The best of Dorset in words and pictures

Wet and wild in Weymouth

Weymouth’s nature reserve at Radipole is being given a facelift, as Ron Toft reports

Conservationists often have to wait years before seeing the fruits of their labours on habitat improvement work, but not at the RSPB’s wetlands nature reserve at Radipole Lake in the heart of Weymouth. Less than 24 hours after an 18-ton digger was used to clear out part of a dry and overgrown ditch, the restored stretch of waterway was being colonised by delightful water voles – Ratty of Wind in the Willows fame – and stunning, electric-blue kingfishers.

Radipole Lake is one of the two RSPB reserves in the seaside resort known as the Weymouth Wetlands, the other being on the sea front at Lodmoor

Radipole Lake is one of the two RSPB reserves in the seaside resort known as the Weymouth Wetlands, the other being on the sea front at Lodmoor

‘The restored ditch filled up with water overnight and the very next day, much to our surprise, we saw water voles swimming up and down it and kingfishers flying low over the water,’ said Nick Tomlinson, site manager of both Radipole Lake and nearby Lodmoor, another RSPB reserve. ‘We were really surprised – and very pleased. We never imagined that this “new” stretch of water would be used so soon. It won’t be long, either, before dragonflies and other insects also frequent the area.’

The ditch is one of many being restored to their former aquatic glory by the RSPB as part of a £700,000, ten-year Weymouth Wetlands Project funded by Natural England, the aim of which is to make Radipole ‘a richer place both for wildlife and for visitors’, according to Nick. Of the £700,000, just under £200,000 is being spent on capital works and the remainder –£50,000 annually for 10 years – on looking after the restored and new habitats and making smaller on-going changes. ‘We started the capital works in 2009 and have already restored many ditches which hadn’t been touched for twenty or more years. In some places you could actually walk across the ditches, which were originally around six feet wide and six feet deep.’ Over the years, the vegetation had relentlessly grown upwards, downwards and outwards – so much so, that in some of parts of the reserve it was difficult for Nick and his colleagues even to spot where the ditches had originally been. ‘Once we found the ditches, we marked them with boundary poles so the digger could excavate them.’

The first phase of the capital works, which began in September 2009, has now been completed. The second and final phase got under way in late August this year and is expected to be completed in October. ‘We didn’t want to do all the ditch works in one go because that would have meant disturbing wildlife across the whole reserve,’ explained Nick. ‘By doing it in two phases, we are reducing the disturbance and helping to maintaining the diversity.’

Island Pool, once largely overgrown, has been restored to its former aquatic glory

Island Pool, once largely overgrown, has been restored to its former aquatic glory

Although ditches don’t sound very exciting, and some are not readily visible to most visitors, ‘restoring them gives us a big bang for our buck, for we can profile the edges of some, creating shallow areas at the margins, while leaving others with straight sides. By enhancing the make-up of the ditches, we enhance biodiversity. In some areas we are also trying to reduce the dominances of reeds so that sedges also grow, and in others creating drier areas where a variety of plants, like comfrey, will flourish.’

The capital works include not only restoring 30-year-old ditches but also creating new ponds and other areas of open water to provide, in Nick’s words, ‘a rich mosaic of habitats’. In other words, not just reeds, sedges and open water but also vegetation of varying heights and density, dragonfly ponds and such like. The restored and newly created areas will, in time, become biodiversity hotspots for dragonflies, other insects and all manner of aquatic invertebrates. By the end of 2010, Radipole will have almost five miles of restored ditches and about 3½ acres of newly created open water. ‘There were virtually no functional ditches before the start of the Weymouth Wetlands Project,’ Nick told me. ‘Already we have changed the face of the reserve by digging out the old ditches and allowing water to flow through them again for the first time in decades.’

Nick Tomlinson sets up one of the remote cameras which have already captured some fascinating footage that can be viewed in the visitor centre

Nick Tomlinson sets up one of the remote cameras which have already captured some fascinating footage that can be viewed in the visitor centre

Overgrown sallows cut back two years ago will in future be pollarded, prolonging their lives. ‘We want to have willows at various stages of growth – some recently cut back and others cut back a few years ago. This will enable us to have trees of different heights, promoting age structure and the range of insects that are attracted.’ Small-scale management includes creating mini-habitats by, for example, covering piles of wood chippings with soil. ‘When water levels rise at times of high rainfall, these mini-habitats will become refuges for amphibians and invertebrates.’

