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Wildlife on the verge: The work of the Wildlife Trust in Cambridgeshire beyond nature reserves





The remit of the Wildlife Trust in Cambridgeshire's wider countryside teams stretches way beyond nature reserves - forming farm clusters and checking road verges are just two recent undertakings.

In the bleak midwinter frosty wind made moan - earth really did stand hard as iron and water was like a stone (to quote Christina Rossetti) at the start of the month.

Hedge-planting saplings arrive in December 2023. Picture: Helen Bailey
Hedge-planting saplings arrive in December 2023. Picture: Helen Bailey

As part of a regnerative farming initiative at a hedge planting event at New Shardlowes Farm, Fulbourn, new hedgerow habitat was created on a conservation farm, where helping hands with frozen fingers planted 4,500 new hedge plants forming a new 800m length.

Over the last two years Helen Bailey, land advisor with the Wildlife Trust in Cambridgeshire, has been meeting farmers and landowners across the county with the aim of establishing Farm Clusters.

Hedge laying by the Wildlife Trust BCN in December 2023. Picture: Helen Bailey
Hedge laying by the Wildlife Trust BCN in December 2023. Picture: Helen Bailey

Helen explains: “The East Cambridge Farmers is a group that I have helped establish with an enthusiastic lead farmer; the farmers and landowners are situated in the Gog Magog Hills and Cambridge Fens Priority areas of the Cambridge Nature Network. This area includes a number of SSSIs such as Fulbourn Fen, Fleam Dyke and Roman Road. A year ago a few forward-thinking farmers and landowners, who were already doing lots for nature on their land, got together and the official launch of the East Cambridge farmers took place.”

This cluster has now gained momentum and the numbers of interested farmers are increasing - members roughly in the eastern hemisphere of Cambridge. Activities have included a visit to RSPB’s Hope Farm, a presence at Groundswell regenerative agriculture show, talks by the Hawk and Owl Trust and looking at Sustainable Farming Incentive options.

Hedge laying by the Wildlife Trust BCN. Picture: Helen Bailey
Hedge laying by the Wildlife Trust BCN. Picture: Helen Bailey

As Helen explains: “The groups and the East Cambs cluster are expanding with much enthusiasm - I've advised on nature friendly farming/habitat management. All the members are really supportive of each other in an industry where often they don’t get to interact much with other people, and a sub group has now formed looking at developing a conservation grazing and sustainable grazing project – the benefits of which are multiple for nature, soil, water and livestock health.

“The group hopes to develop a brand that identifies that the meat is local, sustainable and good quality. There have been some good and productive discussions about challenges facing farms today – and also the way that farming is changing and becoming more about working with nature, something that the East Cambridge farmers are keen to share.

Hedge planting in December 2023. Picture: Helen Bailey
Hedge planting in December 2023. Picture: Helen Bailey

“We are applying to the Countryside Stewardship Facilitation Fund for 2024, which lasts for three years and will enable us to put on a programme of good quality training, activities and events for the members.”

Elsewhere the trust's Cambridgeshire wider countryside officer, Laura Osborne, has been assessing the condition of road verges over the last few years, and making recommendations for their management for a review commissioned by Cambridgeshire County Council. There are 68 Protected Road Verges (PRVs) across Cambridgeshire - the first were designated in the 1980s to conserve the best areas of grassland along the road network - often remnant strips of grassland in an arable landscape, reminders of the rich habitat that was once more extensive.

Verge of sulphur clover. Picture: Laura Osborne
Verge of sulphur clover. Picture: Laura Osborne

Road verges provide important corridors between larger sites of ecological value; for example, just outside Cambridge a PRV connects Cherry Hinton Chalk Pits and Beechwoods nature reserves to two County Wildlife Sites and two SSSIs. Selection of a PRV is based on botanical interest: it must support either a number of grassland indicator plants or populations of nationally rare or scarce plants (eg sulphur clover, fen ragwort, crested cow-wheat).

Laura explains: “In undertaking the review, each PRV was surveyed in the summer and a plant species list, habitats map and report were produced: a total of 80km of verge was surveyed, with sites varying from 50m to 7km in length.

A verge bank of field scabious and knapweed. Picture: Laura Osborne
A verge bank of field scabious and knapweed. Picture: Laura Osborne

“Many had not been surveyed for 10 or more years and the degree of change was often large, but not always in a bad way. Grass verges are at risk from hedgerows spreading out and eventually reaching the roadside, so it is encouraging to report that scrub clearance and hedgerow management is undertaken on some sites and the width of the grassland maintained. A wide, flat verge without obstacles such as trees and scrub is much easier to manage with cut-and-collect machinery. Once the vegetation has been cut, it is important that it is taken from the verge in order to remove nutrients from the site and avoid a thatch forming that hinders plant growth.

“This has been an issue in managing the PRVs for many years, and a new machine is being trialled that blows the cut material to the back of the verge. That might be effective for the front of the verge, but there are often ditches and hedges to the rear with their own plant communities now buried with cuttings.

Verge between crops. Picture: Laura Osborne
Verge between crops. Picture: Laura Osborne

“The headline results are that only five PRVs are considered to be in favourable condition; 44 are part-favourable and, despite still having some key species, are declining and in need of immediate management beyond the standard two cuts.

“That leaves 18 sites in unfavourable condition, seven of which may be deselected as the botanical condition has become so poor. Many of these grass verges have been lost to scrub, and restoration of species-rich grassland would prove costly.”



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