Conservation success at Eelmore Marsh

Eelmore Marsh in the south of England is a place brimming with flora and fauna. There are several species found within its bounds that can only be seen in only a handful of other sites around the country. But this biological diversity has not always been the case. Two centuries of mismanagement led to a largely barren landscape, and only after decades of intensive habitat restoration is the land flourishing once more. One particular creature benefiting from the improvements are the sand lizards: Britain’s rarest reptile.

The place now known as Eelmore Marsh is merely a fragment of what used to be the extensive Cove Common. During the 19th and 20th centuries it underwent massive changes as traditional forms of land use ceased. The land was drained and pine plantations were introduced. Unfortunately, this had a huge impact on the fragile eco-systems of the area as vital habitats were destroyed. Sand lizards, whose very particular habitat requirements were no longer met, especially affected by this destruction.

Nowadays, Eelmore Marsh is owned by Hampshire based technology company QinetiQ, whose headquarters neighbours the site. It is managed by Marwell Wildlife Conservation Charity, a world renowned organisation that works on conservation projects around the globe. Together, and with the help of local volunteers, they’ve worked tirelessly to restore the heathland to its former levels of biodiversity. In 2013 the area was awarded ‘favourable’ condition status by Natural England. In 2017 it was finally deemed suitable for sand lizards to be reintroduced, as it could now provide the mature, sunny habitats with undisturbed sand that they require.

Over the past 40 years, extensive biological surveys, monitoring and studies have been paired with restoration activities, tracing the progress of habitat management and allowing the teams working at Eelmore Marsh to plan their future projects. By 2015, over a third of the marsh had been reclaimed from pine plantations, increasing the area of valuable habitat to 20 hectares. Achieving this took over 100 days of habitat restoration by specialist contractors, plus over 400 volunteer days for continuing site management.

As well as using mechanical methods to remove invasive trees, diversify neglected habitats, stimulate seed banks, and to modify the hydrology to retain water, natural methods of habitat management have also been introduced. Most notable of these are the Przewalski horses and highland cattle that now make their home on the reserve. These were introduced in the mid 1990s to provide continuous, year round, low intensity grazing. Akin to traditional uses of the land, their presence helps to restore lost ecological processes.

Improvements still continue. The teams working at Eelmore Marsh are determined to maintain the site’s ‘favourable’ condition status. In December 2017 conservation biologist, Martin Wilkinson, oversaw the habitat restoration of an area. Heavy machinery was brought in to remove the heavy shrubs that dominated, allowing for the creation of open nesting areas for ground nesting birds and colonisation sites for bog flora. The restoration will benefit all of the local wildlife, but particularly the recently reintroduced sand lizards.

Sand lizards are Britain’s rarest type of lizard. They’re on the European Protected Species list and are strictly protected under UK conservation law. Whilst the females are sandy-coloured and camouflaged in their favoured sandy habitats, during the spring breeding season the males’ colouring changes, their flanks turning bright green. This makes them easy to spot as they bask on rocks and bare patches of sand. They can reach up to 25 cm (10 in) in length and are Britain’s only egg-laying lizards. They lay their eggs in warm, undisturbed sand and sunshine to incubate, and the young emerge in late summer. Unfortunately, the habitat areas available to them have become scarce over the past few centuries, meaning that nowadays they can be found only in areas of southern heathland and amongst the sand dunes of north west England.

Fortunately there are a number of organisations that have been working to reintroduce sand lizards. The UK Amphibian and Reptile Conservation Trust (ARC) coordinates conservation actions across Britain, and they have successfully run a captive-breeding and reintroduction programme at numerous sites across the country. Since the late 1980s Marwell Wildlife have worked alongside them, and to date they’ve bred and released nearly 2000 sand lizards at 26 discrete locations around the country. This now also includes Eelmore Marsh. Two further releases are planned for the site to complete the reintroduction.

The reintroduction at Eelmore Marsh, however, is the first time Marwell Wildlife have returned sand lizards to a site that is under their direct conservation management. This will allow for close monitoring of the population over the next few years.

This is a rare opportunity to monitor this cryptic species post-release, to try to understand its habitat requirements and survivorship. It will also be a chance to answer other fundamental questions, such as their behavioral ecology, on a site that we are directly managing, which is very difficult elsewhere.

Marwell Conservation Biologist, Dr Martin Wilkie

As well as Marwell Wildlife, University of Southampton PhD student, Rachel Gardner, is also working hard to continually assess both the existing reptile community on the site and the habitat suitability. This complementary research will enhance best practice guidance and help to cement ecological understanding of the species.

The sand lizards are not the only species to benefit from the restoration work done at Eelmore Marsh. With its rich complex of wet, humid and dry heath, plus grassland, mire, and woodland, over 400 species of conservation concern can now be found within its bounds.

With the return of grazing animals, plus targeted habitat management and heathland restoration, plant communities and populations dramatically improved. The number of vascular plant species found in 1994 numbered 282. By 2015 this had increased to 492. Six species of insectivorous plant, eleven species of orchid, plus thirty two grassland indicator species can now be found. Pale heath violet and the yellow bartsia, both nearly lost, recovered due to the effects of grazing animals. Perilously small populations of early marsh orchid, marsh hellebore, lesser bladderwort, bog pimpernel, and long-leafed sundew were all increased through targeted management. Bog St. John’s wort appeared for the first time after the turf in wet areas was scraped.

The diversification of aquatic habitats at Eelmore Marsh has led to a thriving population of dragonflies and damselfies, with over a third of Britain’s species now recorded on the site. Nearly half of the country’s butterfly species can also be found, plus a wide variety of bees, ants and wasps, including the rare ruby tailed waspIn addition to the sand lizards, over half of the UK’s native amphibian and reptile species also flourish on the nature reserve. With the improvement of vegetation structure and food sources, a range of birds can be spotted. These include Dartford warblers, which had been on the verge of extinction in the UK during the mid-twentieth century, as well as breeding pairs of nightjars and woodlarks. Overwintering birds such as lapwings, snipes and Jack snipes also visit.

The place is truly a haven for wildlife.

As a Site of Specific Scientific Interest (SSSI) since 1978, Eelmore Marsh is protected in UK law. It has also been recognised internationally as part of the Thames Basin Heaths Protection Area since 2005. With these protections in place, hopefully the damage that happened to the site in the past will never be allowed to happen again.

If you’re interested in visiting Eelmore Marsh SSSI, each year QinetiQ and Marwell Wildlife host visits by wildlife professionals, interest groups, and students. You can contact QinetiQ through this page here for further information.

Header image by Böhringer Friedrich [CC BY-SA 2.5], from Wikimedia Commons