Wilden Marsh Nature Reserve and Site of Special Scientific Interest is destined to forever struggle for its survival. As an urban nature site, it has to react to a range of small and sometimes relatively large natural and manmade stimuli. It is true that many things are forced to adjust to environmental change and the demands of human activity and expansion, albeit at differing rates and to varying degrees, but not all are as closely managed, monitored, recorded, or as important locally for rare fauna and flora, as is Wilden Marsh Nature Reserve and Site of Special Scientific Interest.
Effective management is perhaps the most positive means of affecting both the vitality and vibrancy of the SSSI. Left to its own devices, the marsh will very quickly favour its fastest growing and more invasive species. Left unmanaged for only a few years, willow, alder, thistles, brambles, rape, common and giant hogweed, Himalayan balsam and Japanese knotweed will takeover to the detriment of its valuable rare species. Fast growing willow and alder scrub will spread in as little as a year, requiring removal or coppicing within three years. Neglecting marsh management means harder work and greater expense later; more importantly, neglect can easily result in the loss of rare fauna and flora. Himalayan balsam readily survives and thrives in wooded environments and on open ground, so attacking it during the growing season has a high priority. Our most effective Himalayan balsam control tool is the marsh cattle. Within ten years the area would be almost completely wooded if nothing is done to prevent it. Any undermanaged, underused and uncared for green urban area, even when floodplain designated, is likely to become a target for Property Development, as is the case with the Lagoon Field adjoining the northern end of Wilden Marsh and Meadows.
Currently, Wilden Marsh is separated from the urban sprawl surrounding it by the Staffordshire and Worcester Canal and River Stour to the west, and the Lagoon Field and Wilden Lane to the east. If the Lagoon Field is to become a housing and industrial estate it will be, to all intent and purposes, built on the marsh.
In bygone days, Wilden Marsh and other wetland areas were considered a resource that supported various cottage industries by growing reeds and withies for baskets weaving, timber for building and furniture, poles for broom handles, hurdles, garden support frames, firewood, and fencing materials, to be sold locally and in neighbouring towns and villages. Also, certain marsh plants, herbs and fungi were gathered for food and medicinal use. Much of the marsh produce was cultivated. Animals living on and passing through the marsh would have been hunted and trapped for the table and for sale or barter. Now we have supermarkets that supply such things.
Whether politician, county council officer, or planning official, it is possible that none will realise or care about an area for which they have little regard, understanding or depth of knowledge, particularly when under pressure from Central Government to find additional development land. I understand that development decisions are primarily based on cost, availability and the extent of negative reactions to any proposed plans, but consideration must also be given to other ways of assessing true value, legitimate use, sustainability and suitability of purpose. One man’s derelict and worthless land could be another man’s nature oasis. We are told it is indeed a matter of priorities and available resources, and that someone has to pay the cost. This may well be true in the general nature of Government, but whose priority is my first question and at what eventual cost if a wrong decision is made is my is my second. Back in the 1970s a historic weir was removed from the marsh section River Stour flowing through the Lower Stour Valley. The river was also dredged in a misguided attempt to control flooding. As a direct result of this flood alleviation project, Wilden Marsh was damaged to a point where it almost completely dried out; the culprits were fined. It was 2010 before the historic weir was replaced with two new rock weirs. So let’s not make the mistake of damaging Wilden Marsh again, it is an improving premier nature reserve after all.
One man’s belief that a parcel of land (whether derelict, polluted, or prime green space) is a nature oasis will never be enough to slow, let alone stop the powerful train named “Progress”. It is for those with a mandate to act legitimately on our behalf, to ensure that the RIGHT decisions are made. My function is to comment and make my feeling known, or rant and rave if I have a mind to.
