Our heathlands are unique cultural landscapes that owe their existence…
What an up lifting time spring is. I am sure it has a different meaning to all, dependent on how much time you get to observe the countryside around. Anyone living in Devon is never far from open spaces. I am often surprised by those enjoying an activity whether running, walking the dog, cycling or working outside that they have earphones plugged in. Sometimes this is essential Health and Safety and all that… however, now is the time of year to unplug and listen to what is going on around. Five minutes at first light, listening to the dawn chorus may have a profound impact on you. The sheer number of different bird songs and the volume is staggering, but you have to stop to appreciate it fully. You may find that five minutes may turn into many more over the course of a few days. The reason for all this song, most birds are singing their hearts out to attract a mate or defend the spot they wish to nest in. They are as frenetic as any as us.
Having had little really hard weather this year, the countryside is greener than usual and the winter cereal crops look in great order on the drier land. However, the rain in March has been more than in recent years. The associated milder weather has meant that many of the more obvious migrants leaving Devon to travel north to breed left in mid march and as yet our summer migrants are still have to arrive. Though, any time from early April, number of sand martins, swallows, and house martins should steadily increase culminating in the arrival of swifts in early May. Fortunately, South Molton has a healthy colony of swifts. Troops of which noisily race over the centre of town and can be heard above the traffic. Following Ecological Assessments, it is encouraging to note that our local planners are now making the siting of artificial nesting sites a prerequisite to planning permission in some new developments in North Devon. All these species are presently dependent on old properties to provide nesting sites, in roof voids, under the eaves or old barns and buildings.
Now is also the time to keep an eye out for the stunning redstarts and pied flycatchers on any woodland walk, and don’t forget to listen for the cuckoo, which was slightly more evident last year.
I probably shouldn’t harp back to the past but, my first job in school holidays was working on a large stock farm here in North Devon. Storing grass in the form of silage was just coming into vogue but it was so different to now. Back then, we worked small tractors – painstakingly slow by today’s standards, but while waiting my turn to pick up a full trailer load of grass, I was mesmerized by the thousands of swallows, house martin and swifts feeding on the insects disturbed by the grass cutting and collection process. I mean thousands! I would often get so carried away watching that I was never in the right place at the right time. My recollection was it never really mattered. Time in 70s was valued differently… that’s enough of the past…Almost! In my twenties a neighbouring farmer used to let me fly fish on his small stream. On one occasion bored at little success, I just leant against a tree and within minutes the swifts were feeding just feet from my face. So close I could hear them snap their beaks close on their insect prey. Just one more thing happened that day: a willow tit repeatedly came in and out of a hole in the base of a tree… the first I had ever seen. This was the time of my life that I started to become passionate about what goes on all around.
One further thing I must add, I only once saw one badger whilst working long hours on that farm and there was very little evidence of them. I believe the Army came to the farm and blew up the badgers sets for practice! Well, in those days hedgehogs were abundant. How things have changed. Badgers are common place now and these days I rarely see a hedgehog. Is there any correlation to this? On the edge of Barnstaple where my daughter has an allotment, she sees hedgehogs and there are unlikely to be that many badgers in this built up area. Not a scientific study but an observation!
The rain in March has prevented any salmon or trout fishing on the river Taw System. Hopefully that may change in April and fisherman are in for a better season than last. The salmon and sea trout numbers appear to have been decreasing in recent years but let’s hope this doesn’t continue. The rivers are in good condition this spring, but like our coasts, they are presently plagued by plastic waste. Recently when maintaining the trees and shrubs along the banks of the Mole, in 800 metres we collected half a dozen big bags of polythene, a car bumper and other odds and ends. This really spoils the environment. We are all responsible and need to do our bit to prevent this in the first place. Though that’s not all the story: hazel bushes coppiced, with tree limbs, broken and damaged in the floods cut back, it was time to take in the result of a hard day’s graft and we noticed an otters slid and holt entrance. Only problem was that the hole was in such an open position I wouldn’t be able to sit anywhere nearby for a possible photo. However the young student who was helping with the bank work is taking a keen interest in wildlife and placed his remote camera on the bank some metres away. Within 24 hours he had a shot of the otter at dusk passing by.
He is keen to get out with his new waterproof camera, how much more rewarding to capture wildlife action first hand by using your wits, endless patience and some good luck. Most importantly, get the shot and get away without disturbing the animal!
Usually the camera is never at hand when something truly memorable happens. This has to be when I mention one of my most enchanting times. With the river bank heavily overgrown and overhanging the water, I was forced to wade into a huge hazel bush so as not to fall into the trench in the bedrock of the river. Entangled in branches and finding fishing almost impossible, I notice something in the corner of my eye. There was a kingfisher, less than two feet from my head, perched on a branch. I am not too sure which of us was most surprised as we eyed each other up and down for a minute or more. And then he went on his way, and I mine. That encounter is as vivid today as it was some 10 years ago.
Most fisherman and land owners treat the river environment with great respect and one of the biggest problems is a non-native weed that grows in profusion against many Devon rivers: Himalayan Balsam. It has no natural British insects or fungi to control it thus, it grows and spreads here very quickly. If you are unfortunate enough to have it on your land or in your garden, it can be controlled effectively by sprays. Before you try them or even the painstaking task of pulling the adult plants try another method, strimming these annual plants soon after the first true leaves come through (and before they get 150 mm tall) will control them well. It may need doing a week or so later as not all seeds germinate together and some may get missed. Then, if possible, try to re-establish a grass sward to out compete this plant. It always seems to colonizes silt deposits on the banks first (from seed washed down stream) and doesn’t not compete well with our native grasses.