Willow tits have been found in recent years on some farm holdings straddling the boundary of Ryedale / Scarborough local authority areas, amidst HLS wetland schemes under the Carrs Wetland Project banner. Parts of the Derwent riparian corridor support occasional breeding pairs and some isolated farm woodlands which are quite wet and scrubby. This species featured on the old Ryedale BAP (and Wet Woodland, a classic setting for nesting Willow Tits, was a named habitat for Ryedale too).
The bird excavates nest holes typically in rotten trees or stumps such as willow, alder and birch. It is known from research on the species’ habitat preferences that as scrub matures and larger-trunked trees establish, they become attractive to a key predator of Willow Tits – the Great Spotted Woodpecker. Thus keeping a suitable site free of mature trees could help.
In places HLS woodland management options were agreed on Carrs Wetland farms, mindful that Willow Tits might benefit in the longer term by maintaining suitable nesting habitat. Some areas were thus earmarked for rotational coppicing to keep a younger age structure to the scrubby wet woodland. On Willerby Carr even some woodshaving-filled nestboxes were put in place in the hope that they could be used by Willow Tits.
Do you know of any good Willow Tit sites in the Ryedale or Scarborough patch? (or sites where they used to be?) Following a discussion with Chris Bradshaw, a local ornithologist and member of Scarborough Birders group, we wondered whether an attempt to track down breeding Willow Tits would be a good idea this year, to assess local populations. In many parts of the UK this species is in serious decline, hanging on in parts of its range. Given that it is present in the Scarborough area and Ryedale too it would be valuable to hear of recent records. We should take care to not to give precise locations in the public domain, however, considering the scarcity and sensitivity of this species. Many sites will be on private land anyway, but if you have helpful ‘intelligence’ on their whereabouts, such as recent sightings in the last 5 years or sites that you know used to have them but may no longer, then please contact Tim on firstname.lastname@example.org
This is why I love The Carrs so much. Morning mist, a sleepy flock of Teal plinking away in the distance on the Hertford Cut, hoar frost on the ground and chacking Fieldfares on the fields down the lane to Flixton Bridge. Several thousand molehills down there too. They love the soft, deep peaty soil of The Carrs. This is neutral fen peat, not the acid blanket bog of the uplands.
Frosty dawn over Flixton Carr, 22/01/16
It is a while since I last went down to Flixton Bridge. The lane was bumpy as ever, indicative of the slumping land surface of the peat. The Hertford was quite full but flowing freely. I checked out the fields containing Flixton Island (site of digs in 2014) and No Name Hill, the prehistoric islands in what was then Mesolithic Lake Flixton. A flock of Lapwing rose from wet pasture to the east and flapped in a slow circuit over my head. I tried repeatedly to count them but the shifting shape and direction of the flock presented a challenge. I estimated about 90 plovers in total. Come the spring Lapwing disperse to the breeding grounds on the Moors , the Wolds and across the patchwork of arable and pastoral land in The Vale of Pickering. Their fortunes are not looking too rosy at the moment, (see Hoping for a Lapwing Spring where I discussed this topic before on this blog.)
One of the farmers participating in The Carrs Wetland HLS schemes was chatting to me on the ‘phone about Barn Owls this week. A pair using a nesting box in his cattle shed on Ings Lane, Staxton have successfully raised 3 chicks to fledging this summer. This encouraging news has inspired me to write this blog post (for which title I apologise, but it was hard to resist.) The young owls apparently have left the nest and have been seen flying about but are currently still spending time near to the nest. The aforementioned farmer tells me that on another farm in the Vale a pair had a brood of seven chicks (though not all may survive) while on another farm he’d heard of a nest fledging five young. Happy news indeed.
Arable and pastoral patchwork on The Carrs, seen from Flixton Brow.
Barn Owls seem to do rather well in The Carrs as the mix of arable and pastoral farming, rough grassland along ditches and beside quiet lanes and hedgerows provide good hunting for small mammals. Rough tussocky grassland is the ideal habitat for their prey, with sufficient dead grass or ‘litter’ layer for voles to create hidden runways through it.
Small mammal populations are famously fickle, undergoing cycles of boom and bust which have a powerful influence of the fortunes of birds of prey which rely heavily upon them for food. Barn Owls have a clever strategy to hedge their bets against the vagaries of the weather and food supply. The eggs are laid at 2-3 day intervals but incubated right away and hence hatch on different dates, resulting in a brood of chicks of descending size. In this way a good year for small mammal prey will enable them to raise more of the chicks to maturity but if food is in short supply then the first -hatched chicks will prevail while the smaller, weaker young will perish, thus the size of the brood will naturally adjust according to conditions. It may seem cruel to let fate intervene, but if they always laid a smaller clutch then the birds could not capitalise on a bonanza of Bank Voles or whatever prey items happen to be in abundance.
The wetland project occasionally receives requests to help source owl pellets for school groups to analyse – by dissecting their contents one can identify the types of prey from the tiny jaw and skull bones in the pellets. With a suitable sample size one can derive some interesting statistics about an owl’s diet and by inference about the populations of different prey species. Analysis of a batch of pellets from the Potter Brompton area a couple of years ago revealed, to my surprise, that Water Shrews and Water Voles figured among the prey items of that particular Barn Owl pair (along with larger numbers of voles, shrews and mice).
