Wildlife in Britain has probably never been under more threat than at the start of this new millennium. We have lost 98% of our limestone grassland and wetland wildlife and 90% of our ancient woodland in the last 50 years; and this trend is increasing. An RSPB report shows that many farmland birds, like the skylark (-52%), song thrush(-55%), turtle dove(-77%), tree sparrow(-87%) and many others have declined alarmingly in the last 30 years. Even house sparrows and starlings have decreased by over 55%! Human intervention seems to be the main culprit, with the intensification of agriculture (particularly the use of chemicals), increasing urbanisation and road building being obvious factors. The sheer rate of change, when an entire woodlands can disappear to the bulldozer in a day and one accidental chemical spill can wipe out all the life from a river is frightening. Wild life can also be lost by neglect when beautiful flower meadows and hillsides can revert to scrub in a handful of years through lack of grazing.
We are fortunate therefore that Somerset still has a superb variety of wildlife habitats and in Wookey Hole we have some typical examples of these. These have been preserved partly as a result of low intensity dairy, beef and sheep farming. Caring farmers and landowners (in spite of the terrible financial pressures of recent years) have played their part in maintaining delightful lanes and hedgerows, hills, gorges and streams.
Here are a few observations and an assessment of the future of wildlife in Wookey Hole as we enter a new millennium.
Many local people delight in feeding wild birds and it cannot be emphasized enough how important this is. It is estimated that two thirds of some species, like the blue tit, would die in cold winters without garden feeding. We still have reasonable numbers of blue and great tit, robins, blackbirds, chaffinch, greenfinch, wren and dunnock in Wookey Hole. The song thrush, though diminishing nationally, still sings in our village. The collared dove, incredibly first recorded in England in 1952, is now very common. Blackcap warblers now over-winter in our gardens, no doubt benefiting from milder climate.
Birds of Prey
Buzzards can be seen circling over head and, like the sparrow hawk and kestrel, nest locally. Peregrine falcons, those absolute masters of the air, have in recent years come back to our quarries. They often do battle for nest sites with ravens which also now nest nearby in the Mendips area.
In addition to the ravens we are fortunate to have a rookery in the high trees in Wookey Hole ravine and small colonies of jackdaws can be seen nesting above the cave and in local quarries. Jays are present in our woods. Magpies and carrion crow numbers have increased mightily in recent years and this may be part of the reason for the decrease in small birds.
Swallows and house martins still nest under our eves and in outhouses though swifts now mainly come up from nesting sites in Wells. Willow warblers, chiffchaff, blackcap and even whitethroats are still heard, but to hear cuckoos and nightingales you have to go to the Somerset Levels.
Mistle thrushes are joined by redwings and fieldfares, which in most winters come right into gardens looking for berries. The siskins, looking similar to a small greenfinch, now regularly come into gardens in winter. Crows, starlings, robins and many other species increase in numbers as the European winter starts to bite and birds move further south and west.
Pure headwater streams, like our river Axe, are very vulnerable to even slight pollution and the numbers of mayfly, stonefly and caddis species in our stream show that it is in reasonable health. Several years ago a well-meaning attempt by Wookey Hole Caves to reduce weed growth caused a major setback and we still have not regained the previous wealth of species.
The Caves’ management, as the main guardian of the headwater, is now taking its responsibility very seriously with a restoration programme in the upper ravine aided by English Nature.
We are privileged in having 2 or 3 pairs of dipper in the first mile of the stream. These are birds that need fast flowing and pure headwaters with lots of invertebrates and are more typically found on the Exmoor side of Somerset.
Other river birds to be seen are grey wagtails and their more widespread relative, the pied wagtail. Kingfishers are often seen at Glencot and have increased along the whole river in all probability because of the mild winters.
There are reports of water vole being seen in our stretch of river. This much loved and once common animal together with the river crayfish is now decreasing rapidly and is yet another species under threat.
Roe deer are now common and on the increase in local woods and fields. A less common and a more secretive species of deer is the muntjac which is often heard ‘barking’ at night in local woods like Ebbor Gorge.
Dormice, more like a small squirrel than a mouse and now rare in most of Britain, are present in Ebbor Gorge. The grey squirrel is only too common and competes with us and the dormouse for every hazelnut.
Foxes and badgers are common. Fox numbers have not fully recovered from an outbreak of mange that spread across the county from Bristol two years ago. Badger numbers on the other hand are very high. Despite a long programme of culling by the Ministry of Agriculture there is still no conclusive proof that badgers are the main carriers of bovine TB. They are however a major predator of other wildlife including hedgehogs and they are known to dig out young rabbits.
Rabbit numbers fluctuate from year to year as myxomatosis returns in cycles. Rabbit viral haemorrhagic disease (VHD), another horror introduced by man, is now present in the wild population and is forecast to be at least as bad as myxomatosis. The rabbit is the key to the survival of many other species including the buzzard and also helps to control scrub, herb-rich grassland and footpaths.
Greater and lesser horseshoe bats, two of Britain’s rarest species, hibernate in Wookey Hole Cave and in summer can be seen flying around the village.
Reptiles and amphibians
Garden ponds are the main habitat for frogs and common newts. Toads seem to be scarce in the village though they breed in pools at Priddy by their thousands. Slowworms are still common but grass snakes are now rare and to see adders or common lizards one must generally venture to the wilder parts of Mendip or the Somerset Levels.
Our small woods and hedgerows are still cause for pride particularly in the spring. They abound with bluebells, primroses, dog and sweet violets, wood anemone (although this is in decline), wild garlic and the rarer species like Solomon's seal, herb paris and in autumn the meadow saffron. Our woodlands and hedges are full mainly of ash, hazel and oak trees. There are also examples of large field maple, dogwood, spindle berry, purging buckthorn, wayfaring trees and hornbeam (probably the furthest west this grows in England), all uncommon in other parts of the country. The local coombes and woods have a great variety of ferns with male fern, harts tongue and soft shield fern being particularly common.
The woods and fields are also rich in fungi and wild mushrooms like the wood blewitt, shaggy parasol and giant puffball, although caution must be made if used for culinary uses.
The hillsides are not doing so well because, unfortunately, many of the better areas for wild flowers are becoming scrubbed over. This means there are fewer wild flowers and butterflies such as the chalk-hill blue, common blue, small blue and many of the fritillaries that require particular plants in order to breed.
There are still parts where a huge variety of down-land plants can be seen. Just above the village it is possible to observe marjoram, rock rose, wild thyme, cowslips, bee orchids, common spotted and early purple orchids. Later in the year there are small scabious, knapweed, harebells and autumn lady’s tresses. Scrub encroachment is an ongoing problem and ultimately can only be corrected by more grazing, ideally by sheep that create just the right type of turf for the rarer wild flowers to flourish. This can be encouraged by more government subsidies with the expert local knowledge of farmers and conservation bodies.
We are very lucky to have the good will and tolerance of our local farmers and other land owners. Please remember to ask permission before going on to private land. It is always advisable to keep to our very good system of public footpaths.
A lot of wildlife and wild flowers that at one time were common have vanished from other parts of the country. We must all help to ensure that we leave a rich heritage for future generations.
The author completed an extensive wildlife and plant survey of Wookey Hole six years ago. The Survey identified nearly 300 flowering plants, including 27 on the Somerset Notable Species List.