Mingledown Barn

Naturetrek Office Grounds Rewilding Update

Sophie Hughes
By Sophie Hughes
Tailormade Consultant
17th May 2021
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We have been keen supporters of AITO’s Project PROTECT (which stands for People, Resources, Outreach, Tourism, Environment, Conservation and Tomorrow) since its inception in 2017. This programme encourages and supports us, as a tour operator, to protect the destinations in which we work; something that has, indeed, always been at the heart of our ethos since Naturetrek’s beginning. Each year we make a new pledge, and we first focused our efforts on fundraising for Butterfly Conservation, alongside increasing our donations to our cloudforest reserve in the Ecuadorian Andes. To date, we have donated nearly £230,000 to Butterfly Conservation to help ensure the protection of vital butterfly habitats across the UK and Europe, and raised over £442,000 for the purchase of threatened cloudforest in Ecuador (£350,000 of which has already been used to make land purchases and expand our reserve, and the remainder is ear-marked for further acquisitions).
In 2020, during a very uncertain year for travel, we decided to focus our pledge on a project closer to home. The Naturetrek office is set amongst 12 acres of grassland, formerly used for livestock grazing. Years of agricultural activities have drastically reduced the site’s ecological value, so we pledged to enhance our grounds for wildlife. This has developed into an exciting and valuable project, which we are continuing to implement and expand upon in 2021 and beyond. We will restore and enhance existing habitats and introduce new, complementary environments to strengthen existing wildlife populations and encourage the arrival of a broader diversity of species. We are also undertaking considered planting to enrich our site as a carbon sink, offsetting some of our in-house carbon emissions.
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The first stage of our rewilding plan involved a thorough overhaul of our existing pond, which held very limited wildlife value; the liner had become damaged, resulting in minimal water retention, and the remaining water was heavily silted and lacking in oxygen. There was no sign of life, and the surrounding grass was encroaching heavily. During the spring of 2020, we sensitively drained the pond and removed the old liner. Then came an exciting day, expanding the pond’s footprint, creating varying depths and scalloped edges to provide a range of microclimates for different species. We also capped the surrounding ground with some of the excavated chalk ready for seeding with a suitable, local wildflower mix, and created some adjacent log and rubble piles to provide nooks and crannies for wildlife. We added a new liner, recycling the old one as underlining, and then waited patiently for the rain to come! Whilst we had a digger on site, we also uncovered a section of chalk in our field, which we are now monitoring for the hopeful arrival of native chalk grassland species.
Our pond is now full of water, and we’ve watched with delight as it welcomed its first residents! Frogspawn arrived this spring, and the tadpoles are looking very healthy, already sprouting legs. We’ve also spotted both Smooth and Palmate Newts, as well as a range of aquatic invertebrates. Local Canada Geese and Mallards have even popped in on occasion. We have been busy tidying up the pond’s edges, placing some rocks in and around the shallower areas to create a bog garden and additional habitat, planting a range of suitable aquatic and marginal plants, and constructing additional log and rubble piles. We have also now seeded the surroundings with a suitable, native wildflower mix to encourage pollinators, and are looking forward to this becoming established over the coming months. A mixed native species hedgerow has been planted around our pond and orchard, strengthening landscape connectivity through our grounds and providing additional on-site habitat opportunities. Plant species have been chosen based upon their wildlife value, including a high percentage of Blackthorn. Last year we once again recorded Brown Hairstreaks along hedgerows near our office – this species lays its eggs on young Blackthorn shoots, and we hope to encourage the expansion of this exciting local population! A new Barn Owl box has been installed, with hopes of attracting the local population to breed on site – our resident Barn Owl has returned to hunt our field again this spring, so we are feeling optimistic.
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Common Frog egg clumps
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Smooth Newt (male)

Following our initial success, we have made the exciting decision to expand this project across our whole 12 acres! Although nutrient levels within the soil here are too high for any realistic possibilities of a large wildflower meadow, we have not been deterred, and will be introducing a grassland management regime to diversify the habitats present. This will involve selectively cutting certain areas to a variety of heights, leaving others tussocky and uncut, thereby creating different sward structures to encourage a broader range of plants. The edges of uncut areas will be scalloped to create sheltered microclimates for invertebrates, and the varied grassland structure will provide enhanced opportunities for reptiles, amphibians and small mammals. We will maintain existing patches of successional scrub, enhancing these with additional planting to strengthen natural regeneration where suitable; both around the edges of the field and as ‘islands’ across the site to act as habitat ‘stepping stones’, and will also construct additional, scattered log piles, adding to those already installed around the pond.

This spring, we are undertaking a full ecological review of the site, using the results to further inform the design of our rewilding plan. Amongst our surveys, we will be searching for reptiles, Hazel Dormouse, bats, birds and butterflies, as well as continuing our ever-popular moth-traps. We will keep you updated on our findings!
Additional ideas for the future include planting more oak, elm and Blackthorn for the three local Hairstreak species, creating a ‘bat garden’ with evening-scented plant species to attract invertebrates as a foraging resource, and constructing a network of additional ponds to strengthen local amphibian populations.

Those of us lucky enough to work in this beautiful corner of Hampshire love getting out for a wildlife walk at lunchtime, and we know that this project will not only enhance the area for local wildlife but also work wonders for our own physical and mental wellbeing. Once our monthly Open Days resume, we will look forward to taking those of you joining us in Chawton out to explore our site, and to perhaps share a few rewilding tips from our in-house experts. We would love to share our ideas, and to hear yours. Perhaps by working together in this way we will be able to gradually build a network of amazing wildlife opportunities across the country!
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The pond filled nicely over winter... and 'spring'!