Friday, 26 June 2020

Tophill re-opening plans

We've had plenty of requests as to when Tophill Low is set to re-open as you'd imagine!   Things have been moving apace (both forwards and backwards) in recent weeks and we've been keen to maintain a consistent plan rather than have to react to every change - as some reserves have had to close services again after trying to reopen.  In addition the volume of anti-social behaviour we've seen on other sites has both stretched our resources elsewhere, and not encouraged us to open the reserve we care very much about to be at the font of that queue. 

From a basic reserve perspective we are relatively ready to go with the Water Treatment Works team approving our signage and access plans for site to keep the engineers safe.  The easing measures like the 1m rule, and finally not having to decide whether we are a ticketed attraction or a zoo makes things much simpler!.  The issue at present is no longer COVID directly; More the ongoing impacts of being closed for so long and that we have been unable to sort tree hazards and the restarting of flood repairs. 

We are currently aiming to re-open Tophill Low in mid-late July at present based upon resolving tree hazards, getting paths and hides sorted with our established volunteers from next week, and sorting out a safe access with BAM Nutall - the Environment Agency's contractors whom are intensively working over the next three weeks to get as much HGV movements and materials to site as possible before opening and minimise risk to the public. 

The 9th of July we have cross organisation meeting to review hazards and resolve them the following week.  So on the 10th of July we will be putting an update out on a definitive re-opening date with full details on updated discounted membership rates and how COVID restrictons will impact on site use for everyone. 

So the end is in site!  As we lead up to opening we'll update on some of the wildlife which has successfully bred in 2020 at Tophill.   We look forward to welcoming everyone back very soon.

Friday, 5 June 2020

Garden Wildlife

Most weeks of the year are dedicated to something, either nationally or globally; this week at the beginning of June happens to be National Garden Wildlife week. An appropriate theme when people across the country have been asked to stay locally and stay at home. The good weather has helped as it has been a delight to spend some time in the garden recently. But how do we link this to all the work that goes on to make Tophill a great reserve for wildlife, on such a larger scale than the majority of gardens? Well, there lies the key, as each and every small patch of space right outside our doors can be as much a haven for our local wildlife as the big expanses of nature reserve. Choosing and planting the right flowers, trees, shrubs and bushes specifically for their nectar rich blooms, broad and light canopy or energy laden berries and seeds is just like making sure that each particular habitat within the reserve is managed for specific flora and fauna to enhance the biodiversity.

Perennials are popular in wildlife gardens as once their blooms are over, the dying seed heads, if left, can provide shelter and food over the winter. Small varieties of trees can be planted even in a small space and can thrive in a container if the correct cultivar is chosen. One of the easiest to grow shrubs is buddleia, often referred to as the butterfly bush as its flowers attract a host of different butterflies later in the summer. It can grow from a single twig into a large bush that will last for years, only needing a severe pruning in late March; we have planted a whole row of these need to the roadside at the reserve. So if you are planning a trip to the garden centre to restock your garden take time to research the best choice with wildlife in mind, there is plenty of information on the RHS or RSPB sites.

Speckled wood butterfly on bramble

As well as planting there are other things that you can do in your garden to attract wildlife. Please continue to feed the birds, particularly when they are feeding young as they need that extra bit of energy which they also may have relied on throughout the winter. We have had a long dry spell so it is very important to provide clean and fresh water for birds and other wildlife; it doesn't have to be anything special or large, an old plate will suffice and it is wonderful to see birds come and use the water supply for drinking and preening.

Male house sparrow feeding on fat balls

Any kind of water is a magnet for wildlife so if you can create a pond, however small, then you will be amazed at how soon it is colonised by aquatic invertebrates, which in turn attract amphibians and also birds. One of the simplest ponds is to sink an old washing up bowl into a border or grassed area, let it fill with rainwater or use water collected in a water butt and see what comes. If you can, add a couple of submerged plants like elodea which will help to oxygenate the water. Make any pond safe by providing a simple ramp so that if any mammals fall in they can get out safely.

