I have found to photograph in Paphos; they sunbathe on the fence surrounding the the tombs of the kings, which is a world heritage site. Here is a red faced dragonfly I shot today. I wish I had packed a macro lens. I’m flying home tomorrow night. 

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Is History Important?

It’s another blisteringly hot sunny morning on the path to La Boite 67 bar at the port of Paphos. The only insects I’ve seen on this route all week are a lot dragonflies and a few bee-like flying creatures. Unfortunately, I didn’t bring a macro lens on holiday with me, so I used my nifty-fifty lens again to photograph the Cypriot Dragonflies.  

Yesterday I saw a man struggling past the port bars with a large live pelican in his arms; it had been swimming happily in the sea alongside a small pier earlier. The poor man was being hassled by people wanting to take selfies with the bird.  

It was seeing a dead pelican on the shoreline, a couple of hundred metres from the port this morning that prompted the title of this post. I rely on local historical knowledge as a tool to help answer some conservation-based questions and to solve certain marsh related problems. I don’t have any knowledge of Paphos local history that might help me answer questions relating to demise of this poor pelican, with its head submerged in a rock pool. I suspect its death is pollution related judging by the amount of varied plastic waste littering the foreshore. Obviously, the titled question is rhetorical because I know that Wilden Marsh and its history go back a long way and that history and local historic events are crucial to the management of nature reserves, but here in Paphos, Wilden Marsh knowledge doesn’t help me at all. I will try to explain: 

Wilden Marsh history is one surrounded by industrial turmoil, in the main; the inability of often longstanding local manufacturing organisations to survive the onslaught of competition from modern processes and technologies offering greater efficiency and cheaper prices, and their failure to adapt to changing market conditions and trends, has led to their eventual downfall in many cases; of course, this process is still happening and will always be a matter of concern for those loosing their livelihoods as a result. Industrialisation of Wilden Village began in the very early 1500s with the building of a water powered fulling mill on the River Stour, the mill went through various transformations: first to a forge in the 1600s, a finery forge in 1669, the Wilden Iron and Tinplate Works in 1840, which continued under the ownership of the Baldwin family until its closure in 1958, and now it’s the Wilden Industrial Estate. 

Wilden Industrial Estate is at the southern end of Wilden Marsh. At the northern end in the 1800s was the Falling Sands Iron Works and Rolling Mill, now the site of a sewage pumping station. A factory producing sugar from pulped beet was built in 1925 on the northwest bank of the marsh. It pumped its waste water to settling lagoons alongside Wilden Lane; it is now a modern combined residential and industrial estate. The Worcester and Staffordshire Canal system, opened in 1771, runs north to south though Wilden Marsh; its use changed from commercial to leisure when the coal-fired power station at Stourport on Severn, constructed in 1940, closed in 1984. There are many other similar stories about local industries whose fortunes rose and fell around the marsh boundaries. So I think that knowing where you’ve come from is important when assessing where you are planing to get to; although not essential, there are some obvious benefits where conservation is concerned. 

The Lower Stour Valley area, which includes Wilden Marsh and Meadows, has been traditionally used for grazing. The wettest areas were generally left unmanaged by previous owners, although there has been a limited amount of coppicing and pollarding carried out here. Old maps show areas split by multiple ownerships, with some parts being used to grow withies for basket making. Wilden Marsh and Meadows, specifically along Hoo Brook from Wilden Lane and south along the River Stour, was designated a Site of a Special Scientific Interest in 1971. With the aid of grants from the World Wildlife Fund and the Royal Society for Nature Conservation, Worcestershire Wildlife Trust purchased land here to be managed as a nature reserve. The River Stour was deepened and cleared by the Severn Trent Water Authority during late 1978-79 to satisfy the requirements of a flood alleviation project. The result of this ill-conceived project was the raising of the riverbank levels with river-bottom spoil deposited along them. The spoil contained iron slag, coal and other undesirable waste materials from centuries of heavy industrial activity that relied on the fast flowing waters of the River Stour for its power source and as a transport link. It is now too risky to remove the spoil for fear of the pollution and other environmental damage this might cause. Dredging of the River Stour, and the removal of an historic weir, dramatically reduced the river and the local water-table levels; the natural springs ceased to flow, and any rainwater pooling on the marsh seeped away causing declines in many of the scarcer helophytes. WWT now owns 13.9 hectares at the south end of the site. A further 23.6 hectares is owned by Allied British Food and managed by WWT.  

