Our new five-year vision from April 2015 aims to rebuild nature across our three counties. Trust Chief Executive Brian Eversham predicts that there will be even more species, some of which will be a complete surprise.
In each of our nine Living Landscapes, we’re creating new habitats, and exciting animals and plants are increasing or colonising already. But where are they coming from?
In some cases, they may have always been there but in such low numbers that no-one saw them. Velvet ants at Kester’s Docking in the Great Fen are an example: they can’t fly, so it’s hard to imagine that they could have travelled far. Plants can ‘hide’ for decades as buried seeds, just waiting for the right conditions to grow. Fields full of bullwort in the Great Fen, where it had never been seen before, are a good example. We’re hoping that the Fen Violet, which doesn’t like competition from other plants, so often grows on bare or disturbed peat soil, will re-appear in the same way. It’s occasionally been abundant at Woodwalton Fen, but not for several years.
Other species have spread to our nature reserves from small populations nearby. Dyer’s greenweed, now seen on the limestone grassland at Old Sulehay, was probably brought in as seeds by birds from nearby Collyweston Quarries. Orchids produce such fine, wind-blown seeds that they can reach almost any habitat we make for them. Last but not least, some species arrive from further afield. Many species are moving north and west as a result of climate change, and if we provide them with homes, they will come!
How will wildlife respond to habitat creation?
The rate of change varies with different habitats. Wetlands are often the most dramatic: just add water, and the wildlife changes, whatever the scale. Dig a pond in your garden, and water beetles, bugs and dragonflies will arrive within days or even hours. Flood a gravel pit, and waders arrive while the water is still rising. Because water is such a powerful and dynamic feature of the natural landscape, wetland species have evolved an ability to move quickly to exploit new habitats, and to escape from sites which are drying out.
Wildlife of other habitats are slower to respond. Grasslands may take years to fill with wild flowers, and decades to assume the character of our very best meadows. Ancient woodlands are likely to be the slowest to respond. Newly created woodlands can be very good for woodland-edge flowers and shrubs, and for warblers and even nightingales, and when they are created alongside ancient woods, they provide an extra feeding ground for many ancient-woodland birds and insects. But they won’t have the ‘feel’ of an ancient woodland, with its bluebells, oxlips and amazing assemblages of beetles and snails and other indicators, for many decades or even centuries.
So what might appear in each of the Wildlife Trust's nine Living Landscape areas where we are focussing our efforts.......?
Many birds have already colonised the newly restored habitats, and there’s more to come. I look forward to cranes, bitterns, quails, spotted crakes and bearded tits breeding by 2020. All these birds breed within a few miles, and the habitats we’ve already created at the Great Fen are suitable for them to establish. Over 500ha is under active restoration and where wheat or sugar beet grew 5 years ago, we now see flower-rich grasslands, pools and ditches with water voles, and fast-growing reedbeds. Some resident birds will become more abundant: there are currently a couple of pairs of Cetti’s warblers at Woodwalton Fen, but I’d expect them to be as common as robins and wrens in a few years. There are plenty of yellow wagtails and skylarks in the new grasslands and the wettest areas may be suitable for black-tailed godwits to nest, rather than merely visit, in a few years. It can’t be long before willow emerald damselfly colonises the new ponds and beautifully landscaped ditches in the Great Fen.
Many species which used to occur in the Fens have not been seen for many years, even at the best surviving sites such as Woodwalton and Wicken Fen. Among my favourites, which might just be surviving in small numbers somewhere, and which could reappear as habitat is created, are the crucifix beetle, Panagaeus cruxmajor, and the two-spot Longhorn, Oberea occulata.
We’re creating more open habitats at Irthlingborough Lakes and Meadows to encourage breeding birds like lapwings, redshanks and even avocets or cattle egrets. Reducing disturbance in some of the wet grassland there may entice garganeys to nest.
New scrapes in the grassland at Irthlingborough provide homes for rare water beetles and soldierflies, and the edges will be great for many species of ground-beetles and shorebugs. These are also among the best places to see migrant waders in spring and autumn – so I look forward to green sandpipers, greenshanks, ruffs and doubtless many more species.
The cliffs at Houghton Regis Chalk Pit look perfect for nesting ravens and peregrine falcons. It can’t be long before adonis blue or silver-spotted skipper butterflies, or black-and-red woodland grasshoppers reach these wonderful chalk grasslands. Totternhoe Quarry already has some of the finest chalk grasslands I know, and the quality of the habitat here and at Houghton Regis make them feel like places where almost any species which lives in the Chilterns could turn up. Houghton Regis was famed for its small blue-tailed damselflies, which seem to have disappeared from central England. Confined to very shallow, trickling water, and very sensitive to the depth and quality of water, it’s possible the shallowest areas at the pit could attract them once more.
We already see clouds of silver-washed fritillary butterflies in our wonderful bluebell woods. Let’s hope the visiting purple emperors become established by 2020. It’s been exciting to see the development of wildlife at Sugley Wood, our extension to Gamlingay Wood, in the last decade. The drifts of betony and other scarce flowers are now impressive, and the area has become important for foraging bumblebees, butterflies and insects visiting from the original ancient woodland. As the habitat develops, scarce species which have survived in very small numbers may become more abundant. I hope several more species of longhorn beetles will turn up, and given the sandy parts of the site, perhaps woodlarks too?
At Cherry Hinton Chalk Pits, Cambridge, scrub clearance and landscaping has created large areas of bare ground and early stage chalk grassland, meaning we could hope to see lizard orchids, stripe-winged grasshoppers and even bombardier beetles in future. As the grassland develops inside the pits, glow-worms should increase, the important population of moon-carrot should expand, and it will be an ideal place for marbled white and chalkhill blue butterflies – and maybe even for new butterflies moving up from the Chilterns? Nearby, it would be wonderful to re-discover purse-web spiders in the ancient grasslands of Devil’s Ditch or the Fleam Dyke.
Every time I visit Cooper’s Hill or Rammamere Heath, I hope to hear woodlark or see a Dartford warbler. Might there be a surviving colony of bog bush-crickets somewhere? Although most often found among wet heath plants such as cross-leaved heath (so, Holme Fen would be another place they could be hiding) I’ve also seem them on dry heathlands in the south of England. Maybe sundew or raft spider will be discovered at Flitwick Moor? Flitwick is already known as the best place for mosses, liverworts and fungi in central England. It has some special lichens too, and I hope new stag’s-horn and pixy-cup lichens will be found there in future, too.
On this area of Northants Limestone, restored habitats are looking better each year. Already there are rarities like knapweed-broomrape and dyer’s greenweed among the orchids at Old Sulehay. I’m looking forward to chalk eyebrights, clustered bellflowers, small scabious and wasp spiders next. Wind-blown seed from nearby sites could bring man and musk orchids to the nature reserve.
Woodland butterflies have been doing better in recent years. Let’s hope for dozens of white admirals, along with a resurgence of nightingales and plenty of early purple orchids in the near future. Most people have seen cased caddisfly larvae that live in ponds; land caddis flies build similar cases but live in leaf-litter in woodlands. For many years they were thought to be confined to the Wyre Forest in Worcestershire; but in the last decade it’s been found throughout Worcestershire and at scattered sites in the Midlands. So why not here?
Like some of our other wetland nature reserves, our new reserve at Godmanchester already has visiting great white egrets: but will they nest by 2020? And how far will Norfolk hawker dragonflies expand from their current outpost at Paxton Pits? Will the nightingales at Godmanchester have to compete with a chorus of Cetti’s warblers soon? And might the quiet, secluded reedbeds become home to water rails, spotted crakes or even bearded tits?