Progress Update: Wild Woodbury Community Rewilding Project

This is a project update from our partners at the Dorset Wildlife Trust. I hope you find it informative and shows how successful their interventions to increase biodiversity have been.

“Rewilding is vitally important to help reverse the dramatic declines in UK wildlife and is one of the most sustainable ways to combat the climate and ecological crises. At Wild Woodbury we are transforming 170 hectares of land to increase the biodiversity and abundance of wildlife, to capture carbon and to reduce net nitrates entering the internationally important Poole Harbour.

In July 2021, Dorset Wildlife Trust acquired 170ha of intensively farmed land, near Bere Regis, in the heart of Dorset – establishing England’s first ever community rewilding project. Our ambition is to restore Wild Woodbury to a place where wildlife can flourish and people can connect with nature. Healthy ecosystems provide homes for wildlife in critical decline in the UK and help battle the climate crisis by storing carbon in wetlands, soils and plants.

A key feature of the project is genuine joint working with the local community, co-designing a wild space for people, as well as wildlife. It will also showcase sustainable change in land use by introducing innovative principles of rewilding. Significantly, Wild Woodbury will transition from having a net negative environmental impact to having a large net positive effect.

The project outputs include:

  • Rewilding the site to enable natural process to capture carbon and for new wildlife habitats to develop. Including the creation of 30-40 ha of new wetland.
  • An increase in diversity and abundance of wildlife.
  • A reduction in pollutants, including nitrates entering Poole Harbour.

 

Establishing a baseline

To showcase sustainable land use change and how our actions affect ecological restoration, carbon storage, water quality and flooding, we need data. Therefore, it was essential for us to carry out repeatable and scientific baseline surveys, at the earliest opportunity, so that in the years to come we can watch how wildlife and the land responds.

High levels of nitrates in waterways from use of fertiliser and sewage cause algal blooms which severely damage wildlife ecosystems. Moving away from the previous intensive farming at Wild Woodbury should ensure nitrate levels entering Poole Harbour from the site don’t increase, but we want to go even further. We want to reduce net nitrate levels. It is fully anticipated that rewilding the site will result in increases in biodiversity, better carbon storage and healthier soils.

Our team of staff, partners and volunteers have conducted vital surveys and collected data on ecology, soil, hydrology, species and water quality to provide baselines for monitoring and future analysis. During this time, we have already seen some dramatic changes to the landscape.

 

  • Ecology: key species group monitoring including birds, plants, invertebrates and mammals.

A combination of professional and volunteer surveyors recorded over 1,400 species including several Red Data Book species (endangered species facing a high risk of extinction) such as Skylark, Yellowhammer (below), and the Dingy Mocha moth.

Many of these species are using the site to breed and are drastically increasing in number, for example, Skylark have increased from 2 singing males in 2021, to 18 in 2022, to over 50 in Spring 2023. Tree pipit pairs have gone from 0 in 2021, to 1 in 2022, to a suspected 10 pairs in 2023. We are also supporting many migratory and locally breeding species that use the site to forage, owing to the dramatic increase in invertebrates and natural seed we’ve seen across the 170ha.

By allowing vegetation to grow and diversify the landscape, we have seen nationally scarce flora, such as Lesser Quaking Grass, Narrow-leaved Lungwort, and Red Hemp Nettle, establish in areas where they were previously unknown.

As well as more common species, this increase in vegetation cover has attracted hundreds of species of invertebrate which we have been able to record over the past 18 months. Beetles, flies, butterflies, moths, and true bugs have been particularly well surveyed, amassing a large proportion of the records, some of which have been new species to the whole of Dorset.

 

  • Water quantity: volumes of water moving across the site and ground water fluctuations.

Using v-notch weirs in the ditch networks, we have been measuring the flow of water throughout the site.

 

  • Water quality: nutrients (nitrates, phosphates, pH, suspended solids and ammonium).

By sending water samples from the ditch network and ground water to a lab, we can measure

pH, nutrient load and sediment load (how much soil is being washed off the land). One of the key aims of the project is to drastically reduce the amount of nutrients being washed off the land and down in to Poole Harbour.

 

  • Soil: levels of key nutrients (phosphate, potassium and magnesium), pH levels and organic carbon.

We have been looking at pH of the soils to determine how much carbon is currently stored in the soils and what the nutrient load is. We have also mapped the soil type in detail.

Ecological DNA (eDNA) testing is a new technology that can identify traces of DNA in soil samples giving a very detailed baseline of what is living in the soil. We have conducted these tests across the site looking at fauna, bacteria and fungi.

 

  • Archaeology: Ensuring sensitive management of the site’s historical features.

Working with Bournemouth University we conducted geophysical surveys on places of interest across the site and have already discovered a previously unknown mediaeval dwelling and huge amounts of burnt flint – an indicator of neolithic activity up to the time of Roman occupation.

 

Rewilding and Rewetting  

Nature is in trouble, but by restoring land currently poor for nature using rewilding principles, we can start to turn the tide and allow wildlife to spread out from isolated reserves and back into the wider countryside. By reversing our intensive drainage of land and creating a more even balance

between grazing animals and vegetation growth, we can restore ecosystems, clean water and fight the climate emergency. We are aiming to allow nature to take a lead on this site, and to establish a site which does not require intensive management.

