Friday, 18 December 2015

Mostly Pollarding with some added Cranes

As the festive season draws nearer and everyone at Wicken is getting into the Christmas spirit, the Fen outside is feeling unseasonably warm.We had to mow the grass around the picnic tables near the cafe last week, a job we're normally finished with at the end of October. The odd queen wasp has been spotted, very sleepy and confused having been woken up by the warm weather. We have even spotted a snowdrop in bloom, which doesn't normally happen until late January to February time.

The warmer weather does mean that we Rangers have no excuse to not head out to work on the Fen. We have been working at getting a small area of scruby woodland back into a four year pollarding rotation. Pollarding is when you cut the branches off the a tree, normally at around shoulder height, which will stop livestock or deer eating the new shoots as they grow. By cutting one section every year, we are hoping to create structural diversity within the wooded area, the more diversity in the structure, the more habitats we create and the more species that can live there. By implementing this management scheme there should always be a variety of tree ages within the wood, which will be used by different species. When the section has just been pollarded, the canopy will be opened up to let more light in, helping flowering plants to grow in the glades and along the rides. By having plants such ox eye daisies, birds-foot trefoil and white clover there's lots of food plants for insects, bees and butterflies including Common Blues (Polyommatus icarus). There's also plenty of butterflies that will enjoy the long grasses in these areas, such as Gate Keepers (Pyronia tithonus), Small Skippers (Thymelicus sylvestris) and Speckled Woods (Pararge aegeria) whose catterpillars all feed on grasses such as Yorkshire Fog and False Brome. Brimstones ( Gonepteryx rhamni) will then use the Buckthorn  trees for their caterpillars. Once the trees have grown again from the stumps they form a canopy again, which provides lots of places for birds to nest. It also makes lots of aerial runways for small mammals to travel along, particularly when bramble has also grown up as this also provides a good food source for the mammals and birds.

There was great excitement around the fen on Wednesday morning when 16 cranes flew over the visitor's centre. There are estimated to be around 75 cranes (Grus grus) resident in the UK, with 9-14 breeding pairs and then a few more visiting from the continent in the winter. Breeding cranes are thought to have become extinct in this country around 400 years ago, with some still visiting over the winter since. In the 70s some of these visitors decided to stay and breed one summer in the Norfolk Broads. The population has been growing slowly since then, and the cranes have been spreading their territories, including two breeding pairs fledging young at Lakenheath Fen this year. There is also a breeding program in Somerset called the Great Crane Project, that has been very successful at releasing hand reared birds to create a stable population in the South West. All our native cranes are watched and monitored closely, and they can all be individually identified by the colour and size of their bustles (the long feathers that look like a tail, but are actually the tertial feathers on the wings). The Cambridge Bird Group website ( has lots of interesting info about which birds have been seen where, and where they think they've come from.
John managed to get a quick video of the 16 cranes flying over which can be seen here:

I hope you all have a lovely Christmas and a fabulous New Year!

Friday, 27 November 2015

Scrub Clearance and Winter's Arrival

As winter has arrived, the Rangers have been donning their chainsaw kits and heading out onto the fen. We're clearing a section of scrub along Spinney Bank, the path along the west side of the Sedge fen. This section of the Nature Trail has scrub on both sides of the path, leaving it in shadow for most of the day all year round. We've been having some troubles with how wet the nature trail gets and this spot in particular becomes impassable much quicker than the rest of the trail. We have been combating that by putting out movable duck boards. This serves to protect not only our visitors shoes, but the peat they are walking over too.

By clearing the scrub from one side of the path we're hoping to open it up to the sun a bit more, so that it may stay drier for longer, and we wont have to use duck boards for the whole of the summer again, like we had to this year. The side we're clearing is also the side closest to the ditch, which is also a good thing as we're clearing some of the potential blockages from this ditch.

Luke and Phil after clearing their section in the scrub
On the first day of work four Rangers qualified to use a chainsaw went down to the site, with a team of volunteers to drag away and pile up the trees we cut down. We couldn't, however, start on the scrub on the ditch side of the path as we had nowhere to put the downed trees. So we set about making some hidden holes in the scrub on the other side of the path. We created narrow entrances of about 2m, to allow members of the team to gain entry to the area and then swept out to create a wide mushroom shaped space to fill with the cut down scrub. We then piled the trees from this space around the edges of the wide areas to make room for the rest.