A small and simple pond made from an old kitchen sink soon is colonised by invertebrates

Hedgehogs have declined massively over recent years so providing suitable habitats in your own garden can be essential in saving this much loved British mammal. For any animal a habitat provides food, water and shelter so sensitive planting, providing fresh, clean water enhance a garden for wildlife. To provide suitable shelter for hedgehogs then either make or purchase a specific hedgehog house or pile up a collection of logs where one can rest in the summer and then hibernate in throughout the winter. Hedgehogs will pay you in kind by consuming those pests that might be making a feast out of a vegetable or flower bed. If you want to put out extra food then make sure it is a meat variety of cat food and never put out milk, only water.

By now with all these things in place there is a wildlife haven waiting to be explored from the comfort of your own home and people across the country have been doing just that; getting themselves familiar with those birds, butterflies, insects, mammals and amphibians that are visiting the vast network of wildlife garden reserves.

Nectar rich clover is great for attracting pollinating insects

Tuesday, 12 May 2020

tops and lows

A bit of a roller coaster week on the reserve this week.  First off an update on the current status of Tophill given the redefined restrictions on the 10th May;

Unfortunately the reserve will remain closed at present for the following reasons;
  • The reserve is very much hide based.  We can't safely open the hides as we can't ensure social distancing or cleanliness.  If we were to open the reserve with no hides it would inevitably lead to disturbance of the SSSI's or sensitive breeding marshes with species which for the last 5 months have had little to no disturbance.  
  • We can't ensure the cleanliness or social distancing of toilets and being a clean water site we cannot operate without them.  
  • We are an admissions based site.  The current government covid19 guidelines state that "As with before, you cannot: ...visit a private or ticketed attraction" - of which Tophill Low is both.  Having seen some of the anti-social behaviour issues during the lockdown we intend to be maintaining an admissions system on re-opening  - which in turn means restarting the membership and ticketing process and all the personal contact that entails and we need safe systems for this.   
  • We still have tree hazards and maintenance to resolve from way back in February as we haven't had contractors operating - and now we're into the complication of bird breeding season.  
  • We have been directly requested not to open by the Water Treatment Works management; "We are concerned that opening the nature reserve would invite members of the public from far away to site and therefore the risk to the key worker team would be increased"
We are also bench-marking our decision against other organisations.  Not least Yorkshire Water's current position on recreational car parks:
"Our reservoir car parks are still currently closed while we create a plan to adapt to changes in the government guidelines.  Once we've reviewed the changes we'll let everyone know what's happening... Please don't drive to our reservoirs as the car parks are still closed and inappropriate parking impacts our ability to access the reservoir safely as well as disrupting local residents"

The RSPB are currently echoing on their website:
"It goes without saying that we are champing at the bit to get our nature reserves back up and running for their incredible wildlife and for you all to be able to enjoy them too. But returning from lockdown will not be easy and it won’t be simple. 
  • The health and wellbeing of our employees, volunteers and all visitors to our nature reserves is our paramount concern. 
  • Walso have to make sure the wildlife that calls our sites home are ready to receive attention after a couple of months completely on their own. With reports of rare species nesting on and near busy paths, it's going to take us some time to make sure they are safe too.
  • As you will have heard we are also managing differences in approach to coming out of lockdown across the four countries of the UK, and possibly between regions too.  
Because of this, we will be taking a gradual and phased approach over the coming weeks and will only be opening individual reserves when we are absolutely confident we can do so safely.  
This will likely mean different sites reopening at different times, and with different levels of access and facilitiesIn order to avoid any disappointment, I would urge you to check our website for the latest information before making any visits."   
And likewise the Yorkshire Wildlife Trust concur on their update:
"Following the Government’s announcement last night, which encourages an increase in the use of local green spaces and the enjoyment of nature, we must be sure that visitors and staff can return to our nature reserves safely and in line with government guidance. Re-opening visitor facilities will not be easy or simple and will take time to resource, this is because:
  • The health and wellbeing of our employees, volunteers and visitors at our nature reserves is our paramount concern
  • We have to make sure the wildlife living on our reserves is not adversely impacted. With reports of rare species nesting on and near access ways and paths, we need to ensure that wildlife is safe - this may mean restrictions to certain areas will be extended, even when more general access is permitted.
Today, Monday May 11th 2020, there are no changes to our position following last night’s government announcement. We await more detailed guidance on how changes could be made."

