2019 ended on a sad note for Stewkley Wildlife Reserve with the death in early December of Hugh Mellor C.B.E. of Blackland Farm, a great conservationist and supporter of the Reserve. Hugh officially opened the Reserve in April 2009. It was he that allowed collection of large quantities of Yellow Rattle seed from his Hayden Field off Dean Road to be sown on the Reserve meadows that began the transformation of them to the flower-rich fields they are today. Hugh’s enthusiastic goodwill towards the Reserve is reflected in the donation of £421 collected at his funeral service and given by his widow, Sally, towards future management of the meadows. This very generous gift is greatly appreciated.
The Yellow Rattle flowered prolifically in 2019 and helped to make last year the finest yet in the extent of flowering plants on the site. In its role as a hemiparasite on grasses it restricts their growth to the benefit of other species. There was a discernible increase in the numbers of Cowslips, Ox Eye Daisy, Lady’s Bedstraw, Pignut and Red Clover. The very encouraging spread of Bird’s Foot Trefoil after several years of seeding this species in the fields was rewarded with a dramatic rise in the numbers of Common Blue butterflies as the trefoil is the food plant of its larvae.
The relatively dry autumn and winter preceding last year’s flowering season made a significant contribution to the success of many of the flower species but Bugle and Ragged Robin did less well. A curious anomaly was the terrific flowering of Common Knapweed in Old Churchfurlong but its lack of success in the other two fields.
Those dry seasons also meant that the pond, usually full by winter’s end was only half so going into summer 2019. Thankfully the dredging done in autumn 2018 allowed enough water to be retained in the bottom for birds and animals to drink from till rains returned in September 2019.
The patch of grassland behind the pond saw a radical change in its composition with the proliferation of Red Bartsia in the sward. Like Yellow Rattle it is a hemiparasite and this resulted in a dramatic decline in grass growth but the primary flower component, Devil’s-bit Scabious, did prosper and the two species provided a rewarding display in August.
The numbers of Common Spotted and Southern Marsh orchid maintained their standard of 2018 circa 250 and 50 respectively in Old Churchfurlong and one or two Bee Orchid were also found. Meadow Cranesbill, Great Burnet and Meadowsweet become ever more eye-catching each year as they increase and the scent of the latter from their position in the furrows will be a treat for years to come.
Despite 2019 being a second consecutive year of excellent hay and silage crops for farmers the yield from the Reserve was down a further 15% reflecting the wished for decrease in fertility that enables the flower component to prosper.
During seed gathering in August the richness of insect diversity in the meadows is revealed and although, as elsewhere, numbers of some familiar butterfly species are poor, reflecting a more general malaise, the oasis the Reserve provides with its varied habitats meant it was home for good numbers of Meadow Brown, Ringlet, Speckled Wood, Small Copper, Skippers and some Marbled White as well as lots of Common Blue.
Works carried out in the past year included further cutting and laying of bushes in the copse plus layering of Wild Privet and Dogwood in order to thicken the understorey to provide cover for varied creatures. Two homes were created specifically intended for the resident Weasels though small rodents may take advantage instead, with Voles and Field Mice being common in the Reserve, their summer nests everywhere in the turf.
Over 1200 plants have been put in the meadows during the past winter including 400 Devil’s-bit Scabious, 250 Meadow Cranesbill and 100 each of Great Burnet, Common Knapweed and Fleabane. These were all raised in 3” pots from own seed whilst 150 Sneezewort and 130 Sawwort were grown on from purchased plugs before planting out. The very wet autumn and winter made some operations very difficult as the meadows and copse flooded. Over 20 inches of rain fell between mid-September and mid March which filled the pond by New Years Day and widespread flooding of the fields could mean various herbs flourish or decline in 2020.
More seeds have been sown onto the meadows in the past autumn and many, including Knapweed, Meadow Cranesbill, Great Burnet, Ox Eye Daisy and Cowslip were gathered locally for free whilst purchases of Ragged Robin, Hedge Bedstraw, Lady’s Bedstraw and Tufted Vetch have supplemented these.
Work continues to replace the species-poor turf on the site of an old manure heap in Old Churchfurlong with nutrient-poor excess spoil from the Burial Ground on which to grow wildflowers. A previous effort to establish them there failed, for as guidance journals say, the only way to get flowers to prosper in very fertile grassland is to replace the soil. The project is thus ongoing.
As in previous years great credit and sincere thanks must be given to Martin Scrivener for organizing and carrying out the haywork and to Mary Hunt for loaning her flock of sheep to graze the aftermath in the autumn. Without their willing performance of these vital tasks the wildflower meadows would not improve as they do. These are the two essential elements needed each year to remove as much excess herbage as possible at the end of each season and to have such great support to do it makes Stewkley Wildlife Reserve a very fortunate place.