Blog by David Mason, National Trust - Suffolk and Essex Coast Ranger
‘Working with the grain of nature yields the best chance of maintaining a healthy and beautiful coast for the future, a coast that is great for people and for wildlife.’ – Northey Island Coastal Adaptation Strategy Project Vision
The UK government has recognised the importance of the East Atlantic Flyway, a migratory bird route over western parts of Europe including Yorkshire, Lincolnshire, Norfolk, Suffolk, Essex and Kent. In recognition of its vital importance to bird populations and wildlife it has joined the list of seven sites put forward to join the list of World Heritage sites. The area sees huge transient bird populations pass through every year as the seasons change, and the River Blackwater in Essex, including Northey Island, is one of its hotspots.
More space created for birds.
The overhead powerlines across the island were removed last year and replaced with underground cables. Once the flightline was clear the brent geese that winter here, along with lapwing, curlew and godwit, began using the eastern and southern field, areas of the Island they had previously avoided. The highest number of geese since 2015 (1710) was recorded on the WeBS count, along with the highest count ever of dunlin (3875) roosting at high tide.
Following the managed realignment, this area in the eastern field is designed to be underwater at high tide. It will retain water when the tide goes out and will develop as a saline lagoon. The geese enjoyed the shelter of the sea wall over the winter and used all the grassland on the island.
North West Wall beneficial use of dredged sediments (BUDS)
Further sediment dredged from Maldon harbour has been placed to enhance the saltmarsh in this area as part of an ongoing project.
Oystercatchers nested just beyond the placed mud on a patch of gravel. We are hoping other birds may use the new nest boxes placed on top of the cut down power poles left in the eastern field.
Water vole update
Pond marginal vegetation is well established in the main new pond and is providing food and shelter for the translocated voles. A pair of mallard also nested in the vole enclosure and hatched 10 ducklings.
Signs of water voles burrowing in the pond banks and feeding have been found with the characteristic diagonal cut on the small piles of vegetation. Later in the year they will pull these into their burrows as a winter food source.
A new extension fence has been installed along a connecting ditch to allow population expansion and accommodate any further voles found during the continuing works. The fencing installed to contain the voles will be removed when the works are finished, and they will have access to all the freshwater bodies on the island.
Telling the story of Saltmarsh, Migration and Managed Realignment
New interpretation boards have been installed in the hide and on a viewing platform, with a a new bench overlooking the River Blackwater towards Maldon and Heybridge. The three boards illustrate different aspects of the island’s environment. The first board explains the importance of saltmarsh for biodiversity, flood protection and carbon storage and the second highlights the East Atlantic Flyway used by migratory birds. The third board illustrates the work of the LOTE project to realign some of the sea walls to create 10 hectares of new saltmarsh and protect 50-60 hectares of saltmarsh for the next 100 years, predicted to have been lost to the effects of climate change without action.
Another new hedge and pond created
276 hedge plants were planted in total and included hawthorn, hazel, wild honeysuckle, spindle, field maple, buckthorn, hornbeam, cherry plum and blackthorn. These species were selected to provide a good variety of fruit, blossom and year-round interest, so will hopefully increase the food sources available for birds and insects on the island. These have been weeded and mulched by the Essex and Suffolk Volunteer Group along with removing old barbed-wire and litter from the saltmarsh. Three new ponds have been created, linked by a connecting ditch, in the north east corner of the island. They have attracted yellow wagtail and mallard.
Blog by Dave Blackledge - Site Manager, RSPB Cumbria Coast Reserves
RSPB Hodbarrow, on the side of the Duddon Estuary in Cumberland, is the site of an important colony of Sandwich, Little and Common Terns. They breed on land formerly occupied by one of western Europe’s largest iron mines and began nesting there as the mines closed over 50 years ago. Predator fencing and warden protection has seen increasing numbers of seabirds breeding on the island created on limestone slag with vital protected space at a premium. The Life on the Edge project has been helping create more space for our colony to expand.
At the start of the project in 2020, we constructed a new island and carried out work to increase the size of the existing one, giving us around 0.75 ha of extra breeding habitat, protected by anti-predator barrier fence. Work has continued this winter to further increase the opportunities for breeding seabirds by creating a third island of 0.25ha. and provide a line of marker buoys along our boundary with the neighbouring caravan park to reduce the incidence of boat disturbance near the islands.
The coastal iron mines were enclosed by a seawall at the start of the 20th century to protect works from flooding and thousands of tons of limestone slag from the nearby smelting works were dumped within the wall, providing an ideal substrate for nesting terns when the works were flooded following closure in 1968. Island creation on site therefore centres around lowering, moving and cutting off areas of the slag bank to create disturbance free areas.
This increased space has already begun to prove beneficial to a number of species. As terns, Black-headed Gulls and wildfowl began to increase behind the initial predator fence deployed in 2016, Little Terns in particular found it difficult to find space away from other species with their tendency to nest in a more dispersed pattern to other species. The first island created in 2020/21 has attracted most of the 60 or so pairs of common terns to breed creating space for little terns to expand. This season we have a peak of 53 pairs of little terns – a record for the site, and young are beginning to hatch at the time of writing.
