Just as in 2021 the ground in early Spring 2020 was saturated and much of the fields flooded but record breaking sunshine and drought in April and May put a completely different picture on growth in the meadows. From expecting plants preferring drier conditions like Yellow Rattle and Lady’s Bedstraw to suffer in a quagmire they thrived in the ground’s transformation whereas the orchids did poorly after a promising start and moisture loving Knapweed, Meadowsweet and Great Burnet flowered but on much shorter stems.
There were many more Cowslip flowers, a consequence of several years of spreading locally sourced seed and similarly more Pignut and Ox-Eye Daisy gave a welcome contrast to the yellow Buttercups and Rattle. The vivid blue of Meadow Cranesbill adds an eye-catching feature as it too increased in number.
As a result of the dry Spring, the parasitism of the Yellow Rattle on the grasses and the continuing reduction in fertility the hay crop taken at the end of August was the lowest on record and less than a third of the crop taken when the Reserve project began. The reduction of grass growth is to the benefit of the flowering herbs and one of the objectives aimed for at the outset. That was why Matt Dodds, formerly the botanist/ecologist at AVDC who initiated the Reserve being set up and gave guidance on the way forward, brought two colleagues at his current job with the Herts and Middlesex Wildlife Trust to the Reserve for a training session to show them “… how you can change a meadow with the right management and the (Stewkley Wildlife Reserve) meadows are the best example of these that I know”. This is a great compliment from someone with years of experience. Similarly, scientists from the Open University and leading figures in the Floodplain Meadows Partnership wish to return in the Summer of 2021 (Covid restrictions permitting) to follow up on their survey of the meadows in 2018.
In 2020 a fact-finding visit was also paid by a member of the Clophill Centre for Complementary Therapy seeking clues in the way to manage their own wildflower project.
Butterflies continue to enjoy our improving flower component in the sward though, like bees, not in the numbers one would wish. There was an inspiring increase in the numbers of Meadow Brown, some Marbled White, and Common Blue did well thanks to spreading Bird’s-foot Trefoil their larval food plant. A mass of Peacock butterfly caterpillars on a nettle clump in a hedge was encouraging after years when vanessids have been notable by their absence.
The many briars in our hedges have flowers very attractive to butterflies and the large size of the hedges provide welcome shelter for our increasing bat population to feed along. The large crop of sloe berries in 2020 provided a lasting and welcome food source to many thrushes, particularly Fieldfare, in the Winter. The hedge planted in 2011 and laid in 2019 found favour with several pairs of nesting birds, as hoped, the consequence of the improved cover provided.
Badger cubs were raised on site for the first time since the investment in them of 2009.
About £250 was spent buying seed such as Ragged Robin, Betony, Hedge Bedstraw, Lady’s Bedstraw and Ox-Eye Daisy but much more was gathered locally at no cost such as Agrimony, Great Burnet, Bird’s-foot Trefoil and Meadow Cranesbill to spread in the fields. Nearly £200 was spent on 150 plugs each of Pepper Saxifrage and Sneezewort which were potted on into 3 inch pots before later planting out. Another 150 Pepper Saxifrage, 200 Great Burnet, 200 Meadowsweet and 100 Knapweed were also raised in pots for free and planted in the Reserve over the Winter though hindered greatly by the flooding.
Other tasks undertaken in the past year included repair and replacement of six tit nest boxes damaged by squirrels or woodpeckers, more hedge laying in the copse and a continuation of transforming a species-poor area of grass into a flower rich site in the north-east of Old Churchfurlong.
Many thanks are due to Steve Buchan for repairing and refurbishing the noticeboards that had been vandalized previously and to Martin Scrivener for again carrying out the haywork in trying conditions. We are also grateful to Mary Hunt for the loan of her sheep to graze the Autumn aftermath. These contributions are essential to the continued improvement in the Reserve’s character and help illicit the praise referred to earlier.
Many people acknowledge the Reserve as a valued place to visit and gain comfort and relief in the unprecedented circumstances of last year but there were still the very small minority who littered the area around the pond or put their dog excrement in a plastic bag and cast the bag into the hedges. We prefer to remember the vast majority who enjoyed the wildlife and flowers in the meadows, treated them with respect and took an interest in the scheme and its welfare and who paid attention to the notices posted referring to the paths that are kept mown for ease of public access and avoids the trampling of the flowers.