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April Rat and Drought Alert

The title may look rather alarming, I’m referring to the RAT of course but it could equally well be the serious drought! More about ‘the rat’ later. Firstly my apologies for not writing my blog last month, but I was away on rather a lovely holiday (one of ‘my readers’ actually noticed – so Thank-you Mary!).

I did return in time to join the litter-pick on March 17th when the reserve was looking incredibly tidy, with cleared glades and meadows and last year’s undergrowth well rotted back, all ready for the new spring. Small stinging nettles, hogweed, cow parsley, goose grass, dog’s mercury and wild arum were already starting to create a new green carpet. Celandine leaves covered the damp places. Ten days of seriously high temperatures for March have followed, so now the yellow celandine flowers are open and many trees are already in leaf – horse chestnuts have unfurled their buds enough for the flowers to show through; willows are dripping with greenery, elder is open and sycamore buds are beginning to swell. At the top of the park the daffodils are so early that they will have peaked before the holidays. I was slightly amazed to hear a cock pheasant call from around the meadow area on the 17th, and even more surprised when a female appeared on our lawn (a considerable distance from the meadow!) a fewdays later. Now alerted by Peter that a male and three hen pheasants have taken up residence close to the hide, the reason is apparent …… ready access to grainon the ground, which brings us back to ‘the rat’…. obviously there for the same reason. This morning , as well as watching the brilliantly coloured cock pheasant strutting in the meadow, I watched the brown rat make five trips out from the dead reed mace cover to gather mouthfuls of small stalks, taking them back to build a nest in a convenient ‘grain raiding’ location. Unfortunately, this is the wrong sort of rat, it’s ‘ratty’ the water vole that we’d like to see back in the park.

I also went out this morning to listen to bird-song: migrant chiff chaffs and blackcaps, wrens by the river and nuthatch ‘whe-het’ calls from the tree tops. It was enjoyable in the sunshine, although it was 10 degrees cooler than last week. I chose to walk through the northern end of the reserve, from the playing fields, to see the full extent of the lack of ground water. The three new ponds are completely dry and the old established ‘Archie’s pond’ just has mud with a few moorhen footprints, no water at all. The loss of this pond will be very serious as the great crested newts would have returned here to breed earlier in the year. Frog spawn, despite being protected by jelly, was left rotting in the small channel, which flowed from springs in the watercress beds, after it dried up – as shown in Bridget’s photos. This small stream, regularly cleared in autumn by FoCP and HMWT members, used to be delightful to see, with its clear water and gravel bed; a serious loss to us but even more so to the invertebrates, such as caddis fly, dragonfly and damsel fly whose larvae would have been developing there. Signal crayfish, our alien invaders, would have been left high and dry, unless they made it back to the river; even here the levels are much lower now, with a wide area of reeds to each bank and scarcely any water flowing over the weirs. This drought is getting to be a very serious issue and a summer deluge of 2007 proportions will be needed to restore the aquifers. Watford’s water is supplied from artesian wells under the chalk and without doubt abstraction by humans for industry, agriculture and homes is contributing to the loss of our chalk streams. Whilst we wait for rain, everyone will have to start to conserve water and reduce usage. Good advice from the Watford U3A gardening group is to plant fewer potted plants this summer as they do require so much watering, and to use recycled water whenever possible.

Nature usually has a way of bouncing back, but not always – loss of biodiversity is a real possibility – but regrettably I have last minute news – the rat count is rising!

Elizabeth Gower 1st April 2012