As such Tophill Low remains closed until further notice and we are in step with our fellow conservation bodies.  As before we will honour last seasons members whom lost out during the flood closure when we do re-open.  We are working in the background to try and resolve each of these issues so as we can get going at the earliest opportunity.   Please do not travel to the reserve the car park is locked and no pedestrian access is permitted.  The reserve is being staffed daily to ensure there are no visitors.  


An additional blow to opening the site is that on Thursday we lost one of our most dedicated and capable Volunteer Wardens Pete Drury.
With the closure some may not be aware but Pete had been suffering an illness for some time and unfortunately passed away peacefully in his native Beverley last week.  We've been doing to our best to support family and the close knit volunteer community at Tophill during this time.

Pete had a strong interest in nature having grown up in Leven and Walkington and spent his career at Blackburn Aircraft and subsequently British Aerospace straight from school building Bucaneers and Harriers.  Pete started volunteering at Tophill Low back in 1993 having answered the call to help on the 'new Yorkshire Water Nature Reserve' and has subsequently volunteered virtually every Sunday since then (we gave him a weeks leave pass to Scotland annually).  At one stage chairman of Hull Valley Wildlife Group, and latterly he could be found with the practical team and was present on site upwards of two days a week and was very much a face of Tophill.
If we had precision work then it was always Pete we would entrust this too.  Engineering jobs like the one way gates, telescope security mounts, lock fittings etc were always entrusted to his capable hands as we knew we'd get an A1 job.  A career as a work measurement 'time and motion man' also meant he was not afraid to criticise poor workmanship or general ineptitude!  Thus he did occasionally rub folks up the wrong way - but certainly myself and many of the team valued his straight up approach as invariably he was right - if not diplomatic.  From building aircraft Pete did not deviate from instructions, rules or procedures - and on occasion twitchers, walkers or fishermen trying to dodge the site admission or rules would incur the wrath of our 'Rotty.'  He would vocally (and verbally colourfully!) air his opinions - and his dedication to Tophill Low Nature Reserve, protection of wildlife and animal welfare was unquestionable.  To his credit he's been very supportive of all the works we've undertaken and taken the time to evaluate and look at the bigger picture and it was excellent to recognise this in having Pete and Cliff as 'guests of honour' to open the reception hide back in 2017.

Unfortunately there will only be a small funeral in the current Covid19 restrictions on gatherings but there will be a small delegation from Tophill present.  We will undertake more of a send off when times are simpler - but in the meantime a huge thanks and farewell from all.

So with he and the other great hands we've lost at Tophill this last few months the reserve indeed will be a very different place when we return.


Another big change to the reserve world today was the retirement of Geoff Lomas who has overseen the improvements to the reserve made over the last 21 years both with Peter Izzard and myself.  Whilst not daily visible, its Geoff's support, vision and work within Yorkshire Water which have seen the funding and go ahead for projects like the reception hide, path network, Hempholme meadows project, the water transfer scheme to restore wader interest on the south marshes, sand martin colony and welfare facilities - and crucially he's supported the reserve even through the rough times when questions were raised on its viability or existence.  So we can be thankful that what we see today Geoff has played a key role in safeguarding:

So in other news;

The reserve is still there and standing!
Whilst not getting into 'rarities' the success levels of greylags this year, after the fox ravages of last year where we saw zero greylags fledge, has been brilliant as a barometer and shows the potential for more exotic species to report on later.  A huge credit to the volunteers whom between flood and plague this winter managed to complete the fox fence which has created this.

Amy has been getting some great footage off the trail cameras and has collated this excellent video for World Migratory Bird day just gone:

There is some great stuff happening on the site - we very much look forward to updating everyone when we aren't inciting people to visit.  Though for any Tophill Low Listers out there we can confirm the squacco heron seen just south of Tophill has not been seen on site yet! - so you aren't missing a tick...

