Durham Wildlife Trust helps endangered species

PUBLISHED: 10:34 22 January 2010 | UPDATED: 16:37 20 February 2013

The small pearl-bordered fritillary butterfly. Picture by Sue Charlton

The small pearl-bordered fritillary butterfly. Picture by Sue Charlton

Environmental journalist John Dean examines how Durham Wildlife Trust is preserving some of the region's rarest species

If you want an example of why Durham Wildlife Trusts work is so important, all you have to do is examine the plight of the beautiful small pearl-bordered fritillary butterfly.

Nationally, its numbers have declined by a staggering 93 per cent in recent years and it clings on to existence only in fragmented areas, many of which can be found in County Durham. Even here, it has the unenviable status of being the countys rarest butterfly.

However, hope is on the horizon because Durham Wildlife Trust, supported by Northumbrian Water, has launched a project which is designed to save the butterfly from extinction in the area.

Historically, the range of the small pearl-bordered fritillary in Co. Durham included the heaths and shallow valleys around the central belt of the county and they will form the 29,000 square hectares of the project area.

The blame for the decline in numbers nationally has been agricultural intensification, afforestation, urban development and changes in woodland management. The project aims to reverse the effects and restore grassland areas to the condition which the butterfly needs.

Sue Charlton, the Trusts Heart of Durham Project Officer, who is overseeing the scheme, said: With the help of local landowners and local communities, over the next five years, the project aims to secure the remaining relic areas of heathland, mire, wet and unimproved grassland.

We then aim, where possible, to expand these sites and identify others with the aim of linking all these areas together. Ultimately, this will increase the amount of available habitat and allow species to move through the landscape, not only to expand their range but also be able to move in response to a changing climate.

Success will not just benefit the butterfly; the grasslands are also home to many other species of conservation concern, including the dark green fritillary butterfly, the adder, grass snake, lapwing and curlew.

Talk of expanding their ranges illustrates a new way of looking at wildlife conservation, which views nothing in isolation but, instead,sees the landscape as a patchwork. Behind what has become known as the Living Landscapes project is the idea that if you protect one small area of habitat then that is good, but if you can protect a whole host of them that is even better because linking them together will allow species to colonise new areas.

All three wildlife trusts in the North East are working with landowners and other partners to create and preserve such habitats across the region under the Living Landscapes banner.

The approach fits in with national thinking: indeed, during the autumn, the Government launched a review to see whether or not the countrys wildlife network is good enough to protect species.

Durham Wildlife Trust Trust Director Jim Cokill said:

The work is crucial to protect wildlife because so many species are under terrible pressure. By identifying and protecting areas where species survive, we can do a lot to help preserve their numbers as well as allowing them to increase.

If we can do that across the county, then the region then the country, many of our species will be saved from extinction. The alternative is to do nothing and if that happens, then they will be lost. We cannot let that happen.

And Durham Wildlife Trust is playing its part. Everywhere you look in its area, which stretches from Darlington in the south to Gateshead in the north, you can see a determination to save species ranging from the critically endangered water vole to rare wild flowers.

Take, for instance, work to further protect an area of grasslands at a North-East reservoir. The collection of unimproved pastures at Northumbrian Waters Derwent Reservoir site, in Co Durham, have received little or no artificial chemical fertilisers within living memory and still support a wealth of colourful wild flowers and grasses.

Now Northumbrian Water and Durham Wildlife Trust are working in partnership to manage the grasslands in a traditional way without the use of chemical fertilisers or herbicides.

Sue Charlton said: We always knew that this area was important but now there is increased recognition of its value. Old meadow plants like great burnet, betony and devilsbit scabious can be found with a variety of wild grasses such as quaking grass, downy oat grass, heath grass and meadow fescue.

Adderstongue fern, a curious little low-growing plant of ancient grasslands, has been found in no less than 11 different fields around the reservoir perimeter. Several of these fields are of the rigg and furrow type - a feature left over from a medieval form of strip cultivation. All this makes this a very rare and precious habitat. This is a really important collection of unimproved pastures that are being sympathetically managed for future generations to enjoy.

To increase protection of the site, several of the best grasslands have been fenced and are being grazed by traditional breeds such as Highland cattle and Exmoor ponies. These hardy breeds will graze less palatable vegetation like rushes and some of the coarser grasses which grow in more waterlogged soils. They will also prevent the spread of scrub and help control invasive bracken.

Again, frightening statistics show why the work is important: more than 97% of old herb-rich grasslands nationally have been lost since 1945 through overgrazing by livestock and urban development.

That is why when areas like this survive, we have to do all we can to protect them.

But despite all this thinking on a large scale, sometimes wildlife conservation comes down to the smallest of areas.

Take Stanley Moss, one of the nature reserves recently acquired by Durham Wildlife Trust, approximately two miles east of Tow Law in Weardale. It is one of the very few remaining blanket peat bogs in the lowlands of Co Durham.

Extending to 7.5 hectares, it once covered a much larger area but the vast majority has been lost due to opencast coal mining, forestry and agricultural improvements.

The vegetation at Stanley Moss has developed over a thick layer of peat and supports large stands of heather, bilberry and common cotton grass, which carpet the bog in shades of pink, purple and white in the summer.

The surface of the bog is waterlogged in many places and it is here that there are luxuriant lawns of sphagnum mosses with other uncommon plants. The acquisition of the site has been made possible thanks to the support of EDF Energy, a long-term supporter of Durham Wildlife Trust and a Corporate Member of the Trust.

Mark Richardson, Trust Reserves Manager, said: It is now acknowledged that peat bogs make a massive contribution in the fight against climate change due to their ability to store carbon. It is thought that peat actually contains about 65% of the planets carbon dioxide and peat bogs store twice as much carbon as all of the forests in the world.
However, peat bogs have been lost at an alarming rate in the recent past, which makes the restoration and protection of peat bogs such as Stanley Moss so important.

Durham Wildlife Trust intend to restore Stanley Moss back to its former glory by reinstating the water table in areas where the bog has dried out, due to disturbance from activities such as forestry and agricultural drainage, and improve public access.

Jim Cokill said: It is crucial that we continue to acquire sites like Stanley Moss. They may only be relatively small but, when viewed as part of a wider landscape, each one becomes absolutely critical in conservation terms.

Contact Durham Wildlife Trust at Rainton Meadows, Chilton Moor, Houghton-le-Spring, Tyne & Wear DH4 6PU, telephone 0191 584 3112 or by email at mail@durhamwt.co.uk

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