Friday, 10 January 2020

Winter closure

After a series of discussions regretfully Tophill Low Nature Reserve will remain closed this winter due to the ongoing flood risk.
Whilst the river level has fallen and the rain eased, the section of Environment Agency river bank north of Hempholme Lock has sustained damage and is compromised.  Since the last posting the EA have installed plastic piles to try and reduce water tracking through the top soils which has helped, but this is just a temporary measure.  If there is another prolonged bout of rainfall again combined with high tides it could still be over-washed damaging the defences further.   The unpredictable nature of this means we could be stop-starting access all through winter. 

If the river were to breach, whilst Tophill is slightly higher, the access road would become flooded quite rapidly stranding people within the site.   The Water Works is protected within the flood barricade with pumps on standby ready to maintain its operation and protect the operatives inside.  A multi-agency meeting of the TCG (Tactical Co-ordinating Group) incorporating amongst others the Police and Humberside Fire and Rescue, the Environment Agency and Yorkshire Water considered the priorities in the event of a breach and it has been determined the residential houses will be prioritised.

The issue with the reserve as a third party is that we have variable numbers of staff, volunteers and visitors often in unknown and remote corners of the site.  As such it is very difficult to plan and risk assess for such an incident.  The only way to control and mitigate this risk is to restrict access for non-essential persons.  As Yorkshire Water has very high standards of health and safety this has been the decision taken at a senior level. 

The other factor is that the Environment Agency is imminently starting installation of 550 metres of steel piling to create a permanent repair.  As the bank is unstable and space limited work is being undertaken from the river Hull on a pontoon.  The reserve car park has been commandeered for the contractor compound and pile storage.  With heavy vehicles transporting equipment the site will become subject to the Construction (Design and Management) regulations 2007 and we can’t mix visitors amongst this.  24 hours security will be present on the reserve gates protecting the site. 

For further information on the Environment Agency works they can be contacted on this link.

So when will we re-open?
At present the Environment Agency is still developing the time frame so we aren’t totally sure.  My hope is that the work will go well and the weather will be kind, allowing us time to complete half-finished winter work projects and prep ready for the new membership season.  Realistically I expect no further certainty for six weeks. 

For our members whom have taken out a year’s membership to run until March 31st we’ll be redeeming the lost months of annual membership against the 2020-21 season; to be determined when we know our re-opening date.
What about the wildlife?
Likely having a whale of a time with no human presence!  On our recent visit the kestrel has taken over the Reception hide:
And kingfisher was having a great time fishing the pond outside (and at least the rainfall has filled that up).  
Some big numbers of wildfowl have been present but unfortunately we won’t know this winter.   At least it’ll be very interesting returning and seeing how the wildlife has taken over the reserve again. 

What about the Tophill team?
By permission Amy and I can visit during the EA progress meetings weekly, so it's pleasing to hear there will be 24 hour security on duty in our absence.  Amongst catching up on the admin backlog, Amy will be working on the Yorkshire Water initiative to plant 1 million trees by 2025 across the region to meet the company aspiration to become carbon neutral by 2030.  I'll be working on Yorkshire Water's Local Wildlife Site enhancement initiative taking place over the next five years to conserve conservation interests on Yorkshire Water landholdings across the region.  You may also spot some of the volunteers around too as they visit our contemporary reserves to learn more from reserve staff on their conservation and management work and bring the best bits back to Tophill in spring and ensure we keep the excellent team together.

The future? 
I have no concerns on the long term future of the reserve;  Flooding or not, the site and its wildlife will survive, we've invested a lot of time and funds in creating a great reserve in recent years and although its a shame to interrupt the great feedback we get from visitors near and far, I'm confident when we do return the wildlife as ever will quickly put us back on the map.  Perhaps the bigger picture is that this whole episode will channel many organisations energies into a wider discussion on sustainable floodplain management, drainage and farming in the face of climate change and sea level rise, with all the potential biodiversity opportunities that presents. 

Tuesday, 17 December 2019

Christmas closure

Unfortunately after reviewing the ongoing situation on Monday it has been decided the reserve will have to remain closed into the new year. 

