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Nature Reserve

Wrestlingworth Gravel Pits Ė a new parish nature reserve

An article by local naturalist Ian Woiwod which was published in 'Wild about Beds'

The largely rural parish of Wrestlingworth and Cockayne Hatley lies on the eastern edge of the county adjoining Cambridgeshire. A parish questionnaire found that many of the inhabitants liked living in the area for the availability of walking and were also interested in the local natural environment and its wildlife, so a couple of years ago a Parish Walking and Wildlife Group (PWWG) was set up to promote both these important aspects of rural life. A monthly local walk was instigated, often looking at features of local natural history interest, such as spring flowers, butterflies or fungi depending on the season. Bird boxes were the next item on the agenda of the group and many of these have been successfully placed around the parish.

The next priority of the PWWG was to find a natural area that could be adopted by the group so that some active management could be done to improve wildlife habitats in the parish. An immediate possibility was the neglected patch of woodland and water set in intensive arable farmland about 1 kilometre south west of Wrestlingworth village, known locally as the Gravel Pits (grid. ref. TL 248466)

Little was known, except that it was supposed to have been the place where local villagers were allowed to extract gravel in the past and indeed it is shown on the first Ordnance Survey maps indicating that the ponds were well established at least by Victorian times. Neither of the two farms surrounding the area seemed to claim the area and further inquiries revealed that it was in fact owned by the Parish Council, was already registered as Common Land and had an area of 0.6 hectares. So, with the permission of the Parish Council, this area has now been declared a Parish Nature Reserve managed by the PWWG, to be known as the Wrestlingworth Gravel Pits Reserve.

Left: View of nature reserve area, Right: Sign on fence

The reserve area (left) is an oasis of trees and water in an intensive agricultural setting. However, the surrounding farmland is not as bleak as it looks. There are some rich hedges adjoining the reserve and a set-aside meadow on the south side of the reserve contains a colony of Marbled Whites. The farmland surrounding the reserve also holds useful populations of some of the declining farmland specialist birds such as Yellow Wagtails and Corn Buntings.

Initially the reserve itself seemed uninspiring, largely consisting of nettles, high willow and sallow scrub, and stagnant water. Some of the area had also been used by a previous landowner (almost certainly illegally) as a general tip, which didnít help the air of neglect of the site. It was planned to record the wildlife on the site for a year before starting to manage it actively, but unforeseen events took a hand as the ponds in the reserve completely dried out in the winter drought of 2011/20012. This was too good an opportunity to miss and with the help of a local contractor it enabled good access and a start could be made in removing a few of the large willow trees, allowing at least some light to reach areas where the ponds should have been.

Luckily for the reserve the drought eventually broke in April and it doesnít seem to have stopped raining since. This was excellent news for the ponds which have filled up nicely and their associated fauna and flora have started to return and flourish, particularly as more sunlight is now reaching the water.

View of ponds inside nature reserve

One of the reserve ponds after recent rains.

So what is present on the reserve? Itís still early days, but to date about 20 species of bird have been recorded within the reserve area, including a roosting Barn Owl. There is a large active Badger set on the reserve, which is left undisturbed, and Muntjac, Fox and Rabbits have also been sighted, but nothing smaller in the mammal line has been recorded yet. Young newts have been seen in the ponds and opening up the ponds has also encouraged dragonflies and other insects to colonise. Moth trapping has been carried out over 2 periods and so far 74 species have been recorded including 6 which are relatively uncommon in the county, Ruddy Carpet, White Satin, Marbled Coronet, Dark Dagger, Dingy Shears and Cream-bordered Green Pea. It is notable that several of these are willow feeders and are probably long-term residents on the reserve (Donít worry thereís still plenty of willows on the reserve, even after our winter management).

Much has been achieved in the first year of this reserve. More recording is required, so if anyone wants to come and look for their specialities, they are welcome (but access can be difficult and itís always advisable to bring boots). More management is planned for the coming winter and it is hoped that we will be able to open up the reserve further to improve habitat and access and possibly establish a dipping platform for younger members of the parish.

For further details contact Ian Woiwod (woiwod@supanet.com).