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Leicestershire & Rutland Ornithological Society
Burbage Common & Woods by Adey Baker




A pleasant half-day's birdwatching can be enjoyed at this site throughout the year. With hardly a mention in the 1970s book 'Birds in Leicestershire & Rutland' and the closer proximity to Leicester of places such as Swithland Wood and Bradgate Park, it has, perhaps, been somewhat neglected in the past by many county birdwatchers. Sheepy Wood and Burbage Wood are both broad-leaved woodland, mainly re-growth after heavy felling during the war and the open grassland of Burbage Common has areas of scrub encroachment with more mature trees developing within them. The Smenell Field and the Common Extension are more recent additions to the site, both being in the parish of Elmesthorpe and thus within the Blaby District area, though the site is managed by Hinckley and District Borough Council.


As there is full public access to the area, sunny weekends can be quite crowded - choose a weekday if possible. Ample parking is provided to the north and south sides of the site, access to both being signposted. To the south, turn into Smithy Lane off the B4669 (the old A5070) between Sapcote and Burbage and go past the first, private wood - Aston Firs (also broad-leaved, despite its name) - on the right. Burbage Wood is reached on the left and you can park on any of the hardcore areas as far as the 'no entry' sign. To the north, there are two car parks on Burbage Common Road, reached via the layby off the B4668 (the old A47) between Earl Shilton and Hinckley. The Visitor Centre is located in the first of these but is only open for a few hours at the weekend and, occasionally, on weekdays during the summer. A hide has been erected in Burbage Wood with a small, cleared area in front of it. There are a few logs and tree stumps provided to place food to attract the birds close to the hide.

Sheepy Wood © Adey Baker

There are also a number of footpaths in the area, which link the site with the surrounding land, adding to the variety of habitats - farmland, horse paddocks, golf course and school playing fields. The Birmingham to Leicester railway line cuts the site in two but the overgrown embankments are good for birds, too. There are two bridges under the line to link each side of the area. The whole site can get very muddy in wet weather apart from the main paths in the woods.

   

Because of the numbers of visitors to the area the wildlife has to tolerate a certain amount of disturbance and some shy species such as Jays are as easy to see here as anywhere. Nuthatches are common in both Burbage and Sheepy Woods as are Great Spotted Woodpeckers. Green Woodpeckers do tend to move around more and are best detected, firstly, by call. Lesser Spotted is much the rarest of the three Woodpecker species and is only reported occasionally - where do they go to for the rest of the time? Treecreepers occur in all of the woods.

  Nuthatch © Adey Baker

Six species of tit have occurred throughout the year including a few breeding Coal Tits, though Willow Tits, once so typical of the site, have followed the national decline and are probably extinct, locally. Alarmingly, Marsh Tits seem to be following suit as well. One or two of the over-wintering Goldcrests also occasionally stay into the summer. Woodcock occur in most winters - often reported by dog-walkers whose pet has put them up from the undergrowth in either wood. The numbers of winter visitors are, of course, controlled by food supply - Redwings and Fieldfares, typically alternate between woodland, hedgerow and farmland habitat. Lesser Redpolls and Siskins turn up in most winters - there are several stands of Silver Birch to check and Alders have been planted on the Common Extension. Tree Sparrows, once quite common in a few areas seem to be following Marsh and Willow Tits into local extinction. Linnets are usually seen from spring to autumn but Yellowhammer, Reed Bunting and Skylark can be found, in small numbers, somewhere in the area at any time.

There is usually a pair of Tawny Owls in one of the woods in most years and Little Owls occur either near to the Common Extension or just away from the site at Burbage Outwoods. This interesting area is seen from a public footpath running along the south side of the railway - this is the route that I take to walk to the Woods but there is no vehicular access here. The shelter from winds from a northerly quarter provided by the trees and the embankment of the railway along this track is quite noticeable. There is often more insect activity here providing food for the Swallows, for instance,

  Treecreeper © Adey Baker

that breed in the buildings on the adjacent horse paddocks. Several sightings of migrant Spotted Flycatchers and single records of Pied Flycatcher and Common Redstart have been along here. Wheatear is more likely in the paddocks or the school fields on the north side of the railway, than on the Common. Farmland on the Elmesthorpe side of the site also seems to attract this species quite regularly.

