Digging a scrape, barn owls and voles

It’s been a busy time down on the marshes. After about a year of off-and-on I finally managed to get a contractor to come and dig a scrape. Never mind that it coincided with the coldest day of the year and a brief snow storm – the results are impressive.

The scrape – basically a shallow trench or pond for wildlife – is in one of the wetter fields, and should provide some excellent habitat for local wetland plants, insects and their predators. (For those who like detail it’s about 45 metres long, 8-10 metres wide and about 50cm deep. It is gently sloping and cost just a few hundred pounds).  The size is relevant, as anything with a size of more than 300 cubic metres is supposed to need permits from the EA. I can’t actually find the reference for this right now but it was mentioned by a couple of people. In practice I suspect this is enforced lightly, but I guess the point is not to dig a massive lake as it will have impacts on the local hydrology.

All in all the scrape took about a day to make, spread over two days. Perhaps I should have agreed an hourly rate, but I settled on a flat fee. Anyway, I am happy with the work done. We did it on a cold day in March because its obviously important to do any work before the birds start nesting. After March you would need to wait until the next winter.

In general I am trying to be as light-touch about management as possible, but at the same time I recognise that in a landscape that has been farmed and worked for decades that introducing a little variation in terms of tree planting or providing more water will help speed up natural processes, particularly as I don’t have the option of blocking drainage ditches on this land, or wild boar to excavate wallows.

One thing that would be worth bearing in mind is that digging a scrape produces a very large volume of soft soil which is spread over a big area around the actual pond. This grows back very quickly, but if you were looking to plant a few trees to speed things along, this would be a good time to do it!

Anyway, here is the scrape. It’s pretty bare now, but I’m excited to see how it develops over the summer.

Voles and Barn Owls

While digging the scrape I noticed a very large number of these ‘vole holes’ scattered throughout the grass. This is the second year now that the grass has not been grazed or cut and the litter is pretty thick. That does not seem to have stopped the voles though and there seem to be more holes than ever. This in turn should benefit the kestrels I see around the field, and may perhaps entice in a barn owl in due course (there are barn owls on my other site a couple of km away).

It’s an interesting example though of something I was not planning for. Voles do best in thick rough grassland, which is quite rare in the fields around me. Most are cut for silage and then grazed until the grass is very short. This is good for some bird species, but not for voles or birds of prey.

It also got me thinking about the barn owl. We think of it, quite naturally, as a farmland species (its name for one). But of course in the ecological past it must once have been a specialist operating at the fringes of the forest and in clearings and wetlands within it, constantly moving with the cycles of forest loss and succession. As agriculture expanded it must have thrived. Now new farming methods are reducing its habitat placing it under pressure again. That they may benefit from the removal of land from agriculture and the subsequent changes to the grassland (at least for some time) is an interesting thought.

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