A really great photograph by Kate Long of one of the skylarks residing on the Prees Heath Common Reserve.
The volunteers have been busy recently, clearing dead gorse. We believe that there used to be a lot more gorse, a typical heathland plant, on the reserve than there is now, and we would like to see more. It is quite susceptible to cold winters, and clearing the dead material should help regeneration. There is some evidence of young gorse growth at the southern end of the old runway, which is a sign that it can and will return.
I have given a total of 46 illustrated talks about Prees Heath since Butterfly Conservation purchased the reserve in 2006, and three of these were in the last couple of months. Firstly I gave an evening talk to the Higher Heath Tuesday Club at Higher Heath Village Hall, and it is always a pleasure to speak to local people about the reserve, and also to hear their memories and stories about the site before it was purchased. Then I gave a talk to the West Midlands Branch of Butterfly Conservation AGM at Cannock Chase. Finally in March I gave a talk at the 11th National Heathland Conference organised by Natural England and Surrey Wildlife Trust at Sunningdale in Berkshire, with over 200 delegates representing over 60 organisations present. The conference was spread over 3 days, including some heathland site visits on the second day. Surrey and Berkshire are particularly rich in extensive heathlands, and provide a number of sites for the Silver-studded Blue.
The West Midlands Branch of Butterfly Conservation is publishing a book next year entitled ‘Butterflies of the West Midlands’, with chapters on each of the 44 species to be found in the region. I have been busy preparing the Silver-studded Blue chapter, as well as a couple of others, and as part of this I have been researching historic records for the reserve at Ludlow Museum Resource Centre, Manchester Museum and Liverpool Museum. Each of their collections of records and pinned specimens from the days when butterfly collecting was very much in vogue, are fascinating in their own way. The book will also feature walks detailing the best sites to see butterflies, including Prees Heath of course, and many high quality photographs showing, where possible, the different life stages of the species. A big thank you to everyone who has sponsored the book by championing particular species.
It is always a pleasure to show people round the reserve, and on one Saturday in March I was able to take some mature students from Reaseheath College near Nantwich on a guided walk. Students ask interesting, and sometimes challenging, questions, which is what I like. After the walk they helped with some practical work on the reserve.
Dog fouling is a continual problem on the reserve, despite the provision of a dog waste bin. I do speak to as many dog walkers as I can about this, but I would be grateful for any suggestions as to how we might improve things. Dog mess is a health hazard, unpleasant for visitors and volunteers who have to try to avoid stepping in it and bad for the wildlife habitat as it enriches the soil. Answers please!
Prees Heath Warden
The first Open Day for the newly restored control tower was held on Sunday 7th December. Despite the fact that it was a cold day, 59 people came to look round the interior. Many positive comments were received, and some donations to Butterfly Conservation, for which many thanks. Prees Heath is very flat, so it is surprising when you look out of the first floor how your perspective of the area is changed.
Just to show how much interest the building has generated, visitors will know that one of the panels details the WW2 internment camp, where over 1,000 so-called enemy aliens were held. One of these was the celebrated economist EF Schumacher, who wrote the book 'Small is Beautiful' and promoted the human scale solutions to social and environmental problems. In January I arranged to show round a man from Lincolnshire, a member of the Schumacher Society, who wanted to visit to gain more information for a talk he was giving in Peterborough. People interested in Schumacher"s work can visit www.schumacher.org.uk
The two photographs shown here demonstrate the transformation that has taken place - I took the first one in 2006 when Butterfly Conservation purchased the site. The next open day will be on Sunday 5th July from 10.00am to 5.00pm, when there will also be a guided Silver-studded Blue walk at 2.00pm
The volunteers have been busy, clearing and burning dead gorse, planting some gorse on one of the heathland reversion areas and controlling birch seedlings. During the course of this work 3 Snipe and 1 Woodcock were seen. The gorse plants were grown from seed harvested on the site to ensure local provenance. The programme of volunteer work parties and public events for 2015 is now available on this website – please note that the date of the volunteer work party in March has been changed – it will now be held on Wednesday 11th March. Please let me know if you want to help with practical work on the reserve – not only does such work help to improve the site for both wildlife and visitors but it is also good exercise!
As the reeserve attracts more and more visitors so it receives more litter. I am asking everyone who uses the reserve if they would collect litter as they walk round. I have a number of litter pickers I can give to people to ensure that the activity is done safely - please contact me if you want to help keep the reserve in good order.
Prees Heath Warden
Autumn is traditionally a lovely time on the heath, with the golds and browns replacing the bright greens and flowery colours of summer. Flocks of Lapwings and Starlings are to be seen overhead. And the Prees Heath volunteers have been busy tackling the thousands of birch seedlings on the restoration areas and hand-harvesting Bell Heather seed to be broadcast on those areas.
