Grazing and butterflies

A short history of the Millhoppers nature reserve by John Noakes

As I am about to step down as reserve manager of Millhoppers I thought it would be timely to review the history and major events since its acquisition by Butterfly Conservation.

In 1998 a piece of land of approx 3 acres, called locally Millhoppers, came up for sale. It was mainly unimproved grassland and had not in living memory been ploughed. It was ringed by an ancient hedge together with a number of black poplar trees. Traversing the site was a free flowing stream together with a marshy area. Surrounding part of the grassland was a large stand of backthorn. On the east side a public footpath wound round the edge of the land.

Millhoppers is a strange name; it was clear that there had been a mill here in ancient times but now the water table is much lower. Hopper is not to do with hopping across stones or indeed grain hoppers. Hopper is a corruption of an old Saxon word meaning a small enclosed space; hence a mill in a small enclosure.

The site, although privately owned, had been enjoyed by local villagers who used it for walks and picnics. Many senior villagers remember paddling in the stream as youngsters. Clearly local people considered Millhoppers to be of great sentimental value and did not want to see it change. A group of villagers in Long Marston were very concerned that the land would be sold on for future development and in the short term would not be managed in a sympathetic manner. The Group felt it had a considerable potential for a small nature reserve and at the same time being an amenity for the local population.

With these aims in mind each member contributed a sum of money to a fund and then approached Dacorum Distict Council to see if it would be prepared to make a grant to purchase the land. On looking at the site they considered it to be an important example of unimproved grassland and were sympathetic to the Group’s aims. However they were not convinced as to its experience in conservation issues. Dacorum indicated to the Group that they would be prepared to help if they were backed by an organization who had expertise in conservation and who would also contribute.

Two of the Group were members of Herts and Middx Branch of Butterfly Conservation and put this proposition to this Branch. After consulting Head Office of Butterfly Conservation, the Herts& Middx Branch agreed to make available a large sum of money. Dacorum District Council was now satisfied there was sufficient conservation and financial backing to give a very considerable grant in order to purchase Millhoppers.

The money raised by the local Group was not used in the purchase of the Millhoppers. Instead the Group drew up its own constitution calling itself the Millhoppers Management Group. All the grants for equipment and the various works carried out were applied for, channelled through and managed by this Group. Where grants were not available, the Group funded work and equipment itself.

Both the Branch and the local Group felt they should celebrate the achievement of acquiring Millhoppers in some way. Sadly shortly before this event Gordon Benningfield, who was President of Butterfly Conservation, died. It had been hoped he would officially open the reserve. In the circumstances, his wife Betty, kindly agreed to open the reserve with the Mayor of Dacorum. At the event many local people attended as did members from Head Office and Herts & Middx Butterfly Conservation. The reserve was rightly dedicated to the memory of Gordon Benningfield.

Having acquired Millhoppers, advice was sought from Brian Sawford, the Branch’s conservation officer, on how best to manage the reserve over the next few years. He produced a five year management plan setting out a strategy of grassland management with the aim of encouraging grassland butterflies. Coinciding with management plan a botanical survey was carried out. This acted as a baseline from for future reference. Even at this early stage regular butterfly transects were carried out from April to September by Margaret Noakes and this has continued ever since.

The first, rather formidable task was to tackle the large expanse of grass. The Group decided to raid its own funds and purchase a Track Master Motor Scythe together with large rakes. This cut the grass and other herbage well but this all had to be raked off by a group of volunteers. This continued to be the strategy for the first few years. However the numbers in the working parties dwindled somewhat over time. Fairly soon after acquiring the reserve it was plagued by vandalism. A new gate that had been purchased and erected was smashed down, as was a second and soon after replacement a car was driven through and set on fire. This was pretty depressing and added to this, the stream at the entrance was subjected to regular fly tipping. Chucking beer cans into the stream was annoying but had a lighter side. One morning I collected 137 cans and spread them out on my lawn at home. I was able to do our first audit on Millhoppers; that of the local drinking habits!

The idea of a wooden gate was abandoned and a tough metal bar and posts commissioned, which has proved indestructible. It can be removed for access and there are still two metal inner locked gates. This effectively kept the vandals out but did make getting machinery into the reserve difficult; this still is a problem. Vandalism fortunately is now less of a problem.

There was a weak and narrow bridge crossing the stream which was inadequate to take the cutting equipment. The Group was fortunate to obtain a grant to build a solid bridge and it so happened that some engineers were rebuilding a nearby canal bridge and a good deal was struck with them. It did prove somewhat slippery in the wet so wire netting had to be fixed down to make it safe.

Grass cutting was becoming arduous and raking and disposing of the material even more so. The Group had been advised that the solution and indeed best policy was to bring in cattle. John and Margaret Noakes went on a grazing course and came back enthused but how to find cattle? The local farmers who were approached saw many problems not the least one being that the site was not secure. It was back again to try and get a grant to fund making the whole site secure with stock fencing. This proved quite expensive but again the Group was fortunate and the site is now totally secure. Just prior to this a smaller grant was obtained to lay part of the hedge on the west side as the bushes and some trees were becoming too tall and the bottom of the hedge was thin and rather bare.

The Group was introduced to a farmer who used his cattle to graze Tring Park. He clearly was keen on conservation and cared for his animals. On advice from Butterfly Conservation Central Office a grazing contract was drawn up and four cows were introduced to the reserve in late autumn until early winter. Visually they made a rapid impact. They removed a lot of the coarse grass and the softer shoots of the blackthorn. The marsh area was puddled down, increasing the area and removing a lot of the streamside weeds. At this time, fortunately, the large stand of marsh marigolds had not emerged .Although in the reserve for only a few weeks there was no doubt it made our management much easier. A considerable amount of cutting and raking still had to be done and paths cut.

This regime continued for approx three years, butterflies seemed to be increasing in numbers particularly grassland species with a strong colony of Ringlets. At the far end of the reserve, finer grasses were more abundant with ant hills and nectar plants. This saw an increase in Common Blues and Small Coppers. It was now thought a good time to carry out a further expert botanical survey. This did show a clear link between the butterflies recorded on the regular transects and the presence of their larval host plants in good numbers on the reserve.

The reserve is not just about butterflies for there is a diverse bird population. Particular interesting features include a large badger set with a lot of evidence of their activity and 16 black poplars, all male! Many of these have become unsafe with branches breaking off. Most had been pollarded in the past and were due for more attention. A further grant was obtained in order to engage a tree surgeon to carry out this work.

Our most recent grant funded a notice board erected on the reserve together with a leaflet about Millhoppers. This coincided with an exhibition held at the Natural History Museum at Tring on Butterflies of Hertfordshire and promoting the reserve.

Sadly the farmer, who had been so helpful, has had to withdraw his cattle from the reserve. It is really very disappointing as grazing is the undoubtedly the best strategy for grassland management but in the current difficult circumstances the decision is fully understandable.

This brings the history up to date. I would have wished to hand over the reserve to the new manager in better shape. Millhoppers is very precious to all of us who have worked hard there. There are times, when jets are not flying over, that it would be difficult to tell which century one was in; there are few such places in the county. We are still custodians of this special piece of land and I am hopeful that it can be effectively and sympathetically managed for the future. Jez Perkins who lives in Tring is taking over the role. He is a member of Butterfly Consrvation and works for the Countryside Management Services at Dacorum. I am sure the Reserve will be in good hands and I wish him well. JN.

Article appeared in the Village News February 2008 page 22 by John Noakes

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