Melwood Conservation Group

Butterflies fight back with the aid of Local Nature Reserves..

For many years we have been hearing about Britain’s vanishing
butterflies and for those living within ever expanding urban sprawls,
this must still appear to be the case.

Whilst butterflies need flowers on which to feed and may find those in gardens, they also
need appropriate wild flowers and grasses on which to lay eggs and
where their caterpillars can feed, grow and produce the next
generation of butterflies.

What species of butterflies you see in your garden is greatly influenced by how far it is from that
essential breeding area. Some species, like Small Tortoishell,
Peacock and Red Admiral are powerful fliers and may travel
considerable distances from the patches of nettles on which they were
born. Other common species, like Meadow Brown, Ringlet and Gatekeeper
range less widely.

Thus a garden in the centre of Cambridge might well see Small Tortoishells on their flower beds but they are much
less likely to see the Ringlet or other butterflies of the “Browns”
family. The Large and Small White Butterflies (Cabbage Whites) are
the only 2 that regularly complete their life cycles in gardens.
People who have lived in the same house for many years may experience
a decline in the butterflies in their garden, as urban expansion places it ever further from any wild countryside.
Now it seems that even the few green spaces left for breeding butterflies
are under further threat from the rush to cover the ground with solar
farms. The process has only just started in this area but along one
stretch of road with which I am familiar in East Devon, since the
first farm was installed about 3 years ago, there are now 6 solar
farms along just 2 miles of road.

Locally, one field of rough grass and flowers, on which I recorded many butterflies 2 years ago, is
already covered with solar panels and new applications seem to go in
every month. Nature reserves, even small ones such as Melwood,
provide a vital oasis in which butterflies can breed and wander into
our gardens to feed on the flowers. My garden is about 300 meters
from Melwood, as the Red Admiral flies and my annual list of
butterflies recorded in the garden is usually between 15 and 20. Many
of these breed in the meadow or along the grassy banks of the River

Whilst organisations such as Butterfly Conservation and the Wildlife Trust
struggle to aid the survival of nationally endangered species such as
the Grizzled Skipper and Pearl-bordered Fritillary, a few species are
making a come-back under their own steam. 20 – 30 years ago it was
the Speckled Wood, previously very scarce in North Herts and South

Speckled Wood Butterfly

Cambs., but now widespread and often common in woods and copses. More
recently, the Marbled White has undergone a massive expansion of

range. 10 years ago, I would have had to travel to the chalk hills
west of Hitchin to see this species but about 6 years ago it started
to spread and then 3 years ago it suddenly turned up all over the
area. It’s caterpillars feed on tall grasses, so any suitably
managed meadow may offer it a home and this year it has appeared in
Mel Meadow and in my back garden for the first time.

I do not expect it to become established on the grasses in Mel Meadow but it has had
no problem establishing on the grasslands of Royston Heath and at the
Brownes Pieces Nature Reserve near Waresley. At the latter site, it
was present in hundreds at the end of June. Brownes Pieces is a
substantial area of high quality flower-rich grassland with mostly
short to medium height grasses which supports a wide range of meadow

Good management of Woodlands is also making an impact on some butterfly
species. In Waresley Wood it is now possible to see numbers of the
Silver Washed Fritillary, a magnificent large orange-brown butterfly
of forest rides, which vanished from most of the south-east of
England for many years. Even that most iconic of all British
Butterflies, the Purple Emperor, may now be seen in Waresley wood and
has been recorded for a number years in woods around Hertford and
Broxbourne. However, these species only survive in those woods
because they are managed in the correct manner to provide suitable
habitat. They, like many other butterflies, have very specific
requirements, which are not met in most of the countryside in

In Melwood, we are seeking to provide, on a very modest scale, varied
habitat including areas of shade and sunny clearings in which
woodland butterflies may bask in the dappled light. We will probably
never see the large forest species such as Silver-washed Fritillary
but other species such as the Speckled Wood Green-veined White may
increase and add to the pleasure of the many who walk through the
wood. Melwood has long provided a good show of colour in spring,
through snowdrops and daffodils but summer has been rather barren.
Now, Nettle-leaved Bellflowers are adding large stems of blue flowers
to areas previously sparse in summer blooms and with care, this trend
can continue and other summer flowering woodland species may join the
show. Wild Rose, bramble and honeysuckle will also contribute to the
hedgerows that are being re-established, all aiding the butterflies
that make the wood their home

Jim Reid - article for "Meldreth Matters" - our village magazine.


