Craigvinean :: Chapter 9 - The Towford Conservation Area

Chapter 9 - The Towford Conservation Area

For centuries man has been destroying or modifying the natural habitats of many kinds of wildlife. This has led to a marked decline in the numbers and variety of plants and animals over most of the country. This process can be reversed. If a suitable habitat is provided many plants and animals will re-establish themselves.

The Project in Outline

In 1972, local landowners gifted approximately four hectares of land at the Towford Centre to Roxburgh Education Authority for use as a small wildlife conservation area. For some years trees had been planted on a small scale to attract wild birds but the generous gift of land opened the way for a much more ambitious long-term project. The basic aim of the project is to provide the greatest possible variety of habitats, consistent with the nature of the site, for colonisation by wildlife species.

The site was first examined very carefully and, after consultations with the Nature Conservancy Council and the Forestry Commission, a management plan for the enclosure was drawn up. It should be noted that there were no special features on the original site and that similar conditions existed over many miles of Cheviot country. The range of habitats was very restricted and no environmental damage was likely to result from the proposed habitat enrichment programme.

The basic principle on which the area is managed is very simple. Nature exploits every possible niche in the environment. By providing a wide range of habitats it is very likely that through time these will be colonised by a variety of plants and animals. The colonisers, plant or animal, will in turn become hosts or prey for a wider range of organisms, leading eventually to a fairly complex eco-system. The early stages of this project have been very successful indeed and there is no doubt that through time the enclosure will contain a very wide variety of wildlife species.

Tree Planting

Most of Britainís wildlife is adapted to a woodland existence. Planting trees is therefore one way of providing for a great variety of insects, birds and mammals. Following well-established conservation principles, most of the tree species planted at Towford are those originally native to the Southern Uplands. These include oak, birch, rowan, hazel, holly, hawthorn, gean, willow and alder, chosen because they have large numbers of associated insects or because they provide a crop of edible seeds, berries or other fruits. Winter migrants, such as redwings, can make good use of a berry crop and summer migrants, such as the warblers, will be attracted by large numbers of insects. Trees provide roosts, nest sites and cover from predators as well as a basic food supply. Several hundred trees have already been established and planting will continue over the next few years. It has to be accepted that trees grow very slowly and that it will be some time until the various plantings taken on the characteristics of true woodland.

The planting of willows has provided a food supply for various caterpillars, including the larve of Puss, Poplar Hawk and Coxcomb Prominent moths. Without the willows these moths would not be there. Caterpillars provide a ready food supply for small birds, which in turn may be preyed on by such birds as Kestrel and Sparrow Hawk. Another insect coloniser, is the very large Birch Sawfly, first noted in 1975, and now well established on the young birch trees. In 1977 the Pine Looper caterpillar appeared in large numbers on several of the pine trees. This particular species may have to be treated as a pest, if it threatens to defoliate too many of the young pines.

Apart from these moth larvae, various gallforming insects are also exploiting this newly created habitat of young trees. Bean galls are appearing on the willows, bedeguar galls on the briars and marble galls on the oaks, to mention just three examples.

Tree protectors have had to be used to minimise bark stripping by hares and roe deer, though it has been noted that damaged trees usually put on new growth from the base.

Ground Cover

The fact that the enclosure is fenced to prevent grazing by cattle and sheep has led to the development of a thick mat of vegetation, providing extra cover for small mammals and nesting birds. The voles which make their runs beneath the surface mat are preyed on by fox and kestrel, both of which frequent the enclosure. Stoats do occur in the Towford area but have not so far been recorded in the enclosure. It is extremely likely that they are also feeding on the voles, which are present in large numbers. Briar and bramble have been planted to increase the ground cover for nesting birds although the very strong-growing tufted hair grass already reaches over 1Ĺm in places. At least four pairs of whinchats nested on the ground within the enclosure in 1975, with similar numbers in the following two years. Other successful ground-nesters include skylark, meadow-pipit, yellow wagtail, curlew and mallard. Willow warbler, grasshopper warbler and sedge warbler have all been noted, the last of which successfully reared young in 1977.