Currently the reserve is managed for nature conservation. Rare breed cattle (Shetlands and belted Galloways) and local volunteers are used to control vegetation and scrub. Conservation contractors carry out large or more complex conservation projects. There are some non-intervention areas. The Wilden restoration project is investigating how to restore and manage water levels for the development of future management strategies. 

So I guess by now readers have realised that I believe history, and local history in particular, to be an important asset when dealing with nature, cultural or industrial conservation issues.  

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  A Cypriot Dragonfly

I came across this dragonfly on my way down to the port in Paphos this morning; in fact, there were lots of them flying about. Seeing the dragonflies reminded me of Mike Averill, a Wilden Marsher and Worcestershire’s dragonfly recorder, so I snapped this through my cheap and cheerful nifty-fifty lens for Mike in particular. I’ll take my macro lens with me tomorrow.


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Autumn and Winter Work

Three metre high willow scrub with meadow sweet in the foreground.

A closer veiw of the willow scrub.

 

The end of the growing season is not far away. Last week I walked the marsh prioritising work that needs doing when I get back from holiday and throughout autumn and winter. Thick alder and willow scrub has grown to heights in excess 3 metres in places this year. Himalayan balsam needs pulling in the middle wood this month. I’ll use the cattle to eat the balsam in the Rhombus Field next week; however, before this can be done the three metre high willow scrub growing in front of the Orchid Field gate will need cutting. The cattle are grazing the South Pool Pasture whilst I am away and maybe they will have eaten the tall willow scrub in front of the Orchid Field gate before the end of my holiday, which will save my time and energy. I’ll try walking the cattle to the Rhombus Field via the Orchid Field. There is a small wooden bridge just outside the Orchid Field gate to the Rhombus Field, and the cattle might decide to be awkward and refuse to cross it. Should this be the case, I’ll walk them to the north end of the Tenant Farmer’s Field where there is a second gate into the Rhombus Field. The Wyre Forest Grazing Team are looking after the cattle whilst I’m away.

The wooden fencing around the south entrance sluice needs repairing; there are many simple jobs like this I have let slip – I’ll get to them in time!

There are far too many practical jobs to do and the above is only a tiny indication of what needs to be done, but it’s best not to dwell on the scale of things; just put the jobs on the list and do them as and when, or persuade the cattle to do more, but they  can’t coppice or pollard the large trees – they have a go stripping willow bark, but this is not a suitable solution. Cattle are best at doing what their mothers have taught them to do: eating vegetation.

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The Flora of Wilden Marsh

 

It’s often a mistake for people with or without historical knowledge of a site’s uses to assume too much about its current value. The number of people living around Wilden Marsh that think the area is an under managed industrial wasteland surprises me. People have long memories and will often recall the dark days of industrial dereliction and misappropriation of lands along the Lower Stour Valley. Thankfully, the days of heavy industry being able to dispose of its troublesome waste legally on the Wilden wetlands have passed. The marsh still suffers from treated sewage effluent inflow, land drainage runoff, and all manner of rubbish floating down the River Stour to the River Severn, but at least things are being done to minimise the effects of these types of pollution; although, well meaning efforts do tend to progress slowly. It can be a mistake rushing towards decisions without proper consideration of their likely positive and negative effects.

Many times I have stood on surrounding hills, inspecting the marsh through binoculars, when people have approached me with their views of what is happening down there on the marsh. The majority of these people were not aware of my connection to the marsh, so our conversations gave me an interesting insight into people’s perceptions of the Reserve;  these range from: they ought to to do something with that unused land – build houses on it, perhaps; someone is making a packet from all the trees that are being felled; I’m going to complain to the council about the horrible flies breeding in that fetid wasteland; those poor cows have been abandoned – and it goes on and on a similar vein. Wilden Marsh is a highly and expertly managed site, and the fact that some people can’t see this, I think, is a credit to our comprehensive and well researched management plan.

The reserve’s most important habitats for botanical and nature conservation exist within a complex matrix of floodplain wetlands – ie. marshy grassland and mire, mesotrophic fen/ swamp, wet woodland (alder and willow carr) and open water (ditches, pools, scrapes). Other habitats such as dry broadleaf woodland, dry mesotrophic/acidic grassland and scrub are considered to be of secondary importance. 

