Coronavirus (COVID-19) Update

Huntingdonshire District Council have made the decision to close their Countryside Service Centres to the public. They will be reviewing this policy at the end of July. Therefore, the Visitor Centre, including the toilets, at Paxton Pits Nature Reserve remain closed

All Work Parties, Events and Wildlife Surveys will cease until further notice.

The paths will remain open but please keep your distance from other people who may be out for a walk while we are in quarantine.

Thank you for your understanding in these unprecedented times.

Wildlife gardening – top tips

Jim Stevenson, recently-retired Ranger for Paxton Pits Nature Reserve, shares his tips for gardening for wildlife, inspired by the work at Paxton Pits.

If you want good ideas to attract more wildlife to your garden, look no further than Paxton Pits Nature Reserve. Start in the wildlife garden or the Environmental Education Centre where (at Debbie Mckenzie’s request) we have created raised ponds, bug banks, raised beds, hedgehog lodgings, log-and-turf walls and bug hotels.

Here are a few ideas I have borrowed for my own garden:

  • Get rid of that old fence and plant a native hedge using blackthorn, hawthorn, spindle, cherry and field maple and reward yourself with blossom, berries, nuts and glorious autumn colours. 
  • Use winter trimmings to create a tidy habitat pile for bugs to hide in and birds to hunt in.
  • Make a log and turf bank for toads to winter in.
  • Keep some rotting logs or stumps for beetles and for fungi, as we do in Rory’s Wood. 
  • Make a mini pond: We bought some large pots (without holes in the bottom) and filled them with potato-sized beach pebbles before topping up with rain water. The pots are arranged in a cluster and we have planted small, emergent water plants in them. Frogs hide among the stones. 
  • Make a small raised pond. I would love to use an old galvanised cattle trough, but Matt the Senior Ranger says he still needs them for the cows and sheep. A coffin sized planter, packed at one end with bricks to support a few plants and then lined it with butyl rubber did the trick. It reflects the sky and attracts dragonflies and water boatmen. We have surrounded it on three sides with large pots so that frogs and newts can make their way over the rim. 
  • Plant for insects: Top Paxton plants for insects include knapweed, scabious and viper’s bugloss as well as the ubiquitous Buddleia or butterfly bush. You don’t have to use wild varieties and, by having a mix you can extend the flowering season as well as the range of colours. I have also tried sowing a patch with wildflower seeds (like the nectar mix we use in our arable fields) which worked well for me, and for the bees.
  • Make or buy a bug hotel: Those frames filled with hollow canes, reeds, fennel-stems and elder twigs are all the rage, and they work too. Mine has leaf cutter bees in it as well as other useful insects like lacewings and ladybirds. All you need is a hook one a sunny wall to hang it on. 

Looking wider afield, you can imitate any wild habitat from mountain top to sea-shore but it’s best to work with the local soil and climate. The University Botanical Gardens in Cambridge is a good place to get ideas or just go for a walk on any nature reserve, take a photo of a feature you would love to copy and set about making it.

And if you need inspiration and plants to buy, we’ve got a Plant Sale coming in May at the Visitor Centre, run by the Little Paxton Gardening Club where you can buy a brilliant selection of locally-grown plants.

(Don’t steal plants from the wild as it is illegal and works against what we should be trying to achieve.)

A shorter version of this blog was published in the February 2020 issue of Between Friends, the quartlery newsletter of the Friends of Paxton Pits Nature Reserve. Join today!

Kingfisher Lottery funds a new Kingfisher Bank

The organisers of the Kingfisher Lottery Club are always keen to invest funds into projects that improve the overall experience of both human and wildlife visitors to the nature reserve. So they jumped at the idea of installing a Kingfisher Bank to improve the Kingfisher population.

So what is A Kingfisher Bank?  It is a number of artificially made nesting units installed into a steep earth bank at the waters edge. The units consist of a nesting chamber and upward sloping entrance tunnel. The units were chosen on the recommendation of many websites, including the RSPB. 

