The Water Meadows Chronicles part 13 (August 2020)

Iain Carruthers-Jones is back on the case reporting his experiences as a Bury Water Meadows Group volunteer.  See previous Chronicles here.

This seems a good time to restart the Chronicle. It’s one of the very hottest days of the year (07/08/20) and the Water Meadows has lots of plants growing as high as head height, including nettles, hemlock and brambles. There are butterflies and moths everywhere, there are muntjac deer, swans with a cygnet, a partridge with four cheepers and several hedgehogs with hoglets.

On the sadder side, the freeing up from lockdown has led to a proliferation of cans and bottles thrown into the rivers and dropped along the verges of the paths. Saddest of all, the information board by the Lark bridge in the Crankles has been vandalised with the board stolen/taken away and the support table torn out of the ground and dumped in the river. It’s hard to understand why people do this sort of thing.

The volunteer programme has started again. It is good to see the familiar faces show up again and get stuck in. A recent group set to sweeping and raking up the cuttings left by the big mower in the South Crankles. That was hot work but, as always, very satisfying. We were encouraged by passers-by and, hopefully, a potential new BWMG member. Given the heat of the day, one of the volunteers suggested that we should get a mower with a hopper for collecting the cut materials. This would save a lot of raking thus freeing the volunteers to do some of the other myriad things on the “to do” list. We are needing sponsorship for this; please step forward with ideas, suggestions and financial support.

The new work plan is being finalised at the moment. There will be quite a lot to do in the coming months and so there will be a call for both existing volunteers and new volunteers once the timetable has been finalised. We are hoping that Bury will not be subject to a second lockdown like some parts of the country. Stay safe, stay socially distanced; we are looking forward to seeing everyone again soon.

The biodiversity survey is under way. A few months late but we are feeling braver about venturing out. The survey volunteers have been busy, while at the same time respecting and following the guidelines, and we have been accumulating bird sighting records since early July. There’s been quite a variety of birds. At the smaller end of the size scale we have seen treecreepers and long tailed tits while at the bigger end we have seen swans and a solitary buzzard. If anyone has seen more than one buzzard, please let me know. Anna Saltmarsh and I have located a raptor’s nest and we suspect that it is the buzzard’s nest but it looks like it has not been used recently. Perhaps next year.

We have also been surveying butterflies and moths. Jillian Macready and I have started to survey in the Crankles and No Mans Meadow. This is really an extension of the transect survey that Jillian has been doing for several years. Simply put, we walk a set route around the Crankles (North and South), No Mans Meadow and the Lark path from the road near the garage to the Lark Bridge in the Crankles. We have seen several types of butterfly with the various categories of Whites dominating.

Anna Saltmarsh, Jillian Macready and I have been recording plants, especially flowering ones, in No Mans Meadow, South Crankles and North Crankles. The Crankles have a rich diversity of plants some with quite a pedigree of ancient medicinal uses as well as amusing names. We’ve logged black mullein, pink ladies, bristly oxtongue, creeping bent, fleabane, purple loosestrife and hemp agrimony among many others. Ram Meadow is yet to be surveyed methodically but that will be rectified very shortly.

So as this edition of the Chronicle comes to an end (25/08/20), I am glad to hear that the volunteer work party programme has been planned for the coming months. So to speak, it is back in business. I look forward to seeing my fellow volunteers again. If you are thinking of joining us and becoming part of our volunteer group then please contact us.

Himalayan Balsam

Working in co-ordination with our sister organisation the River Lark Catchment Partnership, BWMG volunteers are making a major contribution to controlling Himalayan Balsam. Building on its previous years efforts BWMG has this year surveyed 7km of the Lark & Linnet rivers in Bury St Edmunds and has so far clocked up some 75 volunteer hours in surveying and pulling this invasive species. Scything or pulling up by the roots effectively kills Himalayan Balsam but the scale of the task and nature of the habitat with steep riverbanks and nettles, makes this very labour intensive work. See photo (left) of cut HB decomposing.

