This blog is written by Jake - residential volunteer at RSPB West Sedgemoor, Swell Wood and Greylake.
As the water levels rise, the landscape at West Sedgemoor is changing. Although most of the month was largely dry and sunny, a clutch of torrential days made October rather wet and the fields are now reflective sheets of water, the perfect habitat for the wintering wildfowl and waders that have already started to arrive in their numbers (although I’ve been told that I ain’t seen nothing yet). A few weeks ago, the last of the cows were taken off the fields to overwinter away from the elements and the cows at Greylake will be following soon.
Sunset at West Sedgemoor
Through a system of ditches (or rhynes as they are known in Somerset), sluices and pumps, the team at RSPB West Sedgemoor slows the flow of rain off the fields as would’ve occurred naturally before the area (like much of the Somerset Levels and Moors) was extensively drained during the 19th and 20th centuries. Improved drainage reduces shallow water in the floodplain, removing habitat for wintering waterbirds, for which the Somerset Levels and Moors are internationally important. This drainage system persists today and so the RSPB’s continued water management (alongside that of some of our farming neighbours) is required to ensure that wildfowl, waders and other wetland birds have a home over winter.
View across West Sedgemoor as the water levels rise
While working out on the moor the other day we spotted a swirling flock of 300 lapwing which was amazing to see (although I started to doubt our counting abilities on learning that the collective noun for lapwing was a ‘deceit’). It was also great to learn that the name lapwing derives from the old English word hleapewince which means ‘leap with a flicker in it’. Seeing the birds fly in the distance, they do seem to flicker as you see the alternating black and white of their wings. The struggle and flutter of lapwings’ flight is so different to the agile darting of golden plover, which have also started to grow in numbers recently. As if to help me with my identification skills, the birds really lived up to their name recently, their plumage sending out a brilliant golden flash as they turned in flight and caught the sunshine.
The wetter weather has also given us loads of fantastic fungi to marvel at. As we continued our work pollarding the willows at Greylake, we found a stack of poplar fieldcap wedged between an opening in one of the willow trees. The poplar fieldcap grows on poplar (you guessed it) but also willow trees and is edible, being prized in Chinese and Italian cuisine especially. Historical documents suggest it was one of the first mushrooms to be cultivated as far back as Ancient Greece and the Roman Empire.
Fungi was also out in full force at Swell Wood, a colony of common stump brittlestem sprouting from an old decaying log. Another encounter was with a clump of honey fungus (edible when thoroughly cooked, apparently) that was growing along the scarp trail. But my favourite find was a mix of puff balls and a black fungus that is known by a few unusual names, the best being King Alfred’s Cake because of the back story. The story goes that King Alfred was on the run from the Vikings somewhere in the Somerset after a long and tiring battle. Disguised as a peasant, he sought shelter at the home of a peasant woman who went out and asked him to look after her cakes. But preoccupied with worrying about the nordic invaders, he forgot about the cakes and let them burn to a black crisp. As you might’ve guessed, King Alfred’s Cake is certainly not edible, however it makes for an effective firelighter. Coal fungus is one of its other common names.
Although there are a few fungi that can be eaten, some fungi are poisonous so it’s best not to touch or pick any.
Common stump brittlestem (top) and puff balls and King Alfred's Cake (bottom)
Work wise, we’ve been busy at Greylake over the last few weeks, pulling up an expanse of typha to open up the view from the floating platform that overlooks the pond (and kingfisher post). My first time in chest waders, it was surprisingly satisfying work and only one of us managed to fall in. And we found a quite beautiful, perfectly intact egg among the vegetation that we think was laid by a coot earlier in the spring.
Typha pulling before and after
We then moved on to coppice a passage of willow that runs away from the treehouse hide at Greylake. Now that we’re done, the team will soon raise the water level to create a perfect habitat for one of the more elusive water birds - water rail - and for their bird watching friends keen to catch a glimpse of them.
Talk to you again soon,
Photos by Jake
We spend 90% of net income on conservation, public education and advocacy
The RSPB is a member of BirdLife International. Find out more about the partnership
© The Royal Society for the Protection of Birds (RSPB) is a registered charity: England and Wales no. 207076, Scotland no. SC037654
Accepting all non-essential cookies helps us to personalise your experience
These cookies are required for basic web functions
Allow us to collect anonymised performance data
Allow us to personalise your experience