Wednesday, 24 June 2020

June 2020: Back for a brief time

The Covid-19 situation led to a much disrupted field season for ecologists and conservationists, but of course the wildlife has been happily cracking on with things in our absence!

North West Zone grasslands

I returned from furlough for three weeks in June, catching a snapshot of the peak field season and checking up on our most important habitats and notable species. As well as being drought-ridden, the main difference this year is an eerily quiet airport landscape, which has given it a post-apocalyptic feel. The weather has been very challenging, with random storms and rainshowers during my first and second week, then incredibly hot conditions in the third. 




My goal was to cover off as many ecology surveys and site checks as possible, as even partial data sets can be useful. I've been able to carry out some general species listing on our sites with the help of Vince Massimo, focusing on breeding birds and macroinvertebrates such as butterflies.

Vince Masimo, River Mole grasslands

Marbled White butterflies (Melanargia galathea). Photo by Vince Massimo

Blood-vein Moth (Timandra comae), a UK BAP research species

Spotted Longhorn Beetle (Rutpela maculata)


Unfortunately we missed the flight season of our male Long-horned Bees, but I joined Sussex PhD student Gigi Hennesy in checking up on the females, which were all busily collecting pollen for their burrows. The nest site habitats seem relatively stable, though would benefit from some willow coppicing this autumn.

Long-horned Bee (Eucera longicornis) female in burrow. River Mole



We had just completed setting up two new reptile transects prior to lockdown, so we've had a lot of matts to check in a short period of time. I was pleased to see the reptile mitigation area at the Westfield Stream site has become real hot spots for Grass Snakes, as I had suspected it would be. I even spotted a rare melanistic (all black one), though sadly on that occasion was not ready with the camera!

Westfield Stream reptile hibernaculum (rubble pile) with roofing felt for surveying

Barred Grass Snake (Natrix helvetica)

We have been experimenting with management of some road verges around the landside estate this year, and my main task this month was to repeat the botanical assessments. I've been able to add in some additional areas to our baseline, which was initiated by Laurie Jackson in 2019. The timing was fortunately spot on, as it was before the next scheduled cutting regime and the perfect time of year to spot (and protect) a proliferation of Bee Orchids and other notable plants.

Orchid protection

Bee Orchids, North Perimeter Road monorail verge

Bee Orchid (Ophrys apifera)

Pyramidal Orchid (Anacamptis pyramidalis)

Pennyroyal (Mentha pulegium), Gatwick's rarest species of plant

It was a huge pleasure to hear Black Redstart singing while completing the road verge asessment. This species was last confirmed as breeding here in 2012. My apologies for the lacking views of this charismatic little bird, but have the sound on for this video of his song...

Black Redstart (Phoenicurus ochruros)

With the help of members of public, I was excited to confirm at least two territories of Nightingale along in the North West Zone; a red-listed and declining bird which has only recently been recorded at the airport. This indicates that our scrub habitats along the River Mole are maturing very nicely. 


When the weather perked up I had some success with the clearwing moth pheromones, although we already have Red-belted Clearwing on our species list and I was only able to re-confirm their presence on site. I didn't find the time to test all of the lures again, so there may well be more species out there.

Red-belted Clearwing moth (Synanthedon myopaeformis)

Red-belted Clearwing attracted to pheromone lure

The Gatwick Honeybee Apiary, aka Gatsbees had a very hard time in autumn 2019; one of the hives was sadly vandalised, and we had to very quickly shift them all to the nearby Wick Farm during a heavy rain storm. This disruption, along with an intensively wet start to 2020, meant that unfortunately most colonies didn't make it. Our headkeeper Gill has been hard at work to build us back up to four healthy colonies, and I was able to give her a quick hand (although I missed the busiest time of year). Wick Farm is off our biodiversity sites, but still close enough to the airport to act as a sentinel site for monitoring incoming pests and diseases.

Honeybees on comb

Our colonies are all named after the laying queens, who's names are alphabetised and based on relatedness: Diana, Iris, Indigo and Jolene are the current four. When hard at work they make an incredible sound...

Diana's colony

With the help of veteran owl surveyor David Plummer, we completed another Tawny Owl breeding survey of Gatwick's estate, assessing how this under-surveyed, amber-listed bird species has been making use of our sites.

Tawny Owl (Strix aluco) survey June 2020, Land East of the Railway Line

It seems as elsewhere, this has been a low-success breeding year for Gatwick's Tawny Owls, with only one calling juvenile detected. It is likely that the very wet end to winter, followed by the intensive drought period, has negatively impacted this woodland predator. 


