Nail-biting nests in unusual places

Springwatch viewers were left on the edge of their seat early this week as they watched a family of four Jay chicks fledge from a nail-bitingly steep nest.

One fan of the smash BBC show, which is filmed at the National Trust’s Sherborne Park Estate in the Cotswolds, calculated the angle of the precipitous nest at 35 degrees – higher than Hardknott Pass in the Lake District, one of England’s steepest roads.

The National Trust cares for 250,000 hectares of countryside and the conservation charity’s rangers have found plenty of nail-biting nests this spring

Pied wagtail, Studland Beach, Dorset

Two pied wagtail parents have found a far from rubbish nesting site in the cardboard recycling bins at the National Trust’s Studland beach visitor centre in Dorset.

Kevin Rideout, visitor experience officer, said: “They were starting to show quite a lot of interest in the bins, so I had a suspicion that they’d be there. I’m glad I checked.”

After the common black-and-white birds successfully raised four youngsters, staff at the centre thought that they would be safe to empty the bins – which are next to a busy visitor centre.

But when Kevin went to check the bins earlier this week, one of the adults flew out. “They’re onto their second brood!” he said.

After seven weeks, the bins still haven’t been emptied.

PIED WAGTAIL Studland Credit Kevin Rideout, National Trust

Pied wagtail nest in a cardboard recycling bin at Studland, Dorset. CREDIT Kevin Rideout, National Trust

Mallard, Farne Islands, Northumberland

Rangers on the remote Farne Islands discovered a mallard duck nesting beside a stack of Calor gas canisters this spring.

Jen Clark, National Trust ranger, said: “The gas is kept in a cage so that if it explodes it’s contained. There’s a tiny little gap between the wall and the cage that the duck must have crawled into.

“It’s probably just because it was a nice safe place – protected from predatators attacking from above.”

The duck’s eight chicks fledged a little over a month ago. Her gas cage nest site is yet to be used by another bird.

MALLARD Farne Islands CREDIT National Trust

A mallard duck nests next to propane canisters on the Farne Islands, Northumberland. CREDIT: Jen Clark, National Trust

Razorbill, Farne Islands, Northumberland

Around 400 razorbill couples make their nests on the steep cliffs around the Farne Islands – a mile off the Northumberland coast.

Jen Clark, National Trust ranger, said: “They tend to nest on horrible little ledges. They’re really tiny – about the size of the bird. They don’t actually build a nest – they incubate their egg directly on a small, sloping crevice.”

The black and white penguin-like birds, which are only 40cm and spend their entire winter at sea, lay just one egg a year.

The exposed nesting sites makes the eggs and chicks vulnerable to fierce North Sea weather, as well as predatory attacks by gulls.

A razorbill on the Farne Islands, Northumberland

A razorbill on the Farne Islands, Northumberland CREDIT Richard Scott, National Trust Images

Hazel dormouse, Fyne Court, Somerset

Rangers spotted this bashful dormouse was spotted squatting in a birds nest six feet above the ground.

Rob Skinner, a National Trust area ranger and licensed dormouse handler, made the discovery while checking bird nesting boxes on the Somerset estate as part of a regular survey for the British Trust for Ornithology.

He said: “I nearly fell off my ladder. It’s not something I was expecting to see. We have 93 dedicated dormouse nesting boxes in our woods – but this juvenile ignored them all.”

The dormouse stayed for three weeks before disappearing earlier this month.

DORMOUSE at Fyne Court 1 Rob Skinner, NT

Hazel dormouse at Fyne Court. CREDIT Rob Skinner, National Trust

Little Terns, Blakeney Point, Norfolk

One of Britain’s rarest seabirds nests so close to the sea it finds its nests regularly flooded.

It’s thought that there are fewer than 2,000 breeding pairs of little terns left in Britain – with numbers falling by a quarter since the 1980s. Nesting on beaches, the birds are sensitive to disturbance from people and dogs – as well as  flooding from the sea.

Ajay Tegala, National Trust ranger for the little tern stronghold at Blakeney Point, said: “They tend to lay one to three camouflaged eggs on the beach, often close to the high water mark.

“This means that nests regularly get washed away if big tides are combined with stormy weather. They’re also vulnerable from a long list of predators – gulls, birds of prey, foxes, crows, snakes and even herons.”

As part of an RSPB-led EU LIFE+ project, rangers at Blakeney Point have been using plaster models of little terns to encourage the birds to nest up the beach and away from the high tides.

