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
This time of the year sees the most visitors to the reserve, some of whom come from far and wide – this year we have met visitors from Inverness in Scotland and Kilkenny in the Irish Republic. The main reason for this is, of course, the Silver-studded Blue butterfly, and this year it was to be seen in high numbers. It was somewhat earlier than usual, with the first sighting on 11th June. Numbers peaked in the last week in June, so by the time the Prees Heath Volunteers did a full count of the butterfly on the reserve and adjacent areas which support parts of the colony on 6th July they were past their peak. Nonetheless, 2,954 Silver-studded Blues were recorded on that morning, an astonishing figure. Of particular note is that 226 were recorded on the Hangars Field, the first area we restored to heathland.
Silver-studed Blue (Photo by Les Price)
Staying with heathland restoration, last year we saw that some of the heather on the Hangars Field had turned red at the tips. We thought this might indicate the presence of Heather Beetle, which can defoliate and kill Common Heather plants (it does not affect Bell Heather), and this year it is evident that our fears are justified, and the beetle has spread over a wide area and onto the heather on the East of Runway Field. It seems likely that the beetle has been present on the site for years, but it is only recently that numbers have built up to the present infestation. We are now considering what action to take, if any.
Heather Beetle Larva (Photo by Lucy Lewis)
The Silver-studded Blue guided walk always takes place on the first Sunday in July at 2pm, and it is now combined with an open session at the former RAF control tower. This year saw 30 people take part. Access to parts of the building has to be restricted due to the presence of bats, which have been attracted by some of the roosting structures we installed. Sadly, the six swift boxes we installed on the exterior have not yet been colonised by Swifts, although House Sparrows have used at least one of them.
On the guided walk (Photo by Stephen Lewis)
Moth Night and Moth Breakfast on 10th/11th June saw 20 people enjoy a varied catch of moths, some of which were new records for the reserve, such as Bird’s Wing and Peach Blossom. For once, the weather was close to ideal – warm, cloudy but not too wet and still. The theme of Moth Night was Hawk-moths, and we saw three species – Elephant, Small Elephant and Poplar.
Years 3 & 4 at Prees Primary School have been working towards their John Muir Awards this year. In the spring they planted some trees on the eastern boundary of the reserve, and in July they returned to learn more about the Silver-studded Blue butterfly, its life cycle and its heathland habitat, and they counted large numbers of the butterfly. Back at school in the afternoon they role played being Silver-studded Blue caterpillars, ants (friends) and spiders and wasps (enemies). My thanks to Shropshire Wildlife Trust staff and volunteers for their help with this.
Another event on the reserve has been, and returning by popular demand, a photography workshop led by award-winning photographer Mark Sisson. My thanks to the Meres & Mosses Landscape Partnership Scheme for their help with this. In all, and not forgetting the BioBlitz held in May, the 10th anniversary of the reserve has been well and truly celebrated.
We now have evidence that Purple Hairstreak butterflies are using Oaks, the buds and leaves of which are the caterpillar’s sole food plant, on at least three different areas of the reserve. Visitors also had the pleasure of seeing a number of Common Lizards basking on the green concrete blocks by the reserve entrance. A female pink Meadow Grasshopper, an uncommon mutation, was photographed on the reserve and was also featured in the local press.
Purple Hairstreak (Photo by Stephen Lewis)
Pink Meadow Grasshopper (Photo John Harding)
Common Lizard (Photo by John Hill)
Finally, my thanks to the Prees Heath Common Reserve Support Group for sponsoring the Silver-studded Blue chapter in the newly published ‘Butterflies of the West Midlands’ book. In return they received a free copy of the book, which they donated to Whitchurch Library. Copies of the book at £18.95 each are available either by contacting me or by visiting www.naturebureau.co.uk
Donating the new book to Whitchurch Library
L to R Stephen Lewis, Hazel Price (Librarian), Julia Gallacher & Mike Gallacher (Photo by Lucy Lewis)
Prees Heath Warden
Butterfly Conservation West Midlands Branch