But don’t be fooled by its pretty flowers. This waterside-loving plant is aggressively competitive and very fast growing, invading riverbanks and wetlands so rapidly that scientists are concerned by its negative impact on the riverbank and biodiversity. It quickly shades out native plants, resulting in the loss of biodiversity and even riverbank erosion and flooding. . It does, however, produce nectar which is very attractive to pollinating insects. Bumblebees can be seen nectaring on the flowers, but this is thought to distract insects from visiting native wildflowers which may, in turn, go un-pollinated. Himalayan balsam in an annual, which means it grows, flowers, and sets seed all in one season.

The first shoots can be seen in mid-May and it grows rapidly, often well over head height with a succulent hollow stem – green in spring and turning red as summer progresses. Seed pods are ripe from the beginning of July and these explode when touched or are knocked by the wind, shooting up to 800 seeds, five metres or more, sometimes into a water course. This will carry the seeds downstream to germinate in the spring some distance from the mother plants. The first frosts of autumn cause the plant to die back but the seed is viable to start the life cycle again the following spring.

Sometimes there is an explosion of plants one year where there were none the previous year. Himalayan balsam is so invasive that, in UK law, it is illegal to plant or encourage it to grow in the wild. Being listed in the Countryside and Wildlife Act 1981, is not enough to stop the balsam advance. Prevention is better than cure, so plants need to be cut or pulled before seed sets. The good news is that our survey has shown that where we pulled the plants last year they have not returned and so this year’s efforts upstream should restrict further spread downstream to Fornham, Hengrave and beyond.

The Water Meadows Chronicles part 12 (July 2020)

Iain Carruthers-Jones is in reflective mood. 

We were given a nestbox as a present last year. How nice… and we showed gratitude but we were thinking about where we might put it. Eventually it ended up sitting on the top of our back fence which backs onto the Crankles and overlooks the Linnet. Because it has a semicircular base it rested almost sideways. And there it sat, pretty but neglected through the winter. A little art installation commented on by all but completely neglected. In our line of sight but not seen because it was so familiar. And then…

In the spring, after that ghastly month of rain and misery, we noticed that birds were inspecting it. Might it be used for nesting? Should we make it more secure? Well, we didn’t make it more secure but a decision was made for us when a couple of blue tits moved in. We worried about whether predators might find it easy to spoil things. There are a couple of squirrels that use the branches and the fence top as a way about. There were some larger birds about as well. When the bigger birds and squirrels showed interest we shooed them away. And left the blue tits to get on with it. I thought that their chances of success were pretty slim but as the time went by there was an increasingly intense amount of activity. The blue tit parents were backwards and forwards presumably with various nutritious titbits. We couldn’t believe how hard working those blue tit parents were. The temptation was to try to find out how many little ones there were. We resisted, fearing that the adult birds might abandon the nest. Hoping that no predators would come calling.

Yesterday (20th June) we noticed that larger birds were hanging around. Mainly blackbirds. They weren’t willing to fly away when we shouted at them. My wife, Sarah, went down the garden since there was a blackbird sitting on the top of the nest box. Just handy for the exit hole. This bird was unwilling to fly away until she was almost within “flacking” distance. Then it flew away.

A little later I was out in the garden. I was measuring the garden’s dimensions in preparation for drawing a plan for the makeover the garden so desperately needs. Six metres wide and 10 metres from the edge of the patio to the back fence. I was engrossed but an insistent bird call broke through and I looked around; one of the parent birds was calling in alarm from a branch above the nestbox. What was going on?

I saw movement inside the fence and at first I thought it was a rodent. Probably a field mouse. Quickly I realised that it was a small bird hopping around inside the fence which has a hollow wooden framework. It was a baby blue tit that was stuck. It must have left the box but fallen down the gap in the fence before it could flex its wings. What was I to do?

