On a hot sunny day at the end of August, I visited two contrasting sites. One was in the middle of a bustling city, the other deep in the countryside. Both are Avon Wildlife Trust nature reserves, providing vital space for wildlife within a less hospitable landscape.
At Brandon Hill Nature Park, in Bristol, the Trust has transformed five acres of city park into a wildlife haven. It is a core part of the My Wild City scheme, which aims to link up green spaces and create wildlife corridors to enable wildlife to move easily around the city and connect to the wider countryside.
It was certainly working for pollinating insects, the edges of the recently mown wildflower meadow were buzzing with bees. Butterflies danced from flower to flower, always one step ahead of the camera.
We climbed to the top of the Cabot Tower to see the city laid out around us, the River Avon a silver ribbon through the landscape. It was easy to see why Brandon Hill is an important stopping off point for migrating birds following the river valley.
After exploring Brandon Hill, we made our way to Folly Farm, about 10 miles to the south. Surrounded by farmland, the traditionally managed wildflower meadows and ancient woodlands of Folly Farm nature reserve provide 250 acres of wildlife habitat. At its heart is the Folly Farm centre, an award winning education, conference and wedding venue. Preparations were underway for a weekend wedding, so we didn’t get to peek at the buildings, but we were more than happy to spend our time out in the sunshine, and set of on a walk around the reserve.
Although it was late August, there were still plenty of flowers around, and blue butterflies flitted across the meadow like living confetti. Skylarks were tiny dark flecks of song in the hot blue sky and at one point I looked up to see five buzzards circling on the thermals above the hill, each one spiralling higher than the last.
It has taken such a long time to finish this series of blog posts about my wildlife journey around Britain. Partly because, once I got back, there was so much to catch up on, at work and at home, the time for writing just dissappeared. But I think that perhaps a part of me didn’t want the adventure to finish.
I had such a lovely time, saw amazing places and wildlife, and met many interesting, knowledgeable and dedicated Wildlife Trust people. I’d like to thank them all for being so kind and generous with their time, as well as for the work they do to ensure that all that wildlife is out there, for everyone to enjoy.
“Where would you like to go?”, Matt Boydell, the Land Manager, had asked when we spoke to arrange a visit to one of Devon Wildlife Trust‘s 50 nature reserves. A difficult choice, but I decided it would be good to see some lowland heathland, a habitat I’d not visited yet on my travels, and one which is in very short supply in Kent and getting rarer everywhere else. So in mid-August this year Matt took us to visit two Devon Wildlife Trust nature reserves, Bystock and Venn Ottery, both of which are part of the East Devon Pebblebed Heaths Special Area of Conservation, an area of lowland heath (named after the rounded pebbles in the sandstone deposits that lie beneath the soil ).
Bystock is a beautiful reserve containing a mixture of habitats. We walked across a rabbit-grazed meadow and through shady green woodland to where the site opened out into a purple sea of heathland, in full bloom in August and alive with the buzzing of bees. Threaded through the grass and heather were yellow tormentil flowers and the occasional golden splash of gorse.
There is a spring line running through the heathland; as we walked down the hill we came across two long ponds. This mix of wet and dry heathland, ponds and woodland is what makes the reserve incredibly rich in wildlife. There are 19 species of dragonflies and damselflies on the reserve, I’m not sure how many different ones we saw as they didn’t sit around waiting to be identified, but we were accompanied by flashes of blue, red and green as they darted across our path.
The site is really important for birds, particularly rare ground-nesting birds such as nightjar and Dartford warbler. Because they nest on the ground they are easily disturbed; Devon Wildlife Trust works hard not only to manage the site but also to help ensure that everyone can enjoy the site without affecting the wildlife. One of the ways they do this is by promoting the Dorset Dogs initiative, which has a membership group and lots of information sharing to encourage responsible dog ownership, including a code for owners to sign up to.
Traditionally, heathlands were kept open by grazing animals, which like to eat young growth including tree seedlings, so the heath didn’t become overgrown with trees and shrubs. Devon Wildlife Trust now uses Exmoor ponies to graze the heathland at Bystock and at Venn Ottery.
