Olwynne Goodrich

The Wild Side of Thyme

by Olwynne Goodrich At Thyme 24 Oct 19

It is a misty autumnal morning in ‘The Wildings’ at Thyme and there is a quiet ethereal beauty to the water meadows, woodland and riverbanks of the Southrop Manor Estate.   It isn’t as wild as it looks, the Cotswolds is a curated landscape with centuries of farming and land-ownership leaving its mark, and in some areas taking a high toll.  We are embarking on a ten-year conservation project at Thyme, a process of monitoring flora and fauna, of managing the delicate eco-system to encourage appropriate biodiversity, and I am meeting Tom Uridge from our Garden Team to discuss one aspect of this project: monitoring and nurturing our birdlife. Tom tells me that his interest in wildlife began at an early age, a youth fuelled by back-garden bird-watching, ‘Springwatch’, piles of books on ornithology, and with Bill Oddie and Johnny Kingdom as heroes. It strikes me that this is the antithesis of a misspent youth, given where he is now.  After years working in the forestry industry, in the UK and in the wilds of New Zealand and Australia, Tom retrained in horticulture, joining Thyme two years ago. As we meander along the riverbank Tom, as quiet and considered as the landscape we are walking through, tells me more about the estate and his very special role within the garden team.

Why is the habitat at Thyme noteworthy?
The Southrop Manor Estate has running through its heart one of the rarest habitats on the planet, the low-land chalk-stream riverbeds of the River Leach.
Historically the river has been harnessed to create water meadows, and although we no longer grow hay, the grid-like pattern of ditches that were once dug for irrigation remains, creating unique environments for aquatic and semi aquatic creatures. We see signs of otters and water voles, two very scarce mammals and I have been lucky enough to capture images of them, both during the day and night, on remote cameras.  Importantly, the river and the surrounding meadows provide shelter and food for an interesting population of birds including Kingfisher, Little Egret, Barn Owls, Little Owls, Woodpeckers and a number of raptors and migratory Warblers including; Whitethroat, ChiffChaff, Willow Warbler, to name a few.

Why is it important to monitor the birdlife?
To conserve a piece of land effectively it is important to know what already exists there. A conservation project can be monitored to establish how numbers of particular species are changing, for better or for worse, over time. By ringing birds now, at the start of the project, we can compare what we discover to later numbers, and species records later down the line. The data recorded goes towards helping us, and conservationists, understand how populations are changing and to help us uncover the probable causes of this change.
The BTO Bird Ringing scheme, alongside projects such as Breeding Bird Surveys, help to monitor the number of chicks being fledged each year and their subsequent survival. The movement of bird migration, across thousands of kilometers, is still a great mystery, but one thing is for sure, their movements are changing. This could be down to climate change, affecting their crossing, their sense of direction but could also be affected by the loss of habitat and subsequently, vital food sources within these diminishing habitats. Bird migration is all about day length, some birds migrate locally whereas others migrate across entire continents, all in aid of maximizing their chicks’ chances of fledging and survival.

So how do you go about the task of recording bird numbers and species?
The BTO ringing scheme is run by experienced volunteers with years of training and a carefully monitored permit system to ensure bird-safety.
To capture birds a series of ‘mist nets’ are erected before dawn, in the summer months this can be as early as 3am. Conditions have to be right, if it is too windy or at all wet, we won’t go out as this can be detrimental to the birds. The nets are often placed along two converging areas of movement, passageways by which the birds travel, this could be between an area of hedgerow and a group of trees or along the river. The nets are very fine and cannot be detected by the birds in the correct conditions.
Extracting the bird is a fiddly and delicate business, great care and time must be taken, it is so important not to not damage or distress them. They can then be ringed and biometrics taken (aged, sexed, wing length measured, weighed, moult scores, fat scores) before being released with their new jewelry added. Once in the hand, birds become very calm and take to the process very well.
Birds can be lured into certain areas by feeding or by playing recordings of a particular species, this method can only be used in certain months, to make sure we don’t disturb their behavior during the breeding season.

Tell me about the bird-walks you are running at Thyme …
We are offering hotel guests the opportunity to walk through the wildings at Thyme in the early morning (not quite dawn but soon after) to learn about the birdlife we have in this unique habitat. In October our migratory birds have started to head south back to their winter homes, and we are awaiting the arrival of our winter migrants that come from Scandinavia. Winter migrants include larger birds of the thrush family such as Redwings, Fieldfares and Song Thrushes, guests might even be very lucky enough to spot Waxwings. Summer Migrants are still around but not for long, these include the Warblers that come as far as Africa; and Hirundines such as Swallows, House Martins and Sand Martins. We can expect to see our local resident birds and roving tit flocks. Members of the tit family (here we might see Long Tailed, Great, Blue and Coal tit), quite often group together in the autumn and winter months and feed together, safety in numbers. It is a beautiful time of day here in the water meadows, and I am excited to share it. Find out more here.