Image: The Working Wetlands team planting scabious plugs at Hole Farm
Re-creating wildflower meadows is relatively easy to do. Wildlife Trusts across the country have been trialling various techniques for restoring and re-creating species rich meadows.
More of a challenge is convincing private farmers and landowners in strategically important places to revert more productive land to wildlife. But this is exactly what the Working Wetlands project is trying to do in order to try and reverse the dramatic decline of the marsh fritillary butterfly in NW Devon.
Whilst Devon Wildlife Trust nature reserves can provide important reservoirs of marsh fritillaries, the Culm grasslands that are home to this species in the wider countryside are small and fragmented. Everything we know about this butterfly, points to this being one of the reasons why it is declining so quickly. With Biffa Award flagship funding, the Working Wetlands project is reconnecting isolated sites with strategically placed restoration projects.
Project works vary hugely depending on the nature of the restoration required. They include clearing scrub and re-instating grazing into existing but neglected Culm grassland to much more intensive interventions.
At Hole Farm, the Working Wetlands team have used every tool available to restore a key link between Volehouse Nature Reserve and other sites in the area. A flail cutter-collector cleared the existing sward from this 2ha “improved” field using the project’s 90HP Kubota tractor. The soft rush re-growth was then treated with a weed wiper, and the field harrowed to create plenty of bare ground. A harvested seed mix was supplemented with some additional species and sown using a fertiliser spreader towed behind a quad bike. Finally a team of volunteers planted plugs of devils bit scabious to provide ample food plants for the marsh fritillary butterfly to move in.
So far in 2014, the Working Wetlands team has harvested 280kgs of wildflower seeds from nearby donor sites, and then sown it across 12 sites totalling 36ha. Since 2008, the Working Wetlands project has restored and recreated more than 4,000ha of grassland habitat across the Culm using these and other methods.
Speaking about the positive impacts of the project Mark Elliott, Working Wetlands Project Manager, said:
“Butterflies are notorious for having huge population fluctuations, often due to seasonal weather variations, and it is therefore difficult to separate the impacts from our work from these natural population changes. Every so often the populations get really large and they disperse into the wider landscape in reasonable numbers, hoping to find a suitable site nearby in which to lay their eggs.
“For this reason we know that such extensive habitat work in the countryside around our nature reserves should be making these populations more robust. In the last three years, marsh fritillary butterflies have been seen on 18 sites where they hadn’t been recently recorded – in some cases there are no previous records at all. Maybe, just maybe we are showing that working really intensively at a landscape scale can help this species hang on and even return to its previous strongholds.”