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Local Nature Reserves

by Steve Portugal

Throughout the last century, many conservation charities and bodies have done a sterling job of obtaining, maintaining and improving hundreds of thousands of acres of countryside for the preservation of species and for the enjoyment of the public. As the pressure of urban development intensifies, the major conservation groups and charities need help with conserving important sites, and ensuring that conservation has a place within major new urban developments.

Something of a new concept in reason times has been the construction of local nature reserves, owned by town or county councils and often maintained by dedicated volunteers from local groups and organisations. These reserves are often small pockets of land surrounded by housing estates, industry and roads, but provide vital breeding, roosting and feedings grounds for many species of birds and other animals.

Usually the sites are often reclaimed land that has been left derelict for some period of time, or open spaces that had become over run with litter or damaged by excessive vandalism. The task then is to generally clean up the site, dredge ponds, clear ditches and pull up encroaching pines and rhododendrons. In many cases, new trees are planted, ponds created and heathland restored.

Another important aspect of these local nature reserves is access for the public. As their location is frequently in the middle of urban areas, and created by dedicated individuals in the community, they have to perform a service of allowing people to enjoy them, walk around them and generally use them for recreational purposes.

Great Crested GrebeThroughout the South, these reserves have been springing up in the most unlikely places. Over the last few years, Bournemouth and Poole have been the lucky recipients of over four new local town nature reserves. Hatch Pond is a small area of about two to three acres that is situated in the middle of one of Poole's largest industrial estates. The site had become unkept and littered with refuse and waste, in particularly the actual pond itself. Volunteers cleared the pond, restored reed beds and maintained a small wood that lines one of the banks. As a result the area began to attract bird life that hadn't been seen there for a number of years. Moorhens, Coots, Mallards, Mute Swan and numerous gull species took up residence, and have been joined more recently by Gadwall, Water Rail, Pochard, Great Crested Grebe, Tufted Duck and Snipe. Mediterranean Gulls have begun putting in appearances but perhaps most surprisingly of all was the arrival of a Bittern towards the end of October. The bird was still being sighted mid November and it appears it may well stay for the winter. What a reward for all the hard work and effort put in to the reserve, particularly as Bitterns are not especially regular visitors to Dorset.

Bittern was also the reward for another local nature reserve established in north Hampshire, Fleet Pond. The pond is actually quite a large lake, fringed with extensive reedbeds and patches of willow scrub, surrounded by heathland and birch scrub. After a period of barren Bittern winters, the species appears to have reappeared in recent seasons, and although never easy to see, one or two now typically winter. Small parties of Bearded Tits frequent the reeds during late autumn and winter, and Siskin and Redpoll are a major feature of the surrounding woodlands. Wintering birds on the pond itself include Teal, Shoveler, Pochard, Tufted Duck, Cormorant, Canada Goose, Water Rail, Snipe and Pintail, with many of the wildfowl species staying on to breed. During the summer, Reed, Sedge and Grasshopper Warblers inhabit the reeds, whilst Nightingale, Wood Warbler and Tree Pipit can be heard in the surrounding woodland and scrub. It really is amazing that such a small reserve could attract such a variety of species throughout the year, especially considering how close to a large housing estate it actually is.

Reed Bunting by Andy BrightFurther south in Hampshire along the border of the New Forest are the Blashford Lakes, a collection of ponds, lakes, and gravel pits, both used and disused. Up until recently the whole area (about fourteen lakes and pits in total) was private with no access to the public at all as many of the pits where still being excavated. Recently two of the lakes have been opened up to the public, with marked footpaths around them and parking facilities. Viewing hides have been erected along some of the roads overlooking the larger lakes, new footpaths have been opened that give closer views of the lakes that are still private and one of the lakes has been given over to recreational activities, particularly water skiing. The whole area has become an important site within the region for winter wildfowl. The main species are Wigeon, Gadwall, Teal, Shoveler, Pochard and Tufted Ducks, with smaller numbers of Pintail, Goldeneye, Bewicks Swan and the occasional Smew and Goosander. Green, Wood and Common Sandpipers are regular on passage, as are Ospreys. Many of the ducks also breed on the lakes and pits, joined by Common Tern, Ringed and Little Ringed Plover. The lakeside vegetation and scrub is rich in birdlife too with breeding Turtle Dove, Lesser Whitethroat, Nightingale, Reed Bunting, Cetti's, Sedge, Reed and Garden Warblers. In all, the process of turning the disused gravel pits from commercial excavation works to an area good for birds and for the local community to enjoy the outdoors, has been a complete success.

As competition for housing space intensifies the need for these small wildlife havens will become more and more important, particularly those which are already enclosed by urban areas. They need to be protected from further development and managed to provide the optimum conditions within the small area for as many bird species and other animals as possible.

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Steve Portugal has been birding for many years, previously worked for the RSPB, and is hoping to start a PhD soon. He is currently doing Farmland surveys for the BTO and RSPB.