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.
It is often said that most children are interested in nature, given the chance, but this interest gets lost somewhere along the way to adulthood. My daughters certainly became less indulgent as time went on, of my tendency to stop and look at every unusual plant and bug on family walks; teenagers, quite rightly, have different priorities. I sometimes wonder, now that they are leading city-based, millennial lives, how much connection with nature they have retained. Our busy lives rarely lend themselves to the kind of shared outdoor activities we used to enjoy, so when M came to join us for a weekend during our wildlife tour, I jumped at the chance of subjecting her to a bit of old-fashioned, seaside, family fun – rock-pooling.
Devon Wildlife Trust was running an “extreme rock-pool safari” from Wembury Marine Centre, near Plymouth. Extreme in the sense that it was on a particularly low spring tide, so the rocks would be uncovered further down the beach than usual, exposing marine wildlife that usually remains beneath the waves. It was also raining and extremely slippery. Cat, our Devon Wildlife Trust guide, vetoed M’s shoes, so I lent her my new walking boots, after extracting a promise that she wouldn’t go in above her ankles.
Cat led a group of all ages down the beach, scrambling over rocks to the waters edge. She explained the importance of putting everything back exactly where we had found it, including turning back any stones that we decided to search beneath. Some species spend all their lives in one small area and might not survive if randomly re-located.
Seasoned explorers then grabbed a tub and spread out to investigate the nearby pools whilst those of us who were less experienced gathered around whilst Cat pointed out some of the rock pool wildlife and explained how to identify it. Soon, there were cries of discovery, and we peered into the tubs to see the amazing creatures that people were bringing to Cat for identification.
At first, we had trouble finding anything, half-glimpsed shadowy shapes darted under seaweed and into crevices in the rocks as soon as we leant over pools. But we soon got the hang of turning over boulders to find all sorts of creatures clinging to the underside, or amongst the rocks and pebbles below.
Some fish, like these Cornish suckerfish, are well adapted to intertidal life and can survive out of water between tides in the damp conditions under rocks.
Cornish suckerfish, one of four types of clingfish, also known as the shore clingfish.
A cushion star, clinging to the underside of a rock.
Me and Geoff, looking for rock pool treasure
Velvet swimming crab
The stars of the day were the velvet swimming crabs, so-called because their shells are covered with fine hairs. Cat explained why these two were locked together:
Many of the animals we found were tiny and marvellously delicate. One of my favourites is the blue-rayed limpet. You find this at very low tides, clinging to the thick brown leathery fronds of kelp, a little translucent jewel with neon-blue dashed lines running along the shell.
We could happily have spent hours on the rocks, but the tide turned and eventually we had to head back up the beach. It was a brilliant way to spend an afternoon, and I learned that poking about in rock-pools never loses its charm.
Devon Wildlife Trust runs rock-pooling events at Wembury Marine Centre throughout the summer, many other Wildlife Trusts will run similar events, check their websites for details. You don’t have to wait for next summer, though. At Kent Wildlife Trust, we also have a year-round programme of Shore-search events, where you can come and help us identify and record the marine wildlife around Kent’s coast.
“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.
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.
This common hawker dragonfly at Gwaith Powdwr had recently emerged from its larval skin.
Male and female emerald damsel-flies (these ones from Gwaith Powdwr)
Toadlet coming up for air
Settling pond at Gwaith Powdwr
This male southern hawker dragonfly was flying along a woodland path at Gwaith Powdwr, a North Wales Wildlife Trust nature reserve.
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.
Clouds of gannets rise up from Bass Rock and fill the air with raucous cries, slicing effortlessly through the air on snow-white, black-dipped wings.
We bounced on top of the water beneath them, heads tipped back to gaze in awe at the graceful circus of gannets above our heads, holding on tight as the RIB (Rigid Inflateable Boat) met the waves with rather less grace.
Although they nest in dense colonies, gannets are highly territorial, each making it loudly clear to its neighbour that this is my patch. Gannets return to the same patch each year form long-term pairs, often for life. Bill fencing is a form of greeting behaviour that strengthens the bond between pairs.
The dagger-like bill of the northern gannet is used to catch fish. The gannet folds back its wings and plunges vertically from a height of up to 40 metres, disappearing under the water to capture its target.