The dry open habitat is perfect for lizards and adders to bask in the sun, we saw lots of lizards on our walk round.
These are some of the heathland plants we saw:
Not sure what this fern is, I thought maybe Buckler fern. Any ideas?
Below the heathland we climbed down some steps to the edge of a lily covered lake. This is actually an old reservoir, as the site used to belong South West Water. Devon Wildlife Trust have been managing it for them since the 1990s and now own the site.
Quite a few people asked Matt about terrapins as we walked round the reserve. Terrapins were popular pets in the early 90s, when, inspired by the TV series and film, Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, people bought baby terrapins, about the size of a 50p coin. Actual teenage terrapins though, are bigger and feistier, so when they grew to the size of a dinner plate, many people abandoned their pets in local ponds and lakes. Unfortunately for the wildlife that already lives there, terrapins are voracious predators, eating just about anything they can swallow, and here they have a big impact on dragonflies as they eat their aquatic larvae.
As we got to the reservoir we found Ed and Andrew, the reserve wardens, lowering a terrapin trap into the water. The idea is that the terrapins, which like to bask on logs, will climb out to bask on the wooden frame which is mounted on plastic piping to keep it buoyant, and then plop back into the water and find themselves in the cage inside the frame. Any that are caught will be re-homed by a local tortoise collector. The terrapins aren’t the only introduced species found in the lake, Ed said that there are also Koi carp, one of which is called Henry by his fans.
The wet heathlands of the Pebblebed Heaths are fantastic habitats for dragonflies and damselflies including the very rare southern damselfly. This is only found at a few sites, and is very poor at colonising new ones. We went to Venn Ottery to look at the work that had been done to restore habitat so that it would be suitable for reintroducing southern damselflies.
The name Venn Ottery comes from fen, and means a marsh near the River Otter. We scrambled over the tussocky heathland and through a few boggy puddles to the middle of the reserve, where small streams have been dammed with wooden boards. This is to slow the movement of water and create suitable habitats for the damselfly, which lives in runnels – tiny shallow streams – on the heath. We didn’t manage to spot any, but it might have been just a little late in the year for them.
I’m incredibly grateful to Matt, for taking the time to show us around the reserves and to Ed and Andy for sharing their knowledge of the site, even though Ed was standing in leaky waders and quite keen to get some dry socks on. We had such a great time we went back the next day to take some extra photos and admire the wildlife.
Our wildlife tour had taken us right up to page 107 of my Road Atlas of Britain, along the Kyle of Durness and into the awe-inspiring Smoo Cave on the north coast of Scotland. After slowly heading south over a few weeks, we suddenly jumped to page 2, the far south-west of Britain, exploring Cornwall. What better place to search for damsels and dragons?
In truth, spend any bright summer day near freshwater and you will soon be captivated by the jewel-bright flashes of damselflies and dragonflies as they dart across ponds and lakes, or skim along rivers and streams. You don’t even need to be near water to see some species, we often saw hawker dragonflies as we walked along woodland paths. But the days we saw whole rainbow selections of damsels and dragons were those we spent in the West Country and North Wales. I’d like to attribute this to some mythical link, but actually I suspect we were just lucky with the weather.
Making the most of the warm Cornish sunshine, and feeling optimistically energetic, we set out from Devoran on the coast to coast cycle trail. After just a couple of miles I was excited to come across a Cornwall Wildlife Trust reserve sign. Hastily abandoning my bike, I went to investigate Bissoe Valley nature reserve. Noticing my absence after a while (it’s not unusual for me to be lagging a bit behind, I stop to look at things and probably don’t make a very good cycling companion) Geoff cycled back to the reserve, picked up my bike and parked it properly, and came to see what the distraction was this time. Just as well he did, as he took some fantastic photographs. All the images in this post are his, please credit Geoff Woolley if you want to use any.