Whilst the Environment Agency flood defences at Bethell's Bridge held up during last weekends high tides and rainfall, the banks were again over-topped (inlcuding the new sand bags laid down).  You can see the peak in the river on Friday 13th and it would seem anything above 3.7m overtop occurs:

with continued evidence of damage:

The sand bagging operation is a slow down rather than the solution - which is to drive sheet piling into the banks.  The EA is fast tracking this process which should be getting underway soon.  However all access will be through the reserve car park with additional compounds and work areas going up another factor. 

The tides are falling now but due to peak again on the 27th - and with wet weather again in the mix on saturated ground and very high tributaries we could well be in the same scenario again before the permanent repairs are made.  Due to the high river level there needs to be a delay in pumping out the Barmston Drain afterwards to allow the river to drop down again; You can see the impact of Friday 13th rain on the drain level at Wilfholme here;

So rather than try and juggle an opening of the reserve it will remain closed.  If the river were to breach it seems sensible to not add reserve visitors, volunteers and staff into the mix whom aren't necessary unlike the Water Treatment Works operatives and residents.  The Water Treatment works is now fully armoured with flood barriers and pumps and will stay this way for some time. 

Engineers are checking the barriers every three hours and will be monitoring the reserve also for security.  Please do not attempt to visit.  The car park is locked as are all bird hides on site. 

Unfortunately it also means that the photography exhibtion will be postponed also - along with the annual new year's day year listing event.  2019 has been a memorable year in many ways and perhaps the highlight for me has been the reserve's return to form for wading birds with the glossy ibis, spoonbills and white rumped sandpiper from the new Izzard hide.  Thanks to everyone whom has helped out over the year and here's to a drier 2020... 

Monday, 9 December 2019

Reserve to remain closed until at least Monday 16th

An update on the flood risk issues which have temporarily closed the reserve;

If you have been in East Yorkshire this autumn you’ll have perhaps noticed the rain – after 18 months of very little rainfall we have had 170% of average rainfall according to the met office (or 9” of rain in Beverley in November according to resident meteorologist Mike Fishwick).
We have been in similar scenarios before such as back in 2012 as per the Tophill blog then .  So the river Hull brimming is not un-precedented (John Barnard):
The river levels height shows that the river reached within 60mm of its all-time record:

The difference in these scenarios is the level dropped back again within a few days and the pressure receded.  However, this year the level has been high for so many weeks.  This was filmed this back in November and it has been at this level consistently for a month:
(It should be noted that the EA is currently requesting no walking on the banks).   Whilst the levels on surrounding farmland and in the Barmston Drain have fallen this is because it is mechanically pumped into the river by the EA and the main channel height has not fallen.  High tides at the end of last week have caused further over-topping compromising the structure of the flood defences north of the reserve:

The last time the river breached was in 1953; here is the post being delivered to neighboring Standingholme Farm:
You may be familiar with our river level board on red route – this shows the water level of the adjacent river Hull compared to the reserve:  
It does not take too much imagination to consider the impacts if the river escapes so all efforts are being put in by the Environment Agency at present to sure up the defences; set in the context we still have most of winter to go. 

It is easy to walk in this landscape and take it for granted as just ‘flat land’ – but in its natural form the river Hull valley was a vast wetland until the 1800’s.   Much of it is at or below sea level and ‘Top hill’ was effectively an island surrounded by marshes and carr land:
And is still echoed in November's flood alert:
This was the realm of local folk legend ‘old stinker’ and why we keep him alive at Tophill Low to illustrate this past landscape: 
It also exists in local place names ‘Beverley, Cranswick, Storkhill’ etc.  To read more this link takes you to June Sheppard’s history of drainage in the Hull Valley.  Maggie Smith from Tophill is currently working on the Tophill Low book we hope for release in mid-2020 which will explain more again.  Additional good reads are Ian Rotherham’s ‘Yorkshire’s forgotten Fenlands’ and ‘Becks banks drains and Brains – the drainage history of the river Hull.’

