Conservation with the Kent Wildlife Trust

Sixty years ago, with little thought of the future, I did what most children did. Armed with a large jar and a butterfly net, I went hunting and didn't have far to go. Nearby, a large Buddleia bush abutted the pavement.

Red Admiral on buddleia
©( John Line)

There was always an abundance of weightless beauty as butterflies visited from miles around - or so it seemed. Tortoiseshell, peacock, cabbage white, red admiral - even painted ladies, now rarely seen, descended upon it. Only now do I ponder whether butterflies suffer stress in captivity.

With a different net and larger jar, I also visited ponds, seeking tadpoles and newts; slow running streams and rivers for sticklebacks, though rarely successful. Bird nests were also sought, though never plundered in my quest for knowledge but today, such innocent childhood pastimes are taboo.

As summer approaches, little can be more relaxing than a Springtime woodland walk. As shards of sunlight break through a canopy of newly emerging leaves within a hazel or chestnut coppice, the experience is bettered only by accompanying drifts of white wood anemone; affectionately called fairies' windflower (Dorset) and milkmaids in Somerset - as the true harbinger of Spring. Some prefer swathes of celandine as a backdrop. The late Christopher Lloyd, one time scholar and tutor at Wye College certainly did, having many within his highly acclaimed garden and adjacent woodland, just beyond our county boundary at Great Dixter.

Wood anemones and celandine at Blean
(Copyright and with permission of Jill Batchelor)

Scant regard was given to little known By-laws that once protected our countryside and today, one in five British wildflowers are at risk of extinction. The Wildlife & Countryside Act, 1981 now offers greater protection of flora and fauna - and justly so. Policing, nevertheless, remains difficult but Kent Police is one step ahead of many counties - with a dedicated officer working with eight Rural Partnership Officers.

Fifty five years ago - in May, 1958, some 400 like-minded people met at the Maidstone Boys Grammar School, pledging support for a conservation body within our county. The Kent Naturalists' Trust was born and now, as the Kent Wildlife Trust, it is the largest conservation group within our county. Boasting a membership, staff and volunteer base in excess of 30,000, it adds weight to legislation, as it strives to educate and increase awareness of the many treasures within our county.

Whilst some 90% of the Nation's wildflower meadows have been lost, Kent remains unique; geographically special. Through it's rich and varied landscape, it is home to a multitude of wildlife and plants, many of considerable interest and beauty, The remainder must be protected for all time and none more so than our wide range of wild orchid varieties - unequalled across the Nation. Our proximity to mainland Europe offers a near continental climate, giving rise not only to many migratory birds - our plant life too, has been infiltrated by species common across the English Channel.

Orchids at Park Gate Down Wildlife Reserve near Elham
(Copyright and with permission of Selwyn Dennis)

Kent Wildlife Trust currently owns some 7,500 acres; 2,000 of which involve Blean Woods near Canterbury and fifty five nature reserves (several of European or Worldwide importance, protected by International laws and agreements). Additionally, there are five visitor centres and in partnership with Kent Highways, it manages some 55 miles of 'roadside verge' reserves. Unlike many counties, Kent appears intent on preserving, rather than trashing verges.

The Blean Woodland Complex; the largest continuous woodland in Kent, covers more than 11 square miles. Designated a Site of Special Scientific Interest, it hosts a multitude of rare plants and animals in addition to historic links to Iron Age, Roman, Saxon and Norman times.

The Bough Beech Reserve (Ide Hill, Sevenoaks) is the counties most visited birdwatching venue, due in part to its reservoir. From the causeways, as many as 70 bird species can be viewed - with more than 65 species nesting each year.

Downe Bank (near Biggin Hill) offers spectacular displays of primroses and cowslips in spring and in summer, eight species of orchid. Within separate wooded areas - inhabited by dormice, will be seen several less common butterflies - including the scarce white-letter hairstreak and the rare clouded magpie moth.

Dormouse on hazel
(Copyright and with permission of John Webley)

Many of the roadside 'reserves' covering but a few hundred metres, are as diverse as our geology. All require caution when visiting and the main venues are outlined in "Wild about Kent", the Trust's excellent guide to all of it's reserves and a small cross section are outlined here.

At Smarden, a 600 metre verge offers, in season, common and early purple orchids and adder's tongue, a small, rare fern that is found mainly in southern England and at Sutton-at-Hone, just 80 metres of chalk grassland bank offers a variety of plants such as blue fleabane, greater knapweed and common calamint. The site is also favoured by the common lizard and many refuge areas have been established.

Beside the A.2 at Lydden, a 600 metre site contains pyramidal, fragrant, bee, common and man orchids and the chalk grassland attracts marbled white, Adonis, chalk hill, hedge brown and small blue butterflies.

Male Gatekeeper (Hedge Brown) butterfly.
(©John Line)

Despite losing vast swathes of countryside to motorways and HS1, Kent still offers the highest proportion of 'Ancient Woodland' within the United Kingdom. Few counties have as many nature reserves as ours and few are as diverse in habitat; woodland, heath, wetlands, coastal, meadow and downland. Each has a part to play in producing the robust, vibrant, ever changing vista that we somewhat take for granted. The KWT endeavours to maintain the countryside for generations to enjoy. Sadly, they cannot overcome all threats to it and due to a planned quarry extension between Maidstone and East Malling, 79 acres of woodland may soon be lost; in an area known to be frequented by Pipistrelle and Natterer's bats, dormice and tawny owls.

Within it's 55 nature reserves, spread between Downe Bank (near Biggin Hill) in the west, to Sandwich and Pegwell Bay to the east, the Trust offers something to interest all age groups - through birds, butterflies, plants and reptiles - even badgers (if you are lucky), at the Park Gate Down reserve. I have enjoyed much time elsewhere, in a rural garden regularly baited with food and within a cattle free area and found badgers to be delightful and interesting. They can become trusting and I have my own thoughts about proposed culls.

Badgers - welcomed into a rural garden.
©David Line

At it's headquarters - Tyland Barn at Sandling, Maidstone (01622-662012), there is much of interest and the Trust's educational centre and classroom, used by schools and other groups, hosts more than 8,000 young people annually.

The Trust holds frequent 'open' days around the county, with pond dipping and wildlife drawing just two of many activities for the young and much is done to facilitate the interests of the disabled.

Boy with sweep net at Marden Meadow Reserve
(copyright and with permission of Ray Lewis)

Membership of the Trust makes an excellent gift, for young and old. The delightfully illustrated members pack and quarterly magazine are, in themselves, worthy of membership.

© David Line 2013

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