Four Seasons at Fardell’s Lane Nature Reserve
Welcome to Fardell’s Lane Nature Reserve – the Reserve is there for everyone, whether for a bit of comparative peace and quiet, for nature watching, for dog-walking (on a lead please), for a picnic or just as a short cut. There are two picnic benches in the meadow which provide ideal places to sit, watch and listen, or just to read the paper or check your mobile phone.
Access is from Fardell’s Lane at two places (opposite ASP Cabinet Maker’s workshop and just before Woodpecker Cottage), Broad End opposite the School (via the concrete path running beside the bungalows, under the old apple trees) and from the Sports Field through the gate near the swings and slides.
The Reserve includes a small rough meadow, surrounded by banks of bramble bushes. There are areas with elm and ash trees and thickets mainly of blackthorn, hawthorn and elder bushes, and quite a lot of ivy.
Fardell’s in Spring
The succession of blossom on different shrubs marks the progress of Spring at the Reserve. The first flowers to appear, often in February, are on a group of cherry-plums beside the fence of Ivyfold. These are a dense mass of white flowers which are much bigger and a bit earlier than the sloes which flower next. Most of the thicket is a tangle of sloe bushes – sloes are also called blackthorn. Also near the Broad End entrance is a huge old pear tree – it too has large white flowers. Deep in the thicket there is an apple tree that comes into flower in April – its flowers are tinged with pink. In May the hawthorns and elders will be in flower. The large, flat heads of tiny white flowers on the elders smell of cat-pee and the pinkish-white hawthorn blossom has a slightly musky smell.
The birdlife of the Reserve is not very different from that of many village gardens and nearby hedgerows. Common species such as robin, chiffchaff, willow-warbler, dunnock, chaffinch, blackbird, great tit, blue tit and wren can be seen and heard because they nest in or near the Reserve. Starlings and great spotted woodpeckers usually nest in holes in one of the poplar trees in Ivyfold or in the older ash trees beside Fardell’s Lane. If you stand in the meadow for a few minutes, several other species may fly over – jackdaw, carrion crow, magpie, wood pigeon, collared dove and occasionally a raucous jay, a swift and silent sparrowhawk or a mewing buzzard. Get up early one morning in early May and listen to the dawn chorus when it is at its best.
The wildflowers in the meadow and at the edges of the thicket include many with yellow flowers – celandines, buttercups, dandelions – and also ground ivy and red dead nettle with purple flowers. Little clumps of white and purple violets are often plentiful in March, as are the small green spikes of dog’s mercury flowers. As the weather gets warmer, hooded spikes of wild arum unfold and cow parsley soon covers some area with its flat heads of white flowers and lacy leaves. The stinging nettles, which are common everywhere on the Reserve, have long tassels of tiny green flowers, not to be confused with the curved white flowers of white dead nettle.
In the meadow, mounds of earth show that a mole has been tunnelling, but the shallow scrapes are usually caused by rabbits which are plentiful, living in burrows under the bramble patches. In the deeper parts of the thicket there are many large deep tunnels that have been excavated by badgers. These tunnels link up underground to form what is called a ‘sett’ – sometimes the sett is used regularly by badgers, but it is probably not occupied every year. Badgers also leave scrapes in the meadow and particularly along the paths when they are looking for earthworms, their main food. Foxes and muntjac deer pass through the reserve and grey squirrels will be out looking for nests to eat the eggs and young birds.
Fardell’s in Summer
Most birds established where they were going to nest in April and by June are busy feeding fledglings or may even be onto a second brood of eggs. The dawn chorus declines throughout June because birds have less need to announce their presence and maintain their territory. There is an abundance of food for birds in the form of insects and their larvae hidden away on the leaves and in the bark of the trees and shrubs.
The Reserve has quite a few rabbits, which keep parts of the meadow nicely grazed to a short turf, but it’s a pity they don’t eat nettles and thistles. If you see sick-looking rabbits, with bulging eyes and ugly lesions, they will by dying from myxomatosis, a virus that is spread among rabbits by mosquitoes and fleas. Fortunately myxomatosis cannot be caught by any other animal or by humans. Foxes, weasels and stoats often feed on rabbits, especially young ones and when numbers of rabbits increase, but rabbit numbers fluctuate year to year. Signs of foxes, such as ‘scats’ (droppings) on raised tussocks of grass, can often be seen in the reserve, but a sighting of a weasel or stoat is most likely to be just a fleeting glimpse of one crossing a road.
June is a good month for several species of butterflies. In the Reserve common species with caterpillars that feed on nettles, such as small tortoiseshell, peacock and red admiral, might be seen. Painted lady butterflies sometimes migrated to Britain from France, Spain and even North Africa but they do not come every year. Their larvae feed on thistles, so the Reserve would be an ideal place for them. The speckled wood butterfly can sometimes be seen flying or resting in sunshine, but usually near to the shaded parts of the reserve. It usually appears in May and June, and then again in August and September. Also in evidence from mid-June onwards are grasshoppers and bush-crickets, chirping in the long grass and brambles. The dark bush-cricket often ‘sings’ at night – a single rasping note, usually repeated several times. Although they are about an inch long, they are quite difficult to see because they hide in low bushes and tall grass.
