It's Wildwatch! Charity produces Shropshire's own wildlife show

This year's floods caused devastation across the county. Countless homes and business were evacuated, and millions of pounds lost by the disruption.

Colin Preston
Colin Preston

Part of the solution lies in a tranquil beauty spot just outside Oswestry, according to Colin Preston.

Mr Preston, chief executive of Shropshire Wildlife Trust, spoke from the 'African savannah', which the charity has created at Holly Banks, near Kinnerley.

In the first of a series of Springwatch-style broadcasts live from the trust's sites around the county, Mr Preston explained how by undoing almost 400 years of cultivation, the charity is providing a natural solution to the flooding problems that have engulfed the county.

Before being taken over by the trust in 2008, the site had been used as an intensive arable farm, protected by a network of dikes and man-made flood defences.

But in stopping Holly Banks from flooding, the work has caused problems elsewhere in the county, and it is only by restoring these sites to a more natural condition that the problem with flooding will be solved.

Mr Preston said: "For the past 400 years, this landscape has gradually intensified, and we are now at a tipping point where we need to de-intensify it, so it can perform a natural function, a nature-based solution if you like to help solve flooding issues that are wrecking our communities up and down the River Severn.

Colin Preston says natural solutions must be found to alleviate flooding, like this seen in Shrewsbury

Mr Preston said Holly Banks has become a 'special place' since the trust took it on 12 years ago, leading to an increase in bird life.

He talked about the 'crazy' work that has been done in the former farmer's field where he is standing.

"This has been ploughed, regularly flooded and re-seeded, a crazy thing to be doing in what was then an intensive arable landscape," he says.

The charity is seeking to protect habitats for creatures such as goldfinches

"But now there's a little hint of African savannah about it, red kites fly over here, we've just seen a heron go over.

"Egrets were here for the first time this winter, and regularly, whooper swans have flown in all the way from Greenland and Scandinavia, and they winter here for much of the time. We still have the last few breeding curlew here, an occasionally we hear the call of the cuckoo."

But while Mr Preston's passion is clearly for the wildlife, he said there is also a practical side to the work that has been done there.

Curtailed

"Here we have an opportunity to reduce the risk of flood, the opportunity to look at climate change and how that's going to affect our lives and actually build places that are going to absorb carbon, reduce the impact of climate change, but also create an amazing landscape which is good for wildlife," he said.

Shropshire Wildwatch will be broadcast live every Wednesday at 7.30pm. Development officer John Hughes says the trust would normally be holding outdoor activities on a Wednesday night, but these have had to be curtailed due to the coronavirus restrictions.

"While we are not able to do our normal activities, we will be doing this," he said.

Earl's Hill, near Pontesbury

In the first episode, Gareth Egarr, the Trust's north reserves officer, is at Earl's Hill on the edge of Pontesbury, near Shrewsbury.

He said while the coronavirus outbreak has forced him to spend more time in the office, this at least has meant he has been able to spend more time on long-term planning, which usually gets deferred due to more urgent day-to-day priorities.

Mr Egarr said there has been a noticeable increase in the number of visitors since the relaxation of lockdown measures. While he broadly welcomes this, it can create problems.

"The reserves are there for people to enjoy, we want people to enjoy them and to learn more about nature," he said.

"Unfortunately there have been a few negative impacts. With the dry weather we've had, we've noticed an increase in fires at the Ercall, at Catherton Common, at the Holly's, we have definitely noticed an increase in litter. Ground-nesting birds, skylarks at Smalley Hill are struggling a bit because of increased people going there with dogs."

He added that Earl's Hill there have also been problems with nesting birds being disturbed by climbers.

Talks on beavers are also planned

"It's a popular climbing spot, and climbing normally goes on in harmony with nature, but I get with Wales unavailable, they have been looking for other places to come which they have perhaps never been before, so we have definitely noticed an increase in climbers, and that has had an impact on nesting birds unfortunately."

Next week Mr Preston will explain how the climate crisis can be tackled with nature-based solutions. Talks on garden birds, otters, beavers and the importance of peat are also planned.

The trust's conservation and data officer Joe Phillips said urgent action is needed to preserve wildlife habitats, not just in Shropshire but across the UK.

He said 41 per cent of Britain's insect species are threatened with extinction, as are 26 per cent of mammals. Almost a fifth of all plant species are at risk too, he adds.

Red kites have also started appearing at the 'African savannah' at Holly Banks

"Wildlife in the UK is in serious decline," he said. "We're losing the buzzing sound of summer, half of all our bee species are in decline, our kids aren't finding mini-beasts in our garden any more.

"When we develop our land, for housing and infrastructure, this land not only becomes inhospitable for many species, it also acts as a barrier for wildlife to travel between suitable patches of habitat."

Mr Phillips said the solution is to provide 30 per cent more space for nature, by restoring lost habitats, creating new ones, and finding ways to link them together, adding: "Here at the Shropshire Wildlife Trust, we are working at restoring habitat and increasing habitat, to increase the abundance of wildlife by 30 per cent.

Flooded land on the road between Ironbridge and Shrewsbury as you come out of Buildwas

"We're planting trees, restoring peatland from arable land, and ensuring road verges remain uncut."

Shropshire Wildwatch can be viewed on Shropshire Wildlife Trust's YouTube channel.

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