Tuesday, 21 April 2020

Z is for Zostera

Please remember! We ask that people do not visit the Reserve particularly if you have to travel. All car parks on Holy Island are closed to visitors until government restrictions are lifted. Many residents on Holy island fall into the vulnerable category. Please adhere to these guidelines for the health and safety of yourself and others during this time.

Zostera….What is that you may ask. Well Zostera is the scientific name for the extensive Eel Grass beds that cover parts of the intertidal area at Lindisfarne National Nature Reserve. Eel grass is a form of sea-grass that flourishes in the intertidal area of which there are two species that occur at Lindisfarne. They are Zostera noltii, a perennial species which overwinters as rhizomes, and Zostera marina, an annual germinating each year from seed.
Zostera at Lindisfarne National Nature Reserve
So why is Zostera so vital to the intertidal habitat and worth protecting? The reasons are numerous.

  • Eelgrass beds provide natural buffers against coastal storms by absorbing the force from waves and, through their extensive root systems, preventing some shoreline sediments from washing away.
  • Zostera can help mitigate against climate change. Eelgrass absorbs carbon dioxide and methane—both greenhouse gases—and stores them in its root system. Research suggests that eelgrass’s carbon sequestration also moderates the effects of ocean acidification, which can inhibit the ability of some marine life.
  • Eelgrass beds play an integral role in the ocean food chain by providing habitat for plankton to thrive. The swaying grasses also offer shelter and foraging areas for fish and molluscs. Migratory wildfowl, especially the East Atlantic Light-bellied Brent Geese feed on the Eel Grass beds which are very nutritious and are one of the reasons that 50% of the world’s population choose to winter on the Reserve.
  • Like a massive filter, Zostera helps improve water quality by absorbing pollutants. Recent studies show a drastic reduction in harmful chemicals such as polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs) in areas with eelgrass beds. Bacteria found in the beds also help prevent harmful algal blooms. This flowering marine plant also traps and retains sediment, resulting in clearer, cleaner water.
    A Light-bellied Brent Goose enjoying the Eel Grass ©JJD
Globally, sea grass has disappeared by 30 per cent over the last century. A figure which is beginning to accelerate with increased population causing more development and pollution along with other associated human impacts. Looking to the future sea level rise is also likely to have significant impact. The Zostera at Lindisfarne National Nature Reserve is monitored annually to ensure the health of this priority habitat.

And that’s the end of our tour of Lindisfarne from A-Z. I hope you have enjoyed reading it as much as I have enjoyed writing it. Hopefully, you have also learnt a little bit more about Lindisfarne National Nature Reserve along the way.

Monday, 20 April 2020

Y is for Why

Please remember! We ask that people do not visit the Reserve particularly if you have to travel. All car parks on Holy Island are closed to visitors until government restrictions are lifted. Many residents on Holy island fall into the vulnerable category. Please adhere to these guidelines for the health and safety of yourself and others during this time.

A little bit of a play on the words but I thought it would be a good idea answer some of the questions we get asked while out and about on the Reserve.

Why do we protect the shorebirds on the Reserve? 
One of our major projects every year at Lindisfarne National Nature Reserve is to protect and monitor the shorebirds that breed here. As with most bird species, Shorebirds have had a rough time over recent decades with huge amounts of habitat loss due to human development on the coast and hard engineering to stop coastal erosion. Human disturbance has increased massively in Northumberland over the last 10-15 years and Lindisfarne can now expect to see more that 500,000 visitors a year. All these people put tremendous pressure on our Shorebirds ability to nest and rear young successfully as they are often constantly disturbed. This is a picture that is repeated up and down the coastline. Little Terns are now one of the rarest breeding birds in the UK and the Ringed Plover breeding population has crashed so dramatically in the last 15 years that it has been put on the UK red list. Lindisfarne National Nature Reserve has important successful breeding numbers of both. Therefore it is vital that we monitor and protect these birds by blocking off and fencing off some areas of beaches to allow them the space and time to nest and rear their young in peace.