The railway line often hosts the year's first (and last) Chiffchaffs and holds the best numbers of Lesser Whitethroats - the large Blackthorn hedge on the Common is also good for this species. Whitethroat, Willow Warbler and Blackcap occur in good numbers but Garden Warblers are less common.


Sparrowhawk and Kestrel are the commonest of the smaller raptors throughout the year. Hobbies occur from time to time in most summers and there has been a large increase in the number of sightings of Buzzards over the last few years. They now breed somewhere in the area every year, with small spinneys or large hedgerow trees just as likely as the woodland for a nest site. Red Kites are seen intermittently but they don’t seem to be establishing a regular pattern as the Buzzards have done. Grey Partridge are most likely

  Jay © Adey Baker

to be seen on the farmland adjacent to the Common Extension and both Yellow Wagtails and Lapwings may attempt to breed in the same general area close to Burbage Common Road. There is a small stream with a couple of little pools on the Extension but there are no large areas of water to attract water-side birds so waders and such birds as Sedge or Reed Warblers are largely absent.

There is the usual range of common birds including good numbers of Mistle Thrushes and Bullfinches. Almost anything can put in an occasional one-off appearance, sometimes as a ‘fly-over,’ with Bewick’s Swan, Cormorant, Common Tern, Curlew, Green Sandpiper, Snipe, Little Egret, Peregrine, Barn Owl, Ring Ouzel, Stonechat, Whinchat and Brambling being some examples. Singing Wood Warblers have very occasionally graced either Sheepy Wood or Burbage Wood.

   

For those interested in other forms of wildlife there is a good range on offer. There is a wide range of fungi - the Visitor Centre is the best place for advice on this particular subject. Wild flowers include a number of old woodland and grassland species including: Bluebell (many are hybrids with Spanish Bluebell), Wood Anemone, Yellow Archangel, Dog's Mercury, Water Avens (which hybridizes with Herb Bennet), Moschatel, Enchanter's Nightshade, Sanicle, Rest Harrow, Sneezewort, Devilsbit Scabious, Ladies' Bedstraw, Yellow Rattle, Pepper Saxifrage, Agrimony and

  Bullfinch © Adey Baker

Adder's Tongue Fern. As for orchids, Broad-leaved Helleborine occurs in both woods but for Early Purple, Greater Butterfly, Common Spotted and Common Twayblade the best place to search is Elmesthorpe Plantation. This is at the northern end of Aston Firs, accessed by a public footpath. Butterfly Orchids may also be found in Burbage Wood. Any visitors interested in trees will have noted that the woods are mainly Oak and Ash standards with Hazel coppice. However, there are several other species including Holly, Maple, Rowan, Elm, Wych Elm, Cherry and in Elmesthorpe Plantation, Black Poplar, Horse Chestnut and Beech. Presumably, these were introduced and I assume the same applies to the Black Poplars on the edge of Sheepy Wood. All of the trees and many of the flowers around the pools and stream on the Common Extension were, of course, planted as this area was agricultural land until a few years ago.

Grass Snakes can be seen just about anywhere around the site, though the best place may be the sheltered area between the Common and Sheepy Wood. Warm days in March and April seem to be the best time to find them basking close to the areas of bramble undergrowth.

A number of the commoner dragonfly and damselfly species occur, including Emperor, which is normally seen over the Extension pools. However, a run of poor summers has reduced their numbers considerably with Emerald Damselfly now likely to be difficult to find. There is a good variety of butterfly species including Purple Hairstreaks but White-letter Hairstreaks now seem to have disappeared – again, not helped by indifferent weather. An area of wild flowers on the Common which is mown quite late in the summer has proved to be very attractive to high summer species, with migrant Clouded Yellows seen on several occasions since the year 2000. Occasional records of Silver-washed Fritillaries have never amounted to anything but a species that many would like to see is White Admiral for which habitat seems suitable. The nearest colonies are less than twenty miles away and this species can spread out in favourable years. It would prove ample justification for the coppicing routine that has been re-instated throughout the majority of both Burbage and Sheepy Woods. A pair of Nightingales in each wood would also not go amiss!

Adey Baker

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