Finally, an update on the recently restored Rolls Farm pond; the trail camera compilation below highlights the importance of these small areas of water for local wildlife, an important resource particularly in our warming climate. A very well done again to Tom Simpson and his volunteers (see this previous blogpost for Tom's report).

Rolls Farm Pond

Rolls Farm Pond trail camera (time and date stamp are set wrong)

We hope to be back again soon for further updates on Gatwick's biodiversity sites.

Saturday, 2 May 2020

Breathing new life into a neglected Farm Pond

The Gatwick Woodlands, sitting on heavy clay soils, are typical of the Low Weald landscape. The area is home to a series of small wet woods such as Aldar Carr in Upper Pickets Wood, Hazel and Hornbeam coppice in Lower Pickets, ancient semi-natural Oak woodlands in Horleyland Wood Local Wildlife Site (LWS) and the wet grasslands of Goat Meadow. These habitats contain a network of small ditches and ponds which hold water throughout the year and are important features for amphibians and reptiles, particularly Grass Snakes (Natrix helvetica). The most abundant reptile at Gatwick, the Grass Snake is a target species on our Biodiversity Action Plan. We have a well-recorded population with, interestingly, a small percentage of melanistic (black) snakes.


A number of individuals have turned up which are completely black (melanistic),
Image by Rachel Bicker

The mix of natural and man-made ponds across the site are in a constant state of change. Ponds will naturally silt-up over time, turning into other habitats such as bogs and, eventually, scrub and woodland. Historically, this was not an issue as new ponds would be created through natural processes like holes being left behind from wind-blown trees and flood or rain water filling scrapes. However, in the modern developed environment, habitats are fragmented and natural processes disrupted. Therefore, on a site like this, we actively manage our ponds to keep them open. Thanks to long-serving Gatwick Greenspace Partnership volunteer Adrian Slaughter, we have an excellent historical record of the management of some of our ponds. Adrian’s record-keeping helped to inform a recently-completed project that we hope will boost our reptile and amphibian populations further and also provide a fantastic space for environmental education.



The Gatwick woodlands once sat within the landholdings of Rolls Farm (Roles Farm on the above map from 1903), which was divided into two farmsteads of Upper and Lower Rolls Farm. The garden of the old Lower Rolls farmhouse contained a small pond which had been well maintained over the years. It even had a dipping platform built in 2003 by former Gatwick Greenspace Partnership (GGP) employee, now Senior Ranger at Buchan Country Park, Simon Rowledge.

Simon Rowledge (back) building a dipping platform with volunteers in 2003

GGP Staff removing pond weed from Rolls Farm pond in 2007

I visited the pond with Adrian in August 2018, shortly before the Rolls Farm building was demolished, with a view to restoring it to its former glory. We found the area overgrown with vegetation and the pond itself now only a shallow depression full of silt. However, the pond profile and skeleton of a dipping platform were intact. We decided that “all” we needed to do was remove the silt, check and level the banks, put in a new liner, landscape the entire area, and to add a couple of amphibian hibernacula and some pond plants.

Clearly, we were going to need some help! Luckily Gatwick Airport Ltd (GAL) staff are always willing to work for wildlife in their local green space and, combined with GGP’s experienced volunteers, this was shaping-up to be an exciting project. 
Rolls Farm Pond in a state of neglect in 2018

GAL Security and Terminals removing the silt

Work began in October 2018 when a team from GAL Security and Terminals  spent a day removing accumulated silt and clearing vegetation. This gave us a better view to measure-up for a new liner, which was funded by GAL’s Community Engagement department.


It was almost a year later, in September 2019, when we made it back to the pond with GAL’s I.T department. These fantastic volunteers went “all-in” on the project, committing four groups for a day each over the following three months in order to prepare the pond for the following spring.


GAL I.T working on the pond with GGP Volunteers




Their work was complemented by a group of enthusiastic volunteers from UKPowerNetworks who followed Amphibian and Reptile Conservation Trust's advice to build a new Grass Snake egg-laying heap. These heaps have proven to be a simple yet effective way of boosting juvenile recruitment. The key to their success is their composition and structure, which allow the heaps to maintain an even temperature, perfect for incubating grass snake eggs, but are not too compact so the animals can move around within them.


