Easton College Nature Reserve

Yesterday I spent the day doing one of the things that makes me happiest; wandering around looking at and recording plants. This time I was at the Easton and Otley College open day at the Easton Campus, just outside of Norwich. The college boasts a 245 acre farm and within this farmland there is a real gem (which even some of the college tutors haven’t visited) – the Water Meadows, situated along the river Yare. This is where I was, alongside other naturalists, ex-students and tutors Jerry, Anna and Nick.

Arriving at the Water Meadows, Nick gave some of us a tour around the site so we were aware of the boundaries and where we could wander and record. We headed towards the river and then west towards a fallen (non-native) Poplar tree. On the way we looked under the reptile refuge and saw three wonderful grass snakes. Just a little further on, the meadow was abundant with southern marsh orchid Dactylorhiza praetermissa including one monster specimen! There were also a few early marsh orchids Dactylorhiza incarnata too but these were almost over, but I have never seen such a density.

 

 

The Water Meadows run adjacent to the river and seem to be largely comprised of four areas, separated by ditches of open water. Some patches were clearly more diverse than others. The meadows are used for grazing highland cattle by the college and some areas have been enhanced with nitrates for the grazing, although this was a while ago now and the flora does seem to be recovering well.

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The next four hours were spent surveying the plants within the meadows. In total I recorded 79 flowering plant species and I am confident this is nowhere near a complete list, with many more species yet to be found. What I did notice is that for an area which has been largely neglected, and at times, mistreated with nitrate enhancement, the diversity of plants is certainly comparable to any other nature reserve. In fact, the list reminded me of a similar survey carried out on an FSC training course in Slapton Ley – a National Nature Reserve on the South Coast. Notable plant species included masses of common valerian Valeriana officinalis  and meadow rue Thalictrum flavum and of course the plant which probably has the best scientific name ever – brooklime Veronica becabunga. Say it, go on – ‘bec-a-bun-ga’. Beautiful! 


I tried to record other non-plant species that I could as I went around, which included four butterfly species: small white, meadow brown, red admiral and a skipper which skipped away before we could ID it. There were also common carder bees Bombus pascorum and white tailed bumble bees Bombus lucorum, red-headed cardinal beetles Pyrochroa serraticornis and garden chafers Phyllopertha horticola, a rove beetle, likely Bolitobius sp. and numerous hoverflies which flew before I could photograph them. There were also numerous odonata including a few Norfolk Hawkers Aeshna isoceles and masses of banded demoiselles Calopteryx splendens by the river. These are just the invertebrates which I spotted and I am far from being an expert. I am sure the real experts managed to record many more.

One of the downsides of studying ecology based subjects is that the academic year runs from Sept- June with the latter months usually reserved for exams or putting together final projects. However, the key time of the year to learn about plants is during the flowering season – which for an area like the water meadows, the best months will be June- August. (Because of this, I have never seen the meadows looking so wonderful having only ever visited in Winter!).

The water meadows could be utilised far not only around the whole year, but also during the summer. The college could offer short courses in natural history or identification, or use the meadows as a location for school children to discover pond life or invertebrates. Even as a location for Forest Schools. There are so many possibilities and just so much potential.

Though the most important is to firstly recognise what a wonderful resource it is, and quite rightly it deserves the upgraded title of Easton College Nature Reserve.

x Larissa

The Pond – Part 1: Creating a home for the frogs

I’m going to kick this blog off with a post about my favourite part of the garden; the pond. It’s my favourite for many reasons but the main two are that it didn’t cost us anything to install and it attracts so much wildlife to the garden. I really think that having a pond, no matter how small makes such a difference if you are aiming to attract wildlife.

When we viewed the house last year we were sold when we saw the garden and was told that we were free to do as we like with it (within reason of course!). It was a blank canvas – an overgrown large patch of grass with the woodland behind our house encroaching into the back part of the garden. Perfect.

A blank canvas

We moved in and I was eager to get going. It was June, it was hot and I was pregnant so progress was slow. It took us a while to get around to mowing the lawn as we had to purchase a petrol brushcutter. The grass was so long the flymo couldn’t handle it. Standing by the edge of the garden I noticed that the ground below my feet was springy and squelched. It looked like the rest of the lawn, but something felt different. After a bit of investigating, we found a small pre-formed pond which had been filled with rocks and bricks with grass growing over the top. It had been abandoned and we decided to bring it back to life.

I emptied the pond of bricks, rocks and some of the mud, piling up the soil on the bank for the marginal plants. There was water in the pond still so I left a lot of the mud there thinking that perhaps some of the creatures had survived, especially as i found so many frogs and toads hiding out under the rocks. Also, by leaving in some mud it added an instant pond bed. I wondered whether it would be too rich in nutrients which could cause problems later on and ideally I should have carried out a nutrient test, but I took a chance and left it in (mainly because pulling all the bricks out had worn me out and I was eager to see it finished!).

Unfortunately I had to stop anyway because I managed to put a hole in the side of the pond with my spade. Tip – be careful when using tools to dig or clear a pond, especially if it is made using pond liner – seems obvious doesn’t it! I ordered some pond putty and left the pond alone for a few days.

With the hole fixed, it was time to add some structures for all the frogs and toads to get in and out and to hide in. I used the rocks to build up one side of the pond and added a couple of logs. Ideally a wildlife pond should have a shallow end or a gradual transition from the bank to the pond. This is achievable with a pond-liner but not as easy with a preformed pond. It’s also about working with what you have too when renting.

We were lucky to have a beautiful large fern growing next to the pond. My partner has a good eye for aesthetics and so to compliment the fern he suggested we piled up more rocks around the edge of the pond and under the fern. By this point, we already had a resident living in the pond. A large fat frog had moved in and every now and then popped his head above the water to check out his new digs.

Finally, the last stage was to add the plants. I planted lesser spearwort Ranunculus flammula, soft rush Juncus effusus, and purple loosestrife Lythrum salicaria in the pond itself in basket planters, and ivy-leaved duckweed Lemna trisulca and a water soldier Stratoites aloides in the middle.

Around the edge I planted a few garden plants I brought with us from our old house including purple toadflax Linaria purpurea and the following native marginal plants:

  • silverweed Argentina anserina
  • ragged robin Silene flos-cuculi
  • water figwort Scrophularia auriculata
  • teasel Dipsacus fillonum
  • marsh ragwort Senecio aquaticus
  • marsh woundwort Stachys palustris
  • rosebay willowherb Chamerion angustifolium – seeds
  • great willowherb Epilobium hirsutum – seeds
  • hemp agrimony Eupatorium cannabinum – seeds
  • Common fleabane Pulicaria dysenterica – seeds.

One the plants were in, it was just a case of letting nature take over. We were surprised just how quickly the wildlife found it. The foxes would come to drink from it each evening, dragonflies laid their eggs in it and bats came to feed on the midges emerging from it. By Autumn, the pond had established and we couldn’t wait to see what arrived in spring, but that’s a whole other blog post.

Autumnal pond