On a warm, still evening in June or July, a trip to the Reserve is a pleasant, quiet walk. Long shafts of sunlight filter through the trees, illuminating little groups of insects circling in the still air. These are “dancing gnats”, usually groups of male flies displaying to attract females. Bumblebees also fly late into the evening, buzzing noisily whilst they collect nectar from bramble and dead-nettles flowers.
As the light fades one or two bats might appear, flitting over the meadow and around its edges looking for moths and other insects. You might see a muntjac deer skulking in the undergrowth or hear its bark. And there is just a chance that a fox, a badger, or even possibly a hedgehog might pass by. You would be very lucky to see a badger, they are very wary of humans.
Fardell’s in Autumn
Autumn is a period of change, from summer to winter, when the weather can be very variable. Some years it starts early, with frosts in September, but in other years warm and sunny weather continues into late October. Amounts of rain and strong winds also vary considerably. This variability can lead to the Reserve looking quite different from year to year in Autumn. If it has been warm and dry many trees start to lose their leaves early in October, but other years they remain green into November. This variability has an effect of the numbers of insects, and on the presence and numbers of birds. If it has been very dry, the crop of blackberries will be poor and there will be less food for blackbirds.
There is very little in flower on the Reserve in Autumn, but the bright red and shiny black berries on the hawthorns, elders and sloes give some gloss to the branches as they lose their leaves. In late October and during November winter migrant birds such as fieldfares, redwings and blackbirds come in to Britain from continental Europe to feed on the harvest of berries. There are plenty of resident species of birds around, passing though the reserve – jackdaws, wood pigeons, jays, great spotted and green woodpeckers. Species such as robins, wrens, starlings, blackbirds, chaffinches and blue and great tits move around within the local area, visiting our gardens as well as the Reserve. At night, tawny owls can be heard calling in almost any area with a few trees and a little owl may dash for cover during the daytime. Buzzards are now seen around Elsworth with increasing frequency, and very occasionally a red kite may drift by overhead.
Some insects survive long into autumn, especially if there is no frost. Butterflies such as peacock, red admiral and comma can usually be seen into October, but as they need to feed from flowers, the Reserve may not be the best place to see them – a well stocked garden may be better. Bush crickets continue to chirp in the undergrowth until the first frosts and the last drowsy wasps are looking for somewhere to hibernate. Bumblebees continue to forage wherever there are flowers – more often in our gardens than in the Reserve in Autumn.
Muntjac deer are a familiar sight in the village, including on the Reserve, and their barking call can often be heard at night and sometimes during the day. Occasionally there are also sightings of roe deer in the area, but the Reserve is too small to provide a home. Badgers and foxes have a hard time during dry autumns because they normally feed mainly on worms, but they also manage to survive on berries and small rodents in autumn.
A mild and damp Autumn is the best time to see fungi (toadstools) on the Reserve. Several different species, with strange shapes and colours, have been seen. Although most grow among the ivy, moss and grasses on the ground, keep an eye open for different sorts growing on logs and out of the bark of standing trees.
Fardell’s in Winter
The low sun slants through naked branches casting long, indistinct shadows, even at midday. Only the meadow is green – everything else is shades of brown and grey, sometimes with a dusting of yellow lichen on branches.
On first impression the Reserve may appear lifeless and uninteresting. True, there are no insects or flowers, the leafless trees are bare and stark, and there are usually few birds to be seen. Winter is the time of dormancy for most wildlife – the period before the burst of energy that will be Spring. Nevertheless, there are some signs of wildlife in the Reserve.
The meadow is dotted with small mounds of earth – molehills. Just below the surface moles are tunnelling away in the damp, friable soil and feeding on earthworms and insect larvae that come into these tunnels.
Behind the pond, several of the large holes among the elder bushes may have fresh soil around the entrances where badgers have been busy excavating parts of the sett. A scattering of dry grass and leaves around some of the entrances may suggest that they are taking new bedding inside. But, there is also the distinct musky smell of a fox around the area. Sometimes foxes occupy disused parts of a badger sett, but they are not ideal neighbours for badgers if the sett is occupied and soon move on.
The areas of brambles are leafless and it is easier to see the burrows where rabbits breed. They can be seen most days if you approach the meadow quietly – but usually just the view of a little white tail disappearing into the undergrowth.
It is worth looking at patches of damp soil for the footprints of fox, badger and muntjac deer. Fox prints are rather like those of a small dog, with four forward facing pads and with the middle two quite pointed. Badger prints are larger and broad, often with clear marks of the long claws beyond five forward-facing pads. Although occasional roe deer are seen in the area, muntjac deer are very common and they often follow the same paths every day (or night). Their tiny hoof prints are a bit like those of a small sheep, two pointed slots – often quite deeply impressed into damp soil.
Some birds begin to think about spring early, especially the species that like to nest in tree holes. Great-spotted woodpeckers, great tits and jackdaws can begin prospecting for nest sites in February. Robins and blue tits also beginning to set out their territories in February and males can sometimes be seen fighting. For some smaller birds long, cold winters can prove difficult if they cannot find sufficient food. Wrens, robins and tits can all suffer in such winters.
Winter is when we usually carry out maintenance work on the reserve, clearing the paths and spreading chippings, cutting back some of the previous year’s growth of brambles and elders, and felling any fallen or dangerous trees. A few hours work by a group of volunteers soon gets the Reserve ready for the next Spring. Why not join us for a winter workout on the Reserve?
Compiled by Paul Harding