A former World War Two airfield control tower has been restored to its former glory and become a home for wildlife after standing derelict on a Shropshire nature reserve.
The tower, which sits at the heart of Butterfly Conservation’s Prees Heath nature reserve near Whitchurch, has been conserved and painted.
The outside of the building has been fitted with nest boxes for Swifts and entrances have been left in places so the interior is suitable for roosting bats and insects.
The fascinating military, social, natural, archaeological and geological history of the site is also detailed on information panels on the building’s exterior walls.
Prees Heath Common Reserve is the only site in the county for the rare Silver-studded Blue butterfly, but during the war the site was a key RAF airbase.
Originally known as RAF Whitchurch Heath but later changed to RAF Tilstock, the airfield was built by Alfred McAlpine and opened in August 1942. The airfield was a training base for pilots and aircrew learning how to fly bombers.
The airfield closed after the war and after a long-running campaign involving the Prees Heath Commoners and many local residents, the western half of the site was purchased by Butterfly Conservation in 2006.
Now this historic building has been conserved by Butterfly Conservation, with funding received from the Heritage Lottery Fund, through the Meres and Mosses Landscape Partnership Scheme, Natural England and Northern Marches LEADER.
The tower restoration plans were drawn up by Shrewsbury-based architect W Stephen Andrews and the building work was carried out by local firm P G Mullock of Bronington.
Stephen Lewis, Reserve Warden with Butterfly Conservation, said: “The work by Mr Andrews and Mr Mullock has been to a high standard and I am delighted with it.
“Prees Heath Common is a very special place with a rich history that deserves to be better known, and I hope that the building will help in this regard as well as providing a haven for wildlife.”
Before Restoration Work
After Restoration Work
This is usually the quietest time of the year on the reserve before the weather turns milder in the early spring. However this winter has been so mild and wet that there are already many stirrings of life.
One notable feature this winter has been that the reserve has continued to host a large range of birds. Normally in a colder winter, especially when there is snow around, there is little birdlife present as many birds find a greater availability of food in nearby gardens than on the reserve. Not the case this year, as flocks of Goldfinches, Starlings and Fieldfares have been seen, and huge flocks of Lapwing have been present on the other half of the common across the A41. In January I and a visitor flushed up five Common Snipe on the restored heathland in front of the hangars and near the control tower – yet another sign of how the work we are doing is benefitting a whole range of wildlife. Another visitor was thrilled to tell me he had seen a stoat going in and out of rabbit holes, and was able to show me some photographs he had taken.
The most noticeable development over recent weeks has been that work has begun to repair the former RAF control tower. This is being funded by the Heritage Lottery Scheme through the Meres & Mosses Landscape Partnership Scheme and by Natural England through Higher Level Stewardship as an historic building. The project so far has seen all the windows blocked up except one of the large windows on the first floor, which will have a roller steel shutter installed, and work has begun on repairing the render. Some of the first floor windows have gaps to allow wildlife such as bats to access the building. Work will then begin on repairing the roof and covering it with asphalt as was the case when it was built, as well as painting the building in camouflage colours. Although many will feel the recent wet weather has been far from beneficial, at least it has been reasonably mild with few frosts which is more suitable for tasks such as rendering. When the building work is complete the tower will have six information panels telling the whole story of Prees Heath Common installed on the exterior. The work is scheduled to be completed by the end of March.
Work in progress
The six information panels describing the whole history of Prees Heath Common from the last ice age to the present day have already been manufactured and will be installed around the exterior walls. The panels have been funded by Northern Marches LEADER. The building will also be made wildlife-friendly – entrance gaps are being left for bats, birds and insects. Bat boxes will be installed inside and swift boxes outside. The interior of the building will be accessible by arrangement.
The volunteer have also been hard at work in the past few weeks. In the autumn local seed merchants Forestart brush-harvested heather seed for us on the restoration area that has done best in front of the hangars, and the volunteers helped to broadcast some of this seed on the field by the access track, where germination to date has been minimal. After this we all adjourned to the Midway cafe for lunch, an annual event as Butterfly Conservation’s thank you to all our volunteers. In January they began cutting and burning dead and degenerate gorse and brambles – a lot of gorse died back in the cold winters of a couple of years ago, and, whilst some has managed to regenerate a lot hasn’t and is now of little value to wildlife.
