Long ago, rivers were free to meander around, flood and change their course. Marshes and reedbeds would form around them and in their flood plains, only to dry out and turn into grassland or woodland as the river’s course moved. This wasn’t a problem, as new reedbed and marsh would form on the new route allowing the cycle to continue. Nowadays, rivers are locked into the artificial channels and embankments we have made for them and there isn’t much value in reed any more. This means that reedbed doesn’t really exist outside of nature reserves and the specialist species that rely on them, such as bittern, bearded tit and marsh harrier, have suffered for it. These species are now all recovering thanks to the work being carried out here and on other reserves around the country. For our part, we work hard to ensure that our reedbed remains a reedbed by doing what we can to prevent the natural succession to woodland from happening.

Willow trees are rather remarkable in that they are able to grow and spread very quickly in wet areas. Around our developed and developing reedbeds of Holywell and Elney Lake respectively, patches and individual trees (mainly white willow with the odd goat willow) have taken root within the reed and are encroaching in from the edges. If left, these will keep spreading and eventually take over, drying out the ground resulting in an end to the reedbed. To prevent this from happening, we do extensive work with our regular volunteers, as well as groups of corporate volunteers, to go in and clear out the trees from target areas every year as guided by our reserve management plan.

Entering a reedbed can be tricky. Common reed grows densely and upwards of 6 feet so you can lose all sense of direction or sink and get stuck in the water and mud underfoot. We therefore prepare in advance and tread routes into the work areas. On the flip side, working in a reedbed offers wildlife sightings you wouldn’t usually get. Highlights this year have been small flocks of bearded tit moving through adjacent to our work area, water rail calling from just a stone’s throw away and hobby flying directly overhead catching dragonflies back in the autumn.

Once at a tree, loppers and bowsaws are the tools of choice for felling. Some of the willow is new growth with a diameter of only a centimetre or less, other trees are well established and a lot larger. Whilst some people cut the willow, others drag the material to pile it up. After being cut, we treat each stump with a herbicide to prevent the tree from regenerating (something they would all do if cut and left; willow really is amazingly resilient). After removing all the trees from within an area of reed or island, the piles are burnt on location.

We have made good progress with this work in recent years, opening up a wooded area around the back of Holywell and going onto several islands on the east side of Elney Lake to remove all the willow scrub. Reed will quickly recolonise these areas, providing more habitat for some fantastic species