The reserve bursts into life at this time of year, with the migrant birds returning and filling the air with their songs and the wildflowers starting to show their colours. One plant has its only confirmed site in the county at Prees Heath, Heath Dog-violet, Viola canina. This plant has paler blue flowers than the Common Dog-violet and its leaves are more pointed. The good news is that it is spreading on the reserve and can now be seen in a number of places. Another unusual plant which has been seen in good numbers this spring in the grassland is Moonwort, Botrychium lunaria,which is actually a fern. It grows to about three inches tall and the leaves are shaped like half-moons - it was once believed to be a cure for snake bite.
Moomwort (Stephen Lewis}
Chiffchaffs are the first migrant birds to arrive, followed by Willow Warblers. Their distinctive songs can be heard throughout the summer, the first a two-toned rocking rhythm and the latter a descending scale weakly petering out. Common Whitethroats have also arrived. Wheatears have also been seen on the reserve as they make their way further north. Other resident species are making their voices heard on the reserve, such as Skylarks and Yellowhammers. Eight Stonechats were seen on the Hangars field in May, and it was hoped that they might breed, but they seem to have dispersed. To protect all ground-nesting birds it is important that all dogs are kept on short leads as directed by the signs on the reserve.
|Wheatear (Stephen Lewis)||Yellowhammer (Stephen Lewis)|
Each year the beginning of April marks the start of the butterfly transect on the reserve. Every week until the end of September I or another volunteer walk a set route recording all the butterfly species two and a half metres either side and five metres in front. The counts are sent online to Butterfly Conservation headquarters in Dorset and form part of a huge dataset that informs everyone – ecologists, the UK Government, the public – how our British butterflies are faring. On the reserve numbers were low during a relatively cold and cloudy April and early May, but have picked up in the recent warmer weather. A few Silver-studded Blue caterpillars have been seen, attended by ants, although not on the transect. Brimstone eggs and a Brimstone caterpillar have also been spotted on Alder Buckthorn.
Brimstone Egg (Janet Vernon)
Butterflies may be the most visible insects on the reserve but they are by no means the only ones. Lowland heath is particularly good for a huge range of invertebrates - many hundreds of insects and spiders. Two that have been seen recently are the Blue Shield Bug and the Tiger Cranefly, neither of them particularly rare but no less remarkable for that.
Blue Shield Bug (Lucy Lewis)
Tiger Cranefly (Gavin Woodman)
Contractors have been on site controlling the ragwort and docks with herbicide in the large area to the east of the runway, and will also be working there during the summer to control birch saplings. This is very necessary work as part of the ongoing restoration of the site.
Stephen Lewis, Volunteer Warden
Spring has arrived, and Small Tortoiseshell, Comma, Peacock and Brimstone butterflies have all been seen on the reserve in March, as well as an Orange Underwing moth. Work to improve the heathland habitat has continued. Students from Reaseheath College have helped to clear some brambles from near the entrance to the reserve after enjoying a guided walk around the site. Our own group of volunteers have also been busy clearing brambles and birch seedlings from the restoration areas.
|Orange Underwing Moth||Reaseheath Ciollege Students|
Mowing has continued on the Hangars field, concentrating on the heather that has been blighted by the Heather Beetle and some very tall heather. This has been done in patches, and should create suitable habitat not just for the Silver-studded Blue butterfly but also for Skylarks. The volunteers raked off and burned some of the heather cuttings, which unfortunately were found to contain many Heather Beetles, which indicate that further damage to the heather can be expected this year.
The volunteers have also been forking out ragwort rosettes on the Hangars field. Whilst doing this a Jack Snipe was flushed – at first I thought this was a Common Snipe, but I was later corrected by Allan Dawes, a very knowledgable local bird expert. I believe that this is a first time this species has been seen on the reserve since purchase, and also a first for me. It is a migratory species, only to be seen in this country in the winter, and is somewhat smaller than the Common Snipe. Several Chiffchaffs arrived in March, and a Stonechat has been seen perched on the heather.
Volunteers raking mown heather
An article appeared in the Whitchurch Herald asking people who visit the reserve regularly to help clear litter, especially from the track and
around the gates. Of course it is the responsibility of everyone to deal with their own litter responsibly, but I hope that the article results in less litter being left lying around. Pink washable paint spray continues to be used to highlight the fact that not all dog users all clearing up after their dogs. Dog mess is a health hazard and damages the soils, so any dog mess must be cleared up by the owners of the dogs.