Why do birds choose to winter at Lindisfarne National Nature Reserve?
Lindisfarne National Nature Reserve is like an all-inclusive holiday for the birds that winter here with an all you can eat buffet of worms and molluscs just waiting to be delved into. Most of the Reserve's wintering birds have migrated from the high Arctic, where they have been breeding. To avoid the brutal winters and frozen tundra, to feed, they need to head south. Lindisfarne National Nature Reserve is situated perfectly geographically with the prevailing weather coming from the south west and the sea being fed by the warm waters of the gulf stream. This results in the mild winters with other places at the same latitude in Russia and Cananda covered in permafrost! This means that the birds do not have to migrate as far south, making Britain stand out like a beacon. Another benefit of the mild winters is the ground and sea is rarely frozen so access to the all important food resource is always available. Lindisfarne National Nature Reserve with its vast intertidal mudflats and surrounding farmland provides a perfect wintering site.
Up to half the worlds population of East Atlantic Light-bellied Brent Geese winter on the Reserve ©JJD
 Why should dogs be kept on leads on the Reserve?

Lindisfarne National Nature Reserve receives over 500,000 visitors a year and a good proportion of those visitors will have dogs. We ask that all visitors with dogs keep them on a short lead (around 1.5m). This is due to disturbance of breeding and wintering birds on the Reserve. Birds are incredibly sensitive to human and dog disturbance and with so many miles of our coastline used by people and there canine counterparts there is very little nesting and roosting space left. The breeding birds on the Reserve are primarily ground nesters and can be easily disturb without realising it. If disturbed too much the birds will simply abandon their nest. During winter large roosting flocks of birds build up across the whole Reserve. A target that free running dogs find hard to resist! Constant bombardment of these birds cause them to constantly fly to find less disturbed areas. This results in reduced feeding time and opportunity which in tern can cause reduced survival through the winter and the long arduous migration back north come spring. Within the dunes Pirri-pirri bur is prevalent and easily picked up by dogs running along paths and due to people and dogs has now spread well beyond the boundary on the Reserve. We want to keep the Reserve as a haven for wildlife so if you are out on the Reserve please keep your dog on a short lead at all times. Try to walk on the wet hard sand away from potential breeding areas and give any roosting flocks of birds plenty of space.

Why can't you light campfires on the Reserve?
A lot of people do not realise the danger that wildfires can pose in a dune system. Without trees people think that any fire will be small and easily containable. This is not the case. During periods of dry weather, usually with a helping coastal breeze to further dry out vegetation, dune grassland can get tinderbox dry, just waiting for an errant spark to explode out of control. These fires can be extremely quick to take hold with large flames racing across the grassland and can quickly lead to deadly situations. Dune fires have occurred on Lindisfarne National Nature Reserve before; thankfully with no loss of life, but they have caused devastation to the dunes delicate ecosystem, causing large burn scars on the landscape. Even when fires haven't caused a wildfire, damage is often noted with disposable barbeque scorch marks on the ground killing off scarce and rare plant communities.

Why do cattle and sheep graze on the Reserve in winter?
Sheep and cattle are moved onto the Reserve in the autumn months once the breeding birds have left as part of a conservation grazing initiative. The aim is for the livestock to remove the rank vegetation from the dune system allowing the botanically rich grassland to flourish come spring. This reduces the amount of labour intensive cutting that is required as natures lawnmowers can graze a large area and are working 24 hours a day.
Cows grazing on the Reserve

Why is Lindisfarne National Nature Reserve so important?
Lindisfarne National Nature Reserve is a mosaic of intertidal and terrestrial habitats covering 65km of coastline and 3,500 hectares. As a National Nature Reserve, it has been regarded as one of the best examples of intertidal, marsh and dune habitats in the country and is also nationally and internationally noted for its breeding and wintering bird assemblages. The marsh and intertidal areas store vast amounts of carbon, the protection of which is integral to our fight against climate change. The site is protected with numerous designations but it is so much more than that. Its our connection with wildlife and landscapes, which we are fast on the way to loosing. Whether it be seeing thousands of Geese lift with their calls filling the air, thousands of waders spiralling around in frenetic aerial displays trying to avoid a marauding Peregrine. Carpets of Orchids as far as the eye, the haunting singing of seals across the landscape or visual migrations of birds and butterflies fresh in from the sea. Lindisfarne National Nature Reserve provides a refuge where we can connect back with nature, a gift that is priceless.
Beautiful sunset over the intertidal area at Lindisfarne NNR ©JJD

