Monday, 15 December 2014

Mullion Harbour Repairs; another update

It was almost exactly 12 months ago, last Christmas, that the first storm of the winter hit our coast.  What followed was an unprecedented series of violent westerly storms which continued, with catastrophic consequences, until mid February.  The storms left in their wake a devastated coastline with landslides, floods, beaches stripped of sand and historic features left in ruins.  One such structure which suffered as a result of these storms was Mullion Harbour, and back in February we reported on this blog, slightly prematurely it seems, as this was posted before the the 'mother of all storms' hit our shores on Valentines Day 2014.

Surveying damage to the southern breakwater
It was with some trepidation that we surveyed the harbour following the storms.  The Mullion Harbour Study completed in 2005, agreed that at some point in the future, with predicted increase in sea levels and storm activity, the Trust would one day have to stop undertaking repairs to the harbour walls, following a 'catastrophic event'.

volunteers helped salvage thousands of lost setts

Despite the ferocity of the storms however, the main western breakwater miraculously survived reasonably unscathed following the storms, indeed it showed that the recent investment in repairs and maintenance had paid dividends and the structure was in remarkably good shape, albeit in need of a serious face-lift  The smaller, and frankly less well built, Southern breakwater did suffer more substantial damage, although the concrete repairs undertaken the previous year remained intact.

With some generous funding from the Environment Agency and NT insurance funds, it was agreed that the damage was repairable, and work started on the Western breakwater in early summer to replace more than 5000 granite setts stripped from the surface.  The huge granite coping stones, some weighing more than a ton, were lifted back into place and by the end of the summer the breakwater was arguably in better shape than it has been since the day it was built in the late 1890s.

work starts on the southern breakwater
Repairs to the smaller southern breakwater weren't so straight forward.  The storms had inflicted much more serious damage to both the stonework and concrete foundations.  Following an engineer's survey, it was agreed to undertake these repairs, like the previous repairs in 2012, by using the now tried and tested approach of using reinforced concrete where appropriate, since this creates a much stronger repair and should allow the structure to survive future weather events better.  Since Mullion harbour is a Grade II listed structure, consent was required from Cornwall Council, with advise from English Heritage, for the use of non-traditional materials and thus altering the appearance of the harbour.  A compromise was agreed whereby the seaward, less visible and more vulnerable aspect of the wall would be repaired in concrete, whilst the more visible and sheltered landward side of the wall would be re-constructed with natural stone.
The use of concrete should help protect the harbour longer term.

With these inevitable time delays, work finally started on the Southern breakwater in September and are due to carry on through the winter months...... weather permitting.  the expected costs of the work is likely to be in the region of £400,000.

We are hoping to work with Cornwall Council and English Heritage over the coming months to speed up the consent process so we don’t have long delays like this in the future, to agree a philosophy of repair and to be better able to understand and describe what might constitute a future 'catastrophic event'.

Western breakwater; setts in place, prior to re-pointing
Let's hope we're in for a quieter time this winter.  The events of last winter weren't quite the predicted 'catastrophic event' which will inevitably be thrown at us one day in the future, but for the time being Mullion Harbour is being repaired and it will hopefully be in better shape than ever to withstand whatever nature throws at it.


Wednesday, 3 December 2014

Lots of different ways to celebrate the natural environment

The past few months have brought many different opportunities to find more interesting ways to engage children and their families in the outdoors. Now the heat and business of summer has passed with rockpooling events and local festivals the autumn lends itself to foraging in hedges and cooking up some more unusual feasts.

At Poltesco the September forage and feast walk saw locals scrabbling about on the shoreline looking dubiously at limpets and slimy seaweeds as the realisation that this was their lunch set in! An eclectic collection of hedgerow and seashore finds created a fantastic lunch cooked over the fire and was enjoyed by all. The feast included pepper dulse bread, kelp crisps and limpet surprise (the surprise being that when cooked for only a few seconds they can actually taste quite good!) along with berry tarts for dessert

Megan Adams the Wild Lizard Intern sharing her knowledge of the hedgerows. Photo by Shazzam

Cooking some delights over the fire, limpet surprise anyone? Photos by Shazzam
The onset of Halloween and half term brought about some very strange sights indeed around Poltesco. Forty children and their parents set off on a quest to collect dragon fly wings (sycamore seeds) and petrified hedgehogs (teasels) to make a potion. Along the way they met several eccentric characters including the head shrinking professor and a couple of zombies! The aim of the day was to weave more traditional Halloween activities in with children being taken along with a story and using their imaginations to see the natural environment in different ways.
Taking on the spider web challenge with Sarah Henn from Miracle Wood
There be some strange goings on down those parts at Halloween!

