Wlidlife at Purwell Meadows, Hitchin

Otters are thought to be inhabiting the Purwell Valley (Thinkstock/iStock/turbohampster)

Otters are thought to be inhabiting the Purwell Valley (Thinkstock/iStock/turbohampster) - Credit: Thinkstock/iStock/turbohampster

The remnants of an ancient riverside meadow in Hitchin are still providing key habitats for wildlife. Countryside Management Service projects officer Andrew Taylor outlines the four key sites and works to improve them

Grass snakes can be identified by the creamy yellow band behind the head (Thinkstock/iStock/stephanm

Grass snakes can be identified by the creamy yellow band behind the head (Thinkstock/iStock/stephanmorris) - Credit: Thinkstock/iStock/stephanmorris

A chain of wetland sites runs through the heart of Hitchin along the rivers Purwell and Hiz, offering a great opportunity to explore nature close to the town centre. Within a couple of miles, you can visit Purwell Meadows, Walsworth Common, Cadwell Lane Playing Field and Burymead Springs, all owned and managed by North Hertfordshire District Council.

The four sites are surviving sections of an ancient riverside meadow and are linked by chalk rivers, an internationally important habitat. They provide a valuable series of stepping stones for wildlife along the Purwell valley.

The Countryside Management Service is working in partnership with the council on several of these sites to bring about a wide range of improvements for the benefit of their diverse wildlife and visitors alike. The work is aimed at delivering the authority’s green space action plans.

Purwell Meadows

CMS volunteers creating a native hedgerow at Cadwell Lane Playing Field

CMS volunteers creating a native hedgerow at Cadwell Lane Playing Field - Credit: cms

Purwell Meadows is furthest south and closest to the source of the River Purwell. The clear, mineral-rich waters of the river keep the low-lying land of this Local Nature Reserve damp, creating marshy wet grassland and wet hollows that support a rich and distinctive variety of wildlife. A network of grass paths crosses the site and information boards at the entrances make it easy to find your way around.

The wet, spring-fed hollows in the meadows support large colonies of common frogs. These are preyed on by grass snakes. Harmless to humans, grass snakes are easily identified by a yellow band at the back of the head.

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The marshy grassland remains colourful throughout the year with the yellow of marsh marigold early in spring followed by the white flowers of meadow saxifrage on the drier hummocks and the pink of common bistort in abundance by the river.

Walsworth Common

The Hiz in spring

The Hiz in spring - Credit: cms

Following the Purwell down to Walsworth Common, the landscape opens out. A £10,000 project supported by the Bags of Help scheme run by Tesco and Groundwork is currently enhancing habitats and access across the site. An overgrown pond has been restored by clearing scrub around it and removing silt. This has increased light levels and created areas of deeper water, which will help the pond to support a greater variety of wildlife. During 2017, new interpretation, entrance signs and benches will be installed, along with the replacement of steps with an easy-access ramp at a key entrance to the common.

Cadwell Lane Playing Field

Heading further down the valley, the Purwell is joined from the south by the river Hiz. This was originally pronounced ‘Hitch’ and is at the root of the name of the town. It soon reaches Cadwell Lane Playing Field, nestled between residential and industrial areas. Here, a project funded by North Herts District Council has focused on improving the river for wildlife. Selected trees along the waterway have been coppiced or pollarded to reduce shade and encourage the return of characteristic chalk river vegetation such as watercress, water-starfoot and water-crowfoot. A build-up of rubbish in the channel and along the banks has also been cleared. Countryside Management Service volunteers contributed to the project by planting a new native hedgerow along the northern edge of the playing field.

Burymead Springs

Just to the north, Burymead Springs is a haven for wildlife in an industrial setting, sandwiched between the Hitchin railway flyover and a scrapyard. Its reedbed, a rare habitat in Hertfordshire, supports breeding reed warblers and sedge warblers in the summer and roosting reed buntings in the winter. At the heart of this habitat is a lagoon, created in 1996 by excavating 6,000 tonnes of peat. This ecologically valuable open water is excellent for amphibians and breeding birds such as moorhen and mallard. A new interpretation panel reflects the urban backdrop while describing some of the sites’ special wildlife, which may even include the elusive otter.

Following the rivers further

Your exploration need not stop here. Public footpaths continue south along the river Purwell to St Ippolyts and north along the Hiz to Ickleford and Cadwell. These routes provide access to the Hitchin Outer Orbital Path, a 12-mile loop which can easily be walked in stages. You can download a leaflet on this walk and find more information on the Purwell valley sites on the CMS website at hertfordshire.gov.uk/cms