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Forest Diary - March

A surprise at your feet

 By Andy Page, Head of Wildlife at the Forestry Commission

You wouldn't believe what is going on at ground-level on your seemingly peaceful walk across the heathland.

The New Forest is home to many of the UK’s rarest birds, with large areas of lowland heath providing internationally important habitat for birds such as nightjar, woodlark and Dartford warbler. Also, wading birds such as the curlew(pictured here), redshank, snipe and lapwing use the damp mires and bogs to breed. Sadly, many of these species are becoming rarer in the south of England and that’s why so much of the New Forest is a Special Protection Area.

I’m sure you’ll agree that our vast stretches of Open Forest are fascinating places to stroll across, full of surprises, and with interesting seasonal changes to see.

A combination of grazing by livestock, controlled burning, heather cutting and selective tree felling makes sure the habitat is kept in top condition. These heathlands provide the one opportunity a year for these rare birds that have evolved over thousands of years, to breed and provide the next generation for our children to marvel at and be amazed by. They make their fragile homes on the ground, often no bigger than the size of the base of a regular coffee cup and relying on their camouflage to go undetected.

They are vulnerable to many things, but one of the main dangers that we can all remedy is people, dogs and riders on the Open Forest heaths and lawns unintentionally frightening the adult birds away from their nests, leaving eggs or young vulnerable to the cold, or to predators such as crows.

Woodlarks (a specially protected species) live and nest in just the sort of places many people walk or ride that often look devoid of birds, the short grazed grasslands with scattered bracken and small bushes. 

So you might ask yourself, how can I help these rare birds and show I care for this very special environment? It’s very simple, at this time of year, I urge you to keep yourself and your dogs to the large main tracks while you’re out walking, cycling or horse riding, so the birds and young chicks are not disturbed.

For over 30 years this forest has been a huge part of my life. I continue to monitor birds here, trying to better understand why their populations appear to fluctuate from year to year and how to provide the best habitat for them.  

Lapwing and other breeding waders need good wetland habitats to provide feeding areas for their chicks. Numbers have been falling over recent years, but we are working hard with many stakeholders to restore a number of these unique wetlands to give them as much help as possible. Only time will tell if we are successful but we would be failing in our duty if we did not try.

Our wildlife faces many pressures and if we visit and use the Forest then we should all take responsibility for caring and protecting it.

I believe in actions and I want to raise awareness of the plight of these birds to stop their decline. There are practical steps that the Forestry Commission is taking, as land managers of the Crown lands, such as seasonal car park closures in an attempt to help protect nesting sites, so please work with us in avoiding these areas. Just a couple of months of modified recreational behaviour can make all the difference to these birds.

You might spot one of our signs about ground-nesting birds in our car parks, or out on the heathland, to remind you to please keep yourself and your dogs to the main tracks, or you may be encouraged to choose a path through the woods rather than across open heathland and mires during the spring so that these special birds can continue to live alongside the many human visitors to the Forest.

We’re working with the New Forest National Park Authority and their teams to help get good information more widely known and increase visitors’ knowledge of the birds and there is some excellent monitoring of bird populations and survey work going on.

We’re doing all that we can to ensure that this year’s chicks fledge successfully. We just need you to do your bit as well.

Darkness turns to light in the Forest

 By Esta Mion, Communications Manager at the Forestry Commission

The Forest is beginning to awaken, the spring (vernal) equinox fell on 20 March, which means that light will finally win out over darkness as the length of day slowly increases this month. Spring feels irresistible now; the clocks go forward and nature is starting to stir here in the New Forest.

Many trees are waking up - they’re reacting to the change in duration of sunlight. Bursting with buds, at this time of year, sap rises from the roots to the branches; the buds swell and burst open; and the tree’s leaves, stems, and flowers unfurl and grow.

It’s not long since we had snow on the ground and hard frosts, but the hardened, dormant buds were protecting the growing tissues inside from the cold weather, and now there’s an explosion of new life.

For me there’s nothing better than seeing the fresh green leaves on the beech trees here in the Forest. I’ve already seen some of the early flowering blackthorn or sloe, which is a small tree that has beautiful white flowers in March and early April, in advance of its small pointed leaves beginning to show.