With HPAI hitting some Sandwich Tern colonies hard, we are delighted to have 596 pairs currently hatching young on site – a little down on recent years, but probably expected with a presumably reduced UK population this year. Creating several islands also has the advantages of reducing the chance of predation – any breach of the predator fence would only allow foxes access to one area of the colony – and separating the colony into areas where interaction and movement will be restricted which may help prevent the spread of HPAI throughout the entire site.
Eiders too, have benefitted greatly from the works. With historical averages of around 5 nests, increased breeding space and predator fencing has increased this to 73 pairs, with several large creches seen escaping over the sea wall to the estuary in recent weeks. Along with 2 pairs of Arctic Terns, 12 pairs of Oystercatchers, 9 pairs of Lapwings and 4 pairs of Ringed Plover the busy breeding islands are proving a valuable haven for seabirds along the Cumbrian coast.
Blog by Rebekah Watts, Cumbria Wildlife Trust Foulney Island Warden
Why is Foulney important?
Foulney Island Nature Reserve is comprised of a shingle spit within Morecambe Bay SPA connected (via manmade causeway) to the mainland. The reserve is home to several wintering bird species such as knot, dunlin and wigeon and is an important breeding location in the spring and summer for shorebirds such little terns, Arctic terns, ringed plovers and oyster catchers as well as other bird species such as pied wagtails, meadow pipits, eiders and skylarks.
The terns that choose Foulney as their nesting grounds are protected species and they are in decline. It is so important to offer them a safe place to lay their eggs and raise their chicks as they are easily disturbed by human recreational activities, dogs, aerial and ground predators (such as sparrowhawks and foxes). Their nests are vulnerable as they nest where there are no visual obstructions to allow them to watch for predators but this means that they nest out in the open, making their chicks and eggs susceptible to predation. Their eggs are at risk of being trampled by people, as their camouflage is very successful. Terns nest on shingle and require close access to the sea to feed. That’s what makes Foulney the perfect place for them. Terns return to the same colony to breed in most cases and Arctic tern travel 22,000 miles on their migration. This special little island hosts these incredible birds and it needs to be protected.
Breeding Season Preparation
Preparation for breeding season on Foulney Island is an intense operation! For this year, the main island was turf stripped to provide extra habitat for shore nesting birds. This new shingle area was fenced off to protect the birds using it to raise their young, from ground predators such as foxes, rats and hedgehogs. Turf stripping involves the removal of the top layer of vegetation and in this case, changing the habitat to shingle. The vegetation was then buried beneath the layer of shingle. This area has been used this season by eiders, ringed plovers and oyster catchers who’s chicks began hatching recently, proving the success of the change in habitat! Skylarks and meadow pipits also benefited from the ground predator protection in this area as they too nested here, inside the fence on the edge of the shingle where vegetation remains.
In preparation for the electric fence the vegetation was strimmed. Insulator stakes were knocked into the ground and electric wires passed through the insulators. To prepare the public, signs were put up in the carpark, the causeway and on the island stating that dogs are not allowed and explaining why, and the rope fence to fence off the beach area, where the birds nest, was put up. Lastly, the caravan was put in place. Then it was time to begin surveying!
Warden life on Foulney
Hi! I’m Bekka, and I’m this year’s seasonal warden on Foulney island nature reserve. This beautiful little island reserve is home to many species of breeding birds over the summer including oystercatchers, ringed plovers, eider ducks and little terns. In addition to the birds, the island is home to and visited by mammals such as grey seals and voles; as well as insects such as butterflies and moths.
Sharing an island with such beautiful wildlife is an amazing experience. Being the only person living on an island might seem lonely, but I have plenty of fishermen to chat to, and of course the wildlife! During the season I have been lucky enough to experience finding nests and watching parents lovingly incubate their eggs, and have watched eggs hatch into beautiful chicks. Watching eider females with crèches of up to 30 ducklings swimming across the water and oyster catcher parents leading their chicks across the shingle are sights that will never get old.
As the warden, I spend my time monitoring eggs, chicks and adults, checking trail cameras and engaging with and educating the public. Explaining to the pubic the importance of reducing disturbance to nesting birds is an extremely vital part of my job. The natural threat response in nesting shorebirds is triggered by the public and their recreational activities, especially when dogs are involved. When threatened, shorebirds are forced to flee, leaving eggs and chicks vulnerable to predation, and forcing the adult bird to expend energy which should be used in incubation or finding food. In the worst case, an out of control dog can kill shorebirds, which unfortunately occurred on Foulney this season. It is so important that our shorebirds are protected. We all have our part to play!
Now that chicks are hatching we are well into the season. Fingers crossed that all goes well here on Foulney island!
Blog by Kieren Alexander - RSPB Site Manager, Old Hall Marshes Reserve
Last Summer and Autumn was a time of high activity at Old Hall, as the next round of LIFE on the Edge works was completed.
Like in previous years, the focus of the work was on reprofiling footdrains to benefit breeding waders by improving edge and then using this claimed material to rebuild and repair some historical but damaged crossing points. The latter for the purposes of allowing us finer and greater water control and greater compartmentalisation of the marshes.