Looking forward to Christmas celebrations for the first time Grade Ruan School have been own at Poltesco all this week making decorations for the Tree Dressing Day. With the help of Falmouth University students the pupils from the school created some amazing decorations to cover the trees at Poltesco including a bamboo bender to house the candles made from clay.

Tree dressing, celebrated in early December, is based on many old customs from all over the world. It looks to decorate the trees in a celebration that brings the community together. On
December 12th the school will come down together and have a celebration morning at Poltesco with songs and refreshments and give everyone a chances to admire each other’s decorations. The decorations will remain up until 4.30pm that day for people to come down for a hot chocolate and to look at the children’s handiwork.

Grade Ruan School Up to their elbows in it leaf printing

Beautifully decorated clay candles using clay dug from the Lizard, sunflower oil and rush acting as a wick
There will also be a Tree Dressing workshop running this Saturday  6th December at Poltesco making decorations to adorn the more traditional Christmas tree and front doors.  The workshop is free but booking is essential so please call me on 01326 291174 or email  for more details and to book your place. 

Claire Scott Wild Lizard Education Ranger

Over the past few weeks Penrose has been lucky enough to be the scene for one of my favourite natural events, a murmuration of Starlings. If you have ever seen this close up it is a sight to behold. Thousands of individual Starlings moving as one in a fish like shoal around the sky. The early evening is the best time to see this spectacle up close, and with the birds sweeping low over Loe Pool and silhouetted against the trees it’s a special moment you won’t forget.

Starlings come together like this for a few reasons. Coming together means they have safety in numbers from predators. Individuals are hard for Raptors to pick out in the swirling clouds. Having a few friends’ means it’s also warmer at nights as they tend to roost together in very large numbers. Once they have picked a good spot to roost for the night like any large group they can be quite vocal, and again the noise levels will increase as they begin to stir at dawn. They leave again in massive numbers and can even be picked up on radar, which I bet has caused a few raised eyebrows for fresh recruits at Culdrose.

Stats from the RSPB show that “the starling population has crashed by over 70% in recent years, meaning they are now on the critical list of UK birds most at risk. The decline is believed to be due to the loss of permanent pasture, increased use of farm chemicals and a shortage of food and nesting sites in many parts of the UK”

This makes the spectacle that little bit more important. The past decade has seen a lot of work take place at Penrose between the farmers and landowners to assess the land capability and it seems like we are now seeing the benefits.

If you are around the Helston area then come along around 4pm to try and catch a glimpse.

Community Ranger.

Monday, 1 December 2014

Frogs eager to breed on The Lizard

The common frog Rana temporaria is a familiar sight across the UK. In any shallow standing water you are likely to come across tell-tale clumps of spawn, and tadpoles and froglets vying for survival, not above eating their siblings if needs must! 
But just when can you expect to find frogspawn and tadpoles in your local pond? The simple answer might be spring for spawn, and summer for tadpoles, but delve deeper and this doesn’t quite stand up to scrutiny.

Early frogspawn on The Lizard
Here on the Lizard, in the far south-west of the UK, our mild climate gives lots of species a head start, but our frogs have taken this further than most! This year I first saw frog spawn on Lower Predannack Downs on 21st November, and Will our tenant at Teneriffe Farm snapped some on the 18th. These are both early records, but not unheard of in a Cornish context. The gamble of getting ahead in the breeding game must be worth taking, and the risk of a severe cold-snap which could freeze the spawn worth braving. The Lizard is famed for its rare plants, and one of our speciality habitat types is grandly titled Mediterranean temporary ponds, home to the grass-like fern pillwort, three lobed water crowfoot, tiny 1cm high pygmy rush and yellow centaury. More humbly called puddles, these shallow pools within the cart tracks that crisscross the clayey heathlands, are also ideal breeding habitat for frogs, being free of predators like fish that require permanent water.  However, a puddle that dries up before the spawn reaches froglet stage wasn’t such a wise bet! This is where the very earliest pre Christmas spawn may have the advantage, as the spring breeders are at greater risk of being left high and dry.
Frogspawn on Predannack Airfield Nov 14
Thanks to the long history of phenology in the UK, in which the date of first frog spawn features strongly, records like this from the Lizard can be put to good use. The UK phenology network has morphed in recent years into the website , hosted by the Woodland Trust, and supported by a huge network of enthusiastic amateurs submitting records ranging from first bluebell of the year, to first redwing and last swallow. This website has some excellent time lapse maps showing frogspawn’s march north and eastwards in any given Spring. 70,000 first frog spawn UK dates 1998-2007 were analysed and this revealed that, starting in the far south west, spawn took 7.5 days to ‘march’ 100km eastwards, and 5 days to advance 100km northwards. Comparison with data from 60 years before showed spawning to be 10 days earlier, a symptom of global warming, as early spring temperatures are a critical control on spawning dates. 

