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Conservation efforts in Cambridge increase water vole numbers

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Work by national charity, the Countryside Restoration Trust (CRT), in Cambridge has resulted in the return of priority conservation species, the water vole.

Led by the CRT and the The Wildlife Trust for Bedfordshire, Cambridgeshire and Northamptonshire, in partnership with the Environment Agency, the Bourn Free project began in 2011 on the CRT’s flagship farm Lark Rise, with the aim of restoring native wildlife to the Bourn Brook.

“In 2011, there were no signs of water vole in a 500 metre stretch of the brook, despite them being active on other parts of the stream, and it being the perfect habitat for this native mammal,” says Dr Vince Lea, CRT’s head of wildlife monitoring.

Water Vole

Water voles are a priority species under the UK Post-2010 Biodiversity Framework, and one of the key reasons for its decline is the non-native North American mink.

“We started trapping mink on the Bourn Brook in the winter of 2010/11, so the remnant population had chance to breed safely in the absence of the predator,” explains Dr Lea.

“Since then we’ve had eight breeding seasons when the brook has been free of mink, and being prodigious breeders like most rodents, the voles have rapidly spread along the entire length of the brook.”

In April 2019, a survey found signs of water vole in all five, 100-metre sections of the brook and a total of around 80 field signs, including 23 dropping related indicators, 17 feeding signs and 40 burrows.

Dr Lea explains water voles are rarely seen, so monitoring of ‘latrines’ where they mark their territory and droppings, along with feed stations which are areas where they chew vegetation, all demonstrated a rise in the local population.

“Control of this key predator, along with careful habitat management, has almost certainly had an impact on the current population. The number of latrines is also a strong indication of the number of breeding females as they make these territorial markers.”

Commenting on the Bourn Free project, CRT chairman Robin Page says this work is integral to the charity’s purpose – to support a living, working countryside.

“It’s wonderful news that water voles have made such a tremendous recovery, which all stems from good habitat management and population management of a non-native predator,” says Mr Page.

“We look forward to seeing the native water vole species continue to increase on Lark Rise Farm.”

Wildlife, Food and Farming Day

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14th July 2019, 11am-4pm
Lark Rise Farm, Wimpole Road (nr no.52), Barton, Cambridgeshire CB23 7AB 

Spend the day at CRT’s flagship, Lark Rise Farm on the 14th July and discover how your food gets from field to fork!  A fun-filled family day with activities designed so all ages will leave having discovered something new! Only £1 entry for adults and ‘KIDS GO FREE’ this will be a great day to get the whole family out and about in the natural world.

For more information visit the event page:
Read More

May Nature Notes 2019

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Dr Vince Lea

Appropriately enough, Mayflies featured in the sightings this month.

Studying our invertebrates

The meander on the Bourn Brook which we restored four years ago was surveyed in the middle of the month, to see what species of aquatic invertebrates had colonised it. We used the same technique that we have applied to a section of the brook at Telegraph field, restored by the CRT in the mid 1990s. We found very encouraging results at the Westfield meander, with a similar array of invertebrate species and abundance to the Telegraph field surveys, but with a higher number of the large true Mayflies (most likely Ephemera danica) and a lower number of flat-bodied stone clingers (a smaller type of Mayfly). This probably reflects the natural clay stream bed at Westfield, compared with the large cobblestones which have been used to enhance the stream flow at the Telegraph field restoration site. The true Mayfly larvae burrow into soft substrate and filter out debris from the stream water, usually taking two years to grow to full size (up to 30mm/over an inch long), shedding their skin each time the nymph grows to the next size up. Eventually they emerge from the stream and hatch into flying adults, the mayflies which trout fisherman know so well. These large insects are initially fairly helpless as they emerge from their nymphal skins on the water surface, and struggle to get airborne – an ideal opportunity for a hungry fish. They fly to bankside vegetation and then, fairly soon, change their skin again to become a more brightly coloured, longer tailed version of themselves, the breeding stage of the insect. These two adult phases are known as the ‘dun’ and ‘spinner’ in fishing terms and this metamorphosis of two flying stages is unique to the mayfly order. The male spinners form swarms which dance in the air near the river, tempting females to come and mate with one of them. The mated females then lay eggs by dipping into the water surface in flight, and eventually when all the eggs are spent she floats on the water surface and becomes the trout’s second easy picking opportunity! By emerging en masse at the end of May, the mayflies try to outnumber the many fish, birds, bats and spiders etc. that feed on them, and enough manage to complete the lifecycle.

