The Pound Wood ‘Fritillary Site’ – a place for butterflies and a great deal more, by Ross Gardner

The Essex Wildlife Trust’s Pound Wood, like so many ancient woods, is a special place and for different reasons.  It is special for being somewhere for the people of this busy and built-up part of Essex to establish, or indeed re-establish those close and valuable connections with the natural world, something so important, not only for the well-being of ourselves but crucially for raising the awareness of the need to look after the wild places that we are fortunate enough to still have near us, as well as those further afield.  It is special for being an important link in a Living Landscape, alongside the other woods and green spaces in the neighbourhood; for reminding us that nature conservation today has to extend beyond the boundaries of established nature reserves to meet the fresh challenges that our wildlife face.  And it is special because it is an ancient wood, which over the centuries of continuous existence has accumulated a diverse assemblage of wild plants and animals; no other habitat in our country has a greater diversity of species.

Special places will invariably have special things living within them.  Here, it will often be the heath fritillary (Melitaea athalia) that first comes to mind, one of Britain’s rarest butterflies which has been present in Pound Wood since its reintroduction in 1998.  They were released into the part of the reserve where power-lines cross its north-western corner.  Since this stretch of the wood has always needed regular cutting to prevent the fouling of the cables, it presented itself as the ideal reintroduction site for these butterflies of open woodland.  The more frequent cutting benefits not only the electricity company, but also provides the open conditions necessary for the butterflies and their foodplant (common cow-wheat – Melampyrum pratense) to thrive.  It is a part of the wood now colloquially referred to as the ‘Fritillary Site’ and while most of it lies off the beaten track, some of the reserve’s paths either cross or run close by it offering visitor every chance of seeing these so very scarce butterflies.

What has been created though, is far more than a prime habitat for a single species.  What can, in fact, be found, running the length of the pylon corridor, is the most species-rich part of the whole reserve.  A vibrant and hugely important component of the wider wildlife value of the wood, even before we consider its rare butterflies.  The list of species associated with it is long and varied, many of which have not been recorded elsewhere in the reserve.  It is a list that includes a number of uncommon insects.  Some of those tiny micro-moths that fizz sprite-like about the low plants and leafy path-sides are in reality as colourfully and beautifully marked as the butterflies that more readily draw our attention.  One such is Dasycera olivella, a creamy yellow and iridescent purple marked little beauty found only rather sparingly among the broadleaved woods of southern England.  They are known to be fond of recently coppiced areas and, once you have your eye in, are a common early summer sight beneath the power-lines, where almost all of the Pound Wood observations have been made.

Dasycera oliviella
Dasycera oliviella © Ross Gardner

It is within this part of the reserve, and unlike those areas incorporated into the usual 21-year coppicing cycle that will inevitably and necessarily shade over as the stools regenerate, that grassier plant communities are able to persist.  Such habitat suits two nationally scarce bush-crickets, long-winged conehead (Conocephalus discolor) and Roesel’s bush-cricket (Metrioptera roeselii).  The sole records in the reserve for such species as green hairstreak (Callophrys rubi), horned treehopper (Centrotus cornutus) and tortoise shieldbug (Eurygaster testudinaria) have all come from the Fritillary Site.  Perhaps the broom that thrives here will come to support a future population of the aforementioned, locally scarce butterfly

But it is not just the rare things that can make an area special, it is the community of plants and animals as a whole.  Spring and summer sees more than the creamy, tubular flowers of the cow-wheat adding colour among the heady-scented sweet vernal grass, but other coppicing plants, like slender St John’s-wort (Hypericum pulchrum) and wood spurge (Euphorbia amygdaloides).  Where ditches run across the clearings marsh bedstraw (Galium palustre) proliferates and lesser spearwort (Ranunculus flammula) thrives, while a marshy area grows thick with willowherb and rush.  Stands of spear thistle (Cirsium vulgare) tower over most, but far from being a nuisance they provide abundant nectar for a host of hoverflies and bumblebees.   Milkwort (Polygala serpyllifolia), hemp-nettle (Galeopsis tetrahit), field woodrush (Luzula campestris) and pale sedge (Carex pallescens) all find their only Pound Wood locations here.

This is somewhere that the creatures of the woods and its edge habitats can live cheek by jowl with those of the grasslands.  The flourishing colony of small skipper (Thymelicus sylvestris) might well brush wings with the occasional white admiral (Limenitis camilla) the latter is a magnificent black and white butterfly, declining nationally, but apparently spreading in Essex – they reappeared in the wood in 2018), while brown argus (Aricia agestis) were noted in the reserve for the first time in 2019, around the same time that a silver-washed fritillary (Argynnis phaphia) was very possibly the first one seen here for many decades.

The list really could go on.  The likes of the groundhoppers and grasshoppers, mirid bugs and beetles, spiders and solitary wasps haven’t even been given a mention.  There is the impressive and lengthily titled golden-bloomed grey longhorn beetle (Agapanthia villosoviridescens), for instance, an uncommon species whose larvae, unlike many of its timber feeding relatives, develop in the hollow stems of umbellifers and thistles.    And of course, where there is prey there are predators.  The reserve’s small bird and dragonfly populations can and do find rich pickings here.

SONY DSC
Golden-bloomed Grey Longhorn Beetle © Ross Gardner

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