The important vegetation types are mesotrophic fens and damp neutral grassland, along with transitions between these and areas of carr. The flora includes many species which are rare or uncommon in Worcestershire, notably Marsh Cinquefoil, Marsh Pennywort (Hydrocotyle vulgaris), Fen Bedstraw (Galium uliginosum), Marsh Valerian (Valeriana dioica), Marsh Arrowgrass (Triglochin palustris), Lesser Reedmace, Sea Club-rush (Scirpus maritimus), Star Sedge (Carex echinata) and Lesser Tussock Sedge. Tall fen vegetation in the centre of the site has an especially rich flora with an abundance of Lesser Water Parsnip, Great Water Dock and commoner tall helophytes. Parts of the neutral grassland have flourishing colonies of Southern Marsh Orchids progressing further along the northern marsh each year; these have now reached the swamp at the far north of the site. Pollarded Crack Willow (Salix fragilis) and White Willow (S.alba) line some of the ditches. The two main areas of carr woodland are dominated by Alder (Alnus glutinosa) and Crack Willow. Scrub, mainly of Grey Sallow (Salix cinerea), invades the marshy grassland near some of the carr. 

Marshy Grassland/Mire 

The highest quality marshy pastures occur in the northern compartment. These tend to be complex mosaics of rush pasture with localized transitions to acidic mire communities. The dominant vegetation is a tussocky mix of soft and sharp-flowered rush (Juncus acutiflorus) interspersed with grass sward of Yorkshire fog (Holcus lanatus) and bent grasses (Agrostis sp.). 

Mesotrophic swamp/Fen 

Sedge or reed-dominated vegetation is dispersed throughout the reserve, but is prominent along the margins of drainage ditches or where these have become partially blocked – particularly to the south in wood pasture compartment and northern section bordering the settlement lagoon, where there is deep (and dangerous) silt. Though not as rich in plant species as the marshy grasslands, this habitat supports a range of emergent and semi-aquatic plants, the dominant species of which include lesser pond sedge (Carex acutiformis), reed sweet-grass (Glyceria maxima), reed canary grass (Phalaris arundinacea) and, locally, common reed (Phragmites australis), reed mace (Typha latifolia) and lesser reed mace (Typha angustifolia).  Characteristic broad-leaved herbs are water mint (Mentha aquatica), tufted forget-me-not (Myosotis laxa), common skullcap (Scutellaria galericulata), lesser water parsnip (Berula erecta), marsh speedwell (Veronica scutellata), marsh marigold (Caltha palustris). Among the scarcer plants are: wood club-rush (Scirpus sylvaticus) and bladder sedge (Carex vesicaria) – both uncommon in Worcestershire; and the local marsh willow-herb (Epilobium palustre). Tall fen/swamp vegetation on this site is prime habitat for wetland birds such as sedge warbler (Acrocephalus schoenobanus) and water rail (Rallus aquaticus) and excellent for dragonfly species. 

Wet Woodland – Alder Carr, Willow Carr and Sallow Scrub 

There are areas of wet woodland where alder forms the dominant canopy tree. Mostly in the form of coppice woodland, the ground flora here comprises shade tolerant species including ferns and mosses, but also tracts of lesser pond-sedge swamp. Characteristic plants occurring include: creeping jenny (Lysimachia nummularia), yellow loose-strife (L. vulgaris), black-currant (Ribes nigrum), red-currant (Ribes rubrum), and gypsywort (Lycopus europaeus). Unfortunately, however, much of the field layer has been overrun by invasive Himalayan balsam (Impatiens glandulifera) and nettle (Urtica dioica), due to drying out of the peripheral parts of the reserve, as a result of a reduced ground-water table over recent years. Though it contains similar field-layer flora, willow carr is of generally lesser botanical importance, and sallow is invasive on the sedge-swamp at the southern end of the reserve.

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The Fauna of Wilden Marsh

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I have not gone into any great detail in this blog, about the variety of Wilden Marsh fauna; so, whilst relaxing in the midday heat of a bar at the port of Paphos, with a few pints of beer to sustain me, I will attempt correct my oversight. 