Wren, Harewoods, Surrey

Despite years of hard work to improve the habitat around his National Trust cottage for nesting birds, it’s Andy Wright’s shed that is proving popular for the small birds.

Two months ago a pair of wrens built a moss nest into a coil of rope hanging from the shed roof. It was the first time wrens have nested in the wooden outhouse, which also boasted a family of robins.

Andy Wright, the trust’s countryside manager for the Surrey Hills, said: “They weaved it into the tassels of the rope. With the racket they were making there must have been four or five fledglings.

“I’ve no idea why they nested there. I’ve done a lot of habitat work around the place, so you’d think there would be plenty of natural nesting habitat for them. There’s even a wren nest in my smoker.”

WREN Harewoods CREDIT Andrew Wright, National Trust

A wren’s nest at Harewoods, Surrey. CREDIT Andrew Wright, National Trust

Field mouse, Alderley Edge, Cheshire

One small mouse chose a life in the fast lane after nesting underneath the bonnet of a National Trust van.

Christopher Widger, countryside manager at Alderley Edge, discovered the field mouse’s nesting place in the sound-deadening material beneath the bonnet – after the mouse scuttled across the windscreen wiper.

“I was travelling at 30mph!” Chris said. “I pulled over onto the verge and he made a jump for it – into the nearby hedge.”

FIELD MOUSE Alderley Edge 2 CREDIT Christopher Widger, National Trust

A field mouse nest in a ranger van at Alderley Edge, Cheshire. CREDIT Christopher Widger, National Trust

Pied wagtail, Giant’s Causeway, Co. Antrim

It was only on the fourth trip over a stony field that Area Ranger Dr Cliff Henry realised that his tractor had taken on some tiny stowaways

Nesting on the tractor’s drive shaft – just below the cab – was a nest containing five small pied wagtail chicks.

“Each trip took an hour,” Dr Henry said. “It was only after the last trip that I twigged that the adult birds were very keen to approach the tractor bearing food.”

The five wagtail chicks have now fledged.

PIED WAGTAIL Giant's Causeway CREDIT Cliff Henry, National Trust

A pied wagtail nest in a tractor on the Giant’s Causeway. CREDIT Cliff Henry, National Trust

Cyril Diver: a natural hero

National Trust wildlife expert Matthew Oates explores the life of naturalist and wildlife pioneer Cyril Diver.

“Few of Britain’s remarkable naturalists achieved as much as Cyril Diver (1892-1969). During the 1930s he and other volunteer experts meticulously surveyed, mapped and recorded the wildlife of the heath and dune system on the Studland peninsula, near Swanage in Dorset. They had a fantastic time, and also saved the site from development. A civil servant, Diver went on to draft much of our country’s initial wildlife legislation, and devise and lead the Nature Conservancy. This country owes him big time, yet he is largely forgotten.

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Cyril Diver and friends surveying Studland on the Dorset coast in the 1930s

Eighty years on, the National Trust has led a three year project to resurvey the peninsula, with close reference to the Diver archive material. As in the 1930s, specialist surveys were conducted by volunteers, both experts and beginners, though coordinated by a project officer. They had a fantastic time too, and have pioneered the citizen science approach to advanced wildlife recording, much of this in partnership with techy students from Bournemouth University. There is nothing naturalists love more than survey work, especially in a place as rich as Studland Peninsula.

The place has changed too, massively. Major changes commenced when Studland was taken over for tank training during the Second World War, and then when Rabbits died out to myxomatosis. A new sand dune has developed since the 1930s, and major changes to the ponds, swamps and mires have occurred.

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Cyril Diver in Dorset in the 1930s.

Recent surveys found 620 species of vascular plants – a quarter of the UK’s native flora, an increase from 465 in Diver’s time, though a few rarities have disappeared. Diver didn’t survey the lichen flora, due to a scarcity of experts, but recently over 340 lichen taxa have been found, including 29 major rarities. Insect-wise, today’s beetle surveys comfortably outscored Diver – 777 species, compared to 239, though 56 of Diver’s 239 were not re-found. Diver found 325 species of moth, the recent surveys found 611 but failed to re-find 105 on Diver’s list. And so on… . The recent surveys discovered two species new to Britain, though others may await confirmation. All this data will fascinate scientists, particularly climate change specialists, and will be celebrated at a conference at Bournemouth University on March 21st.

Now, more than ever, this nation needs its naturalists, to provide data to help us understand the burgeoning issues of climate change, new species colonisation and impending ecological change. We need more in-depth studies along the lines of the Diver Project, and to recruit and equip a new generation of inspired naturalists. The National Trust has a key role to play here, and will do so.”

