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Fossils and flowers: wildlife havens of Hill End and Barkway chalk pits

PUBLISHED: 10:45 18 March 2019 | UPDATED: 10:45 18 March 2019

Nationally rare chalkgrassland at Hill End

Nationally rare chalkgrassland at Hill End

CMS

Former chalk pits near Hitchin and Royston are secluded spots rich with life ancient and rare. Work is underway to make them better known and studied

Hill End and Barkway chalk pits are unique secluded sites of geological and ecological interest. Both sites are designated as Regionally Important Geological Sites and contain large numbers of fascinating fossil groups, notably ammonites, an extinct marine mollusc similar to the living nautilus. Owned by North Hertfordshire District Council and managed in partnership with Hertfordshire County Council’s Countryside Management Service, both former chalk pits are also Local Wildlife Sites and support a variety of habitats including nationally rare chalk grassland and woodland, providing a sanctuary for wildlife such as the orange tip butterfly and song thrush.

Hill End Chalk Pit

Hill End Chalk Pit is just south of Hitchin at St Pauls Walden, opposite Hitch Wood at the intersection of the B651 and Hitchwood Lane. Many types of fossils have been found here and the site has yielded more fossils of all groups than any other in the local chalk rock locality, aside from Kensworth Chalk Pit in Bedfordshire.

The site has chalk grassland, a specialised and fragile habitat rich in flowering plants such as viper’s bugloss, common twayblade and knapweed and is important for insects (gatekeeper and common blue butterflies can be spotted here) and birds. The pit contains the biggest colony of the snail Azeca goodalli known in the county.

To help preserve and improve this important habitat, work will be carried out next year to remove encroaching scrub. Scraping the chalk face will also expose its geological interest – great for environmental education trips, research by geological societies and an interesting feature for visitors. New signage and interpretation panels will also be installed to ensure the site is easier to find and navigate, making sure visitors have an enjoyable and hopefully enlightening visit.

Barkway Chalk Pit

A secluded site north of Barkway and south of Royston just off Royston Road, Barkway Chalk Pit has exposed chalk which was pushed over boulder clay by the Anglian Stage Glacier over 400,000 years ago and was revealed by chalk excavation. The site has remnants of chalk grassland and hosts a range of mosses. It is also an important site for UK red-listed birds such as corn bunting, yellowhammer, linnet and song thrush.

This year, scrub was cleared around the chalk face by Countryside Management Service volunteers to ensure it remains visible. Dense woody scrub was also removed to help increase the potential area for more chalk grassland. Next year, more scrub will be cleared and testing carried out to see whether it will be possible to re-establish chalk grassland. If it is, the following year work will be carried out in the centre of the site and surrounding areas. After works are completed, it’s hoped the site’s geological features, beautiful chalk grassland and variety of wildlife will encourage educational trips and research by geological societies, just as at Hill End.

Sarashka King is a Countryside Management Service trainee land management projects officer. For more on the work of CMS and opportunities for visits and volunteering, go to hertfordshire.gov.uk/cms, email northeast.cms@hertfordshire.gov.uk or call 01992 588433.

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