This common darter dragonfly was very obliging for the camera.
male common darter dragonfly
male common darter dragonfly
striking a pose
Metallic green emerald damselflies with sapphire eyes shimmered across the pools. It is easiest to photograph them when they are “in tandem”, the male clasping the female behind her head. This is part of the mating process, the female will curl her tail round (technically, her abdomen) to the male so that sperm can be transferred.
We saw several other species, but unless they stayed still for a few moments it was impossible to photograph them. You will just have to visit a reserve to see for yourself – it’s not too late, you should see them on any warm day over the next few weeks. Meanwhile, here are a few more from our travels.
Shropshire Wildlife Trust has a fantastic HQ, beautiful old restored abbey buildings surrounded by gardens, that once housed the Cadfael Experience, celebrating the books and TV series about a medieval monk with detective leanings, set in Shrewsbury. The garden still has an old-world, kitchen garden feel, with herbs, vegetables and fruit trees promising an abundant harvest.
I was there to meet Jan Mckelvey, Conservation Manager at Shropshire Wildlife Trust, to find out more about the work of the Trust, especially how it runs behind the scenes. They have a lot of great projects running at the moment. I met the incredibly knowledgeable and enthusiastic team running an extensive landscape restoration scheme, The Meres and Mosses, and had a very interesting chat with Pete Lambert who manages the varied work that the Trust is doing to improve Shropshire’s rivers.
Of course I couldn’t visit Shropshire Wildlife Trust without seeing a nature reserve, so in the afternoon, clutching a map and set of directions, we braved the rain and set off to visit The Ercall, little sister to that more famous Shropshire landmark, the Wrekin.
The changeable weather enhanced our experience of the reserve. The Ercall is covered with ancient oak woodland, with moss covered trees, lush green ferny undergrowth, open grassy glades and small ponds. As we walked through the trees, the rain pattered softly through the leaves and gave everything an emerald glow.
Rain pattered through the leaves
Striking patterns made by spore capsules on a fern leaf
The rain droplets on tufted hair grass turned this woodland glade into a shimmering silver sea.
Raindrops make ripples in a shady woodland pond, one of the group of pools known as the Dairy Pits
Pattern of oak branches
Just as we reached the top of The Ercall, the clouds parted and the sun shone through, lighting up the woods and wet landscape in glorious technicolour.
The Ercall is hugely important geologically, the scars left by quarrying reveal that the area was once under a shallow tropical sea just south of the equator.
The Ercall Unconformity – what it’s all about
The Ercall Unconformity, reclaimed by green
A trilobite, inhabitant of the area millions of years ago
I loved this poem carved into stone, reflecting the site’s geological history.
Upon my shore you stand
A mark in time I am
And older yet than that
And under the sea I’ve seen
The birthing of this land
By pick and blast made now
It ripples on through me
A scar reclaimed by green
My secrets held in folds
Of quiet eternity
On that reflective note, I have to leave you with a gorgeous Shrewsbury sunset, one of the most fiery skies I saw on the whole trip.
Keen to try out another top UK wildlife experience, we headed to Cemlyn Bay, a North Wales Wildlife Trust reserve, seeking out one of the UK’s largest nesting tern colonies. Wear a hat for terns, the Wildlife Trusts’ website suggests, as terns are very protective of their nests and will dive bomb suspected intruders. No hats were needed, however, as the terns had just finished a busy summer of raising chicks, and most of the birds had dispersed.
Even one tern is worth watching though, and we stood spellbound on the beach as the few terns that were left wheeled and turned effortlessly, their finely pointed wings slicing through the air. Every now and then they paused to hover before folding back their wings and plunging into the water.
There were still plenty of birds to see on the islands in the lagoon that lies behind the long shingle spit, including a few more terns, oyster catchers and ringed plovers. A heron stood like a statue in the shallow water whilst a little egret stalked through the water. On the way round the circular walk that we explored, we saw a heron, possibly the same one, flying low over a field with long slow beats of its huge wings. The hedgerows were glowing with red campion, which seemed to grow more thickly along Anglesey lanes than anywhere else, intermingled with the softer purples of black knapweed and devilsbit scabious.