The gannet colony has increased hugely since the lighthouse has been unmanned so that the island is now uninhabited.
Shags breed on the nearby rocks. In the breeding season they develop an iridescent green sheen to their feathers and a spiky quiff, giving them a somewhat surprised look.
Gannets breed in tightly packed colonies, despite being highly territorial.
Swirling clouds of gannets
Cormorants on a nearby island. They don’t have as much oil on their feathers as other seabirds, and have to stretch them out to dry off from time to time.
This is the closest we’ve got to guillemot. They breed on a nearby island.
The snowy white plumage and creamy yellow head of the gannet is unmistakeable.
As a wildlife experience, this was one of the best, plus being fun going out in the boat. Can’t wait to do it again next time I’m in Scotland.
When I was growing up, I thought that orchids were exotic flowers, beloved of Victorian ladies in glasshouses and native only to tropical rainforests. It was a revelation to discover that they are found worldwide and that my home county of Kent held more varieties than anywhere else in the UK.
You have to look more closely to appreciate the flowers of our native orchids, but once you do, you will find that they are every bit as enchanting as the showy specimens you might buy from a florist.
The complexity of orchid flowers is due to their intricate relationships with insects, the structures having evolved to tempt insect visitors, sometimes even luring them with the false promise of a mate, in order to achieve pollination.
Darwin was fascinated by the evolutionary relationship between orchids and insects and it is thought that Kent Wildlife Trust’s Downe Bank nature reserve is the Orchis Bank he used to visit to study this phenomenon and that he immortalised in the conclusion of the Origin of the Species.
Although I didn’t need to leave Kent to try out the next of The Wildlife Trusts’ Top UK Wildlife Experiences, traveling in the north of the U.K. gave me the chance to see some species I’d not come across before, and practice my budding botanical skills.
Nothing prepares you for the sheer spectacle of 300 ft cliffs lined with thousands and thousands of seabirds perched precariously on the narrowest of ledges with their chick nestled underneath them. Well, that’s not quite true, the acrid smell of a seabird colony greets you a good hundred yards before you get to them. Now that the birds have been nesting for several weeks the cliffs are draped in swathes of guano (ok, bird poo). Then you hear the cries, screeches and grumbles of the birds as you walk along the grassy path and finally reach the cliff-tops where the air is alive with wheeling kittiwakes, fulmars gliding effortlessly and guillemots, razorbills and puffins darting purposefully from rock to sea and back.
Handa Island (managed by Scottish Wildlife Trust) is home to 56,000 guillemots, counted individually by volunteer researchers painstakingly scanning the cliffs on foot and by boat to note each nesting bird and their chicks. Puffins were also counted this year, 330 were found, showing that the population on Handa is remaining stable, despite concerns about decreasing food in some areas.
Nesting Arctic skua
We went to Handa Island to try out another of the Top UK Wildlife Experiences, which we are working our way through on our journey around the UK. It was absolutely amazing, the seabirds, of course, were mesmerising. The paths run close to the cliffs at some points, and Geoff, who is a much more patient photographer than me, took some great pictures. Our aim on this trip has been to travel light and take the minimum of equipment, so all the images and film in these posts are taken on an oldish digital camera with no extra lenses, or on an iPhone. (All today’s images are by Geoff Woolley, please credit him if you use any.)
The landscape is stunning, with a dramatic rugged coastline, flower studded grassland and views across the sea to the misty blue mountains of the Highlands.
From Handa towards Scourie
I love the way razorbills come in to land
Looking across Handa Island
Heath spotted orchid
Heathers, eye bright and tormentil
Cliffs and sea caves
Two guillemots and a razorbill
Guillemots on a ledge
Long horizontal ledges are packed with guillemots, the nesting birds pressed against the cliff with their chick tucked underneath them, kept warm by a warm spot (called a brood patch) on the parent’s tummy well supplied with blood vessels to pass on warmth to the growing chick.
Handa Island is the most magical and awe-inspiring place. We could have spent hours just watching the birds, admiring the rock formations or examining the flowers, but we had to catch a boat back or be stranded on the island overnight.
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.