Some plywood sheeting has been installed inside the former RAF control tower to make two rooms more secure for the bats that have been seen there, on the advice of the Shropshire Bat Group. This will mean that any bats should not be subject to disturbance during the control tower open day on Sunday 2nd July, 10.00am to 4.00pm.
Students from Harper Adams University have completed their botanical survey of the restoration areas by carrying out a series of quadrats – 2 metre by 2 metre squares, recording all the vegetation. It is hoped that these squares will be re-surveyed in future years so that we gain an understanding of the changes that are taking place, as well as giving the students some important training in survey techniques. Many thanks to Andy Cherrill and Simon Irvin of Harper Adams University for arranging this.
A local resident who knows the reserve well thinks she saw a Water Vole by the pond last year. We have not been able to confirm this, but it is well worth keeping an eye out for these likable creatures and their footprints and nibbled pieces of vegetation – go to www.whitchurchwatervoles.co.uk for more information about how you can spot the signs. The Kingfisher has been seen again, and there has been masses of frogspawn in the pond, which has already hatched, and a Little Egret has been seen locally – has he visited the pond?
Frogspawn in the pond
Prees Heath Warden, Butterfly Conservation
2016 was the 10th anniversary of the Reserve, and generally it was a very successful year. Numbers of Silver-studded Blue butterflies were their highest for three years, several events were held engaging many members of the public and we saw educational events with a local school, a college and a university. The summer was pretty good and, during the Silver-studded Blue season, we met visitors from as far afield as Kilkenny in the Irish Republic, Inverness in Scotland and Kent.
December witnessed more mowing on the Hangars field of the heather that had been damaged by the Heather Beetle. This time Lucy Morton, Butterfly Conservation Reserves Officer, did the mowing, and more is planned for February. We hope that the beetle will not be so prevalent this year, and we expect that the damage it inflicts will tend to be cyclical, meaning that we can expect an outbreak once every few years. During the mowing I was able to photograph a rather attractive small heathland moth that flies in the winter, Acleris hyemana.
|Mowing||Small Heathland Moth|
Before Christmas the Butterfly Conservation volunteers litter-picked the site, an annual event, resulting in a large quantity of litter being taken to Whitchurch Recycling Centre. Afterwards they enjoyed a lunch at the Midway Café courtesy of Butterfly Conservation as a mark of gratitude for all the work they have done over the year. This year they have already done some bramble clearance work on the north end of the reserve.
Litter on the reserve is becoming more of a problem as visitor numbers increase. It needs to be picked up more often. I am asking anyone who visits the reserve on a regular basis to help by collecting litter, especially around the entrance gates and the track. I have a number of litter pickers and bags I can give to people who are willing to assist – just give me a call or send me an email, details are at the bottom of the report.
A few weeks ago I was contacted by Harper Adams University suggesting a student project on the reserve. Since then a group of undergraduate students have been busy designing a vegetation survey of the restoration areas, and they are now carrying this out – maybe this time of year is not the best time to be doing botanical work, but it has to fit in with their course timetable. It is planned that the survey will be repeated every two or three years so that we can have some useful data as to how these areas are changing over time, as well as the students benefitting from increasing their survey skills and botanical knowledge. Many thanks to Andy Cherrill and Simon Irvin of Harper Adams for their work on this, and of course to the students themselves.
Prees Heath Volunteer Warden
The volunteers have been busy over the last couple of months levering out birch seedlings on one of the restoration areas, cutting back brambles on the side of the runway and hand harvesting Bell Heather seed. For the bramble bash we were joined by Lucy Morton, Butterfly Conservation’s Reserves Officer, who tackled some of the denser bramble with a brushcutter. The Bell Heather seed will be used to grow plants for transfer back to the reserve in a couple of years’ time. I have also done some mowing on the Hangars field of the heather that was attacked by the Heather Beetle, and more mowing is planned in December.
|Brushcutting brambles||Harvesring Bell Heather seed|
Mown heather on the Hangars field
Undergraduate students from Harper Adams University have been on site to look at soil sampling and vegetation on the restoration areas. It is envisaged that this will become a long term partnership between Butterfly Conservation and the university so that we will receive useful data every two or three years on the progress of the heathland and grassland restoration. The restoration work continues to receive national publicity as it was recently featured in the State of Nature in England report, compiled by around 40 different nature conservation organisations. If you are interested you can see the report by going to: http://www.wildlifetrusts.org/sites/default/files/stateofnature2016_england_1_sept_pages.pdf and turning to pages 14 & 15.
