The highest number of glow worms recorded at a nature reserve was one of this year’s highlights for Berkshire, Buckinghamshire & Oxfordshire Wildlife Trust (BBOWT). The Trust also saw record numbers of orchids, a rare golden hoverfly and goshawks breeding in a woodland for the first time.
However, numbers of butterflies, dormice and other beloved species continued to decline, and the Trust has warned people that urgent action is needed to help wildlife on our doorsteps – or it could be lost forever.
Colin Williams, Senior Ecology Officer at the Trust, said: “I am so pleased with some of the fantastic wildlife we’ve recorded on our nature reserves this year.
“Getting record numbers of glow worms or seeing new dragonflies is great. But this is almost entirely down to decades of incredible work by our staff and thousands of tireless unpaid volunteers creating robust and diverse habitats.
“We’re also indebted to the 125 volunteers who helped us carry out this year’s wildlife surveys, along with our staff and wildlife trainees – we couldn’t do what we do without them.
“However the wider picture for wildlife in our three counties is incredibly distressing, and nature is in crisis across our region. I’ve been at BBOWT for 15 years, and this has been another year that shows the sad decline of wildlife.
“What we are doing is slowing that decline to, hopefully, reach the point where we’ll be able to reverse the damage humans have caused and start to see improvements. We’re doing our best to hold onto things we still have until we can reverse those trends.”
This year’s record glow worm number was recorded at BBOWT’s Whitecross Green Wood nature reserve on the Oxfordshire-Buckinghamshire border near Bicester, where staff and volunteers have been working for years to create the perfect grassland habitat.
Volunteer surveyors, led by longstanding BBOWT surveyor Linda Murphy, counted 303 glowing females in the summer – the highest total since the census started in 1999.
At the same reserve, the Trust also recorded a very rare southern migrant hawker dragonfly laying eggs – the first time the species has been recorded breeding in Oxfordshire. The dragonfly was sighted at a new pond the charity created specifically for invertebrates and amphibians, and so is another example of targeted conservation work paying off.
At the Trust’s Dancersend reserve in Buckinghamshire, volunteer invertebrate expert Sue Taylor identified a golden long-horned hoverfly – the first record of the species at the site and one of very few in the county.
Mr Williams said that orchids had an ‘excellent year’ at BBOWT’s nature reserves, including a record 1,111 rare military orchids at the Trust’s Homefield Wood reserve near Marlow. The Trust has been monitoring orchids at this site since 1975 when not a single military orchid was seen.
One of the ways volunteers help is by painstakingly putting protective shields around each plant to stop deer and rabbits from eating them. In October, BBOWT gave Phillip Pratt a Lifetime Volunteer Achievement Award for his help maintaining the orchid habitat at Homefield Wood for more than 30 years.
Elsewhere, however, the survey results were deeply worrying.
Estelle Bailey, BBOWT’s Chief Executive, said: “The results from our wildlife surveys this year show us two things: firstly, that wildlife across our three counties is in crisis and desperately needs our help, and secondly, that targeted, sustained action – like the incredible work by our staff, volunteers and all our supporters – can slow and reverse the decline.
“We cannot wait for our Government to intervene: every single one of us needs to take action, whether that’s by joining BBOWT, donating to our Nature Recovery Fund, writing to your MP or digging a wildlife pond in your garden. No matter how small it is, all of us can make a real difference – not just by feeding the birds but by setting an example for other people. Our wildlife is sending us an SOS, and every one of us can answer that call.”
BBOWT staff recorded just two hazel dormice across all its nature reserves this year, down from more than 100 in 2004. The Trust puts up monitoring boxes and maintains specialist habitats, but ecologists believe the species is already a victim of climate change. Warmer winters disrupt hibernation, and this mild weather causes the dormice to wake up when there is not enough food, meaning they can starve.
Butterflies also had an average or below-average year in BBOWT’s surveys, based on the long-term trend of decline for most species.
Mr Williams explained: “The decline in butterflies is caused by a host of human actions such as destruction of their habitat and pollution, and climate change is undoubtedly a factor.
“Climate change is causing more extreme weather events such as the prolonged drought we saw last summer: that drought killed off many butterfly larval food plants so the caterpillars were unable to feed. The warmer winters we are now getting mean the frosts that are essential to kill parasites that predate butterfly eggs are not happening enough.”
On a more promising note, Mr Williams said he personally recorded ‘excellent numbers’ of brown argus and holly blue butterflies at BBOWT reserves this summer, which he said was encouraging for two species that have experienced serious declines recently. A total of 56 volunteers helped monitor 42 butterfly transects, and BBOWT said it was extremely grateful to all of them.
Mr Williams said that many breeding birds suffered during the poor spring weather this year, but there were a few highlights.
In Berkshire, Dartford warblers bred for the first time in many years at Snelsmore Common Country Park. This small songbird mostly nests on mature, dry heathland, which has massively declined in the UK.
It nests on the ground and is vulnerable to cold weather and prolonged snow cover, which means it is one species that could benefit from milder winters. The Trust is now hopeful they will establish a viable breeding colony at Snelsmore.
Goshawks also bred at BBOWT’s Foxholes Wood near Chipping Norton for the first time. Mr Williams said he expected numbers of the ‘apex predator’ to increase and said this could have a profound impact on the ecology of local sites, as their main prey includes other birds and grey squirrels.
At the Trust’s large Chimney Meadows reserve on the banks of the Thames in West Oxfordshire, a pair of curlew again bred after the nest was protected with an electric fence, and two young successfully fledged.
Finally, the Trust this month carried out its most productive-ever bird survey at its Gallows Bridge Farm reserve on the Oxfordshire/ Buckinghamshire border.
Volunteer surveyor Nick Marriner recorded 8,595 birds of 45 species, including 2,750 lapwing, 560 golden plover, 64 snipe, 6 jack snipe, 122 teal, 2,375 starlings, 1,315 fieldfares and 235 redwing.
The reserve is currently heavily flooded, which is what the site is supposed to do at this time of year, and that attracts a wide range of birds. Mr Williams said it was another example of targeted habitat management producing fantastic results for wildlife.
With climate change making conservation more challenging than ever before, BBOWT this year launched its biggest-ever fundraising appeal, the Nature Recovery Fund. The appeal aims to raise £3 million over three years to fund all aspects of the Trust’s work tackling the nature and climate crisis.