East Devon Pebblebed Heaths Conservation Trust

What a year we have had on the Pebblebed Heaths! I would like to start by saying thank you everyone that helps us care of this wonderful place during their visits by doing their bit. I think we can all agree that the countryside and local green spaces have been more important than ever for our health and wellbeing.

Our site team have been working hard to make sure important conservation work carried on and the heaths continued to be safe and accessible for people to use throughout these difficult times we have faced. For most of the year we have been blessed with good weather in East Devon which has enabled us to get out and explore our local places, it also looks to have resulted in a good breeding season for our special bird species that raise their young across the heath during the spring and summer. Dartford warblers continue to bounce back following the beast from the east in 2018 which greatly reduced the local population of this heathland specialist. We hope that the weather will stay mild this winter to give the population an extra boost this year.

During the summer volunteers were able to get back out to monitor the nightjar across the heaths, I am pleased to report we have a stable summer breeding population that makes the most of the all the suitable habitat across the Pebblebeds. These incredible birds will be spending the winter in Africa before returning to us early next summer to fill the heaths with their magical calls during the summer evenings.

Although we have not been able to provide our usual education sessions and public events this year we are hopeful that these will return next year. I know I have missed leading our popular ‘Waggy Walks’ with our friends at Devon Loves Dogs, so to those of you that usually join us we look forward to having you back with us in the future.

Over the summer we ran an exciting photography project to understand why the heaths are so special to the people that visit, #TheHeathsAndMe , thank you to everyone that took part. If you would like to see a selection of the images sent in please visit our gallery We are currently working with a film maker to share some of the lovely stories that were unearthed during this project which we plan to share next year.

As we are now firmly in the winter season our focus on the heaths switches to our winter habitat management. To maintain lowland heath and our specialised species this work is part and parcel of the heaths, with this work carried out during the winter to minimise disturbance to wildlife we work to protect.

Over the next few months you may see our team across the heaths removing patches of scrub and trees, cutting fire breaks, creating bare ground or even carry out controlled burning. Though this can look heavy handed, rest assured that this work is all designed with protecting the landscape in mind. From all the team on the Pebblebed Heaths, we wish you a lovey festive season and a happy new year.

Kim Strawbridge, Site Manager

www.pebblebedheaths.org.uk

East Devon Pebblebed Heaths photograph

RSPB Aylesbeare Common

As always, we started the New Year in the middle of our scrub clearance season, and the word ‘coronavirus’ hadn’t yet entered our vocabulary. January and February saw our programme of scrub clearance focus mainly on Aylesbeare Common, and included thinning a few dense banks of holly along one of our main visitor trails to allow more light to penetrate to the ground to benefit more of our native flora.

In March our effort shifted towards widening and raising our access tracks. Most of the tracks across our sites serve a dual purpose, allowing our vehicles and those of other essential services access across the commons, and functioning as crucial firebreaks. Controlled fires can be a useful tool to manage scrub vegetation on the commons, as overgrown vegetation (particularly large stands of gorse) can reduce the suitability of the heathland for our specialist wildlife species; but during the dry summer months the area often falls under a significant risk of wildfires.

Wildfires are difficult to contain and can destroy vast areas of sensitive heathland environment, threatening wildlife, grazing animals, and potentially human life and property. Maintaining wide firebreaks across the heathland can contain a fire to a smaller area and make it easier for the fire service to extinguish safely. Of course, the end of March also saw a sudden shift in the way we worked. All our volunteers and many of our staff were no longer able to continue working, but we luckily Aylesbeare Common is registered open access land so the reserve was able to stay open to welcome local visitors throughout lockdown.

Throughout April and May only the essential works took place, namely providing care for the cattle and ponies that call our reserves home, and any time-sensitive infrastructure repairs. In June our staff returned to work in a covid-secure manner, continuing with only our essential works. Sadly, this means our surveying capacity was very limited this year, but we are looking forward to doing more formal surveys next year to keep an eye on how our populations of priority species are doing.

There was some excitement with the arrival of a new virtual fencing system for our cattle at Fire Beacon Hill, in place of having to install and move physical electric fencelines across the hill, we now have the power to create these boundaries online and link them to GPS collars worn by the cattle. Following some initial training, the cattle have responded well to this system and pick up the audio cue emitted from the collars when they approach the virtual boundaries in the same way they would respond to the visual cue of seeing a physical fence – they now rarely receive shocks from the collars.

Once July rolled around, we were pleased to welcome our new warden, Dylan, into his role here at RSPB Aylesbeare. We were also able to restart our midweek volunteer work parties as small groups of three at a time. While it is a shame to miss out on the more social aspect of volunteering in a large group, our small ‘bubbles’ are working well – we wouldn’t be able to achieve all of our conservation objectives without the fantastic support of our local volunteer network.

