At What Cost Urban Biodiversity?
The Lagoon Field saga is moving onto the next stage in the planning process soon, so my mind is beginning to dwell on the outcome.
When an urban nature reserve exists and is almost completely surrounded by high density residential and industrial estates, what is the cost we have to bear in order to keep it? This is a question I ask myself regularly, just to make sure I am clear about my reasons for supporting the continuation of Wilden Marsh as a viable entity. When land is at a premium and Government dictates the building of ever more houses and factory units on every possible open space in urban settings, wouldn’t it be simpler to accept the inevitable chipping away of the Reserve edges until there is nothing left? Ultimately, what can be done if the Central Government rubber stamps the deal? We are not talking about Wilden Marsh being built on, yet, but losing the Lagoon Field to residential/industrial development is chipping away at the marsh as far as I’m concerned – after all, it is supposed to have Green Belt protection.
Wilden Marsh is an important ‘Flagship’ nature reserve, Site of Special Scientific Interest, and home to a diverse range of common and rare fauna and flora; it is conserving urban nature, safely and intelligently, for posterity.
Nature sites and areas of countryside can be ‘designated’, which means they have special status as protected areas because of their natural and cultural importance.
Protection means that these places:
• have clear boundaries
• have people and laws to make sure that the nature and wildlife aren’t harmed or destroyed
• can sometimes be used by people for recreation and study
Places are made into protected areas by:
• organisations, such as Natural England
• local councils and bylaws
• national and international laws and organisations, such as the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN)
There are restrictions on activities and developments that might affect a designated or protected area, for example building new houses or roads. This includes areas next to as well as in those areas.
It seems that Central Government is prepared to dilute or remove green belt and nature site protection.
It is a mistake, with or without detailed historical knowledge of a particular nature site, to assume too much about its actual or potential value without first examining, identifying, and evaluating the many important natural environmental factors, elements, and complex ecological interaction at work there. The number of times I have heard Wilden Marsh described as industrial wasteland surprises and at times amazes me.
People may recall the dark, distant days of industrial dereliction and misappropriation of lands along the Lower Stour Valley. Thankfully, the days when industry disposed of its troublesome and sometimes poisonous waste, legally, on Wilden Marsh wetlands and in the River Stour, have passed. The marsh is still affected by treated sewage effluent inflow and land drainage runoff, and all manner of plastic rubbish floats down the River Stour to the River Severn on its way to pollute oceans and other continents, but many things are improving. At least the global plastic rubbish problems are being discussed and action is being called for to minimise the effects of these types of pollution, although these well-meaning efforts do seem to progress very slowly. It is, perhaps, a mistake to rush towards important decisions without proper consideration and consultation around possible negative environmental consequences and impacts, or is this just a means of slowing and even hijacking the decision-making process? These days it is necessary to be seen to be doing things to improve the environment. I worry, though, that it is all too easy to go through the motions without achieving worthwhile results. I feel that some organisations are happy as long as they can point to some kind of ecological or environmental policy, study, activity or investigation that they are engaged or partnered in, to nurture positive comments and avoid negative criticism.
Another thing to bear in mind is that surveys, investigations and presentations can be used to value or devalue nature, depending on whether the initiator’s interests lie in nature conservation or property development.
When I have been out on surrounding hills, inspecting the marsh through binoculars, people have approached me with their views and questions relating to what they have seen happening “down there on the marsh”. These conversations are often interesting and can give valuable insights into people’s perceptions of the Reserve. Some of the negative statements I have heard include: “They ought to do something with that derelict land, like building houses or an industrial estate on it,” “Someone is making a fat profit from felling all those trees,” “I’m going to complain to the council about the horrible flies breeding in that fetid wasteland,” “Those poor cows have been abandoned and are starving.” Whilst people are free to voice their opinions, Wilden Marsh is in fact a highly and expertly managed site. Fortunately, I have had considerably more positive than negative comments and questions from people about the Reserve. I did hear of a recently arrived local resident, someone living in a house overlooking the marsh, contacting Worcestershire Wildlife Trust to complain that, all of a sudden, they were able to see the industrial buildings on the west side of the valley, and asked if we could we stop cutting the trees down because it was spoiling their view. What the complainer failed to realise was that it was late autumn and the leaves were falling from the trees.
Wilden Marsh Nature Reserve is a collection of important habitats for botanical and nature conservation existing within a complex matrix of floodplain wetlands – i.e. marshy grassland and mire, mesotrophic fen/ swamp, wet woodland (alder and willow carr) and open water (ditches, pools, scrapes). Other habitats such as dry broadleaf woodland, dry mesotrophic/acidic grassland and scrub are considered to be of secondary importance.
The important vegetation types are mesotrophic fens and damp neutral grassland, along with transitions between these and areas of carr. The flora includes many species which are rare or uncommon in Worcestershire, notably Marsh Cinquefoil, Marsh Pennywort (Hydrocotyle vulgaris), Fen Bedstraw (Galium uliginosum), Marsh Valerian (Valeriana dioica), Marsh Arrowgrass (Triglochin palustris), Lesser Reedmace, Sea Club-rush (Scirpus maritimus), Star Sedge (Carex echinata) and Lesser Tussock Sedge. Tall fen vegetation in the centre of the site has an especially rich flora with an abundance of Lesser Water Parsnip, Great Water Dock and commoner tall helophytes. Parts of the neutral grassland have flourishing colonies of Southern Marsh Orchids progressing further along the northern marsh each year; these have now reached the swamp at the far north of the site. Pollarded Crack Willow (Salix fragilis) and White Willow (S.alba) line some of the ditches. The two main areas of carr woodland are dominated by Alder (Alnus glutinosa) and Crack Willow. Scrub, mainly of Grey Sallow (Salix cinerea), invades the marshy grassland near some of the carr.
