Our Dunsmore Living Landscape Trainee Rhiannon talks of her summer of surveys on the project.
The summer months of the Dunsmore project are often spent outside, ID book in hand, carrying out various habitat surveys. These surveys play a really significant role in our conservation efforts as they allow us to learn so much about the nature that we are trying to protect. We can identify any rare or invasive species, and assess the diversity and the condition of the area. This information can then be used to form an action plan for facilitating conservation. Surveys are also just a brilliant excuse to get outside and really notice the wildlife around you. Getting out into nature is great for your mental health, and is a brilliant stress reliever – even if it’s for work! In fact, surveying adds a layer of excitement to the outdoors, since you never know what you’re going to find. Just this summer, whilst carrying out a grassland survey at Ryton Meadow I saw my first grass snake! Although, I’m not sure there’s anything more satisfying than, after spending what seems like an age puzzling over a tiny flower or a piece of grass, finally being able to say, “I know this one!”. For me, carrying out these surveys has really taught me to appreciate every tiny piece of our environment and the role they play.
At the start of the Dunsmore Living Landscape Project the team set themselves the target of surveying hedgerows across the entire Dunsmore area. This information could then be used to identify hedges that require restoration work; either through laying (where stems within the hedge are bent and partially cut to encourage them to grow horizontally and establish new growth), or replanting any gaps. Before starting my role as the 4th year DLL trainee I’m not sure I’d ever really appreciated the beauty and importance of hedgerows within our landscapes, they were just field boundary markers. In reality they provide habitats and food for an incredible host of different birds, invertebrates, and mammals. A single, diverse hedge can provide food all year round, as each species will bloom at different times. They also act as effective habitat corridors, linking up areas of woodland that would otherwise be isolated, by providing cover for wandering animals. Wildlife aside, hedgerows also act as valuable natural barriers; containing livestock and reducing water run-off from surrounding fields.
To provide these amazing ecosystem services, hedgerows need to be properly maintained. Often trimmed too severely, or allowed to lose their structure and grow into lines of trees. To carry out a hedgerow survey, you basically start at one end of the hedge and gradually make your way down the length of it whilst identifying each species present. Not only should you look at the species within the hedge, you should also make notes on the condition of the hedge itself. One important value is a percentage estimate of gaps within the hedge, another is the overall height and width of the hedge. The ideal hedge is made up of a variety of different tree species like hawthorn, blackthorn, field maple, hazel. There should also be taller trees, known as standards, dotted along its length, these are usually oak or ash. The hedge should also be wider at the bottom and there should be very few gaps throughout. When a hedgerow possesses all of these characteristics, it will be able to support a diverse range of species – perfect for conservation.
Throughout the summer months, grassland monitoring surveys have kept us busy. Diverse wildflower meadows are not only a beautiful thing to witness with their brightly coloured blooms, they are also incredibly important habitats. These bright flowers provide valuable food for a whole host of invertebrates, which in turn feed mammals and birds. According to The Royal Botanic Gardens Kew, we have lost about 97% of wildflower meadows since the 1930’s. There’s a whole host of reasons for this, ranging from increased land development, to more intensive farming methods. Whatever the reason something certainly needs to be done to ensure that this trend doesn’t continue.
That’s where condition monitoring surveys come in. There are different ways to carry out these surveys, but the main principle is going to an area of grassland, selecting areas to sample, and identifying every plant species within the given area. Typically, twenty points are sampled, with each point sufficiently spread out to cover the whole of the area. Each sampling point consists of a circle with a one metre radius. Every flowering plant species present within that area is noted down. Depending on the type of grassland, there are certain species that are considered either positive or negative. Plants such as knapweed, yellow rattle, and bird’s-foot-trefoil are all positive indicators in neutral grassland. Whereas things like stinging nettles, thistles, and ragwort are all negative indicators as they are all nutrient loving plants. Once every species has been recorded the findings are then analysed. The more positive indicator species present, the better the condition of the area. Whereas, an abundance of negative species suggests a poorer condition, as other meadow plants have been outcompeted due to the high level of nutrients in the soil. The findings from this type of survey give us a valuable insight into the state of meadows in the Dunsmore area, and highlight the best places to focus conservation efforts.
So now, as the survey season has been and gone, it’s time to start putting into action some of the restoration projects identified in the summer. From planting new trees in gappy hedges, to creating a whole new hedge line where it was once lost. Or cutting and raking meadows to keep the nutrient levels down and allow the meadow flowers to flourish in the following season. All with the hopes of returning to the same spot in future years, repeating the survey, and seeing the benefits of our work first hand.