Wednesday, 21 September 2016

Local Wildlife Sites: a day in the life

Helen Baczkowska, Conservation Officer

After 17 years of working with County Wildlife Sites (CWS) in Norfolk, I can truly say that no two days have ever been the same. Monday this week started with a visit to a patchwork of grassy fields registered as a Local Wildlife Site in 1985 and unvisited by Norfolk Wildlife Trust since. A few of these old sites that have not been re-visited still exist here, usually where contacts for owner have been lost and often where original survey data is a bit scant; since these distant days, more rigorous standards of survey and strict criteria for assessing sites have been put in place, allowing us to have a more robust system that is easier to defend in planning cases or situations like this. 

The owner here is a young dairy farmer, keen to improve his grazing by re-seeding and hence triggering an Environmental Impact Assessment (EIA) from Natural England, one of the few bits of statutory protection that can help County Wildlife Sites when changes to management are being considered. The grassland turned out to have been improved long ago and, typical of floodplain grazing land in Norfolk, was largely species-poor fields with wild flowers restricted to the ditches; here marsh bedstraw, great bird’s foot trefoil and St John’s wort all flourished. The farmer had a good feel for this old and lovely landscape, with its small fields and tall thick hedges, enjoying the wildlife there and putting in place several measures to protect the river and its banks. Fortunately, in this case, the species-rich areas can be retained and the rest of the grassland managed for cattle, creating a pleasing compromise for all concerned.

Local Wildlife Sites provide stepping stones for species
The rest of the day included setting up a meeting with a contractor to install “invisible” fencing on common land (this involves cattle wearing a collar that gives them a slight shock when they stray too close to an underground cable) and discussing a couple of planning applications with a colleague. On one site, we have opposed proposed development on a mosaic of ancient wood and heath, whilst on the other the re-location of an isolated pond seems the best option in the face of new housing. I also prepared a talk for a Norfolk Wildlife Trust local group, looking at the Claylands Living Landscape area, which is characterised by a high number of woodland and meadow Local Wildlife Sites, with significant populations of great crested newt, water vole and barbestelle bat. 

A phone conversation with a smallholder, who raises beef cattle on her LWS, focused on her application for Countryside Stewardship Grants; since the early 1990s, these have been a cornerstone of support for the owners of LWS across England. Budget cuts and uncertainty over agricultural support from Europe has given rise to a worries over the future of these schemes, which can run for either 5 or 10 years and provide financial help with the unprofitable side of caring for wildlife areas. Helping landowners through the labyrinthine paperwork needed to get into these schemes has long been a feature of my work, but the reward is being able to get the best out of the grant and a few years’ security for wildlife.

Many Local Wildlife Sites are species rich
Now it is late summer, survey season is over and in the coming couple of months, I will be typing up the heaps of scribbled notes from this year’s round of re-surveying existing CWS and surveying new ones that have come to light; this year my new sites include an old parish flint quarry, now covered in scrub and a little meadow with common spotted orchids.  

After 17 years, I still feel passionately about these sites, about the wildlife they support and the stepping-stones they provide for species moving through the landscape. LWS are often hidden gems, tucked out of sight and without public access, but they are richly deserving of the help and support they get from the Wildlife Trusts and their many partners.

No comments:

Post a Comment