Wednesday, 9 August 2006

It's not quite International Rescue...

Our local nature reserve is having a bit of work done.

Over time, willow scrub has encroached on a lot of the marshland, and the nineteenth-century canalisation of the burn that runs into the loch has resulted in the water becoming eutrophic - full of nitrate run-off from the surrounding farmland and from the ‘deposits’ of the thousands of geese that spend the winter here. Years of rough weather have eroded the islands in the loch, reducing the available nesting space for terns and other seabirds. With only two sluices, controlling the water flow through the site is difficult, and there are permanently flooded areas where it would be better to have seasonal changes in water level.

Recent grants from the Heritage Lottery Fund and from the EU have enabled much of this to be put right, and improved; new sluices and changes to the topography of the main wet grassland areas will enable the water levels to be controlled more precisely, to enable ideal grass and invertebrate conditions for spring nesting waders, such as redshank and lapwing, and winter grazing for the geese. The burn is being diverted to run on its old course, winding through reedbeds; this has the advantage of slowing down the flow, trapping the silt and nitrates in the reeds, preventing them reaching the loch, and providing better habitat for other waterbirds such as bittern and marsh harrier. Ultimately, the loch can be cleaned up and water quality improved. There will be better access to hides and improved disabled provision. All in all, a major project and one that will have significant and positive impact on the reserve.

Of course, all this work has to be done whilst taking care of the marshland - so it’s taken some pretty specialised machinery. Two of the original islands have been reinstated, by means of a very ingenious monorail system which transported reinforcing edging and gravel out into the loch in a matter of days before being taken down with little or no impact on the ground. All the remaining machinery is ‘big footprint’ stuff - wide tyres to spread the load and cut down on soil compaction and compression, and the schedule carefully organised so that scrub is taken up and burned on site in a specialised burner, before the ash goes on the surrounding fields as fertiliser, the cutters and burner making a slow and precise progress through the old willows. It has been planned like a military campaign, trying to get it done in before the birds return in autumn. Naturally, there is some disturbance now, but the terns on the island in front of the visitor centre haven’t been put off (over 130 pairs nested this year), and the moorhens seem to be multiplying faster than ever! With the resident ducks in eclipse - all are brown and growing new feathers - Mum refuses to try and sort them out while they are like this, (she says it’s just too much effort) so we went just to see how the work was progressing from the vantage point of the visitor centre.

For a Saturday afternoon, it was still busy. A bulldozer was remodelling the wet grassland area in front of the centre, shoving the soil (to the evident delight of the gulls who were picking it over for worms and other wee beasties) into a big heap, which was being loaded by a digger into a tipper truck, which took it elsewhere in the field where the levels need building up. Scrub cutters were busy, away to the right by the lochside, where the burner was doing its job. Another digger was busy to the left, several fields away on the other side of the burn, cutting the new channel, and yet another parked in the field beyond that, attracting the attention of the cows. The burn itself runs from left to right at the back of the field directly in front of where we were sitting. Much of the willow scrub to the right has vanished, leaving clear views across to the old wind pump tower. Another cutter, truck and a quad bike were parked at the back of this field, near the burn.

We played ‘Spot the Machinery’ for a while, and idly tried to sort Arctic from Common terns. After about twenty minutes of this, we were contemplating going home for tea, when the driver of the parked cutter returned, got into his vehicle and went to do some work on the willows by the burn to the left of the field. This is an area bounded by reedbeds and willow scrub, rather narrow where the bank of the burn runs at the bottom of another field, and required taking the cutter across the top of one of the sluices. He hadn’t been there long, and we wanted to see how the machine worked, so we watched through binoculars, agreeing that he seemed to be at a somewhat precarious angle.

The long arm of the cutter waved about a bit, hauled a few bushes out, and then waved in a more uncertain fashion. The machine looked to be well down the bank by the burn. After a minute or two, the cutter arm appeared again swinging round and we got the feeling that it was trying to get purchase on the top of the bank. This was complicated by a nearby fence-line and another field of cows. The driver got out and jogged back towards the other machinery at work in front of us.