Rewilding is a very sustainable and beneficial method of ‘managing’ large areas of land for nature and people. It is also incredibly exciting as there is no defined end point or objective and habitats can come and go naturally over time, which in turn creates different conditions for species to thrive. Using low numbers of mixed grazing animals over a large area, we recreate the actions of our missing large grazing animals from the past, and by getting the balance right we can create an ever-changing healthy ecosystem.

 

Our rewilding and rewetting aims:

  • Introduce extensive mixed grazing herds to mimic natural grazing.
  • Re-establish more natural hydrology on the site by restoring the head waters of the River Sherford.
  • Work in partnership with our farming neighbour to deliver a symbiotic relationship that delivers for both parties.

This project will be used as an example site for other landowners and interested parties to learn about land use change, and for other NGOs to use the financial model and replicate how we have utilised nature-based solutions. It has been registered on Rewilding Britain’s Rewilding Network to enable us to share our learnings with other interested parties, showcasing sustainable change in land use, using innovative principles of rewilding and working with the local community.

 

Livestock and grazing

Grazing is one of the vital natural processes when rewilding an area. By restoring low levels of mixed grazing, where each species is exerting a different grazing pressure, we will transform homogenous landscapes into a dynamic mosaic of habitats to support a wider diversity of species. To prepare the site for livestock, we have removed old internal fencing and erected a new boundary fence to create one large area over which livestock can roam.

Working with a local farming family, we are introducing low numbers of old breed Hereford cattle, ponies and pigs into the rewilding blocks, where they will freely roam to help break up the vegetation and create a diverse range of habitats in the process.

In Spring 2023, we introduced our first 6 Original Population Hereford cattle out onto one of the smaller blocks, and they have already been creating areas of bare-ground and browsing a mixture of vegetation. We plan to introduce more cattle in the coming months to increase the herd and move them onto the larger rewilding blocks. We will introduce ponies and pigs by Spring 2024.

 

Restoration of the River Sherford

In September 2022, we kick-started a pioneering Stage-0 River Restoration project to restore the headwaters of the River Sherford, allowing it to occupy a more natural course across the land. This will reduce the nutrient load carried into Poole Harbour and create wetland habitat for wildlife.

We estimate the creation of 30-40ha of wetlands, which will store carbon and slow the flow of water, cleaning it naturally and reducing flood risk downstream. This will also support an abundance of plant life, which in turn provide shelter, nurseries, and breeding grounds for wildlife.

We began this work by blocking off multiple ditches to force water up to the surface where it can flow across the fields, finding a natural pathway and beginning the river restoration process. To help slow the water flowing through the ditches we created some ‘leaky dams’, made predominantly by weaving willow and hazel around larger stakes. These are helping to slow the flow and catch other material in the process – all working towards re-naturalisation.

The final stage of digger work took place in December 2022 and several fields have already been transformed from a dry, cracked landscape into a mixture of standing and flowing water, marshy land, and pools. This will help alleviate flash flooding during storm events, as we can hold a lot more water in the fields and keep it from overtopping culverts and drains.

The increase in water on site has had several immediate benefits. Throughout January 2023 we had flocks of 80 lapwing, 20 Golden Plover, and 30 common snipe, all feeding on the now wet fields, as well as little egret, green sandpiper, and grey wagtail. The parts of the ditches that haven’t been filled in will effectively become long ponds, providing areas of longer lasting, deeper water to support even more wildlife, including newts, frogs and dragonflies.

 

Connecting with the local community

Connecting the local community with the land on their doorstep is one of our key priorities. More of us than ever are disconnected from the natural world, but connection to nature has huge benefits for mental and physical wellbeing. Wild Woodbury provides vital space and new opportunities to engage the public with the wildlife around them.

It is not just wildlife that is absent from huge areas of our countryside. For hundreds of years communities have been excluded from the land behind barbed wire, only allowed to walk on narrow strips of public footpaths. We have a real opportunity to give the community access to large areas once more so that they can enjoy nature’s recovery with us.

In January 2022, we formed a project advisory group, made up of 8 people who represent the local community. We have worked with the group to gain ideas and thoughts when planning for the site’s future, to ensure their voices are heard and they receive real community benefits. With the aid of the local community and community advisory group we have set aside 12.5 hectares of land for a natural regeneration woodland that will be open access to the community from Summer 2023.

The proximity of local schools has provided a fantastic opportunity to engage young pupils in the project. Through delivering both talks and sessions out on site, we have excited the pupils about Wild Woodbury and involved them in ongoing projects, including our 800-year Oak Henge vision. The pupils came and collected 300 acorns from Wild Woodbury in Autumn 2022, planted them up in their classrooms, and will plant them out on site this coming Autumn, with the vision that in 800 years, there will be 8 veteran Oak Trees creating a living henge.

We are very grateful for your support with this exciting project. Restoring a landscape and making space for nature on this scale takes time of course, but it is extraordinary to see all that has been achieved in less than two years and to witness the abundance of wildlife species which are already calling Wild Woodbury home.”

Report Authors: Steph Copp, Philanthropy and Partnerships Manager, Rob Farrington, Head of Wilder Landscapes, Seb Haggett, Wilder Dorset Community Ranger

Report Photos: Hazel Ormrod, Rob Bates and Seb Haggett

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