Spring 2015 in Melwood

The early part of the year was fairly uneventful in the wood. Snowdrops arrived on
schedule and put in their usual show but aconites, which were never
very abundant, were totally absent this year. Little changed during
February but the arrival of some warmer days in March and especially
in early April has seen a particularly good show of flowers on the
floor of the wood.

Lesser Celandine is abundant is some areas and Violets are scattered around in various
shades, but principally purple or white. A few Primroses opened early
but by Easter there were good numbers and accompanied by Oxlips and
False Oxlips (hybrids between Oxlip and Primrose). I hate to tempt
fate, but so far the rabbits have left rather more of the bloom on
the plants than in previous years. The foliage on the bluebells has
not fared so well but the buds are not yet up, and so have missed the
damage so far. Neither rabbits nor Muntjack will touch Daffodils, so
it is no surprise that they have made a particularly good show this
year. There is a steady increase in numbers of species of plants now
established in the dappled shade created by earlier thinning in the
centre of the wood. With introduction of seed and established
seedlings, we hope to see native British Bluebells increasing rather
than the Spanish species introduced before the Nature Reserve was
created. So far, Wood Anemones seem to be struggling but we will do
what we can to encourage them as, like the bluebell, they are a
beautiful feature of traditional English woodland.

The ever widening of the main paths around the wood remains a problem and plants that seed

themselves close to the paths rarely do well, as the soil becomes so
compacted. It would help greatly if groups visiting the wood could
stick to the centre of the paths rather than spreading right across
them. The path edges might then have the chance to produce flowers to
brighten their visit.

Butterflies are making good use of the sunny areas and Peacock, Small
Tortoishell and Brimstone, emerging from hibernation, are all making
use of the nectar provided by the primroses. The first spring birds
have arrived and the Chiffchaff can now be heard on almost every
visit. Activity is also evident around many of the nest boxes and the
drumming of woodpeckers can be heard from a considerable distance.

Those walking through the meadow or along the river path may have noticed the large
ash tree brought down by the gales a couple of weeks ago. Close
inspection shows that there was no rot in the trunk – it was just
structural weakness as 3 trunks rose from a stump that had been
coppiced many decades ago. There is a clear warning in this, that
woods are best avoided in very strong winds, as you never know when a
lump may come down. Ash is notoriously brittle and there is a lot of
ash in Melwood.

Jim Reid, 9 Apr 15 for Meldreth Matters, our village magazine.


A New Year Starts in Melwood

The first work group of 2014 met in Melwood on Saturday, January 11th.
As planned, a number of old hawthorns were coppiced, with the
intention of encouraging new growth from close to ground level. To
protect young shoots from damage by Muntjac deer and hopefully also
rabbits, some of the cut branched were piled around the base of the
coppiced bushes, to form a barrier to noses, sniffing out tasty
shoots. Whether rabbits will find a way through remains to be seen..
Where younger growth existed alongside the older wood, these stems
were cut at a higher level, to return to flowering and fruiting more rapidly.

Whilst working on the bushes, we observed that a nearby nest box was already the
subject of great activity from a pair of bluetits. Our next work party on February 15th
was intended to be a session of cleaning the boxes in preparation for
nesting but it seems that in this strange winter, we may already be too late.

The snowdrops,which are such a big feature of early spring in Melwood, are now
showing blooms and should be at their best about the first week of
February, not much in advance of their normal timing. Two patches of
Winter Aconites, by contrast, are totally absent at the time of
writing. I am left wondering if they actually need some frost to
trigger growth when the warmer days arrive. I have trays of alpine
seeds for my rock garden that certainly require frost to germinate.

After such prolonged mild weather, it is easy to forget that that we
are still only into the second week of January.
Many people have been lucky enough to see the kingfisher, that is now a fairly regular
visitor to the River Mel. A little Egret, that seems to come to the
Mel in winter months, has also been sighted between Melbourn and
Meldreth but it does not appear to have hung around.
The spring flowers such as cowslip and oxlip are now putting on fresh young
growth but may suffer badly from rabbit damage, as other greenery is
not so well advanced. We can only hope for some bloom later in the
spring. Round and about, Hazels are already full of catkins and
Bumble bees are active on warm days, so all sources of nectar are of
critical importance to support these nationally declining insects.
Amazingly, in my garden, that includes the new season’s Helebores
alongside last summer’s Gazanias. Early Primroses and winter
heathers are also very popular with bees at this time of year.
The next work group after the publication of Meldreth Matters is scheduled for
Saturday March 8th, at 10:00 in the wood and anyone interested in helping to maintain
this local Nature Reserve will be very welcome.

