Reptilian Recovery at Fingle Woods
Snce the restoration of Fingle Woods began, ecological records have played an important part of demonstrating the benefits of good woodland habitat management by showing where wildlife is increasing in abundance and range. This blog explains how ecologists have surveyed for reptiles during the summer and then spend time writing up their reports after the season is over, to add to the growing data to support the valuable conservation work.
Woodland restoration creates new patterns in the landscape. Among the ranks of planted conifer trees, small gaps are appearing, giving diversity a helping hand. Plants and animals are gradually recovering from the darker days of shady woodland and are now creating their own patterns in response to the conservation work. In these places, species surveys are showing that there are some good results where they have been able to recover and, in other areas, it is going to take more time. Some groups of species move slowly and take longer to re-establish a local population where their absence has been, like a missing link in Fingle’s food web, the interdependent variety of life at all levels. But, more and more, as we keep the good work going, we are rewarded. As we provide the right habitat and present nature with the opportunity, it will gladly accept and add its colour to the patterns of life in the woods
Common lizard in wet grassland
In this case, a survey of reptiles is starting to show this process in action. After years of conservation forestry, creating space between the rows and glades along the edges, more open habitats have revealed a common lizard basking here and a slow worm sheltering there. The team of ecologists from Devon Wildlife Consultants have just produced their report on a “Reptile Survey undertaken in two broad areas within the Fingle Woods complex”. The report explains that “The first survey area comprises Wooston Hillfort and nearby open areas” and a second site in Halls Cleave, where the successive thinning of conifers has given ground level vegetation a chance to recover, going on to say that “habitats within all surveyed compartments provide a suitable mixture of foraging and basking habitats for reptiles”.
Following on from the 2020 survey, in 2021 they again followed a standard procedure using ‘refugia’ to provide a shelter for these ‘cold-blooded’ creatures to find warmth and protection. By laying out a series of dark-coloured mats the ecologists can attract the snakes and lizards into a temporary shelter of roofing felt or a corrugated sheet. Over 100 of these refugia were laid out in the target zones in Fingle from April and on through the summer. These would be inspected every few weeks when the weather was most favourable. Still, warm and sunny mornings are the best.
Often the most regular residents of these survey sheets are ants in abundance, and among the spiders and slugs, other frequent nesters are numerous voles but, every now and again, the reptiles are spotted and, at the hillfort, “Two populations of slowworm and one population of common lizard were identified within the survey area. These are all small populations. The presence of juveniles and sub-adults demonstrates that both slowworm groups are breeding populations”. And along a woodland ride nearby, another group was found where “three juveniles and one female were recorded during surveys”.
Meanwhile, over in Halls Cleave, two populations of slowworm were identified but, the really exciting news this year came from “a small population of grass snake was recorded near the stream within the leaky dams area. Only juvenile individuals were recorded. It is not known whether these represent a breeding population or are individuals which may have dispersed from a nearby population as this species can have a large dispersal range”. It is known that young grass snakes and slowworms can be found together and, “a larger population [of slowworms] was observed along the stream edges. Four large gravid females were observed during one survey in late August; this with the recording of sub-adults indicates a breeding population.”
These survey records are obviously good news, but what do they tell us about the recovery of wildlife and the restoration of habitats? At Wooston hillfort, “these populations are considered to be small, likely to be remnants of a larger Fingle Woods population before conifer planting” and “The small size of these fragmented populations leaves them vulnerable to local extinction from major random disturbance, such as fires or predation pressure.” It is also important to note that, “No adders were observed within the survey area though the habitat present is considered to be appropriate for adders.” There is evidence to show that “the prior use of the wood as a commercial pheasant shoot is likely to have caused the depletion and possible extinction of adders within the area. If adders are present within Fingle, it is likely at very low numbers. Adders have slow dispersal rates, making new recruitment of individuals from nearby populations unlikely to be significant in the short term. The increase of open habitats across the Fingle Woods complex would improve the suitability of the site to support viable adder populations.”
Overall, this report encapsulates the positive effects of the work done by workers and volunteers at Fingle but suggests we are at the bottom of an upward curve, saying that “The thinning, clear-felling, and ride widening works which have taken place over recent years have improved habitat for reptiles within Fingle Woods.” We can collectively take heart from this. It shows promise but the final recommendations show that we can’t stop now as “Future works should focus on improving connectivity between identified populations, as this would strengthen the resilience of the populations and improve the speed at which they recover.”
by Matt Parkins
With reference to Devon Wildlife Consultants report on Reptile Survey 2021 – Fingle Woods