Sunday, 19 April 2020

X is Xristian

Please remember! We ask that people do not visit the Reserve particularly if you have to travel. All car parks on Holy Island are closed to visitors until government restrictions are lifted. Many residents on Holy island fall into the vulnerable category. Please adhere to these guidelines for the health and safety of yourself and others during this time.

X is always a tricky letter when undertaking an A-Z and despite my best efforts I couldn’t manage to build a blog post about Lindisfarne National Nature Reserve around a Xylophone or an X-ray! Therefore I have spent some time delving into Latin and Greek names to find something that relates to the Reserve. Xristian is the Greek name for Christians and as Lindisfarne is the cradle of Christianity in England it seems to tenuously fit the bill!

While much of the remaining early Christian architecture lies outside the Reserve, a rare stone built 9th century Anglo-Saxon village lies within the dunes on Holy Island is thought to be the centre of vellum production. Vellum was the highest quality version of paper made out of calf skin and was used extensively in religious texts. It is Vellum that was used to write the Lindisfarne Gospels upon; a manuscript gospel book that has remained remarkably undamaged since its creation at the abbey on Lindisfarne around the turn of the 700’s. The book now resides in the British Library.

We might think of St Francis of Assisi as the original saintly animal conservationist, but while he merely preached to the birds, St Cuthbert is popularly believed to have taken steps to ensure that some of Northumberland’s eider duck population enjoyed his personal protection. St Cuthbert was one of the first bishops of Lindisfarne in 684 after a spell of hermitude on Inner Farne (one of the Farne Islands), where his affinity with animals began.

There are a number of animal stories attached to St Cuthbert. A famous episode in Bede’s Life of the saint involved Cuthbert standing neck-deep in the sea and praying, after which two otters came and dried his feet with their fur. The animals were rewarded with a blessing, and went on their way. In another story Cuthbert’s horse, who he calls ‘comrade’, finds the saint some food in a peasant’s house and the two share it.
St Cuthberts window at Durham Cathedral, surrounded by the birds he was said to protect
Perhaps the animal most associated with St Cuthbert today is the eider duck, or Cuddy duck (Cuddy being a shortened form of Cuthbert). The first we hear of their association with Cuthbert is in the twelfth century, 500 years after his death. The monks of Durham had a small cell and chapel on the island of Inner Farne, which they shared with a large nesting population of eider ducks. Cuthbert is said to have tamed these ducks so well that they would nest everywhere, even next to the chapel altar, without fear. Cuthbert had also placed the ducks under his protective grace, so that no-one should eat or even disturb them therefore implementing what is thought to be the first documented nature laws anywhere in the world.

Saturday, 18 April 2020

W is for Wigeon

Please remember! We ask that people do not visit the Reserve particularly if you have to travel. All car parks on Holy Island are closed to visitors until government restrictions are lifted. Many residents on Holy island fall into the vulnerable category. Please adhere to these guidelines for the health and safety of yourself and others during this time.