And some great news to end with is that we picked up a highly commended in the Visit Hull and East Yorkshire Remarkable East Yorkshire Tourism Awards last week.
Our category was the Remarkable Ethical Responsible and Sustainable Tourism class and our entry recognised all the habitat and community work we undertake whilst delivering a quality reserve experience.  So a good result and thanks to all the volunteers that have helped us over the years.

Its a great recognition - and like so many other business listed in the awards it will hopefully help kick start the brilliant East Yorkshire Eco-Tourism scene and all the businesses it supports.  If you have a moment its well worth a watch of the awards video (the flashy ceremony at Brid Spa became an online one - perhaps fortunate you don't have to witness some of Tophill's finest scrubbed up in posh gear!).  Its a reminder of just what great place East Yorkshire is to both visit and live.  Hopefully we can all get back to enjoying it soon...

Wednesday, 6 May 2020

Dawn Chorus Day May 3rd

An early start

The only thing positive about setting my alarm for 4am on Sunday morning was the fact it didn't need to be 30 minutes earlier. As due to the current situation I wasn't going to be able to join Richard leading the dawn chorus walk at the reserve,  I just had to step outside my back door. Hopefully some of our regular visitors who missed out on this event did the same.
So at 415am on a cold, early May morning I joined others across the country to take part in the International Dawn Chorus Day, something that was started about 30 years ago and has been carried out across the world since. Singing at this time, even before it was light was a robin, in the background a tawny owl was calling. With mug of tea in hand, I picked my spot, moved the chair, rearranged the blankets and settled down to listen. Soon a blackbird joined the robin, a mallard called as it flew overhead and the bark of a pheasant indicated its presence in the field behind. For the next ten minutes, two robins and the blackbird filled the air with their fluty songs, occasionally a woodpigeon uttered a couple of notes and a distant skylark could be heard but it was no competition for top spot. Gradually more birds could be heard, a chaffinch, goldfinch, blue tits and jackdaws in the garden, Canada geese and herring gulls calling overhead.

I decided to venture from the garden, across our paddock to listen to the songs in the hedgerow. My favourite, the yellowhammer was in full flow with a whitethroat for accompaniment. A magpie and carrion crows uttered their raucous calls as they dispersed into the fields, where a skylark was beginning its ascent against the lightening sky. But above all this was a song thrush, perched on the tallest tree blasting out its series of shrills and notes in repetition, the loudest song around. Walking back down the lane I noted the lovely melodic song of a blackcap and the two note call of a great tit.
Back in the garden house and tree sparrows were now active but a wren had replaced the robins and blackbird, singing the loudest despite its size. A swallow twittered overhead and for the first time I saw one of the regular dunnocks we have in the garden but it was not singing, neither was the pied wagtail ion the roof.

In the hour and a half I was outside I had heard 28 species of bird make up the dawn chorus but their identification is not important as it is the experience that makes a dawn chorus so special. If you can only do it once then DO IT as, like me it'll be worth that very early alarm call. And next year when we can resume our events programme it will be even earlier!

Thursday, 23 April 2020

A year in the life of a pond

Reception pond

When the new reception hide and facilities were built in 2016 the pond, that is now referred to as the reception pond, was created. It was excavated in a clearing created from the removal of windblown larch and the resulting clay topsoil was used to form the access ramp to the reception hide. The pond is up to 2m in places and is mostly self-lined by natural clay but there are pockets of peat around the edges, so some areas had to be bunded by conventional pond liner and puddles clay. It was left to fill naturally, which continues, from rainwater and the roof run off from the reception hide, acting as an ‘aqua green’ to contain any excess water before it is released into the surrounding ditches. When there was only 30cm of water the first inhabitants were recorded; great diving beetle, several species of dragonfly, midge larvae and the ‘endearing’ marsh frog. Since then the aquatic wildlife has been left to colonise.

