Stewkley wildlife reserve

Wildlife reserve report

By Alan Dickens

The warm spring of 2015 began another encouraging year for the Wildlife Reserve. The flora of the Reserve is its most important and valuable feature. The reason for its status. The management of the Reserve to enhance that component by trying to increase the flower spectacle in existing, established grassland can be a time consuming, mysterious and sometimes frustrating and disappointing procedure. Why does Ragged Robin seed germinate one year and not the next? Nonetheless, in 2015 it was rewarding that the Yellow Rattle grew and prospered even in the most difficult circumstances found amongst the tougher grasses in the bottom of the furrows and on the ridges of Old Churchfurlong the numbers of cowslip in flower had increased markedly following several years of seeding these areas. A few Snakeshead Fritillary plants flowered for the first time in 2015, from a batch of plugs donated to us by AVDC in 2012, though not yet in the quantity to make the specimens less vulnerable to accidental damage by being a more dramatic display. Common Spotted Orchid flowered in two new locations in Old Churchfurlong.

A change in method when planting the small plugs of various species has resulted in a much greater survival rate than previously and this should be apparent during the summer of 2016. This change, involving the removal of a small section of species-poor turf and cultivating the exposed soil before inserting the plugs has subsequently been adopted upon which to sow flower seed and 120 such plots have been made during the past winter. Larger areas of bare earth have similarly been exposed in all three fields to create, by seeding, ‘hot-spots’ of species-rich sward. This also includes the continued use of surplus spoil from the Burial Ground to make nutrient-poor ‘flower-beds’ in New Churchfurlong.

Purchased flower seed of guaranteed English provenance, such as Ragged Robin, Ox Eye Daisy and Lady’s Bedstraw and locally gathered components including Knapweed, Cowslip and Birds Foot Trefoil have been sown in the meadows at suitable times since last autumn. In addition, a total of 1000 Meadowsweet and 140 Devils-bit Scabious plants raised from parish sourced seed have been planted out during the past winter. The latter into the small area of grass behind the pond making a total of about 1000 that may flower there in August/September 2016 safe from the hay cut in the rest of the fields.

Bill Parker from Adstock generously gave his time to carry out five more moth trapping sessions in 2015 during which another 50 species of moth were revealed as resident at the Reserve. This means a total of 134 named species have been identified at the Reserve from 9 sessions of trapping covering a mere 22 hours. With the programme extending into a third year there are high hopes of discovering even more diversity in the moth population.

At least 8 of the Reserve’s nest boxes had broods raised in them in 2015, including a family of starlings for the first time and it seems probable that badgers bred in the sett created for them in 2009: another pioneering event.

The pond now has a rich flora around and within it and its fauna includes a healthy population of newts and aquatic insects as well as attracting diverse avian visitors including mallard, heron and moorhen to feed and many others to drink and bathe. Being only rain-fed the pond, full at the end of February 2015, dried out entirely for the first time last October, since it was first dug out in 2009, but was full again by the end of January 2016.

A Barn Owl was seen hunting in the fields several times during the year and bats are ever present, in suitable weather, flying along our thick hedgerows seeking insect prey. Regrettably, sighting of grass snake remains elusive.

Mowing of paths in the Reserve is carried out throughout the growing season to allow ease of access for visitors and other areas are mown to aid the survival and prospects for plant seedlings emerging from the ongoing seeding programme. An upgrade of the terrain at two of the entrances to the fields has recently been carried out to make conditions underfoot more secure for visitors in inclement weather.

It is obvious that a large number of people from Stewkley and elsewhere value the Reserve and the opportunity it offers for a tranquil, enlightening environment in which to walk and indulge the senses. It is therefore a great shame that someone saw fit to seek to despoil that haven when the Reserve’s entrance gates were subjected to criminal damage on at least four separate occasions. The Management Committee is grateful to Robert and David Goss for carrying out the repairs so readily before livestock arrived on site. Once again, this year, we are greatly indebted to Martin and Lucy Scrivener for carrying out the hay work and to Mary Hunt for the loan of her sheep to perform the aftermath grazing. It cannot be stressed enough how essential these tasks are to the success, improvement and indeed survival of flower-rich meadows like the Reserve’s. To have such willing and generous help is a blessing.