Barton Wildlife ‘Safari’

At the end of the month we had a wildlife safari with some of the Barton village families, and it was great to show these large and fascinating insects to the children. I was very impressed that one of the boys already knew about the unique lifecycle! Numbers of this insect seem to be quite good this year, but not enough to sustain a trout population yet perhaps. It is a long-term hope that wild trout will eventually recolonise the Bourn Brook but we have a lot more restoration work to do before that becomes possible I think.

We also saw plenty of Brown Hares on the safari, they have particularly appreciated the very short spring-sown barley which has not grown very well in the direct drilling experimental field, probably due to the very dry spring soil conditions. While the better-established crops are now too tall for easy feeding, this barley is still only a couple of inches high. In one small strip of it, I counted 10 hares together on one early morning bird survey visit. While the hares are loving this opportunity, it is not going down well for our farmer, Tim, who would like a lot more rain to come along and get the barley growing properly! It has been pretty dry all month.

Another star sighting on the wildlife safari was the Barn Owl, which we saw near the nestbox and bird hide in Warners Corner. We are fairly sure we could hear a female snoring in the box during the afternoon, and a male was disturbed from the old barn during the day, later to be seen hunting at dusk. A pair of Barn Owls also appeared to be occupying the Roman Hill nest box based on observations made during a dusk survey visit. Towards the end of June we will be checking the nest boxes and fingers crossed it looks like being a better year for them this year after last years lack of chicks.

Farmer and wildlife monitors have been going 'cuckoo' over the sightings and calls recorded in Barton and the surrounding areas.In the past week, wildlife monitor Roger Buisson spotted a Cuckoo flying over the farm yard, head of wildlife monitoring Dr Vince Lea has heard the calls on several occasions (including by his house half a mile away) and farmer Tim Scott's wife Libby managed to catch distant call on her phone!

Posted by Countryside Restoration Trust on Monday, April 29, 2019

Highlight of the month

At the end of April we had the very cold Mayfields open day, where one of the few signs of spring was hearing a Cuckoo – something that is becoming increasingly unusual in the countryside these days. During May, I’m pleased to report that a Cuckoo has been heard quite regularly around Lark Rise Farm all month, the first time we’ve had a long-stayer for a while. He probably travels a lot further afield as most male Cuckoos have very large territories (10 miles or so) so we don’t hear him every day, but he keeps coming back to Lark Rise where there are plenty of good caterpillars, they particularly like the hairy ones! I also heard a couple of Cuckoos at Green Farm on the bird survey there in the middle of May. It seems the last couple of springs have been slightly better all round for this much loved species, let’s hope this reversal of fortunes continues.

Dr Vince Lea
(Head of Wildlife Monitoring)

Top facts about Bees

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Bees in Britain

These flying insects fly from plant to plant collecting nectar and are members of the Apidae family. There are over 200 species of bee including 24 bumblebee species in Britain some being social and living in hives of up to 50000 other bees or solitary, that tend to live on their own in small crevasses.

Bees are bright and colourful little creatures that have a very big impact on the world’s ecosystem! Whilst collecting nectar for food, some of the pollen clings to the hairs on the bees legs and body and is carried and transferred to the next plant the bee visits. This important process is called pollination.

Why is pollination so important?

