The volunteers and various groups have been active on the reserve in the last two months. Volunteers cleared brambles from part of the SSSI – if this work is not done the brambles will become invasive and suppress the grasses and wildflowers. So, although they do provide fruits in the late summer, home to many insects and shelter and nesting sites for birds, they have to be controlled. It is a case of striking a balance, like much of the work carried out on the reserve, to ensure that a mosaic of habitats to benefit a range of species is maintained. The volunteers also did a litter pick of the reserve in February in the most appalling weather – driving rain and cold – so many thanks to them. It is always good to meet and greet new volunteers, and anyone who would like to help out on the reserve in any way should just get in touch with me.
Volunteers soaked after the litter pick
Reaseheath College students on the reserve
A neighbouring landowner on the eastern boundary near the path to the pond on the reserve recently erected a tall fence, and the land beyond the fence is now being cultivated. We decided to plant a shelter belt of trees alongside the fence to lessen its visual impact and also to provide suitable habitat for wildlife. Most of the trees were donated by the Woodland Trust, and the remainder were paid for by the Meres & Mosses Landscape Partnership Scheme. The species were much the same as those that were planted along the A41 some years ago – Pedunculate Oak, Grey Willow, Goat Willow, Hawthorn, Blackthorn, Rowan, Holly and Alder Buckthorn. These are species that are already established on the reserve.
Most of the planting was carried out by Year 3 and Year 4 pupils from Prees Primary School, with the remainder planted the following day by students from Reaseheath College near Nantwich. They all worked hard not just to dig the holes for the trees but also to install the canes and guards to protect the trees from the rabbits, which like to nibble the bark and thereby damage or even kill the tree.
Prees Primary School pupils planting trees
Butterfly Conservation purchased the reserve on 30th May 2006, so this year marks its tenth anniversary. To celebrate this we are holding a family-friendly BioBlitz on Sunday 29th May, starting at 2.00pm and finishing in the evening. A BioBlitz is an opportunity to find as many different wildlife species as possible in a given time – birds, butterflies, other insects, pondlife, reptiles, wildflowers, mammals etc. Various experts will be on hand to assist people in identifying the wealth of wildlife that is to be found on the reserve. The event is designed to be very suitable for children (the wildlife custodians of tomorrow!) and their parents, so please contact me if you would like to book places. There will be a BBQ in the evening, and a marquee and portaloos will be available.
Finally, I am going to finish this report on a sadder note. In March I learnt that Eleanor Cooke had died. In 1991 Shropshire Wildlife Trust published a book written by Eleanor entitled ‘Who Killed Prees Heath?’. In the book she poetically describes how the heritage of Prees Heath Common was all but being destroyed, and the book received national publicity on BBC Radio 4. With the Common threatened with sand and gravel extraction at that time, it became an important feature of the Save Prees Heath Common Campaign, which led to the purchase of the western half of the Common by Butterfly Conservation in 2006 and subsequent restoration work. Everyone connected with the campaign to save the Common is grateful to Eleanor for her unique contribution in giving expression to what so many people passionately felt, and continue to feel as only half the Common has been saved and restored. I still have some copies of the book available, priced at £5.00 each, and please contact me if you would like to purchase one.
Eleanor Cooke's book
Prees Heath Warden
The mercury lamp was blindingly bright,
blackening the surrounding night,
a Buff-tip appeared, pale wings a-flap,
he was lured by the light into the trap.
Secure in shady egg-box ‘caves’.
Green Carpets, Heralds and Riband Waves.
With pretty names like Puss Moth, Purple Thorn and Burnished Brass,
they flew in from surrounding trees, some settled on the grass;
with bodies furry-coated to guard against the cold,
patterned wings exquisite, some delicate – some bold.
Shouts of delight – a Lime Hawk-moth was seen!
dove grey, soft pink, and a pale olive green.
Circling, bird-like, he perched on someone’s arm,
his scalloped wings quivering, so trusting and calm.
Then all at once a flurry of moths flew in from everywhere,
and landed on our clothing, on our books and in our hair.
Much laughter, swishing nets and capturing in pots,
we identified Peach Blossom and a Magpie with black spots.
Too soon our moth encounter ends,
we shook the ‘caves’ and freed our friends.
The show was almost over, and with ghostly fluttering flight,
they said ‘Goodbye’, and silently, flew off into the night.
|Buff-tip Moth||Small Magpie Moth|
This is always the quietest time of the year on the heath, and this year not much has happened at all. The mild weather has led a number of birds remaining present on the reserve rather than retreating into gardens as there has continued to be food available for them. Goldcrests have been seen on the reserve again, one of the smallest British birds.