The work of the volunteers complements the more large-scale work carried out by contractors. The Hangars Field has seen the best Common Heather growth since it was seeded in 2007, to the extent that some of the heather was well over knee-high and too shady for the ants that are an essential component in the ecology of the Silver-studded Blue butterfly. Local contractors Adrian Marsh Ltd brought a disc harevster onto the site and mowed abpproximately 2 hectares of mature heather, blowing the cuttings, which contained seed, into a clean muck spreader driven alongside. The muck spreader then broadcast the cuttings on the Corner Field on the far side of the access track, where the heather germination thus far has not been as good, and the Bell Heather seed harvested previously by the volunteers was added. Finally the tractor and muck spreader drove up and down to compress the seed into the sand.
The restoration work on the former RAF control tower has undoubtedly raised its profile. In October the BBC Midlands Today broadcast live from the building, which was floodlit in the evening. Hibernating butterflies and moths inside the buidling were filmed, and in the evening, when the weather detiorated badly, a group of volunteers were filmed moth-trapping. Despite the conditions, we did actually get a couple of moths, one of which was the beautiful Merveille du Jour. The photo shows volunteer Clive Dyer holding on to one of the TV lights to stop it from blowing away whilst BBC presenter David Gregory-Kumar offers encouragement. The BBC has put the film on Youtube and it can be seen at the following link: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=QWg8CNjxw9U
There are a number of pieces of roofing felt scattered on the reserve at present, and these are part of a reptile survey being carried out by the Meres & Mosses project, who are also undertaking a mammal survey for us. In November leader Stuart Edmunds and some volunteers found Wood Mouse, Field Vole and the less common Yellow-necked Mouse, which escaped before it could be photographed.
We are always recording new wildlife on the reserve, and this is further evidence that the restoration work is benefitting a whole range of species and not just butterflies. In October two of our volunteers, Doug Hampson and Vera Roberts, saw a family of weasels run across the access track. We also received a record for the Twin-spot Stiletto fly – this normally occurs in the UK on coastal sand dunes and is found infrequently inland.
Prees Heath Warden
One of the many issues in managing Prees Heath is trying to control the spread of ragwort. The plant is beneficial to a range of insects but is also toxic to animals, and horses are especially vulnerable, so, although we have no livestock on the reserve, we are obliged to follow guidelines set out by Defra and Natural England to control its spread. We do this by keeping it back from the A41 and keeping as much as possible off the areas being restored to heathland/acid grassland. One of the best ways to control ragwort is to spot spray the rosettes with herbicide before a flowering stem emerges, and we do a great deal of this on selected areas. This year there was a large amount of ragwort flowering on the reserve, and we had to arrange for additional person power to clear much of it- thanks are due to West Mercia Probation Service for arranging for personnel to help with this task.
In addition our reserve volunteers helped with the work, and they had the additional treat of seeing not just one but two Clouded Yellow butterflies. These are migrants from continental Europe and are only seen on the reserve infrequently. They always sit with their wings closed and are a beautiful lemony yellow. On the day they were seen we had some butterfly enthusiasts on site and we were able to point them out to them.
The Meres & Mosses Landscape Partnership Scheme and Nature Improvement Area goes from strength to strength. The annual Merefest was held in September in the Cremorne Gardens on the shores of The Mere at Ellesmere. It was a huge success with around 2,000 people attending. Butterfly Conservation had a display there and I have never helped so many children make so many caterpillars and butterflies out of coloured pipe cleaners before!
The Meres & Mosses project helped to fund the conservation work on the former RAF control tower. The interior of the tower will be open from 10.00am to 4.00pm on Sunday 7th December – just come along and I will be there and, hopefully, answer any of your questions. In addition to displays and artefacts in the interior, we will also have available a number of greetings cards for sale at £2.50 each showing Shropshire butterflies, and the free leaflet and identification chart for Butterflies and Day-flying Moths of the Meres & Mosses – please email me if you would like more details.
Finally, Prees Heath is, of course, not the only reserve owned and managed by Butterfly Conservation. In August I attended the official opening of Butterfly Conservation’s newest reserve, Rough Bank in the Cotswolds. The reserve is a steep south-facing slope (so unlike Prees Heath!) near the Slad valley, home of the writer Laurie Lee, and its species-rich grassland provides a home for a range of butterflies including Adonis Blue and Brown Argus. The reserve was opened by Andrew Sells, Chair of Natural England, and Martin Warren, Chief Executive of Butterfly Conservation, assisted by David Dennis, Chair of Butterfly Conservation and Sue Smith, Chair of Butterfly Conservation’s Gloucestershire Branch. Butterfly Conservation is a charity and relies on financial support provided by public donations and legacies – you can also support our work by becoming a member and enjoy our 3 national magazines and 3 local newsletters every year – go to www.butterfly-conservation.org for more details.
Prees Heath Warden