Pollination is fundamental to creating the fruit and crops we produce and then eat. It is when the (male) pollen grain from the stamen is transferred to the (female) stigma and egg on other plants. From this, fertilisation occurs and the plant creates seeds. The plant then grows a protective layer around the seed – a fruit. Some plants, such as a cherry or an apricot, only has one seed. Many flowers, such as pomegranate or melon contains many seeds.

Around 75% of crop plants require some degree of animal pollination, including many of our everyday fruit and vegetables. Of all the different animals and insects that serve as pollinators, the most important are bees.

About three quarters of all crops need some a certain amount of pollination. Many of the everyday fruit and vegetable eat require this fertilisation.

What can gardeners do to help pollinators?

– Please do not cut the dandelions growing in your lawns; they are known to be important nectar sources for honey bees in early spring. Leave a patch of lawn unmown and see what grows.
– Add pollinator friendly plants to your garden (usually has a bee on the plant label)
– Leave some area wild to allow wild plants to grow and provide nesting sites for bumblebees.
– Put up insect and bee hotels around the garden.
– Do not use synthetic pesticides in the garden.
– Plant a wildflower area.

To help our bees and take part refer to the PONS website (monitoring wild pollinators)

Bees on the farm; value of wildflower meadows and margins to bees

(research carried out by the Centre for Ecology and Hydrology)

It may seem that everyone advises farmers to plant wildflowers meadows or margins on their farms, but this is not just paying lip service.  Evidence shows that this does help the pollinators.  All farms have areas that are low yielding or difficult to access, and have space for wildflowers.  The key is ‘providing a range of flower resources for pollinators throughout the active season’ (CEH).

Reason for decline in bees

One third of pollinators have decreased in their range 1980 to 2013, except for buff-tailed Bumblebee and red-tailed bumblebee which have increased by a tenth.

On average the geographical range of bees and hoverflies has decreased by a quarter.

Reasons for the decline in bees; multiple interacting factors:

– Loss of key foraging and nesting sites (76% of key bee flowers have declined since the 1930s)
– Fragmentation
– Pesticide exposure
– Climate change
– Diseases

For further information refer on bees refer to the NBKA website (and Newent Beekeepers Association website).
For further information on pollinators refer to the CEH website.

Viv Geen
Monitoring Officer (Herefordshire)

Bumble Bee

How long does a bee live?

The female worker bee is known to live for approximately 6 weeks

How do bees communicate in the hive?

Bees communicate in the hive via the Waggle Dance.  This is used by the foraging worker bees to inform the colony of the position of the best pollen and nectar sources.  The bee communicates the location of the known source from the sun via the angle of the dance from the vertical.  Amazing!!!!

What is Varroa?

The varroa mite is now endemic in the UK.  This is a mite that was introduced into the UK in the 1990s from the Far East and now affects our honey bees by damaging the growing larvae in the comb.

Top 10 flowers for bees (CEH)


Oil seed rape

Sweet Chestnut

White Clover


Wild Radish


Himalayan Balsam


Apple blossom

Bumble Bee Lark Rise

The Pin and Thrum of Nature; Spring wildflowers on the farm

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Lesser Celandine

Native Daffodil 

Sweet Violet

British Bluebell

Ancient Bluebell Woodland

Blackthorn Blossom

Viv Geen
Monitoring Officer (Herefordshire)
Countryside Restoration Trust

Take a walk around any woodland at the moment and you will be confronted with a colourful spectacle of spring flowers.

First to emerge is the Lesser Celandine or Pilewort.  Take a look at the roots and you will see how it gets its name.  It has nitrogen fixing nodules on the roots for nutrient uptake. (It may also have been used to treat haemorrhoids).  Many gardeners believe these to be weeds but to me they are a sign of the onset of spring as their cheerful yellow faces open and face the sun in all their glory.

My favourite flower is the Native Daffodil. These delicate natives have no need for brash colours or different petal and trumpet arrangements; they are simply perfection in my eyes.