Once the last of the Terns and their newly fledged chicks have begun the epic migration back to their wintering grounds and the cacophony of calls and screeches of young Terns begging the parents incessantly for food ebbs away there is a brief pause. Then, come the last week of August the first of the wildfowl appear. At first, it’s just a trickle (usually failed breeders) but by late September numbers are still building and the trickle has become a full on flood. Many of the wildfowl species that winter at Lindisfarne National Nature Reserve have bred in the high arctic and migrate to the site, fleeing the brutal winters in the desolate tundra for an area rich in food that will remain mild and ice free through much of the winter.
Large numbers of wildfowl use the Reserve every winter ©JJD

When people think of Lindisfarne in winter, most people associate it with Geese, and with large flocks moving to and from the Reserve on a daily basis, it is definitely an astounding sight to behold. But there is another species that descends on the Reserve in their thousands and in fact number make up more than a third of all birds wintering at Lindisfarne National Nature Reserve. That species is the Eurasian Wigeon.
Male and females surfing the waves ©JJD

Eurasian Wigeon are a dabbling duck, meaning that they generally feed on the surface and won’t dive like some other duck species. When feeding they will skim the surface of the water for seeds, roots and leaves and will, when the tide allows, feed on the important eel grass beds that are found on the Reserve. There is a small breeding population in Scotland but the majority of wintering Wigeon in the UK migrate from Iceland and Scandinavia.
As with most ducks the male has the more colourful plumage with the female a dull grey-brown colour. The male sports a rusty red head with a buff coloured crown, pinkish breast and a mottled grey body. The bills of both male and female are a greyish blue with a black nib. They can be seen in large flocks around the Reserve, with the diagnostic whistle of the drake carrying across the vast intertidal area on a calm winters morning. 
Stunning - drake Wigeon ©JJD

To monitor numbers using the Reserve monthly WeBS counts have been carried out over many years and the data shared with the British Trust for Ornithology (BTO). This data has shown that internationally important numbers use the Reserve during winter. In fact, this winter just gone, 23,000 birds were counted on the Reserve, the highest number in 20 years. Wigeon are one of the several important species of wintering birds that form the Lindisfarne SPA (Special Protection Area); a designation that ensures the safeguarding of habitats that support these wintering species. With numbers utilising the Reserve in winter increasing, Wigeon are a good news story, when so many other species are declining.
Large flocks can be seen on the Reserve ©JJD

Friday, 17 April 2020

V is for Volunteers

Please remember! We ask that people do not visit the Reserve particularly if you have to travel. All car parks on Holy Island are closed to visitors until government restrictions are lifted. Many residents on Holy island fall into the vulnerable category. Please adhere to these guidelines for the health and safety of yourself and others during this time.

We here at Lindisfarne National Nature Reserve manage 3500 hectares of dunes, intertidal mud and sand flats, rocky shores and salt marsh; mixing research and habitat management to create a positive change to the landscape and influence the wider environment.

We couldn’t carry out this high workload without the help of our committed and wonderful volunteers who give up their free time to carry out a wide range of tasks all for the benefit of the Reserve. Volunteers are also encouraged to contribute unique skills such as photography or artistic ability to promote and enrich the information about the Reserve.
Shorebird wardening

Many of our volunteers assist in survey work, whether that be occasional butterfly or pollinator transects to our larger projects such as the Shorebird Protection Scheme. We have a passionate group of volunteers that dedicate countless hours over the three months of the shorebird season carrying out monitoring and public engagement at the various breeding sites. These sites need to be protected 7 days a week and is a real labour of love but is so rewarding at the end of it when you see young chicks thrive and fledge.

Alongside the monitoring, our volunteers assist us in delivering our events programme, educating visitors and enthusing children in the incredible nature at Lindisfarne National Nature Reserve.
Volunteering at craft events
During autumn and winter we undertake various practical habitat management, free of the worry of disturbing nesting birds. Our volunteers regularly help litterpicking, grass raking, scrub management and other tasks – anything to get outside and get their hands dirty really!
Volunteers removing invasive species from the dunes

Raking grass from cut areas in the dunes - vital to allow scarce plant communities to flourish
Good hoard of Willow from a scrub bash
So to all our volunteers, we salute you! Thank you for all your hard work over the years and for being great advocates for the Reserve. Stay safe and we look forward to welcoming you all back to the Reserve once restrictions are lifted.

