Since the last time I put pen to paper, redwings and fieldfares have arrived along with flocks of pink footed geese and as the nights draw in the numbers of harriers coming in to roost are growing by the day. With the appearance of autumn colours and the first frosts, the weather has also got a lot colder and I am needing a lot more layers of clothing when out working in the fen!
At the beginning of October, Aiden and I, along with another non-residential volunteer undertook a brushcutting course. A brushcutter is a type of strimmer, much like a 'flymo' but bigger, petrol driven and carried with a harness. This is great for our personal career development but also for the reserve who now have more people in the mix to cut reed or strim viewpoints and paths.
The course took place over two days. On the first day we learnt about maintenance and safety. We learnt that our PPE equipment had all sorts of codes to say how they had been tested and their limits. One interesting thing was about the sound pressure. This is different from the sound released by a brushcutter. The brushcutter will have a sound pressure value that will be the sound hitting your ears (in decibels, Db) rather than the sound level at the brushcutter. For safety, the sound hiting yours ears has to be between 50dB and 87dB and so you wear ear protectors to bring it below 87dB but also making sure it does not go below 50dB so that you can hear shouts, alerts or other local noises that you need to know about such as cars or tractors. We also learnt how gloves help decrease the vibration that goes through your hands and why we need to wear protective glasses as well as a faceguard. The brushcutter can fling small stones or bits of wood at quite a speed since it is rotating at 9000 rpm. This is also a reason to check the plot to be cut beforehand to check for dangerous obstacles, ditches, birds’ nests or even wasps’ nests, the horror stories of which I had heard a few times. We also learnt how to adjust the harness to best fit us and hold the brushcutter comfortably and in the right place for cutting. There are a lot of straps and even an emergency release which I suppose might come in useful if vacating the area of a cut wasps’ nest. Lastly we learnt the checks that we would need to do at the end of a days cutting such as checking the air filter, the grease and making sure it was cleaned for the next use.
The second day involved actual cutting and we were put to work in the overflow car park, strimming nettles around the edges. We got to try the two different heads we would mostly be using, the nylon wire head for grass and easier vegetation and the three pronged steel blade for tougher vegetation and light scrub. We also got shown the different cutting methods, a simple right then left while walking forward, sweeping the cut vegetation to the left on the back stroke and pressing the throttle at the beginning of each stroke being the most common we would use. We were also shown how to cut around posts using the guard to protect the post and how to cut down brambles with an up and down motion. The cutting seemed to go well and we all passed. My note was to keep the revs high as I had let the revs drop so that the cutting doesn’t happen and the head just spins and tangles itself in the vegetation. This would happen to me on several occasions in the future but sometimes it just can’t be helped.
Me cutting some reed – Adrian Samuels
Aiden and I were put to work almost immediately as there were some small areas that needed strimming. One of these was an area of reed just beyond a gate between fields near the pumphouse track. The reed had grown very tall, right up to the gate and even with the gate open the cows would refuse to enter even though the grass on the other side was definitely greener! They would just mill about. So the idea was that we would cut a 15m x 15m area just beyond the gate so they had somewhere to go and the gate could be closed again. After which they would head off into the vegetation to graze. When cutting reed to be raked and piled we had heard about keeping neat lines so that its easy for the rakers to rake it up but in this case we did not have to worry too much as it just had to be cut down. This was a good start to our brushcutting careers where we could practice cutting tall reed without the added pressure of neat lines. We considered our first outing a success.
The gate area having been cut.
Our first cutting of reed which needed raking after went ok but I did find myself cutting too high so that I left too many reed stumps. These makes it difficult to walk on and the reed that is cut next may not fall into the neat lines so easily. I also found it exhausting. It really is hard work!
Then Matt the warden entrusted me with trying to mark out a plot to cut on my own. The fen is split up into many plots and these are cut on various yearly rotations. Each year we have a certain number of plots to cut at during Autumn and Winter. So Matt showed me the plot on a map, a long rectangle, and I tried to load it into Google Earth on my phone so that, when actually there, I could see if I was in the right place to start cutting. The theory was all good but we would have to see if the practice worked out. In the morning Aiden and I headed to the plot just to the right of fen hide. We had to cut a path in so that we and other volunteers who would come to help rake and pile it later had a more permanent way in and out. As we got into the plot we realised how uneven and watery the ground beneath us was! I got to work checking the plots corners and tried to cut one edge along the scrub. Eventually we had a square that was about a third of the plot to cut. We did not want to cut the whole plot as flooding was forecast and we didn’t want to leave a whole load of cut reed to get wet. We wanted just enough cut for us to have time to pile under the scrub before the flood water rose. The plot had quite a lot of tree stumps that we had to cut around but we got going.
