Wednesday, 19 February 2020

Winter 2019-20 at Cleaver Heath

Flooded paths at Cleaver Heath

So far, at mid-February, there has been no ‘Beast-from-the-East’. The frosts have been few, no snow but plenty of wind and rain, as the pictures above demonstrate.

We have now used up the remaining pile of approved stone to reinforce some more of the main paths. The weather on the monthly work party days has been kind, allowing us to complete our planned birch and gorse control. The birch and selected European gorse within the main heath panels was cut and treated. Our volunteers helped us coppice the taller birch within the manged scrub area and we made a start on further coppicing of European gorse in the lower part of the reserve. The gorse strategy is to prevent further incursion, improve the age structure and hence provide more valuable wildlife cover. 

Birds at Cleaver Heath

Winter is generally thought of as a quiet time on a nature reserve like Cleaver Heath but here is a list of 20 bird species seen at Cleaver in the last few weeks: Pink-footed Goose, Woodcock, Herring Gull, Woodpigeon, Great Spotted Woodpecker, Jay, Magpie, Carrion Crow, Raven, Coal Tit, Blue Tit, Great Tit, Wren, Blackbird, Fieldfare, Redwing, Robin, Dunnock, Chaffinch, Goldcrest. 

Some, like the Woodcock (top left in the above photo) which is normally hiding in the heather and the Pink-footed Geese flying overhead, are obviously winter visitors. So too are Redwing (top right) and Fieldfare (lower right). Birds such as the Jay (centre lower) and the tiny Goldcrest are here all year round. However the numbers of some resident species including Blackbird and Robin are greatly swollen by visitors from continental Europe. I am told this will still happen after January 2021.

I have again started to record bird sightings more regularly outside of formal surveying activities. The BTO (British Trust for Ornithology) has been promoting the value of ‘complete lists’. In many ways, the information from these is just as, if not more, useful than random casual records of ‘interesting’ sightings. The online resource BirdTrack ( is very simple to use. When you are out for a walk, perhaps along a favourite route, you keep track of how many goldfinches, blackbirds, curlew etc. you have seen or heard. You can enter them on a smartphone app as you go or, as I do, keep them in a handy notebook and enter them back at home. It can be strangely satisfying if you are of that sort of mind and, possibly, a source of intense irritation for your walking companion. I don’t remember hearing as many birds singing in January and February as I have in walks this year. They are as confused as us about the weather patterns.

Cramp-Ball Fungus Weevil

Talking of surveys, Tony Parker of the Liverpool World Museum and rECOrd ( has kindly helped me assemble a list of all the sightings which he and his fellow naturalists accumulated during four field visits to Cleaver this last summer. These are all now publically available as part of the huge wildlife and plant rECOrd database covering Cheshire and its surroundings. The groups made 474 confirmed sightings including over a hundred invertebrate species, 31 birds, 64 plants, 3 mammals as well a frog and 4 sightings of Common Lizard. I had no idea just how many species of hoverfly, wasps and bees there were! The star was probably the ‘first for Cheshire’ finding of this Cramp-Ball Fungus Weevil (Platyrhinus resinosus © Leanna Dixon).

Most of the sightings were well beyond my abilities to identify. However, there were two common species reported which do not appear in my own Cleaver records: a Skylark and a Rabbit!

Common lizard

I am looking forward to re-starting the annual butterfly transect surveys at the end of March/beginning of April. Another survey which we hope to start in the spring is for Common Lizard. We have taken advice on how best to do this and, on our March work day, we will be deploying a new set of ‘refugia’ in an orderly manner within the reserve. You may have previously seen small sheets of corrugated iron lying about in Cleaver. These provide cover and indeed basking areas on sunny days.  The lizards shown here were actually photographed in the Dales where the sandstone outcrops provide many basking opportunities. In the planned heathland restoration area in the SW corner of the reserve, we hope to provide bare ground patches on the south facing slope and ‘hibernacula’ for winter refuge.

FAQs - Let me try to answer a couple of questions I often get asked:

Q1: Why is heathland management done only in the autumn and winter months?

A1: Cleaver is of course a SSSI and so its management is regulated by Natural England (NE). NE specifies when we can work in habitats like heathland and woodland. The timing is based on the notional bird-nesting season.  But surely birds nest in trees so you should be able to carry on working in heather and gorse? No, a lot of the birds using Cleaver nest very close to the ground in the cover provided by the heathland. Warblers, for example, are most obvious while singing in the trees but are actually nesting in the gorse and bramble cover. 

Western and European Gorse at Cleaver Heath

Q2: How can you tell the difference between Western and European Gorse?

A2: The most obvious difference is that the Western Gorse is very compact and rarely grows tall enough to shade the heather. The left photo above shows a carpet of Western with a stand of (flowering) European in its top right. The willing volunteer on the right photo is carrying off some cut European Gorse giving the shaded heather a better chance. On closer inspection, the stalk of the Western is quite densely covered with prickles whereas the barer European stalks can been seen quite clearly.  Most of the Western gorse flowers at the end of summer rather than the beginning. 

Heathland Management

We are working with the Friends of Heswall Dales to run a Wirral Workshop on Lowland Heath Management on February 29. With the cooperation of delegates from Wirral Borough Council, Cheshire Wildlife Trust, the National Trust and Natural England, we are exploring opportunities for greater cooperation in the management of Wirral heathland.  On April 21 there will be a Cheshire Lowland Heath Forum hosted by Heswall Dales. These Forums are an excellent opportunity for conservation people to see each other’s reserves and share good ideas as well have a joint hand-wringing session about how hard it all is. When cattle used Wirral heathland for grazing, the conservation of this resource was ensured. Now, if we wish to keep this habitat, we have to intervene directly. We need volunteers to do the work of the cattle. 

Sunset at Cleaver Heath

Colleagues at CWT are in the process of updating our reserve websites, including that for Cleaver. Among the attractions listed, is that Cleaver is a ‘perfect reserve for an evening stroll at sunset’.  Indeed, this winter has seen a regular sequence of spectacular sunsets as this recent photo demonstrates.

Cleaver Heath entrance

Alan Irving
Volunteer Reserve Warden for CWT
Cleaver Heath

February 2020

No comments:

Post a comment