Thursday, 16 April 2020

U is for Unique

Please remember! We ask that people do not visit the Reserve particularly if you have to travel. All car parks on Holy Island are closed to visitors until government restrictions are lifted. Many residents on Holy island fall into the vulnerable category. Please adhere to these guidelines for the health and safety of yourself and others during this time.

Lindisfarne National Nature Reserve is a rich mix of rare habitats from the botanically diverse dune slacks to the bountiful intertidal areas providing a food source for many species of flora and fauna. Adding in the sites geography, with part of the Reserve forming a tidal island, geology and its important role in early Christianity in the UK then you have a truly unique site. Lindisfarne National Nature Reserve is the jewel in the NNR crown.

Many of the habitats found on the Reserve are declining across the country. The salt marsh is one such habitat that is largely accreting compared to other areas, particularly on the south coast where human development and hard engineering put in place to stop coastal erosion have all but decimated the marshes there. 
A mash up of habitats, birds and history make for a unique site

The unique hydrology and geology of the dune system provide floristically diverse dune slacks, supporting an array of locally and nationally scarce plant communities as well as providing a habitat for the Lindisfarne Helleborine, an endemic Orchid. The dune system also supports large numbers of breeding Skylarks and Meadow Pipits which have all but disappeared from areas of their historical range due to intensification of farming and the loss of our wildflower meadows.
A stunning dunescape

The rich intertidal ecosystem supports up to 50,000 wintering waterfowl and waders, marking it as an internationally important RAMSAR site. The largest Eel Grass beds in the North East of England provide vital food for wintering East Atlantic Light-bellied Brent Geese, of which Lindisfarne NNR supports up to half the world’s population.

The uniqueness of the site also makes it vulnerable to change with many species filling niches created by the mix of habitats. Over the last decade visitor numbers have increased dramatically. The Reserve can now expect to see 700,000 visitors a year, and that is a number that is still rising. The numbers of people visiting is creating extra pressure on the delicate ecosystems It is our job as Reserve staff to maintain this balance between welcoming people and protecting wildlife and habitats, which, at times, can be a tricky tightrope to walk. We are a unique site which supports many important ecosystems within it.  We ask that if you are planning a visit (once government restrictions are lifted) that you read the bye-laws which can be found under the codes of conduct tab on this website. This will give you important information that will allow you to enjoy the Reserve but also ensure you are not unintentionally causing harm.

