Working with landowners for wildlife conservation

James Adler

Conservation Officer Uta Hamzaoui talks about some of the work she has been doing with landowners in the Charnwood Forest as part of our Charnwood Forest Living Landscape project and why it is important for wildlife conservation.

As part of our work in the Charnwood Forest Living Landscape, we survey land and map out different habitat types so that we know where the best sites are, and if there is potential to link them up. From surveys conducted in the past, we already know quite a lot about some of the best habitats. Many of these are identified as Local Wildlife Sites, a designation of the best habitats in the county that are not protected by law.

These can be habitats like old species-rich grassland, ancient woodland, a natural stream, old species-rich hedgerows or mature trees. However, the surveys of these sites often date back as far as twenty years ago and so much can have happened to them since then. Therefore, re-surveying these sites is a priority. Luckily, in most cases, they are still there and in good condition, so we can advise the landowner to continue with the good management.

Charnwood forest

However, sometimes we find the management has changed, often due to a change of ownership. New landowners are often not aware of the importance of a site for wildlife; for example, old grassland sites are very sensitive to a change in management, such as overgrazing or no management at all. In these cases, we try to find a way to work with the landowner to adjust the management so that the species and condition of the site can be restored.

This can be challenging as many of the species-rich grassland sites are often quite small, have uneven ground or wet ground that makes working with modern machinery very difficult or impossible. But if left unmanaged, nutrients accumulate in the soil and coarse grasses, tall herb species and scrub will smother the characteristic species of old grassland. The Trust recently bought a machine for this purpose and this year we were finally able to help with the management of some of these difficult sites in private ownership.

landowner blog

Occasionally we come across good habitats that have not been noticed before. For example, a large lawn with a number of species of heath-grassland in abundance, such as Harebell and Heath Speedwell, that are sometimes even a rare sight on our nature reserves. The shallow acidic soil provides ideal conditions for these plants and regular lawn mowing has been similar to grazing, to which the plants are adapted.

However, the plants rarely have the chance to flower and set seed, so we discus with the landowners how the management could be changed and improved. They could leave a wide strip uncut for most of the year, until autumn when species like Devil’s-bit Scabious are still in flower.

landowner blog

When we survey land of which we have no previous records, we sometimes find some great wildlife habitats, which can be exciting. For example, these old hedgerows (below) were not trimmed or laid in the traditional way but left to expand into the fields by landowners who don’t mind having a smaller hay crop and value these hedges as habitat for wildlife. Good hedgerows provide a food source for a range of species such as insects, birds and bats.

The fields on this land, however, have lost their former diversity of species, but there is still an odd corner or steep bank where some old grassland species such as Betony grow. The landowners were not aware of this and were pleased to hear that through slight changes in their management, such as later hay cut and no more application of fertilisers, there is a chance that the old meadow species may spread again. This will create a vital habitat for a range of bird and insect species that depend on them.

landowner blog

We also give advice to landowners on the steps they can take to increase their land’s value for wildlife. In general, this is to not to be too tidy and to leave some uncut margins and corners where possible, as these can all provide valuable habitat for a range of species. Particularly important is not tidying up dead wood whether that is a dead tree, fallen branches or even branches that accumulated in a stream after flooding.

Five years ago we were approached by a landowner who had purchased a large estate and wanted to manage it for wildlife. The land has some great wildlife habitats already, such as species-rich grassland, a natural stream and ancient woodland, but large areas have lost their species-richness through agricultural improvement.

Working with the landowner, we have developed a plan on how to manage the land for wildlife; a large area will be left to a light grazing regime using cows. This will allow for a more diverse structure of the vegetation, including scattered scrub and rough vegetation. This should make a huge difference for a variety of wildlife that will find food and places to breed all year round.

To start the project we will use cows owned by Leicestershire and Rutland Wildlife Trust that graze our fields in summer, but need to be taken off in winter due to stewardship agreement conditions. Instead of being taken to the farm and be fed with hay, they will now be let on these fields to graze down the vegetation over the winter.

landowner blog

On this site we have also set up transect surveys that are regularly walked by an amazing team of dedicated and enthusiastic volunteers to collect data on butterfly and bird populations. This will help us to see how the change in management will affect these species. We are expecting an increase of the more common species, and are hoping to be able to record some rarer species that depend on good quality habitat and are usually restricted to nature reserves or other protected sites.

This year the volunteers noticed a forester moth, a species that is associated with old grassland of Charnwood Forest. Read Dave Robinson’s blog if you would like to learn more about butterfly surveys in the Charnwood Forest.

This particular estate is a great example of how to improve and connect habitat in the wider countryside. We are hopeful that this example will encourage other landowners to do the same, even if it is just leaving a wider margin of rough vegetation along the hedgerows or a corner in a field. It also shows how landowners can work together and it would be great to establish more good working relationships with other landowners in the area.

Survey volunteers