The volunteers taking a break
In 2012 we received a grant from Veolia Environmental Trust and in December a member of their staff visited the reserve to find out how their money had been spent. I was able to show them an extensive area of grassland that had been sown with wildflower and grass seed sourced from SSSI sites elsewhere in the UK, in other words naturally grown seed as opposed to cultivated seed, that they had funded, as well as more of the heathland restoration and the information panel on the concrete plinth.
The reserve support group met in December. This is a gathering of Prees Heath Commoners, Butterfly Conservation members, volunteers and interested local residents held as and when deemed appropriate to discuss all manner of issues relating to the reserve, as well as the rest of the common and the surrounding area. We meet in Tilstock Village Hall, and anyone willing to join is welcome to contact me.
Prees Heath Warden
By now the butterfly season is generally over, with just a few stragglers on the wing before the frosts set in. And yet this is not the full story. All butterflies and moths have 4 stages of life, with different species overwintering as eggs, caterpillars, chrysalises or adults, and now is a good time to do some butterfly egg hunting. Most people do not associate butterflies with trees, but there are a few species that will spend most of their lives around trees. One of these is the Purple Hairstreak, and on the reserve there are a good number of oak trees where colonies of these butterflies live. Many of these oaks tend to have branches close to the ground and are therefore ideal for spotting the eggs of the Purple Hairstreak at this time of year. The eggs are round, disc-shaped with an intricate pattern, not dissimilar to the eggs of the Silver-studded Blue, and are laid by the females near the tip of the twigs close to a cluster of buds which will provide the caterpillar with an instant supply of food when they hatch in the spring. The adults fly in July and have a purple flash on the upperside of their wings, although they tend to rest mainly with their wings closed. Here is a Purple Hairstreak egg I photographed on the oak trees on the western side of the reserve on 27th November.
Purple Hairstreak egg
Birch seedlings continue to appear on the former arable areas we are restoring to heathland/grassland. 12 volunteers got busy on 30th October removing as many as we could on the Hangars Field, along with brambles and willows. I followed this up by spot spraying weeds, mainly ragwort, on all the heathland restoration areas – an ongoing and seemingly endless task. On part of the East of Runway area (approximately 1 hectare) we have too much rosebay willowherb which is competing with the heather seedlings, and removing this without killing off the heather is not straightforward. Various options have been considered and professional advice sought, and the problem will be tackled next year.
Lucy and I ran a stall at the Blackberry Fair in Whitchurch on 5th October. We were well positioned outside Stead and Simpson’s shoe shop at one of the main access points to the centre of the town, and, with good weather and lots of people, we had a great time. In previous years the Fair has been held indoors in the Civic Centre, but as this was being refurbished the Fair was held in the streets this year, and this certainly contributed to its success. Making caterpillars and butterflies out of pipe cleaners was particularly popular.
At the Blackberry Fair
Work has been progressing on the project to carry out some restoration work on the former RAF control tower, and I hope to be able to make an announcement about this very soon – keep watching the website! Meanwhile the 6 information panels telling the whole history of Prees Heath Common from the last ice age to the present day which will be attached to the exterior of the building have already been completed – they were being funded from a different source (Leader) from the building works. Many thanks to all those who contributed images and information for their design. The 6 panels focus on:
- The Geology of Prees Heath
- The World War One Camp
- The World War Two Internment Camp and POW Camp
- The World War Two Airfield
- The Heritage of the Common
- The Silver-studded Blue and Lowland Heath
All the panels are A1 size, all of similar design, and here is the sample:
Students from Reaseheath College and Staffordshire University have enjoyed guided walks on the reserve as part of their studies, and in particular learning about heathland restoration. I am planning next year that they will also carry out some practical work on the reserve as well, as was the case with students from Stafford College back in September. I am also hoping that a student from Harper Adams University will carry out some research work for us next year on the heathland restoration on the Hangars Field.
Students removing birch seedlings Bell heather plug
As part of the restoration works we have been trying to establish bell heather as well as common heather on the former arable areas. A few years ago Forestart, a seed company based in Hadnall near Shrewsbury, grew 20,000 bell heather plug plants from seed harvested on site, and these were planted out by the volunteers. Those that escaped the attentions of the rabbits have done well, and we have now asked Forestart to provide us with another 20,000 plug plants, which should be ready for planting in 2015.
Finally Butterfly Conservation held its AGM & Members Day on 16th November in Swindon - the venue changes each year, and next yesr it will be held in Suffolk. Around 300 people. including Lucy and myself, were treated to a range of fascinating talks on butterflies and moths as well as the opportunity to meet a whole range of interesting and dedicated people and buy some early Christmas presents at a variety of stalls.
