Nick Tomalin, Site Manager of our new New Forest reserve RSPB Franchises Lodge, has been keeping a diary of his work on the site - and now that the land has fully been transferred to the RSPB, we can finally share his journey. Here are his first two installments, join us next week for more...
Welcome to my diary! I’ve never really written a diary before; not in the traditional sense. To me a diary is a personal thing, so perhaps this is more of a blog. Given that these words will be available online, it doesn’t seem quite the same process as getting your thoughts and emotions down on paper, to be shut away from the world. But I invite you to share my thoughts and emotions, not out of any deep desire to unload the burden of my mind onto the wider public, but because I am at the start of journey (temporally, not emotionally!) that I thought you might like to share with me. I hope it might be interesting, entertaining, and perhaps cathartic too!
My name is Nick Tomalin, and I am the Site Manager for a new RSPB reserve in the New Forest. The site is on the northern edge of the Forest, and contains nearly 1000 acres of woodland (including wood pasture, broadleaved woodland and plantation forestry), as well as some wet mires and some grassland. It has been in private hands for many years, without a great deal of public access, so we don’t know exactly what is there. For that reason, I will be exploring the area as much as I can, and I will post updates on here (and twitter?) with any exciting finds or photos as I find them. I may even share my thoughts and emotions with you! If you want to follow my progress as I uncover the secret forest, then please read on!
Photo 1: RSPB Franchises Lodge by Clare Elcoate
Tuesday 5 December: Feet on the ground!
We have land! This is my first visit to the site since the first parcel of land was transferred to the RSPB. A whole day to go off exploring new tracks and paths to see what is there. But I am not wandering aimlessly around the site alone. Today I accompanied by some extra expertise: Al, who was checking tree safety issues; Victoria, who was keen to assess safety issues around any infrastructure; and Dante, who wanted to look at the condition of the tracks and boundaries. These early checks are vital to ensure we meet any requirements for Health and Safety legislation and any other obligations as landowners, such as boundary fencing. But they are also invaluable for us to get to know the site, to understand how we access different areas, and to see what is there!
Much of the area we covered was within the Special Area of Conservation (SAC). This is a designation that recognises particularly important features on the site, and gives them protected status. In this case the features are bryophytes – mostly lichens of international importance! We have about 66ha of SAC on the site, and though the rest is not designated, we hope that suitable habitat management in time will allow some of these areas to become more important for relevant species and habitats.
Photo 2: Internationally important lichen by Terry Bagley
The species highlights from today include three woodcock that burst out of the vegetation by the side of the path. These dumpy waders spent their winters in our woodlands before migrating east to breeding areas, though some remain to breed in the UK. Research by the Game and Wildlife Conservation Trust shows that some undertake huge migrations each year, moving as far east as Siberia.
It was a genuine privilege to be wandering the paths and tracks and navigating the site. It’s on days like these that I am reminded why I do this job. Too often I find myself stuck at my desk staring out, and I could feel the excitement building at the prospect of being on site more often. For now I will have to be patient, as there is plenty of work to be done from the office to help us set up the site. But it did feel like the kind of day where we might look back in years to come and realise what a significant step it was being on our own land for the first time.
Monday 8 January: Work begins
After a few days of windy weather I realised it would be a good idea to walk the public rights of way to check if any branches or trees had come down. Following reports of a tree on the byway, I called in the assistance of our Ecological Services team, complete with chainsaws. They made very short work of the tree, and I put them to good use clearing some dead fruit trees around the cottage. Franchises Cottage has been derelict for some years, and we hope to be able to use it for something suitable in the future, but for now it needs to be made safe. The rubbish and fire pits around the building are testament to the most recent usage there. Around the building were four old apple trees, but they had grown heavy with the weight of fruit and, left unattended, three of them had toppled and were either dead or dying, with one of them now leaning on the building. Thankfully the fourth remains upright, and we hope that some careful pruning will reinvigorate this old tree.