Once this was finished the clearing on the ditch side of the path could begin. It has taken the team about 5 days to cut down and drag away all the scrub from this section. It can be a fun job, seeing how much you can plough through in a day and with a few of you on a team there's lots of people to talk to. At other times. though, with rain howling down and having to wear ear defenders while the chainsaws are running, it can be hard work. The volunteers, lead by Luke have done a fantastic job, and there's only some stumps left to be sorted, but the trees are all gone.

Elsewhere on the fen, we're starting to get ready for Christmas. The cycle path along from the Visitor's Centre to Norman's Bridge has had new drainage installed, so it shouldn't flood as quickly in the rain. Its also had a new surface rolled on top so it's looking ideal for a crisp winter bike ride.

New Drainage being put next to the cycle path
The lovely looking new cycle path
The Education team are getting things ready for Father Christmas' arrival at Fen Cottage. The Ranger team help out by bringing back any silver birch trees we've felled during scrub clearance as they make very pretty Christmas trees.

The winter migrant birds are coming in thick and fast now as well. Short Eared Owls are back on Burwell, Fieldfares and the odd Red Wing can be seen from the back of the Visitor's Centre. Our last WeBS count on Burwell Fen (wetland birds survey) recorded 2468 birds of 17 different species in just over an hour. Over 1000 Lawings, 850 Golden Plovers, around 100 Shovellers and 136 Wigeon. And they're just the big numbers! The Hen Harriers have also made a return to the Fen, with four seen regularly over the Sedge Fen just before sunset.

Wednesday, 7 October 2015

The Cutting Season Starts

If you follow the Wicken Fen Twitter account (@WickenFenNT) you will have noticed a lot of pictures of tractors. We have started the annual cut of the droves over the last couple of weeks. Where the ground is dry enough, this means a team of three tractors heading out onto the droves.

Clearing the end of Gardiner's Drove next to the Wind pump
Firstly a small light tractor heads out with a disk mower, slicing through the vegetation at the bottom of their stems. Unlike a flail mower, or a garden lawn mower, it doesn't mulch the cuttings so we can leave them to dry on ground over night. Then, the next morning the second tractor heads out. this could either be our old Massey Ferguson 35 with an acrobat on the back, or a slightly more modern Kubota  tractor with a PTO driven hay-bob on. These do the same job of turning the cuttings. This knocks a lot of the seeds out, creating a good seed bank for next spring, and also pulls the cuttings into rows ready for the next stage of clearing. The final tractor then comes along and pushes all the cuttings into a large pile called a Duffy pile.
The hay-bob
The Hay-bob in action, rowing up the cuttings
A tractor-eye view

One cleared drove, with the last pile waiting to be taken away
The rows get pushed away by the buck rake
We cut the full width (5-10m) of the droves once a year. This is for two reasons. Firstly to keep access to the fen open, and secondly to maintain the high biodiversity of the drove edges, with some species that only occur in these areas. The orchids that grow around the nature trail most commonly Early Marsh and Common Spotted (and hybrids of these) are mostly found down the droves. There are also a wide range of flowering plants that get out competed in the denser sedge fields. Such plants as Ragged Robin (Lychnis flos-cuculi), Water Mint (Mentha aquatica) and Yellow Rattle (Rhynanthous minor) are a common sight over the spring and summer, which creates and large bank of food plants for a wide variety of insect life.

This week, however, it has started to rain. This has made things a bit trickier. One of the most important considerations we have while doing the tractor work, is whether we are causing too much ground damage while working. Wet ground conditions caused by the recent weather makes damaging the ground more likely, so we have had to stop taking the tractors out to do the work. This is where some of our hard working volunteers come in. We have been using brush-cutters and a ride-on mower to cut some parts of the drove, then raking the cuttings into piles, which are moved by hand into the scrub boundaries. The team have been great at really motivating themselves to get out onto the fen and get the job done, and it is a good job to really see the progress you've made in a day.

The wettest sections are being cleared by hand. 

