ARC's Connecting the Dragons Project Officer, Pete Hill looks back on the successful creation of a species rich south-facing ride and windrow at a conifer plantation near Bridgend, South Wales.

Back in 2014, ARC’s then Welsh Officer Pete Hill, in collaboration with the Wildlife Trust of South and West Wales, embarked upon a habitat creation project. The team hit a conifer plantation hard with chainsaws thus creating a south-facing ride for reptiles and other wildlife.  A “windrow” was also created from the resulting brash and extracted pine root-systems running the whole length of the south-facing edge, with the objective of providing hibernation and basking opportunities.  We also created a pond at one end of the ride.

Now, instead of the acidic, dark and still conditions of six years ago, wild strawberries are everywhere, and bats, birds, invertebrates, small mammals and mustelids, grass snakes, slow-worms, adders, viviparous (common) lizards, common toads and great crested newts all utilize the sun-lit, sheltered and floristically diverse habitat feature.

Work begins on felling the conifers, November 2014, view from the west end.

Beginning the creation of the windrow, view from the east end.

Conifer root systems cleared and pine needle  layer scraped clear, view from the east end.

Inspecting the windrow in early 2015.

Whilst the root systems of many native tree and plant species such as birch or gorse can provide valuable frost-free retreats for reptiles to hibernate within, the root systems of the non-native conifer species at this particular site are very shallow and provide no opportunities for hibernation. Extracting the root systems of the felled conifers, and amassing them together with all of the combined brash and cut timber resulting from the tree clearance has produced a structurally diverse ramble-tangle fortress of timber, bathed in sunlight and full of nooks and crannies for reptiles to utilise for hibernation.  Keeping the new ride clear of stumps also ensures that the ride is easily managed, and prevents it from succeeding to closed canopy woodland but rather maintains the species-rich sun-lit habitat interface.  Scraping the top soil layer of accumulated acidic pine needles away to expose the bare native soil beneath also promoted conditions for the native seed-bank to rapidly take advantage.

Natural Resources Wales staff attending a reptile habitats course at the ride in 2016, view from the west end.

The windrow in early 2016, view from the east end.

It is of course important to ensure that all necessary permissions and felling licenses are in place prior to embarking upon a similar project, and if European Protected Species are present, additional licensing will also be required, as was the case with this project. Creating such diverse and species-rich habitats as south-facing rides through conifer plantations with accompanying sun-lit windrow hibernacula is however a very simple process, and is one which we hope will be emulated at sites up and down the country.

Viviparous lizards were the first reptile species to colonise the new habitat. A female lizard was recorded at the east end of the ride in July 2015.

Slow-worms were the next reptile species to be recorded at the ride in early 2016.

Common toad.

Great crested newts.

A grass snake. By the end of 2016, all four widespread reptile species had been recorded at the ride.

A male adder basking at the ride edge in 2016.

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