When schools visit, they have several activities that they can choose to take part in and one of those is pond dipping. This gives the children a great opportunity to do some very valuable scientific sampling. They learn how to use the simple equipment safely and correctly to sample the water from the dipping platform. They then use identification keys (FSC charts) to name all the organisms that they catch, which they then record. The identification key is not detailed to species level for many of the invertebrates, but it is an appropriate tool for primary age pupils to use as they rarely have undertaken pond sampling before, so most organisms are new to them. Once back in the classroom we record everything centrally giving an indication of species diversity and abundance. The counts are not accurate full counts, they are recorded as present or absent across the ten working groups, eg a score of 1 is given if only one group found that species, regardless of how many they actually caught. Since its creation the pond has only been sampled by visiting school children, so their role is key in recording the changing biodiversity of the pond and in so doing values the importance of their work as visiting scientists on the reserve.

For last year, 2019, I have collected all the data and it provides an interesting picture of how the pond changes over the year, starting in April right through to November. In that time 25 species have been found; 23 invertebrates, 1 fish and 1 amphibian. The most common species throughout the year, seen in every class sample, are lesser water boatmen, ramshorn snails, stickleback and damselfly larvae. Some species; burrowing mayfly nymph, stonefly and hairworm have only been recorded once over the year. Certain species are found at certain times; marsh frog tadpoles are not seen until early July as would be expected, whereas damselfly larvae numbers peak in the autumn, suggesting that these individuals are overwintering in the pond, contrasting to dragonfly larvae which are seen in abundance in June but are not recorded in October and November. Stickleback numbers reach a peak in June and July, but the data does not specify whether these have been adults or fry. The number of pond skaters drop from the end of July and are not recorded in autumn. Ramshorn snails and lesser waterboatmen as well as being recorded in every class sample during the year are also the most abundant throughout the year, being seen by large numbers of the groups in the class; in July all groups in the class caught lesser waterboatmen.

From these records the pupils can see the biodiversity of life in the pond and appreciate that some species are more common than others. Their favourites have to be the sticklebacks and the marsh frog tadpoles, maybe because these are species they are more familiar with. Research shows that children are able to learn and retain specific species names and so introducing them to burrowing mayfly nymphs and hairworms is beneficial to their subsequent recall of a pond habitat and its feeding relationships. Highlighting the tremendous jaws of a dragonfly larvae or the pincers of a pond stick insect engage pupils with an unfamiliar but equally fascinating pond organism, widening their knowledge and understanding of the pond as a habitat, adding value to the simple activity of pond dipping.

Monday, 20 April 2020

Watchful eyes

Hopefully everyone is managing to get some great wildlife from home;  One of our volunteers managed a nice little ringed plover locally on a daily excercise walk:
And Brian our camera guru has his own home network so he can watch the blue tits in a nest lined of his own hair after being DIY pruned in the middle of the lawn...

We've purposefully not been posting information from Tophill Low on sightings as we feel it unfair to tantalise our regulars (and indeed incite people to visit).  We will be adding some trail camera footage now and again but not giving a running commentary.  Once some breeding species are firmly established we may put an update on later.  Suffice to say all is well - a few scenery shots to show it still exists:

The main point we would like to get across is that whilst Tophill Low Nature Reserve is closed to the public; It is still staffed with site monitoring being undertaken every day

Whilst getting to see the wildlife is undoubtedly a perk we have a rota of checks to ensure that environmental permitting is upheld, sluices and water controls are working and not blocked or flooded, livestock checked, and our safety and security responsibilities as a landowner upheld.  Tophill Low's main purpose is a drinking water supply and as key workers we do not want our process engineers needlessly placed in contact with members of the public that shouldn't be on site.  In addition we also have constant updates from residents at Tophill Low keeping a watchful eye and reporting all incursions - suddenly having to drive 3 miles to the nearest village for years has come into its own and they would undoubtly like to keep it that way.  We also have the usual CCTV and various trail cameras monitoring all corners of the site. 

So all incidents like the couple in a vehicle attempting to drive in off the river bank today (illegal without Environment Agency permission), or these two trespassing and illegally fishing on Watton Nature Reserve on Friday (and potentially disturbing schedule one species) have been reported to Humberside Police. 

