Jan 20 2020

A Print for the Future

Many of Fingle’s success stories have come about when multiple facets of the restoration project are brought together. When these positive forces are combined, the outcome is more than the sum of the individual parts and, by that definition, a new project that started in 2019 is no exception. The woodland managers, the skilled contractors, the eager volunteers, wildlife surveyors and the Fingle timber itself have all played a role in setting up a unique wildlife study that has captured the attention of academic institutions and could see Fingle as a focus for some fascinating research in the coming years.

The story began in the winter of 2015/16 after a Statutory Plant Health Notice had been issued for the enforced clearance of around 15 hectares of diseased larch to prevent further spread of the disease.

        

Halls Cleave in 2015 before the larch clear fell                   Halls Cleave in 2016 after the larch clear fell

To limit the damage to the habitats, the larch was felled with care, leaving remnant patches of understorey where it stood. This patchy cover of broadleaves would provide the starting point for the recovery of the woodland structure across the valley but, in some areas, the understorey had long since been cut away. So, some of the most disrupted habitats were replanted with a mix of native woodland trees and the valley was left to recover. Progressive stages of vegetation growth would restore the habitat and the wildlife or, at least, that was the assumption – but where was the evidence?

Looking for evidence
Conversations continued within the woodland management team and it was noted that this situation had happened before on other sites and, as the phytophthora ramorum pathogen would spread across the country, it would happen again. As one of Fingle’s roles is to demonstrate good practice in woodland restoration, we decided to monitor and record the recovery of this woodland habitat. This could prove to be informative to other woodland owners faced with the dilemma of felling swathes of larch; helping them to do it in the most wildlife friendly way.

                              

After the clear fell – some areas left with few woodland features                   Remnant of oak coppice after the clear fell

The big question to tackle was how to ‘measure’ the recovery of the woodland habitat. Photography from ground level and from the aerial perspective could give a visual record and the annual breeding bird survey would show how the resident and migratory birds would use the area as the vegetation changed but, what about a sign of life ‘on the ground’. Ideally, the best indicator would be a species that may have been disturbed by the felling operation and would benefit from the new growth woodland as it returned? This is where our old friend the dormouse would play a role. It was already known that isolated populations existed around the perimeter of the clear fell zone and being able to follow their movements would, over a few years, show how they would recolonise the regenerating woodland. They would ‘indicate’ when the habitat either side of the clear-felled area would reconnect. It would also help them, as a species to connect with other population clusters around the woods and secure a stronger breeding population across the site.

Monitoring stations – 150 footprint tunnels and three zones of nest boxes (pink = temperature sensors, orange = known dormouse habitat)

Monitoring techniques
Capturing the movements of dormice around the site would require a carefully planned monitoring setup. It would need to find the species as they gradually move from their established ranges into the regenerating habitat. It would need to pick up seasonal, short term changes in activity as well as longer term changes in behaviour, and it would also need to cover a large area of the site, connecting the established territories with areas of potential future activity.

As the monitoring project was being set up, this is where the Friends of Fingle volunteers gave the project a huge boost. Taking posts made from timber offcuts, they started to hammer in hundreds of stakes across the whole monitoring site. These monitoring stations would have dormouse footprint tunnels or nest boxes installed on them so the movements or behaviour of this ‘indicator’ species could begin.

                  

Will and David setting out stakes                                       Tim and Dawn installing footprint tunnels                                   Chris setting up a nest box

Year 1- what have we learned?

During the end of the 2019 summer and into the autumn, the footprint tunnels were deployed and provided some good initial results. From their discernible footprints we got an impression of the areas of the site the dormice preferred to use. Even in a short period of time, we could see how the availability of food and the temperature was beginning to affect their movements and we have a good impression of what their favoured habitat looks like. The project was off to a great start. In the longer term we will be able to watch, in slow motion, as the habitat continues to change, how the dormice will start to occupy new areas. We hope, over the years, to see the dormice establishing themselves in the newly recovering habitat and connecting up their isolated populations.

                 

Dormouse prints (above) wood mouse prints (below)                  Distinctive footprints of the dormouse                              Initial results – a snapshot of dormouse activity (orange dots) in October 2019

As 2020 continues, we will await the emergence of the dormice from hibernation. We will capture their activity in spring and into their breeding season in the early summer. The footprint tunnels and nest boxes will be set up again in autumn to watch the patterns of behaviour as they forage for food then reduce activity before going back into hibernation. Building up a long-term picture should be informative and will demonstrate how a woodland habitat can recover. We are also hoping that initial connections with academic institutions will grow and broaden the scope of the project, providing some additional detail from some of the latest high-tech research methods.

                                                                              

Research – will we be able to discover how young dormice disperse from their maternity nests?                           Young dormice – will research show how they disperse into new habitat?

This exciting project will continue for the next few years but, if you want to find out more about the results so far, Matt will be giving a Fingle Lecture on the project on Thursday the 2nd of April at 7pm in the Fingle Bridge Inn. 

by: Matt Parkins
photography: Paul Moody, Matt Parkins, Tom Williams

For more information on Fingle please visit https://finglewoods.org.uk/

 

 

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