Landscape that inspired Thomas Hardy acquired by the National Trust

More than 200 acres of the sort of wild and windswept heathland that inspired Dorset’s most famous writer, Thomas Hardy, has been acquired by the National Trust. Slepe Heath in Dorset is the largest area of lowland heath that the Trust has acquired for more than a decade.

The magical Slepe Heath in Dorset. A landscape that inspired Dorset's most famous writer, Thomas Hardy. Credit: National Trust/Will Wilkinson.

The magical Slepe Heath in Dorset. A landscape that inspired Dorset’s most famous writer, Thomas Hardy. Credit: National Trust/Will Wilkinson.

As part of a conservation vision inspired by the landscapes featured in the novels of Thomas Hardy, Slepe Heath will connect the protected lowland heath of Hartland Moor, already looked after by the National Trust and Natural England, and the Arne reserve, owned by the RSPB.

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Hambledon Hill and the story of human history in the UK

National Trust archaeologist Martin Papworth explains why Hambledon Hill is such a special place for the story it tells of the British Isles over thousands of years:

“Dorset is internationally renowned for its hillforts. Hambledon Hill is of pre-eminent significance and only challenged by Maiden Castle for the successive phases of Neolithic, Bronze Age and Iron Age archaeological features contained within its ramparts.

A very special hillfort, Hambledon Hill is rich in human history.  Credit: Ross Hoddinott

A very special hillfort, Hambledon Hill is rich in human history. Credit: Ross Hoddinott

However Hambledon’s archaeological earthworks and buried features are far better preserved and more clearly visible on the ground than at Maiden Castle because they haven’t been ploughed.

Hambledon overlies part of an exceptional complex of Neolithic causewayed enclosures, used by academics and experts to illustrate the nature of our earliest farming societies over 5,500 years ago.

Hambledon’s remains include evidence for communal occupation, feasting, conflict, exhumation and burial. Finds of polished axes from the Lake District, Wales and Cornwall demonstrate its wide-ranging importance for trade and exchange at this time.

The continuing significance of Hambledon for burial is demonstrated by the Neolithic long barrow (around 3500-3000BC) that occupies the crest of the hill and the five Early Bronze Age round barrows (around 2200-1600 BC) that lie around it.

The visual impact of the site is enhanced by the drama of its massive sinuous ramparts and ditches. They follow the contours of the hill, replacing a Late Bronze Age (around 1000-800BC) settlement enclosure. Throughout the Iron Age, this imposing landscape statement developed as a complex of defensive earthworks with additional ramparts and gateway outworks added at various times from around 600BC. Within the defences are the terraces for over 300 round houses enabling visitors to walk down streets and visualise a thriving community.

Today’s stunning views across the Blackmoor Vale into Wiltshire and Somerset offer an immediate understanding of the prehistoric advantage of this strategic place.

Hambledon is the northern archaeological partner to Hod Hill which shares this chalk outlier defined by the rivers Iwerne to the east and Stour to the south and west. Hod has little occupation evidence from early prehistory but becomes increasingly dominant from around 300BC.

Hambledon holds the evidence for earliest British prehistoric settlement and Hod continues the story up to the Roman Conquest.

Hambledon and Hod are two halves of a whole and are of such importance that joint conservation ownership and management offers the best conservation protection for these exceptional sites.”

Dorset hillfort is the ideal home for nature

National Trust wildlife adviser Simon Ford tells us more about the rich wildlife that can be found at the newly acquired Hambledon Hill in Dorset:

“Hambledon Hill sits high above the River Stour in south-east Dorset. It has been cut from a steep chalk escarpment and the deep ramparts have provided the ideal environment for many species of plants and animals to thrive. They have also protected the wildlife from being lost to the plough. With 360 degrees of deeply incised banks, this has meant that whatever the weather, there is always some shelter from the elements.

A beautiful bee orchid caught in the summer light at Hambledon Hill. Credit: National Trust Images/Ross Hoddinott

A beautiful bee orchid caught in the summer light at Hambledon Hill. Credit: National Trust Images/Ross Hoddinott

The mix of species is very diverse, but includes characteristic chalk downland plants such as horseshoe vetch, harebell, common rockrose, squinancywort, salad burnet, common milkwort, small scabious, wild thyme and stemless thistle. Early purple, bee, pyramidal, common spotted and autumn lady’s tresses orchids have been recorded as well as notable species such as felwort, dwarf sedge, early gentian, bastard toadflax and meadow saxifrage.