Photo 3: Fruit tree maintenance
The team had also brought the angle-grinder and a generator with them to deal with some pieces of rusty metal that were protruding from the stonework around the cottage. These were just small enough to go unnoticed by anyone climbing on the concrete structures, but large enough to cause damage if landed on, so they had to go. These are the kinds of jobs that will likely occupy much of my time in the first few months. There is still more work to be done at the cottage, but to have people and machinery on the site, and actual work carried out for the first time, feels very satisfying.
After the work was done, I took the opportunity to check the boundaries. The southern boundary borders the perambulation – the area on which commoners have the right to graze animals. Although that right does not extend to the reserve itself, as we share a boundary it is important to ensure that the fence is stock-proof so that animals do not get lost wandering onto our land. Most of the boundary was in good enough condition, but in one or two places the fence had been cut. We will need to work out who is accessing the site and why, and of course to fix the fence so that animals do not wander in. That will be added to my list of jobs!
Nick Tomalin, Site Manager of RSPB Franchises Lodge, reveals how his love for birds started at an early age (causing some embarrassment during his teenage years!), and his excitement to manage our first reserve in the New Forest for wildlife and for people
When I was about eight years old I remember getting the latest magazine from the Young Ornithologists Club (YOC), of which I was a member. Aged eight, I hadn’t fully grasped the concept of cool, though I doubt the YOC was an organisation that represented trendiness for its young members. Inside the magazine I was delighted to find a competition to design a nature reserve. There was a map, a budget, and various habitat options that the novice reserve designer could purchase and place around the site as desired. I can’t remember what was at my reserve, nor did I win the competition, but it did establish in my mind the concept of managing habitats for particular species.
Photo 1: A young Nick Tomalin, enjoying his favorite pastime!
Through my teenage years I kept my birdwatching hobby to myself as I became more self-aware and the opinions of my peers mattered more than my interest in birds. Indeed the mere phrase ‘interest in birds’ was usually willingly misconstrued with a massive lack of subtlety! I found the two were largely mutually exclusive. Very few of my teenage crushes yearned for a boyfriend who could boast keeping a checklist of birds seen in the UK. But I loved biology, soaked up natural history programmes, and decided to study zoology at University. Some of the students had a passing interest in the subject, but most went on to become teachers or accountants. I wanted more, and so I continued my environmental studies by taking a Masters degree. Here I was among my kind! A troop of like-minded naturalists, sharing their passion for the great outdoors, revelling in the knowledge and understanding of the world around them. We studied species and habitats, genetics, population dynamics, and conservation biology. On Wednesdays we did practical management: felling trees, doing surveys, and ringing birds.
Photo 2: Nick Tomalin enjoying the great outdoors!
I knew this was the career path for me, and when I left I took all that I had learned and found myself a job with the RSPB. For over ten years I have been conserving farmland birds on species recovery projects, working with farmer and landowners to implement suitable habitat management on their holding to encourage farmland birds, notably the cirl bunting and stone-curlew. Now a new opportunity has presented itself. The RSPB has just acquired land in the New Forest, RSPB Franchises Lodge nature reserve, and I have been charged with setting it up! I am quite certain that it more complicated than having a map and a budget and a few management options, but this is hugely exciting nevertheless.
Photo 3: Stone curlew by Andy Hay (rspb-images.com) Photo 4: Cirl bunting by Andy Hay (rspb-images.com)
The new reserve contains 386ha of woodland, including wood pasture, broadleaved woodland and plantation forestry, as well as some wet mires and some grassland. The area has been mostly private for many years, and so we don’t really know much about what is there yet. We know that it contains a good woodland bird assemblage, and the area is known to be botanically interesting, including an internationally important lichen community. So we know what could or should be there, and hope to carry out surveys to help us determine appropriate management in due course. Only then will we be able to start contemplating which management options to select and where to put them on the map.
Photo 5: RSPB Franchises Lodge by Clare Elcoate
But the map is where the real interest lies. Aerial photography from the 1950s shows us where certain habitats like heathland used to be found, and gives us clues as to what could be restored or recreated in time. The reserve connects patches of protected land. There are certain species that remain in these isolated areas that could be linked to one another through suitable habitat management on the site. Management of neighbouring areas by other organisations will allow us to further that impact, by sharing knowledge and resources, and achieving together what none of us could do in isolation. This landscape-scale approach to conservation gives us a huge opportunity to make a significant difference to conservation, recreation and economic objectives within the New Forest National Park. All in good time.
