The subject of our meeting on 21 November was Paxton Pits, a community Nature Reserve, and our speaker was Trevor Gunton who was a founder member of the Friends of Paxton Pits. The Paxton Pits Friends are the largest nature reserve Friends group in the country with 2,200 members and they are the main financial supporters of the reserve, having contributed over £43,000 to a number of projects in recent years.
The reserve is located in Little Paxton close to the A1 and just north of St Neots. It has been developed from flooded commercial gravel pits and provides a very varied habitat of open water, scrubland and former farmland bordered by the river Great Ouse. It currently consists of 200 acres but there are plans for the reserve to be tripled in size when the current commercial gravel extraction is completed. The reserve is owned by Huntingdon borough council who employ a ranger to run the reserve. Admission is free and the reserve is visited annually by 120,00 people made up of dog walkers and pram pushers as well as nature lovers and bird watchers. The friends have provided a visitor centre staffed by volunteers which offers refreshments, a shop and a second-hand book stall and they run a programme of events with bird-watching walks and illustrated talks.
Following the description of the reserve Trevor gave us a richly illustrated talk on the wildlife which can be seen on the reserve throughout the seasons of the year. Winter is the best time for seeing the greatest variety of water birds when the resident population is considerably added to by winter visitors. The best place for seeing them is from the hides provided by the Friends. The Kingfisher hide is currently being rebuilt but the Hayden Hide offers the opportunity to see up to thirty different bird species in an hour. There are many varieties of duck to be seen including the display antics of the male Goldeneye which seems happy to display to a female of any species provided it is black and white. Pochard used to visit in considerable numbers but are now much reduced. Away from the water, notable winter visitors are fieldfare and redwing and blackbirds, which can often be seen to in our gardens adding to the native population.
Around the edge of the lake heron and cormorant can be seen at any time of the year. There are usually six to ten breeding pairs of herons, which nest early in the year in February and March. Cormorants first arrived twenty-five to thirty years ago and grew at one time to 240 breeding pairs although they are now down to sixty to eighty pairs. The common tern is being encouraged to breed by the provision of four nesting rafts and two of these have been successful. There is also a colony of black-headed gulls on the reserve.
As we moved into spring and summer the illustrations moved away from the water. We learned how sand martins have changed habitat from river systems to gravel pits and how the swallow population has crashed for no obvious reason. Willow warblers are the most common spring visitor and they are accompanied by chiff chats, black caps and several other varieties of warbler. The reserve is well-known for its nightingale population, where Paxton is on the northern edge of nightingale breeding areas in the UK. The reserve’s blackthorn scrub is the main reason for this but, sadly, the nightingale population also seems to be in decline. In 2015 there were 28 singing males, in 2016 18 and, this year, they were down to 6.
In the area of the reserve that was originally farmland considerable effort is being made to reintroduce traditional farming methods to increase the variety of flora and fauna. There is already an impressive buttercup meadow and other area of wild flowers which include common spotted orchids and pyramidal orchids, Several varieties of butterfly, toads, frogs and grass snakes also make the reserve their home. Contrary to the belief of some visitors, there are no adders in the area.
Trevor had already noted a number of bird species that are declining significantly and the same is true of yellow hammers, spotted fly catchers and lapwing. On the other hand there is good news of barn owls, common buzzards and red kite. Common buzzards are now the most common breeding raptor in the UK.
Hopes for expansion have been delayed by several years because of a slow-down in gravel extraction but this has now been resumed and the Friends look forward to the time when the area of the reserve will be tripled. As it is there is still much to enjoy and Trevor encouraged members of the audience to visit the reserve and may be, to become Friends at a cost of £4 per year.
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Our next meeting on Tuesday 19th December will be the BGA Christmas party