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Roland prepares the incubator room - Richards Diary part 4

Monday 19th April continued...
Back at the mill Roland starts to prepare the incubator room (IR) downstairs. It’s critical the IR is as clean as possible to ensure the crane eggs are kept free from contamination. We start by laying down a large polythene sheet on the floor and duck taping it to the wall. This keeps dust from the floor away from the incubators. We set up a couple of tables – one for the three backup yellow incubators and one to be the preparation table for when the eggs arrive back from the field.

We will need to collect the main incubator later today from Eberhard. This will provide all the space and conditions needed for 20 – 30 eggs at a time. Roland sets up the disinfectant mat at the door to the room and unwraps the rubber shoes which must be worn in the IR. Any equipment which can live outside the room is taken out, including spare batteries.

the incubator room
The incubator room (IR) in all its glory
showing the big static incubator

IR preparation takes some time but eventually Roland has done as much as he can and hopes Nigel will be happy when he arrives. Nigel left Calais at 1pm and is not sure whether to stop overnight at Hannover or press on. He’ll call us later.

Beate and Eberhard arrive at the mill with Ulf, one of the other members of the local crane team. They bring with them plenty more good German beer and sausages. After giving them a tour of the IR we follow them back to their house for lunch. This is the first real chance we’ve had to look at the local villages and they’re a bit of a mixture and less ‘settled’ than I thought. In several villages we come across big, grey blocks of flats, a clear reminder of the GDR days which no one misses. Built for workers on the collective farms, there are moves to knock these ugly buildings down. Many other houses are owned by weekenders from Berlin, which at least helps to make sure the older buildings don’t fall into ruin.

The countryside itself is gently rolling. There are lots of little hills, interspersed with small water filled hollows. We learn from Eberhard that the landscape in the biosphere was formed during the last Ice Age. The little hills are composed of glacial moraine and the depressions, most about 2-3ha, were formed through the constant expansion and contraction of ice water. The morainic soils are not rich in nutrients, so traditional agriculture was limited mainly to low input grassland and arable crops. The watery hollows, known locally as ‘feldsolles’ (field depressions), remain wet and difficult to farm. High ground water levels and water runoff means that feldsolles remain very wet in summer, supporting reedbed, pond sedge and willow scrub. These are ideal places for nesting waterbirds such as cranes.

a typical crane nesting site
A typical crane nesting site at a Feldsolle
in open rolling countryside

Larger areas of crane-friendly wetland also occur in peaty alder swamps (erhlenbruchs). Eberhard and others have worked hard to get water levels raised on many peat sites, including parts of the core protected areas. Higher water levels have killed off some of the alder but the swamp vegetation and many creatures which rely on them have flourished. In some areas, adjacent grassland is managed for feeding lesser spotted eagles.

The importance of feldsolles and ehrlenbruchs for breeding cranes cannot be overstated. Without these areas of wet habitats, the crane population in the biosphere would vanish. Nonetheless, there are many threats. In the most intensive areas, some attempt at draining has taken place and occasionally one can see a feldsolle with a drainage ditch through the middle of it. Nutrient runoff is also a problem, especially where land is ploughed right up to the edge of a feldsolle, leaving no buffer to absorb excess nutrients. Farmers also pump water from feldsolles, lowering water tables, although it is not clear whether they do this as part of a drainage programme or use the water to irrigate their farmland. Some of the impacts of water removal are subtle: mature cranes tend to breed in deeper water where their eggs are safer from predation. Where water levels are lower than about 60 cm, there is much greater predation pressure from wild boar and foxes on cranes. As a result, perhaps 25% of eggs survive to hatching, although the biosphere population of approximately 450 pairs is still healthy and continues to expand.

Farming is changing in the park as it is elsewhere in eastern Europe, although the direction remains unclear. On the one hand, big agribusiness has moved in to take the place of the GDR collective farms in many areas. We pass vast fields of cropped maize on our way to Beate’s, past big new buildings and herds of indoor dairy cattle which are kept permanently off the land and fed on maize and pellets. The EU keeps pumping in money into the area to help farmers intensify, although it seems most farmland has been bought up by western European farmers and it makes me wonder how many local people benefit or have a stake in this new system.

On the other hand, many people are working to encourage organic farming in the biosphere. There are now over 40,000ha of organic farmland in the reserve, mainly in the north, and it is obvious walking through the fields of young spelt wheat to look for crane nests that these fields are full of wild plants, insects and birds. What’s more, organic farming in the biosphere supports up to eight times more people on the land than intensive farming thus helping to sustain the rural fabric of the area.

We arrive at Beate and Eberhard’s old farmhouse for a late lunch of lamb stew and are treated to views of 40-50 young cranes feeding on last year’s sunflowers next to the house. We talk for twenty minutes to Damon at West Sedgemoor about the logistics of getting the collected eggs back to the UK. All European air flights remain cancelled, so we talk about getting the first batch of eggs back by car. We need more certainty now in our planning because collection begins in less than two days.

young cranes in the field
Young cranes in fields at Beate and Eberhard's House

This is the diary of Richard Archer, RSPB Conservation Officer for Somerset.  In mid April, Richard spent three weeks as part of the RSPB/WWT/Pensthorpe crane team collecting crane eggs in Eastern Germany. These are his personal
reflections on the successful German visit. You can read all of Richards Diary here.

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Richard Archer is RSPB’s Conservation Officer for Somerset, and took his sabbatical in the of Spring 2010 to help with the collection, incubation and transport of the first year’s eggs.