I continue to give illustrated talks about the reserve, its history and heritage, its wildlife and the restoration work. In November I talked to the Friends of Ness Botanic Gardens on the Wirral in a splendid lecture theatre they have there in the visitor centre. I am always willing to give talks to local community groups – do get in touch if you are interested.
The autumn colours on the reserve this year were brilliant, especially as we had a run of bright autumnal days. The Kingfisher that has been seen on the pond has not been seen recently to my knowledge, although we have installed two perching posts for him/her. The control tower is again providing a winter home for some butterflies and moths, and this year we have also seen hundreds of Harlequin Ladybirds roosting in there in large clusters.
Prees Heath Warden
As people may know, it is now 10 years since Butterfly Conservation purchased the western half of Prees Heath Common and started on a heathland restoration project on areas that were formerly used to grow crops. It has to be said that restoring to heathland – which requires low fertility and low pH levels – arable land used to grow crops – which requires high fertility and nutrients and high pH levels – is notoriously challenging. The project began in October 2006 when Dr Phil Putwain from Liverpool University and I took some soil samples at a depth of up to one metre from these areas and they were analysed in the laboratory and the results were interpreted by Dr Putwain, who also discussed options with us and recommendations. This resulted in various interventions, including deep ploughing these areas up to a depth of one metre. Much work had been done, and we thought it was good time to re-appraise the project and in particular the current state of the soils, so we asked Dr Putwain to take further soil samples and provide us with another report.
After deep ploughing in 2007
In his recent report Dr Putwain, who has also been measuring pH levels on some the former arable areas on an annual basis, concluded that the interventions we carried out and the consequent improvement in the soils to enable the establishment if heathland species have been sustained on most of the former arable areas. In future it will be important to continue to control invasive species such as Birch and Rosebay Willowherb on these areas. However the analysis revealed a slightly more problematic situation on the Hangars field, the first area to receive heather seed, as recent increases in the soil pH level here in the 0 – 10cm horizon give a cause for concern. Monitoring of the pH levels here in future should be done on a twice per year basis.
Analysis was also carried out on the large grassy area to the south of the hangars, which is part of the Site of Special Scientific Interest and was not deep ploughed but was used to grow crops at some stage. There is little evidence here of any reversion to heathland, which shows that the option of not intervening but waiting and seeing what happens has not produced any significant change. Dr Putwain advised that stripping off some of the topsoil may be an option to consider here in the future.
Many people have said that this has been a poor year for butterflies, but this has not been the case at Prees Heath. The Silver-studded Blues enjoyed their best year for the last three years. Small Heaths and, especially, Small Coppers were recorded in very good numbers, but Small Tortoiseshells, Commas and Peacocks were only seen occasionally. Numbers of Meadow Browns and Gatekeepers were lower than normal. So maybe it was a year when the more common species such as those to be seen in your garden were not so evident but those that inhabit uncultivated areas fared better.
On other matters, the volunteers have been busy removing Birch saplings from the Hangars field. We manned a stall at Merefest, held in Ellesmere in September, publicising not only the reserve and the work of Butterfly Conservation but also the recently published book ‘Butterflies of the West Midlands’. We raffled a copy to raise funds for the West Midlands Branch of Butterfly Conservation.
The Major of Ellesmere holding a copy of the book at the Merefest
The book has received excellent reviews in the press, and sales have progressed well. The book contains a wealth of information, including:
- Accounts of the life stages of all 41 butterfly species to be found in our region, with excellent photographs
- Details of rare migrants and extinct species
- Descriptions of the main physical features of the region and its key habitats
- Information on the impact of climate change
- A chapter on how to encourage butterflies into your garden
- A history of recording in the region
- 25 walks highlighting the best butterfly sites in the region
Sample pages from 'Butterflies of the West Midlands'
Anyone who would like to buy a copy, which contains 154 pages and costs £18.95, can contact me or go to www.naturebureau.co.uk
Prees Heath Warden
Butterfly Conservation West Midlands Branch