And for tadpoles?  Don’t be surprised if you find them in December too! Reports of tadpoles overwintering in ponds have been reported from Cornwall and Kent in the south, to Aberdeen in the north (see Research from Edinburgh and Glasgow Universities suggests this isn’t, as was once thought, a case of tadpoles failing to make the grade, but more a strategy chosen to allow the individuals to get ahead as, when they finally become frogs in Spring, they are a larger size. Some individuals may be taking advantage of the milder winter temperatures, from global warming, to become bigger tadpoles, and hence larger frogs.

So keep your eyes peeled, and records flowing in. You never know quite what time of year you may find frogspawn and tadpoles! 


Sunday, 23 November 2014

Birds on our Coast

When you think of Lizard Point at this time of year it might be hard to imagine a place bursting with wildlife, like it was when you visited the in the summer. Believe it or not, in terms of bird life, very little has changed. All the resident species are still here. There are several species of gull, chough, shags, cormorants, oystercatcher, turnstone, corvids, pipits, kestrels and much more.

Swallow - Tony Blunden
However, Lizard Point has been missing two avian visitors recently. 

As to be expected, most of the swallows have flown back to Africa for winter, but not all of them! Believe it or not there is still the occasional sighting of swallows here on the Lizard, despite it being November.

In late summer / early autumn fulmars normally head off to sea for a few months, while they moult their feathers.  After not seeing them here for a few months, we are now beginning to see increasing numbers of fulmars back on the cliffs with nice new sets of feathers.

As well as a few species moving around, we also have other visitors coming in. When you look at the plethora of gulls at Lizard Point you may well think you are looking at the same birds time and time again, and for the majority of gulls you will be. Herring Gulls are resident here so don't tend to move too far. The greater black backed gulls (GBB gulls) are locally resident so tend not to go too far either. However,non-breeding GBB gulls will move some distance to find new territory. We recently had a visit from one GBB gull from Wales and another from Norway.

Lesser black backed gull (© National Trust Images - Jason Smalley)
In contrast to our resident gulls, the Lesser Blacked Gull (pictured right) is a continental tourist, often traveling between Britain, Ireland and several parts of Europe. Some of these gulls will also get as far as Africa and Russia. Most colonies of Lesser Black Backed Gulls are fully migratory ie: they move around a lot! They can breed from as far north as central-north Russia to further south in France and Portugal.

Lesser black backed gull - Terry Thirlaway

This Lesser Backed Back gull (left) was photographed at Lizard Point in March 2014. Using its uniquely coded leg ring people across Europe have been able to record their sightings of this gull. 

From looking at the British Trust of Ornithology (BTO) sightings database we know that this gull had been recorded at several locations in Spain between 2011 and 2014. In March 2014 it turned up here at Lizard Point and spent a week with the other gulls before moving on to Wales where it was recorded in July 2014. I think it’s just fantastic to know that we have such well-traveled gulls on our doorstep. 

Artic skua chasing a kittiwake - Tony Blunden
Speaking of traveling, offshore there are still lots of birds to see. Although the main migration season is drawing to close, there are still hundreds of seabirds traveling past the Point everyday. Tony Blunden, a local ecologist, regularly ‘sea-watches’ off Lizard Point to count the number and the number of species of seabirds passing by. 

On his latest sea-watch, on Sunday 8th November, Tony had a fantastic day. It appears that skuas have had a good year, and the conditions on Sun 8th were just perfect for spotting them. Tony managed to spot several species of skua among a number of other species. This really was a very special sea-watch indeed. All in all Tony recorded 8 Artic skua, 6 black headed gulls, 2 comorant, 648 gannets, 4 great skua, 2 Manx shearwater, 2 Mediterranean gulls, 1 puffin, 84 Balearic shearwater, 1 common scoter, 40 fulmar, 29 guillemot, 2280 kittiwake, 1 long tailed skua, 26 Pomeranian skua, 1 purple sandpiper, 475 razorbill, 32 shags and 2 Sooty Shearwater, and that was just in 4 hours. (It has to be said not all sea-watches provide such fantastic results - this was a busy morning!)

