My brother Graham and his wife Vicky came to stay with us in early September and we went for some good days out, one of which was to the Prees Branch Line, a disused canal branch that never actually opened but now is a rich nature reserve, the longest wildlife pond in Shropshire. We have visited several times in the past at different seasons and enjoyed every walk along the old abandoned canal, as there is always so much wildlife to observe, encounter and surprise.
The site sign hints strongly at its main wildlife star, the Water Vole with a lovely illustration, but this is a star who is a real secretive creature and visitors have to be very lucky to spot one. It is more likely to find stems of reeds nibbled down in the vole’s distinctive style, or hear the plop as it enters the water again a very distinctive sound. We have heard them plop and seen signs of their nibblings at this reserve but never as yet spotted one.
We began our walk enjoying a coffee as we put on our walking boots and luckily spotted some fruit trees close by, the native Shropshire Damson otherwise known as the Shropshire Prune. This tree is a feature of Shropshire’s hedgerows and we have enjoyed many while on walks. These however were the sweetest we have ever tasted, the nectar of the gods.
On this latest visit we were lucky to spot and watch for a long while a rare bee, the Moss Carder Bee which was a first for us. It appeared right in front of me as I was taking a photograph of a plant so I had the rare chance of taking photographs so effortlessly. The bee really just posed for me. Graham and I watched it for a while and got very close, close enough to appreciate the beauty of its delicate colouring and the subtlety of its markings.
Not so long after this a similar thing happened. Again I was taking a close up photograph of a plant when a hoverfly firstly came into view above the flower, then landed on it closely followed by a second identical one allowing me to get these shots. Twins! Identical twins!
Berries were at various stages of ripeness from hard green to the darkest of ruby red.
And wild flowers added spots of colour to the impressionist painting that is the bank of the canal.
There was so much to see as we ambled along the narrow track along the towpath of the canal branch line that never opened to barges just to wildlife. Rather than narrow-boats plying the waters it is Swans, Mallards and Water Voles instead! We barely moved forward a few steps before something caught our eyes and stopped us in our tracks. I took so many photos that I thought I could invite you to join us as we followed our canal side path “there and back again”. Enjoy!
As usual just click on the first photo and then navigate with the arrows.
This was our 4th annual NGS Open Day at our allotments, Bowbrook Allotment Community. In the past we had been dogged by bad weather, heavy rain, high winds and once even excessively high temperatures. But today was to be different – the weather was perfect so we were set for a successful day. We open under the auspices of the National Garden Scheme and thus we are proud to appear in their famous Yellow Book.
Members of the public are invited to look around the individual plots and all our communal spaces. They can follow our Interest Trail, look at the wildlife areas and the communal gardens and the children have quiz sheets to enjoy and can use the features we have made for our members’ children such as the Willow Dome, Turf Spiral and Willow Tunnel. We turn our Communal Hut and the area around it into a Tea Shop for the day so that our visitors can indulge in tea, coffee and home made cakes and biscuits.
All the money raised goes to the NGS’s charities including Macmillan Nurses, Marie Curie and Help for Hospices.
Here are a few of the scarecrow creations members came up with. Little Miss Muffit, Peter Rabbit, Little Red Ridinghood, Dr Foster et al.
On one plot visitors were asked to help Little BoPeep find her lost sheep. I will admit it took me ages to find him for a photo shhoot
The Wildlife Trust brought all this equipment for bug hunting and the volunteer from the Shropshire Mammal Group stayed on all afternoon entertaining and informing.
Visitors took every chance to sit and enjoy our tea shop, where refreshments were on tap all afternoon.
A few of the younger members just relaxed in the sunshine!
Jude the Undergardener found a good spot to set her stall selling our herbaceous perennials she had grown from seed.
Members were on hand to talk to our visitors, give advice and answer questions. Some visitors found comfy seats all round the site.
A good day was had by all and we felt proud to have raised over £1000 for such good charities.
We are developing ever closer links with our county’s wildlife trust, the Shropshire Wildlife Trust and our allotment community gardens at Bowbrook. (see website http://www.bowbrookallotments.co.uk and shropshirewildlifetrust.org.uk) This year on the day of our NGS Yellow Book Gardens Open Day we planned a mini-bioblitz in the morning before the public arrived to share the community gardens in the afternoon. The Shropshire Mammal Group came along to lead the first session where we opened live mammal traps which had been set in baited areas around the wildlife areas of the site. The mammals were identified, weighed and recorded. The local children and their families enjoyed the chance of seeing these experts at work and were afforded the rare chance of close up views of some of our small mammals.
