Elm, possibly burred elm, (Ulmus serratifrons) in Cambridgeshire by Brian Eversham

Our three counties are a special place for wildlife, and here's why.

When asked what British bird they would most like to see, American visitors often reply "blue tit" or "lapwing" rather than something we might call exotic, like a bittern.

It is easy to underestimate our own wildlife and achievements, and even more so if we don't shout about them.

So what is really special about our three counties? You live in a special place for wildlife, and here's proof.

Jagged-leaved elm

Jagged-leaved elm by Brian Eversham

Elm central

Defining species can be difficult, and some species have blurred boundaries – evolution is a live process. Elms have been classified as anything from one variable species to 62, with much of the main variability being in our region. Cambridgeshire alone has at least 35 different elms, and nine more appear to be confined to Beds, Cambs and Northants – only we can conserve these. Dutch elm disease ravaged our older elm trees, changing skylines for ever, but elms do hang on. Woodland elm, for example, was found only in Buff and Hayley Woods in Cambridgeshire, but also lives in Cambourne and Coton. This is reflected in its scientific name Ulmus cantabrigiensis.

Gransden goldilocks buttercup

Gransden goldilocks buttercup by Brian Eversham

Goldilocks counties

As with the elms, goldilocks buttercups, early spring flowers of woodlands and shady hedgerows, have many variants, including perhaps 17 species found in our counties and nowhere else in the world. A couple, such as the Pertenhall and Riseley goldilocks buttercups have been found in single churchyards. They are the least showy of the common buttercups. Their yellow flowers have uneven-sized petals and sometimes one or more are completely missing. They produce seeds which are an exact genetic replica of the parent plant, and they use pollen to trigger seed development rather than for exchanging genes. 

Centre points

As well as plants unique to our area, we have others whose stronghold is ours to protect. Fen violets, for example thrive at Woodwalton and Wicken Fens, but otherwise only at Otmoor in Oxfordshire. Around half the country’s oxlips (pictured) and wild candytuft live in our three counties, and the largest populations of great pignut are near Luton. Bearded and dwarf stonewort are specialities of Peterborough brick pits, as are our man, musk and frog orchids that flower in large numbers at Totternhoe.

Dukes’ retreat 

The black hairstreak butterfly, a species that lives on mature blackthorn, and the Duke of Burgundy, a small, chequered butterfly whose caterpillars feed on the leaves of cowslips and primroses, are two insects that favour our counties. Grazing management at Totternhoe has seen the Dukes increase and Glapthorn Cow Pastures provides a refuge for the hairstreak. Both these butterflies are easier to see in our region than elsewhere, even though they remain tantalisingly rare. 

Wood white butterfly

Wood white butterfly by Adrian Kennerley, CC BY-NC 2.0

Wood whites are all right

The distribution of the wood white, a small, floppy white butterfly of woodland rides and clearings, now centres on Northamptonshire, along with small areas of coastal Devon and the West Midlands. Numbers of this species have plummeted in recent decades. Woodland ditches are important for breeding in some areas. Changes in the scale of woodland management and drainage, from mainly by hand to mainly by larger machines, may not have helped.

Great crested newt male

Great crested newt

Newt city

To most pond inhabitants, a great crested newt (pictured) must seem as exotic and threatening as a dragon, with their size, their unique orange belly spots and jagged crests. Sometimes controversial because of their tendency to show up during housing development, it is worth remembering that, at Orton and Peterborough brick pits, we have the largest population of them in Europe. If there is ever a species we should be proud of and have a duty to look after on behalf of all nature, it is this one.

Spined loach

Jack Perks

Location of loaches

Did you know we have around one quarter of all the spined loaches in Britain? These small fish need clean, slow-flowing or still water and at least a patchy cover of waterplants over a sandy bed. The young fish bury themselves in the sand, from which they filter tiny particles of food. This species is often sold in the pet trade. It is more widespread across Europe.

Nightingale

Nightingale - Chris Gomersall/2020VISION

Superlative songsters

No birds are restricted to our three counties, but we have the main populations of breeding black-tailed godwits, and a significant proportion of garganey, along with black-necked grebes and ruffs, mainly at the Nene and Ouse Washes. The nightingales (pictured) at Grafham Water are popular with visitors from northern England keen to hear this fabled songster. 
 

Great Burnet at Portholme Meadow

Great Burnet at Portholme Meadow by Brian Eversham

Mainly on the floodplains

There is one habitat that you may never have heard of that we have more of than anywhere except the Vale of York: MG4 meadows. Floodplain meadows are classified by the range of species that grow on them. In turn, this depends on the fertility and moisture content of the underlying soils, along with past seeding and grazing regimes. MG4 is a class of wet, but not waterlogged, grassland dominated by meadow foxtail with abundant great burnet.

Your special Trust

Looking wider than the wildlife to our work, there are areas where our expertise is sought from across the land. Our Living Landscape work is pioneering and the approach of working to connect isolated wildlife sites and develop buffer areas for their protection with a range of land managers, has been adopted by other Trusts and even other organisations. The Great Fen is held up as a prime example of success. 

We also have one of the best examples of habitat restoration at Old Sulehay, where the limestone grassland flourishes in ways unheard of 20 years ago. And let’s remember that Cambourne is an exemplar of urban development with wildlife in mind. Built on farmland that had long since lost most of its wildlife interest, Cambourne has seen a huge increase in biodiversity since building began and with careful management, it looks set to continue. That has to be good for people as well as wildlife.

 

This article was originally published in the spring 2019 issue of our members' magazine Local Wildlife.

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Waxwing (Bombycilla garrulus) feeding on Cotoneaster berries in supermarket car park. Whitstable, Kent - Terry Whittaker/2020VISION