The former RAF control tower was conserved just over a year ago. Last year trainees from RAF Shawbury constructed some bat boxes for the interior of the building, and in April of this year the Prees Heath volunteers spent a day making and installing some additional bat boxes and some nesting sites for Swallows, amid much sawing and hammering. The wood that used to board up the windows of the building was used to make the boxes, and a coconut was also used to provide a Swallow nesting site, although the consensus was that it may be too small. So far there has been no evidence of any of the sites being used, but it is early days. The Swift boxes on the exterior of the building have been used by Starlings and House Sparrows, and Blackbirds have nested in the one of the vents. The hibernating butterflies and moths have all now left the building.
Spring has arrived at last, although it has been unseasonably cool. It is always an interesting time botanically. Prees Heath is the sole site in the county for Heath Dog-violet, which has again flowered in good numbers this year and appears to be spreading its range on the reserve. Its slate blue flowers, somewhat paler than Common Dog-violet, can easily be spotted in the grassland. Another speciality of the site is Shepherd’s Cress, a small plant with a cluster of white flowers held on an upright stem. This plant is indicative of the acid grassland on the reserve, and this photo was taken by Janet Vernon.
The dog mess on the reserve has become much worse. Since Butterfly Conservation purchased the site in 2006 much work has been done to make it suitable and enjoyable for the public, and a majority of dog walkers do use the dog waste bin provided and emptied weekly by Shropshire Council. The problem is that a minority of dog walkers do not clear up after their dogs, and this is not only a health hazard and unpleasant but also it contaminates the soil and damages the Site of Special Scientific Interest. I talk to many dog walkers about the importance of being responsible for their dogs, and any assistance members of the public can give in this respect would be welcome.
Late May and early June is the best time to find Silver-studded Blue caterpillars interacting with ants. It is a real ‘wow’ moment when one is found – they are tiny, it’s a hands-and-knees job, and the best way to locate them is to firstly find the ants. As well as these caterpillars, another speciality of the reserve is the Garden Tiger moth, the hairy caterpillars being known as ‘wooly bears’. They can often be seen travelling at high speed in the grassland.
A Green Hairstreak butterfly was recorded on the reserve for the first time since purchase last year, and has been seen again this year. This dainty butterfly is unmistakable as it is the only green butterfly to be found in Britain. It was found taking nectar from the blossom of one of many apple trees to be found on the reserve, along with a Beautiful Yellow Underwing moth.
Finally an opportunity for all you photographers out there – see the poster on the front page of the website for details of free photography training on the reserve, and a competition, all organised by the Meres & Mosses.
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