Ponds and Wetlands

Many kinds of wildlife are adapted to living in, on, or near to water - streams, ponds, ditches, marshes, etc. The flat haughland in the centre grounds is therefore being exploited to provide as many water areas as possible. The Kale Water itself provides many different niches for various kinds of fish and invertebrates in its fast and slow moving sections.

A major step forward was the excavation of the large pool in the Centre grounds in April, 1974. This pond was established specifically for wildlife and is not intended for any kind of recreational use. It has both deep and shallow areas and its level is maintained by the dam constructed across the Kale Water. Aquatic plants were introduced from local lochs and ponds and many of these are now strongly established. By the summer of 1977 large areas of reed-mace and bur-reed had developed from single plants put into the raw clay just after the pond was completed. Many other plants, such as Water Milfoil, Potomogeton, Water Bistort, Water Plantain, Greater Spearwort, Water Crowfoot, Wild Flag and Water Mint are also well established.

The pond has already been colonised by a great variety of invertebrates, many of which arrived with the transfer of aquatic plants. Frogs, toads, newts, minnows, loach, sticklebacks, trout and eels have also found their way or have been introduced to the pond. Thousands upon thousands of young frogs emerge from the pond in early summer, many of them to be eaten, no doubt, by mallards or teal. Swans, wild duck, water hens and herons all make use of the pond and it is hoped to build a bird-watching hide close to the pond at some time in the future.

Several small ponds have been created to add further diversity and these are very sensitive to disturbance. The plant and animal population in each is different in some way from the others. Further small ponds will be created through time, utilising the cut-off channels of the river Kale.

Marshland Area

A start was made in late 1975 to create an area of open marshland. This is very strenuous work and will inevitable proceed slowly but the results should be well worthwhile. Such open marsh should attract wading birds such as Woodcock, Redshank, Curlew and Snipe to feed and possibly to nest within the grounds. By 1977 the small area already cleared had taken on many of the characteristics of true marsh and birdís footprints in the mud show that it is already in use as a feeding site.

Heather

There are only two small patches of heather in the Centre grounds, both of which are a precious asset. One patch at the rear of the Centre is subject to considerable recreational pressure; the other is being invaded by bracken but this is now being cut back each spring. These heather patches attract a great variety of insects when in bloom and form the food plant of the very handsome Emperor and Northern Eggar moth larvae. Green-coloured specimens of the Common Lizard are often seen in the heather areas, no doubt attracted by the insects. Black and Red Grouse come in to feed on the young heather shoots. Individual plants of heather, away from the two main areas, are growing away strongly now that they are no longer grazed by sheep.

Log Piles

Dead timber is another type of habitat for a wide range of fungi and insects. Piles of logs have been stacked to provide such a habitat but it is essential that they are not disturbed or mistaken for firewood if the experiment is to be a success. Stone piles have also been planned to provide further habitat variety.

Paths and Seats

Various paths are being cut to facilitate movement about the enclosure and also to localise disturbance. A short-grass play area has been cleared and mown and two seats have been placed at strategic points. Visitors may like to know that the seats are baulks of solid oak, each weighing about half a tonne.

Biological Recording

It is essential that the progress of the habitat enrichment scheme be recorded and monitored and every opportunity is taken to note any facts relevant to the ecology of the area. Visitors can assist in biological recording by adding notes to the log-book kept in the Centre for this purpose.

Most of the land in the enclosure was gifted to the Authority by the late Duke of Roxburghe. A smaller area was added by Mr Tweedie of Buchtrig. Without the generosity of these landowners, the Towford Scheme would not have been possible. Originally, the staff of the Regional Outdoor Education Department also wish to place on record their thanks to Mr Batchelor, (the then) Factor of Roxburghe Estates, for arranging the transfer of land and also for the help of the estate in fencing the enclosure. The original work in the Towford Centre grounds was undertaken mainly by pupils from Kelso High School, led by Mr A. Sutherland, who has had a long association with the Centre. Visitors are asked to respect the vast amount of work involved in tree-planting, dam-building, bank-works, etc., by not interfering with any of the projects in hand.