We had been spotting a weasel close to our Herb Garden recently and we had good, extremely close-up views of him as he was so confident. Some members watched the spectacle of him catching a vole – a bit gory but very exciting – the reality of life in the wild! The SWT and Mammal Group members gathered and set up their gazebo, before we all trouped off to find the first of the 30 live mammal traps set in our green spaces. The areas around the traps were baited with peanuts and peanut butter. Every mammal finds it hard to resist peanut butter!
Stuart our leader for the day carefully checked the traps, emptied them and if the trap had been fired tipped the mammal into a bag for inspection and weighing.
The critters were held up for all to see – a rare opportunity for the youngsters of our allotment site to see these creatures close up. They were help by the scruff of he neck just as a mother mammal would carry its young, which is totally harmless. This handsome fellow is a Wood Mouse. We were to catch several more of these.
The second trap was a repeat of the first. We were delighted to see that it had been tripped as the normal success rate is about 3 captures out of 30 traps. We looked set for a successful day!
We encouraged the children to get involved. We hope these will not only be the gardeners of the future but also the naturalists and almost certainly wildlife gardeners. We moved emptying successfully tripped traps and recorded many more Wood Mice as well as Voles.
The picnic site under the oak tree became an activity centre for the day giving youngsters the opportunity to get involved in nature related craft activities.
As we moved on from the oak tree we discovered several traps tripped by the tiniest mammals of all, the shrews.
But as we neared the end of our expedition we found the stars of the show, The Yellow Necked Mice. These are much more of a rarity than any other creatures we caught and for many a completely unknown one. Not many people seem to know of their existence so were delighted to find we had a colony living alongside us here on the allotments. It certainly justified all the hard work we have put in creating our wildlife areas.
In the end we were amazed by how successful the trapping had been with 27 of the 30 traps fired. We now know our green spaces are working for wildlife. Back at the Communal Hut we opened up the tunnels put down to record the tracks of mammals passing through. These were covered in little foot prints.
The Mammal Society stayed on through the afternoon into our NGS Open Day and provided entertainment and information. They were kept very busy.
What a great day! It is amazing how fascinating such little creatures can be.
The weather forecast promised us sunshine, clear skies and mild temperatures in the mid-teens, so we decided to drive two miles up the road to park at the bottom of Earls Hill and walk slowly along the trail around the hill’s perimeter. The car park is in the woodland edge and stepping out of the car we look up into the canopy of tall deciduous trees to see Blue Tits flitting rapidly from branch to branch right up in the tree tops. Their calls sounded all around us.
An inviting pathway led us into the wood. It was comfortable and soft underfoot being strewn with fallen leaves and softened by recent rain. To our left we could see fishing pools through the old hedge of once-coppiced Hawthorn. The pools were almost as inviting as the woodland walk. The fisherman in me called. The Hawthorn was displaying first signs of Spring with buds bursting into the brightest green leaves. Here we were delighted to hear the call of the Chiffchaff, always the first of the Summer migrants to return to Shropshire. We always start hearing and seeing them around mid-March. They identify themselves for us as their call reflects their name.
On the first section of track we were showered as we passed beneath willow trees by tiny pieces of the flowers as Blue Tits pecked at them. All around us the wood echoed to the sound of woodpeckers, the yaffling laughter calls of the Green Woodpecker and the territorial tapping of the Great Spotted. Further into the wood and our senses were bombarded by Wild Garlic, their bright green new leaves carpeted the woodland floor and their powerful onion-like smell permeated the trees. We could smell these Ramsoms a long while before we saw them and could still smell them a long while after passing them by.
This early section of the walk was close to the edge of the woodland so wildflowers were stirring with the speckled light filtering through, Primroses and Pennywort were found alongside the path.
A patch of Primroses consisted of three solid flower-covered clumps. Those closest to the light were fully open while those just feet away but in slightly more shade were still in bud and leaning towards the extra light of the woodland edge.