And indeed were popular with the city dwellers of London who purchased these valuable commodities from the rural areas of Herefordshire and Gloucestershire via the daffodil railway line in Edwardian times.  There is an annual native daffodil event in the parishes of Kempley, Much Marcle (Awnells Farm), Oxenhall, and Dymock, where you can see fields full of native daffodils.

The lovely scented Sweet Violet is also an early flower; and can be all colours between white and blue. 

The native primrose; a subtle shade of yellow is a very interesting flower as it has two different arrangements to allow pollination by different insect and bees.

In “pin” flowers the stigma is positioned at the top of the tube with the anthers positioned halfway down. In “thrum” flowers the stigma is instead positioned halfway down the tube with the anthers at the top.

Take a look next time you see a primrose.

Very similar to the primrose is the cowslip, which gets its name because it was usually found growing next to cow pats in unimproved meadows.  The Green Lane at Turnastone Farm always puts on a good display of cowslips every year.

All these early flowers are very important for honey bees which need to forage before they can to build cells in which the queen bee can lay her eggs.  You may also see the very large bumble bees flying around in early spring and these are usually the queen bumblebees foraging and looking for a site to nest.

Turnastone Court Farm has a lovely swaithe of bluebells in May.  These are the native Bluebell Hyacinthoides non-scripta; our lovely delicate British native species with its one- sided sky blue drooping flowers with cream anthers.

You may see the escaped Spanish bluebell Hyacinthoides hispanica growing along our verges.  This is a garden escape and can be identified with its erect flower and robust stem.

Unfortunately these species of bluebell are able to cross pollinate and hybridise to produce the hybrid bluebell H. massartiana, also seen in gardens.  This species has anthers of blue (or cream in its white form).

Wood Anemones or windflowers, thimbleweed or smell fox (because of the musky scent of its leaves) can also be seen growing in our native woodlands; flowers open and turned towards the sun; but closing as soon as the sun has disappeared.

Other woodland flowers to look out for include the Wood Geum, Yellow Archangel, and Red Campion.

The Dog-violet; which is a different plant to the sweet violet’ can also be found along woodland edges and amongst bracken.  This is an important caterpillar food plant for many butterfly species including fritillaries.

Many of these spring flowers such as primrose and bluebell are known as Ancient Woodland Indicator Species and are used by ecologists to assess the woodland flora.

Why does the bluebell grow in ancient woodland?

The ancient woodland ecology is defined by soils containing seeds that are primarily associated with ancient habitats.  The bluebell is also a relatively sedentary plant species and does not spread readily.

Ancient uses of bluebell

Gummy bluebell sap was used to bind pages into the spines of books. Bronze Age people used bluebell to set feathers upon arrows, known as fletching (Woodland Trust).

Why is ancient woodland important?

Ancient woodland supports a unique biodiversity including many rare native species including the hazel dormouse and several species of fritillary butterfly.

Overall, only 1,193 square miles (308,000 hectares) of ancient woodland survive in Britain.

Ancient woodland in Britain is being felled at a rate even faster than the Amazon rainforest, according to new research by the Woodland Trust. It shows that almost half of all woods in the UK that are more than 400 years old have been lost in the past 80 years and more than 600 ancient woods are now threatened by new roads, electricity pylons, housing, and airport expansion.

Not to forget all the lovely blossom in the hedgerows and the orchards.  Blackthorn is the first to show its beauty with clusters of small white flowers; very important to early pollinators.  The spikes on blackthorn are not thorns but adapted stems.  The Hawthorn or May is next in line, as its name suggest, blossoms in May.  One of the prettiest blossoms with starch white flowers and pink stamens; do take a closer look; it is well worth the effort, but be careful of the thorns!  The thorns make it an effective hedgerow plant and barrier to keep the livestock from straying.

In the orchards the pear and plum blossom are the first to emerge.  Honey bees are known not to favour pear blossom.  The apple blossom is not far behind and all fruit producers pray that the late frosts of April and May do not damage the precious blossom.