Twenty-eight species of butterfly have been recorded including Adonis Blue, Chalk-Hill Blue, Brown Argus, Dark Green Fritillary, Grizzled and Dingy skipper, and Green Hairstreak. Glow worms are frequently recorded and there are records of white legged damselfly.

Brown hares are commonly seen and the grassland has a good population of skylarks, buzzards, kestrels and meadow pipits, while the scrub attracts blackcaps, white-throats, chiff chaffs and willow warblers.

The site is so important that it has not only been declared a Site of Special Scientific Interest but also a National Nature Reserve.

To ensure the site continues to be of top nature conservation value, the priority will be to maintain the correct grazing and to stop scrub from dominating the steep hillside.”

Dorset jewel adds to the National Trust’s hillfort crown

The spectacular Hambledon Hill, one of the finest Iron Age hillforts in Dorset, has been acquired by the National Trust.

Hambledon Hill in West Dorset is a site rich in human and natural history. Credit: National Trust Images/Ross Hoddinott

Hambledon Hill in West Dorset is a site rich in human and natural history. Credit: National Trust Images/Ross Hoddinott

Built over 2,000 years ago, the massive earthwork defences overlie one of the most significant early Neolithic landscapes in Western Europe, dating back almost 6,000 years, and is a place that half of British butterfly species call home.

Standing at almost twice the height of the White Cliffs of Dover and taller than the Gherkin in London Hambledon Hill occupies an area of land the size of 50 football pitches. From the summit of the hillfort you can see across three counties – Dorset, Somerset and Wiltshire – and get a real sense of its prehistoric strategic importance.

Jerry Broadway, a National Trust volunteer working on Hambledon Hill, said: “When I come here I feel like someone would when they go into St Paul’s Cathedral.

“When there is no-one else around and I sit on the top of the hill looking at the view I feel very privileged. And to play a small part in looking after the hill is a good feeling.”

This is the first hillfort acquired by the National Trust in Dorset for 30 years. The Trust now cares for seven hillfort sites in a county which is internationally renowned for these special historical places.

Simon Ford, National Trust wildlife adviser, said: “The beauty of a magical place like Hambledon Hill is the combination of a rich natural and archaeological story that goes back thousands of years.

“Wandering around a site whose human history predates Stonehenge and takes you back to the early days of farming makes the heart skip a beat.

“The sound of a skylark ascending above the rich grassland and sight of a cloud of Adonis Blue butterfly in flight touches the soul. This is a place where you feel totally connected to the world around you.”

For the last three decades Hambledon Hill has been owned by the Hawthorn Trust and carefully managed by Natural England as a National Nature Reserve. The purchase by the National Trust is being funded by a Land Purchase Grant from Natural England and with money from a legacy left to the Trust for the countryside in Dorset.

The National Trust portfolio of hillforts in Dorset includes Badbury Rings, Lamberts Castle and Pilsdon Pen. The Trust also owns Hambledon Hill’s nationally important neighbour Hod Hill. Together they tell the story of the beginnings of farming, the need for defence and the arrival of the Romans’ in Britain.

Hambledon Hill has escaped the advances of agriculture over the centuries meaning that its archaeological features remain well preserved and clearly visible on the ground. Causeway enclosures on the hill date back to the dawn of farming 5,500 years ago and the story of this remarkable place is continued through the Bronze Age and Iron Age.

Mat Carter, Natural England’s Area Manager for Dorset, said: “Natural England is delighted that the National Trust is the new custodian of Hambledon Hill National Nature Reserve.

“The Hill is a much-loved feature in the Dorset landscape with outstanding archaeology and wildlife.

“We know that the Trust will be an excellent steward of this important site, and will welcome people coming to enjoy the area’s natural beauty and its abundant wildlife.”

Designated a National Natural Reserve in 1992, twenty-eight species of butterfly, including the Adonis Blue, Dark Green Fritillary and Green Hairstreak, have been recorded here. This nationally important chalk grassland site is also home to at least five species of orchids, such as the Autumn Lady’s Tresses, glow worms, brown hare and a good population of kestrels and meadow pipits.

Studland beach: forecast – changeable

Mike Collins is a Senior Press Officer with the National Trust. Following a visit to Studland Beach, he tells us how the winter storms have affected this coastal beauty spot.

Studland on the Dorset coast is a classic beach; golden sands with a dramatic seascape from east to west and town ebbing into countryside. More than a million people every year come to this jewel on the south coast seaside.

This popular and much-loved beach is on the front-line of how our coastline is changing and the challenges of managing the scale and pace of change that is happening now.

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