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
Two Clouded Yellow butterflies were seen on Prees Heath yesterday in areas of grassland - photo attached by Lucy Lewis. They are migrants from the continent and appear to be having a good year - if we have a Indian summer they may breed here and we may see some second generation in late September/October.
When Butterfly Conservation purchased the western half of Prees Heath Common in 2006 approximately half of the site had been in intensive agriculture for at least 30 years, growing crops of potatoes, wheat and beans. We launched an ambitious project to restore these areas to lowland heath, knowing that the heathland had been totally destroyed there and that reverting land that was high in nutrients and high pH levels, due to the copious quantities of manures and fertilisers that had been applied to grow crops, back to heathland, which by definition has low nutrient and pH levels, was going to be very difficult. The aim was to extend the heathland habitat not just for the Silver-studded Blue butterfly but for the benefit of all wildlife.
After some radical interventions, which are detailed in the Aspects of Applied Biology paper available on this website as a download, we began to see not only lots of heather but also some Silver-studded Blues flying on these areas, as well as seeing other insect life, including the Black Ants which are essential to the life cycle of the Silver-studded Blue. What we needed to have, however, is evidence that the Silver-studded Blue was starting to use these re-created heathland areas for breeding. This year Natalie Kay, an MSc student from Harper Adams University, has been carrying out various surveys on the re-created areas, and, whilst surveying for ants’ nests she found a Silver-studded Blue caterpillar on one of the nests attended by Black Ants, and she took this photo:
The photo itself may not be of the highest quality, but it represents a very significant outcome for our work.
In May I was able to report the sighting of a Green Hairstreak, the first recorded on the reserve since purchase. Now we have another new species – Essex Skipper. This species needs care in distinguishing it from the Small Skipper, the key differences being:
- the tips of the antennae - black all round as if dipped in ink on the Essex Skipper whereas the Small Skipper only has black on the uppersides of the antennae tips
- the angle of the sex brand on the upperside of the forewing, which are parallel with the forewing leading edge on the Essex Skipper but at a slight angle on the Small Skipper
The Essex Skipper is expanding its range, and it is thought that this may in part be due to the transportation by road of hay which is likely to contain Essex Skipper eggs – it may have reached Prees Heath by literally falling off the back of a lorry!
Many Silver-studded Blues were to be seen this summer and on 30th June Natalie Kay counted over 900 on the runway. Yet it was a below average year. The butterfly naturally form dense dense colonies so even in poor years many can be seen at their peak time, which is usually late June/early July.
Another key event this summer was the official opening of the former RAF control tower on 27th June following the completion of conservation work. Despite persistent rain, over 80 people came, and they also had the opportunity to see the Silver-studded Blues sheltering from the weather. The tower was opened by Martin Noble, whose father used to work in the building in the war, and his family. We were also delighted to have prsent Harry Jondorf and his family - Harry's father Wilhelm Jondorf painted the scenes of the life in the 1940 internment camp that are displayed on one of the panels on the exterior of the building. Harry was also able to give me copies of some additional paintings of the camp by his father (see one below) which will be displayed inside the building, which will be open on guided walks etc as advertised locally.
Butterfly Conservation, Prees Heath Warden
Thanks to Kate Long for providing photographs of the Green Tiger Beetle she sighted on Prees Heath Common Reserve on the 29th June 2014.