UKPower Networks in front of the Grass snake Egg-laying heap

The pond was completed in late January - just in time for storms Ciara and Desmond to fill it. The final touches were added by GGPs young Wildlife Rangers, the next generation of conservationists who could be looking after these habitats in years to come. They gave the pond a botanical boost by carefully translocating sedges, rushes, water mint and plantain from the nearby Gatwick Stream flood meadow. We would expect these plants and others to colonise naturally over time, however, providing some instant cover for amphibians and invertebrates can speed up the process and help the habitat get going.






The Wildlife Rangers found three large clumps of frog spawn in the flood meadow scrapes, a sure sign that there are amphibians in the area. Due to social distancing measures currently in place we will have to wait until next spring to sow some wildflower seed around the edges and to check the pond’s progress so far but we like to imagine that the local wildlife is flourishing in the area.


The pond restoration has been a fantastic addition for wildlife and environmental education and a project that would not have been completed without the willing volunteers of GAL and GGP. In future, the pond and surrounding habitats will be used as a space for local school children to learn all about wildlife and will, perhaps, inspire the next generation to keep our beloved ponds healthy and thriving for years to come. 


A huge thank you to everyone involved and particularly to Gatwick Greenspace Partnership volunteer Adrian Slaughter who has clearly demonstrated both the importance and pleasure of maintaining recorded links to the history of our wonderful landscape.


Thanks Adrian!

Wednesday, 1 April 2020

Lockdown wildlife listing

A blogpost on getting to know the wildlife in your garden, out on your doorstep or around the neighbourhood, through the incentive of wildlife recording / listing.


We all keep hearing about how we need to 'connect more with nature'. Its a bit of a vague term isnt it? My interpretation of that is to observe wildlife, perhaps draw it, photograph or even paint it. Then there's another, slightly more primal approach.... chase it down!

My front garden (2.5m x 1.5m)

There are good reasons for identifying and listing wildlife; keeping records builds a picture of what is happening to wildlife populations in the countryside (and our gardens, and urban environments). Also putting a name to something, or 'labelling' it, opens up of world of curiosity around that organism, invariably leading to further questions; what does it do, what does it need, how many different types are there (which you can easily find answers to these days in books and online). Suddenly you are now marvelling at nature on a new, intricate level.

So what things do you need to become a wildlife lister?



Not a lot really. I would say your main kit is a pen, paper and maybe some kind of a container or jar. Ok you might not have a butterfly net handy, but you could make do with that old pond net shoved in the back of the shed. You can involve the whole family, sending your minions (children or other-halfs) out to hunt things down for you and pot them up.

Starting off easy with a Garden Snail (Cornu aspersum)

Or use the stealth approach and take pics on your phone. The person with the best handwriting (not me) can then write everything down, or you can keep your list on handy apps like iNaturalist or iRecord.

Don't try to catch birds obviously - just make a note of them

White-tailed Bumblebee (Bombus lucorum) on Hyacinth

The iNaturalist app is good for beginners as it helps match your photo to a species...


Then the record is added to the list on your phone...

However you don't need a photo for everything; just the species name, date and location are the essential details for a wildlife record

Ok but what if you don't have a garden? Well you can perhaps start a list for your local park, or even an individual tree or shrub can be a draw for all sorts of wildlife. I heard a talk by wildlife photographer Jeremy Early about the multitude of insects he was recording around an old laurel hedge, which he had considered getting rid of (he since changed his mind). It seems while the sun is on it, its waxy leaves make perfect basking pads for flying insects...

My next door neighbour's laurel bush

Here's a few of the things I've recorded on next door's laurel over the past two days...

Basking hoverfly

Turned out to be the Tapered Dronefly (Eristalis pertinax)

I think this little lady is Gwynne's mining bee Andrena bicolor (carrying pollen on her back legs means its a she)

Looking at the underside of the leaves... hidden away was this tiny Noble False Widow (Steatoda nobilis), one of our most common garden spiders in Brighton

Red Mason Bee (Osmia bicornis) male netted from the laurel

A tiny bee on Dandelion, I think this one is the Yellow-legged Mining Bee Andrena flavipes

Mum and Dad's fridge list which I had started just before lockdown... Have you been updating this guys?

Here are a few online resources to help you have a go at identifying things:


Or if you get really stuck you can email me with your pics, as I seem to have a bit more time on my hands! 