Manx shearwater - Tony Blunden
Few people realise that puffin can be seen passing Lizard Point every day (from April- August). Other species like manx shearwaters, razorbills and guillemots can be seen passing the Point in their thousands by the hour at particular times of year. In order to see these birds you’ll need a telescope and of course to be able to identify them at a distance, which is no easy task! Until you get the hang sea-watching it is quite a difficult to identify the many black dots whizzing through the view of your telescope, but after a few sessions you’ll soon begin to recognise the usual suspects, making anything unusual stand out nicely.

It takes patience to learn the art of sea-watching, and a lot of it depends on the weather conditions  It’s advisable to go along with an expert when you first get started, so why not join us next week? If you are interested in learning more about seabirds and sea-watching, Tony is doing another sea-watch at Lizard Point on Sunday 30th November from 8am –10am. He welcomes people at any level to join him (beginner or expert), and will meet you just below Southerly Point CafĂ©. Ideally, you will have your own telescope but there will be spare scopes available. No need to book, just turn up.

To learn more about wildlife on the Lizard visit the Linking the Lizard website

Thanks again to Terry and Tony for the use of their fantastic photos. 

- Cat

Monday, 10 November 2014

Celebrating the tiny things in life

Diatoms from Carleon Cove pool
Most of us don't give much thought to the tiniest things in life, but they are out there, and important to us all!

Meet the diatoms.  These are microscopic single celled algae, defined by having a silica rich cell wall made in two parts. They live in both fresh and salt water, and most photosynthesise, producing energy from sunlight. Diatoms are at the bottom of lots of food chains, and are the ultimate source of energy for many forms of ocean life, and you if you eat fish! A micron is one millionth of a metre (one thousandth of a millimetre), so at 20 microns long they are tiny. However, they can be so numerous that in time their silica rich remains accumulate to form a soft rock type called diatomite, which has many industrial uses.

Examining the catch of diatoms
Trawling for diatoms at Carleon Cove
This miniature world was captured by Kernow Microscopical Society, who recently held a field meeting at Poltesco, utilising our newly renovated barn to set up their equipment. They collected diatoms within the brackish pool at Carleon Cove, formed where the stream meets the shingle beach.

For further fascinating insights into very small things, including a cross section of a moth's tongue, visit the Society's website at


Thursday, 6 November 2014

Withan Woods - well worth a visit

The woods at Frenchman's creek on the Helford estuary are famous for their unique beauty, tranquillity and their abundance of wildlife. The eastern side of Frenchman's Creek is already in the care of the National Trust. Erlier in the year some woodland on the other side of the creek was put up for sale. We put in our bid and are now the proud new owners of Withan Woods. 

Withan Woods – Outlined in red

Withan is a tranquil little wood, its fringe of 'Western oak woodland' overhanging the creek and large open grown trees give it a special character. It also has a real feeling of history. Buried deep in the woods is an old quay, first recorded in the 1880’s, which is a beautiful quiet place to sit and enjoy the wildlife and views up the creek towards the main Helford River.

      Withan Quay

Kathy working hard
There is an existing right of way through the top end of the woods to the farmland above. Historically access to the quay and woodland beyond was limited, but as part of our commitment to enhancing public access, we decided that we should put in a new path down to the quay and clear an existing track to create a circular walking route, giving access to the whole wood.

Finally on warm day in October eight of us, staff and volunteers, headed off to create the new route along the creek side to the quay and beyond. When we arrived we split in to two groups, some heading off to clear windblown trees from the existing track, and the others working on the new footpath along the creek side to the quay. After a day of hard, but rewarding work we had finished the new route.

Our plans for Withan are for sensitive low key management, so the new path has been cut by hand. This ensures there as little disturbance to the existing woods as possible to preserve their unspoilt nature. We still need to return to put a few steps on the steeper sections of path and to install subtle way markers to guide visitors round the wood.

If you’re ever visiting the Helford and fancy exploring then Withan is an fantastically peaceful place to soak up the real character of the area.

Withan Woods

- Martin

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