One of the main considerations leading to Wilden Marsh being designated a Site of Special Scientific Interest (SSSI) is the nationally important populations of resident and migratory bird species it supports. The total number of bird species recorded on the SSSI is greater than 200, of which about 50-60 breed annually. The uncommon and notable birds regularly visiting or breeding within the northern section of the Marsh include: lesser spotted woodpecker (Picoides minor), grasshopper warbler (Locustella naevia), reed bunting (Emberiza schoeniclus), willow tit (Parus montanus), marsh tit (Parus palustris), woodcock (Scolopax rusticola), skylark (Alauda arvensis), cuckoo (Cuculus canorus), water rail (Rallus aquaticus) and barn owl (Tyto alba). Kingfisher (Alcedo atthis), grey wagtail (Motacilla cinerea), yellow wagtail (Motacilla flava) and sand martin (Riparia riparia) are also known to occur along the watercourses. There are many historical records of several other notable and uncommon species which may still occasionally be found on this part of the Marsh, particularly if they are regular visitors to the southern half. Many of these records are of waders and waterfowl from a time when the settling pools in the former lagoons supported large areas of standing water. However, snipe (Gallinago gallinago), curlew (Numenius arquata), lapwing (Vanellus vanellus) and common sandpiper (Actitis hypoleucos) have been recently recorded in the lagoons over winter and spring periods. Half a dozen great cormorants (Phalacrocorax carbo), known as the great black cormorant across the Northern Hemisphere, overwinter here on the marsh. There is a 16+ bird heronry on the island, hidden within mature grey willow scrub overlooking an open area of swamp and marshy grassland. The reserve is important for a number of reptiles and amphibians with grass snake (Natrix natrix), common lizard (Lacerta vivipara), great crested newt (Triturus cristatus),smooth newt (Triturus vulgaris), common toad (Bufo bufo) and common frog (Rana temporaria) having been recorded in this part of Wilden Marsh. Great crested newts are known to breed in various ponds and ditches across the northern end of the SSSI. 

Some of the mammals recorded include otter (Lutra lutra), stoat (Mustela ermine), American mink (Mustela vison), hedgehog (Erinaceus europaeus), bank vole (Clethrionomys glareolus), field vole (Microtus agrestis), common shrew (Sorex araneus), fox (Vulpes vulpes), muntjac (Muntiacus reevesi), bats (various species), and badgers (Meles meles), the latter living sett within the northern part of the Marsh and along Stour Hill. As with many watercourses, there are also historical records of water vole (Arvicola amphibious). The last time I saw a water vole on the marsh was along a water ditch feeding the south pool. I noticed grass stems chewed in the characteristic V shape, and mounds of fresh bullet shaped droppings. Eventually, after many visits, I saw a water vole swimming in this section of the drainage ditch with a grass stem in it’s mouth. Water shrew (Neomys fodiens) is known to occur at the southern end of the Marsh but as yet has not been recorded from the northern part. 

The varied habitats on Wilden Marsh support a large number and diversity of invertebrates including over 200 species of beetle, 23 species of butterfly, 19 species of spider, 14 species of dragonfly and damselfly and several species of moth, bee, ant, bug and fly. Notable of these include the diving beetle (Hydaticus seminiger) which has become rare in the midlands, (Carabus granulatus), Dytiscus circumflexus and the longhorn beetle (Pyrrhidium sanguineum). More common species include cinnabar (Tyria jacobaeae) – a National BAP species, small heath (Coenonympha pamphilus), purple hairstreak (Quercusia quercus), holly blue (Celastrina argiolus subsp. Britanna), small copper (Lycaena phlaeas) and marbled white (Melanargia galathea subsp. serena) butterflies. It should also be noted that Bombus humilus, a National BAP species, has been recorded at the southern end of Wilden Marsh and so may occur on the northern part of the site also.

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Hoo Brook Pasture Improvement

Walking through Hoo Brook Pasture yesterday I shot this image with my iPhone camera. The cattle worked this pasture in May and the first week of June this year, and similarly last year. For many years the growing season produced swathes of willow and alder scrub, 2.5 metres high Himalayan balsam, thistles, nettles and a sea of ragwort in this area. Three years ago, this pasture was Hoo Brook Wood.

The cattle ate all the Himalayan balsam here last year, and I cut the thistles and dug-up the ragwort during June and July of this year; buried ragwort seeds have already taken advantage of the sunlight to germinate, sprout, and replace some of those I removed. There is now considerably less thistle and a small amount of Himalayan Balsam.

I can see slight improvement in this often wet pasture, but at least another 3 years of grazing, trampling, invasive plant removal, and cowpatting are needed before the soil really begins to show any uniform microbial diversity and activity. There is a lot of building rubble and other rubbish buried in this area alongside Hoo Brook.

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