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Aldbury Nowers: Hertfordshire’s royal reserve

PUBLISHED: 12:42 03 April 2017 | UPDATED: 11:03 21 April 2017

The south-facing slopes are one of the best places in Herts for wildflowers, and hence, butterflies (photo by Paul Thrush)

The south-facing slopes are one of the best places in Herts for wildflowers, and hence, butterflies (photo by Paul Thrush)

Paul Thrush

Hertfordshire is bursting with wildlife, history and beauty, and if you’re lucky you’ll find all three at once. In the west of the county lies such a place writes Herts and Middlesex Trust senior reserves officer Paul Thrush

Common lizard can be spotted when the weather is fine (Josh Kubale)Common lizard can be spotted when the weather is fine (Josh Kubale)

Aldbury Nowers is a special place. At more than 11 hectares on the Chiltern escarpment in the west of the county, the nature reserve is a Site of Special Scientific Interest. It comprises two areas of hillside linked by the Ridgeway – an ancient trail – and supports splendid wildflowers and more than 30 species of butterfly. The warm south-facing slopes host the small but beautiful flowers of chalk grassland including common milkwort, common rock rose, clustered bellflower and lady’s bedstraw. Aldbury has one of the best remaining areas of chalk grassland habitat in the county and therefore one of the finest butterfly habitats in Hertfordshire with Essex skippers, marbled whites, green hairstreak, brown argus, and scarce grizzled and dingy skippers. It is also very good for other invertebrates such as solitary bees and wasps.

Royal connections

Part of Aldbury Nowers was formerly named Duchie’s Piece – the eponymous Duchie being the nickname of the original owner’s mother. In 1991 the reserve was presented to the Queen Mother to celebrate her 90th birthday and was given the new (although perhaps less catchy) title of Queen Elizabeth the Queen Mother’s Nature Reserve. The Queen Mother formally opened the newly-named reserve and following the ceremony she enjoyed a picnic under the trees with Herts and Middlesex Wildlife Trust staff members and volunteers. Her connection to Hertfordshire was strong as she spent much of her childhood in the village of St Paul’s Walden, near Hitchin, where the Chilterns begin their rise.

See cowslip emerge in April (photo by Paul Thrush)See cowslip emerge in April (photo by Paul Thrush)

Decade of change

For a time the site became overgrown with scrub and it was hard to secure adequate grazing. In 2006 an application was made for funding from the SITA Trust Enriching Nature Programme to restore the chalk grassland habitat of Aldbury Nowers and neighbouring Alpine Meadow.

While it still supports a diverse range of butterfly and plant species, in recent years some had been lost, most notably the duke of burgundy and, for a time, the small blue.

A colony of Duke of Burgundy is near the site, it is hoped, thanks to habitat improvement, it will return to Aldbury Nowers (photo by Paul Thrush)A colony of Duke of Burgundy is near the site, it is hoped, thanks to habitat improvement, it will return to Aldbury Nowers (photo by Paul Thrush)

Together with several supporters – Butterfly Conservation, Dacorum Borough Council, SITA Trust, The National Trust, The Chilterns Conservation Board and Natural England – funding enabled intensive management work on the reserve. This included scrub control, grazing and cutting and raking; creating a mosaic of different vegetation structures, edge habitat and a coppiced glade as well as increasing nectar sources, basking spots and connectivity of habitats.

The work at Aldbury Nowers has improved overall butterfly numbers (the most notable increase being 1,700 counted in 2007 against 3,953 in 2013), with priority butterfly species, such as the dingy skipper and grizzled skipper, rising year-on-year. Between 2010 and 2011 32 species of butterflies were recorded at Aldbury Nowers, this number now stands at 34.

The Duke of Burgundy is one of the most rapidly declining butterflies in the UK. It likes scrubby grassland and sunny woodland clearings – typically in very low numbers. There was a sighting in 2010 and colonies survive in the wider landscape, with one colony within a few miles of Aldbury Nowers. It is hoped that with continued management, the duke will once again return to the site.

The small blue is our smallest UK butterfly whose sole food plant is kidney vetch. The species is rapidly declining and lives in small colonies. It disappeared from Aldbury Nowers for a time but returned within two years of restoration work to the reserve. There is a colony close to the reserve and the work HMWT carried out connected this area to Aldbury. Last year, eggs of the small blue were found on kidney vetch, proving they are now breeding on the reserve.

When to visit

The slopes at Aldbury Nowers are one of the county’s natural highlights during the spring and summer months when wildflowers, butterflies and a huge variety of other insects can be seen. Head to the reserve on a warm March day to see early butterflies such as brimstone and peacock. Visit in April to see the first orange tips emerge alongside the bright yellow tube-like flowers of cowslip.

A wander through the grassland enclosures during July and August will almost guarantee a sighting of the dark green fritillary butterfly – look out for them nectaring on flowers such as valerian or thistles. Silver-washed fritillary can also be seen in the surrounding woodland glades. Chalk hill blues can be found fluttering low over the upper slopes together with common blue and brown argus, especially where there is marjoram for them to feed on.

As summer fades into autumn there are still plenty of interesting things to see. Devils bit scabious is quite late to flower and can often be seen in October in the southern part of the reserve. It’s flower is very attractive to small coppers and other butterfly species such as small whites. Common lizards can be seen making the most of any good weather and kestrels start to hunt over the grasslands.

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