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Conservation in the cold: a winter’s tale at Wilderness Reserve

The colder months are a wonderful time to see Wilderness Reserve’s abundant wildlife. Estate ecologist Steve Piotrowski tells us what to look out for

The beauty of Wilderness Reserve in autumn and winter is profound, as fields and trees transform, from lush summer green to vivid yellows, rich reddish-browns and ochre. Leaves flutter down, covering the ground as nature prepares for the colder months.

While our swallows and warblers leave for the warmer climes of Africa, we welcome our winter visitors. The woodcock and thrush are among those looking to the estate’s plants and trees for shelter.

Our resident robins who are here the whole year round will be joined by robins from Scandinavia and eastern Europe. It’s too cold to find the insects and other things to eat, so they come to us for fruits and berries.

The winter larder

The birds love to eat the estate’s crab apples, sloes and the berries from hawthorns, ivy and holly. Then, of course, there are the berries which grow on the yew trees around Sibton Park manor house itself. To us, they’re deadly poisonous, but the birds can eat them.

There’s mistletoe everywhere around Sibton Park, which the thrushes love. They get the sticky goodness of the plant all over their bills and rub it on the trees, which naturally sews its seed around the woodland.

Two of our resident species, jays and nuthatches, sensibly prepare for leaner times by caching food during the autumn and then seeking out their larders when the weather turns.

Nuthatches seek out hazelnuts and other seeds, storing them in crevices and cracks in branches, under stones or burying them underground. Interestingly, the Nuthatch is the only British bird that can climb down the trunk of a tree.

The secret lives of birds

The jay, on the other hand, is a brightly coloured bird that gathers acorns and buries them in secret hiding places. As food becomes scarce, both species take part in an ever-lasting treasure hunt, trying to remember the locations of their hidden store.

Often, they’ll devour their food as they find it, but sometimes they decide to carry it away to create a new larder in a better hiding place, fearful of a rival finding their hoard.

Any fruits and seeds that aren’t relocated are not wasted, though: they germinate to produce the next generation of trees. This is how our ancient woodlands were created centuries ago.

The conservation work at Wilderness Reserve

In recent years, as Wilderness Reserve’s 5,000+ acres have been improved to encourage wildlife diversity, we’ve undertaken ambitious reedbed and marshland creations.

Thousands of trees have also been planted, adding to the extensive woodland already here. These improvements have encouraged species such as the woodcock to take up winter residency.

Its arrival from Siberia and the Baltic States coincides with October’s harvest moon and they are often seen, as they leave their woodland retreats at dusk, exploring nearby fields.

The wandering woodcock

I love the woodcock: their camouflage is absolutely amazing. Silver spots on their under tale and their eyes are right at the top of their head. This gives them peripheral vision – they’re always on the lookout for predators.

You won’t see them on the woodland floor, but they’ve got very strong wings, so when they start clumsily flapping their wings you can really hear it.

Other species of waders tend to congregate around wetlands and the seashore, but the woodcock is unique in that it prefers woodland. Being nocturnal, they hide during the day and then come out at night to feed in the meadows nearby.

Attracting more woodcocks is all dependent on quality woodland and good boggy ground, which I’m delighted to say we’re cultivating more and more of.

But I’d love to see the bittern on the estate. They’re a reedbed breeder and our reedbeds are only in the early stage of development. There have been a couple of sightings, but I’ve never actually seen them here myself.

Regal red deers and the rut

And let’s not forget the estate’s magnificent herd of red deer, who reside in Wilderness Reserve’s woodlands. They’re a wonderful sight, especially during the autumn and winter periods.

From the middle of September till the beginning of November Britain’s largest land mammals return to the hinds’ home range to take part in a rut.

It’s a spectacular event and involves elaborate displays of dominance: roaring, locking horns and fighting, which can result in serious injury and the occasional death.

The champion stag’s prize will be to escort his herd of hinds to breed. After a gestation period of eight months each will produce a single calf.

The best time to see the rut is as dusk approaches, around five to six o’clock. It’s a spectacular thing to see and I love taking guests for the first time.

And on to spring time

Steve and the team at Wilderness Reserve have recently allowed the estate’s cows to graze the woodland glades, which avoids the need for noisy strimmers.

Then, come March, the woodland is handed over to the birds, bees and butterflies, who’ll flourish among the abundance of nectar-rich spring flowers.

The sight of snowdrops, primroses, cowslips and early purple orchids also offer a moment to appreciate the wellbeing that this wonderful land offers us humans.

We’re lucky here in Suffolk, really. For me, it’s the best place to live in the world. So much wonderful wildlife and all that glorious countryside.

Join Steve or one of his team on one of Wilderness Reserve’s glorious nature walk activities. Speak with Tom via our ‘chat now’ function for more information.

For more information on Steves conservation work, visit suffolkbirding.co.uk.

Culture, history, nature and lots of fabulous food and drink make Suffolk a place chock full of fun things to do. Here’s a small selection of our favourites