As we head into autumn, the reserve landscape and its inhabitants are changing on an almost daily basis. Moulting wildfowl can be seen loafing on the water (providing some fun identification challenges!) while coot families actively gather in numbers to feed on floating weed. As water levels remain low across the site we are seeing (and hearing!) large flocks of black-tailed godwits in front of Lilian's Hide, often flanked by up to five great white egrets and multiple grey herons. Amongst other recent sightings, ospreys are a popular and regular feature, as we'd hope at this time of year.

 Which leads to me neatly onto some news I am delighted to share -we have installed an osprey nest platform! As the population in Cumbria and further north continues to increase it seems highly likely that birds will attempt to nest locally in the next couple of years or so. With this in mind, we have provided the some ideal real estate for these fabulous raptors! We're very excited at the prospect of being able to support the ongoing expansion of these once-imperilled migrants and we shall be keeping our fingers crossed that some pioneering young ospreys find our platform to their liking in the not too distant future. 

Out on the saline Eric Morecambe and Allen pools the waders continue to fluctuate as increasing numbers pass through following the breeding season. Along with spoonbills (numbers vary between four and six most days) and little egrets, birdwatchers have been enjoying views of knot, dunlin, ruff, little stint, greenshank, little ringed plover, golden plover and a host of other classic late summer wading birds.     

As we all know, a site like Leighton Moss needs an awful lot of upkeep. It's not just the hides, pathways and buildings etc, that require constant maintenance but the habitat itself is also heavily managed, in order to provide a perfect home for our key species. 

Our volunteer Beth find some time to have a chat with our Assistant Warden Nick to find out more...           

While temperatures soared through the end of July, many of us (wildlife included) were soaking up the sunshine or sneaking in siestas. The Warden Team at Leighton Moss, however, were hard at work.

This week, I caught up with Nick, our Assistant Warden, who gave us the lowdown on the summer reed cut.

So, first things first, how long have you been taking care of the reedbeds at Leighton Moss? Have you always been a Warden in your time with the RSPB?

Nick: I’ve been Warden at Leighton Moss for seven years. I did a few other jobs for the RSPB beforehand; I did survey work of Harriers, waders, and so on. But since, I’ve been a Warden either here or on the Ribble Estuary.

How does managing the site of Leighton compare to managing somewhere like the Ribble Estuary? Is it quite similar?

Nick: Very different. It’s just the nature of the habitats we have. The reedbeds require quite a lot of hands-on management, whether that’s rotational cutting, willow clearance, or ditch work. Whereas, the wet grasses and the salt marsh - a lot of the management in those environments is done by cattle. Last week, you were out on the site performing the summer reed cut. Tell us a little more about why reed cutting is an essential part of the management of Leighton Moss.

For starters, it helps to make sure that our visitors can see out of the hides. Cutting the vegetation down to the ground and making some nice, big open spaces really encourages the birds to be close to the hides and that is what we want our visitors to get. We want them to see wildlife and get good, close views. But the key thing is always what we are trying to achieve for the birds and the flowers. There are lots of wildflowers out there which are great sources of nectar for invertebrates and seeds for the birds come Autumn/Winter. Burr marigold and spikerush are two really important plants; the likes of the teal and the mallard feed round those pool edges in their hundreds on those seeds. The reed cut is also important for our ducks and waders as they need to feel safe. You don’t get them in small areas with lots of trees; they’d feel quite enclosed and wouldn’t be able to sense predators. It also provides them with feeding opportunities! For waders, they’re not likely to go through grass that’s two or three feet high - they want it to be short grass and muddy. The section in front of Lilian’s Hide is a great example of this. We have bits where it’s just short grass, then there are bays of mud and shallow water. That’s exactly what we are after!

Is the purpose of the summer reed cut different to that of the winter one?

 Nick: Yes! So, the winter reed cut is a rotational cut. We wait until the reed has finished growing for the year and the stems above the ground are dead. We’ll then cut that and burn up the material. It’s quite similar to coppicing a tree. If you do it in the Winter then it will regrow afterward whereas cutting in the summer is about suppressing the growth. We are trying to suppress the reed when we are cutting those open areas and that will encourage a more diverse mix of species. The other difference with the Winter reed cut is that we do it in different places every year. We do lots of different patches of it, 50m or so across. We’ll do them dotted around the reedbed, and try and tie them in with wet features like the pools and the ditches, to make them visible for the visitors (but there are lots that are completely out of sight). The summer reed cut is much more fixed in the sense is that it’s around the hides and the grit trays.

For the rotational cut in the Winter, is this so the site has the various range in the succession of the reeds?

Nick: Exactly! Species like the bittern will look to feed in the young reed. The first year or two after it’s regrown, it gets gradually more dense as the older stems still remain in there. In five or ten years, it’s perfect for birds like bittern, bearded tits, and marsh harriers to nest in. But feeding opportunities for invertebrates are different, especially through those younger years. That’s where we get different opportunities for bearded tits at different times of the year.

I'm guessing it's a little different from strimming your back garden. What kind of equipment do you need to perform the reed cut? Does this differ between Summer to Winter?

Nick: Well generally, the machine we use is quite similar to a strimmer you’d use in your garden. We have a metal blade for it because the material we are trying to cut is so much heavier. The machines are probably a bit chunkier than the ones we have at home. We use those where the ground conditions aren’t great. We do also have a mower. Where the ground is good enough, we will use that - it’s much quicker. But in the really wet bits, we have hedge cutters. We can walk into the water and cut the more awkward bits with those. But sometimes we do it by hand and use pitchforks and chromes to clear out ditches; we will rake out vegetation and pile it into little loafing areas for the ducks. That’s always popular! It’s great when the water level comes up in the middle of the autumn because it creates almost temporary islands that they can rest on.

Was there a reason that the reed cut was undertaken when it was so hot?

Nick: Coincidence! We like to do it at the end of July. We don’t want to do it whilst there are still nests however we like to do it as soon as possible after that time. We do checks from the hides to make sure there are no birds nesting. But we are already seeing the return passage of waders and ducks, so getting the margins right is a fine balance. We do have to lower the water levels beforehand, but that is something we are usually doing at this time of year anyway. It’s part of our management; in a natural system, we would see the place dry out quite a lot at this time of year, so we replicate that. But lower water levels mean it’s also nice and easy for us to cut.

And to wrap up: what's been your top wildlife moment whilst out in the reeds? Any really close encounters with our key species?

Nick: We get to see a lot of bearded tits up close!

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