Along hedgerows and in some of our woods you’ll see the catkins dangling from common hazel, as they lengthen and turn yellow with pollen. The March winds blow the pollen and fertilise the female flowers, which look very different, like small crimson sea anemones near the leaf buds. Then the catkins swell and begin to drop off and soon rounded leaves will emerge on hairy shoots.

Unless the crazy British weather brings more unexpected frosts we can expect to see lots of colourful blooms and buds as spring arrives. A vast array of woodland plants and buds on trees will emerge over the coming months.

This spring, celebrate the start of the season by looking out for the distinctive signs of spring, and enjoy witnessing the unfolding of the new season in its full glory.

Goat willow has beautiful male buds with silver hairs and dense stamens with golden tips that flower throughout March. You’ll find these small trees growing in damp woodland and in hedges. The bright pink buds of cherry trees are another reminder of spring, as their pink flowers open we’ll be treated to their soft scent.

When there are no leaves on a tree it can often be hard to identify it, but some trees do have some distinguishing features to look out for. Sweet chestnut trees can be recognised by their deeply grooved bark spiraling around the trunk and purple brown alternate buds.

Silver birch trees are common across our landscape and their white bark (that sheds like tissue paper), with rough black patches near the base makes them easy to spot. If you look up into their long and straggly branches you’ll see small wart like buds that can be sticky..

 The English oak is a tree that’s always held in high esteem, its Latin name, Quercus robur, means 'strength'. Here in the New Forest they are abundant and we have many fantastic examples of ancient oak trees with their massive twisting low branches. There leaves don’t usually unfold until mid-April, but there is great variation, so look out for its rounded, brown buds that occur most frequently at the end of their branches.

Spring in the New Forest is the perfect time for local people and visitors to not only witness the stunning displays our woodlands have to offer, but also to appreciate the breadth of species that contribute at this time of year. Trees mark our seasons, whether it’s spring, summer, autumn or winter – look at the trees and find out more about them!

To discover how to identify trees and their features such as the tree shape, bark, buds and flowers please visit: www.forestry.gov.uk/treenametrail

 Getting ready for a date with nature in the New Forest 

by Richard Daponte, New Forest Ranger with the Forestry Commission
 

As you venture through the New Forest, on a wildlife walk or a family stroll, you may meet me, or one of my fellow Rangers. As Forestry Commission Rangers, it’s our job to help ensure that you enjoy your time here and that the forest itself is looked after for future visitors.

 One project that I’m heavily involved in and that is particularly special to me is our New Forest Reptile Centre, near Lyndhurst. Here, we help protect rare snakes and lizards and encourage the re-introduction of these animals across the country. There are special outdoor ‘pods’ at the Centre which provide a natural home to the sand lizard, smooth snake and adder. These reptiles can be difficult to see in the wild as they are rare and very secretive, so the Reptile Centre is a great place to see them close-up.

 The Centre is due to re-open on Friday 30 March, just in time for the start of the Easter holiday and I’ve been busy getting everything ready in time for the opening. It’s a popular destination for visitors, as the Centre gives people a chance to see reptiles starting to emerge after their winter hibernation. Here we have the only collection of all the native lizards, snakes, frogs and toads, including Britain's only venomous snake - the adder - and rarest lizard - the sand lizard. 

 We hope to bring ‘Raptorcam’ back to the Centre again this year, which will be focussed on a goshawk pair as they prepare their nest. The story of the magnificent aerial predators and their chicks was followed by many last year, with images sent via an internet video link provided by ‘A Date with Nature,’ which is a joint venture between The RSPB, the Forestry Commission, New Forest National Park Authority and Carnyx Wild. Other features of the project will include live footage from the ‘Feeder Cam’ that captures the goings on around the bird feeders near the Centre.

 Our Head of Wildlife at the Forestry Commission, Andy Page, has already been hard at work identifying possible goshawk nests for filming and assessing the impact of this year’s particularly bleak winter.

 Goshawk numbers have been steadily building in the New Forest from just one pair in 2001 to about 40 pairs now calling the New Forest their home. As a result, we’re confident that we can identify active nests again this year.