Another development has been the creation by the Environment Agency of an artificial holt for otters. Restored and new areas of open water are being fish-fenced to keep out the large carp that inhabit the lake. ‘There is a vibrant angling society in the area and we have been working with it to provide fishing platforms along Radipole Park Drive,’ explained Nick. The Project also involves building a ‘hotel’ for sand martins, bats and amphibians, creating a pond-dipping platform and boarded duck-feeding area for children and families, carrying out various improvements to the visitor centre, upgrading reserve paths and installing a reserve-wide network of digital video wildlife cameras.

As Nick took me on a guided walk of the reserve, he stopped to show me a four-month-old pond already being used by a broad-bodied chaser dragonfly, a blue-tailed damselfly and pond skaters. ‘Wildlife clearly likes the restored and new habitats and we expect the flora and fauna of these areas to become increasingly rich in the years ahead. The £700,000 is secure,’ said Nick. ‘We also have other things we would like to do, such as installing a bank of screens in the visitor centre to which footage from the wildlife cameras would be beamed. We also have plans for new hides. All of these things, however, will have to wait until additional funding becomes available.’

Some movement-activated digital video cameras have already been installed at Radipole. ‘The instant an animal crosses the field of view, so a camera is activated for twenty seconds. If the movement lasts longer than that, the camera keeps recording.’ Infra-red sensors enable cameras to operate at night in total darkness. ‘We’ve got some cracking footage of a female otter and her cubs coming out of and going into one of the restored ditches, as well as film of an otter marking its territory by “sprainting” on a block,’ said Nick. Fox cubs have also been filmed at night. ‘Later, we plan to install cameras inside the sand martin nest chambers and bat roost. Being able to show such footage on a bank of monitors in the visitor centre would be a major draw. Radipole is like a five-star restaurant for bats. On an hour’s walk in the evening, visitors can often see nearly 40 per cent of all UK species. They feed on both RSPB reserves.’

Exotic-looking bearded tits are a sought-after species with birdwatchers, but their numbers were down after the cold winter of 2009/10

Exotic-looking bearded tits are a sought-after species with birdwatchers, but their numbers were down after the cold winter of 2009/10

Nick is especially keen to encourage children – ‘the conservationists of the future’ – and young families to visit Radipole. ‘Kids love pond-dipping, but at present we don’t have proper facilities for it. That is something we shall be changing within the coming year. The essence of what we are doing is making Radipole a community resource for people of all ages and abilities, whatever their interests.’

Radipole Lake is much more than a place simply to watch birds, very special though some of its avian residents and visitors undoubtedly are – notably bearded tits, Cetti’s warblers, marsh harriers (they breed at Lodmoor and hunt over Radipole) and heron-like bitterns, which winter at Radipole. A wildflower enthusiast, Nick pointed out some of the many plants that flourish on the reserve: plants like the yellow flag iris, comfrey, hemlock water-dropwort, meadowsweet, southern marsh orchid and purple loosestrife.

Nick, who has been site manager at Radipole and Lodmoor for five years, added: ‘I am amazingly privileged to work here. I live two miles away, have a job that pretty much encompasses all my hobbies, get to work with fantastic, dedicated people and am part of a project that will determine how Radipole develops for many years to come. It doesn’t get much better than that. The investment at Radipole is going to pay huge dividends – not just for wildlife but for people and the local economy in the run=up to the 2012 Olympics at a time when the town will be in the international spotlight. It will also leave a significant legacy for generations to come.’

Panel

Radipole’s wildlife inventory includes : over 260 species of birds, 20 species of mammal, 26 of butterflies, more than 500 of moths, 5 of amphibians and reptiles, 13 of fish and 219 of wildflowers.

Radipole Lake is open all year round. Admission is free. Phone 01305 778313. www.rspb.org.uk

Credits

1          Andy Hay (rspb-images.com)

2          RSPB (Weymouth Wetlands)

3          Mike Richards (rspb-images.com)

5          Mike Richards (rspb-images.com)

Dorset Directory