Summer’s drowsy descent into autumn is underway with a feast of glorious sights to enjoy, says Sue Bradley, who heads to the Forest of Dean to discover some of its wonders
With the Wye on its western boundary and the Severn to the east, the countryside around Tidenham is rich in riverside wildlife, while woodlands are home to a range of creatures.
The thing that really sets it apart, however, is the ancient heather-rich heathland and acid grassland found on the nature reserve known as Poor’s Allotment.
This increasingly rare type of open habitat is valuable for ground-nesting birds, worms, insects and reptiles, with slow worms, adders, tree pipits and woodcocks among the species found there.
At the same time, Poor’s position overlooking the River Severn ensures its popularity with walkers, many of whom enjoy following its circular trail, while the discovery of a soft drink bottle dating back to Victorian times testifies to its long use by picnickers.
Poor’s Allotment dates back to the 1800s, when land was set aside for rough grazing and making winter forage at the time when many of fields in the area were being enclosed to create larger areas for farming. The continuous presence of livestock over the past 200 years has ensured the survival of the heathland’s open habitat, with rare breed cattle and ponies continuing the tradition today.
The importance of Poor’s Allotment is recognised through its status as a Special Site of Scientific Interest and since 2015 both it and The Park, a former conifer plantation undergoing heathland restoration, have been managed by Gloucestershire Wildlife Trust.
Work is currently underway to control
Glow-worm larvae prey on small snails and are active between April and October. Over time they grow into wingless beetles that get their name from the way females use their light-generating (bioluminescent) bodies to attract mates at night.
bracken and invasive saplings to encourage populations of nightjars and increase populations of adders, the importance of which is shown by the carved wooden pedestrian gate leading onto Poor’s.
As well as creating the ideal conditions for heather to flourish, this activity has led to greater numbers of spring flowers.
“Managing open habitats is challenging due to the rapid way in which other species ‘succeed’ – with big changes occurring if we do nothing,” explains Reserves Manager West Kevin Caster, who looks after the entire 30 hectare Park and Poor’s site lying either side of the Chepstow to Coleford spine road.
“Many trees have grown across Poor’s allotment, initiating an entire area of secondary wood where a ‘beacon’ once carried signals across the Severn. Local people recall the site being much more open. Our aim is to reduce invasive trees such as silver birch and retain more valuable and less invasive oaks, crab apple and rowans. Over at The Park we’re working to restore heathland to build on the overall size of the habitat that’s available.
“Our work is especially important for adders, a species that is very much on the brink: adder survival in Gloucestershire relies on sites like this.”
Most people know the adder is the UK’S only venomous snake, but few get to see them up close.
That’s because these increasingly rare reptiles are notoriously shy and quickly retreat if they sense humans are nearby.
Woodland glades and heathlands are prime places to spot this distinctive snake, which are most often seen basking in the sunshine.
Generally they’re around 80cm long and reasonably stocky, with distinctive dark zig-zag patterns along their backs and red eyes. Males tend to be more silvery-grey in colour, while females are lighter, or reddish-brown. There’s also a black form.
Adders hibernate between October and March, emerging during the first warm days of spring. They eat lizards, small mammals and ground-nesting birds, using their venom to immobilise their prey.
Mating takes place in spring, with males performing a ‘dance’ to fend off competition. Females hold their eggs inside their bodies until they hatch.
Adder bites are uncommon and their venom is generally not a threat to humans, nevertheless, wounds can be painful and cause inflammation that can be dangerous to people who are young, old or ill. Medical attention is recommended to anybody bitten by an adder. Dog owners are encouraged to keep their pets on leads within known adder sites.