Galley and Warden Hills and Blow’s Downs Nature Reserves Update

Reserve Officer for Blow’s Downs and Galley and Warden Hills, Esther Clark, updates on the work taken place this year at the reserves.
Fencing c.Esther Clarke

Fencing on reserves c.Esther Clarke

During the first few weeks of lockdown, due to ‘work from home’ rules, I was only able to respond to emergencies on the nature reserve, which included some fence repairs. My husband kindly (and eagerly, as it allowed him to escape the confines of home) came and helped with these as I wasn’t allowed to work closely with any colleagues.

Grassland Survey c.Gwen Hitchcock

Grassland Survey c.Gwen Hitchcock

Livestock also needed to be looked after so water bowsers had to be filled up and our team of volunteer stock checkers at Galley and Warden Hills used their daily walks to keep an eye on the cattle that were grazing there until late April.

From June we were let out but were not able to run our usual volunteer team tasks and so work was still restricted to what we could do just with socially distanced staff. This included carrying out surveys of the grassland at Blow’s Downs as part of our regular monitoring to check that the work we are doing on the nature reserve is improving the grassland habitat and making it more diverse.

Some keen volunteers also offered to pull up ragwort, an invasive and toxic plant, from Galley and Warden Hills. All I had to do was pop along each week to collect the huge mounds of the plant that they had left for me to safely dispose of. Huge thanks to them.

Litter on Wadern Hill c.Esther Clarke

Litter on Wadern Hill c.Esther Clarke

Throughout the summer the number of visitors to Blow’s Downs, Galley and Warden and all our nature reserves increased dramatically and it was lovely to meet people who had never visited before or were returning for the first time in many years. Inevitably the amount of litter and vandalism also increased with two benches being damaged beyond repair but also the number of people helping to clear up the litter has also increased. I don’t know most of them but I know we have lots of wonderful ‘litter fairies’ all making a difference by picking up a few pieces of rubbish each time they go for a walk. So thank you to them.

In July and August I spent a few days injecting areas of hawthorn and buckthorn scrub with herbicide. This is a new technique for controlling this invasive scrub that we are trialling and involves me crawling about under thorny bushes drilling small holes in the stems and then squirting in a tiny amount of herbicide. Very soon the bushes start to die back but we leave them for at least a year before returning to cut them down. So far this is proving a very effective and efficient way to clear scrub from the chalk grassland to reduce shading and make space for the wildflowers which like the sunny, open hillside.

By the end of August we felt able to welcome back small teams of volunteers on practical tasks. With lots of rules around handwashing, social distancing and no sharing of tools or, more importantly, cake! Our first mini task was at Galley Hill where the team used the new ‘deracinators’ (root removers to you and me) to pull up small hawthorn and buckthorn bushes by the roots. Another new technique in the battle against scrub encroachment.

We were also able to run our annual summer litter pick events at both nature reserves, which were well attended. We staggered the start times to allow social distancing and all the litter pickers were wiped with sanitizer before and after use. It was great to see some familiar and new faces for this.

Our herd of cows on the downland part of Blow’s Downs has remained small all summer as our farmer was self-isolating and so couldn’t bring any additional animals for the summer. So the grass is still very long in places. My colleague came and cut some areas of nettles and thistles with the tractor but with all the September rain this has all grown back again! Hopefully next year we’ll have a larger herd to help keep the vegetation in check. We had our 7 ponies on Cottage Bottom Field all summer though and they’ve done a great job once again maintaining the open areas there.

We will soon have the red poll cattle back on the Paddocks at Blow’s Downs and, if work this autumn to bring a reliable mains water supply to Galley and Warden Hills is successful, we will have redpolls there too over the winter.

The August hay cut in the Hayfield and Amenity Area at Blow’s Downs went to plan and we also got a section of the bank of railway ballast in the Hayfield dug over. This will provide a good seedbed for the more unusual plants of disturbed ground and wasteland that used to grow along the old railway line before it was turned into a busway.

Lockdown prevented our usual regular mowing of the Community Orchard in the Paddocks and so a contractor has been engaged to cut it during the autumn. The longer grass was enjoyed by lots of butterflies, such as Meadow Browns, and grasshoppers. Maybe we’ll leave it long every year in future?

One thing that we weren’t able to do due to lockdown and no volunteers was the planned fence repairs around Blows Downs. Thankfully, we were able to get some funding from a National Lottery Covid Emergency Fund to enable us to pay a contractor to do this vital work for us in the autumn.

With autumn we welcome the arrival of passage migrants; birds such as Stonechats and Whinchats who stop off on the North Chilterns to feed up on insects on their way from breeding grounds in upland Britain to wintering grounds in Africa. This year at Blow’s Downs they have also been joined by a Dartford Warbler, which is a rather unusual visitor to this part of England and to this habitat as they normally live on heathland along the south and east coast. Redwings and Fieldfares will also be soon with us.

Autumn also marks the start of the scrub clearing season for us. We have already carried out some work on Cottage Bottom Fields and on Galley and Warden Hills and we will be working in various places around the nature reserves throughout the autumn and winter – you’ll know where we are when you see the smoke from our bonfire!