Exploring Bridewell Common

Lowri Watkins

Lowri Watkins, our Conservation Monitoring Officer, brings us an update on our newest nature reserve - Bridewell Common.

At the start of 2020, I was really looking forward to the spring and summer ‘survey season’, and in particular, the opportunity to visit our newest nature reserve, Bridewell Common.

I was eager to see how it would evolve through its first full year in our ownership, and excited for the freedom to explore and slowly uncover the secrets hidden in its vast, marshy fields, wet ditches and hedgerows. Lockdown and a period of furlough put these explorations on hold, but as soon as I was able to I ventured down to the Gwent Levels to catch up with Bridewell Common.

Flowers and butterfly at Bridewell Common

Lowri Watkins

I hopped over the gate towards the end of June, on a bright, cloudless morning and was greeted with an expanse of lush, thigh-high green and ochre-yellow vegetation, just as stunning as I remembered. I decided to meander my way around the whole site, to take in the unique flavour of each field and explore some of the more hidden corners and features within.

Heading out anti-clockwise, I neared a new stretch of ditch that had been restored at the start of the year, with the help of Natural Resources Wales (NRW) and our brilliant volunteers. This historically open and wet ditch had been neglected for a long time, a process which can lead to these special waterways becoming dominated by large trees and thick scrub, and eventually drying out. This is the worst outcome for a wet ditch, as over time, all the highly specialised plants and aquatic insect species which thrive and depend on this rare habitat will be lost. The clearance has made such a difference already. Where once a tall treeline dominated the horizon, you can now gaze out across hundreds of metres of grassland, hop the rapidly re-vegetating ditch and see far beyond, into an irregularly shaped field at the far end of the Reserve.

Reen at Bridewell Common

Lowri Watkins

The whole site is designated within a wider Site of Special Scientific Interest (SSSI) - an area which lies upon peaty ground and has the potential to support a more diverse plant-life than elsewhere in the more clay-heavy parts of the Gwent Levels. We hope that in the years to come, this will become reality, as we reinstate more traditional hay meadow management and optimal grazing. Thanks to a dry spell at the end of summer, this year’s hay cut and collect has already been completed, with the help of a local farmer. This is great news and although the fields may look bare over winter, year on year we should see unfavourable grasses diminish, as more specialised wildflowers emerge and spread their way across the site. New fencing and gates have also been installed in recent months, ensuring the site is ready for stock to undertake some crucial conservation grazing, to help us on this path.

As I tromped the fields, I could already see pockets of such promise – dense patches of knapweed, lurking red clover and a constant cloud of meadow brown butterflies, unfurling before me. We continue to inch closer to making the site safe for public access and are hopeful for a 2021 opening.

Pollarding of Poplar trees at Bridewell Common

Lowri Watkins

Another important milestone this year has been the pollarding of a number of large Poplar trees lining the bank of the beautiful West Mead reen. By cropping the heavy canopy, we can reduce the chance of the trees snapping and tearing in stronger winds, as well as reducing shading and the build-up of leaf litter in the reen below. The outcome is a much longer-lived tree, more light to encourage abundant bank-side vegetation and a ditch which can hold more water and support more wildlife.

As I was approaching the final stop on my journey a small, dark, fluttering shape caught my eye, as it traversed between the boundary ditch and woody field edge. I raised my camera at the ready and inched closer, while trying to keep my focus on the moving target as it dipped down into tall vegetation. Once I’d made it within a few metres, the figure was unmistakable – a male banded demoiselle. A stunning, metallic blue damselfly, with a dark, almost black band covering half of its wings. I realised this was the first time I’d seen one on the Levels, despite many encounters on rivers and streams elsewhere.

I spent some time trying to snap a shot, moving as slowly as I could to avoid detection once he’d settled. Anyone who has tried to photograph flighty wildlife will know this familiar challenge! Luckily, it didn’t take too many attempts and I managed to capture a side-on picture as he rested atop a thistle. Moving on a little further, I was delighted to spot a female in the same area, who was fortunately much more obliging of me and my lens. In contrast to the male, the female banded demoiselle is a similarly striking metallic green, but her iridescent wings lack the characteristic dark band. I captured her from a few angles, before admitting defeat to my grumbling stomach and heading back to the office for lunch.

Meadow Brown butterfly at Bridewell Common

Lowri Watkins

Planned event in Spring 2021

Thank you again to everyone who contributed so generously to enable us to buy Bridewell Common last year. Our fingers are crossed for a Spring walk in 2021, where we hope we can welcome those of you who donated so generously and celebrate our achievement together.