The bottom section of the fence on the outside path is covered with chicken wire to discourage rodents coming into the garden. I bent the wire back to make a ground level space for escape and stood well back. And waited. And waited. And then out hopped the newly fledged blue tit. Everything went silent. The parent was silent and I was transfixed. This little bird looked at me. Was it thinking whether I would attack it or was it saying “thank you”. It’s very easy to anthropomorphise in situations like that. Anyway we looked at each other for what seemed like an age and then it hopped up onto the lower rung of the fence on the other side of the pathway. It looked at me one last time …and was gone. An abrupt ending to an embryonic relationship.

Well, possibly not quite. Two days later our dog was worrying away at something on the lawn. I went across to her; she was barking to get my attention. And there was the broken body of a baby blue tit. I was bereft.

When walking No Man’s Meadow a couple of days ago we saw a mother partridge scurrying through the grass. She had four chicks in hot pursuit. It was comical but it doesn’t take long to realise that they had to keep moving so we stood aside and wished them luck. Similarly this morning (30/06/20) I was taking Luna out for her morning walk. I stopped to speak with some neighbours from across the street and moments later the lady jumped up and down and whispered “look at this”. A female Mallard was racing past my front door with five ducklings in tow. It was hard to credit their speed but it was a joy to see. Clearly something had unsettled her, however, and she was trying to get her brood to safety.

Yesterday, while walking in Ram Meadow, I saw two egrets flying along the Lark. This was the first time I have seen egrets flying together. Usually I have seen a single egret and later in the walk another single egret. It’s hard to tell whether this is the same egret seen for the second time or two egrets fishing alone. Additionally, on the same stretch of Lark, a kestrel appeared from the north end of the Meadow. Flying fast it homed in on a pigeon and then, to my surprise, swerved away at the very last minute. I wonder why.

All of this activity has had the most wonderful backdrop. The wild flowers are a sight to make you smile and the trees are in full leaf. We have the quintessential water meadow landscape. If you haven’t visited in a while because of the lockdown, come and see it. Together with the “sight for sore eyes” loveliness of the Abbey Gardens, you’ll have a smile on your lips as you enjoy your afternoon cup of tea.

For the BWMG volunteers these last few months have been a trying time. We have the enjoyment of being part of the team that contributes to the health and beauty of the Water Meadows and, as well, we enjoy the esprit of the social side of working together. We are hoping that we will be able to get the team together again soon.

Those of us that are involved in the biodiversity survey are beginning to mobilise. We were due to get started in the week that lockdown was imposed and we were going to start with surveying bird life. Now we are going to have to play catch up with birds but we will be turning our minds to “crawly things”, insects and butterflies, plants and trees very soon.

An excellent benefit from lockdown has been our collective introduction to the benefits of the internet both to do our food shopping and to learn about the natural world.  BWMG Secretary, Libby Ranzetta, has curated an excellent series of Friday evening talks. The subjects have ranged far and wide, and a series of speakers have shared their knowledge, experience and enthusiasm with us. I have certainly learnt a lot; I’m sure that other attendees feel the same. I have learnt so much and yet I realise that I have so much more to learn.

So, in conclusion, part of me feels that a big part of the year so far has been wasted by the virus. On the other hand, it has provided an opportunity to learn, through reflection, reading and the talks, and I have come to appreciate even more the wonderful world of the Meadows. I hope you have , too.

The Water Meadows Chronicles part 11 (mid May 2020)

Iain Carruthers-Jones looks on the bright side. Earlier parts of the Chronicles can be found here.

There’s been a bit of a gap since the last edition of the Chronicles. The coronavirus put us all into lockdown and the volunteer work programme shuddered to a halt. Much to everyone’s chagrin both from a “doing enjoyable worthwhile conservation work” point of view and from a social point of view. It was always rare to hear nothing when a work group was working. There was the teamwork-oriented effort and the chatter that went with working together and there was the chatter which covered everything from politics (how dumb can some politicians be?) to what’s growing well in the allotments. And then there were the tea-break goodies. The camaraderie was palpable.

