Lloyd explores Wild Ken Hill

Lloyd Park joined us in October as our new Conservation Leader & Ecologist, which was a great step in our journey. Here, Lloyd shares stories from his early adventures around Wild Ken Hill.

Exploring the rewilding area

Keen to get to grips with the area set to undergo the biggest transformation, I first explored the rewilding area, formerly unproductive arable land. The aim here is to use natural processes and minimise human intervention to act as a mechanism of succession towards a more natural landscape.

I set out on foot to explore some of the woodland rides within the rewilding area, and despite it being a slightly damp and windy morning they are alive with Blackbirds, Redwings, Song Thrush and Fieldfare – many probably newly-arrived from Scandinavia having sought the UK as their winter residency to make use of the abundant autumn and winter berries, which are plentiful here at Wild Ken Hill. 

Every stand of conifer was alive with the sounds of Goldcrest eagerly seeking an insect meal to keep their 5g body weight up in the hope of surviving a cool autumn night ahead. Siskins flew in small flocks making their distinct calls and family flocks of Long-tailed Tit rapidly crossed the woodland rides from tree to tree, incessantly calling to each other on the wing. 

The autumnal colours of the ride are broken by flashes of colourful mushrooms like fly agaric and amethyst deceiver with their reds and purples, or yellow stagshorn with its yellow.

yellow stagshorn at Wild Ken Hill, Autumn 2020

The tranquillity is broken by snorts and grunts from Ruby and Rose – two of the new Tamworth pigs, brought in to mimic the foraging behaviour of the wild boar of days gone by, rootling their way through the earth and turning over the soil in search of roots and invertebrates to eat, and in doing so exposing bare patches of soil which will soon be colonised by pioneer species of vegetation. 

As I admired them pannage this year’s acorn crop, 27 Crossbill moved from the tree tops in search of a new stand of pines trees, calling as they went and a distant Woodlark’s song filled the air.

Walking between the woodland and wetlands, I found myself amongst areas that until recently were actively managed agricultural land but are now left to naturally regenerate. I noticed many species of common farmland ‘weed’ are now present and every few footsteps I flush Meadow Pipits which rise into the air with their seeping call, or my eye is caught by mixed flocks of Finches and Yellowhammer making use of the plentiful supply of natural seeds.

This ex-arable land has many stalks of wheat poking through the vegetation, a ghost of the previous landscape, but my eyes are drawn to the fresh shoots of green leaves amongst the browns and yellows of the summer’s vegetation that has gone over. 

On closer inspection I realise these are small ash saplings growing some 70m from the nearest ash trees in the adjacent woodlands – a sign of things to come I think to myself. 

Ash regeneration, through formerly arable fields

Some of this regeneration may well become browse and fodder for the Red Poll cattle and Exmoor ponies; their grazing behaviour will act as an integral management tool – replicating that of large grazing herbivores like the auroch and tarpan (wild horses) of former eras. These introduced grazers will join the Fallow, Muntjac, Roe, and Chinese Water Deer which are found at Wild Ken Hill and no doubt discreetly watching me as I made my way through their home.

Freshwater marshes under traditional conservation

In the following days, I turned my attention to the areas committed to the continuation of traditional conservation management practices; those where intervention is required to maintain the favourable conditions of areas of high conservation interest and public value, and includes over 500 acres of freshwater marshland which sits between the rewilding area and coastal scrub and dunes. 

The team have been using drone footage to survey this area, and the aerial images of the freshwater marshes are the best way to get a feel for the impressive scale of this habitat.

The Wild KEn HIll freshwater marshes, January 2020

When the water levels are at their highest, these marshes become home to many species of dabbling duck and geese, especially during the winter months. Mallard, Wigeon and Teal are already settling here in good numbers – the latter two which will be coming across from Scandinavia and Russia to spend the wintering months benefitting from the milder British weather. 

Whilst out on the marshland I paused at one of the ditches to watch Teal feeding busily and a Little Egret stalking the margins. A moment later a Marsh Harrier took flight overhead, spurred on by a Barn Owl also quartering this edge of the marsh. Nearby, a Cetti’s Warbler belted out its explosive call alerting me to its presence.

As I surveyed this area with an appreciation of the arena of activity, I look forward to the spring and early summer when the marshes will be at their most important, hosting many species of wading birds such as Redshank, Avocet, Oystercatcher, Lapwing and Little-ringed Plover as they settle on the grasslands and wet ditches to breed, and I hope that in time I will bear witness to many a young wader chick successfully fledging from these wetlands.

Regenerative farming

Regenerative agriculture is a less intensive form of farming which focuses on long-term soil health rather than just short-term yield.

Wild Ken Hill has been on a regenerative agriculture journey for probably 9 years now, when it first stopped using insecticides, compelled by overall benefits that this approach has for climate, biodiversity, quality of food produced and the long-term sustainability of the farm.  

I don’t mind admitting that the concept of regenerative agriculture is relatively new to me; traditional agricultural practice is something that I am far more familiar with. In my experience, whilst there are of course exceptions where wildlife-friendly practices have been prioritised, more often than not this is not the case, and the more intensive agricultral practices result in vast swathes of the landscape becoming more and more depleted of its biodiversity. 

As a conservationist, I’m keen to learn how regenerative agriculture can achieve benefits for both nature and farming and I hope that Wild Ken Hill can inspire conservationists and farmers alike to work together to make positive change for the future of our planet.

As I made my way around the regenerative agriculture fields for the first time, I was in awe of what Wild Ken Hill has already achieved.

The hedgerows are laden with berries, sloes and hips. Every field is surrounded by a headland of pollen and nectar rich plants or pollen and wild bird seed mixtures. The results speak for themselves – mixed flocks of Linnets, Chaffinch, Goldfinch, Brambling and Yellowhammer flit from hedge top to field margin and back. 

Redwing, Song Thrush and Blackbird are feeding on the hedgerows and take to the sky in large flocks when disturbed. Invertebrates feed on the flowers of Mayweed, Red Clover and Phacelia still in flower. Brown Hares flush from their forms, taking pace across the green cover crops in densities I have not witnessed before. 

Brown Hare. Credit: Les Bunyan

I flush a covey of Grey Partridge that take flight across a field and drop into the cover on the other side – a sight that has been long lost in my home county of Rutland, where to see more than a lone Grey Partridge would be a red letter day, and in fact to see just the one would be something to write home about! 

To my delight, more Grey Partridge cross my path at the next field junction, this time not flustered by my presence but crossing in an orderly fashion and allowing all eight to be counted as they head for cover the other side of the track. Wild Ken Hill is one of the last strongholds for wild Grey Partridge in the UK, with no fostering taking place, just a focus on creating the right habitat.

Grey Partridge, AkA English Partridge. Credit: Les Bunyan

Numerous Kestrels hunt the fields and verges for small birds and mammals, a species that has also seen a rapid decline in my home county. I cannot help but think that with this approach towards farming maybe some of the species lost as breeding species from many a haunt in the U.K – Corn Bunting, Tree Sparrow and Lesser Redpoll are a few that spring to mind, may once again become breeding species we take for granted.