Enjoy the spring flowers in April and May as June usually brings what is known to beekeepers as the June gap when there is a decrease in the number of flowers available to bees.

Please do not pick wildflowers; leave them for the bees and for other people to enjoy. It is an offence under the Wildlife and Countryside Act to dig up wild plants in the wild.

April Nature Notes 2019

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Dr Vince Lea

Oak before Ash – summer’s a splash!

Well, it has certainly been very dry, after a very dry winter and a drought last summer, we really need a bit of rain. Leaf break of the two main trees of the countryside is actually linked to temperature, with oak being more influenced by warmth whereas ash is more influenced by the day length which doesn’t change much. It’s been a pretty early and very dry spring so far, which has moved some things ahead of schedule; while the weather was kind to migrating birds early in April and insects had a lovely time up to Easter, the second half of the month was cooler with some northerly winds which slowed things down and in particular the later arriving migrant birds were held up.


Butterflies started appearing well before April, but we formally start counting them on the 1st April, with counts every week till the end of September. This regular monitoring means we can see how different one year is from the next, or from the average. Last year we had the Beast from the East, which meant that the first 2 weeks of April were a write-off for butterflies, and we had only reached 5 species recorded by week 4. This year, we had 8 species on the wing by week 2 and orange tips and speckled woods seem to be having a good month.

Speckled wood

Birds on the farms

While the early arriving birds such as blackcap, chiffchaff and willow warbler were on course in early April, some of the more flexible resident species were nesting very early, with hatched blackbirds and long-tailed tits by mid-month. This means the resident birds are able to take advantage of the early insects, while by the time the migrants have got here, partnered up, built nests, laid eggs and then eventually hatched them, much of the first flush of caterpillars is over and they struggle to feed their chicks. Late April (after a scorching Easter) saw a slowdown of migration with northerly winds, and some second clutches of blackbird eggs were laid before the majority of migrant birds arrived. The early swallows were not joined by en masse arrivals, and later species like swift and turtle dove are still a few days behind schedule. The dry conditions probably dissuaded any lapwings from staying to nest, and we are already seeing problems with the Bourn Brook which is flowing very slowly and turning green as the warmth and slow flow allows the algae to grow. The lack of floods has helped our early nesting moorhens, however, which are now regularly nesting in the brook using reed cover to hide their nests from crows etc. and, thanks to the lack of mink, they are pretty safe unless we get a sudden downpour and flood!

Highlight of the Month

My highlight of the April monitoring was to find a large number of water vole signs on the last 500m of the Bourn Brook at Lark Rise; we had more signs here than the whole of the brook had in 2011 when we started mink control.

The disappointment of the month was spending a day looking for willow tits at Margaret Wood in Yorkshire. We had a record of this declining species there a few years ago, and 2019 is an official survey year for willow tits, so I searched the whole wood and all the surrounding woods, playing a sound recording of willow tit song to tempt any to come and say hello – but not a one was to be seen. It was nice to see the tree sparrows still doing well at Margaret Wood and I took some red millet to keep them happy, but willow tits are disappearing from the countryside without anyone really noticing them go. It is a difficult species to see and identify and most people have not heard about them, but they are an important species because the British ones are a unique race and they are one of only 2 species of tit which can dig out their own nesting hole in a rotten tree – the other being crested tit which only occurs in the north of Scotland. These ‘excavators’ help other species by providing used holes for future nests.

Dr Vince Lea
(Head of Wildlife Monitoring)

Twyford Bluebell Day

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12th May 2019, 11am-3pm
Twyford Farm, Birchgrove, Horsted Keynes, West Sussex, RH17 7DJ

Enjoy a celebration of the Twyford Bluebells; with local food and craft stalls, demonstrations and talks, guided walks. The Twyford Farm Bluebell Day is free of charge and is a great opportunity to get outdoors, embrace the great English summertime and keep the family entertained! Read More

Des res provided for Pied Flycatchers at Turnastone Court Farm

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Six lovely oak bird boxes have been put up in the oak wood pasture adjoining the farm; many thanks to the landowner Denise Lloyd for allowing us to carry out this important work. The boxes were made by CRT volunteer John Burns; a former joiner and skilled craftsman. I am sure any self-respecting PFC would relish the chance to nest in these boxes.

