Searching for smooth snakes in the New Forest by Jay Doyle, Ecologist for the Forestry Commission
April is the month when reptiles and amphibians start to emerge. Spring has finally arrived in the New Forest and with it comes many of the UK’s most unusual and exciting species, including Britain’s rarest reptile, the smooth snake.
We have over 90 people signed up to take part in the latest amphibian and reptile monitoring and surveillance project. The New Forest Smooth Snake Survey is the first project created by the New Forest Amphibian and Reptile Monitoring and Surveillance partnership and is coordinated by Amphibian and Reptile Conservation (ARC). The project will help establish the conservation status of smooth snake in the area and better inform the conservation management for this threatened species restricted to the heaths and woods in the South of England.
The Forestry Commission is a key partner in this project and I’m particularly excited about finding this elusive snake in areas of the New Forest where its presence is currently uncertain. Last week, a few of my colleagues and I had a day’s training for all the partnership organisations involved and keen volunteers from the general public who will be carrying out reptile surveys in the New Forest.
The training events ran over two days on 8th and 9th April at The New Forest Centre (in Lyndhurst) and were attended by 50 potential survey volunteers comprising participants from Government organisations, conservation groups, wildlife specialists, students and members of the local community.
I was thrilled to participate in the event on Friday which was provided by John Wilkinson and Ben Limburn from ARC. The project is supported financially by Natural England, the New Forest National Park Authority and the Forestry Commission.
It was excellent to get involved with so many people that are enthusiastic about reptiles and their conservation, and the training was delivered to such a high standard. There is clearly a huge amount of interest in smooth snakes and participants were able to gain a great deal of knowledge from the presentations, which included species I.D, habitat identification, survey techniques/protocols, and the inherent health and safety issues.
After our class-based training we proceeded up to The Ridge, close to Boltons Bench on the edge of Lyndhurst, for a field visit to view reptile habitat and discuss survey techniques in more detail. The weather started off okay and as we headed out across the heathland the sky tuned blue – but sadly we didn’t observe any snakes! Nevertheless, this provided ample opportunity to discuss the fine-scale habitat features that reptiles and smooth snakes in particular make use of throughout the year from their emergence in the spring, through the summer and into the autumn and their subsequent overwintering.
I’m looking forward to getting underway with surveying very soon, along with other volunteer surveyors that have been allocated an area which they will survey for smooth snakes, following the instructions and methods that have been provided by the team at ARC.
For more information on reptiles and their conservation, plus the New Forest Amphibian and Reptile Monitoring and Surveillance Project please visit:
Protecting the historic boundaries of the Forest
By Sean Marsh, Trainee Estates Officer
As you know, the New Forest has an amazing history with its unique wildlife and landscape, as well as ancient commoning traditions. So I jumped at the prospect of working on a heritage project with skills-development opportunities within the New Forest. The Forestry Commission is working with the New Forest National Park Authority and nine other key stakeholders on the Our Past, Our Future project – a Landscape Partnership Scheme for the New Forest. Supported by Heritage Lottery Funding, this scheme will undertake a range of projects to restore lost habitats, develop Forest skills and inspire a new generation to champion and care for the New Forest.
This project includes the fixed term appointment of a Heritage Lottery Fund supported ‘Trainee Estates Officer’ working in the New Forest to engage with the local communities to protect its unique habitats. It’s a vital opportunity to conserve these fragile habitats and support the commoning community, and help build resilience into long term management of this important landscape. When this trainee role was advertised I thought it sounded like a great opportunity which not only related to my previous experience, but also allowed me to develop skills in new areas as well.
During the project I’ll have the guidance and support of the Forestry Commission’s current Estates Keeper, who will pass on his knowledge and skills. This is crucial, as this kind of experience and trust within the community can only be transferred person to person in this way. I shall be spending my first few months shadowing staff, so I can gain valuable experience in every aspect across the New Forest, as there is so much to learn. An important matter that I didn’t know about before I started, are the regulations of the New Forest Access license. Many properties in the Forest require an Access License, if a property’s access goes across the Crown lands. It is our role to maintain an open dialogue with local residents and people moving to the area on the requirements and purchase of this license.