-Jim Reid, Melwood Conservation Group-

This article appeared in the February 2014  issue of 'Meldreth Matters', Meldreth's village magazine.


Winter work starts in Melwood

This article appeared in the October 2013  issue of Meldreth Matters

Autumn and winter are the times when most management work can be carried out
in Melwood. The flowers have gone and most have already shed their
seed and there is no risk of disturbance to nesting birds. The
program for this winter involves building on the success of the
coppicing work done in the area behind the seat, two winters ago.

The fencing put around that area to protect the re-growth from rabbit
damage has now been removed, so that the vegetation, now rather
overgrown, can be cut before spring growth resumes. The carpet of
ivy which once covered the area was broken up by brush-cutting and
there remains sufficient open ground to permit seeds of this year’s
flowers to establish.

The main project for this winter will be to coppice and open up the next
section of wood behind the one already completed. There are some
ancient and rather poorly looking hawthorns which we hope will
regenerate if coppiced and exposed to a bit more sunlight. This will
be a progressive task as we will create more light by the coppicing
process itself but the sense canopy of the trees in this area will
probably also need to be thinned a little. Finally, we will break up
the ivy with a brush cutter, as before, and spread the material cut
from the greener parts of the wood as a mulch. This will also help to
spread seeds locally.

Highlights from the summer’s observations include a significant increase in
self-seeded Nettle-leafed Bellflower and Dusky Cranesbill.
Enchanter’s Nightshade is a new species to establish in the wood
and as it is happy in even quite dense shade, it should do well. By
contrast, we have seen very little growth of fungi and most of the
records for the wood come from 2 years ago.

As an aside note, the green Ring-necked Parakeet, now widely established
in the northern outskirts of London, has recently been seen in the
Melbourn area. I’m not sure if I should be excited or worried by
this. Many consider this alien species to be a pest. It competes with
native birds for nesting holes in trees and is quite partial to fruit
tree buds in its spring diet. It is also noisy, but the call does
give a slightly exotic sound to the area. I would be interested to
hear from anyone who sees or hears this species in the vicinity of

Jim Reid, Melwood Conservation Group


         Melwood between seasons

                 'Meldreth Matters' article - July 2013

The flush of spring flowers is now over and the full range of summer
blooms has yet to start. The bluebells took a pretty hard hit from
the rabbits but a few late flowerers are still in bloom in the first
week of June. Early in the spring, with cold weather holding
everything back, the green shoots of bluebells stood out as an
attractive meal for passing herbivores but with some warmer weather
and plenty of moisture in the soil, the vegetation is now tall and
the rabbits are spoilt for choice. In a few locations, the bluebells
are now replaced by equally blue columns of Bugle flowers, which,
like the bluebells, benefit from the dappled light created where the
trees have been thinned.

In the area that we coppiced and fenced in winter 2011, the early spring
flowers put on a good show. We planted quite a few seedlings grown
from Oxlips that were themselves planted a few years earlier. We
particularly selected this site, as it was protected and a good
distance from the main area of cowslips and primroses in the meadow.
Yet to our surprise, about 50% of the plants that bloomed in 2013
were Primrose X Oxlip hybrids. It seems that despite dire warnings
about the state of Britain’s bee populations, they were pretty
active in Melwood, when the Oxlips were in flower. From a purely
botanical point of view, it is sad to see the oxlip gene pool diluted
in this way, but as a floral spectacle, the hybrid puts on a far
better show than either of its parents, so it is not all bad.

At the back of the wood, it is a very different story and little grows
on the floor of the wood. It is easy to blame the dense shade created
by the cover of Ivy and this certainly plays a part, but the heavy
compression of the soil from countless feet is also a major factor. A
steady proliferation of new paths across green areas adds to the
threat to this tiny nature reserve and I appeal to the many walkers
who use the wood, “Please stick to the single main path around the
outside of the wood and down the middle of the meadow”.

When the reserve was set up, the land owners, Cambridge County Council,
requested that the dense ivy cover at the back of the wood should be
maintained and left largely untouched. This was incorporated into the
Management Plan for 2010 to 2015 and is an element of the
biodiversity of the wood. Nonetheless, the wildlife value of this
area is very low by comparison with the more open areas and we may
need to discuss how we can improve species abundance without
significantly changing the nature of the wood. Planting lots more
trees is certainly not the answer in this area.

