Evaluating the changes brought to Winnall Moors in Winchester

Winnall Moors - great for people

Winnall Moors - great for people - Credit: Archant

In 2008, the Wildlife Trust began an ambitious five-year plan to improve Winnall Moors, a beautiful nature reserve just minutes from Winchester’s city centre. Now the project has finished Martin de Retuerto, Winnall Moors Project Manager, evaluates the changes

Boardwalks make it easy to get around

Boardwalks make it easy to get around - Credit: Archant

Today, a visit to Winnall Moors offers a glimpse into the past. In days gone by, this wetland area in the Itchen Valley was used to graze livestock; management of the water levels to maintain luscious grass was essential, and wildlife was abundant.

During the last five years, the Wildlife Trust has gradually restored the floodplain meadow by reconnecting it to the River Itchen and reinstating the traditional water meadow system that uses sluices and carrier ditches to control the water. Now many different species, which once characterised the entire valley, have been given the chance to thrive again.

One of our first tasks was to rebuild the chalk stream habitats to help populations of wild fish, especially brown trout and migratory salmon. This project won national acclaim due to the sustainable and innovative techniques we adopted. We removed trees from across the whole floodplain, in particular the planted poplars, alders and willow that had invaded the meadows during their many decades of neglect. And to replicate the traditional management, we introduced British white cattle to graze and cut some areas for hay.

Breeding wading birds, such as redshank, lapwing and snipe, were once common across the river valley and one of our highest aspirations was to create conditions that enticed these birds to return. The range in grass heights, varied wet conditions and muddy ditch margins that we have recreated now offer suitable areas for nesting and places to probe for insects when feeding hungry chicks. It may take a little more time to entice these birds to breed, but we are delighted that for the last three springs lapwings have been displaying above the meadows and the number of snipe spending the winter at Winnall has increased. The ‘re-wetted’ areas are attracting a range of different ducks too, such as wigeon, gadwall and mallard, in winter.

Winnall Moors is unique in many ways and the nature reserve offers visitors the chance to leave behind the busy streets and become quickly immersed in a wild setting surrounded by natural sights and sounds.

Throughout the project The Wildlife Trust has also been working to improve Winnall Moors for people too. We’ve made plenty of changes to make it easier to get around the public section of the nature reserve, especially for families with young children and visitors with mobility difficulties. We’ve resurfaced over a mile of footpaths, erected new bridges and a pond dipping platform, and installed new benches.

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We’ve encouraged local interest and a sense of ownership of the reserve through an exciting programme of local community events. We’ve worked especially hard to inspire local schoolchildren and families, as today’s young people will be Winnall’s future guardians and the mini-stream and pond are becoming particular favourites - helping people of all ages to ‘re-connect’ with nature.

In conjunction with local primary schools and community groups, we have developed a new story trail and accompanying booklet to offer a creative way for visitors to guide themselves around the reserve. Trust staff have witnessed firsthand the effectiveness of engaging families through the arts – it is an excellent method of building understanding about the reserve and the importance of protecting these unique spaces for wildlife.

The Wildlife Trust has carefully implemented the access improvements to ensure that habitats remain relatively undisturbed. Staff and visitors may still encounter an abundance of wildlife; indeed glimpses of otters have been reported, while water voles sightings have become synonymous with a visit to Winnall Moors - follow the Water Vole Trail for your best chance. Since we have removed scrub and ‘re-wetted’ the reed bed, rare grasshopper warblers have bred, in earshot of the local skate park. In June, some lucky visitors may experience the treat of the mass emergence of scarlet tiger moths, one of Winnall’s annual wildlife spectacles.

It has been five years since we first embarked on our plans to restore Winnall Moors and the whole project has, without doubt, been a huge success for wildlife and for people.