For some of us, the lockdown felt like a prison sentence, perhaps especially for those living alone. We all recognise that these guidelines are essential but for those over 70 the realisation that restrictions may last into the new year is a difficult pill to swallow. It feels like an eternity; we have had a mere couple of months and there could be another seven months yet to cope with.

So this is where I apply the Pollyanna Principle. Some of you might remember a story written by Eleanor H Porter about a girl called Pollyanna. Newly orphaned, she was sent to live with her Aunt Polly, a spinster without a kind thought or deed to her name. Her life was orderly and austere. Pollyanna was an unwelcome burden but Aunt Polly knew that she must take on this responsibility.

The first weeks were difficult for Pollyanna. A happy natured girl, she was always being scolded by her aunt. Everything that Pollyanna did was too noisy, too unself-controlled and totally lacking in dignity. When she tried to introduce Aunt Polly to the Glad Game she was scorned. Eventually the two were reconciled and there was a very happy ending.

So – what is the Glad Game or Pollyanna Principle and how is it relevant to the Water Meadow Chronicles? It is simple really. With my psychologist hat on I would call it relentless optimism, with my whimsical philosopher hat on I would call it seeing the silver lining in every adversity and with my Cognitive Behaviour Therapist hat on I would call it reversing the negative cognitive spiral. So every difficult or problematic situation can still allow a positive perspective.

The Glad news is that the Watermeadows are still there. We may not be able to do our volunteer work but we can walk (with or without a dog) even if we have to “social distance”. We can say “Good morning, another lovely day” without getting fined. I walk every morning with my dog Luna and it has been a joy. We don’t see many people but most are polite and courteous and we all play the Glad Game. There are cows on No Mans Meadow and if we wait patiently more often than not one of the cows comes across to greet us. There are sheep and lambs in several meadows; Luna is fascinated by the lambs and, anthropomorphising, I think she is disappointed that they don’t come across to play. She certainly makes the noise she does with other dogs when she wants to play.

And the trees and flowers. I am amazed (again) at how leaves open in what seems like moments. The cherry blossom was beautiful – I wish you were there – and now the cherries are forming. I think this year we will have a good crop. The hawthorn has flowered; a cloud of white. The horse chestnuts are in flower – both red and white – and are graceful and elegant. The willows are that acid green which almost makes your eyes hurt. The hedgerow plants are in full flow. The cow parsley is wonderful, especially in the Great Churchyard (it’s only 100 yards from the Crankles!!)

While that is the star for many people, lots of other plants feature and in the last few days in Ram Meadow, the Crankles and No Mans meadow we have seen, among many, common comfrey, green alkanet, red campion, creeping groundsel, ground ivy, alexanders, burdock, white deadnettle, red deadnettle, hedgerow crane’s bill, garlic mustard, creeping buttercup, germander speedwell, red valerian, black mustard, hogweed, dame’s rocket, and garden yellowrocket. We have also our fair share of hemlock which though native is a bit of a thug and liable to take over if we don’t deal with it before it flowers. I chose to mention these because most of them are in flower.

To add to the artist’s palette of flower colours there is an orchestra of birdsong. Birds are everywhere. Most are heard but not seen. But those that are include pheasant, egret, mallard (of course), magpie and rook. Further along No Man’s Meadow there are lots of Jackdaws. A couple of weeks ago I saw something I’ve not seen before. Jackdaws were clustering around some sheep. I thought at first that they were attacking lambs but on closer inspection I realised that the sheep were quite placid and that one corvid was perching on a mature sheep’s back and tugging wool. It was passing the wool to other birds which then flew off with wool in their beaks. No doubt to line nests.