Pellet dissections make for a fascinating insight into the lives of these charismatic birds and a great educational opportunity. If readers of this blog have ready access to a supply of Barn Owl pellets and would like to donate some, I would be happy to put you in touch with The Cranedale Centre, which regularly undertakes sessions in pellet dissections with young people from Junior age to sixth-formers and I’m sure would be only too happy to feed back any interesting results.
Reed-fringed ditch near Seamer Carr
The open-ness of The Carrs floodplain near Scarborough is what attracts many of our farmland bird species to nest here, but boundary features are important habitats too, none less so than the network of drainage ditches which form a distinctive element of the Vale of Pickering landscape. These wet ditches are an important heritage feature in their own right and have been managed routinely since they were dug over two hundred years ago.
Ditch management, by which we mean the regular maintenance regime, carried out in autumn, winter or early spring, consists of cleaning out accumulations of silt, weed and vegetation in order to keep the water flowing. This is not merely a necessary operation for ditches which carry water from the land to the river system but it also performs a valuable role in managing them as wildlife habitats.
Some, which are important drainage arteries, may need to be maintained frequently – sometimes every year if the silation, debris or vegetation build-up is rapid. Those that are best for wildlife are managed on a rotational basis every few years, perhaps one in five or one in eight. Diversity and timing are key. Ideally a farm area would have a range of ditch habitats at different stages of succession – some just freshly cleaned and others at various stages of re-growth – hence diversity of habitats. Sometimes even longer rotations can be accommodated. In this way species which prefer clear, open sites and those which need choked well vegetated ditches will always have somewhere to thrive. Management in the winter has less impact upon ecology as a lot of wildlife is dormant. It is also helpful to wildlife if ditches which are immediately adjacent are not all done at once, potentially removing food plants and shelter. Cutting the banks or cleaning out only one side of a ditch one year and the other side the next, leaves undisturbed refuges.
Some of the best ditches for plants and invertebrates on The Carrs though are those which have an unusual origin – and the clue may be in the shape of the ditch. look on a map of The Carrs and you will readily identify lots of straight blue lines where artificial drainage ditches were cut when the large scale land drainage began after the 1800 Muston and Yedingham Drainage Act. This is the act of Parliament which paved the way for ‘the draining of the low grounds’ and the straightening of the Hertford and the part of The Derwent. At that time many subsidiary ditches were cut, draining into the New Cuts of the rivers. However in a few places there can still be found sinuous ditches which are relics of the former natural course of the Hertford. These older watercourses harbour some of the more notable wild plants and animals and may have greater ecological variety. Plants such as Water Violet, Water Whorl Grass and the primitive stoneworts are found in such places.
An Internal Drainage Board oversees the water level management of The Carrs including The Hertford Cut. Currently there are three IDBs in the Vale of Pickering (with Muston & Yedingham IDB being our local one) but they are preparing to amalgamate
HLF experts to visit the Vale
The Partnership Board for ‘Yorkshire’s Hidden Vale’ met this week in Scarborough. A key item on agenda was the approaching visit on 1st Aug by staff from HLF to help them assess our Stage One lottery bid for the Landscape Partnership Scheme.
Thorny-Issue-Of-The-Day: how to showcase the ‘Hidden Vale’ landscape in an hour and a half tour…tricky when there are so many great vistas, diverse villages and interesting project proposals to choose from.
It was felt there are three essential messages to impart to the experts on this assessment visit. Firstly, what is this landscape unit that we have chosen to call ‘Yorkshire’s Hidden Vale’, and what are the special qualities and that are so overlooked? Not least by the visitors flocking to the coast who pass through the Vale of Pickering, unaware of its twelve thousand years of cultural heritage (think Star Carr, Lake Flixton, glacial lakes and moraines, drainage, peat and farming…).
If you were wondering by the way the proposed HLF project area is roughly speaking bounded by Brompton, Sherburn, Muston and Eastfield. You can read more in my earlier post Yorkshire’s Hidden Vale.
The second message we need to put across to these important visitors will be the threats or issues faced by The Carrs landscape, emphasising why it is urgent and timely to bring them to public attention and to find new ways of protecting the natural assets in ways which nurture the rural economy. I wrote about the threats to the peat soils for example in Vanishing Peat.
The third ‘message’ is to show examples of what funds from HLF, carefully deployed, might enable to happen and how this will secure long term benefits, not only for the landscape, but for the people and communities living here as well.
A tall order? Let’s hope that we can rise to the challenge and help the Vale of Pickering sell itself as a fitting candidate for the Landscape Partnerships Scheme.
Last week we held our first Heritage Roadshow event at Staxton for communities around The Scarborough Carrs. It was extremely successful with over 200 people passing through with their wares and tales of old. Among the finds brought in were a Quernstone (for grinding corn by hand), musket balls, a piece of 19th C horseshoe pot (land drainage pipe), a drawerful of prehistoric flints and bone and an old shop ledger with news paper clippings from the time. People also got the chance to learn more about their area as they talked to the North East Yorkshire Geology Trust, Scarborough Field Naturalists, Scarborough Archaeological and History Society and many other groups which attended. Lots of tea and cake was happily consumed whilst people filled in The Carrs consultation survey (which is still available to complete here). We gained a lot of information about the area which we are still processing now…thank you to everyone that came along and made it such an interesting and enjoyable event!