Whilst it may seem a good place to isolate and exercise 'away from people' please respect the site and its wildlife and particularly those whom live and key work at Tophill Low and stay away.  As many have observed this is a once in a lifetime event for wildlife also - and even if not this season we expect some of the increases in species and nesting on site will return for next year if everyone is sensible and is something positive to look forward to out of this. 

Wednesday, 1 April 2020

Wildlife on your doorstep

April 1st 2020

Due to the current circumstances I, like all the staff and volunteers, am missing being a part of the incredible team at Tophill Low. It's been a few months since a school group has visited the reserve as the last group visit was at the end of November. Meanwhile, I have been in local schools working with pupils learning about all things to do with water and in particular the problems of flooding in Hull. Ironic when you consider the situation at Tophill back in January. So learning has been taking place; whether it's inside the classroom or out on the reserve working alongside children who are so enthusiastic about everything new that you can teach them, is a great buzz.

Now, for everyone, it's completely different and I've been producing, along with my colleagues, some on line resources for Yorkshire Water's education web pages to get pupils learning at home. There are activities on the site about cleaning water, poo power, saving water, the water cycle and also learning about the environment outdoors. Please visit Education resources to access a wealth of information you can use with your children at home.

One pond in my garden is made from an old sink

Purple violets are now flowering and attracting insects

And I have been learning at home too. By taking the time at home that we all have a little more of, I've been spending much more time observing the birds and wildlife just outside my door. My garden is obviously not on the scale of Tophill Low but if you plan and manage your garden in a wildlife friendly way then you can create your very own nature reserve. I have a couple of ponds where about a month ago we saw mating common frogs, there is a log pile harbouring woodlice, millipedes and spiders, flowering purple violets attracting early emerging bees and a clump of ornamental grass which I know has been used by a hedgehog over winter. Even spending time weeding my flower beds I have discovered a type of bee fly and there's been plenty of ladybirds. But with all these animals I know the family but not quite the species so I've been trying to learn them which has been quite a daunting task on occasion but fascinating too. There's always something to learn about the wildlife around you.

Even in fields where you might think you have a good knowledge of species, in my case birds, there is always something to learn. Common garden birds make an ideal subject in the present circumstances and by spending more time watching I'm finding out more about some of the common visitors to my garden. Feeding hierarchy at the bird table and feeders is very prevalent with a pack of long tailed tits only ever visiting early in the morning. Coal tits very rarely stay long on the feeders, quickly taking their seed and flying off, whereas blue tits and great tits spend much longer with great tits preferring to use the perches on the seed feeder, the blue tit clinging onto the wire on the fat balls. The size difference in coal tit and great tit is very noticeable if they arrive together but looking at these two species the plumage pattern on the face is very similar. Top of the pecking order in my garden are a very healthy colony of tree sparrows who seem to nest everywhere, from the dedicated line of boxes we've put up to behind a wall bracket for a flower basket. There is so much more to learn and I am looking forward to taking the opportunity of doing so.

Coal tit and great tit showing their very similar face plumage

Yesterday I took part in a challenge that gave a bit of competition to my garden birding and that was to join virtual teams across the globe in their own bird races to support the Champions of the Flyway project that runs every year in Israel to highlight and fund raise for projects linked to the plight of migrating birds. Every time I went out in the garden or looked out of the window I recorded the species that I saw, whether they were feeding in the garden, flying over or I could see them in the fields that adjoin our property. By the time night fell I had recorded 37 species and my husband had also seen a red legged partridge from his office, so 38 in total. Although there had been some omissions like the great spotted woodpecker that normally visits every day and the barn owl that hunts across the fields that I can usually see at dusk from the house, I was pleased with the total and especially delighted to find a pair of prospecting pied wagtails around some ivy in the garden and a roosting little owl in the field hedge. 

Pied wagtail on the lawn

There are plenty of images, challenges, videos, quizzes, reports and fantastic photos to enthuse and inspire you on a variety of social media platforms as well as all those books on our shelves that we haven't dipped into for a long time. So if you can, seize this strange opportunity that we have to stay at home and really enjoy the wildlife that we have on our own doorsteps.