As I write, we have no news of when restrictions will be lifted. Obviously BWMG is hoping that we can get the volunteer programme going again. One key factor is when the 2 metre rule will be relaxed. The other key factor relates to when the over-70’s will be liberated. We have to “watch this space” however much it irritates us.

In the meantime, get out for a walk. You will feel better for it. The fresh air and the natural beauty of plant life and bird song are a powerful combination to impact “wellness”. We can improve our knowledge as well. A series of lectures has been organised; via Zoom, we have heard experts talk about a variety of topics including how we can help the insects, how chalk streams can be brought back to life, how we can use herbs for health and cooking and very practical support to help swifts when they return on their long migration. The talks are proving very popular and all you need is a computer, a tablet or a smart phone. Visit our events page on the website for more details.


The Water Meadows Chronicles part 10 (March 2020)

Iain Carruthers-Jones continues his accounts of BWMG work parties. Earlier parts of the Chronicles can be found here: 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, 9

What extraordinary times we live in. Daily the situation changes; we have pronouncements every day from what the Scots call “high Heedyins”. The only problem is that every day we get different pronouncements as well as predictions about what will be announced the following day. We get news roundups around the world and find that Italy is closed. Germany is partially closed. The US doesn’t seem to know what time of day it is; the esteemed president banned all people from the EU going to the US, but it was OK for people from the UK. Now Brits are no longer allowed either. My head is spinning with it all but I’m obviously going to be able to slow down and calm down; it has been decided to suggest (or perhaps decree) that all over 70 self-isolate for four months, what on earth does that mean? How many of us are going to struggle with this?

I am really hoping that common sense begins to prevail soon. However, I have been called an optimist many times and this is probably another example, if the panic buying spree is anything to go by. It was reported yesterday that someone was trying to buy toilet rolls. Not one pack but eight packs and each pack contained 24 rolls. Perhaps he has an incontinent family or perhaps he was planning to sell them through the internet at an inflated price?

I had another, different, surprise earlier in the week. You may remember that, in Chronicle 1, I wrote about the six o’clock dog. Bark, bark to make sure that I’m awake nice and early. Well, he’s back. The following day I was awake and ready at 5.55. There was no dog. Of course, I could not go back to sleep. I’m hoping that someone else, perhaps less tolerant than myself, offered succinct advice on what to do with the dog. Perhaps the owner complied. One can always hope!

A week or so ago, I received my invitation to the latest volunteer working party from Jillian and Julian. My invitation was to join one of two work parties planned for Sunday March 15th. Those wishing to join the litter picking team would assemble at Barwell Road for litter picking in Ram Meadow. This was led by Ian Campbell. I was delighted to see that there was an excellent turnout – around a dozen or so – and, under Ian’s guidance they soon spread out across the Meadow.

Necessarily, a lot of attention was focused on the river and the banks. In a number of places there were fallen trees reaching across and into the water. It was clear to see that the river had flowed at widely varying levels in recent months. Plastic bottles and plastic sheeting had lodged in bundles of twigs and even in the higher branches of the low hanging trees. In small groups the volunteers dispersed across the Meadow and began filling the collection bags. Having offered encouragement and taken a few pictures, I set off upstream to the Abbots Bridge and then into the Abbey Gardens.

The planting team had assembled around the iron foot bridge over the River Lark. The plan was to seed the gabions with soil, which later on (either later in the season or in autumn) would be planted. Additionally, plug plants of woodland favourites such as bluebells, aconites and primroses would be planted under the trees where the wildflower turf had not taken. Another dozen or so volunteers tackled this work. As always we were advised to wear gumboots and tough gardening gloves. We have all learned to be incredibly careful where brambles are concerned. The work on the gabions was exciting for those with a mountaineering bent; it was good to see transformation happen quickly. Those working on the riverbanks north of the bridge achieved a lot of change, too. Caution was needed all round to make sure none of us fell into the river.