However, this time we also completed the installation of a new tilting weir with eel pass, this is an important update to the site’s infrastructure. It replaces an old, leaky and somewhat difficult to use wooden dropboard sluice with a new purpose built easier to use at all water levels sluice. The important part of this is the ability to use the sluice at all water levels, in the event of a saline incursion our ability to remove water from the marshes will be critical. This weir with its safe access route will enable us to do this. The other improvement reducing the amount of freshwater that was being lost through the old dropboard, freshwater is critical to the health of the marshes and is one of the things we can’t control.
Although it may sound odd to have an eel pass on this, the borrowdyke where the weir is placed is hardly a main river, as eel numbers have dwindled freshwater marshes near the sea have become increasingly important as refuges for this species and is now home to a good number of eels. This eel pass will allow the eels that call Old Hall home to complete their natural lifecycle. It will ease passage into the marshes and then when the time comes allow them to leave the Marshes and return to the Sargasso sea to spawn, it what must be one of the most incredible migrations of any animal.
During the works we were reminded of some of the pressures that are increasingly prevalent to highly valuable and designed sites, this time in the case of a wildfire which ripped through around 10ha of scrub on the marshes. Incidents like this remind us of why we need to start the careful adaptation of our protected sites and change the way we work.
Later this year, we will be concluding our LIFE on the Edge work at Old Hall, with the installation of some new solar pumps but before that we have the breeding season to navigate, although we may not have received the water we would have wished for this winter (we seem to have been stuck in a dry high pressure system for months), the key fields are more or less where they need to be and before long lapwing will laying eggs and raising young across the marshes.
Blog by David Mason, National Trust Ranger
After a busy summer and autumn, much of our coastal adaptation work on the island has paused for the winter and the site is closed to visitors. Brent geese and other waterfowl and waders now have the place largely to themselves. WeBS counts have recorded a wide range of birds on and around the island with avocet, curlew, golden and grey plover, redshank, dunlin, lapwing, black-tailed godwit, wigeon, teal and Brent geese being most numerous.
Other species, mainly clustered around the new freshwater pond, have included yellow wagtail, linnet, whinchat and kingfisher. This has been a very useful source of freshwater for birds during the extended dry and hot weather this year, although levels dropped severely towards the end of the summer. This also led to new hedge plants suffering, which had to be watered several times to keep them alive. Blanket weed smothered newly planted marginal plants as the water levels dropped as well. Volunteers helped with the watering and clearing blanket weed. The abundant autumn rain has provided a welcome top up for the water features on site, however.
Water vole translocation
As I mentioned in my last blog the road to establishing new saltmarsh is a long and complicated one, and involves a number of stages and licenses which need to be complied with and completed before the next one can be implemented.
One of these has now been completed. Following a successful process of habitat creation, trapping and translocation, 16 water voles have now been relocated to their new home out of the reach of the sea on Northey Island.
As part of a Natural England licensed translocation of a protected species a new freshwater pond was created in 2021 and vegetation has since established to provide a new home for water voles (as well as being popular with local birds, as mentioned above). The vole’s less-than-optimal, existing habitat is threatened by inundation by the sea and is to be realigned as part of the LIFE saltmarsh creation project. The voles were trapped and translocated over several weeks by licensed professionals.
The voles are carefully removed from the traps in cages, with tubes from a well known brand of crisp, their ideal hidey hole in transit. These are then used to place them into bottomless release boxes dug into the bank of the receptor pond.
The voles can feed on provided carrots and apples and then burrow out when they are ready. The fence around the pond will keep them contained until they are fully established and the managed realignment works are completed. When removed, the voles will have access to a wider network of ponds and ditches around the island. Monitoring of the voles will continue to check on their progress over the coming years.
The way is now clear to remove part of the embankment next year to allow the tide in and begin the next phase in process of establishing new saltmarsh.
A new path has been installed to the hide, which overlooks the new vole pond and what will be the new intertidal area following the embankment realignment. If they are lucky visitors may see a vole or hear a plop as they enter the water. Along the track we have also installed a viewing platform and bench overlooking the river and mudflats towards Maldon.
I led a guided walk for visitors in September to talk about the threats to saltmarsh from climate change and sea level rise and the importance of the managed realignment and habitat creation project in contributing to saving this habitat. Attendees were able to use the new facilities for the first time.
Remembering the history of Northey
As well as providing important habitats for local wildlife, the island was also the site of Battle of Maldon between Anglo Saxon and Viking armies, which took place here in 991AD. This is commemorated in an epic Anglo Saxon poem and an exciting Lego renactment on YouTube. The latter captivated year 5 pupils at a local school to whom I recently gave a talk about the island as part of their studies of the Vikings. Nobel Peace Prize winner Sir Norman Angell also lived here in the 20th C.
Links to previous blogs about Northey Island
Part 1: www.projectlote.life/news/northey-island
Part 2: www.projectlote.life/news/ntconservationadaption
Photo credits: Oystercatcher by Katie Nethercoat (rspb-images.com)
LOTE Logo credits: Saskia Wischnewski