Wildlife on the Middle Level

Below is a report from Cliff Carson, Environment Officer for the Middle Level Commissioners on how the MLC Biodiversity Partnership has benefited wildlife over the past 5 years. All photo credits:Cliff Carson.

Five years of working towards biodiversity targets have produced real gains for wildlife in the districts of 36 Drainage Boards in the Middle Level Biodiversity Action Plan Partnership. 

One much-loved species that has benefited from Drainage Board Biodiversity Actions is the kingfisher. To provide nest sites for these jewels of our waterways 150 holes have been drilled during the last five years through steel, brick and concrete structures at 80 Internal Drainage Board (IDB) sites. When a 50 to 70mm diameter hole is drilled through steel piles or concrete headwalls that have soil behind them an opportunity is created for kingfishers to establish very safe nesting tunnels and chambers. Natural nest sites in riverside soil cliffs are often quickly eroded and only last a few years but sites like these behind steel piles will remain available for more than 20 years. 2015 has been a boom season for kingfishers in the Middle Level with many more sightings than usual reported from drains and rivers throughout the area.

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Kingfishers nesting at drainage board sites drilled in concrete at March Third IDB (top left), in steel piles at Sawtry IDB (top right) and in brick at Needham & Ladus IDB (bottom right). Bottom left, a kingfisher with a fish at a Whittlesey IDB site.

Other species that have benefitted in the five year biodiversity plans of the 36 IDBs have been bats, barn owls, water voles, otters and black poplars.

Bat bricks fitted in a Churchfield & Plawfield IDB culvert

Bat bricks fitted in a Churchfield & Plawfield IDB culvert

82 large panel bat boxes have been attached to pumping stations and 26 bat bricks have been installed in culvert tunnels.

During the first five-year IDB Biodiversity Action Plan period 91 barn owl boxes have been erected in the 36 Drainage Board Districts, consolidating the Middle Level of the Fens as a stronghold for the species.

Barn owl leaving a nest box in Upwell IDB district

Barn owl leaving a nest box in Upwell IDB district

Barn owl chick from a nest box in Waldersey IDB district

Barn owl chick from a nest box in Waldersey IDB district

 

 

 

 

 

 

The 70,000 hectare Middle Level catchment is also a national stronghold for water voles. 1,770 meters of coir rolls pre-planted with native marginal water plants have been installed at 23 sites to create ‘instant habitat’ for water voles, provide pollen for insects and to stabilise bank margins.

Coir rolls being installed on the Old River Nene near Ramsey IDB

Coir rolls being installed on the Old River Nene near Ramsey IDB

Coir rolls on the Sixteen Foot Drain near Bedlam Bridge, March

Coir rolls on the Sixteen Foot Drain near Bedlam Bridge, March

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Water vole: Hundred of Wisbech IDB district

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Water vole in Ransonmoor IDB district

 

 

 

 

 

 

Otters have benefitted from the construction of 79 otter holts (dens) in the banks of Middle Level waterways and spraints (signs of their presence) have been recorded at over 60 bridges throughout the 120 miles of drains and rivers in the catchment.

Otters have been returning to Fenland waterways in recent years although sightings in daylight remain rare

Otters have been returning to Fenland waterways in recent years although sightings in daylight remain rare

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The black poplar is the UKs rarest timber tree and traditionally grows in damp locations beside water. 140 black poplars have been planted from cuttings taken from local trees and have been established at new sites throughout the Middle Level.

A black poplar cutting thriving beside the Black Ham in Holmewood IDB district,

A black poplar cutting thriving beside the Black Ham in Holmewood IDB district

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Elvers Galore

An exceptionally early arrival of large numbers of elvers and eels has been recorded at the new Wiggenhall St Germans Pumping Station elver pass near Kings Lynn. After decades of very poor numbers of young eels returning from their breeding grounds in the Sargasso Sea, a significant improvement has been recorded in 2014 at many sites around the UK. At the new Wiggenhall St Germans Pumping Station, the second largest in Europe, an elver pass has been installed to allow the young eels to migrate into the waterways of the Middle Level catchment. The catchment covers 70,000 hectares of the Cambridgeshire and West Norfolk fens between the Nene Washes near Peterborough and the Ouse Washes from Earith to Downham Market.

The new St Germans Pumping Station near Wiggenhall St Germans, Kings Lynn. It is one of the largest pumping stations in Europe.          Photo Cliff Carson   ref. IMG_2394

The new St Germans Pumping Station near Wiggenhall St Germans, Kings Lynn. It is one of the largest pumping stations in Europe. Photo Cliff Carson ref. IMG_2394

At the beginning of April the first elvers of the year were seen making their way up the 35 meter long pass from the tidal River Ouse. The elver pass is an angled trough with bristle boards inside it that help the eels to climb up it. They are attracted to it by the fresh water that is trickled down the trough from the upstream side. 10,000 glass eels were recorded in the first three days of April.

The elver pass during construction. The green bristle tufts in the trough enable the elvers to climb its 35 meter length.                                  Photo Cliff Carson  ref IMG_9281

The elver pass during construction. The green bristle tufts in the trough enable the elvers to climb its 35 meter length.
Photo Cliff Carson ref IMG_9281

Glass eels are the early stage of elvers (young eels) and are nearly transparent. They are thinner than a shoe lace and less than three inches (75mm) long. During the first three weeksof April nearly 50,000 elvers made their way through the pass. This is an exceptional quantity for so early in the elver migration period which lasts from April to October.

Some of the 50,000 elvers that came through the elver pass during April 2014.                                  Photo Cliff Carson ref IMG_2892

Some of the 50,000 elvers that came through the elver pass during April 2014.
Photo Cliff Carson ref IMG_2892

There is a chamber at the top of the elver pass where they can rest and be counted. It is difficult to count the small elvers in quantity but they can be weighed and their numbers calculated from the weight. As the season progresses the glass eels become darker and are referred to as elvers.

Glass eels at the top of the elver pass queuing up for the final leg of their three-thousand-mile journey.                               Photo Cliff Carson ref. IMG_9077

Glass eels at the top of the elver pass queuing up for the final leg of their three-thousand-mile journey.
Photo Cliff Carson ref. IMG_9077

Glass eels at the top of the elver pass queuing up for the final leg of their three-thousand-mile journey.                               Photo Cliff Carson ref. IMG_6119

Glass eels at the top of the elver pass queuing up for the final leg of their three-thousand-mile journey.
Photo Cliff Carson ref. IMG_6119

Later, larger young eels also climb the elver pass. They too are looking for fresh water in the Middle Level catchment to feed in. They will spend the next 10 to 15 years growing and putting on fat that will sustain them on their long journey back to their breeding grounds in the Sargasso Sea.   Cliff Carson, Environmental Officer for the Middle Level BAP Partnership said ‘It is great to see a boom year for elvers after so very many years when their numbers were less than 5% of the former totals returning to the UK.  We hope this improved trend will continue. The St Germans Pumping Station elver pass will give excellent access for eels and elvers into the Middle Level rivers and drains that will benefit eel population recovery in the future’.    

Cliff Carson, Environmental Officer for the Middle Level Commissioners monitoring elver numbers at the St Germans Pumping Station elver pass.            Photo Cliff Carson ref. IMG_2955

Cliff Carson, Environmental Officer for the Middle Level Commissioners monitoring elver numbers at the St Germans Pumping Station elver pass. Photo Cliff Carson ref. IMG_2955

 

 

Cliff Carson is the Environmental Officer for the Middle Level Commissioners. The Middle Level Commissioners are one of the partners in the Water Care Partnership, more information on them can be found at www.middlelevel.gov.uk.