Butterfly Conservation Chair David Dennis welcomes everyone
Stephen Lewis, Prees Heath Warden
Friday 9th August was Moth Night, when people all over the UK get out their moth traps and record the nation’s moth fauna, and this was followed by a Moth Breakfast on the Saturday morning when the traps were opened and people could see (and photograph) what was caught before the moths were released. For once the weather was near perfect (dry, warm and still) and at Prees Heath we had a very successful evening with a total of 74 species. Later that month West Midlands moth expert Dave Grundy did an overnight session on the reserve using several traps and his catch included the nationally scarce micro-moth Crambus hamella, a moth that likes sandy places.
We continued to remove Common Ragwort from the site in accordance with Defra’s Code of Practice on Controlling the Spread of Ragwort. This means we try to keep it from spreading onto neighbouring sites where horses graze or where the fields are used to produce winter fodder. The Code makes it clear that the intention is not to eliminate Ragwort, part of our native flora, especially as it is beneficial to a whole range of insects, including the Cinnabar Moth as the caterpillars eat its leaves. Many thanks to the volunteers who helped with this task. In addition to their efforts, we also arranged for staff from a local contractor, AR Richards, to spend a day clearing one particular area. Already I have started knapsack spraying the basal rosettes of next year’s flowering plants to reduce the amount we have to remove by pulling.
Work has continued on the project to carry out some restoration works on the former RAF control tower. As the land is registered common, an application has been made to the Planning Inspectorate to erect temporary security fencing around the building while the works are carried out, and to construct two soakaways for the rainwater. Shropshire Council has already granted a Certificate of Lawful Development for the works to the building itself. A series of 6 information panels is planned for the exterior of the building telling the whole history of the common from the last ice age to the present day, and as more research is done more interesting stories emerge – do contact me if you feel you have anything you would like to contribute. Most people know that the common was a WW2 bomber training airfield, but did you know that Horsa gliders used in the D-Day landings were also based here. A replica of one of these gliders is being constructed at RAF Shawbury.
Horsa glider under construction at RAF Shawbury
We continue to work on the restoration of the reserve to heathland and acid grassland, and to monitor the results thus far. The field in front of the old hangars is now full of heather, and this is now providing us with a seed source for other areas, principally the field on the south side of the access track. On the other side of the runway thousands of heather plants are now getting established, although in one patch they are having to compete with Rosebay Willowherb, an invasive plant that we will have to control.
A group of students on a Countryside Management course at Stafford College spent a day on the reserve in September. As well as having a guided walk around the site they helped to remove some birch seedlings from the restoration areas and also hand-harvested some Bell Heather seeds which will be broadcast on the restoration areas. They were an enthusiastic group and it was a pleasure to be with them and their tutor, Liz Stanhope.
Stafford College students hand-harvesting Bell Heather seed
The reserve is receiving support from the Meres and Mosses Landscape Partnership Scheme to carry out restoration work on the control tower, and Butterfly Conservation is a partner organisation to the whole project. A big public Meres and Mosses celebration event called Merefest was held at Cholmondeley Castle in Cheshire on 24th September and was attended by well over 1,000 people. There were many stalls, lots for people to do and a really great time was had by all. Butterfly Conservation had a stall, where we not only gave lots of information about the reserve, including the control tower, explained how people can get involved to help butterflies and moths, how to become a member of Butterfly Conservation (it’s so easy!), displayed live moths trapped the night before, but also gave children the opportunity to make a caterpillar or a butterfly out of coloured pipe-cleaners. We were very busy. The event was a huge success and will be repeated next year.
Lucy Lewis at Butterfly Conservation’s stall at Merefest
Over the last few years I have given many talks to local community groups about Prees Heath. Recently I gave an evening talk to the Stone and District Group of Staffordshire Wildlife Trust, which was well attended. After many of these talks the group wants to arrange a follow-up by visiting the reserve with me when the Silver-studded Blue butterflies are flying, and I have already arranged a date in 2014 with them, so bookings are now being taken for next year’s Silver-studded Blue season, as well as for talks to any community groups.
Prees Heath Warden
A Spotted Flycatcher family have been in residence on the reserve for the last few weeks. They have all been very busy catching insects and preparing for their long journey back to sub-Saharan Africa.
Unfortunately this species has shown a 56% decrease in England over the period 1995-1911. (Information from the British Trust for Ornithology)
(Photograph by Stephen Lewis)