Wildlife - Life on the edges where habitats meet
PUBLISHED: 00:00 03 October 2019
Wildlife photographer Paul Hobson extols the benefits of a kind of habitat that often goes unremarked
Whenever we consider the major types of habitat in the Peak District and Derbyshire many people immediately tend to think of large swathes of one type of vegetation, such as heather-clad moorland, wild flower-jewelled meadows, ash tree-rich woodlands, or reed-encased wetlands.
It's easy to see why we think like this. It helps us to create simple, definable units and it allows us to pigeon-hole plants and animals into neat habitat categories. However, using this too simplistic way of describing the natural world misses out on one of the hardest to define, yet arguably one of the most important, habitats - edges.
Edges are the narrow zone between one vegetation type and another, where plants and animals from different habitats meet and mix. In one respect they can be thought of as sub-optimal because they don't offer the full gamut of conditions of either habitat, yet they actually offer a set of conditions that occurs nowhere else.
One of the easiest edge effects to understand is woodland edge. Here light can penetrate a little more, the woodland floor is often richer in plant and invertebrates and usually bird life has a higher biodiversity. Paths through woodlands are often far better from which to watch woodland butterflies and birds than by venturing into the heart of the wood. It may seem a bit counter-intuitive but it's true.
Not all edges offer improved environmental conditions so some of the wildlife that ekes out an existence is often at a lower population density than in their preferred habitat type. However, what these edges do offer is the opportunity to watch an assemblage of disparate wild animal players mixing together on the same stage.
In many places moorland and farmland create a diffused edge where sometimes the boundary appears to be clear - a fence or stone wall perhaps - yet the edge effect is subtle. The fields that border Peak moorland are often different from those a half mile or so away. They are mostly damper and may still have a good coverage of soft sedge and not be swamped by bright green, fast growing, wildlife poor rye grass.
I am lucky because I can access a fantastic farm/moorland edge that is only a ten minute drive from my house. This area is literally on the edge of the Peak District, near Sheffield. Luckily the owner farms the land in an incredibly sensitive manner. The fields are barely drained and are covered in coarse grass and sedge. They then run into damp, sedge/heather moorland which within a hundred metres becomes bedecked with heather and bilberry. Whenever I am at home and the morning's forecast promises good light I will often spend a few hours here at dawn, armed with my camera and walking along a well-maintained footpath.
The bird life here is fantastic, especially in spring and early summer when the air is cut with the cries of curlews, lapwings and snipe. However, one of my real loves for this place is that on some mornings I am lucky enough to be able watch all three of our lagomorphs within metres of each other. A typical morning last May will help to explain.
I was walking along the path when my attention was drawn to a movement in one of the fields. I quickly spotted four brown hares watching each other. I soon realised that this was actually three males (jacks) and one female (jill). The jacks were clearly excited by the jill and whenever she moved to feed they followed her in unison. Occasionally one jack would set off in a mad dash chasing another jack but mostly they simply sat and watched the feeding jill. Every now and then one of the jacks would tentatively approach the jill but she would display no encouragement and would quickly box his ears. The jacks also had brief boxing bouts with each other. I managed to get to a low stone wall and creep along behind it until I had a better and closer view without the hares ever knowing I was there. I spent two hours watching as they worked across the sedgy field and eventually moved into a small line of trees on the moor's edge.
Whilst I was watching the antics of the hares a few of the local rabbits, not knowing I was behind the wall, popped up from their shallow burrows and fed. I then crept back and walked further along the path, until the sedgy field became short heather moorland. A couple of red grouse let me know they were about but my attention was already taken by a couple more hares. However, these were not brown hares but mountain hares in that delightfully coloured pelage halfway between winter and summer. I glanced back to the trees on the side of the field and saw the four brown hares work their way onto the moor's fringe. I now had three brown hares, two mountain hares and one rabbit in my sight - simply brilliant.
Edges might not be the best habitats but there are few places in the Peak where I can see all three lagomorphs in one view, and for that this edge is one of my very favourite places.