 Goshawks are early nesters, which means Forestry Commission staff have been out in all weathers recently to witness the large birds ‘displaying’. From vantage points on hillsides, Andy and his team view the birds flying over an area of woodland to attract females and deter other males from their ‘patch’. From here, the team focuses in on which point in the forest the goshawk is coming and going from and then rely on their knowledge of the New Forest to pin point that spot to search for nests.

 The difficulty we have is that goshawks will often have two or three nests in an area and we have to determine which one will become this season’s preferred nest for breeding. The male goshawk may refurbish one nest with sticks but then their female mate may opt for a less obvious, more sparse nest. There are also other factors for us to consider, such as the distance of a potential nest from the Reptile Centre and also the height of the tree, as we have to climb up it to secure the filming equipment!

 The Reptile Centre will be open daily from 30 March to 3 September, 10am to 4.30pm and entry to the Centre is free, although donations for parking are welcome.

 Starting on Wednesday 4 April we’ll be running the first of our free ‘Wild Wednesday’ events for children with fun activities for all the family. ‘Wild Wednesday’ events run every Wednesday during the Easter and summer half terms and the summer school holidays, and are particularly popular with our younger visitors. This year, the dates are 4, 11 April, 30 May, 25 July and 1, 8, 15, 22 and 29 August.

 For more information about the New Forest, visit: www.forestry.gov.uk/newforest

 

Conserving New Forest pond life

By Leanne Sargeant, Senior Ecologist at the Forestry Commission

The New Forest has over one thousand ponds and lakes and they’re exceptional habitats for our native wildlife. They support an extremely varied and rich community of freshwater plants and animals, almost unmatched in any other lowland landscape in the UK

Many local people will know Hatchet Pond, near Beaulieu, but may not have realised what a special place this is for many species, including frogs, toads, beetles, newts, dragonflies, and fish.

It has an interesting history, created at the end of the eighteenth century by damming a stream to provide a head of water to power Hatchet Mill. The origin of the area name ‘Hatchet’ is thought to refer to a gateway, as this area was where commoners drove their livestock onto the Forest. While the neighbouring Little Hatchet Pond and adjoining unnamed pond are probably of natural origin, the 6.7 hectares now covered by Hatchet Pond was formed by flooding an area of marl pits, previously dug to produce lime for improving local agricultural land. The headwaters of the Hatchet stream upstream of Hatchet Pond drain part of the surrounding open semi-natural heathland common of Beaulieu Heath, which is grazed by domestic stock including cattle, ponies and donkeys.

Hatchet Pond is the largest body of fresh water within the Crown Lands of the New Forest, and is managed by the Forestry Commission. It’s an incredibly important site for both wildlife and people. Since the pond’s creation a wonderful array of wildlife now call the pond home, including over a third of all species of wetland plants found in the UK and around 100 species of freshwater insects and other invertebrates, including rare examples like Southern Damselfly and black-tailed skimmer. These species thrive because of the unique chemistry of the water and soil. Today, the Pond is a very popular place used by locals and tourists alike, and a range of activities; families, dog walkers, horse riders and fishermen all enjoy use of the site.

However, the site is under threat from changes to the delicate chemistry of the pond. The nutrient levels and water chemistry appear to be changing, and the wildlife interest is declining. Some of these changes are thought to result from changes to our countryside as whole, for example air pollution from traffic and industry. But some are more direct, such as bank erosion, the activities of bottom feeding fish and direct input of nutrients from feeding the birds to using ground bait for fishing.

The Forestry Commission, as managers of the Pond are keen to improve the water quality and biological condition of Hatchet Pond, and to maintain good facilities for visitors. Hatchet Pond is one of the most important freshwater ponds in England, with national and international designations. We’d like visitors to be able to appreciate its special features and rare species, and understand its management, while enjoying their visit.

Natural England and the Forestry Commission therefore need to act to prevent the further decline of the pond’s wildlife and are working in partnership with the Environment Agency to prevent the further decline of the pond’s unique wildlife. Footprint Ecology consultants have been commissioned to deliver a lake restoration management plan for Hatchet Pond and they recently met with local people to gather the views of those who value or visit the Pond.

We want to reverse Hatchet Pond’s decline in water quality and make sure that this beautiful lake and the unique wildlife it supports is protected now and for future generations.

 

Last updated: 7th April 2018

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