Bluebell foliage is already a few inches high so we eagerly anticipate the blue haze of their scented flowers which should grace the wood in April.
Beyond this first patch of woodland the trail took us over an open area of rough land dotted with flowering Gorse and stunted Hawthorns. Long Tailed tits and Great Tits fed in these scrubby bushes and called continuously, the Long Tails churring and the Greats calling “Teacher Teacher”. The hills of Yellow Hill Ants were scattered over the whole of this area like a rash of nasty spots on a teenager’s skin. This ant is a speciality of this reserve.
Beyond this stretch of open land, we entered another area of woodland but here trees were thinner and spaced further apart. Here stones are strewn on the slopes and some slopes are cloaked in scree from the craggy steep cliffs of Earls Hill itself. On these crags Peregrines have nested for years, a clever choice as they are away from predators and the adult birds can look down over the scree and trees and spot passing pigeons, their favourite prey. From our garden we watch these magnificent falcons climbing and spiralling upwards so high that they disappear from view and occasionally we see their high-speed stoop from that great height. They reach speeds in excess of 200 miles per hour! But on our walk we saw them passing over the tree tops.
In one area the scree was being recolonised by plants. We were amazed to see Verbascum, commonly called Mullein, growing here in good numbers. Being biennial the Mulleins were present as last years seed heads still standing tall and stiffly upright and amongst them the rosettes of silvery and heavily-furred leaves from which the centres of which this year’s flower stems will rise.
Not much further along the track we came across a patch of ferns and amongst them discovered a bronze-leaved specimen. A true beauty, similar to one we grow in our garden. It reminded us of how Victorian gardeners became obsessed with ferns, collecting any with interestingly shaped or unusually coloured leaves.
As we moved back into denser woodland our paths were frequently crossed by the unpleasant musky odours of Fox and Badger. Foxes left trackways through the undergrowth but the signs of the Badgers were much easier to spot as we found their sett. One tunnel had been recently excavated and huge piles of soil and stones deep from underground piled around its entrance.
The commonest mammal on the reserve must be the Rabbit – we saw them throughout our wanderings their white tails bobbing as they disappeared at our approach. They must provide a useful food bank for the Foxes and Buzzards. We could frequently hear Buzzards calling overhead but we only managed to see two. One we spotted as it flew rapidly through the trees, keeping low to the ground as it tried to catch a Rabbit. The prey escaped this time! The other we spotted sat on the topmost branch of a Hawthorn bush in a field nearby, looking as if he was waiting impatiently for thermals to help him get airborne.
Throughout the wood there were excellent habitats for insect and invertebrates, some created by Mother Nature where trees have fallen and are now rotting and others made by Shropshire Wildlife Trust volunteers who create wood piles and brash stacks when they perform their management activities around the reserve. Rotting wood is particularly popular with beetles.
Throughout our circular walk around the base of Earls Hill we enjoyed listening to the song of our native thrushes, the repetitive phrases of the Song Thrush, the gentle ditty of its bigger cousin the Mistle Thrush and the flute like tuneful song of the Blackbird. All were males calling out to proclaim ownership of their territory and letting females know how good they would be as partners. It was noticeable that the thrushes we heard were our resident thrushes and there was no sign of the winter visiting thrushes, the Redwings and Fieldfares. They must now have left our shores to make their journey home.
Occasionally through gaps in the trees we enjoyed glimpses of views of the countryside. When walking in woodland you become so absorbed in its atmosphere that you forget what the outside world is like. These glimpses of the countryside reminded us of the thin mist overlying and obscuring the nearby hills and farmland.
One sign of the approach of Spring was the nest-building activity of birds large and small. We watched Bluetits delicately collecting lichen from branches of Hawthorns. Rooks clumsily gathered twigs too large to easily carry through the close growing trees. They were nesting in their rookery in a clump of tall trees across the fields bordering the reserve. We heard the snapping of the brittle twigs as they broke when lifted and carried by the Rooks.
While wandering we enjoyed the textures, patterns and colours on tree trunks and the shapes of fallen trunks and branches. It made us think of Mother Nature as artist and sculptress. (Look out for future blogs on the artistry and sculptural skills of Mother Nature)
We returned to the car park as the temperature began to drop, vowing to return when the woods were full of summer migrants. We have the songs of warblers to look forward.