Watching over wildlife for 50 years

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Picture by Darin Smith

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As the Hampshire and Isle of Wight Wildlife Trust celebrates its 50th birthday, this organisation’s work is more vital than ever. RACHEL JONES reports.

It is an area of Portsmouth that attracts visitors from thousands of miles away.

And it provides a pleasant and food-abundant home for many of the city’s year-round residents.

Farlington Marshes might be a pleasing open space on the edge of the city for many of Portsmouth’s human inhabitants but for the area’s birdlife, it is vital.

Without the nature reserve the species that feed and thrive there would find it difficult to survive.

‘At this time of year it’s a very important site for breeding birds, particularly the lapwing, which is a species that is nationally in decline,’ says site manager Jamie Marsh.

‘Areas like this are very important for preserving habitat and protecting ground nesting species which are very vulnerable.’

From April to October more than 100 species of bird rely on the reserve for food and shelter.

And it is an important site for migratory birds that flock from the Arctic to the relatively mild temperatures of the UK coast in winter.

So it isn’t surprising that the site was one of the first reserves to be managed by Hampshire and Isle of Wight Wildlife Trust when the organisation was set up just over 50 years ago.

As the charity celebrates its big birthday with anniversary events, Farlington Marshes holds a special place in its history and stands as evidence of its success in helping wildlife to survive.

This thriving area of bird and plant life was a protected site before the environmental movement really gathered pace.

‘It isn’t surprising that it was identified as one of the first sites,’ says David Rumble, the Wildlife Trust’s head of conservation for south Hampshire. ‘It’s obviously a magnet for wading birds and many other species.’

Now it is one of more than 45 reserves across the two counties being managed by the conservation charity.

The trust’s work is more vital than ever as wildlife suffers from climate change and destruction of habitat.

One of the problems facing the county’s species is fragmentation of habitat, which leave animals and plants living in pockets of land and unable to migrate to new areas because of development.

‘This can lead to inbreeding and localised extinction,’ says David.

So the trust is an important voice in an age where a higher population of people is placing more pressure on the countryside.

‘We’re an independent voice standing up for wildlife by raising awareness and campaigning and lobbying,’ says David.

The charity also runs courses, has education centres and sends staff to schools and other organisations. It works on models for sustainable development and is often consulted over planning applications. It also works with partners on special conservation projects and wildlife surveys.

This important organisation of 80 staff, 27,000 members and 800 regular volunteers started out with just 335 members.

Most of these were amateur wildlife lovers, with no professional environmental qualifications, just an extensive knowledge of the land and the creatures and plants that live locally.

These days, all kinds of qualified experts are involved in the work of the trust but the army of volunteers remains an essential part of wildlife protection.

‘It’s really very inspiring, how it all started – before the environmental movement was really up and running. It was a group of local people who really cared about the countryside around them,’ says David.

‘And the local knowledge of the volunteers we have is invaluable to us today. What we like is commitment. People build up a lot of knowledge and we have a lot of sharing of skills.’

Volunteers at the marshes are currently building and repairing fencing. This is to keep the grazing cattle, which are vital for managing the grassland, in the right areas.

Right now this large area of marsh is full of flowers, butterflies and the sounds of many different birds.

It’s a great space for city dwellers. ‘There aren’t many places you can go in Portsmouth and hear skylarks singing,’ says Jamie, taking a break from work to enjoy the peaceful environment and listen to the birds.

But even the marshes could be under threat in the future as sea levels rise. This is one of the many issues the trust is facing.

Wildlife across the county is under constant pressure but without the work of organisations like the trust over the past few decades, the situation could be a lot worse.

‘There would be a lot less expertise and knowledge and I think we could well have lost some key sites and some rare species,’ says David.

And he’s in no doubt that the hard work is worth it. ‘We have many sites of international importance, the Solent, the heathlands, the New Forest. In terms of conservation value, we have two exceptional counties.’

And if anyone is still in doubt about the value of sites like Farlington Marshes, consider the fact that brent geese travel 2,500 miles from Siberia to be here over the winter months.

Helping wildlife

Many species struggle as we increasingly encroach on their habitats and climate change has its effect.

But the wildlife trust endeavours to protect the following species that are decline, as well as many others.

Brent geese

Farlington Marshes is one of the main sites for the migratory birds which spend their winters here, so the management and protection of the reserve is vital for this species.

The trust has also put together a document to help planners understand the importance of the geese and hopefully avoid their feeding sites.

Marine life

It is sometimes easy to focus on the wildlife we can see and forgot about what lives under and around the water.

The trust manages or aids a number of marine conservation programmes in partnership with other organisations, helping species like sea horses and seals.

Projects include a study of local seagrass beds, an important habitat for many species, including the rare sea horse. These elusive creatures anchor to the plants using their tails.

A small population of harbour seals lives in the Solent area. Relatively little is known about them but a tagging project aims to improve our understanding.

Otters

The native wild otter was once on the brink of extinction in the area but now there are populations living in chalk rivers like the Test and the Itchen.

Hampshire and Isle of Wight Wildlife Trust, the Environment Agency and other organisations are working closely with landowners to conserve these creatures and preserve and enhance their habitats.

Butterflies

The trust works hard to protect wildlife-rich sites like Noar Hill, near Selborne. The reserve is renowned for its rare plants and butterflies.

Woodland

Roydon Woods in the New Forest has a diverse range of animals and plants, some of which are very rare.

It is a key location for rare plants like narrow leaved lungwort and bastard balm.

Woodland animals include woodpeckers, deer, moles, stoats and weasels.

How to help

There are many ways to help the trust and local wildlife. Visit the website for advice on making your garden wildlife-friendly and information on the trust’s events and activities.

The site also details how to become a member of the trust and how children can get involved.

The trust also organises a programme of countryside courses, helping people to identify wildlife and have a go at plant illustration, wildlife photography and willow-weaving.

There are also plenty of volunteering opportunities.

Visit hwt.org.uk

Other local reserves

Swanwick Lakes

As part of the trust’s 50th anniversary celebrations, the team at Swanwick Lakes, near junctions 8 and 9 of the M27, are challenging visitors to spot 50 species from a list in the space of a year.

There are plenty of other events at this wildlife-rich site, including bat walks and pond dipping.

Hookheath Meadows

The reserve near Cosham is a site of special scientific interest. The area of meadows, scrub and woodland supports a large range of wildlife. A public footpath crosses the southernmost corner of the site.

Pewit Island

The island within Portsmouth Harbour is also an area of special scientific interest. It is an important roosting and breeding site for birds. It is not accessible and is best viewed from Portchester or Fort Nelson.

Southmoor

This is a wet grassland area that is an important part of Langstone Harbour. Also a site of scientific interest, the accessible site is home to several breeds of butterfly.

Catherington Down

This beautiful area of chalk grassland also has archaeological features. The down, managed by the trust, Hampshire County Council and Horndean Parish Council, is a site of special scientific interest. It is filled with wildflowers and butterflies.

For more information on these and other reserves across the county visit hwt.org.uk

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