Wiltshire Wildlife Trust purchase Blakehill Airfield
The future of Britain’s beleaguered wildflower meadows lies in a disused second world war airfield about to be bought by The Wiltshire Wildlife Trust. The 235 hectare former Blakehill airfield near Cricklade in Wiltshire
will be the site of the UK’s largest ever attempt to restore an ancient wildflower meadow. This one scheme alone will meet 50 per cent of the Government’s target for restoring ancient meadows over the next decade.
The Trust’s purchase of the site is being made possible thanks to a £868,500 grant from the Heritage Lottery Fund and support from North Wiltshire District Council. But before work can begin the Trust has to face the challenge of raising match funds to complete the purchase.
From Meadow to Airfield
Blakehill’s chequered history spans more than 700 years. It was once part of the ancient Braydon Forest, a hunting ground for King John. Until 1943, the area was a patchwork of small fields and hedgerows, with much of the site forming part of Blakehill Farm. In 1943, the farm and the adjacent areas were purchased by the War Department and an airfield constructed. In the process, many of the hedgerows were removed and concrete runways
and hardstandings constructed.
Although the grassland interest has undoubtedly suffered as a result of the building activity, it is remarkable
that so much has survived. The site has enormous potential for the restoration of a species-rich meadow flora and once underway, this would be the largest restoration project of its type in the UK.
Royal Canadian Airforce
During World War II, the airfield was used as a base for Dakotas and gliders, where they prepared for the D-Day and Arnhem landings. The Units based at Blakehill during WWII were 437 (T) Husky Squadron, Royal Canadian Airforce, from 14 September 1944 to 7 May 1945, and 127 Royal Canadian Airforce Wing (Spitfires). The Trust is hoping the relatives of the war heroes once stationed at Blakehill may be interested in seeing the transformation of the area back into wildflower meadows as a fitting memorial to the peace they helped bring about.
Pockets of grassland left untouched
After the war, Blakehill it was used as a government research establishment.Certain security areas were ring-fenced, which prevented tenant farmers from fertilising the ground and thereby resulting in untouched areas of
grassland surviving across the site. Intensified agriculture has resulted in the loss of 97 per cent of UK hay meadows in the last fifty years. The Wiltshire Wildlife Trust’s restoration of Blakehill will bring back
wildflowers such as knapweed, devil’s bit scabious and saw wort, butterflies including meadow brown, white-letter hairstreak and orange-tip and birds such as skylarks and curlews. The scrub woodland at the edges of the fields will also attract nightingales, barn owls and reed buntings.
Big is beautiful
Gary Mantle, The Wiltshire Wildlife Trust Director: “Big is beautiful when it comes to habitat restoration. Although at Blakehill the hedgerows were removed and concrete runways constructed, the surviving pockets of
very good hay meadow will be encouraged to spread across the whole site. And the closeness of a national nature reserve and a Site of Special Scientific Interest will help encourage even more wildlife to the site. In less than ten years we could see this area transformed back to the wildflower haven
it once was”.
Lowland meadows have been identified as a priority habitat for Government in the UK Biodiversity Action Plan
(BAP). There may only be 1,600 hectares of this important habitat left in the country and, in addition to managing our existing meadows better, the Government has set a target to restore 500 hectares of hay meadows
in the next 5 – 10 years.
The Significance of Blakehill Farm for wildlife
With just 6,000 hectares of MG4 and MG5 meadow grassland left in England, the 235 hectares available for restoration at Blakehill represent an outstanding opportunity to restore a significant area in one operation. The urgency of this process is recognised in the national Lowland Meadows Habitat Action Plan and in the support that the project has received from the Countryside Council for Wales (the lead agency for this habitat action plan) and English Nature. The National Trust has as well expressed its support for the proposal.
The Significance of Blakehill Farm for people
The location of Blakehill Farm close to Swindon, and its size and scale, suggest that there is great potential for visitor use of the site. There has already been considerable interest generated by the Trust’s involvement
with the site and letters of support received from a number of local organisations. The size and shape of the site suggest that visitor pressure could be zoned around the periphery of the reserve to allow a core area of the farm to be set aside for ground nesting birds and other sensitive wildlife. The impression of the grassland vistas on visitors following the restoration of a rich wildlife should not be underestimated. The site could form a key location for field trips from schools and colleges across the southern UK and be used for the demonstration of sound conservation orientated, green farming practices.
Grassland restoration objectives
The objective will be to restore the MG4 and MG5 grassland communities formerly believed to occur on the site. This will make a contribution of 45% to the total set as a target in the Lowland Meadows Habitat Action
Plan (1998, UK Biodiversity Group).
Grassland restoration methodology
Preliminary investigations based on vegetation and management history indicate that soil fertility across the site is low, an essential ingredient to any successful restoration project of this type. It is proposed that
restoration will be based around a hay cut in mid-July, followed by aftermath grazing, as practised traditionally on this type of grassland. In the absence of manure and artificial fertiliser, these processes will result in the decline in soil fertility and colonisation by herbs and finer grasses.
Grazing will be a particularly key component of this process as the maintenance of an open sward will be critical if meadow species are to colonise areas of dense grass cover. Some feeding of cattle with hay which has been cut in species-rich areas may be used to accelerate the colonisation process. The Trust will also consider the introduction of species from appropriate nearby grassland sites, such as the adjacent Stoke Common Meadows SSSI and Wiltshire Wildlife Trust nature reserve.
Grassland restoration monitoring
The Trust will establish permanent sample plots to allow the yearly changes in vegetation structure to be monitored. Total species lists will be made to allow colonisation by new species to be monitored along with an assessment of the frequency of individuals of the same species, while soil sampling and analysis of sward yields will be carried out yearly to assess fertility and productivity. This rigorous approach to monitoring will enable the Trust to assess progress towards the target communities and modify management as appropriate.
A living endowment
Blakehill Farm will provide a living endowment for the future management of other Trust nature reserves close-by, particularly Stoke Common Meadows. By managing both sites as one, the Trust will be securing the long-term
viability of both sites.
The lessons that the Trust will learn from the development of its proposals at Clattinger Farm will be of enormous value in terms of the long-term development of Blakehill Farm.
Public help needed
The Wiltshire Wildlife Trust needs help to make a success of the Blakehill project. We need volunteer recorders to help monitor and catalogue the fauna and flora that already inhabit the area so that we can measure improvements over time and we need donations to help run the project over the coming years. To make a donation or find out how you can help please e-mail us* at the trust. Thank you for your support. Information on how to visit the site will be posted here soon.