Essex Wildlife Trust restores marshes to former glory
- Credit: Archant
Tollesbury Wick becomes wet, wet, wet - and is all the better for it
On the vast and ancient grazing marshes of the Tollesbury Wick nature reserve, between the iconic red lightship moored beside labyrinthine saltmarsh and the distant monolithic slab of Bradwell nuclear power station that juts into the wide Essex skyline with angular ugliness, it’s hard not to be haunted by a rhyming maxim. “The wetter the better.”
It’s not totally true, of course. A flood of fresh water on the flatlands here beside the Blackwater Estuary is not exactly what wildlife or grazing livestock need. But neither do they need bone-dry aridness - and in this almost spirit-level flat landscape, in the driest part of Britain that is often said to be drier than Jerusalem, that is what could well befall them. Fresh water here is a scarce and precious life-giving resource.
Getting the water levels right on this huge Essex Wildlife Trust reserve - managed as a traditional coastal farm with grazing sheep, cattle and ponies - is an art. It’s recently been perfected. The Wick, a 600-acre Site of Special Scientific Interest and Special Protection Area, has been “wetted up”. And it’s certainly got wetter and better.
Jonathan Smith knows every square inch of the reserve. He was the trust’s reserve manager for about 20 years and although he is now officially in retirement he still cares passionately about the site, it’s wealth of wildlife and its livestock - the latter currently being 50 Shetland cattle and their calves, about 300 sheep and eight Exmoor ponies.
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Before the trust acquired the area in the 1990s it was arable farmland and thistle-covered set-aside land. “When I came along I had to do something about it as it was as dry as a bone,” recalled Mr Smith.
“It had been as drained as much as it could possibly be and hardly any wildlife was using it. We created a ring of sluices and bunds and pipework to keep the levels as best we could. It worked very well on the whole but these fields are so flat - there was a drainage problem and a big problem holding the water in as it went very quickly just at the critical times when you needed it for the wading birds.”
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In recent years the trust has set about finding a long-term solution to such problems - and a “wetting up” project that was completed in 2015 is now reaping year-round benefits for wildlife on the reserve.
The trust worked with the highly acclaimed Lincolnshire-based environmental consultant and engineer Roger Wardle in a restoration scheme funded through WREN’s FCC Biodiversity Action Fund. Now, sinuous watery arcs and sweeps snake across huge stretches of the grazing marshes - veins that carry life-giving and life-sustaining H2O across the newly sculpted landscape, fed from a newly constructed reservoir.
“We plugged all the drains and put in an extensive system of bunds so the whole thing is ring-fenced, as it were, and we can hold in all the water we want,” said Mr Smith.
“We saw improved wader breeding success last summer. The conditions have been improved for breeding lapwing, redshank and avocet. The work is paying off and there has been a good number of fledged young - we hope those increases will continue this summer and every year now.”
The trust’s head of landscape conservation, Dave Fairlamb, added: “The freshwater wetland restoration on previously dry sections of our Tollesbury Wick nature reserve is a really exciting one. It is already making what was already a precious site even better for wildlife. The wet weather late this winter ensured that there was plenty of water and wet grassland for diverse birds to use, for feeding, resting and washing, including spectacular numbers of brent geese, avocet, wigeon, lapwing and golden plover.
“Over the last two summers threatened wading species have bred, thanks to our ability to maintain splashy conditions, and we are hopeful that this year we will see the likes of redshank and lapwing raise even more chicks. Other species to breed on the restored habitat include yellow wagtail and Mediterranean gull.”
He paid tribute to Mr Wardle and to WREN’s FCC Biodiversity Action Fund and said: “It is fantastic to see this section of the Wick being restored to its former glory, with classic species of the Essex marshes to the fore.”
Access to Tollesbury Wick nature reserve is via Woodrolfe Road, Tollesbury, near Maldon, with car parking at Woodrolfe Green (CM9 8SB). The reserve is open at all times.
Ants at work: Busy mini-beasts create a strange landscape
Much of the vast Tollesbury Wick nature reserve is covered by what looks for all the world like the work of hyperactive moles.
Small hummocks cover acre after acre, creating a curious and highly distinctive “rolling sea” effect. It is quite astonishing to think that any creature could have such an impact on the landscape - even more so to realise that these dome-like structures are actually the handiwork of tiny, industrious and super-abundant ants.
It has been estimated that there are 250,000 such hillocks on about 480 acres of the reserve - all created by yellow meadow ants. The domes are built by worker ants above their nests to help regulate temperature and humidity.
Essex Wildlife Trust’s retired Tollesbury Wick reserve manager Jonathan Smith said such a vast array of domes showed that this is ancient grassland that has escaped the plough over many centuries.
“When grassland is not ploughed or mowed these anthills will appear - these are the same type of ants you get in your lawn and if you left it for long enough you’d get the same sort of anthills,” he said.
“This grassland has not been ploughed or mowed - nothing has been done to it - and that is what the old grazing marshes in Essex are all about. When the winged adults fly in clouds over the marsh in July or August all the black-headed gulls go after them and it is a fantastic spectacle.”