I think to say that a lot has changed over the past year is an understatement!

How we carry out our work on reserve has changed and current restrictions have led to the closure of our hides and the visitor centre. Our trails and toilets are still open and viewing of the low ground is available in front of Tower pool Hide. It's all very strange

But there are some changes to the reserve that pre-date the current situation that I will tell you about in a bit more detail.

You may have noticed that the view out to the pools is a bit different. Last year we gained the funding to extend the predator fence around the island. Now the whole of Starnafin pools is enclosed by a predator fence. We have also created additional habitat for breeding terns and gulls by building a shingle bank in fairly close proximity to the existing island.

The main body of the fence and the hanging of the gates was carried out by contractors under the watchful eye of Ed, one of our wardens.

The fence is made from a wire mesh narrow enough to prevent otters from wriggling their way through it. It is 6 feet tall and bent back at an angle at the top to deter predators from climbing or jumping over it.

To prevent predators from being able to dig beneath the fence it has been dug in at least a foot.

However the reserve team were not denied the opportunity to get involved.

The Starnafin pools have three ditches which allow movement of water on to and off the area. One of these ditches has a water control mechanism called a drop board sluice, which allows us to control our water-levels through the addition or removal of wooden boards. However these ditches left us with a bit of a conundrum, how would we stop predators like otters from being able to simply swim into the Starnafin pools?

In order to combat this potential problem we installed grates across the ditches with the help of an excavator.

The plan was that these grates would be able to be removed during the winter but it became apparent after the first one was installed that this would not be the case! When all three grates were completed we then did some work to fortify the grates and the wooden post and rails that crossed the ditches. We also fitted the grates with a kind of mesh cage to prevent them being climbed over. Despite only being with us for three weeks before having to leave, our newest interns managed to get their feet wet on their second day on reserve. I think this must be a reserve record!

With all this extra space protected by the new predator fence, we decided to build some more habitat for breeding terns. We decided on a shingle bank rather than another island as it makes it a lot easier to maintain without needing a boat to get to it!.

So first we laid out some boards in a completely random shape because as our site manager Richard said 'nature doesn't work in straight lines'.

Then we rolled out a membrane to stop the grass underneath from growing through the shingle. Then it was a case of many trips back and forth with the ATV with trailers full of gravel. The route got fairly muddy and resulting in a fair few new entries for the office's Stuck Vehicle List (I think my three stickings in one day is another Strathbeg record...).

And here is the finished article!

The final job for both the predator fence and the shingle bank was pony proofing. 

Our Konik pony herd do an amazing job grazing out on the pools. However they do like to use fence posts as scratching posts and they are rather partial to taking a bite or two out of them too! So it is an ongoing job trying to keep them away from both the fence and the shingle bank.

For the fence itself with have trialled putting up a line of wire slightly ahead of the fence itself with the hope that it would keep them away from the fence posts (That's why you can see black pieces of pipe jutting out of some of the fence posts). Though this has not proved successful, so we are planning to try a line of electric fencing instead. For the shingle bank some low post and rail and a row of plain wire has done the trick.

Whilst the terns did not have a good year this year, the new shingle bank did have one success story. A pair of oystercatchers nested and fledged three chicks.  And whilst sadly they did not make it to hatching the fact that avocets made a nesting attempt within the area of the new fence gives us hope for the future! 

All photos by: Ed Grace