Small wonders: the new Chalk Stream and Heath walking route at Waterford Heath

Goldcrest feed on insects that live on conifers on the site

Goldcrest feed on insects that live on conifers on the site - Credit: thinkstock

A new Chalk Stream and Heath walking route has been created at Herts and Middlesex Wildlife Trust’s Waterford Heath reserve giving access to heath, river and marshes. Reserve officer Andy Brown outlines the history of the site and its wonderful wildlife

North Heath - the former gravel extraction area is now a pond and open grassland (Tim Hill)

North Heath - the former gravel extraction area is now a pond and open grassland (Tim Hill) - Credit: tim hill

Waterford Heath is located on the eastern side of the village of Waterford, to the north of Hertford. The site, which has been managed by Herts and Middlesex Wildlife Trust since 2012, is a former sand and gravel quarry. When quarrying ceased in the early 1990s, a project was undertaken to create a community nature park. Much work has been done on the site to improve the habitat for wildlife and to enhance public access. The long-term management of the site is very important for habitat improvement and exemplifies what the trust is trying to do across Hertfordshire to create a living landscape, where we work with partners and other organisations to improve our towns and countryside for wildlife.

A heath of two halves

The reserve at Waterford Heath is divided into two sections on either side of Vicarage Lane. The area now known as South Heath once contained the settling beds of the gravel extraction process. Run-off water from gravel washing was passed through these beds to remove silt before the water was returned to the river. When extraction was completed, the main bowl of the South Heath was reprofiled and the underlying gravel was covered with topsoil to encourage grass and other plants to grow. To the south of South Heath is the wonderfully-named Great Mole Wood, an area of semi-ancient woodland.

On the other side of Vicarage Lane lies North Heath. During quarrying this area contained the industrial workings for gravel extraction. When extraction was completed, the North Heath was also reprofiled and a large pond created. The surface of the North Heath has been left as bare gravel and sand which contains few nutrients and allows water to drain away easily. Plant growth here is difficult and many of the plants are stunted. In some areas plants are simply unable to grow which leaves large areas of open ground.

The locally rare grizzled skipper butterfly feeds on wild strawberry on the heath

The locally rare grizzled skipper butterfly feeds on wild strawberry on the heath - Credit: thinkstock

Waterford wildlife

The diverse habitats at Waterford Heath are home to an equally diverse range of wildlife. The grassland habitat of South Heath is very attractive to butterflies while North Heath hosts many beetles, solitary bees and spiders that would struggle in more lush vegetation. Don’t forget to look up too, as you’ll often see birds of prey hunting over the open ground of North Heath.

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Wildlife highlights at the reserve include: Grizzled skipper butterfly. These tiny butterflies, with a maximum wingspan of 3cm, are locally very scarce. They live at Waterford Heath thanks to the abundance of wild strawberry, a favourite food in its larval stage.

Willow warbler. Another declining species which finds refuge at Waterford Heath. Willow warblers are on the amber list and have been falling in numbers over the past 25 years. They look very similar to a chiffchaff but can be distinguished by their song.

Map of Waterford Heath

Map of Waterford Heath - Credit: hmwt

Common spotted orchid. Look out for these striking plants between June and August. As their name suggests, they are quite common compared to other species of orchids, growing in many different habitats including woodland, roadside verges, hedgerows, old quarries, sand dunes and marshes.

Goldcrest. A tiny bird, the goldcrest can be found in or near conifer woodland. Its thin beak is particularly good for picking insects out of pine needles. The similar firecrest is a much rarer bird, with a black eyestripe and a broad white eyebrow stripe.

Chalk Stream and Heath Walk

In February the trust opened a new circular walk at Waterford Heath which includes a stretch by the river Beane and nearby Waterford Marshes. The walk was completed as part of a large project of improvement work funded by the CEMEX Community Fund. It starts in the car park and crosses North Heath before leaving the reserve under the railway bridge and heading to Waterford Marshes where it continues along the banks of the Beane.

The river is one of Hertfordshire’s rare chalk rivers and the trust has improved the condition of this stretch. Look out for damselflies and dragonflies darting about and keep your eyes peeled for kingfishers – a flash of bright blue!

The walk returns to the reserve through Great Mole Wood, a great place to spot woodpeckers and tree-creepers among the large oak, ash and hazel trees. As you cross South Heath to return to the car park, look out for more butterflies like the common blue and marbled white.