With foliage on the trees, it is more difficult to see the bird life of
the wood but the abundance and variety of songs suggests that the
population is thriving.. The same cannot be said of the butterflies.
A report by Butterfly Conservation has recently highlighted the
disastrous decline of much of Britain’s wildlife, with over 60% of
butterfly species now in decline. The situation seems to be
particularly bad in the South-east of England and for moths, the
story may be even worse. Many species have declined by over 80% and
this year is by far the worst I have ever known.

By early June, I would expect to see typically
about 20 -35 species in my garden moth trap each night and an average
40 to 80 individuals, with upwards of 150 on a good night. So far
this year I have not had more than 10 species in a night and numbers
ranging from about 6 to 15 over the last weeks of May and start of
June (even worse before that). One consequence of the decline in
moths is the shortage of caterpillars for birds such as bluetits
feeding young. I have watched the pair in my garden frantically
dashing in and out of the nest box with such small beak-fulls that it
is impossible to see what they are taking in. Usually there is an
obvious caterpillar to be seen. I wait to see how many young finally

Melwood now has its own website and the activities
of the group can be viewed, along with the management plan, current
tasks and work party dates. In the future, articles of current
wildlife interest will also appear. We currently have 7 species
databases covering trees, flowers, birds, mammals, butterflies, moths
and fungi and these can also be viewed on the website. We are always
interested to hear of new sightings. Visit

Whilst  the biggest management effort tends to be in autumn and winter,
summer control of the more rampant vegetation is essential to avoid
smaller species being shaded out of existence and to this end, some
parts of the wood will cut over the next few weeks.


Spring in Melwood and elsewhere

            'Meldreth Matters'  article - May 2013

It is apparently over 50 years since spring had such a struggle to get
started. In response, nature has shown us how varied are the
individuals within populations of plants of the same species. In
Melwood, 2 specimens of Oxlip were in bloom by the start of March,
whilst other plants were still only in bud at the end of the first
week of April.

Snowdrops were even more spread in their flowering. This first blooms in
Melwood were showing colour by the 1st of January but the
main show was through the middle and end of February.
In Dorset, I was surprised to see patches of fresh bloom as
late as the first week of April and in defiance of the weather, on
one bank I found Snowdrops and Wood Anemones in bloom together. There
should be 2 months between these species and it was certainly the
first time I had ever seen them together. I assume nature’s logic
in this is to ensure that some individuals will always be waiting to
take advantage of good conditions, when these eventually arise.

For those butterflies that hibernate over winter, the prolonged cold may
have put considerable strain on the fat reserves they built up to
last them through the winter. This could result in poor breeding
success in the spring and consequently low numbers in summer. A few
emerged from hibernation on the occasional warm days in February.
This can be dangerous strategy if they find no food to replenish the
energy used in becoming active, especially if they then have a long
wait for the next fine days. The Small Tortoiseshell and Brimstone that
appeared in my garden on February 18th
were lucky, as quite a few alpines in my rock garden were already in
sufficient bloom to provide food. It was 7th
April before I saw my next butterflies, with Comma, Red Admiral and
Brimsone active in the RHS gardens at Wisley.

In February, 5 patches of Wood Anemone roots were planted in Melwood but
by the start of April, few had yet braved the cold. I do not expect
flowers before 2013. In March, 6 hardy individuals braved cold winds
and an occasional flurry of snow to plant 55 native hedging bushes
along the side of the wood. These should mature to provide a hedge
suitable for birds and insects as the existing dead hedge rots away.
Hawthorn and Blackthorn will also provide some spring colour with Dog
Rose following in early summer.

The prolonged cold has also brought some birds into the garden, which
would normally have remained in woodland. The occasional Siskins on
my seed feeders were the first since 2001 and a Blackcap is still
using the fat balls as I write this, in mid-April. Is this the same
bird that has been with us over winter or is it a new summer visitor?
Apparently, the birds that over-winter in the UK are mostly migrants
from further east in Europe and especially from Germany. The summer
birds will have migrated north from winter quarters in southern
Europe and North Africa. Chiff-chaffs arrived in Melwood in mid-March
but will probably not start singing until the weather warms up a
little. Usually they are in full song by the end of March. With their
normal food being insects in the breaking buds of bushes and trees,
they will have had a very hard time this year and I have seen some
rooting around in clumps of grass, which is not normal for this

With weather now forecast to get warmer, I await with interest to see
which species are just delayed and which have suffered real damage.

                          Jim Reid - Melwood Conservation Group


Melwood starts spring early -2013

'Meldreth Matters' article - February 2013

Even before the Xmas decorations had come down, the snowdrops in Melwood
were coming into bloom. 2 plants in particularly favourable positions
made their first showings before New Year but with colder weather now
in the forecast, I guess this early start will soon be put on hold.