When Matt turned up we realised we had not cut a path for people to carry forkfuls of reed to the scrub so we quickly created that. Matt also pointed out I had gone a bit wide but for a first attempt I had done OK. I had wanted to get it all perfectly correct first time but Matt said its tricky and you can’t expect to do that. Although I hadn’t got it completely right, I had been pleased that I had been trusted to be left alone to do it. Hopefully next time I can be more exact. We were lucky we did not cut much more as in the days after the fen did flood quite a lot and sluices had to be fully opened to help the fen empty out the salt water as quickly as we could. Fen trail flooded and had to be closed for a day or two. The pond dipping platforms were mostly underwater too. We try to keep the fen water levels lower until we have finished cutting the reed and scrub out there.
We also got to spread our new skills further afield as we went to help at nearby Sutton fen supporting Mick the assistant warden. We cut some paths, viewpoints into ditches and some of the fen orchid plots that are on different rotations. There were a lot of tussocks to avoid and also some buckthorn trees and a few hidden ponds to cut around.
In exciting Wednesday/Friday/Thursday jobs news, its now back on Fridays! This is the day I and Aiden go round and cut nettles, branches and brambles poking onto the paths, sweep hides and pond dipping platforms, clean signs and generally check things on the trails. This works well for having the reserve checked and looking good for the weekend and I think it had only ended up on Wednesdays as when I started as I had Fridays off and worked Sundays. The struggle against encroaching vegetation on the paths is definitely being won as the growth rate of the nettles has really dropped back. But autumn has meant a lot more leaves to sweep up and apples to kick off the paths.
On social media you may have noticed the regular #FungiFriday slot. I really enjoyed putting the posts together for this. As well as wandering the reserve finding fungi, I had to look them up and find out what they were so we could say so on the posts, so I learnt a lot. We used the social media posts to promote an autumn fungi stroll which I was lucky to attend. I found this fascinating and I learnt a lot from the expert guide about how to identify fungi. Considering there are about 15000 species in the UK this can be very tricky. For the milk caps for instance one of the ways to ID them is to break the mushroom and taste the “milk”. A bitter taste would mean one type whereas non-bitter means another. I must say I wasn’t immediately keen to try licking mushrooms. But other factors to take into account are; where it is growing (eg on wood or moss), the gills and the smell.
Two of my favourites – the blushing rosette and a stinkhorn
With the visitor team, I helped put together the Halloween half term family wizard trail. This was a more involved trail than any of the previous ones with quite a bit more to make. I really enjoyed drawing up the boards with wizards, wands, broomsticks, bats and owls but we also had to make a graduation stage, decorated with ivy, broomsticks and a mortar board wearing owl. We tied pumpkins, stars and broomsticks around the trail and even put out clay elf heads on sticks.
Two of the wizard trail signs and the graduation stage with watching owl.
It also meant I got to put up what I think is the best sign I have ever had the pleasure to put up......
Lastly, Aiden and I have been tasked with a bird survey. We are to monitor the harrier roost, counting marsh harriers mainly but there is a possibility we will see a hen harrier or two which would be wonderful. The idea is to get to a good fen viewpoint, either fen hide or tower hide, an hour or so before sunset and count the birds flying in. They fly in to roost overnight amongst the reeds. The survey is to be done near the end of each month from October to February but I have gone to fen hide a few times to practice and keep an eye on the numbers. This has lead to many photos of marsh harriers.
Marsh harriers in the morning light at fen hide.
Other sightings included an otter at fen hide. I was just sitting watching some buzzards through binoculars when some other people entered the hide and immediately whisper shouted “otter”. I managed to get my camera clicking before it slinked away.
One evening at fen hide I did manage to see a kingfisher. The light was in the wrong place but I enjoyed watching it fish for half an hour or so .
I also enjoyed watching Daubenton’s bats one evening from the reception viewpoint. They have a habit of catching insects just above the water.
Well that’s it for this time! Hope to see you around the reserve.
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