Article for the DWT Magazine Spring 2008 (John Wright)
East Stoke Fen comprises 5.25 hectares of reed fen, sallow carr and deciduous woodland to the south of the River Frome between Wool and East Stoke. Reed fen is an uncommon habitat in Dorset and the peat underlying this one holds an impressive 10,000-year pollen sequence.
I visited the reserve each month in 2005/06 to find out more about the plant and animal life in this little known DWT reserve.
Early in the year, some parts can be heavily waterlogged but a small badger sett within the wood is usually active and sika deer tracks are frequent because they use the fen as a refuge. Although the variety of woodland birds is limited, tree creepers are common, teal sometimes rise from the ditches and water rail and reed bunting call from the fen.
As spring arrives, the oak and hazel woodland becomes carpeted with greater stitchwort and bluebells while moschatel, wood anemones and wood spurge occur in the SW corner of the reserve. More surprising, an alien plant, the Asian Skunk Cabbage, with large green leaves, a white spathe and green spadix occurs in the stream which enters the fen from the south. Attempts are now being made to remove it.
Newly arrived sand martins and swallows catch insects overhead, chiffchaffs and blackcaps join the resident woodland birds and the urgent song of the sedge warbler contrasts with the leisurely-paced song of the reed bunting as cuckoo and cetti’s warbler add variety.
By high summer the greater tussock sedge has flowered, the common reed is still growing tall but the willows around the perimeter of the fen look stressed with brown shrivelled leaves. Now the pig-like squeals of water rails become more frequent, family parties of nuthatches hatched elsewhere invade the oak woodland in search of food and overhead a hobby hunts for swallows and martins. A few banded demoiselle damselflies arrive from the adjacent River Frome and summer butterflies settle on the flowers of hemp agrimony and purple loosestrife but the wooded bank and ditch to the north of the fen are also colonised by stinging nettles in summer, making access uncomfortable.
By autumn the occasional kingfisher patrols this ditch and the north side of the fen attracts sika deer, including stags which roll around in wet hollows and leave antler and hoof marks in the mud. Autumn also heralds the arrival of redwing and fieldfare, together with siskins and more goldfinches.
As winter sets in, rising water levels make access difficult again, but each year my visits have been rewarded. In December 2005 two or three bearded tits appeared in the fen, possibly moving up-river from reed beds in Poole Harbour. A year later I was watching a mixed flock of tits, nuthatches and a tree creeper moving through the canopy when I also noticed a lesser spotted woodpecker, high in the same oak tree. Mixed flocks of birds are always worth a second look, but on reflection, this applies to most aspects of the natural world.