 All the hard work pays off though. We were reminded how lucky we are to work at such a fabulous site last week when we could pop out if the office to watch a large flock of Bearded Tits feeding in the reeds along the board walk right next to the visitor centre.

Joan Childs managed to snap this lovely photo of them. 

Thursday, 20 August 2015

Buzz and Lark go off to Scotland

One early morning in the middle of August, a team of bleary eyed rangers waved off two of our Konik Ponies as they set off on a journey up to Scotland.

Buzzard (Buzz for short) and Lark are two yearling, male Koniks that were born at Wicken Fen. They started life out on Baker's Fen, and were part of the herd that were moved over to Burwell Fen last summer. All of the other males in that group were either castrated or vasectomised, to stop any further breeding in that herd. Buzz and Lark were too young to have this done however as their testicles had not yet descended. This meant that this summer they started to show interest in the mares in the herd, which presented the rangers with a situation. We had two choices to keep the herd non-breeding, either castrate these two boys, or move them out of the herd.

Luckily we had been contacted by the Wardens from the RSPB at the Loch of Strathberg asking whether we could sell them some Konik Ponies to help with their breeding herd of horses. Buzz and Lark were ideal, young enough that them leaving our herd wouldn't affect the hierarchy and social dynamics to much, but old enough to be able to stand their ground and earn a new position in a new herd in Scotland.

We then had to prepare Buzz and Lark for the journey. Once Stan and his little herd had vacated the hospital paddock near the Visitor's Centre, we moved Buzz and Lark in, about a month before they were due to leave. The vet came in to help with this move, sedating them to keep them clam for the short journey from Burwell Fen. Once they were at the paddock we could spend more time with them, getting them used to people being around more often than they saw on Burwell Fen. We also introduced them to a new food, a minty lick, so we could use it as a tasty treat to tempt them to go where we wanted. Our herds don't recognise many foods that domestic horses go wild for as they have never experience anything but grass so it can take a while for them to work up the courage to try new foods. As young boys though, Buzz and Lark are particularly curious, so soon discovered how yummy the licks were. This meant we could call them over to a corral every morning, getting them used to walking in and out of the structure, where they got a little treat.

Using the minty licks to try and convince the boys trailers aren't all that bad
Buzz was convinced, but lark not so much. 
Sometimes you can have the head in the trailer, but the back legs are not moving any closer!

The morning of the big move arrived and as the horses were being picked up at 7am, the rangers had to be at work even earlier to get them ready to go. This meant calling them over to the corral, shutting all the doors behind them before they noticed and then loading them into our trailer ready to be transferred to the larger transport vehicle. The work over the past month must have paid off as we managed to get his all done in about an hour and we pulled up into the car park with the horses, at the same time as the transport guys pulled up. After some fiddly reversing to get our trailers bum to bum, we opened up the doors and pushed Buzz and Lark over into the more comfortable trailer for the long journey.

Peering out for his last look at Wicken. 

Sussing out the new trailer
 Buzz and Lark had an over night stop on the way up to Scotland and arrived the next evening at the Loch of Strathberg. They are doing well and are getting used to their new home before being introduced to the mares in a few weeks.

Bye bye boys!

Tuesday, 7 July 2015

Stan rejoins the herd.

If you’ve visited Wicken Fen in the last six months you might have stopped to say hello to the three cows in the fields next to the car park. If you’ve then visited in the last two weeks, you’ll have noticed that they have gone. All three cows are now back out on Burwell Fen, and have joined up with the breeding herd of cows out there.

We had them in the paddocks because Stan, the black calf, was orphaned at Christmas. Before he was born the Grazing Rangers noticed that his mum, Wendy was looking in poor condition out on Burwell Fen, but was also looking very pregnant. We decided to moved her up to the paddock so we could give her some extra feed and mineral licks, knowing the winter would only get harder for her once she’d had a calf. The hope was that we could fatten her up a bit ready to go back out to the herd in the spring with her new calf. She gave birth to Stan, in mid-December and for two weeks they both seemed to be getting along fine. One morning, however, she was found lying down, unable to stand, and we had her put down. It was a very sad day as Wendy was one of the original cows that first came to Wicken from Scotland way back in 2005, and she had a reputation of being particularly friendly. I remember when I first met her thinking she was the most dog like cow I had ever met, as she used to wag her tail while she was getting a good scratch. She reached the grand old age of 13, which is pretty good for a cow, our oldest is currently 19 and she isn’t breeding. We couldn’t wallow in our sadness for long though, as we had a two week old calf relying on us for everything from this moment on.