In the here and now the landscape is very artificial and has been of great debate since 2007.  Many local farmers are taking a proactive approach to continued flood risk with farming interests, flood management and biodiversity all benefiting.  The Leven Carrs scheme with Natural England and Albanwise is a great example: 
In the immediacy though we have changeable weather this week and a spring tide on Saturday the 14th: (

Once this has passed we hope we can re-evaluate on Monday the 16thHowever, certainly until this point Tophill Low Nature Reserve will remain closed as at present we can’t assure that visitors and staff can safely be notified and leave the site if the level should suddenly rise.

The water treatment works is the main priority on site and has been protected with 1300 metres of flood barricade and high capacity pumps. 

Unfortunately this Saturday’s planned mammal safari event is cancelled as a result along with group visits.  We very much hope that we will be OK for the winter photography exhibiton starting on the 21st.  Please hang on to your entries until the reserve is notified open again.  Thank you to those whom have already brought them down (they are stored safe).  The worst case is we may need to postpone. 

In the interim please do not attempt to visit the reserve as the car park is closed and the engineers are currently running the show.  As you can imagine for Tophill volunteers and visitors it is an ordeal as many of them call it home; we’ll work to re-open as soon as deemed safe.   

Sunday, 8 December 2019

Flood risk

Tophill Low is temporarily closed due to flood risks as of the 06th December.  The Environment Agency are currently undertaking repair works and we hope to be back to normal soon.   More details to follow. 

Thursday, 6 June 2019

Open day and opening

We're well into summer now and the annual open day is almost upon us, but there's been plenty of excitement already this year anyway.  It must be one of the most memorable breeding years to date on the reserve - success has been variable already but in diversity it must be unbeaten.  The marsh harriers were an early spectacle with some superb views of food passes etc Brian Blinkhorn:
However the pesky fox which cleared the marshes between 2015 and 17 has again overcome our defences.  In 2018 we finished the massive fencing project for summer leaving a 'horse shoe' - the open section at the rear being in deeper open water and too big a job to finish in time for nesting season.  We reasoned the obstacle was too big to overcome for the fox last year and we were rewarded with a great breeding season in 2018.  We assumed it would be the same for 2019.  Unfortunately though it appears to be skirting all around the perimeter of the fence, down the river bank, and then swimming across some very treacherous water to reach the interior and as such has cleared out most of the spits and is certainly active amongst the rushes of the northern archipelago - which is also where the harriers were active.
Whether it was the demise of the harriers is debatable.  Whilst they were active building and even mating, many suspected they were too young to breed - Jason Peacock:
Alas whichever, it has come to nothing although they are still present in the environs at North Marsh - where they were most displeased with this osprey filmed by Pat Hogarth:

The fox at least had the benefit of dislodging a rare summering bittern - Richard Horsman:  
So we know what we'll be doing this winter... Alas the same fate likely became the little ringed plovers which whilst still present are yet to commit anywhere - Sue Murray:
Common terns have been present albeit late this year.  Breeding is still to be determined with the best attempt seemingly on the cleared Watton NR islands.  Unfortunately one bird passed away in front of the Izzard hide - on closer inspection due to a prolapsed oviduct (egg bound) in spite of the valiant efforts of its upside-down ringed mate to keep feeding it until the end - Brian Blinkhorn:
 Roy Lyon:
Oystercatchers attempted to nest and got 3 chicks hatched on South Marsh West but were quickly predated.  Surviving gull chicks here points the finger at an avian predator; Perhaps the lesser black backed's which took the lapwings nesting on Hempholme Meadow - Steve Hines:
Sand martins have returned for a second year to the wall - Tony Platten:
Whilst some ungrateful individuals are excavating opposite the izzard hide.  The other digger proved elusive with kingfishers but a fleeting glimpse until last week when the first brood appeared - and for a change are favouring South Lagoon - but now spread all across site - Tony Simpson:
 Chris Barker:
The other stars have been the tawny owls seemingly now indifferent to their celebrity status - Steve Clipperton:
Higher up in the woodlands the herons go into their third year with at least two well developed chicks - Lynn Glasby:
Whilst the barn owls currently on TV in the reception hide are about to hatch out their 8 eggs - although how many of them will survive is up for debate:
A second pair also exists on the southern site - but on a different TV channel a new show rivals attentions; The Water Treatement Works kestrels - 5 eggs all now hatched and feeding voraciously:
Out in the wetlands wildfowl wise the garganey are a great addition and we assume a female is hidden away accompanying the two showy drakes - Brian Blinkhorn:
The goosander have been an enigma with at one stage a pair of birds present - Brian Blinkhorn:
For the first time in a while great crested grebe are attempting to nest - a nice accolade for the winter works in addition to the shelduck brood - Roy Lyon:
Otter too endorsing the works - Brian Colley:
Great spotted woodpeckers have already fledged - a nest above the main path going unnoticed by most.  Elsewhere cuckoo, grasshopper warbler and spotted flycatcher have all had a presence. 

