New Wandlebury walk opens as Cambridge Nature Network recovery steps up
New public walking space, part of the Nature Network development and redevelopment programme taking place around the UK, has been officially opened at Wandlebury Country Park.
Natural England and the government announced five major nature recovery schemes on 240,000 acres of land in Norfolk, Cambridgeshire, Somerset, the West Midlands and the Peak District last Thursday, to reverse wildlife loss and stabilise climate change.
The goal is to manage the land sustainably and improve access from urban areas. The Local Plan for Cambridge and South Cambridgeshire will promise “significantly more nature within easy reach of their homes and workplaces”. The result should be an enriched network of resilient, wildlife-rich and accessible habitats in and around the city.
These habitats are spread over 9,200 hectares: the one at Wandlebury is 25 acres, which is being converted from arable land (farmland) to grassland. Over winter, volunteers planted 2,000 trees on the 25-acre site and the remaining land is being cultivated to be sown with a meadow seed mix to create rare chalk grassland, which is a priority habitat for nature conservation. A new path has been created around this area so that visitors can enjoy the views and watch nature colonise the new habitat. This area does not yet have a name and Cambridge Past, Present & Future is offering donors the opportunity to help name it.
“It’s a 20 per cent increase in the amount of accessible areas for the public in the park,” explains Patrick Welsh, senior adviser at Nature Recovery Network for Natural England at the site.
Checking out the new country park land on the day this huge swathe of new projects were announced were Patrick with John Torlesse, manager of Natural England’s Essex, Herts, Beds, Cambs and Northants area team, and James Littlewood, CEO of Wandlebury-based Cambridge Past, Present & Future (CPPF).
CPPF is one of the partners, along with others including The Wildlife Trust, delivering the programme.
“It’ll take three or four years for the chalk grassland to get established,” says James on a tour of the site, “and 30 or 40 years to reach habitat-quality, which includes insect and floral diversity.”
“That means a terrific display of flowers and butterflies,” adds John. “Blue butterflies in particular – they love the chalk. And possible marbled whites and chalkhill blues, which are a lovely blue. Butterflies love chalk, where food plants thrive.”
A second new area marked out for what is effectively a rewilding project at Wandlebury is called The Gallops and was used for training racehorses when Wandlebury was a stables during the 1800s. It is a lovely meadow with a new viewing area with a wonderful vista over Cambridge.
“The government’s 25-year environment plan came out in 2018,” continues James. “It was Michael Gove, the environment minister at the time, who bought into the vision that we must turn the tide, not just in terms of the abundance of nature but also variety – and the need for a new approach.
“We’re partners with Natural England and the question we’re asking is: ‘How do we get nature back?’ Here, around Cambridge, we have a low level, not just of nature, but places where people can experience that nature – we need 10 more Wandleburys.”
Built into the DNA of the environmental plan is the idea that organisations work together.
“There are 18 projects in and around the city,” James says. “This particular project started last year. The land came up for sale and we were able to buy it. Then Natural England came along with some funding, which helped because we didn’t have any money left over to do the restoration work itself…
“So we’re cultivating the land, sewing the seeds this autumn, in a couple of years it will be well enough to put people and animals on it so you can come with your dog and enjoying the fields for picnics.”
I ask about the cattle troughs up at the top of the fields.
“It’ll be for sheep and cows,” James says. “They’re great for moving wildflower seeds about. Someone has collected the typical seeds for this sort of site from a variety of local sources.”
When James says “this sort of site”, what he means, it turns out, is how an Iron Age site might have functioned.
“The meadows need to be grazed, as they did in the Iron Age, to maintain them. The chalk grassland of the Gog Magog Hills is a rare habitat globally: in the Iron Age it would have stretched right through to the Chilterns.”
“We see ourselves as being involved for many years to come,” adds John.
CPPF chair Ros Aveling is delighted to be expanding the park, which will have a field for dog walkers.
She said: “Thanks to generous supporters and the hard work of our team, this wonderful countryside is now open for the public to enjoy. What is also great is that this project is helping to restore nature, absorb carbon and improve our environment, not just for us but for future generations. This is part of our collaborative effort to deliver the Cambridge Nature Network, which is a large-scale initiative to enable nature to recover in the Cambridge area.”
Cambridge author Robert Macfarlane helped support the project and cut the ribbon.
He said: “Wandlebury is a wander: a place where the city comes to breathe. It’s thrilling to see it grow; two new areas of land opened for people and nature now and in the future.”
The land was bought with donors’ support. Habitat work is aided by grants to the Cambridge Nature Network from the government’s Green Recovery Fund and Natural England’s Nature Recovery Programme.