Wendy and Stan after Stan's Ear Tagging. He wasn't that small for long
We built him a small pen with straw and shelter, and set about trying to convince him that the bottle of milk we were offering was as good as his mum’s udder. A lot of time was spent sitting with him in his pen, getting him used to us and eventually he trusted us enough to start sucking on our fingers. Calves have a strong natural instinct to suckle so once they are sucking your fingers it’s not too tricky to swap your fingers for the teat of a bottle. Once he was feeding regularly, with feeds four times a day, he grew, and grew quickly into a very sturdy little fella.

Stan enjoying a milk feed
While the Rangers could provide him with food, water, warmth, shelter and company, we couldn’t teach him how to be a cow, he needed some cow friends. For this reason, we rounded up Bramble and her calf Ennion, and brought them up to the paddock to help teach Stan what cows do. Ennion was only 10 days older than Stan, so we were hoping that they would make friends, giving Stan someone to tag along with when he joined the rest of the herd. It wasn’t plain sailing. Stan was used to people giving him lots of fuss, attention and milk and generally being the center of attention. He had a bit of a shock when he went bumbling up to a fully grown cow who had very little interest in him, and who quickly became irritated by the little black calf trying to play games with her. He got a few tellings off, a few taps on the bum with her horns, but he learnt quickly to stay out of her way. He and Ennion did make friends though. They were tentative at first, Ennion being quite shy, but they soon started grazing next to each other, exploring the fields together and could often be seen sunbathing side by side. Ennion, with the support of his mum, quickly gained in confidence, and was seen winning a lot of the play fights he and Stan were having. They were quite the attraction along Lode Lane as the visitor numbers rose with the good weather. They managed to convince a lot of people they were looking hungry and the rangers spent some time talking to visitors to explain that they were well fed, and feeding them grass through the fence would only encourage them to approach people when they were fully grown bulls.

Bramble, Ennion and Stan once they had all made friends
We gave them a little bit of extra hay when the grazing got very low at the end of winter
In June the day came when Stan was weaned off his milk, and looking strong enough to join the rest of the herd on Burwell Fen. We put him, Bramble and Ennion in a field where the rest of the herd could peer over the fence to look at them and smell them. the herd were called over to the field to make sure they got to see each other. This gave all three of them a safer introduction back into the herd, as having 15 cows all interested in one cow at the same time can result in a few arguments. After a few days in this field we let Parsley and Mulda 1 into the field with them and they soon settled down which was the signal to let them into the main area with the whole herd. Even with the soft introduction Ennion got himself into quite a few tussles, possibly because he was used to being boss over Stan and hadn’t realised that these bigger cows wouldn’t stand for that. He had a sore leg for a few days, but has now learnt his place and settled down. His mum was no help, as she was so exciting about seeing bulls again that she was spending all her time flirting with them. Stan did a fantastic job of staying on the edge of the herd, not pushing his luck and just saying hello to a few of the younger cows. He has been learning where he sits on the hierarchy running away from the big cows, but sparing with the younger ones so he’s not bottom of the pile. All three of them are doing well, though all the cows have been looking very warm over the last week, its hot weather at the moment if you’re made with an in built woolly coat!   
The boys were a bit wary of their new home on Burwell Fen
The rest of the herd having a good look at old and new friends
Stan is loving life with his new herd
The whole herd is using the ponds as good ways to cool down in the warm July weather. 

Thursday, 18 June 2015

Wicken Fen meets Ennerdale Valley

Last week, a few members of the Ranger team piled into two cars and drove a long way north. We were off to visit Wild Ennerdale, a similar landscape scale project to the Wicken Fen Vision Project, where they are allowing natural processes to shape the valley. After the initial stunned awe at the fantastic scenery on our arrival, and once we recovered from the shock that we may actually have to walk up a hill, we settled in to the cosy Ennerdale youth hostel ready for a full day of walking, looking and learning the next day.   
Howard was excited to arrive at Ennerdale
We were very pleased with our home for the two nights

Ennerdale Valley is located in the north west of the Lake District National Park. Wild Ennerdale is a project run in partnership with National Trust, Forestry Commission, and United Utilities, aiming to let the 4000ha valley evolve as a wild space for the benefit of people, relying more on natural processes to shape its landscape and ecology. The Wicken Fen Rangers and the Wild Ennerdale team met up to see the valley and discuss our project’s similarities, differences and share ideas on how to take both projects forward in the future.

