What can I remember about the dynamic ecology of Minsmere? The build-up of a shingle beach: the smallest pebbles at the top (where they are thrown up by the sea) and the biggest nearest the sea. The importance of marram grass in the establishment of coastal sand dunes; their spreading root system helps to hold the dune in place. Tamarisk – a non-native but very useful shrub – appears to be the Greek αλμυρίκι.
The RSPB reserve at Minsmere is reconciled to sacrificing some of its low-lying land to future storm surges but is buttressing others by building defences. They are gathering freshwater in deep ponds for the day when the neighbouring land will be saltmarsh. No area is left untouched: they are constantly altering the balance of fresh and seawater to ensure neither predominates, just as they endeavour to stop succession – which, in this case, describes the change from a waterlogged reedy environment in flux to a drier one, to one with more varied vegetation and shrubs, and finally to trees and a more fixed, less competitive ecology. The dunes here are still in a very dynamic (and somewhat vulnerable) state: they support lichen, sea kale and yellow-horned poppies. Konick ponies from Poland have been introduced to keep down vegetation in the reserve itself; apparently they will eat anything and withstand any conditions. It was clear how completely managed the RSPB reserves have to be in view of the constraints on space for nature: even the sand bank for sand martins is maintained rather than left to the elements. Despite all this, migrating birds – particularly those who head south – are still at risk: they may enjoy a welcome at Minsmere, but they have to cross less hospitable places before they are able to relax here.
As for birds, the highlight was a stripey snipe right in front of the hide. There were also shoveler ducks, black-tailed godwits, teal, wigeon, gadwall, redshanks. On dry land there were lapwings, a curlew, rabbits and muntjac deer (built like pigs). There were also several water rail – none of whom would pose for photographs – and the call of unseen bearded tits. One of the scrapes hosted an enormous flock of assorted gulls standing on the frozen pond.
The nearby woods were interesting for their goldcrests (flat yellow mohicans) and coppicing. It was clear how coppicing affected the development of the beech and ash trees: all the trunks sprang from low down, more like a bunch of flowers than a tree:
One way of spotting a very old wood is the slightly raised borders around it – a mound for the palisades that would have kept deer either in or out.
So despite the cold and the grey day, there was plenty to see and learn.