As well as the woodland plants we gaped up some spaces in the existing wildflower turf and planted 5 of each of Meadow cranesbill , Lesser knapweed, Greater knapweed, Wild marjoram, Wild basil, and Common Birds-foot-trefoil. The latter arguably the most important one as it’s a vital foodplant for the caterpillars of the Common blue butterfly as well as Silver-studded blues and Wood Whites. You won’t see any Silver Studded blues or Wood Whites in the Abbey gardens but you should see Common blue butterflies.

It was very noticeable that the trees and plants have decided it is spring. There is blossom perfuming the air and the daffodils are in bloom. So are crocuses and a number of wildflowers like wild garlic, daisies and nettle.

So, overall, we were lucky. Although it was largely overcast there was no rain. Layered up, as most of us were, meant that we didn’t get cold. Sue, as is often the case, raided her kitchen stock and brought along some of her oaty specials. All in all, another very successful volunteer session for those in Ram Meadow and those in the Abbey Gardens.

Sad to say, this will be the last instalment of the Chronicle for a while. The culprit is, of course, the virus and the restrictions imposed on us in an attempt to keep as many of us safe as possible.

Keep safe.

Iain Carruthers-Jones

The Water Meadows Chronicles part 9

Iain Carruthers-Jones gives his account of the BWMG work party on 19th February. Earlier parts of the Chronicles can be found here: 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8

Nearly twenty volunteers gathered on one of those days. You know, the ones where the sun shines and there is a little crispness in the air. We set to work , were ready for the tea break and really enjoyed the Water Meadows Oaties made to a secret recipe by Sue (some even had two!!), set to work again and by about 12.15 those with sensitive noses noticed the wind changing and the temperature beginning to drop. We gathered all the tools in and dispersed as the clouds began to darken a bit and before long it was raining and cold. Great timing. I would not blame anyone who turned up the heating and relaxed with a good book and a cup of tea for the afternoon and evening.

So what did we do during the volunteer session? Well, we all commented that it felt like spring was within grasp. While there were no lambs gambolling in No Man’s Meadow, there was plenty of birdsong. A robin sang his heart out, while keeping an eye to see if we turned up anything juicy for a snack. A flock of tits flitted around. We see a mixed flock of blue tits, coal tits and long tailed tits most days. It is lovely to see although it drives the local robins wild as they graze the very bird feeders which the robins consider their territory. The tits have worked out a cunning strategy for distracting the robins; it works every time.

One group of the volunteers set to on the meadow and Linnet bank part of the south Crankle. A lot of dried off plant material was gathered in using rakes.  Essentially the material was gathered into 3 different types of habitat pile, all with their specific uses. The first is finer dried grass and plants; at wildlife Trust sites this would probably be burnt in situ, but it breaks down and in the process creates heat which attracts lizards and slowworms. The second was thicker twigs and small branches which will attract bird foraging for grubs and act as shelter. The third pile was cut bramble which the council will take away. Some bramble of course is left as it’s a favourite source of nectar for many beasties and it’s good nesting material for hedgehogs and birds.

What was really nice ? As the ground was raked it became obvious that there is already a lot of new green growth and there is a large variety of plants. Most spectacular today was the extensive carpet of snowdrops in flower. They had been completely obscured before the area was raked. Now there is a large patch beside the bee hives and a bigger stretch along the east bank of the Linnet to enjoy.

So a large part of the volunteer team was satisfied with the change they achieved. Big smiles from the team and from passers-by as well. The other part of the group was working on the north bank of the South Crankle ditch. While centuries ago this ditch and the others a few yards further south were probably kept in a very orderly way since they were the arms of the Abbey fish farm, in recent years an air of neglect has developed. A number of trees, some quite large, have fallen and the ditch is criss-crossed with the boughs.

Our task was to begin to tidy up while , at the same time, leaving the well rotted boughs to continue to provide a wonderfully rich habitat for birds and all kinds of “creepy crawlies”. For example, at one point I moved a foot fractionally and nearly trod on a beautiful green frog. It made me jump but it lived to hop another day. In the muddy bank, too, I saw the hoofprints of a muntjac deer.