Views up the River Liza
Our lunchtime views!
Even though Ennerdale has very different habitats, being a mixture of forest, river, mountain and lake, it is remarkable the similarities the project has with the Vision Project. The most notable is the use of large grazing animals to create an ever changing landscape. In the Valley they are limiting the number of sheep on the fells and have introduced a herd of Galloway cattle, owned and managed by one of their tenant farmers and, like our Highlands cattle, they are left to grazing all year round with no routine vet treatments such as worming or hoof trimming. They do, however, have more control over when the cows calve as they don’t have a bull with them the whole year around, ensuring that they calve in the early summer when the grazing is richer.
The Galloways heard the food call!

One of their lovely Galloway ladies
Both projects have a big focus on engaging with the community. Community surveys and liaison groups are used on both sites to help people enjoy the countryside, while limiting the impact they have on the wildlife in these areas. Both projects also have the support of dedicated volunteers that do essential work to manage the sites.

Both teams enjoying the sunshine
John getting to know one of the locals!
Wild Ennerdale was set up around the Millennium and has already shown great progress and has some success stories. By replacing parts of the conifer woodland with native broad leaved trees they are securing habitat for a variety of birds including spotted fly catcher, tree pipits and greater spotted woodpeckers. Some of the larch reduction has been forced by the appearance of a damaging pathogen called Phytophtora ramorum. It is a fungus, whose spores can spread through the air and on the surface of tools, footwear and animals. It creates large lesions down the trunk, killing the inner bark and eventually killing the entire tree. When a tree is diagnosed with being infected with P. ramorum, it has to be felled or killed immediately, to help stop the spread of the disease.

Here it could be seen where the broad leaf trees were starting to make head way into the conifer woodland
On a more positive note Marsh Fritillary butterflies, Euphydryas aurina, have been successfully reintroduced in to the valley over the past two years. They were originally introduced into a small nature reserve nearby, where they flourished. After it was established that the conditions were correct for the butterflies to be introduced into Ennerdale, and that there was plenty of their larval food plant, Devil’s-Bit Scabious, Succisa pratensis, they were released into the western end of the valley. They have been making their way slowly up the valley ever since.

We had a little time to explore all the nooks and crannies
And staying in the valley meant we got to see at all times of the day
The Wicken Fen team came back from this trip truly inspired and energised. To see the results and successes of Wild Ennerdale has reminded us of our own successes and encouraged us to push on with the Vision Project, as there are many more success stories to come.

The Wicken Team had a fab time, thank you to everyone at Ennerdale!

We had such a good time we didn't really want to go home. 


Saturday, 16 May 2015

Konik Sponsorship

Last weekend saw the launch of Wicken Fen's new Konik Pony Sponsorship scheme. Organised by one of our dedicated volunteers, the scheme aims to generate extra funding to support the Konik herds that live here at Wicken.

One of last years foals enjoying some winter sun back in February

The Konik Ponies, along with the Highland Cattle, are an essential part of the management of the wider nature reserve. The Wicken Fen Vision Projects aims to create a 53km2 nature reserve. This large an area would be impossible to manage using only manpower and machinery so the livestock do the work for us. Their grazing creates a mosaic of habitats, stopping any one plant out competing the others. 

