Butterfly Conservation has historic butterfly and moth records for Prees Heath Common, and these tell us what was present several years ago. Amongst the species that had been recorded there but had not been seen since the site was purchased by Butterfly Conservation in 2006 are Dingy Skipper (a delightful springtime butterfly), Dark Green Fritillary (the only Fritillary to have been recorded on the Common) and Green Hairstreak (Britain’s sole green butterfly). 24 species have however been recorded since purchase, but that figure has now increased to 25! On Sunday 18th May I accompanied a group of people on the Whitchurch Walking Weekend across Prees Heath, and one of the party spotted a Green Hairstreak on a willow tree on the main runway. Lucy Lewis was able to photograph it later that day, and here it is:
The caterpillars of Green Hairstreak will feed on a variety of plants, including Gorse, Broom, Bramble and Bird’s-foot Trefoil, all of which are present on the site. It has been a mystery to us that the butterfly has not been seen previously, but its appearance now has been very welcome. We think it was probably a male searching for females within a territory. It flies throughout May and June, so it is still worth keeping a look-out for it over the next few weeks – it cannot be confused with anything else!
The building work on the exterior of the control tower was completed at the end of March. Attention has now shifted to the interior, where many of the walls were covered in obscene graffiti. During the weekend of 10th/11th May twelve trainees and two staff from RAF Shawbury donned overalls and gave some of the walls two coats of white paint to cover the graffiti and to increase the light factor on the inside. They also constructed two nesting boxes and some roosting sites for bats for the interior. They were a good group and were a pleasure to work with. The photo shows Cpl Williams with AC Harrison holding a bat box they made:
Six swift boxes have been installed on the exterior, and so far a family of Blue Tits and a family of House Sparrows have occupied two of them. I will be encouraging swifts to take up occupancy by playing a CD of swift calls (available from the Swift Conservation Trust) to attract them. Funding for the control tower project came from the Heritage Lottery Fund through the Meres & Mosses Project and Natural England through Higher Level Stewardship. In May the members of the Meres & Mosses Board, including people from the RSPB, Shropshire Wildlife Trust, Cheshire Wildlife Trust, Environment Agency, Natural England and Shropshire Council visited the building prior to holding a Board Meeting at Tilstock.
In April the volunteers helped to dig up birch seedlings on the East of Runway field. They also stripped the turf in two small plots in the grassy area on the other side of the runway – heather seed was sown in one of these plots as an experiment. The turf was used to repair part of the footpath in the centre of the runway that had become very eroded and was nothing more than a sandpit. Please do not hesitate to contact me if you would like to volunteer to help to look after the reserve – we always work on a Wednesday, and the next date is 9th July when we will be ragwort pulling.
Finally, there has been a fair amount of rain around recently, and I spotted these wet Common Blues butterflies on a piece of grass recently. They are not to be confused with the Silver-studded Blue which usually emerges around mid June – the white patches near the centre of the undersides of the hindwings clearly visible in this photograph tell us they are Common Blues.
Prees Heath Warden
Whilst accompanying a group of walkers on the Whitchurch Walking Weekend on Prees Heath, Stephen Lewis, Prees Heath Officer reported that one of the walkers spotted a Green Hairstreak butterfly - this is the first sighting of this species since Butterfly Conservation purchased the site in 2006, and takes the butterfly species total recorded on the site since purchase up to 25. It was on a willow tree on the main runway. A photo of the very one can be seen below, taken by Lucy Lewis.
This period has seen the completion of conservation work on the former RAF control tower, an historic building, thanks to funding received from the Heritage Lottery Fund and Natural England. Although progress was slow initially due to the wet weather, work speeded up when fine weather came along in March and the contractors – PG Mullock of Bronington – were able to complete the project to a high standard on schedule and on budget. The most costly element of the project, as is the case with many restoration schemes, was repairing the roof, which was letting in moisture and had a big dip in the centre. A 1:100 fall from the middle to the edges measured with a laser was built using sand and cement to enable the rainwater to drain away, and this was followed be re-instatement of asphalt, as was the case when the tower was built in 1942.
Re-asphalting the roof
The asphalt was applied in two layers, and topped with a coat of solar reflective paint, so the finished roof is now white, although the only people who will be able to see this are the parachutists from across the road.
All the windows were bricked up apart from one which has a steel shutter, although some on the first floor have narrow gaps at their tops to enable bats to use the interior. Some vents on the ground floor have been left open for birds, bats and insects, and in fact one of these already has a bird’s nest. Six swift boxes have been installed on the north facing wall and we will wait and see whether swifts or another species uses these.
Swift boxes on the north wall
Seven information panels have been installed on the west and south walls – these give visitors to the reserve an insight into:
- Other sites in the Meres and Mosses
- Geology of the lowland heath
- Silver-studded Blue butterfly
- Social heritage of the Common
- World War One training camp, hospital and demob centre
- World War Two internment and prisoner of war camp
- World War Two bomber training airfield
The interior will be open to the public by arrangement and on guided walks, although some more work needs to be done before this can happen.
The volunteers have been bust over the last couple of months clearing an area of dead and degenerate gorse, which has no wildlife value. The ground underneath has been enriched by all the gorse litter and nettles are evident, but it was all raked and we hope that some gorse will regenerate through the natural seed bank and sowing some gorse seed that was harvested on site last year.
An MSc student from Harper Adams University started her project exploring the suitability of the restored heathland for the Silver-studded Blue. She will be continuing this important work during the spring and summer, carrying out surveys of vegetation, ant colonies and Silver-studded Blue caterpillars and adults.
The fine spring weather has provided good conditions for some butterfly species, with those that over-winter as adults, like Small Tortoiseshell, Peacock and Brimstone being seen in good numbers. Already some of the first species to emerge from their pupal cases such as Orange-tip and Green-veined White have been spotted. Spring also see the arrival of migrant birds, with the Chiff-chaff one of the first to be heard on the reserve in late March.
News from the pond has not been so good. A lot of frogs and frogspawn was seen in March. Blanket weed is already much in evidence – I have put some barley straw bales into the pond to try to combat this but with little success so far. In addition, Horsetail is starting to colonise the pond, and this will over time prove invasive, and of course it cannot be chemically controlled in the water.
Frogs breeding in the pond
Recently several goldfish were seen in the pond, but shortly afterwards a heron paid a visit and hopefully this will solve that problem. I would implore people not to add anything to the pond or to any other part of the reserve – take nothing but photographs and leave nothing but footprints.
The first public event of the year takes place on Saturday 10th May at 10.00am – an introduction to the birdlife of the reserve led by local bird expert and Prees Heath volunteer Estelle Hughes. I am very grateful to Estelle for doing this for us, and I am sure it will be very enjoyable.
Prees Heath Warden
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