The long curve of the shingle ridge, Esgair Gemlyn, lies between the sea and a shallow lagoon
Shingle at Cemlyn Bay
Behind the lagoon at Cemlyn Bay
Small white butterfly on devilsbit scabious
Red campion in the hedgerows
Another place to add to my list of reserves to revisit then, but next time I’ll come a little earlier in the summer.
I was struck by how many of the sites I’ve visited during this trip have been reclaimed from industry. Of course most Wildlife Trust nature reserves are habitats that have taken hundreds of years to establish and are now saved for the future, but something the Trusts are very good at is bringing wildlife back to areas that have been used for quite different purposes.
Gwaith Powdwr, at Penrhyndeudraeth, is one such site. In the 1970s it was the most sophisticated nitroglycerin manufacturing plant of its kind in the world. Production stopped in 1995, and it was decontaminated before being donated by ICI to North Wales Wildlife Trust, Ymddiriedolaeth Natur Gogledd Cymru, in 1998.
Due to the security requirements of the site, nature survived undisturbed in parts of the site, the heathland in particular has remained mostly ungrazed and is a haven for species such as adder and nightjar.
Wildlife started to reclaim the rest of the site once the factory was closed, bats moved into the buildings and structures and the site is now designated as a Site of Special Scientific Interest because of its importance for bats, especially the rare lesser horseshoe bat.
At the end of July, we joined Rob Booth, Living Landscapes Officer at NWWT, and his volunteers for their lunch break. They were busy getting ready for Party Penrhyn, an annual event at the site. Rob told us about the wildlife on the reserve and the work that is being done to encourage more wildlife.
The reserve provides ideal conditions for four kinds of reptiles. We saw lizards basking on old wood and bare patches of ground amongst the heather, and were given permission to peak under some reptile monitoring sheets, where bronze-sheened slow worms glinted in the sun before slipping further into the thatch of grass and old bracken. Adders are also to be found in the heathy parts of the site, but sadly not by us, although we searched carefully. In the midday heat they are far too quick for mere humans and would have been off as soon as they heard us coming. (Although snakes don’t appear to have ears, they can in fact hear, by sensing vibrations, including sound waves, which are passed through their jaw to an inner ear.)
As the reserve is so important for bats, much of the management is aimed at improving conditions for them. Lesser horseshoe bats use the tunnels and there are up to 30 hibernating on site but they don’t seem to breed there. The Trust managed to get a grant to re-roof one of the explosive storage sheds, and are hoping it will become a maternity roost. Since the work was done, brown long-eared bats have bred in there and Rob said that lesser horseshoe bats are already checking it out. The Trust is also working to make the bunkers more homely for bats, putting new doors on to prevent disturbance, reduce light levels and draughts and make them safer from predators.
The woodland on the reserve is particularly good for moths, the Trust found 130 species in just one night. Where a stream runs through the woodland, the damp, shady conditions are ideal for ferns and mosses.
Clouded border moth
Woodland at Gwaith Powdwr
Speckled wood butterfly
Ferns and moss in the damp woodland
Ponds were part of the industrial legacy, providing water to help keep the explosives cool (and therefore stable) and also allowing contaminants to settle out of the water. These settling ponds are now a wildlife haven, we saw lots of tiny toadlets setting off on their journey into the big world of dry land, stragglers from the great toadlet exodus that happens during July. The grass snakes that have been seen around the ponds proved elusive, which is probably fortunate for the toadlets. Dragonflies and damselflies darted across the water, rarely settling long enough to have their photographs taken, except by the most patient of photographers. Fortunately I had one with me.
Toadlet coming up for air
This male southern hawker dragonfly was flying along a woodland path at Gwaith Powdwr, a North Wales Wildlife Trust nature reserve.
This common hawker dragonfly at Gwaith Powdwr had recently emerged from its larval skin.
Settling pond at Gwaith Powdwr
Male and female emerald damsel-flies (these ones from Gwaith Powdwr)
We had such a brilliant time exploring Gwaith Powdwr, everywhere we looked there was interesting wildlife. It is a fantastic example of how a site can be restored after such intense industrial use.