For us, as with many others in the local community, the end of July means hay-making time. The RSPB has a few fields in the area, these rich meadows provide a valuable habitat for wildlife while they are growing and flowering, and the hay created from the meadow is a valuable food supplement for our livestock overwinter.

Throughout August we set aside much of our time to a programme of bracken control. Bracken is the UK’s largest and most common fern that grows in dense stands across our heathlands, where it is mixed with other plants within a habitat it is highly beneficial for wildlife (particularly butterflies like fritillaries), but due to its ability to rapidly spread and colonise areas, bracken can quickly outcompete other plants and dominate the habitat.

September saw the creation of a new hibernaculum for reptiles on Venn Ottery Hill. The digger excavated a large trench, which we then filled with branches and rubble, before capping it with a dome of turf. This will provide a well-insulated spot with plenty of nooks and crannies for our reptiles and amphibians to overwinter in.

As soon as we get into October and November, our scrub clearance season starts up again, and our team is joined by contractors to help deliver our winter work programme. Winter scrub clearance is a key aspect of the management plan for the heathland, as without our removal of young trees and scrub it would only take a few decades for the heathland to be lost and replaced by woodland that outgrows and overshadows sensitive heathland plants like heathers.

This year we have additional actions required to carry out tree safety works on some of our ash trees on site where they have severe ash dieback. Ash, even when dead, is a valuable habitat for many birds, invertebrates, lichens, and fungi, so where we can we are leaving what trees we can. However, we are having to fell some trees as a matter of visitor safety – dieback is a fatal fungal disease, and when branches in the crown die they become brittle and may break and fall in adverse weather conditions. Where sick trees are within striking distance of a marked public footpath they must be dealt with to protect our visitors.

Work, as always, continues here on reserve during the festive season – there is always work to be done to ensure Aylesbeare provides the best possible home for our heathland species for many years to come. So finally, it just remains for me to wish you all a merry Christmas, on behalf of us all here at RSPB Aylesbeare.

Megan Godley, Residential Volunteer

Photograph of a Nightjar on a nest on the ground.

Devon Wildlife Trust, Bystock Common

As this strangest of years draws to an end, it is a time to reflect on the year and look forward to the not too distant Spring and the awakenings that it stirs on our Nature Reserves.

My name is Edric Hopkinson and I am a Nature Reserves Officer for The Devon Wildlife Trust managing some of our East Devon Nature Reserves. Our popular Bystock Pools Nature Reserve lies at the southern end of the East Devon Pebblebed Heaths, just outside of Exmouth.

It is a much-loved site for its variety of habitats and species. I am usually blessed with a group of local volunteers who help me with the varied management tasks. Unfortunately, this year has meant that our volunteer groups had to be curtailed, but that doesn’t mean that management ceased or that the reserve has been eerily quiet. Indeed, the heaths have been busy with people choosing to take their daily exercise to explore and enjoy the sights and sounds these heathland, woodland, meadow and pond habitats have to offer.

Visitors to Bystock are rewarded by the wealth of butterflies, dragonflies and birds to be found there, set against a backdrop of the purple hues of the heathers. Springtime brought the comforting reawakening of the natural world with sulphurous yellow Brimstone butterflies making the most of the returning warmth. In the distance a Cuckoo could be heard heralding its return to the heaths.

Later in the spring we were rewarded by sightings of the Dingy skipper, this mottled grey-brown butterfly has declined in the UK over recent years, so it was a delight to receive records for the reserve. Meanwhile stonechats perched at the top of vegetation making their distinctive call which resembles two stones being tapped together, hence their name.

Nightjars returned after their long flight back from Africa and dawn or dusk visitors may have enjoyed the sound of the male’s churring song or the sight of these agile fliers hawking for insects. The silvery-blue wings of the male Silver-studded blue butterfly were also a delight as this heathland specialist flew low over the heathers. In the summer months we were rewarded by sightings of the Clouded Yellow, a migratory butterfly that flies here from North Africa and southern Europe.

The large reservoir and small pools are important for dragonflies and damselflies and numerous species can be seen gliding above the water or patrolling their territory throughout the warmer months.

The natural world appears to have been oblivious to the challenges we have faced during this year as each month revealed a new arrival or natural wonder to enjoy; a visit to Bystock Pools can be rewarding at any time of year. While we all hope that 2021 allows a gradual return to some form of normality, I hope that you can come and enjoy some of the sights and sounds to be found at Bystock Pools, I may see you there.

To find out more about our Bystock Pools Nature Reserve visit:

https://www.devonwildlifetrust.org/nature-reserves/bystock-pools

Edric Hopkinson, Nature Reserves Officer

An aerial photograph of the Pebblebed Heaths