Sometimes it is difficult to see what has been achieved. During this session the piles of twigs, branches and brambles were clear evidence and the objective of clearing “stuff” to allow fresh new growth to burst through was achieved. Congratulations to the whole group.

The Water Meadow Chronicles part 8 (February 2020)

Iain Carruthers-Jones gives his latest account of BWMG work parties. Earlier parts of the Chronicles can be found here: 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7.

The volunteer work party on 2nd February 2020 was different from any session that I have been involved in since I started writing The Water Meadow Chronicles, part way through last year. While we planted wildflower seeds some months ago on the River Lark west bank in No Man’s Meadow, there was nothing to see and no immediate visual impact. This session we were planting snowdrops and the transition was from nondescript to terrific and uplifting.

A record number of volunteers participated. We really deserved sunshine, but we had to make do with mild and overcast. At least there was no rain. The twenty or so attendees set to the task with a will and in no time, a carpet of nodding white flowers had been planted along the river side at the entrance to Ram Meadow. Spirits were high and, rightly, we were pleased with ourselves. It is said that getting out in the fresh air and enjoying some exercise contributes to hygge (or a sense of meaningfulness and wellbeing) and this session was a wonderful example of this. There were plenty of smiles and a clear collective sense of achievement. We had created our own sunshine!

We were joined by Ian Campbell who leads the “in-river” volunteer group. That’s the volunteers who have been trained in river safety and can get into the river with fetching garments on called chest waders, for jobs such as restoration, litter picking and Himalayan balsam removal. He was cutting back a willow that had fallen and obscured the entrance, which now had lovely snowdrops along it’s way. When the team had cut back some of the low branches and cleared some of the dead grasses and brambles, the view along the path was very much improved since one could see the sea of snowdrops from quite a distance.

This session was, according to Ian Campbell, “a wonderful example of what an active volunteer group can achieve by being collaborative, creative and flexible”. I couldn’t put it any better myself.

The Water Meadow Chronicles part 7 (January 2020)

Iain Carruthers-Jones gives his latest account of BWMG work parties. Earlier parts of the Chronicles can be found here: 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6

We had a lovely morning for the volunteer session on the 18th January. The sun shone and it was brisk rather than cold to start with. By tea break time we were all comfortably warm because plenty of effort was needed for the tasks assigned. There were sixteen in the group including our young volunteer on a Duke of Edinburgh’s Award programme

Our brief this morning outlined “some ditch maintenance”. This work on the south Crankles involved having a go at the area around the ditch between The Crankles and the first meadow of No Man’s Meadow. The name Crankles comes from the shape of the fishponds used by the monks in the Abbey, now celebrating 1000 years this year. The type of work we would do would be determined by the depth of the water. A daunting prospect given the recent weather we have “enjoyed” and bearing in mind that this part of the Crankles had been under water as both the Lark and the Linnet overflowed their banks for a few days. Whatever, gumboots were an imperative. The second task was raking last years’ old growth away and putting it on the compost heap as well as some tree maintenance around the ditch. If there was time left we would make a start on clearing old tree guards and tree mulching. Phew!!

A possible extra hazard was that we would be working adjacent to the beehives which can’t be closed up in the winter due to mouse deflectors on their entrances. As it turned out, the temperature was low enough for the bees not to be flying.

It was quite a revelation to see just how much clearing was needed. This ditch has been neglected for a while and the area has many fallen trees, some of the larger ones were right across the ditch. Those volunteers who were able, helped to pull some of the easier logs from the deep mud which was both slippery and retentive. While this heroic work was going on the rest of us raked the vegetation which had been mowed earlier and putting our resultant arisings onto the now huge, compost heap nearby.