The flowers do not seem to be alone in anticipating spring. In my back
garden, a pair of blue tits have already laid claim to the nest box
on the side of the house. I am not aware of this species pairing for
life, but these two birds have certainly been together since the end
of November. I do not claim to be able to tell one blue tit from
another, but I assume they are pretty skilled at it themselves and
the two birds that regularly chase each other around the same
branches and sit on the same perches are therefore presumed to be the
same pair.

The above observation makes it important to add the cleaning and repair
of nest boxes in Melwood to the schedule for the next Melwood work
party. In the mid-term of our 5-year Management Plan, the emphasis is
on re-establishment of ancient hedge lines and encouraging ground
flora through improved glades of sunlight. Hedge work on the eastern
side of the reserve will remove excessive ash saplings, whilst
leaving a select few for future establishment. We will need to keep a
close watch for Ash die-back, one of the latest diseases to attack our
forest trees, and we must be prepared to cut and burn any affected
branches before entire trees become infected.

With excess saplings removed and more light along the hedge line, mature
old hawthorns will be layered with a high cut, rather than the ground
level layering more suitable to younger bushes. We are already
starting to see the establishment of wild rose and honeysuckle along
parts of the eastern hedge worked on last winter. We await with
anticipation, the emergence of the more interesting flowers that made
their first appearance last year. The first of these should be the
oxlips, followed soon after by single-flowered leek and bluebells.
Dusky cranesbill and nettle-leaved bellflower should appear later,
providing colour into the summer.

Rabbit damage in the wood was fairly light in 2012 but the start of 2013
looks a bit more ominous and we may need to keep coppiced areas
fenced a little longer than originally planned. A hazel from which
the fencing was removed in autumn 2012 is showing a bit of damage on
new growth but so far, the cut ash saplings are taking the brunt of
their attentions and this may prove to be a valuable distraction for
the rest of the wood.

Working parties are planned for all seasons of the year and there are usually
about 6 or 7 over the 12 months but the winter ones are normally the
most intensive, when tree and bush work are carried out. Anyone
interested in helping with this work should contact Graham Borgonon
on 01763 260358 or Jim Reid on 260231. A 12 month provisional
schedule will be issued shortly.

On the last three occasions that I have walked through the body of the
wood, checking on plants and nest boxes, I have ended up with dog
mess on my boots and I would respectfully remind dog owners of the
need to clean up their animal’s mess away from the paths as well as
on the paths.

- Jim Reid (for the Melwood Conservation Group committee)


Autumn preparations for a colourful spring in Melwood

                    Meldreth Matters article Dec 07.doc 12/112/07

Two work parties were planned for the autumn in Melwood. The first was to
cut and clear tall vegetation that had grown up during the summer but would
die back over the winter. By cutting and removing the dead vegetation, small
plants such as violets and primroses could be exposed to sufficient light to
flourish in early spring. It was pleasing to note how many moths were
disturbed from the undergrowth and a number of voles and shrews were also
seen running from the area of disturbance. This suggests that the wood has a
rich biodiversity.

The second main task for the winter was to improve the light in some of the
darker areas of the wood by selective coppicing of hazels and hawthorns. In
addition, some of the ash trees which were growing too densely were thinned
to let more light in to clearings that had been identified as favouring a wide
variety of flowers. Much of the wood felled in these sessions was set aside, to
be used locally in the wood and river.
This second session required a good number of volunteers to help move the
unwanted smaller branches to a bonfire and it was very disappointing to find
that once again all the work was left to the same 3 people that are the main
stay of all working parties in the Melwood is a recreational resource for the
community – an area of peace and through the efforts of the conservation
team, increasingly an area of beauty. It is a sad reflection on the village that so few
people are prepared to contribute to the community and environment in which
they live.

There are still a few plug plants to go into the wood this winter and some wild
flower seed has been scattered along the edges of rides, which may
contribute to greater colour in future years.

Many of the nesting boxes placed in the wood were used last spring and
these will need to be cleaned and in some cases repaired before the next
breeding season. A work party to attend to nesting boxes will be organised
for late winter – probably late January or February. It is hoped to get 2 or 3
teams of 3 working in this session, each with a ladder and necessary tools.
Anyone who has not helped before but wishes to do so should contact
Graham Borgonon or Jim Reid, to be included on a circulation list for details of
working parties.

"Volunteers of Melwood Conservation Group work to maintain this LNR for the benefit of wildlife and the local community"
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