©BSNHS 2014

Although it is early May, winter seems reluctant to lose its grip and the marsh still has the appearance of early - mid March. Few trees, apart from hawthorn and elder, are in leaf and the spring flowers are slow to bloom. Normally at this time of year, the bottom of the peatbank is a mass of yellow with a profusion of marsh marigolds. The top field, Rush Mead, is normally also a mass of white with the flowering of dozens of cuckoo flowers. This year, although both species are in bloom, they are doing so in fits and starts and the overall effect is much less impressive.

Marsh in April

Sawbridgeworth Marsh

View from the Marsh - May 2016

Andy Sapsford Reserve Warden

Marsh in Oct

Newly cut drains by boardwalk

Marsh in Nov

Some earlier views from the marsh

Marsh in DecMarsh in JanMarsh in FebMarsh in March

Similarly, although a few early migrants have arrived, such as chiffchaff and blackcap, numbers have been disappointing and many of the expected species were, until last weekend, still absent. Last weekend was, however, warmer, and the marsh seemed alive in response, with good numbers of sedge warbler, reed warbler and whitethroat and the first grasshopper warbler of the season. This last species is much more uncommon than the other warblers, but we are normally lucky enough to get at least one visit us each year. They are named after their grasshopper like whirring song, known as reeling. Normally, the grasshopper warbler is very secretive and is much more often heard than seen. However, occasionally, as yesterday, the male thinks he is concealed safely in the sedgebed, but in fact he is quite visible.

Marsh Marigolds

Butterflies have also been in short supply up until recently, although the weekend did produce orange tip, small tortoiseshell and peacock. Hopefully, numbers will now build up as the weather finally gets warmer.

At this time of year, the grass is usually growing fast, particularly alongside the riverbank where the backwater was dredged in the late 1960s and the slub dumped on the marsh. At that time, the marsh was unmanaged and overgrown. Cattle grazing had ceased in 1964 and the marsh had yet to be jointly purchased by the Essex Wildlife Trust and Herts and Middlesex Trust as a nature reserve. As a result of the enrichment from the dredgings, the bankside flora was lost and replaced by thick vigorous grasses and cow parsley, although in most years a few interesting wetland plants can also be seen.

 Access is maintained through this thick vegetation during the summer months by a mixture of scything by hand and the use of a mechanised brushcutter to produce a network of pathways around the reserve, both for management purposes and for visitors. During the spring, the growth is generally hard to keep up with and we spend the majority of our time cutting pathways. At the moment, the vegetation over most of the reserve is only growing very slowly due to the cold conditions, so we have time to do other tasks, such as replacing rotten posts along the cattle fencing bordering Round Moors and Rush Mead.

A recent survey of the backwater by Hallingbury Mill, a mile or so upstream of the marsh, found encouraging signs of water vole activity, which indicates that voles are moving out of the reintroduction site at Thorley Wash and beginning to colonise further downstream. This gives hope that we may yet see welcome signs of the return of this species onto the marsh later on this year.

We now have our newly restored and extended system of wide profiled drains, which should provide excellent habitat for water voles. Already, wetland plants such as water crowfoot and starwort have colonised them and they are all looking in good condition.

We have also recently heard that we have been successful in a further funding bid to extend the system of drains up through the reedbed as far as the northern end of the reserve. This work is due to start in late summer, as last year and will transform this end of the reserve.