Wednesday, 15 April 2020

T is for Terns

Please remember! We ask that people do not visit the Reserve particularly if you have to travel. All car parks on Holy Island are closed to visitors until government restrictions are lifted. Many residents on Holy island fall into the vulnerable category. Please adhere to these guidelines for the health and safety of yourself and others during this time.
With Terns now arriving back in the UK for the breeding season T could only be for Terns. Sandwich Terns can now be heard along the coast and it won’t be long until the rest of the cast of the British breeding Terns make themselves known up and down the coasts of the country.
Terns account for around 40 species of bird across the world, and with their aerodynamic wings and forked tail, are regarded as masters of flight. With their incredible aerial ability, Terns make some of the longest migrations known in the animal kingdom. It was due to their body shape and seasonal migration, harking the beginning of summer, that they earned the nickname ‘Sea Swallows’, a term coined in the UK in the early 17th century.
The Terns that this phase describes will be one of 5 UK breeding species which are Arctic Tern, Common Tern, Sandwich Tern, Roseate Tern and Little Tern. Each of these birds have different migration strategies but all of these species can be found at Lindisfarne National Nature Reserve during the summer months. The Reserve is a breeding ground for Arctic, Common and Little Tern but is also an incredibly important pre and post breeding roosting site for Sandwich and Roseate Terns that breed nearby.
Little Tern (Sternula albifrons)
Little Terns are one of the rarest breeding birds in the UK, using sand and shingle substrate to form a small scrape in the ground. Lindisfarne National Nature Reserve supports the 6th most important colony of these amber listed birds in the UK and is monitored and protected from predators and human disturbance throughout the breeding season. Little Terns are Schedule 1 birds which means that it is a criminal offence to disturb their nesting site and only licensed individuals are allowed to enter the colony. Even with this license, we enter the colony only when it is deemed absolutely necessary.
Little Terns courtship feeding
These tiny birds are white all over aside from a black cap and eye mask as well as a yellow bill with a black tip and weigh about the same as a tennis ball. They fly all the way from their West African wintering grounds to breed on the Reserve. With the perfect habitat for nesting and rich feeding grounds nearby it is the perfect site for these birds to set up shop for the summer. Despite the long migration Little Terns live a surprisingly long time with some surpassing their 20th birthday!
Arctic Tern (Sterna paradisaea)
White all over apart from a black cap, blood red bill and small stumpy red legs, Arctic Terns breed in small numbers on Lindisfarne National Nature Reserve and form part of a larger network of breeding sites along the North Northumberland Coast. These incredible birds look so delicate and frail but have one of the longest migrations of any species, wintering of the pack ice of Antarctica! Recent research of GPS tracked birds from the Farne Islands National Nature Reserve show that they fly up to 96,000km in a year, often returning to the exact same spot to breed the following year – a remarkable feat. Breeding in colonies, they become very aggressive toward any intruder, dive-bombing and striking the predator with its sharp red bill, often drawing blood. This proves very effective and has even been observed chasing Polar Bears away from nesting sites in the high Arctic.
Masters of migration - An adult Arctic Tern
What is more incredible is the ability of the chicks, at three weeks old, to fledge the nest and begin the migration to the other side of the planet!
Common Tern (Sterna hirundo)
Despite their name Common Terns are not as numerous as Arctic Terns on terns on the Northumberland coast. They look almost identical to their globetrotting cousins from a far so when being counted they often get grouped together as ‘Comic’ Terns – a mashing together of both their names. The differences are subtle but Common Tern look more elongated in flight, have a long red bill with a distinctive black tip. They also have longer more orange legs, so stand taller than an Arctic Tern. Common Terns travel down to winter in the warm waters off northern and western Africa with a small number returning to the shores Lindisfarne National Nature Reserve each year to breed.
Adult Common Tern - note the black bill tip and longer legs when comparing to an Arctic
Sandwich Tern (Sterna sandvicensis)
The largest of the UK Tern species arrive back to the Northumberland Coast first with the first individuals seen on Lindisfarne National Nature Reserve by early April. They have a black cap that forms a crest and a long black bill with a yellow tip. Whilst they do not breed on the Reserve – the closest breeding ground just a few miles away on the Farne Islands – they use the waters around the Reserve to feed. Their distinctive Ker-rick call can be heard up and down the coast. Lindisfarne NNR provides an important post breeding site for the adults and young to congregate and feed building up fat reserves for the long journey to their wintering grounds in Senegal and The Gambia. They also tend to stay the longest of any of the Tern species with birds seen into November!
Adult Sandwich Terns
Roseate Tern (Sterna dougallii)
The rarest of all the UK Terns is the Roseate Tern with the only colony in England located a few miles south of Lindisfarne, on Coquet Island.   Named for the adult’s rosy, pink hue on their breast this tern has black bill with a red base with bright red legs. The small UK population winter off the tropical waters of West Africa where food is in good supply throughout the winter months. As with Sandwich Tern, Lindisfarne NNR is an incredibly important roosting and feeding ground for these birds post-breeding with almost the entire English population using the site.
Adult Roseate Tern with chicks- they start migration in family parties
Going against what you would think, Tern species breeding on the Northumberland Coast tend to head north before heading south with many birds heading towards the Ythan estuary in Scotland. This is thought to be due to make the shorter overland crossing towards Atlantic Ocean whereby they can follow the European coast down to Africa.
So if you are visiting Lindisfarne National Nature Reserve at any time of year please be aware of breeding and roosting Terns. If you see any protective fencing in the summer, give it plenty of room and if you see groups of roosting birds give them space. Terns migrate unfathomable distances and need to reserve all the energy they can. You can still view and enjoy the spectacle of these birds from a far.