Stewkley wildlife reserve

Wildlife reserve report 2019

The greatest success of 2018 was the appearance in Old Churchfurlong field of far greater numbers of Common Spotted Orchid with over 250 counted there and amongst them, for the first time, a few dozen Southern Marsh Orchid and one or two Bee Orchids. Common Spotted first grew in the Jackdaw too.

It was the best year yet for flowering of Bugle in May and numbers of Ox Eye Daisy, Cowslip and Ragged Robin also increased.

The wet Spring followed by a hot, dry June and July made for considerable grass growth which the modest Yellow Rattle germination struggled to contain in its invaluable role as an energy-sapping hemi-parasite on the grass roots. As a consequence there was a lot of lying grass in mid-summer; not conducive for flourishing flowering-herb development. As advised in such circumstances an early hay cut was taken on July 15th as Knapweed, Meadowsweet and Great Burnet were blossoming poorly and the early mowing helped further in reducing soil fertility.

The pond, full of water at the end of May, was empty by early August and the opportunity was taken to dig out the bottom back to its original depth and create an area for open water free of reeds. During this operation the sloughed skin of a Grass Snake was found; first recorded evidence that the creatures find the habitat inviting since a live sighting in 2008.

Matt Dodds the former AVDC ecologist who first recommended the Reserve be set up to safeguard the flora after his initial survey in 2004 came to give parishioners a guided tour around the fields in June to mark the decade since the Parish Council purchased the land. Matt gave an enlightening discourse about the herbage and the positive developments over the past 14 years.

Another significant inspection in 2018 was by scientists from the Open University who are also senior officers of the Floodplain Meadows Partnership. Director, Professor David Gowing, Project Manager Emma Rothero and their Research Co-ordinator Irina Tatarenko are primarily concerned with safeguarding and extending flower-rich riverside meadows but in a visit kindly arranged by the Grapevine’s Rachael Webb they came to examine the development of the Reserve given the similarities in flora and possible management techniques involved.

Irina and fellow O.U. member Mike Dodd conducted a survey of the meadows and the conclusion of her report stated “The similarity of the plant community to that of the rare M.G.4 Burnet floodplain meadow makes this restoration a particularly important addition to the inventory of this community in the U.K.”

Management operations over the past year included the planting of over 900 wildflowers from 3” pots. Amongst them were over 250 Saw-wort purchased as plugs and a similar number of Pepper Saxifrage raised from seed; both new species for the site. Smaller numbers of Common Knapweed, Great Burnet, Dyers Greenweed and Devil’s-bit Scabious were also installed.

Seed of other species were sown onto the fields including on areas where grass-rich turf and topsoil was replaced by nutrient-poor excess spoil, from the Burial Ground, where flower-rich ‘hot-spots’ could be established with Ox Eye Daisy, Self Heal, Bird’s Foot Trefoil, Meadow Cranesbill and Cowslip amongst them.

The 150 yards of hedge planted in New Churchfurlong in 2011 was cut and laid during the winter to establish a thicker habitat for birds to nest in and a similar operation was carried out in the copse to allow in more light to create a flourishing understorey.

We are very grateful to Robert and David Goss for installing a new kissing gate, supplied by the County Council, to replace the rickety stile on the boundary with Foxhole field and to Robert again for his caring and meticulous flailing of the sides of the hedgerows, for the first time in 4 years, trimming them back from the mown perimeter paths whilst avoiding all the young trees dotted along them. For all those who do good works to help make the Reserve a place of beauty and tranquillity for many more to enjoy there are the few criminals determined to wreak violence on it. So it is that we report an information board substantially destroyed and the other damaged again; leaflet holders broken and contents shredded; other signage attacked and wilful disruption to planted areas. The vast majority of visitors treat the Reserve with respect and pay heed to management notices e.g. re: dog control and this compliance is noted and appreciated.

The village Brownie troop enjoyed their guided tour led by Brown Owl Cheryl Knight. Cheryl and husband Steve, were founder members of the original Management Committee of the Reserve set up by the Parish Council but recently left the village for life in Norfolk. They are sincerely thanked for all the work they have done to make the project a success including all the photographic and computer records, adding to the valued contribution made by Mike Draycott.

Once again in 2018 the Reserve is greatly indebted to Martin Scrivener for carrying out the haywork and to Mary Hunt for the loan of the fine flock of sheep to graze down the aftermath in the autumn. It cannot be emphasized too greatly how vital both these annual events are to the continued positive development of the floral richness of these small meadows. The always willing help of Martin, Mary and shepherdess Oonagh is much appreciated.