The great bogs of Ireland developed from fens thousands of years ago. Shallow lakes, invaded by sedges, teemed with fish amphibians and dragonflies, to the evocative sounds of warblers, water-rails and bitterns. Over time, dead vegetation built up in these primeval wetlands, contact with the ground-water was lost and the fens became raised bogs. A visit to East Anglia gives an impression of what our Irish midlands may have looked like long ago.
The market town of Ely developed on slightly raised ground surrounded by marshland in a great fen basin. Its name, ‘Eel island’, recalls the fisheries which once thrived there. A rebellious place, it was here, in 1072, that Hereward the Wake made his last stand against William the Conqueror. The town’s most famous son was the notorious Oliver Cromwell. The huge gothic cathedral, with its famous octagon, can be seen from far and wide.
Of course, the area today looks nothing like what it did in the past. Dutch engineers drained the wetlands in the 17th Century; 99% of them are gone. Only four of the original fens survive. The most famous is close to the village of Wicken, 8km north of the town.
This 900-hectare wilderness of swamps reed-beds and scrub is the oldest protected nature reserve in Britain. A virtual outdoor laboratory for the University of Cambridge, 15km away, it’s owned and managed by the National Trust. This, one of the most extensively studied areas of its size in Europe, has spawned a wealth of scientific papers on topics ranging from micro-organisms to birds.
Dr. Richard Collins (l) & Prof. Nick Davies (r) inside the old hide Tower on Wicken Fen
Professor Nick Davies first visited Wicken Fen over thirty years ago. He has been drawn to the place ever since. A Liverpool man, he studied natural sciences at Cambridge, graduating in 1973. His doctoral thesis there was on the feeding behaviour of insectivorous birds. In 1995, he became Professor of Behavioural Ecology at the University. Ground-breaking research on Dunnocks carried out by Professor Davies during the 1980’s, has revolutionised our understanding of the lives, not only of Dunnocks but of songbirds generally.
Left: Dunnock (photo by Shay Connolly); right: Cuckoo (photo by Marcin Karetta), courtesy of BirdWatch Ireland
Since then, he has turned his attention to cuckoos, studying them each summer at Wicken. His current focus is on the interactions between cuckoos and the reed warblers they trick into raising their young; ‘how cuckoo chicks manipulate their hosts and how hosts vary their costly defences in response to parasitism’ he declares on his website (http://www.zoo.cam.ac.uk/directory/nick-davies).
From left: the Old Tower Hide on Wicken Fen; Nick Davies, Derek Mooney and Richard Collins; Cuckoo chick in a reed warbler nest; Nick and Richard smile for the camera on the Fen
Derek Mooney and Dr. Richard Collins caught up with Nick Davies on a beautiful July day at Wicken. Dragonflies and butterflies were on the wing. Reed warblers sang, the unlucky ones oblivious to the cuckoo chicks squatting in their nests...
Hedgerows: It is an offence to 'cut, grub, burn or otherwise destroy hedgerows on uncultivated land during the nesting season from 1 March to 31 August, subject to certain exceptions'. For more information, click here.
UPDATE: February 29th 2016 - Press Release From BirdWatch Ireland:
Putting the record straight: Dates for burning and hedge-cutting have NOT changed
BirdWatch Ireland, Ireland’s largest conservation charity, is very concerned about misinformation that is currently circulating regarding the dates within which the burning of vegetation and cutting of hedges is permitted. It would like to remind landowners that all burning and cutting must cease on 29th February this year and that burning and cutting remains prohibited from 1st March to 31st August.
Despite attempts by the Minister for Arts, Heritage and the Gaeltacht, Heather Humphreys T.D., to change the laws regulating these dates by introducing the Heritage Bill 2016 earlier this year, it is important to note that the proposed date changes were ultimately NOT made. This is because the bill failed to pass through both houses of the Oireachtas before the recent dissolution of the Dáil in advance of the general election.
The laws in place governing the dates for hedge-cutting and upland burning therefore remain unchanged. The period within which cutting and burning is prohibited are set down in Section 40 of the Wildlife Act 1976 (as amended in 2000), which states that:
(a) It shall be an offence for a person to cut, grub, burn or otherwise destroy, during the period beginning on the 1st day of March and ending on the 31st day of August in any year, any vegetation growing on any land not then cultivated.
(b) It shall be an offence for a person to cut, grub, burn or otherwise destroy any vegetation growing in any hedge or ditch during the period mentioned in paragraph (a) of this subsection (above).
The existing law provides exemptions for road safety and other circumstances and should be read carefully to ensure compliance.
Section 40 of the Wildlife Act exists to protect nesting birds. Many of our upland bird species are in decline and are in danger of extinction in Ireland; amongst them is the Curlew, which has declined by 80%. Many birds which nest in hedgerows into August are also in serious decline, including the endangered Yellowhammer. The changes to the cutting and burning dates which had been proposed in the now-defunct Heritage Bill 2016 would have caused serious impacts to these birds. A petition launched by BirdWatch Ireland in conjunction with several other national conservation organisations to stop these changes attracted more than 16,200 signatures and rising.
BirdWatch Ireland would also like to advise members of the public that if they see hedges being cut or fires in the uplands on or after 1st March, such activity could be illegal. In such cases, we would encourage people to contact the National Parks and Wildlife Service (www.npws.ie) to report such activity.
BirdWatch Ireland warmly welcomes the demise of the Heritage Bill 2016 and sincerely hopes that any future administration will consider the importance of Ireland’s natural heritage and will not attempt to reintroduce such a flawed and damaging piece of legislation.
To contact your local wildlife ranger, click here for contact details. To read the Wildlife (Amendment) Act 2000, click here.
Please DO NOT send any live, dead or skeletal remains of any creature whatsoever to Mooney Goes Wild.
If you find an injured animal or bird, please contact the National Parks & Wildlife Service on 1890 20 20 21, or BirdWatch Ireland, on 01 281-9878, or visit www.irishwildlifematters.ie