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Summer of wild success

PUBLISHED: 12:46 30 September 2013 | UPDATED: 12:46 30 September 2013

Water rail (Dave Kilbey)

Water rail (Dave Kilbey)

© Dave Kilbey 2009

The Herts and Middlesex Wildlife Trust works to protect some of the most important habitats in Hertfordshire, with some stunning successes this summer. The trust’s Sarah Buckingham explains how native plants and animals are benefiting

Rail’s return to Thorley Wash

A major project to restore and protect a wet grassland habitat at Thorley Wash Nature Reserve near Bishop’s Stortford has borne fruit. The meadow is relatively untouched by chemicals, which means it has huge potential for wildlife – but the site had become overgrown with willow, which was threatening to push out wildflowers and other grassland species. The reserve was re-opened following restoration work this spring and we were very excited to discover over the summer that the very shy water rail, a bird that favours wetland sites, is breeding on the reserve.

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Butterfly bonanza, Aldbury Nowers

It’s been a fantastic year for butterflies. In July at Aldbury Nowers Nature Reserve we recorded the highest ever number of butterflies since weekly surveys began here. On just one stretch of the reserve, a total of 676 butterflies of 13 species were recorded (with hundreds more were on the wing). This included 296 marbled whites, 145 meadow browns, 144 ringlets, 57 large skippers and 19 dark green fritillaries. The increase in the numbers of dark green fritillaries shows the success of our management work. Just two were recorded in 2010, 10 in 2011 and 38 in 2012. More than 40 had been recorded at the time of writing this year.

Day-to-day management includes cutting and raking the grassland – this, combined with grazing by our flock of Shetland sheep, allows rare chalk grassland plants to emerge, which in turn attract specific butterflies. With the continued dedication of volunteers and trust staff, this reserve has become the best place in the county for butterflies.

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Stevenage in bloom

Since 2010 the trust has been working in partnership with Stevenage Borough Council to protect, restore and raise awareness of some of the town’s special areas for wildlife, through the Wild Stevenage project. Just minutes from the town centre, you can walk in the ancient Monks and Whomerley woods, where swathes of bluebells appear in spring. Walk through the adjacent Fairlands Valley Park and you will come across a very special place for crickets and grasshoppers. Volunteers have jumped at the chance to learn more about this and other wildlife on their doorsteps – and get their hands dirty too, helping to rejuvenate ponds and protect the town’s special woodlands and grasslands.

The council has also introduced a mowing regime that leaves designated road verges to grow long to encourage wildflowers and butterflies. Residents have reported swathes of orchids emerging along the roadside this summer as a result. One counted 100 bee orchids in just one patch! Orchids have returned to Monks and Whomerley woods too. Project officer Ann Favell was thrilled to find numerous early purple orchids there this spring. We await the results of our summer butterfly surveys so we can assess the impact of wildflowers and grasses returning – but all the signs are looking good. Butterfly species recorded so far include peacocks, brimstones, small skippers and commas.

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Paris in Balls Wood

Herb Paris, also known as true lover’s knot or devil in a bush, is a plant of ancient woodland. With its whorl of four egg-shaped leaves, this distinctive plant is also known as the herb of equality. Its symmetry appealed to medieval herbalists and it was also used in marriage rituals and to guard against witches. Its crown of understated, green flowers can be found blooming among bluebells and primroses in May and June. Slow to colonise, it is threatened by the loss of ancient woodland – planting a new woodland will not help existing colonies in the short term. The trust is protecting our ancient woodlands in Hertfordshire to ensure the survival of special plants such as these. This year herb Paris has done very well at Balls Wood Nature Reserve, where the trust works to create open glades and rides (wide footpaths). This lets light on to the woodland floor, encouraging a wide range of woodland plants and in turn the wildlife that depend on them.

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Blagrove’s orchid show

A staggering number of orchids have bloomed at Blagrove Common Nature Reserve this summer. The trust manages the site through grazing and cutting back dominant species that would otherwise swamp the grassland and its special flora. Longhorn cattle are often used to graze the common, allowing rarer wildflowers and other plants to emerge.

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