The volunteers were busy before Christmas cutting back brambles on the area leading up to the old airfield hangars. Here, and elsewhere on the reserve, we are noticing an increasing amount of heather in the grassland. One theory as to why this is happening is that the rabbit numbers have decreased, leading to less nibbling of the heather. More work is due to be done this year on cutting back brambles, although we will make sure that sufficient are left as they do provide a food source for birds and for visitors. After their bramble bashing session the volunteers enjoyed a lunch at the Midway café.
We have now had the presence of bats confirmed in the old airfield control tower by an expert analysis of some droppings underneath one of the roosting structures we installed. This is good news, although we have to be very careful now not to disturb any bats in the future as they are legally protected animals. At this stage we are not able to identify which species of bat is using the building. As well as bats we have a number of hibernating butterflies and moths using the building – on 28th January this year 26 Small Tortoiseshells, 12 Peacocks and 6 Herald moths were counted in the building.
On 30th May 2006 Butterfly Conservation purchased the site, so this year marks the tenth anniversary of the reserve. It is good to think back to what the site looked like before purchase, with half of it used to grow crops, a long-standing traveller encampment, rubbish strewn all over, a feeling of dereliction and very few visitors, and compare it to what it is like today. In celebration we will be holding special public events, one on Sunday 29th May and another on Sunday 3rd July – keep an eye on the website for further details.
I continue to give talks about Prees Heath, and gave one in January to the Bridgnorth Branch of Shropshire Wildlife Trust, the 47th talk about the reserve I have given in the last 10 years. So I am always happy to give an illustrated talk to any interested group locally or further afield – last year I gave talks in Surrey and Sussex, and later this year I will be giving one on the Wirral – do contact me if you would like me to give a talk in your area.
Prees Heath Warden
The volunteers have been busy during the autumn. Their main task has been clearing brambles and birch saplings from the SSSI parts of the reserve, that is to say those areas which were not in arable cultivation prior to purchase by Butterfly Conservation. If we did not do this the open heathland would be lost and it would become scrub woodland instead. To assist in dealing with the birch saplings we now have new tools called Tree-poppers. These are in effect long and heavy levers which grip the stem of the sapling at the base and then muscle power is used to press down on the lever to pull up the sapling by the roots. Below is a photo of one of the volunteers using it, and also of the volunteers installing new waymarker posts for the Silver-studded Blue walk after removing the old rotten ones.
The volunteers have also been busy hand-harvesting bell heather seed. We have contracted a local company to provide us with bell heather plugs grown from seed harvested on the reserve, which should have been ready for planting this autumn, but unfortunately they have had difficulty in getting the seed to germinate, and the earliest any plugs will be ready is now the autumn of 2017.
Two small moths have been found on the reserve this autumn. It is believed that Acleris hyemana (it has no common name) has not been recorded on the reserve since 1960. It is a resident moth that is found on wet and dry heaths that hibernates as an adult. The Rush Veneer (Nomophila noctuella) is a migrant that comes here from southern Europe and northern Africa, and is more often seen in coastal localities rather than somewhere like Shropshire.
Staying with moths, we also found large numbers of caterpillars clustered on single small trees. These were the caterpillars of the Buff-tip, an intriguing moth that as an adult closely resembles a birch twig, presumably as a form of camouflage defence.
Most dog owners who use the reserve are responsible and clean up after their dog and use the bin provided. However, sadly a minority do not do this and recently a letter I wrote about this was published in the Shropshire Star and Whitchurch Herald. Dog mess is a health hazard, damages the soils and the plant life and makes walking on the reserve an obstacle course to make sure you do not tread in it. We have now started spraying dog mess with eco-friendly pink chalk paint to highlight the problem. Any further suggestions as to how we might tackle this problem are welcome – please do not hesitate to contact me.
Butterfly Conservation West Midlands Branch has been very busy preparing a book to be published next spring entitled ‘Butterflies of the West Midlands’. I have written the chapter on the Silver-studded Blue, with Prees Heath being its sole site in the region. Watch this website for more details and how you can purchase a copy. Butterfly Conservation is a membership organisation – it’s remarkably inexpensive to join – and for your membership you get three copies a year of our Butterfly magazine and three copies a year of the West Midlands newsletter, which I edit, as well as the knowledge that you are supporting the work we do in conserving Britain’s butterflies and moths.
Prees Heath Warden