We were ready for our “coffee break” when the time came and there was banter among the group of setting a really difficult bog snorkelling competition – Sticky mud, zero visibility, very cold water: what’s not to just relish! On a more serious note, traces of oil were seen on the water surface of the ditch as it flowed towards and into the Lark. Whether this can be linked to the fly tipping event a few days earlier, is difficult to say, but it was distressing to see.

As the weeks pass and the work of the volunteers progresses I am reminded of the value of their work. They are getting pleasure from their collective efforts, but they are also helping to revive and create a wonderful green space for all to enjoy.

The Water Meadow Chronicles part 6 (January 2020)

Iain Carruthers-Jones gives his latest account of BWMG work parties.  Earlier parts of the Chronicles can be found here: 1, 2, 3, 4, 5.

Happy New Year!! The first volunteer meeting of the new year produced an excellent turnout of volunteers. All 16 were in great spirits and there was plenty of hard work as well as happy conversation (especially during the coffee break).

There had been discussion about what we would tackle during the session. It had been thought that we might be planting snowdrops but that wasn’t possible. Further, the weather we have had recently provided a fly in the ointment. You probably are all aware that the Crankles and No Man’s Meadow were under water for a few days. Both the Lark and the Linnet had the highest water levels seen in a long time and the footpaths were impassable for all but the most intrepid. The conditions would have been perfect for Which Magazine if they had been wanting to do a wellies comparison test!!

An alternative plan had been to tackle the Crankles South side. The ditch, which probably formed the first arm of the medieval fish farm, is in need of clearing. There are several boughs of various sizes spread across and along it. The level of water in the ditch rose from almost nothing to almost swimmable. The volunteers were disappointed when Jillian decided that it is a health and safety risk. The rivers are back to a reasonable level but the ground is still very wet, muddy and slippery.

So we tackled the Crankles North side which is nearest the Abbey Gardens. It was a repeat of what we were doing in the Crankles on Feb 18 last year, when we cleared the arisings and made habitat piles of the vegetation. The arisings ranged from simple dead plant material to wickedly prickly briars. One of the group was delighted to be working with briars as she has recently treated herself to a fantastic pair of gloves. She was very proud to be able to give us a demonstration of their excellence. Collectively we took out several yards of briars. They need to be separated out and disposed of away from the other arisings since they have the capacity to root from cuttings left on the ground. An extraordinary plant with good qualities but also to be handled with the greatest care.

We also worked to make sure all the trees in staked guards are alive and secure. Happily the survival rate has been high; we all agreed, however, that the planting had been rather regimental in terms of layout and single minded in tree type.

This part of the Crankles has not changed much, apart from the planting of the alder saplings, since the cricket bat willows came down in 2015/16, and there are lots of logs in various states of decay lying on the ground. All this is wonderful habitat for wildlife but we needed to take care in case of tripping and falling over. Some logs were slippery with moss and several hosted varieties of toadstool and fungus. There were signs of animal life with several nest holes; there was a reminder of animal death as well. One volunteer turned up a muntjac deer skull. It was easy to identify because the horns form part of the skull.

A couple of the volunteers went across to the east side of Crankles South and made a start on clearing the eastern end of the ditch. It was heavy going and they made a sterling effort.

From the naturalist’s perspective we can report a number of sightings during the day. A couple of egrets were seen flying over from the north end of the Crankles towards the south end of No Mans Meadow. They seem to defy the laws of physics but they are wonderful in their elegance.

Winter aconite, photo by Bengt Nyman

A roe deer was seen and a water vole colony seems to have established itself on the west bank of the Linnet near to the Premier Inn car park. A wonderful carpet of Winter aconite (Eranthis hyemalis) could be seen at the northern tip of the North Crankle. Several wild flowers are beginning to show growth. Nearby viburnam bodnantse can be seen and smelt. A wonderful fragrance that lifts the spirits.

All in all, a very good morning’s work.

Iain Carruthers-Jones
10th January 2020