Sedge or reed-dominated vegetation is dispersed throughout the reserve, but is prominent along the margins of drainage ditches or where these have become partially blocked – particularly to the south in wood pasture compartment and northern section bordering the settlement lagoon, where there is deep (and dangerous) silt. Though not as rich in plant species as the marshy grasslands, this habitat supports a range of emergent and semi-aquatic plants, the dominant species of which include lesser pond sedge (Carex acutiformis), reed sweet-grass (Glyceria maxima), reed canary grass (Phalaris arundinacea) and, locally, common reed (Phragmites australis), reed mace (Typha latifolia) and lesser reed mace (Typha angustifolia). Characteristic broad-leaved herbs are water mint (Mentha aquatica), tufted forget-me-not (Myosotis laxa), common skullcap (Scutellaria galericulata), lesser water parsnip (Berula erecta), marsh speedwell (Veronica scutellata), marsh marigold (Caltha palustris). Among the scarcer plants are: wood club-rush (Scirpus sylvaticus) and bladder sedge (Carex vesicaria) – both uncommon in Worcestershire; and the local marsh willow-herb (Epilobium palustre). Tall fen/swamp vegetation on this site is prime habitat for wetland birds such as sedge warbler (Acrocephalus schoenobanus) and water rail (Rallus aquaticus) and excellent for dragonfly species.
Wet Woodland – Alder Carr, Willow Carr and Sallow Scrub
There are areas of wet woodland where alder forms the dominant canopy tree. Mostly in the form of coppice woodland, the ground flora here comprises shade tolerant species including ferns and mosses, but also tracts of lesser pond-sedge swamp. Characteristic plants occurring include: creeping jenny (Lysimachia nummularia), yellow loose-strife (L. vulgaris), black-currant (Ribes nigrum), red-currant (Ribes rubrum), and gypsywort (Lycopus europaeus). Unfortunately, however, much of the field layer has been overrun by invasive Himalayan balsam (Impatiens glandulifera) – fortunately now brought well under control by grazing – and nettle (Urtica dioica), due to drying out of the peripheral parts of the reserve, as a result of a reduced ground-water table over recent years. Though it contains similar field-layer flora, willow carr is of generally lesser botanical importance, and sallow is invasive on the sedge-swamp at the southern end of the reserve. The water low water level problem was addressed in 2010 by The Environment Agency installing two rock weirs in the River Stour to raise its water level. Although water levels have increased throughout most of the site, Hoo Brook Pasture is drying out due to low water levels in Hoo Brook.
Wilden Marsh Nature Reserve is not just about flora, it’s also about providing a refuge for breeding fauna, whether resident or transient, and is an important and vital link in the wildlife chain that is the River Stour Wildlife Corridor.
There is a wide range of habitats on the Wilden Marsh site providing for many species of fauna. A heronry situated on a 16.5 acre island is home to around twenty breeding heron pairs. There are many badger setts scattered around the reserve and surrounding hills. Buzzards, kestrels, sparrow hawks, the occasional Harris hawk, and Peregrine falcons attack their prey from the sky above, and cormorants look out for fish from their perches on power lines stretched across the River Stour. The marsh foxes prowl all the habitats hoping to catch a pheasant, rabbit, mole, duck or any unwary bird, pigeons being a particular favourite. Otters scour the river, pools and ponds for toads, frogs, crayfish and catch the occasional trout, pike and eel. Mink, stoats, polecats and ferrets try to kill anything that moves – I’ve watched a mink launch itself at a pheasant on the riverbank, knocking it into the river before killing it.
Herds of barking muntjac deer roam the marsh at night and hide individually throughout the day.
Although not strictly an official part of the marsh, the Lagoon Field lies within the main site perimeter fence and performs a very important feeder function on the north marsh, producing hordes of insect pollinators and other prey to sustain marsh animals; the food chain here is finely balanced. There are also various wading birds hiding in the flooded Withy Wood – once a large settling pond. I often hear the drumming of mating snipe emanating from the Lagoon Field snipe nesting beds on warm spring evenings.
Much thought, work, experimentation and money has gone into the maintenance and development of Wilden Marsh, to ensure the ground conditions are as good as they can be in the many different habitat compartments, but there is still plenty to do. The critical factors affecting the speed of progress are cattle, human volunteers, and money.
Much of the ground management is carried out by a permanent herd of pedigree rare breed cattle: Shetland and belted Galloway breeds. The herd size depends on the amount of grazing required each year; last year the herd consisted of sixteen cattle and this year eight. The cattle we use on Wilden Marsh are supplied by the Wyre Forest Grazing Animals Project The Ranger Service works in partnership with the Worcestershire Wildlife Trust, Natural England and local land owners to graze conservation sites across the district.
So, I am awaiting news of industrial and/or residential development on the Lagoon Field site.