RSPB Mersehead Blog 8th – 14th January 2022

The weather has been kind to us down at Mersehead this week; we have enjoyed some glorious winter sunshine and it has been noticeably mild for the time of year.  This favourable weather has encouraged a lot of activity around the reserve, and not just from the human inhabitants.

The mild evenings conjure up fond memories of summer nights splashing through warm pools with a torch, scanning for the extra special amphibian emitting its rasping croak.  The natterjack toads aren’t expected to emerge from their sand dune hibernation sites for at least another two months, but now is the key time to prepare for their arrival.  This week the considerable task of strimming and raking the edge of a key breeding ditch has begun.  The water level in the ditch is currently at its lowest, and by strimming the bank before raising the water level we will create what, to the toads at least, will be a shallow, vegetation free pool.  The ditch is only filled by rainwater, so the sooner the bank is cut the better, to allow plenty of time for it to fill ahead of the breeding season.

Strimming the natterjack ditch. Photo credit: P. Radford

Natterjack toad habitat work has been a running theme this week.  The digger has been out, extending the ditch that feeds some of the breeding pools, and creating some deeper areas as a trial to see if we can maintain wet features for longer into the dry summer months.  Also, we are keen to try and encourage the toads to spread further west onto the Merse (salt marsh), where some ideal potential breeding pools have been identified.   Toads differ from frogs in that they run rather than hop, and prefer to move through short, obstacle free vegetation.  Volunteers have been removing some gorse on the bank adjacent to the merse to create a clear path between the current breeding pools and these new locations.  We can’t be sure if this will be enough to encourage them to spread, but if all else fails we can always put out some arrows!

Digging a ditch for natterjacks. Photo credit: P. Radford

The natterjack toads would love these pools on the Merse - they've just got to find them! Photo credit: P. Radford

Clearing the way. Photo credit: P. Radford

It isn’t unusual for our curious and intrepid work party volunteers to discover something interesting during their weekly visit, with these discoveries often prompting the downing of tools as everyone gathers to admire and discuss what mother nature has left for us to find.  Whilst removing the gorse, not only were more signs of badger activity spotted, but also a fascinating frilly fungus; Tremella mesenterica. Fungi are often associated with feeding on dead wood, but the commonly named Yellow Brain fungus (or Witches’ Butter) is actually a parasite, which feeds on another fungus which itself is rotting the dead wood of the gorse.

Additionally, a Roe Deer antler was found close to where the gorse was being cut.  Male roe deer tend to ‘cast’ their antlers between November and December, with new antlers being grown from January.  So now is the time to see if you can spot any of the many deer, regularly seen at Mersehead, with ‘velvet’ antlers.  This furry skin covers the antlers as they grow but will subsequently be rubbed off.  So, what do you do with a deer antler?  Leave it out for a red squirrel!  It turns out they love to gnaw on them, not only to keep their teeth trimmed but also as a source of calcium.

Tremella mesenterica and Roe Deer antler. Photo credit: P. Radford

Further distractions included two Red-kite flying above us across the merse in the direction of the cliffs above Lot’s Wife.  The pair of Raven that have been breading on these cliffs have also been spotted. This is a busy time of year for them too, as they defend their territory throughout the winter, and will start nest building in February. By laying eggs between mid-February and April, they can capitalise on the abundance of food – especially eggs and chicks – during the period when they are rearing their young.

Back at the farm, the exciting work to prepare the polytunnel for the growing season continues.  Following the considerable task to remove brambles and roots, the ground has now been levelled and weed suppressing membrane is being put down and secured.

The polytunnel story continues. Photo credit: P. Radford

Whilst natterjacks rely on us to improve their living conditions, the badgers on the reserve have been busy carrying out their own home improvements.  It’s hard to miss the large mound of earth on Rainbow Lane which has been excavated from a nearby entrance to a sett in the bank.  A group of badgers will have multiple setts over the range of their territory.  A single entrance (like that observed on Rainbow Lane) could be an outlier; a less frequently used sett on the outskirts of the territory.  In contrast, the large earth piles and multiple entrances under the trees at the back of the Sulwath Garden would suggest a main sett, where there has also been plenty of digging this week.  Badgers are typically less active during the winter, but as the trail camera footage below shows, they have also been enjoying the milder weather.

Busy badgers. Photo credit: P. Radford