I’ll be working with local communities to improve their knowledge of the historic boundaries of the Forest, why they are important, and how they help protect the character of our unique landscape. Each year the project will engage with two Parish Councils and involve the local community in taking up volunteering opportunities. I hope to be able to instil a sense of guardianship of the landscape within communities, which will lead them to identify and deal with issues in their area such as fly tipping, and private land owners’ estates encroaching onto the Open Forest.
The project aims to create a legacy of engagement with our natural heritage. It is as much about conserving the forest fringe and protecting the edges of the forest to prevent urbanisation - and giving guidance to communities in the Forest.
So what is a typical day like for me? I’ve only been in post for a few weeks, but the role can really vary from day to day. My day starts early in the morning, accompanied by my trusty Lurcher, Parsnip and Springer, Porter, I visit various sites across the Forest to inspect boundaries, supported also by experienced staff at the Forestry Commission. My previous knowledge of the local area is proving to be very useful and my Forester skills have already come in handy!
I do miss the practical work in the outdoors that I enjoyed in my previous roles as a Forester though – meeting other people from all walks of life, and from all over the country is a particular highlight in this job. The New Forest Keepers and other staff have been really welcoming and particularly keen to share their knowledge with me. I’m amazed at how much I’m learning about both the New Forest itself, but also its management. Managing the Crown lands is a huge task and it is made clear to me how vital this new role is to aid in its maintenance and management.
For more information on the Landscape Partnership, visit www.newforestnpa.gov.uk/landscapepartnership.
The start of a spectacular spring
By Esta Mion, Communications Manager
Spring has come to the New Forest earlier than expected this year - surprising the birds, animals and trees that call our forest home - but also offering a much-needed mental and physical boost for human visitors after the dim winter months.
The surprisingly mild weather conditions over the winter have continued into spring, leading Forestry Commission staff to witness some remarkable and unexpected changes to the traditional seasonal cycle.
Staff here in the New Forest have reported seeing frog spawn as early as 11 February in the forest near Park Hill. We have also witnessed the early emergence of the beautifully-shaped Brimstone butterflies, as they’ve come out of hibernation rather early this year. Their peak flight times are usually in April and May.
More telltale signs have been reported by fellow Forestry Commission staff all over the country. For example, there have been reports of buds bursting a full month earlier on everything from Drimys winteri (canelo), Acer oliverianum (Oliver’s maple) and Acer palmatum (Japanese Maple) to Corylus avellana (hazel) and Acer japnicum (Amur maple) trees.
The early spring has also affected wildlife, with some hedgehogs remaining active during the winter months (when they would normally be hibernating) and Pipistrelle bats still flying during the evenings well into December. Even the humble earthworm has got in on the act, with reports by staff of fresh casts (a sure sign that the worms are still active) staying visible all through the winter.
We’ve put together a list of the wildlife that you can spot during this time of year, including frogs, hedgehogs, butterflies and bats. Why not visit your nearest woods and witness the early forest transformation for yourself.
Eight things to spot in the forest during spring:
1. Frogs and toads
As the weather warms up, you’ll start to see more frogs and toads hopping about the forests. Our amphibian friends sleep through the winter, slowing right down their normal body processes, like breathing, so they use less energy. In the spring they’ll start to wake up and need to restock their energy by eating.
2. Frog spawn
Once the frogs and toads have shaken off the winter blues and had something good to eat, they’ll start making frog and toad spawn which will soon develop into tadpoles. You can tell whether you’ve found frog or toad spawn very easily because frog spawn is in large clumps like the bubbles in a bubble bath, whereas toad spawn is always in a line like a chain – but make sure not to disturb those eggs!
On mild evenings this spring, you might see a bat fluttering about the woods, but don’t worry, the type of bats we have in the UK, common pipistrelle bats, are totally harmless. Definitely not vampires in disguise!
