Living on the Edge: pt.1
It's all a bit static, the countryside, isn't it?
That bit over there is a wood, that bit's a meadow, there's a piece of arable.
Everything parcelled up and demarcated, which, after all, is how we like things - neat, easy to manage. Even as wildlife conservationists, we like to treat different habitats as clearly separate entities: it makes them easier to classify, and it's a lot easier to plan and deliver habitat management when you can divide your nature reserve into lots of individual blocks, each with a separate management prescription.
But that's just not how the natural world operates. In a completely wild system, each type of habitat grades into the next, whether in space (from woodland to dense scrub, to open scrub to grassland) or in time (from woodland, via wind-throw of trees, to bare ground to grassland to scrub), and different species take what they need from those parts of the system that suit them best. Many species thrive on this change, this complex spatial and temporal matrix: Ground-pine (Ajuga chamaepitys - below) is adapted to grassy habitats which are turned over periodically.
Likewise, Fly Orchids (Ophrys insectifera - below, image © Andrew Gagg/Plantlife) live in shady scrub and woodland, but rely on a digger wasp to pollinate them.
That wasp nests and feeds in open, sunny habitats. We can't expect to conserve these species if we continue putting habitats into separate boxes marked 'woodland', 'grassland', 'wetland' or whatever.
This is why we've put together a project for Ranscombe Farm Reserve where we will be blurring the distinctions between our arable fields and the adjacent - mainly wooded - habitats. Called 'Life on the Edges', this new project has been generously funded by WREN’s FCC Biodiversity Action Fund, and is targeted at boosting the wildlife using Ranscombe's arable farmland by treating arable habitats as part of a wider habitat matrix. It's notable that half of all Section 41 species (those species in England considered most in need of direct conservation action) associated with arable habitats also require the presence of other, non-arable habitats nearby (see Natural England Research Report NERR024); these include birds such as Yellowhammer and Turtle Dove, mammals such as Harvest Mouse.
As I write this, we are already underway with a series of project activities, including targeted management for particular wild plants, bringing hundreds of metres of woodland edges into management, and work on hedgerow creation. We've also started a programme of surveying and monitoring the plants, bumblebees, birds and other species which we expect to benefit from the work, with the help of a new team of volunteer surveyors, and we've already had some exciting results ... but you'll have to wait for a future blog to find out more!