LUDDINGTON NATURE RESERVE
Update on Pond Restoration and new Grassland
Firstly to the pond. Disappointingly, the water level began to drop somewhat more quickly than was expected, and so in April Phil Langley from Sandfields Farm, Mike Slater from Butterfly Conservation and myself met to discuss whether the Farm should top it up with water from the river, but this seemingly obvious solution was soon rejected. The pond has always had a problem with algae and there is a strong likelihood that river water could make it worse. It was decided to wait and see how the pond behaved as the year progressed. The spring planting was postponed for the same reason, which turned out to be fortuitous as many plants began to appear unaided, such as: marsh marigold, water mint, water forget-me-not, bistort, water plantain and yellow flag.
In May both smooth and great crested newts were seen in the water which, given the obvious but necessary disruption of the earlier months, was a big relief.
The level continued to drop throughout the summer but in August there was still a small amount of water remaining. By the end of August it was dry. However, given that in previous years it had been drying out as early as May/June this has to be seen as a real improvement. After rain in September it began to gather water again, only for it to dry up after a few drier days. But this is also encouraging as in recent years once it had dried out it took much rain and many weeks before it would hold any water at all. It is now filling nicely with the winter rains.
It is obviously disappointing that more water wasn’t held for longer into the year, but if the pattern of this first year continues the objective of the restoration will have been achieved: to keep enough water until mid-summer in order for the young newts to complete their life cycle. Much of course will depend on the weather but, for now, any remedial work has been put on hold.
As for this coming year: there will be some supplementary planting in the spring and, of course, close monitoring for any newt activity.
And now into the new grassland. Birds-foot-trefoil was by far the most dominant species in this second year but kidney vetch, foodplant of the small blue butterfly, one of our target species, also did well. These all had to be fenced with wire netting guards to protect them from a targeted rabbit attack! Plants from last year’s seeding came through well too: black knapweed, yellow rattle, ox-eye daisy and scabious and there was also a spread of ribbed melilot, ground ivy, red bartsia and perforate St.John’s wort. Unfortunately, creeping cinquefoil, food plant of the grizzled skipper another of our target butterflies, became a little overwhelmed in places. There were, of course, problem plants such as sow thistle, burdock and white campion which needed to be weeded out and the nettles and brambles along the side edges had to be kept in check to stop them encroaching into the grassland. The main grass cut was carried out in August but a narrow pathway was kept open throughout the year.
Regular weekly butterfly recording began in April and although there was no sign of our three target species, small blue, grizzled skipper and dingy skipper, other butterflies such as common blue, gatekeeper, large and small skippers, meadow brown, marbled white, red admiral, comma and small tortoiseshell soon began to appear.
The regular schedule of work, monitoring and recording will continue into the future and let’s hope that this summer will attract one of our target butterflies! Please do get in touch if you want more information or fancy getting involved with the conservation work.
Another update another transformation, this time the pond.
Over the last few years the pond has been drying out much earlier than usual, completely dry by late spring/early summer despite filling to capacity in the winter months, and this was a real problem for the small population of great crested newts. After breeding, adult newts leave the water around June to live on the land. The young newts, however, need to stay for longer and do not emerge until August time. With no water in our pond from June onwards their chances of survival were slim. This situation plainly wasn’t sustainable; the continued breeding failure meant that the great crested newts would soon be lost from the reserve. It was clear that to prevent this happening we would need to put in a liner in hopes that it would then retain enough water throughout summer, enabling the young newts to survive. This was going to be a major job, but work began in January and was undertaken entirely by staff and contractors from Sandfields Farm.
The first job was to cut back some of the willow trees to let in some much needed light. Debris was cleared from the bottom and the pond dug into shape; a shelf was made on the far side and a bank constructed across the middle. It was then lined with 40 tons of clay. It rained during most of the time so the whole area ended up looking pretty messy! The job was finished at the beginning of February and a range of pond plants will be planted in April and May, including water forget-me-not, water mint, lesser spearwort, marsh marigold, purple loosestrife, hemp agrimony, brooklime, water figwort, meadowsweet and fleabane. A few artificial egg laying strips have been put in for the benefit of any breeding newts that return only to find a pond devoid of vegetation! The area looks very bare at the moment but it won’t be long before the land recovers and greens over again.
This time last year work began on a project to transform part of the west side of the reserve into a species-rich grassland. The area had long been troublesome; the ground was very uneven making it extremely difficult to walk and almost impossible to mow. As a result, it had become somewhat overgrown and in places dominated by vigorous grasses, nettles and brambles. The best we had been able to achieve was to keep the brambles under control. The creation of a flower-rich sward that could be mown regularly will bring about a much more diverse habitat and hopefully attract a wide range of butterflies and other insects.
The aim is twofold: to encourage the colonisation of three UK Biodiversity Action Plan priority species of butterfly; small blue, dingy skipper and grizzled skipper, and to encourage an increase in the butterfly species that are already established on the east side of the reserve. And so, in partnership with Sandfields Farm and the Warwickshire branch of Butterfly Conservation, we set to work.
In January and February staff from the farm removed overhanging branches and encroaching scrub. They then levelled the uneven grassland moving the enriched soil to the sides of the track bed. At this point the area looked pretty grim! In March Mike Slater from Butterfly Conservation sowed the bare earth with kidney vetch, the food plant of the small blue, and common bird’s-foot-trefoil, the food plant of the dingy skipper. As the season progressed weedy species began to appear and so most of the summer was taken up with intensive weeding. But the seeds sown by Mike Slater had germinated well and strong plants were showing throughout the length of the area.
In July seeds from yellow rattle were gathered from the east side of the reserve and sown along the new area and in September black knapweed, scabious, lady’s bedstraw, bird’s-foot-trefoil and oxeye daisy seeds were similarly gathered and sown. Other useful plants were appearing unaided such as creeping cinquefoil, food plant of the grizzled skipper, white dead nettle and ground ivy, both good sources of nectar for early insects, ribbed melilot, red bartsia and perforate St. John’s wort.
In September Mike Slater came to assess the site and found that due to the success of the seed planting and the intensive summer weed management it had the potential to attract all three priority butterfly species.
There will almost certainly be more weed management needed this coming year as well as more seed planting. But it’s looking promising, and with perseverance it should become a diverse flower-rich piece of grassland in just a few years. I’m particularly hopeful about the possibility of attracting the small blue – there is a newly established colony on similar terrain just a few miles away. Importantly, we need to keep a record of what turns up, so regular recording will be extended from the east side into the new area.
When the present Coronavirus restrictions have been lifted and the situation feels a bit safer I would be delighted to meet up with anyone who would like to come and have a look at our progress. Alternatively, pop along yourself and have a look. My contact details are shown below.
The support, advice and assistance from Sandfields Farm and Butterfly Conservation have been central to the success of this project. Certainly, it wouldn’t even have got started without this partnership.