Wilden Marsh Nature Reserve is not derelict land, but it is a nature oasis that has been associated with industry since 1511, when a fulling mill was built at Wilden Village. The mill used the fast flowing River Stour to power its machinery. The fulling mill eventually became the Wilden Iron and Tinplate Works, latterly owned by the Baldwin Family; three times UK prime minister, Stanley Baldwin, worked there. At the northern end of the marsh, where the sewage pumping station is now, was the Falling Sands Iron Works and Rolling Mill – neither mill exists now.
Designated a Site of Special Scientific Interest, the marsh has some degree of protection; however, it can be declassified at the drop of the right official’s hat, judging by what happened a few years ago when a scrap yard was established at the southern marsh entrance, which defeats the purpose of official protection. However, we can only move forward with positives if we are to make the best of our prime nature assets and integrate them, as best we can, within our local urban communities.
Managing this 100 acre urban site is not an easy task, with its many different large (relatively), mini and micro wet and dry nature habitats and ecosystems that are home to a wide variety of common and rare fauna and flora. Much of the day-to-day on-site management is carried out by volunteers and a herd of fifteen rare breed cattle. The larger jobs are donation funded, so we do the best we can with the resources at our disposal.
The marsh herd, thirteen Shetland and two belted Galloway cattle, supplied by the Wyre Forest Grazing Animals Project at a cost, live on the marsh all year round. The cattle are well capable of handling the worst of the Kidderminster weather. Galloway cattle, bred in the Scottish Highlands, have such well-insulated coats that they have only a thin layer of fat covering their body to keep them warm during the coldest of winters: being so lean, their meat is much sought after. The Shetland cattle, as their name suggests, originate from the Shetland Isles at the far north of the Uk. Living on small islands, as crofters’ cattle, they feast during the growing season and fast in winter. The herd exist on the marsh as they would on the Shetland Isles and in theScotish Highlands. They survive winter with little supplementary feeding: a few hay bales and a couple of bags of cattle nuts. So the cattle are thin in Spring and fat in Autumn. During winter they live off their fat and whatever nutrition they glean from the depleated marsh vegetation. The reason we use cattle to graze the marsh is weed control: primarily Himalayan balsam control, but they eat thistles and willow, too – they will eat most green plants apart from ragwort. They might well eat anything green, but they graze the tastiest titbits first; fortunately, they love Himalayan balsam and are usually quick to devour it. I think of Himalayan balsam as cattle ice cream. The least palatable vegetation, such as rush and reeds, they eat when tastier plants have been grazed out; so rush, reed and bare willow scrub are winter fodder .
The marsh cattle eat willow stems up to 20mm in diameter. Willow bark’s pain relieving potential has been recognized throughout history and was commonly used during the time of Hippocrates, when people were advised to chew on the bark to relieve pain and fever, and as an appetite suppressor to aid weight loss. Willow bark contains a chemical called salicin that is similar to aspirin; people are said to have died from chewing too much willow bark.
The plan is to eradicate Himalayan balsam, Japanese knotweed, giant hogweed, and other truly invasive species and to control plants like ragwort and thistles. We won’t be able to eradicate Himalayan balsam whilst it flourishes in areas surrounding the Reserve. Around 30 insect species rely solely on ragwort.
Whilst Wilden Marsh is fairly safe from property development, for the time being at least, its surrounding green land, in particular the Lagoon Field, is imminently threatened. I have written many times that the marsh doesn’t exist as a single entity; it is fed and supported by the green and wooded areas around it. The River Stour and Hoo Brook flowing through it are fundamental to maintaining water levels. Without its support systems, Wilden Marsh, one of Worcestershire Wildlife Trust’s Flagship Reserves, will die at worst or become very poor at best. The death of the marsh or it degrading to a poor condition, will mean the property developers will win. So, at a time when nature conservation seems to be gaining power and influence, and urban green spaces are declining, what are we to do and what should our priorities be… ?
NB Of course, planning permission to build on the Lagoon Field might be turned down, but is it worth leaving to chance? You have until 14th August to register your objections, with Wyre Forest District Council, to the proposed Lagoon Field Development here.
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