• Wet Grassland Management for Conservation

  • This guest blog by Colin Hedley is based on his notes from the Arun to Adur Farmers Group (A2A)  study day in the Arun Valley, on 7th June 2016.

    The Arun Valley is of exceptional value for wintering waders, with both Pulborough Brooks and the Amberley Wildbrooks designated as SSSI and SPA s in recognition of this. 

    The Arun valley, as well as being a stunning landscape, also has a rich diversity of associated wildlife from rare snails, water voles and ditch plants to localised populations of breeding lapwing and, to a much lesser extent, redshank and snipe.

    Through the Higher Level Scheme many farmers have been accepted for the breeding wader option but generally it seems that breeding success is low.  There is some frustration that HLS prescriptions and, where relevant, the SSSI and protected species restrictions are making it extremely difficult for farmers to deliver the ideal management. 

    As well as being a genuine concern over the success of nesting waders, some farmers also feel they will be judged not to have delivered under their HLS agreement although the SSSI designation was for wintering and not breeding waders.

    A weakness in the funding system seems to be that one small group, breeding waders, has been highlighted for a higher paying option whereas there is a much wider range of wildlife species that can be present and be conserved.  A “Management of High Value Wet Grassland” option with guidance adapted to the key species would be fairer and more accurate for the Arun Valley and could be highlighted to policy makers for future schemes.

    Generally across the countryside and within the Arun to Adur area lapwings seem to be declining even on farms where other farmland birds are thriving.  As a target species for the Group we need to improve our knowledge about how many pairs are nesting, what success they are having, what are their preferred nest sites and which key factors must be in place to achieve a sustainable long-term population.  Low soil health in fallow sites, limited cover, predation (particularly by foxes), disturbance, the level of stocking in wet grassland and the presence of open water all seem to be significant factors.

    With the forecast for greater extremes of weather it was felt essential that we provide ideal conditions for lapwing both within the river valleys and throughout the arable downland, especially as it seems that birds will move to nest from one area to another and are not completely loyal to wet grassland or arable as once was thought.

    At the WWT Paul Stevens reported that they had several pairs of lapwing despite the site being fairly enclosed and obviously well visited.  This was largely due to the quality of the wet grassland habitat with adjacent pools and scrapes, the ability to have some areas more secluded from visitors and the perimeter fence excluding mammalian predators. 

    Offham and South Stoke Farms has a large area of isolated wet grassland which, before 2015, had no confirmed evidence of breeding waders.  Before the spring of 2015 Ryan Haydon decided that the lack of in-field open water was possibly a limiting factor so created in-field pools in three fields by blocking the ends of cross field ditches to save them draining into the main boundary ditches.  The results have been impressive.  In 2015 there were displaying adults in all three locations and juvenile birds were seen and photographed.  In 2016 there were displaying adults in all three locations again with over 24 adults recorded which may equate to over 12 pairs if the females remained on the ground.  Juvenile birds were seen in one location and the activity in all three sites strongly suggested chicks were present.  On one area the adults were so relaxed one even took off to chase a pied wagtail!

    Fran Southgate of the Arun and Rother Connections Project outlined the results of a botanical survey they had conducted.  Although open managed grassland is good for wintering waders the survey found that there was very little structural diversity across the valley and a lack of fen and ranker grassland as well as a general lack of botanical diversity within the grazed pasture. 

    At the WWT Reserve Paul Stevens had seen and photographed a water vole nest created within wetland vegetation similar to that of a harvest mouse.  This has not been realised before and implies that very narrow bankside vegetation has perhaps forced water voles to use bankside holes for breeding where they are more susceptible to mink predation.

    Farmers are encouraged to consider excluding grazing from small and awkward areas and managing them as fen.   Creating wider margins alongside wet ditches would provide greater cover for breeding birds and may also encourage more voles to create nests within the cover.  Annual payments and capital items, such as new electric fencing, can be encouraged through agri-environment payments.

    Managing the land extensively without fertilisers and through regular grazing and forage production should gradually increase the range of flowers within the sward.  Increasing populations of plants such as cuckoo-flower, water mint, bird’s-foot trefoil and ragged robin will benefit insects and may increase the value of the grassland for waders and their chicks.

    Bruce Fowkes (RSPB) has offered to arrange surveys of breeding waders for all farmers in the A2A (Arun to Adur Farmers Group) which can then be co-ordinated with the existing surveys across the Downs.  Farmers will be contacted in due course ready for spring 2017.

    Colin Hedley has contacted Jayne Field of Natural England who is the lead on wet grassland within the SSSI.  They will be meeting in the autumn to discuss the concerns several farmers have around managing wet grassland to benefit waders.

    A new Water Level Management Plan is being produced for the valley and a consultation starts in autumn 2016.  Natural England and Colin Hedley will aim to ensure that the A2A farmers are fully aware and involved in the process.

    Fran Southgate can supply mink rafts and traps to help detect and control this pest species.  She can also arrange water vole surveys through the Sussex Wildlife Trust.

    Future events will be arranged on wet grassland issues, possibly every year.

    C J Hedley, August 2016