Rewards of Thorley Wash

PUBLISHED: 14:11 25 November 2014 | UPDATED: 14:11 25 November 2014

Barn owls are nesting on the site, photo Jon Hawkins

Barn owls are nesting on the site, photo Jon Hawkins


A major restoration project at Thorley Wash Nature Reserve is reaping rich rewards, Herts and Middlesex Wildlife Trust officer Joey Millar reports

Ragged robin has sprung up, photo Paul LaneRagged robin has sprung up, photo Paul Lane

Wildlife conservation can seem like a thankless slog at times, with red tape, lack of funding and general apathy all-too-common challenges. The hard work and grit does pay off, however, and every now and then it is important to take a step back and admire the results.

Take Thorley Wash Nature Reserve, for example. When Herts and Middlesex Wildlife Trust took control of the site, south of Bishop’s Stortford, it was in a poor state. Trees (particularly the dominant willow) were overgrown, blocking out light for other vegetation, and ditches were clogged. Accessibility for the public was also a problem.

This was especially worrying given that the area is a Site of Special Scientific Interest. Thorley Wash is one of the few wet grassland areas remaining in Hertfordshire, after most were drained following the Second World War to make space for agriculture. The wash also boasts stunning botanical diversity, as well as very rare fen plants. It is a place to be treasured and protected. There was a lot of work to be done – so the trust embarked on a major restoration project with the help of Growth Area Funding and the Rural Development Programme for England.

Willow scrub was removed and other trees were pollarded, giving wildflowers a chance to flourish again, while a small woodland area was left as a refuge, to give birds a place to breed and roost and shelter for insects. A bridge was built, allowing grazing animals and maintenance vehicles onto the site. And a nature trail was constructed, allowing people to experience first-hand the rare and beautiful landscape. Wooden sculptures commissioned by the trust were also installed and can be discovered walking around the trail.

Highland cattle have been brought in to help manage scrub, photo Jenny SherwenHighland cattle have been brought in to help manage scrub, photo Jenny Sherwen

All in all, it was a huge project. But when it comes to nature there are no guarantees. Would the site blossom after all the hard work? Even if it did, would people take the time to appreciate and experience it?

Two years after work started the answer to both questions is a resounding ‘Yes’. Fen plants flourished with incredible variety: the summer of 2013 saw an explosion of purple loosestrife, while ragged robin sprang up the following spring. Birds are also benefiting hugely, with a number of exciting sightings. Five barn owl chicks were spotted earlier this year, as well as a green sandpiper and grasshopper warblers. All signs indicate that the area is a safe place for breeding. Other winged guests included very rare clouded migrant yellows butterflies in the summer, adding to the colour and movement of several other more common species.

We have also had some more unusual sightings at the site. A recent study of the ditches revealed the presence of two interesting inhabitants: a wasp-spider, with its unmistakable black and yellow stripes, and a lamprey. A type of very rare and incredibly small snail is also present – if you can spot them! Desmoulin’s whorl snails are smaller than 3mm in diameter, so bring your magnifying glass.

From the tiny to the huge: another strange sight at Thorley has been a group of water buffalo. Brought in by the trust to be used as eco-friendly lawn mowers, the herd spent a happy summer grazing down the excess vegetation. Highland cattle took their place the following summer and have been equally industrious. The cattle will be viewable from the trail for the next couple of months.

A rare grasshopper warbler, photo Amy LewisA rare grasshopper warbler, photo Amy Lewis

The variety of wildlife that now calls Thorley Wash home is hugely satisfying, with both rare and common species on show. Equally rewarding has been the number of visitors enjoying the site in the last two years, helped in part by special events. An open day in May 2013 was well attended, with many people discovering the area for the first time. And this year a sunrise walk took place in May, to introduce people to the local birds and their songs. Visitor numbers are constantly growing, with over 3,000 people visiting the site between April and October last year.

It has been a busy two years and the transformation has been spectacular. Wildlife conservation is hard work, but when projects go as well as they have at Thorley Wash, it makes it all worthwhile. A wonderful array of wildlife is enjoying the revitalised site, so make sure you visit too.

How to get there

Two barn owl chicks being ringed at Thorley Wash in June, photo Jenny SherwenTwo barn owl chicks being ringed at Thorley Wash in June, photo Jenny Sherwen

Thorley Wash, Spellbrook, Bishop’s Stortford CM22 7SE

The reserve can be reached from the Stort Navigation towpath. For directions and more information, visit

To help achieve more successes like Thorley Wash, join the Herts and Middlesex Wildlife Trust. It relies heavily on the support of members and donations to protect local wildlife. Members receive Wildlife Matters magazine and a guide to its reserves. Join at the above address.

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