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Kingfishers Bridge open days: Is this nature reserve Cambridgeshire's best-kept wildlife secret?

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Kingfishers Bridge Nature Reserve
Kingfishers Bridge Nature Reserve

Site 10 miles north of Cambridge is safeguarding fens' most endangered species

A pseudo scorpion can be found at Kingfishers Bridge
A pseudo scorpion can be found at Kingfishers Bridge

One of the best kept local wildlife secrets is Kingfishers Bridge Nature Reserve, just 10 miles north of Cambridge – as the mute swan flies.

It is essentially a ‘wildlife first’ project and although viewable by its visitors from the periphery, year-round, it is closed to everybody in summer to provide that quiet sanctuary from disturbance by us that many wild species need.

Now that most bird breeding is over for this season, Kingfishers Bridge is hosting its annual open days on Friday August 10 and Saturday August 11.

Over the last 20 years the Kingfishers Bridge Wetland Creation Project has used pioneering conservation techniques and outcome-based management to recreate a variety of wetland habitats in what was once fen-skirt farmland. As this nature reserve has matured it has helped to safeguard some of Cambridgeshire’s fens’ most endangered species.

Reed leopard moth is a species that can be found at the reserve
Reed leopard moth is a species that can be found at the reserve

Situated just north of the A1123 between Stretham and Wicken, the reserve sits right on the edge of the black peat soils stretching north to Ely and is bordered by the River Cam to the west, making it an ideal position for providing fenland habitats.

Kingfishers Bridge takes a different approach to wildlife management, believing it is not enough to just recreate the look of a lost habitat. As land has been tamed over hundreds of years, many of the natural processes like large grazing animals and flooding rivers have been lost. Big herbivores have been returned to many conservation sites as the way they graze creates more variety and biodiversity. However, these livestock rarely behave naturally due to a lack of large predators. For many species (including some of our rarest) conditions are still not suitable for them to thrive.

At Kingfishers Bridge the management tries to replicate as many of these lost processes as possible. For example, the grazing herds of Asian water buffalo and konik ponies do the work of Europe’s extinct ancient grazers: the aurochs, giant cattle weighing up to 1,500kg, and the tarpan, very similar in appearance and behaviour to the domestic konik pony.

None of this livestock is treated with long-acting wormers or medications which ensures that their dung is not toxic to insects laying their eggs on it once it is on the ground. The hatching dung flies are an invaluable food source for breeding birds to feed their chicks.

Konik ponies
Konik ponies

These herds graze even the roughest vegetation in the wettest areas but they do not roam freely across the nature reserve all year however. At certain times the herds are fenced into specific habitats to replicate ‘natural’ behaviour. This leads to a more ‘naturalistic’ habitat with a greater amount of variety, despite the obviously unnatural means of using fenced in water buffalo in Cambridgeshire.

This approach has been incredibly successful at Kingfishers Bridge, with species numbers continuing to rise every year as the project develops. The most recent rarity to be discovered is the pseudo scorpion (dendrochernes cyrneus). The UK’s largest and rarest pseudo scorpion, it is normally only found in mature parklands and is classified as an International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) red data species. Living under the bark of old or dead trees it can sometimes be seen in the branches of trees when it emerges at night.

To be finding animals like this in an area that used to be intensive farmland is very exciting, but it is by no means the only rare species to have populated the created wetlands. Reed leopard moths (another red data species) declined drastically with the loss of reed beds drained for agriculture. They lay their eggs in reed stems where the larvae hatch and feed for two years before emerging as adults. Managing the reed beds with water buffalo on a five-year cycle has enabled these incredibly rare moths to flourish at Kingfishers Bridge.

The reinstating of 50 acres of reed bed at Kingfishers Bridge, managed without machinery, has enabled numerous plants and animals to colonise the area, each one providing food or control to the habitat so affecting the other species around it and thus in turn increasing the biodiversity.

Highland cattle at Kingfishers Bridge
Highland cattle at Kingfishers Bridge

Insects and birds can fly to find new habitats like those at Kingfishers Bridge, but it is much more difficult for plants. Some are able to travel large distances as seeds, but others need a helping hand. The first species recovery at the reserve was for the water germander (teucrium scordium), a fen specialist that had all but died out in Britain with just 12 plants in a pool next to the wetland creation project and a small population at Braunton Burrows in Devon.

After being introduced to the wet meadows, with a natural hydrology and grazing, numbers began to rise rapidly to a current estimated population of more than 5 million plants.

Based on this experience and success of the water germander population, Kingfishers Bridge now has recovery programmes for several rare fenland plants including fen ragwort, fen violet and Cambridge milk parsley.

Regular surveying helps to monitor how species are faring year on year and can be used to feed back into the project’s management strategy. Moth trapping and bird ringing takes place weekly throughout the year with site species lists increasing all the time.

You might be lucky enough to spot a bittern. Picture: Andy Hay, RSPB
You might be lucky enough to spot a bittern. Picture: Andy Hay, RSPB

Other groups such as the birds, butterflies and moths are recorded regularly. However, some species still manage to slip through the net. In 2016 the site was visited by the Bryological Society to carry out a survey of mosses and liverworts. They soon ‘discovered’ a large mat of a species of moss called plagiomnium ellipticum, thought to be extinct in Cambridgeshire.

This highlights the importance of a full range of wildlife recording and the speed at which some species are able to recover if enough of the natural variation in habitat can be created.

Kingfishers Bridge reserve was the first site in Britain to have bitterns breed in a newly created reed bed. It was also the first site in Cambridgeshire to have bitterns successfully breed since the 1930s.

Wildlife can recover but it needs its own protected space and our enthusiasm, effort and expense to achieve that goal. That’s why the Wildfowl and Wetland Trust honoured Kingfishers Bridge reserve with its national wetland conservation award for 2017.

Open days

Come along to see some incredible wildlife and the work being done to protect wildlife in Cambridgeshire and beyond. There will be demonstrations of the fantastic wildlife recording, including moth trapping and bird ringing, guided walks to see the grazing herds of water buffalo and konik ponies as well as lots of fun activities for all ages and to introduce children to conservation.

Open 10am-6pm on Saturday August 11. Entry and car parking are free, and there will be a barbecue and refreshment marquee.

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