‘He’s got it stuck’ says Mum.

The driver of the bulldozer parked his machine, got out, and walked back to the cutter with the original driver. They stood around for a while, scratching their heads and inspecting it. The ‘dozer driver had a go at getting it out of the ditch, and failed. Meanwhile, the drivers of the tipper and the digger parked their machines, and wandered over to have a look. There was more head scratching.

The digger driver went back, and carefully drove his machine up close to the cutter, and seemed to be rearranging the cut scrub to try to provide less slippery footing. This didn’t work. The ‘dozer driver had ago at the same, with similar lack of success. More scratching of heads. A mobile phone was put to use. At this point, the tipper driver and the digger driver took the quad bike down to join the rest of the incident. There were now four of them, standing around the cutter. Evidently the power of head scratching wasn’t working.

The pair on the quad vanished, somewhere into the willows. Evidently they crossed the burn somewhere higher up, as the quad appeared some time later on the far side (with only one of them on board) and headed up the field to the parked digger. Then a white van appeared from behind the willows, and headed up the field at speed; when it stopped for the driver to open the gate and get out onto the farm track , we could see it was driven by the tipper driver. He took off at speed down the farm track towards the area where the machinery is generally parked when not in action.

‘Wonder where he’s off to?’ we said. ‘Shall we stay and see if they get it out?’

The digger driver collected the other digger driver (who had been sitting in his cab) and headed in the direction of the gate. No sooner had they got there than the white van came back, and both vehicles set off for the incident site.

Now there were five men, all stood around, looking at the cutter and scratching their heads. The original driver of the cutter got out a camera to take some pictures. The second digger driver now got into the stranded cutter, and the ‘dozer driver assumed control of the digger. The tipper driver brought the quad bike round, and hitched a chain from the digger to the cutter, before beating a hasty retreat. With much effort and a cloud of diesel smoke, the digger began to move backwards. The arm of the cutter waved around precariously again, and the original driver took more photos, before waving instructions about avoiding the fence. The importance of this was obvious, as the cows in the field were, by now, gathering to see what was happening. The digger continued to move backwards.

Slowly, majestically, and in another cloud of diesel smoke, the cutter emerged from the ditch.

I don’t know if they heard the cheering and applause from the visitor centre.

Wednesday, 2 August 2006

Life’s Little Mysteries (3)

The weather, never settled for long, has changed again. After baking heat - always welcome when venturing into the city to shop (aye, right!) - Saturday night brought heavy rain. Driving home late, I became aware that things were moving in the headlights’ beam. Frogs. Lots of frogs. They’ve spent the hot spell hidden under the dry stone walls or in deep undergrowth, until the rain came. Then it’s way-hay! Look chaps - puddles! Which made driving the back roads rather more akin to a slalom course, avoiding frogicide.

Arriving home, we unpacked the car; another slalom session as we avoided the snails sliding happily across the path. With rain dripping down my neck from the tailgate of the car, I turned and noticed around fifteen on the end wall of the house, all heading upwards. One slid purposefully up the edge of the gable; all seemed bent on reaching the roof, or even the chimneystack. Those on the path made their slow and stately way to the wall, and proceeded upwards. I couldn’t see anything up there that might attract their attention, no algae, no moss, no tempting plants at all.
Were they trying to tell me that flood were expected? Is there a snail nightclub somewhere on my roof? Do they gather up there in the first rain after the last full moon in July for some esoteric snail ritual? Baffled, I took the last of the shopping indoors and went to dry off.
In the morning there were no snails to be seen. And none that night on the window pane. I began to wonder if some silent interstellar space-shell had descended in the damp night and taken them away, to report on their observations of Earth life.

Wherever they went, it was a short trip - five were back last night. Of course, it was ‘Mastermind’ and ‘University Challenge’ on the TV. How else can interstellar snails learn?