After a month-long appeal, along with considerable public donation, which helped to raise more than £700,000 for the purchase of a 600-acre site, Northumberland Wildlife Trust are now the proud owners of Benshaw Moor, an area of moorland which they plan to transform into their latest nature reserve. The land in Redesdale, near Elsdon, is largely made up of open moorland, but a closer look at the habitats and plants on the moor have revealed some unique findings. We discussed the plans for the area, which are set to begin in 2020, with the Trust’s Head of Conservation and Living Landscapes, Duncan Hutt.
‘There were two possibilities for Benshaw Moor: the first was to install mid-size wind turbines which provide us with power and renewable energy,’ says Duncan, ‘but our view is that they need to be in an area that won’t impact on peatland which is a store of carbon in itself.’
The second possibility was to create an area of commercial forestry, but with Harwood Forest on one side and a section of existing commercial forestry to the other, Benshaw Moor was the gap between the two, and Duncan explains that ’commercial woodland would not be the most effective use of the site.’
‘After initially looking at Benshaw Moor, the main interest of the site for the Trust appeared to be from a plant and habitat point of view,’ Duncan says. The land is home to limestone springs, and as a result lime-rich water, which allows a particularly unique selection of plants to grow within it. ‘A limestone spring is a difficult thing to explain,’ he says, ‘but plants like bogbean and grass of Parnassus grow there, which are really unusual.’
After establishing their interest in the moor, the Trust began fundraising efforts to purchase the site. A private gift and a bequest – which was specified for use in buying a site of botanical importance – by the late George Swan, Emeritus Professor of Organic Chemistry at Newcastle University, made up a significant portion of the sum. ‘Sadly it was not enough to buy the site, so we had to fundraise for the remainder,’ Duncan says. ‘Help came from charitable trusts, businesses and donations from the public.’
The size of the plot, Duncan explains, part of what made Benshaw Moor so desirable, as well as its location. ‘At over 600 acres, it’s substantial,’ explains Duncan. ‘You can do more with larger areas and they’re also surprisingly easier to manage, and while it could be considered remote, the access to Benshaw for the public is easy from nearby roads.’
Duncan describes the site as a ‘mosaic’ with smaller sections within larger ones making up the 600-acre plot. Forming part of that mosaic is a small stream which runs into a waterfall, which also benefits from limestone influence. ‘There’s limestone-bedstraw growing there, which is not particularly big, but it’s a very uncommon plant,’ says Duncan. There are many more rare species growing within the heather moorland – the Trust have discovered cranberry and sundew growing there too.
Elsewhere, peat bog sections have been responsible for attracting butterflies. ‘I spotted around 40 of the less common butterfly the Large Heath, which is very specialist to peat bog sites, as I walked across the site – they’re not a species you generally see in large numbers,’ says Duncan. The grassland growing down towards the stream has also attracted other interesting butterflies like the Small Pilborough Fritillary.
There are Hovering Dragonfly on the stream, and birds; Sparrowhawk, Curlew, Snife Meadow Pipit, Skylark. ‘But, there will be others too that we haven’t spotted yet,’ says Duncan.
‘At the moment we’re trying to collect as much data and information about what we have here as possible, because unless we know what’s here we can’t manage it,’ Duncan says. Survey work by experts is the key to understanding exactly what species and habitats are on site. ‘In terms of mammals there are deer, but I’ve not really seen anything in terms of small mammals – that’s where the survey will come in,’ explains Duncan.
While changes on-site, like implementing access routes and introducing grazing, may not commence until 2020, Duncan is keen to conduct as many surveys as possible to find out more about Benshaw Moor. ‘We’ve already had experts out there and formed a decent plant list for around a quarter of the site,’ he says, ‘but we’re interested to hear what the public have seen there too.’
Plans for 2020 promise to delve deeper into Benshaw’s wildlife and plant repertoire. ‘I’m drawing up a bioblitz,’ says Duncan. This is a biological survey designed to record all the living species within a designated area over an intense period, and usually takes place over 24 hours, but Duncan is hoping to conduct the project over the whole of 2020.
But, with Benshaw Moor accessible to the public, it’s not just down to the specialists, Northumberland Wildlife Trust are hoping to encourage the public to reach out with data on what they’ve seen too. ‘We could go up there every single day and we’d still miss things, but others may pick them up,’ Duncan says hopefully.
One of the main questions that the Trust are yet to tackle is deciding on the levels of access they will allow on the site. At present it is open access land – anyone can walk across it – but the nature of the site makes it hard going and difficult. The Trust are eager to hear the public’s thoughts on access routes. ‘We want to talk to local people, to get an idea of the local community’s view on what they would like us to do,’ explains Duncan.
Visible changes on Benshaw Moor may not appear until 2020, but behind the scenes work is already underway to help the Trust uncover exactly what is living and growing on their new site. ‘Nature doesn’t require immediate decisions,’ Duncan says. ‘We’ll take our time to understand the site and plan our management in a calm and considered way.’
For more information visit www.nwt.org.uk