So a varied year and plenty still to look forward to.  Spring wader passage made little impact this year - a few greenshank, common and green sandpipers, and sporadic whimbrel making little impression.  The only memorable beast was the long staying bar tailed godwit as a Tophill rarity - John Leason:
 Brian Colley:
Biggest rarity perhaps bird wise was the firecrest - John Leason:
Technically there have been fewer cattle egrets - but one gets the impression that the current bird feeding merrily amongst the bemused belted galloways is but the thin end of the wedge - Jason Peacock:
Chris Barker:
Steve Clipperton:
Spoonbill too is perhaps a bird we may see more of also - Lee Johnson:
John Barnard:
Autumn passage is the next thing on the horizon - and that's where all the main efforts are this year as spring has been so lacklustre.  Hopefully if the masses of fish fry outside Izzard hide are anything to go by it should be quite something.  However before all that we have the open day this Sunday the 9th.  It should be a great day with the exhibitor list now firmed up with the following;

Natural England - badge making and information
East Yorkshire Bat Group - conservation advice and live bat
Hedgehog rescue - Driffield and Langtoft - conservation adice
Holderness Hedgehog Hospital - conservation advice and fundraiser stall
Yorkshire Red Kites - Information stand
RSPB Bempton - Childrens activities and information
East Yorkshire Archaeology - local history information and river Hull artefacts
Second Nature Books - bird and wildlife book dealer
Duggleby's catering – sample some locally sourced beef or pulled pork sandwiches
Michael Flowers -   Birdwatching courses
Tophill Low Bird ringing team - survey work and demo on the reserve
John Naylor wildlife artist
East Yorkshire Rivers Trust - conservation info on local rivers
Yorkshire Water Biodiversity Invasive Non-Native Species team - advice on conservation and biosecurity
Humberside Police Wildlife crime unit - information and car
Tophill Low education Service - hands on craft and nature activities for children
Tophill Low moth demo - see the diversity of moths (10am)
Hull University – Zoology dept info on otters and grassland management
Green Future Buildings - builders of the Izzard hide - buy and construct a bird box and info
Josh Harrison Photography - wildlife photographer
Jan Taylor Wildlife Artist
Experience Community accessibility trust for disability users - advice and info
Cranedale Centre environmental activities for young and old
Yorkshire Wildlife Trust Living Seas Centre - information and displays
Steve Shipley Wildlife Photography
Living with Water Partnership – Hull & Haltemprice - info on flood risk
East Yorkshire Badger Protection group - conservation information
Tophill Low Membership stand and tombola -
 fundraiser for local conservation charities

Hopefully you can join us on the day; Due to capacity please note standard car parking will be directed in the fields at Easingwold Farm with a 400m walk to the Reception hide.  Usual car park reserved for blue badge holders. 

Nearly finished too is the new fish pass at Hempholme Lock - an incredible engineering feat - more pictures to come:

The other exciting news is that for the first time in 11 years there is a job opportunity on the reserve!  Due to the popularity of the site and the want for me to undertake conservation projects for Yorkshire Water further afield we have a brilliant opportunity for a Nature Reserve Apprentice role.  Deadline for applications is the 21st of June.  For full information visit this link - its a wonderful and rare opportunity for someone. 

Make the most of summer - a whooper swan, two goldeneye and a pink footed goose in early June is a little ominous!!