The base of the tunnel (1m in length) and chamber is made of mesh to allow drainage, while the main body of the unit is made from a breathable ‘woodcrete’ designed to prevent condensation. 

Where is the Kingfisher Bank?

The steep earth bank to the right of the Cobham Hide pit seems to be a suitable site to install the Kingfisher Bank as there is no danger of erosion or rising water levels. 

Why haven’t kingfishers nested there already?  

Kingfishers prefer a clear flight path into the nest site and over the years dead wood and branches have fallen into the pit. This has now been removed by volunteers. Which also improves the view from the Cobham hide. 

What am I looking for?  

Looking out of the window on the right-hand side of the Cobham Hide, across the pit to the bank, you may be able to see the tunnel entrances. They are approx. 10cm x 10cm so quite hard to see without binoculars.

There are three in total because kingfisher usually have two/three broods per season and build a new nest for each brood, approx. one or two metres from the original nest.   

While the holes are fairly small and hard to see, a kingfisher is hard to miss.  Although small, they are unmistakably bright blue and orange birds. They fly rapidly, low over water, and hunt fish from riverside perches and they make a shrill ‘Toot Toot’ call.

How will we know if it’s successful? 

We are relying on our eagle-eyed bird watchers to record all sightings of Kingfishers seen at Cobham Hide via the sightings board/book in the Visitor Centre and Facebook page.   

In addition, at the end of the year, our nest box survey volunteers will inspect, record and prepare the nesting units for the next season. 

Winter work party update

Trevor Coughlan gives us the latest from the Work Parties at Paxton Pits Nature Reserve

Visitors may have noticed that over the last few months, there has been some rain! However, I am pleased to report the wet weather has not deterred our volunteers, in the fact the number of work party volunteers over the last three months has been higher than in the same period last season.

We have continued our work improving the habitat for nightingales and other summer migrants, particularly in East Scrub. We have also undertaken maintenance on the exclosures, including vegetation clearance, fencing repairs and replacement of rotten fence posts. At least the wet weather means that the ground has been soft which made bashing in posts easier! We have now finished our work in this area for this winter although further work will be undertaken in future years in accordance with the Reserve’s Management Plan.

The Management Plan details the work to be undertaken on the existing Reserve and the extension to ensure the Reserve is maintained and improved for both visitors and wildlife. The Friends liaise closely with the Rangers to ensure our work parties are coordinated with the work undertaken by the midweek work parties. Senior Ranger Matt is a member of the Friends’ Conservation Management Team which meets monthly to review progress and ensure the Plan’s objectives are achieved.

Other work undertaken by the Friends’ work parties during the winter has been further willow clearance in the Hayling Reedbed, vegetation clearance in the exclosures to encourage the growth of orchids and adders tongue fern, clearance of the bank of Southoe Brook near the yard and further
habitat improvement in the Sanctuary. We now hope that the nightingales will return in the Spring to occupy the desirable new residences we have prepared for them.

Are you interested in volunteering with one our Work Parties? Find out more here.

Volunteers uplifted by ‘The Gloomy Trees’

Janet Prior reports on a new old find for the reserve…

If you go down to the woods today you’re sure of a big surprise. If you go down to the woods today you’ll never believe your eyes!  This was the situation for the mid-week volunteers who ventured into the woods to erect protective stock fencing in the east scrub area of the nature reserve during January.  

Their big surprise was to find two very old and gloomy looking Apple Trees.  The age of the trees is currently uncertain but the cankers and gnarly bark suggest that they have been slowly drifting into old age, unseen for many years. 

Although the trees were nick-named ‘The Gloomy Trees’, the effect on the volunteers was far from gloomy.  Everyone looked on them with amazement and felt uplifted having discovered these awesome veterans. 

One of the trees looks quite unhealthy as it has shed its lower limbs.  However, this phenomenon, known as ‘Summer branch drop’, and is associated with weather patterns is what trees do naturally in order to prolong their life.  Hopefully it’s not too late for this tree and we can look after and enjoy them both for many more years. 

Photos of The Gloomy Trees kindly provided by Matt Hall