The Langdyke story

Twenty years on: the trust today  …

It is twenty years since the formation of Langdyke.  Here chairman Richard Astle sets out the many achievements and looks ahead at the future for nature and the trust …

 

One of the many privileges of living in and around Langdyke country is just how easy it is to wander out into the wonderful countryside that surrounds our villages. 

And for such a small area, that countryside is surprisingly varied.  Residents can enjoy a walk through the woods at Castor Hanglands or along the River Nene near Castor and Ailsworth or by the Maxey Cut in the northern part of our area.  They can visit local nature reserves such as Barnack Hills and Holes or walk through the quiet tree-lined lanes between Marholm and Etton.  There are major wetlands at Bainton and Maxey; limestone meadows at Southorpe and Swaddywell; woodlands across the patch and even some hills (or perhaps slopes) between the Welland and Nene valleys.

But these landscapes – or rather the wildlife that finds its home here – have been under threat for some time now. The list of species in steep decline across our area is long and – for nature lovers, and I would hope all local people – both sad and worrying.  Iconic rural birds such as the cuckoo and the turtle dove have disappeared from many areas (I certainly never hear the cuckoo in Helpston anymore). Nationally they have both declined by a staggering 56 per cent and 93 per cent respectively.  Hedgehogs too are increasingly rarely seen – either dead or alive – no surprise when you realise that their population has been cut in half in recent years.  The list goes on – brown hares, down by 80 per cent; swifts (surely the sound of our summers) down by 50per cent; 75per cent of butterfly species are in decline.

The Langdyke Countryside Trust was founded in 1999 to face up to this catalogue of natural loss and to stop simply worrying about what this meant for our countryside and get on and do something about it. Spurred on by the planning battle over the future of Swaddywell Pit, Helpston, four local residents set up the Trust with the specific intention of reversing decades of habitat and species loss and to celebrate and conserve our natural world and in time, through changes to land management, and greater public awareness, seek to reverse those declines.

In 2019 the Trust celebrated its 20th anniversary so it is perhaps worth reflecting on what has been achieved in that time and how the work of local people has made such a difference to many local places and indeed to many local people and of course to local wildlife.

Langdyke at 20

As we enter our 21st year, the Trust is flourishing.  It currently manages seven nature reserves in the area, ranging from the 80-acre Etton Maxey Pits to the 2-acre meadow at Marholm Field Bank, by the A47.  It has 120 household membership, runs a flock of  more than 100 sheep and offers it members a variety of weekly events, including work-parties, country walks, training sessions and indoor talks.

Work party volunteers repairing a fence at Etton Maxey

How did this all come about?

For the first six years after its foundation, the Trust owned no land and had no members!  It helped out with local hedge planting and conservation work in churchyards.  It put up nest boxes in Rice Wood, near Helpston and organised nature walks for its small band of supporters.

That period all changed in 2005 when the Trust opened its first reserve at Swaddywell Pit, Helpston.  Swaddywell is a very special place – the subject of two of John Clare’s poems it was listed in Sir Charles Rothschild’s famous 1912 list of key places for nature across the country, along with the Thames Estuary and St Kilda. In 1915 it became one of the first nature reserves in the UK.  Since then it had reverted to quarrying and ended up in the 1980s as a landfill site and then a VW racetrack. But when plans for the racetrack were thwarted by local opposition, the Trust stepped in and after many years of negotiation, bought the land off its previous owners and set up its first reserve – at that time a rather barren and waste strewn location, unloved for far too long.

Today Swaddywell is once again special – a place a place of calm and tranquillity, full of flowers and butterflies in the summer and wetland and farmland birds throughout the year. Every week a determined and passionate team of volunteers gather on the reserve and, together with a resident flock of Hebridean and Soay sheep, manage the site for nature and for people.

After that the Trust’s reserves and work plans accelerated rapidly.  In 2009 we bought Torpel Manor Field at the end of West Street, Helpston (although actually in Bainton parish) and started work on an ambitious project to unlock the secrets of this historic site, the location of a Norman manor house and medieval hamlet.  A Heritage Lottery grant allowed us to create a visitor cabin and static and on-line exhibition and to take forward a detailed project with the University of York, which culminated in the publication of a book about the site. Many local people were involved, learning how to conduct geophysical surveys and take part in field walks and digs pits to discover the historic treasures beneath the ground. And we celebrated with summer festivals, full of music, poetry, nature and drama in 2011 and 2012 and annual heritage workshops.

Bainton Heath was our third reserve, established in 2009, this time in partnership with National Grid.  Bainton Heath is another former quarry, covered in rubble from the London bomb sites and ash from power stations to create a unique habitat.

Also, in 2009 Langdyke also entered into a management agreement with Tarmac to look after the restored gravel pits between Etton and Maxey, north of the Maxey Cut. Etton High Meadow followed in 2011 and in 2018 we established our third ‘Eastern’ reserve, Vergette Wood Meadow just north of the South Drain, outside Etton.  These three eastern reserves are looked after by another team of volunteers who meet fortnightly, taking on tasks as diverse as running small allotments, launching tern rafts or organising community events.

Langdyke country twenty years on: Click to enlarge

In 2017 the Trust set up a new geographic group, centred in Castor and Ailsworth, to take forward projects in that area and in 2018 another group, Ermine Street, covering Barnack and Ufford was established. Most recently, at the end of 2018 we entered in another management agreement, with Kier and Highways England, to manage a small meadow just off the A47, home to butterflies, moths and flowers.

What has been achieved?

As a result, nature is thriving on all our reserves. At Etton-Maxey Pits wetland birds, such as common terns, lapwing and redshank have returned to breed, water voles have made their homes here too and in 2018 Pyramidal orchids spread across the site in their thousands.  Swaddywell is no longer a waste ground, it is home to eight species of orchid, including two found nowhere else locally and one that is nationally rare and over 1200 species of invertebrate, including the scarce and beautiful grizzled skipper. At Etton High Meadow a new orchard is growing up slowly and dragonflies have colonised the new pond. At Bainton Heath, nightingales sing from the scrub, rare butterflies and moths thrive in the grassland while summer migrants, such as cuckoo and hobby hunt overhead.

And local people have had the chance to watch, learn about and get involved with our natural and heritage world.  As well as the core of regular committee members and volunteers without whom the Trust could not possibly manage its reserves, we have a much wider group who join us for walks such as last May’s nightingale walk around Castor Hanglands which attracted more than 40 local people or for special events such as January’s inaugural wassailing event at Etton High Meadow with over 100 visitors – young and old.   

An evening Langdyke walk in the Hanglands to hear Nightingales sing

The reality remains however that while nature is doing well on the reserves, it is struggling across the wider countryside.  How would we feel if a walk along the Maxey Cut isn’t enlivened by hares playing in the nearby fields or there are no swifts screaming over the villages in the summer?  What if our children really do grow up never seeing a hedgehog? Or hearing a cuckoo? Is that the countryside we want?

It isn’t what Langdyke is all about.  We are currently working with a range of partners and landowners to take forward a very positive vision for the future of our area

The Langdyke vision …

‘As residents, we want to live in an area where nature is at the heart of our lives.  Where swifts and swallows are a central feature of our summer evenings, where otters continue to enthral people as they play in the Maxey Cut, where bees and other insects thrive, not decline, and where there are far more, not less, ponds, meadows, wild flowers, hedgerows and trees.   And where local people can walk or cycle out in safety and tranquillity across this thriving countryside, enjoying the sights and sounds and even the silence of the natural world; enjoying dark skies and cherishing the heritage – both natural and man-made- around them.’