Photo 6: Wood sorrell at RSPB Franchises Wood by Terry Bagley
For now I will have to be patient, as will you! The site has limited access currently with only a couple of public footpaths crossing it. There is no car park and no toilets, and for the short-term at least there will be no facilities on site. Firstly we need to understand the place, to learn where the key areas are for certain species and habitats, and to figure out how to unlock its potential. Although we want people to enjoy it, we will not be encouraging people to visit beyond the rights of way until we know more about the impact of those visitors on the wildlife and the local community.
So watch this space! I hope to have more exciting news and discoveries as we get onto the site and start to explore and find those hidden wildlife treasures. I think my eight year old self would think this is pretty cool! Keep up-to-date with news about RSPB Franchises Lodge and opportunities to help by following this blog, our Facebook page here, and our Twitter feed @RSPBSouthWest
Photo 7: RSPB Franchises Wood by Terry Bagley
Guest Blog by Julie Melin-Stubbs, Wildlife and Conservation Manager at the New Forest National Park Authority
Hi, I’m Julie Melin-Stubbs, Wildlife and Conservation Manager at the New Forest National Park Authority and Manager of the New Forest Land Advice Service. We work with a wide number of organisations, businesses and individuals to protect the Forest, support commoning and ensure the wildlife and traditional ways of life here are preserved for future generations.
Photo 1: Julie Melin-Stubbs
It’s well known that New Forest is a world capital for wildlife – over half the National Park is protected for its international importance for nature.
It is the most significant area in Europe for ponds, has the most lowland heathland in northern Europe, the greatest density of ancient trees in western Europe and has an incredible number of rare plant and wildlife species, several of which only exist in the New Forest and a handful of other sites.
Photo 2: Wild Gladiolus, nr. Denny Wood
It’s clear that this is an exceptionally special place. So I was extremely excited when in 2015 I heard that Franchises Lodge, part of the Hamptworth Estate, had come onto the market. Like much of our countryside, the New Forest is under pressure and there is an urgent need to make our precious wildlife sites better and more joined up in order to truly protect them now and in the future. Here was a rare chance – a once-in-a-generation chance - to turn a huge piece of the jigsaw puzzle in the north of the National Park into a special place for nature linked to the Open Forest.
This is an incredible opportunity for both wildlife and people. I will never forget the day I spoke to the RSPB and found to my delight they were interested in exploring the opportunity of acquiring the land. This significant site of 200 acres – the size of 265 football pitches – in the north of the Forest is particularly fascinating as, unlike the Open Forest, the vast majority has never been seen or enjoyed by the public; a secret forest.
At the Franchises Lodge site, nature has almost had free reign in some areas and in other areas commercial forestry has been introduced. There are some woodland areas of the gifted land which are so special they have been designated as a Site of Special Scientific Interest, but we’re certain that more treasures will be revealed as the RSPB investigates further and starts to manage the land specifically for wildlife and for people to enjoy.
We are excited to have the RSPB as a land manager partner in the Forest for the first time and are looking forward to working closely with them and having their expertise, their staff and volunteers, as well as their national voice, to help us protect the National Park – one of the most precious landscapes in the UK.
Photo 3: RSPB Franchises Lodge by Terry Bagley
This is a long-term project and will take time, working with the community and a range of partner organisations to get it right. The first step is to establish exactly what is on the site before undertaking heathland and woodland restoration, introducing some grazing by commoners in some areas to improve the habitat quality, and also looking at providing opportunities for people to discover this secret area of the Forest for themselves.
It’s a thrilling prospect that after centuries of seeing the Forest grow smaller and its rare flora and fauna diminish, we now actually have a chance to make the New Forest bigger and to protect it for future generations.
Keep up-to-date with all news about the new reserve on: Facebook and Twitter - @RSPBSouthWest
Follow the New Forest National Park Authority on Facebook and Twitter - @NewForestNPA
Photo 4: Fungi at RSPB Franchises Lodge by Clare Elcoate