March 16, 2022

Living on the Sedge

Written by Catherine Walsh.  Upon starting my second year as a WCTP student, it was time for me to start thinking about a non-project related work placement. Fortunately for me, I didn’t have to think about it too long before the ideal position presented itself. I had already decided that a local, weekly position would be preferable to a fixed term placement to allow me to catch up with my lab work following the Covid delays of last year. Not thinking about anything in particular, I was at home looking out of the window at where I’d hung some bird feeders to entertain the cat. It then occurred to me how little I knew about our native birds and how interesting they were to watch.  I then got in touch with the local RSPB reserve to learn more about our wild birds and improve my knowledge as a volunteer. Just a spoiler – my birding skills have not improved during my time there, but I have learnt more about ecology!

I began at RSPB Leighton Moss last November as a new work party was being set up. I am part of a great group of people of all ages and career stages as well as students from other universities who share their birding knowledge with me. Our main aim has been to regenerate wildlife habitats before the nesting season, to reduce disruption and ensure food supply throughout the year. We began by working on the reed beds near the salt marsh at Barrow Scout, Silverdale. We removed the oldest, most unproductive reeds to prevent the bed from becoming too dense which can restrict movement for wading birds, eels, and small fish. This practice rejuvenates the reedbed, allowing new growth and exposes open space for feeding, resulting in diversity of species visiting the reserve.

One of my highlights has been maintaining light availability for the sedge tussocks. This was my first meeting with a sedge tussock, and they were fascinating! Although not large, they can be over a hundred years old. They are only found in boggy, wet habitats and resemble living mounds, with each one housing all kinds of insects. Birds know the tussocks will always provide them with a meal and are a valuable resource for the reserve. We removed any nearby willow saplings before they could become a problem and block light from the sedge, to maintain a healthy insect community.

January meant a rise in water level for the main reserve. So, work was transferred to Warton Crag, where the RSPB maintain the North-West side of the fell. Here, the aim was to remove brash and open up space to allow flowering plant species such as wild strawberry, rock rose and violet to flourish. This was to make sure there is enough food sources for endangered butterflies such as the Northern brown argus, Pearl bordered fritillary and Dingy skippers as well as various rare moth species. Warton Crag is filled with limestone pavement, making it a Site of Special Scientific Interest (SSSI) and one of the last remaining habitats for these types of butterflies. Also working on the task, when everyone else has gone home, are five rare breed cows. The cows all wear satellite locator collars, that sound a warning alarm should the animal stray from within a designated boundary. To live safely up the crag, the cows completed a six-month training program on a local farm to get used to their collars prior to relocation. Their work (when they aren’t supervising), is based on the same principle as ours – to clear scrubland but averaging a handy 700kg means they can plough straight through the bracken without the need to carry tools (a useful skill).

I am really enjoying being at RSPB Leighton Moss. I must confess that although my native plant knowledge has improved, my bird spotting has not. It has been a nice change to look at different types of plants to what I’ve previously worked with (crops) and to understand the principles of ecology. By just being on the reserve I’ve had many amazing moments such as witnessing the murmurations (starling flocks) from the sky tower, hearing the infamous bittern boom and watching marsh harriers circle close by as I eat my lunch. I’m optimistic that one day I will be able to list all types of birds and improve my knowledge, especially by keeping close watch on the sedge who continue to boost biodiversity as proficient ecosystem architects.

Sedge tussocks

Cow wearing satellite tracker collar

View across Morecambe Bay (taken from Warton Crag)