This work is in response to the recording of a male pied flycatcher on the farm in 2018. Breeding Bird Surveys (BBS) suggest that abundance has declined considerably since 1994 and climate change may be the reason for this decline.

Fingers crossed for the end of April/beginning of May (when the birds start to arrive back from sub-Saharan Africa) that we have a lovely Pied Flycatcher nest with bright blue eggs. I however do have to report that a blue tit has already taken up residence in one of the boxes and had one egg at the last nest box check!
Watch this space for further reports on these nest boxes and others on the farm.

Viv Geen
Monitoring Officer (Herefordshire)

Great British Spring Clean – Turnastone

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The litter pick went well on a lovely sunny day.  Two local people; John and Cynthia  took part and we got the job done.

Drivers travelling through the village were very kind and slowed down, and we even got a beep and thumbs up, waves, and even a lady clapping in response to what we were doing.  The majority of the litter was found along the road where unscrupulous drivers stop and empty their cars, or throw litter out of their window.

Four bags of rubbish were collected over a period of one and a half hours by three people.  The rubbish included 30 plastic bottles, 25 drinks cans, glass bottles, crisp packets, sweet wrappers and fast food packaging.  There was a very small amount of farm rubbish, and some builder’s rubble.  Along with being unsightly, this rubbish could cause considerable harm to wildlife and livestock on the farm.

Thank you to those who gave up their valuable time, and drivers please take your litter home!

Viv Geen

#GBSpringClean #LitterHeroes

New Look CRT

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New CRT Patron

Following the amazing year of silver jubilee celebrations, the wonderful, Dame Judi Dench has agreed to become the Official CRT Patron. What an amazing start to 2019!

Robin Page: “I am delighted that Dame Judi Dench has accepted the role of Patron for the Countryside Restoration Trust. She is and inspiration to all and follows in the footsteps of the great David Shepherd. Welcome Dame Judi and thank you so much for supporting the living countryside we all love”.
Dame Judi Dench: “The CRT is the pioneering charity in wildlife friendly farming and the biggest tribute to its success is the fact that so many other organisations have followed in its footsteps. I have been privileged to visit several of the Trust’s farms and the work being done is tremendous. We look to the future as farming, the countryside and Britain’s wildlife needs the pioneering work of the CRT more than ever before.”

New CRT Logo

Along with this, we have been working on revitalising the logo and the image of the CRT – but still keeping the beloved lark as the centrepiece. We want it to be full of the wonderful colours that you can see in the natural world around you. We want it to reflect the vibrant future of the Trust going forward!

RP said: “I am so happy with the refreshed logo. The skylark is our guiding spirit – the sound of a healthy countryside. The Skylark has inspired us for twenty five years – we are now following the skylark into the next twenty-five”.

We want to reach out to younger people with families and encourage them to support the work of the CRT. To do that, we feel this bright new branding will catch their attention! This change will be applied across the Trust throughout 2019!

With our new Turnastone Court Farm Education Centre and Lodge in Herefordshire, and the upcoming implementation of new educations officers for our Mayfields and Pierrepont farms as well as the ongoing visits with local schools across the country, 2019 is a year to engage with the next generation!

Keep your eyes peeled for the latest Lark magazine that will be dropping through your doors around Easter time! This new look edition of The Lark of the will still feature great articles reflecting projects that the CRT are involved with, updates from the farmers and CRT headquarters. There is also a new feature in which we ask our CRT Friends to get involved with!

What an exciting 26th year of the CRT it is turning out to be!