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The day of the Wheatfen Winter Walk had crept up on me fast. With there being so much to do around the fen this time of the year, I have to admit I was a little bit unprepared for leading the event…

But no matter, I was well prepared for the two most important things towards the end of the event; providing ample tea and biscuits. As for the walk, Wheatfen is so abundant in wildlife there is always plenty to show people – there was no need to panic. Naturally, I quietly prayed for something like a marsh harrier to come and steal the show with a breath-taking performance of aerobatics over the reedbed, but I had a few interesting stationary specimens up my sleeve to show as well, should the resident harrier fancy a day off.

wheatfen by martin howe

Views down the dyke by Martin Howe

Early morning, a few hours before the walk would begin, I tiptoed around the reserve planning my route, making a few mental notes of the whereabouts of some interesting fungi to show people. Woodlands can seem empty and quiet over the winter months, but on this morning I rejoiced at the sound of nuthatch, green woodpecker and many redwing feeding on the vibrant red holly berries. The fen offered up a pair of buzzards, a gangly looking heron by the pond and several wary teal resting on the Fen Channel. If only I could make such wildlife appear on cue, my word it would make these guided walks special.

As we approached the start time a motley crew of attendees, garbed in all manner of cosy winter clothing, gathered. After warmly welcoming the visitors and giving them a summary of the reserve’s history (something I had got down to a tee after much practice over the past three years) we were ready to head off.

We set off through the woodland, following the winding path that still lay smothered in autumn’s carpet, with many feet crunching away on the bronze leaves of beech, the yellows of silver birch and the mottled brown of the old oaks. Many of the oaks at Wheatfen succumbed to the great winds of 1987, a hurricane that rattled the woods of the UK toppling many mature trees.

At the reserve, the trunks of the fallen have long been cleared away but the crumbling stumps and root plates remain, standing like graves in memory of the mighty oaks. And these remnants drew our attention as I pointed out an unusual fungi species clustered as a crown atop the stumps. “oak mazegill, Daedalea quercina” I announced, pointing out the intricate patterning on the undersides; the gills really do look like a delicate maze, a playground for the fairies of the woodland.

Typically, the birds had all gone quiet with the exception of an irritated robin, tutting away at us from the brambles as we ambled past. Squirrels peered at us from high canopies as we discussed the ancient art of hazel coppicing and its many merits for wildlife diversity. We had been undertaking coppicing for the past few years at the reserve and the benefits to the ground flora, alongside many butterfly species, has been profound. One old coppice stool held aloft a ring of candlesnuff fungi (Xylaria hypoxylon), looking like miniature pale stags’ antlers.


Jay perched on an old tree

As it was still early days in winter’s cold, dark season, many of the shrubs and bushes still bore their varied fruits. The shockingly sickly pink and orange of the spindle berries stood out like garish baubles on a Christmas tree. Small, perfectly rounded red orbs of the black bryony hung sparsely from this woody climber, with the jet-black trinkets of the semi-evergreen wild privet were dotted here and there. The nuts of hazel and sweet chestnut had long been hoovered up by them lurking squirrels, but plenty of acorns still lay scattered beneath their parent trees, the jays squawking away, working hard to bury as many as possible (late winter’s larder, should they remember where they hid them all).

The sun’s weak rays were feebly poking through the trees’ bare canopies to the background of a brilliant blue sky. It was time to leave the woodland for the fen, and enjoy this fine day.

I led people round to Wheatfen Broad where we are currently undertaking a big restoration project to restore the Broad back to its former glory. I will not go into too much detail in this blog, as it would require several pages to fully explain, perhaps a future blog for any interested readers. But in a nutshell, we had nearly lost the Broad to siltation and succession, with much of the open water taken over by reeds, with bare mud showing at low tide even at its centre. Willow scrub was creeping in, and should we have left it for a few more years, the Broad would have been completely lost, and with it a very important habitat.

clearing scrub

Clearing scrub near the broad by Ann Kerridge

A 3-month project aims to see the Broad dredged and mud pumped, with scrub removed nearby. Come next summer, after the scars of the works have healed, this area will once again be a stunning place to sit and enjoy the views and wildlife. I always feel it is important to show people such restoration projects, to highlight how much work goes into maintaining these habitats, showing people the whole process and not just the glorified ending when it all looks the part.

Not surprisingly after the disturbance around the Broad of late, this part of the reserve offered up only a pair of moorhens, both being swift to walk the water in their panicked, flapping run to find safety in some nearby cover. Some distant water rings marked the spot where a little grebe had dived, but no further ripples appeared to betray the point of its resurface.

We headed on, and as we rounded Home Marsh I did my usual scan over an area of mowed fen. The reed had already grown back several inches, a short green sea bordered on both sides by the uncut, yellowing vegetation. Halfway across this area a brown lump of some unknown animal, partially hidden by the reed, lay motionless. A bittern? A deer? Alas, no more than an old tree stump, it has fooled me many times. But at that moment, amongst our chuckles, a Chinese water deer did walk out from the tall reed, idly wandering along in its own little world and taking no notice of us onlookers. Its thick, brown-grey winter coat gave it a nice plump, rounded appearance, with its teddy bear face scanning the ground as it went.

As we neared the end of the walk we were gifted with a fine view of a handsome male kestrel, perched high in an old ash tree bordering the fen. It was content with its look-out post and paid us little heed as its fierce glare watched the open ground for prey.


Fieldfare basking in the sun by Ann Kerridge

Leading from the front, I do my best to spot wildlife and relay the whereabouts of my sightings to the crowd behind. The problem is that some views are so quick, it is often just myself and a lucky few at the front that get to enjoy these glimpses. And so it was with a small bird, that iconic flash of blue low along Boundary Dyke. Such was the speed, all I could manage was half a flap and a gurgle as I tried to point it out and say “kingfisher” before it disappeared. No matter. As we headed back round to the carpark for a warming cup of tea, and that abundant stash of biscuits, the “tsak tsak” noise of fieldfare cut through the air above us. The perfect ending to an enjoyable stroll around Wheatfen.

Thank you to all who attended, and further thanks to the volunteers who helped with the guided walk and refreshments after. Whether it’s at one of our events or a friendly hello whilst you’re walking around the reserve, I hope to see even more of you next year.

Will Fitch

Author Will Fitch

I have been the Warden at Wheatfen for a number of years now, helping to look after and manage the reserve with the help of our trusty volunteers. You can often find me either out and about at the reserve, or in the Warden's hut in the car park.

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