The dunes of the Northumberland coast are like no others, driven by the strong sea winds into tall, narrow mounds of sand and constantly changing. “This could look different tomorrow” Steve Lowe, from Northumberland Wildlife Trust told me as we stood beside the dune system along the seven mile stretch of sand that forms Druridge Bay.
Druridge Bay has been shaped by change – the elements, nature and human activity all play a part in creating this fascinating area. Humans have been driving that change for more than 5,000 years. Human footprints found in post-glacial deposits and other evidence, much of it uncovered in a recent archaeological project in which the Trust were partners, date human occupation from the Mesolithic period.
Over time, people changed the landscape from wilderness to farmland. Then the increasing need for coal led to the creation of an industrial landscape with underground and open cast mining. Ironically, this has eventually led to the creation of new wildlife habitat, formed by the subsidence of old mining areas, and restoration of open cast mines.
Steve was showing us round some of the five Northumberland Wildlife Trust reserves that form the core area of the Dynamic Druridge project, which aims to continue the theme of change, restoring, recreating and reconnecting habitats and improving people’s access to the wildlife of the area.
East Chevington nature reserve was restored to create wetland habitats after opencast mining and passed to the Trust in 2003. In their care it has become one of the best birdwatching sites in Northumberland, with huge numbers of birds using the lakes and especially in autumn and winter. A newly planted woodland area provides an ideal place to run Forest Schools, where children can develop confidence through outdoor activities.
Steve took us to the Hauxley reserve next, which is temporarily closed while Northumberland Wildlife Trust constructs the greenest building in the North East. As well as being very environmentally friendly, the amazing thing about this building is that it is being built by volunteers.
The Trust secured a Heritage Lottery Fund grant to replace the previous visitor centre, which had been burnt down, with an iconic sustainable building. The project employs a site manager and the Trust staff manage the project but most of the work is done by volunteers. There was a huge sense of camaraderie among the volunteers and the work that has already been achieved was inspiring.
I donned a hard hat and high-vis so that I could go on site, and Ducan Hutt, Head of Estates management at the Trust, showed me around the building. It is designed to minimise its impact on the environment. No concrete is used in the construction, the walls are straw bales rendered with a lime based plaster, timber is obtained locally, much of it from Northumberland Wildlife Trust’s own reserves.
I’m immensely grateful to Steve and Duncan for taking the time to show me what the Dynamic Druridge project is achieving and am already looking forward to coming back to see the completed visitor centre and the rest of the reserves in this beautiful area.
A huge window looks across the surrounding landscape
Steve Lowe and Duncan Hutt
Bloody cranesbill, Northumberland’s county flower
The Lake at East Chevington Reserve
Seven miles of sandy beach
Edited 25.8.16 to correct an embarrassing mis-spelling of Druridge.
We think of the Scottish Highlands as being a wild, unspoilt, natural place, but in fact this is far from true. Most of the upland habitat has been changed by grazing, tree-planting and drainage, so that natural habitats are rare. More than half of the species found there are declining, some with a high risk of extinction.
Richard Williams and Boyd Alexander have a plan to turn this around. They are running one of the largest landscape restoration schemes in Europe, the Coigach-Assynt Living Landscape project. This long term project, led by the Scottish Wildlife Trust, aims to restore wildlife over 60,000 hectares of the Scottish Highlands.
I joined them for lunch at the cafe next to their office at Lochinver, in the heart of the project area. Richard explained that the project involves seven major landowners and several local organisations. They have recently secured a Heritage Lottery Fund Landscape Partnership grant, and are just starting to build a team to deliver the work. Having fallen in love with Scotland, I daydreamed briefly about applying to join them, but no, for many reasons, it is not to be.
The project is an exciting mix of nature conservation, archeology, training and education. Woodland is an important element of the project; increasing the extent of native woodland will provide new habitat for many threatened species. The project also aims to work with schools to encourage them to use woodland as a classroom for outdoor learning. Working with landowners and local community groups, native woodland will be extended through changes in land management to allow natural regeneration, and by planting of native trees.
