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The Water Meadows Chronicles, part 16

In the last couple of weeks a terrific transition has occurred; we had snow and freezing temperatures. There was a wonderful austere atmosphere and the lockdown was twofold. We had the legal obligation of staying inside because of Covid and we had the freezing wind and snow that found its way through every self protective layer. Walking the dog through the water meadows every morning was both a challenge and a joy. The early jewels of winter aconites and snowdrops were a delight to see as they thrust through the snow. They bugled that spring might not be too far away. They raised our hopes and our eyes from the treacherous icy paths. Within days the first spindly crocuses began to appear and then the first tete a tete daffodils.

The step change in the weather came on Saturday, 20th February. As if by magic the temperature rose and the sun beamed for us. There was a universal smile and one or two men even appeared in shorts!! Some might have felt that this step was a little rash but to me it suggested that there was delight in the loosening of winter’s chains and for many this was compounded by getting their first “jab”. Covid-19 has been a horrible experience. Far too many have suffered terribly and far too many have died. Many of us have lived with bated breath and the hope that this dreadful virus would not knock on our door. My relieved exhalation when I received my vaccination surprised me but I know that many have felt similarly.

And now everyone walking through the Water Meadows in the morning is assaulted by the birdsong. How can small birds make so much noise? It’s a delight. I stop and try to spot the birds but it’s hard despite the fact that the leaves are not yet out to provide camouflage. Before long it will be more difficult to spot them as the leaves are beginning to open; already there is plenty of blossom with lovely aromas. Many daffodils are in flower – there is a lovely spread of them together with crocuses on the grass bank by the Abbey Gardens bridge over the river Lark.

Having sung their hearts out in the early morning many of the smaller birds, such as blue tits, then seem to go house hunting, otherwise known as bird box inspection. My neighbours and I enjoy watching the feverish, excited inspection of our bird boxes. Most mornings there seems to be a queue of prospective tenants jostling for precedence. We are hopeful that the boxes will be used more successfully than they were last year.

A couple of days ago, one of my neighbours emailed me to say, very excitedly, that he had just seen a weasel. It had appeared from one of the holes in the path by the river Linnet. If any reader sees a weasel, please let me know. This is a first for the Water Meadows as far as I am aware and it would be good to be able to confirm a record for our Biodiversity Survey.

Several people have reported seeing a small herd of Muntjac deer in No Mans Meadow. This is another first, since Muntjac tend to be solitary deer in this area. There are certainly several Muntjacs since I have heard them barking in the South Crankles on a number of evenings. I think it must be part of their mating ritual. I hope the females being sought out find monotonic, rhythmic barking more appealing than our local dogs do.

The excitement about the egrets continues. From one or, at most, two being seen periodically we have had the pleasure of seeing several, most frequently in No Mans Meadow. As many as six have been spotted together on different days over several weeks. Years ago they were hunted to near extinction; apparently milliners liked to use their plume feathers to decorate ladies hats. It is hard to think that this fashion will enjoy a resurgence so it may be that we will see increasing numbers in years to come.

Throughout the winter the weeping willow trees looked grey and brittle. Because they droop they give a sad impression. However, in the last few days they have begun to change in colour and now we can see a hint of a colour somewhere between green and pale yellow. By the time you read this the leaves will have opened a bit more. They will be a lovely delicate almost fragile green. And it will be enjoyed by many. The Abbey Gardens and the Water Meadows are thronged with people out walking and the childrens playground is a shriek of fun again. I suspect we all appreciate these green places even more this year.

The BWMG AGM was held last week. Of course, Zoom was used since we can’t meet together as we did pre-Covid. The committee had been worried that we might struggle to be quorate; there can be a difference between members saying they will attend and then actually attending. There was no need to worry as it turned out since about one third of the membership attended. They enjoyed the various contributions and the presenters’ enthusiasm was evident as they described the progress made in both conservation effort planning and actual work carried out by the volunteers. It is remarkable that so much was achieved during a year in which our lives have been irrevocably changed. Gratifyingly, feedback on progress achieved was very positive.

I had the opportunity during the AGM to report on the Biodiversity Survey that we conducted last year. Like all our volunteer efforts, the survey work was detrimentally affected by Covid. We had planned to get started in March but, frustratingly, lockdown was imposed and it was several months before we felt it was safe to start. While we recorded 37 different bird species, I’m sure this is an underestimate of actual numbers. Time will tell.

We have already started our 2021 survey; we are including Ram Meadow, the Lark river from the Eastgate weir to the Abbey Gardens bridge, the North and South Crankles and No Mans Meadow. We have a larger team of observers this year, as well. Last year we had five team members; this year we have eight. We intend to survey birds, mammals, reptiles, insects/butterflies/moths and plants. We would like to survey fish, bats and bees as well but we don’t have a sufficient number of volunteers with the experience yet. We would welcome help.

So, in summary, this is an exciting time for the BWMG. We are seeing our efforts showing progress whether it be in habitat restoration and improvement generally, or in specific projects like traffic noise and pollution abatement in Ram Meadow. The easing of lockdown will surely help us to make progress.

Iain Carruthers-Jones