In the winter, earthworms dig themselves deep into the soil where it’s a bit warmer but in the milder climate of spring you’ll start to see evidence of earthworm activity if you look closely. You can tell if a worm has been crawling around because you’ll see very distinctive piles of soil called worm casts that actually look a bit like curled up worms themselves.
Our spiky friends hibernate in the cold winter months but at this time of the year they’re wiping the sleep from their eyes and looking for food. Watch where you put your feet!
6. Butterflies, bumblebees and dragonflies
We’ve already seen some Red Admiral butterflies as early as February this year but more and more will be flitting about the woods this spring as the weather gets warmer. And you’ll definitely spot a bee or two bumbling about the wild flowers at this time of year as well. The Large Red Damsel fly will most likely be the first dragonflies we spot this spring, keep your eye out for them!
7. Migrant birds
Our forests will be alive with the sound of birdsong in the next few weeks and months as chiffchaffs, cuckoos, swallows, house martins and swifts make their way back to the UK. Come to our forests with your binoculars and see how many different types of bird you can spot this spring!
8. Stick Man
If you’re an early bird, keep your eyes open for Stick Man taking his early morning jog at Bolderwood in the New Forest. Why not join Stick Man? Pick up an activity pack from the Bolderwood visitor site during the schools holidays and follow the trail, and complete fun activities along the way!
Designing the forest – the ultimate green challenge
By John Stride, Planning and Environment Manager, Forestry Commission (firstname.lastname@example.org)
Warren Buffett once said that ‘someone is sitting in the shade today because someone planted a tree a long time ago’. The world’s most successful investor wasn’t literally talking about forest management and design – but he still makes a good point. Unless you have a good plan in place, you won’t reap the benefits in years to come.
We’re looking after the New Forest for the benefit of future generations and with thousands of different species, wildlife and protected landscapes to manage, it’s a huge task. It’s a very exciting task too, which requires a lot of research, planning and working closely with experts from leading environmental, forestry and wildlife organisations. We’re currently mapping out not just how the forest will be managed over the next decade - but also how it might look in 200 years.
As many of you will already know, the New Forest is one of the UK’s most highly protected sites for wildlife and is widely recognised as being exceptionally important for nature conservation. This is why extra care and attention is needed to make sure the wonderful wildlife and diverse habitats are protected.
We manage the heart of the New Forest – known as the Crown Lands of the New Forest – which is made up of several thousand hectares of woodland, wetland, heathland and rivers. As there are so many habitats to manage, a lot of work goes into making sure any changes to the landscape meet all the relevant environmental standards and statutes.
To guide this process, we produce a New Forest Inclosures Design Plan every 10 years, which provides descriptions of the woods as they are currently, explains the process the Forestry Commission goes through when deciding what’s best for the woods in the long term and outlines how the landscape should develop over the next few centuries.
This plan is designed to enhance the forest’s special habitats and features (or ‘designations’) by making them more resilient to pests, diseases and other threats, such as climate change, to help future-proof the New Forest. The aim is to develop woodlands that protect the wider landscape, provide greater opportunities for the public to enjoy the forests now and in the future, and balance the supply of quality woodland products.
We work hard to protect, improve and expand our forests through active management, so that we can protect our woodlands against pests and diseases, support our wood processing industries, maintain and improve the biodiversity of forests and make them attractive places for people to visit.
But perhaps most importantly, we need your help in making sure our plans are as good as they can be. Local people can view our updated plans on our website from Monday 11 April for eight weeks, where you can look at the new maps, gain a better understanding of the changes we’re proposing and give us your feedback.
It’s a fantastic job to be involved in the planning of such a large scale project. Even though I will only see the benefits over the next few decades myself, it’s an honour to be involved in the protection of such a beautiful, special area and making a positive difference for future generations.
To view the New Forest Inclosures Design Plan, please visit the following website after 11 April: https://englandconsult.forestry.gov.uk/forest-districts/new-forest-inclosures-forest-design-plan-2016.
For more information about the New Forest, please visit www.forestry.gov.uk/newforest.