How do you get enough native Scottish tree saplings to plant woodland on such an ambitious scale? Boyd took me to meet Nick Clooney at the Little Assynt Tree Nursery to find out. Nick collects native tree seeds from local woodlands. Some seed, like willow, needs to be planted straight away, whereas some needs a cold period before it can germinate. These are stored in layers of sand outside through the winter and then brought inside to be planted.
The trees are sold to landowners who want to create native woodland on their land. They can apply for grant funding to help with the cost of creating and managing new woodland, including putting up extensive deer fencing, needed to exclude deer while the young trees get established.
The Coigach-Assynt Living Landscape is such an exciting project, encompassing stunning habitats from mountain to coast, with fascinating wildlife and a rich cultural heritage. I can’t wait to come back and explore more of the area and see how the project is getting on.
We had hoped to see peregrines, but sadly the pair that have been breeding here were quite old and it is thought that they have not survived the winter. Scottish Wildlife Trust hopes that a new pair will soon colonise the reserve.
We happily watched the dippers instead, I love watching them bob up and down living up to their name, and casually plunging their heads into the cascading water to feed on invertebrates in the river. We took a bit of video, (click here) it works best on a small screen as it’s quite low resolution.
Ospreys are the obvious attraction when visiting Foulshaw Moss but I had heard a lot about the work that was happening to restore this site and hoped to find out more. We met Simon Thomas, the Reserves Officer and Grace who is on a placement from Cumbria University, on a wet Friday morning. I’m sure they could have retreated to a nice dry office but such is the generosity of Cumbria Wildlife Trust staff that they kindly showed us around the reserve despite the rain.
Rain is good news at Foulshaw Moss. A Moss is a raised bog in the lowlands. It develops when an area is constantly waterlogged and sphagnum moss grows there over many years, building up into a huge peat dome which rises up above the surrounding landscape.
Foulshaw Moss lies on an area that used to stretch over seven miles of continuous swamp, reedbed and bog. The peat is still up to 6 metres deep in some places. It was very treacherous to cross, and people used to take the guided path over the adjacent Morecambe Bay sands in preference. Much of the area was eventually drained and subject to extensive peat cutting (for fuel) before being used for farming and forestry.
When Cumbria Wildlife Trust bought the site in 1999 from the Forestry Commission a large part of it was covered with regimented rows of conifers. There was still a small patch of raised bog remaining, an increasingly rare habitat with plants like cotton grass, bilberry, cranberry and sundew, all growing through the wet sphagnum moss.
To restore the rest of the site, Cumbria Wildlife Trust had the trees removed and blocked up the drainage channels to keep as much water on the site as possible. That is why they like the rain – the bog is fed entirely by rainwater, and the wetter the better for sphagnum moss.
Cumbria Wildlife Trust are using other techniques to help the developing bog to hold more water: damming up large drainage channels to create pools, creating peat banks in the degraded peat bog to create water-tight cells, planting reedbeds and restoring wetter habitats on surrounding land to slow the water loss from the bog. All these things are helping to raise the water table and provide the right conditions for the bog specialist plants and animals to thrive. This has been so successful that they have been able to re-introduce the rare white-faced darter dragonfly (previously, in Cumbria, only found in one other site) to the reserve. In fact, if it hadn’t been raining so hard I would have been able to post lots of pictures of the dragonflies, damselflies and large heath butterflies we would have seen.
And what of the Ospreys? They are nesting on a specially built platform in a tree in the middle of the inaccessible and therefore safest part of the reserve. There are two chicks in the nest this year. The nest is too far away to photograph with our basic equipment, and the chicks were hunkered down against the wet much of the time, but we saw both parents as they took turns to guard the nest and the chicks did poke their heads up above the edge before we left, which was a magical sight. For amazing footage of the Foulshaw ospreys, click here.
Edited 14.7.16 to correct the date that CWT purchased the reserve.