Its not just about listing wildlife though, we should also endeavour to help it where we can.
You can thank your local wildlife (and encourage them more into your garden) through these handy tips by the Wildlife Trust https://www.wildlifetrusts.org/looking-after-yourself-and-nature
Also see what's happening in Michael from the Sussex Wildlife Trust's garden via the Corona Wildlife Diary https://sussexwildlifetrust.org.uk/news/category/corona-wildlife-diary 

Tuesday, 10 March 2020

Gatwick's Annual Biodiversity Review 2019

Gatwick's Annual Biodiversity Review 2019 is now available to download from this link:

https://www.gatwickairport.com/globalassets/business--community/new-community--sustainability/sustainability/biodiversity-annual-review2019-20.pdf

The report includes lots of incredible species highlights and new initiatives in 2019, and we have had a huge number of contributors so I would like to thank single one of you. I’m looking forward to the 2020 field season and catching up with you all again!



Thursday, 5 March 2020

Gonna need an even bigger boat - Autumn and winter habitat conservation 2019/2020

Boardwalks continually being built by volunteers headed up by Gatwick Greenspace Project Officer Tom Simpson. These help to protect delicate woodland ground flora

Back when I was relatively new to the job, I wrote a post about how incredibly wet our sites were in February 2013; that was back when I hadn't known what to expect. Now seven winters later I do know, and it is abundantly clear from the state of our woodlands that this has been the wettest February on record.

Upper Picketts Wood is our lowest-lying woodland on site

It is a worry that our winters are getting observably wetter and warmer. Many organisms, such as plants and fungi need a consistently cold period during the life cycle to trigger certain developmental processes. Others need to hibernate, such as mammals like the Hazel Dormouse, all reptiles, and many invertebrates such as Brimstone butterflies, spiders and beetles. They need the cold in order to fully enter hibernation, and warm winters can badly interfere as they repeatedly wake up, sapping precious energy reserves which are supposed to last until spring.

Impacts on delicate woodland groundflora and microhabitats

Other impacts are immediately obvious, such as the widening of footpaths and increased poaching of soils due to people, dogs and even the deer avoiding the wettest parts. Tom Simpson's handy work installing boardwalks and 'slubbing out' woodland ditches is fortunately helping to alleviate this in the worst effected areas.

Sussex University students site visit; shoe aftermath

It is safe to say then that our contractors and conservation volunteers have really been up against it this winter. I've mostly been indoors writing up data for our annual review, nipping out only for short periods to carry out site checks. This intrepid lot have doggedly carried on, often for several rainy days in a row!

Gatwick Airport's I.T Team: re-lining the old Rolls Farm pond

Gatwick Greenspace Wildlife Rangers edging the pond with translocated native plants 
(Photo by Tom Simpson)

A special thank you to all of our teams who have persevered through the relentless rain and bloody awful ground conditions. You do fantastic work and compared to seven years ago, many of our habitats have never been in such a good state.

Gatwick's Volunteer Reserve Managers - Harry, Phil, Robert and Chris 
(Photo by Tom Simpson)

We now have the fantastic Volunteer Reserve Managers (VRMs), a team of veteran Gatwick Greenpsace Partnership volunteers who are well versed in the more sensitive habitat management tasks, often in difficult to access sites. 

Photo by Tom Simpson

Chris and Phil (pictured above) have been busy in Goat Meadow, pushing back the scrub encroaching on the wildflower-rich grassland. Like the large herbivores which would have roamed freely around our sites long ago, they create patch disturbance, helping to maintain a dynamic system of constantly regenerating habitat.


Glendale Landscaping Services are the grounds maintenance contractors at the airport; they have had the unenviable tasks of clearing dense thorn scrub along neglected fencelines. This hard cutting and scalloping of scrub will open new areas along our survey transect routes, benefitting our sun-basking reptiles and invertebrates.


Myself, Glendale manager Jon Eglin and our bat surveyor Martyn Cooke have been dodging the rain showers to install bird nesting boxes around our woodlands, just in time for spring. These bespoke design boxes are to encourage rare and declining species we know to be breeding nearby.

Scrub west of Brockley Wood (Photo by Ben Lee)

Roots Upwards Ltd have continued the Blackthorn scrub management in the North West Zone, essential for regenerating growth for the rare Brown Hairstreak butterflies, while benefiting our wildflowers and pollinating insects. They have also been helping to move and replace our bat boxes using ropes and harnesses, collecting up reptile matts and shifting logs and habitat piles.

LERL Pond 3 chipping willows on the bank

Opening up an area on the southern edge of the pond to allow in more light (Photo by Ben Lee)

What a bunch of gosh-darn heroes you all are. Very muddy heroes. Now go in the garden, get under the hose, then you're allowed in the house.

Common Frog spawn at Land Eats Pond 3 (Photo by Ben Lee)

No complaints from the frogs and other amphibians though.