Cheeky Chelsea investigating the ruins on Guinea Hall
The herds are managed in a very hands off way, we leave them to express as many natural behaviours as possible. This means we don't castrate the stallions or bulls, we don't worm them and we don't supplementary feed them. By allowing them to behave naturally, they shape the landscape by more than just grazing it. The stallions will display to each other to win their right to breed with the mares, and part of this displaying involves creating very large piles of dung. Each of the stallions will contribute to this pile, using it as a sort of notice board to let other stallions know who they are and how recently they've been there. These dung piles have been surveyed for beetles (Coleoptera) and 120 species were identified to be associated with them. In 2013 15 species of beetle new to the fen were found on these dung piles, one of them being incredibly rare, and classified as endangered in the International Union for Conservation of Nature's (IUCN) Red Data Book. Margarinotus obscurus is a carnivorous species that predates on dung beetles that congregate on the stallions dung piles. 
Peanut, one of this year's foals

The Koniks were chosen as the best breed to graze this area for several reasons. They are a hardy primitive breed, closely related to the now extinct Tarpan horse, the native wild European horse. This means they can cope in the extremes of weather, and don't need routine medical treatment such as worming. This hardiness also gives them an incredible ability to recover from injuries without veterinary treatment. They also have a proven ability to cope in wetlands without getting any hoof problems. Importantly they have a friendly temperament which means they will tolerate people near them even with minimal interference. This is important for the way we manage them as it means we can get close enough to get a good look at any injuries and makes any treatments necessary less stressful for both them and us.

Egg, currently the only colt born this year on Adventurer's Fen

The ponies can play tricks on you while you're checking them. It took me a minute to figure out where one pony started and the other ended with these two sisters!
While the ponies are left to their own devices as much as possible, there is work involved in managing them. They are checked on every single day of the year to identify and monitor any injuries or illnesses. The vet will be called out in cases when the animal's welfare is in jeopardy. There are miles of fences to be checked, built and maintained every year. We are researching their DNA profiles to get a better idea of the way their social and family structures work. We test their poo 4 times a year so we have a clear idea of their worm burden and when we need to step in. 

Galaxy is doing well with first time mum Lottie
This is where the sponsorship scheme comes in. To support the Koniks and the vital work they are doing, we are asking for a £25 donation to sponsor the herd for a year. To see thank you, the sponsors will receive a welcome pack (containing a photo of the Koniks, a certificate of sponsorship and a fact sheet about the ponies), three newsletters through the year to keep them updated with the herds' goings on, an invite to an exclusive guided walk and the chance to enter a name the foal competition. For more information and to download an sponsorship form, please visit or by emailing

Out newest addition. A little boy on Burwell Fen. 

Saturday, 25 April 2015

Calf ear tagging

On Wednesday morning there was a call to the office to say that the first calf of the year had been born to Mulda 2. Then it was to battle stations. When we find a new calf, by law we have to have it ear tagged within 20 days. Plenty of time you may think! Not within an extensive grazing program. So Carol and I piled into a truck and headed out to Burwell Fen to meet Hannah and Julie who had spotted the calf.

Within the first 24 hours of giving birth a mother cow will stash her calf. This is an evolutionary adaptation to keep the calf safe from predators. After cleaning them up and giving them their first good drink of milk, the calf will hide away, while the mother goes and grazes far enough away not to give away the calf's location, but close enough to hear it if it gets into trouble. The mother will regularly go back to feed the calf, but more often than not when we're doing the checks the calf is hidden away. They generally stash the calve for about a week, but it can be 2 by which time they have a good set of legs under them! So we need to ear tag as soon as possible to stand a good chance of finding and catching it. If we can do it quickly after its been born, it is also less suspicious of people making it easier to catch and the whole thing a lot less stressful.

The general procedure for us is to distract mum with a bucket of food while we lift the calf into the back of a vehicle. This give us a bit of protection from mum while we're doing the tagging. Then we have to straddle the calf to restrain them, and quickly get the first tag in. Up until this point the calves are normally quite obliging, but it's almost guaranteed they will moo as the first ear tag goes in, attracting mums attention if they didn't already have it. So we then have to quickly get the second ear tag in the other ear, take a hair sample for our DNA data, and get little one out of the truck and back to mum. Some mums will then be content to finish the bucket of food, this also gives her a bit of a boost after pushing a calf out, but Mulda 2 only had a couple more mouthfuls before deciding she wanted to take her son far away from us.

The young man with his first ear tag
Calf and mum have been seen together since, and both seem to be doing OK, though she still likes us to keep a healthy distance at the moment!

And him about to be returned to mum. 
We have also got 6 new foals so far on the fen, and this week I've seen Greylag goslings, baby coots and herons feeding their young in the nest, so spring is well under way at Wicken Fen.