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Our work at Bideford Bay and Hartland

An orange and brown marsh fritillary butterfly with wings open, settled on green grass.
A rare marsh fritillary butterfly | © National Trust Images/Matthew Oates

Our work at Bideford and Hartland centres around conserving natural habitats for a wide range of species to flourish. At South Hole, biodiversity has been increased by working with our partners and tenant farmers to create lush wildflower meadows and at Brownsham you can now see the rare marsh fritillary butterfly.

Making space for nature at South Hole

South Hole was bought by the National Trust in 1994 as part of its national fundraising campaign to restore the British coastline, and since then it’s been managed with restoration and conservation as the focus.

While the land was nutrient-rich, from years of agriculture, it was starved of biodiversity, so the first job was to reduce these nutrient levels to allow the plants and animals associated with this type of to thrive once more.

Since then, nutrient levels have been reduced and locally harvested wildflower seed have been introduced. South Hole is now a beautiful example of lowland meadow and maritime grassland and is covered in wildflowers, bees and many species of butterfly during the summer. The area is now so rich in wildflowers seeds are harvested and used across the property which further improves the grasslands.

Working together

To do this, the National Trust team worked closely with the tenant farmers, volunteers and the Devon Wildlife Trust along with Natural England to successfully complete two ten-year Stewardship Agreements before entering into a new one for the upcoming ten years.

Pink and white wildfowers in a green grassy meadow
Wildflower meadow | © National Trust Images/Sarah Davis

Tenant farmers graze their livestock on the land which is an important part of the conservation plan. Thanks to careful management over the last couple of decades you can now see a wide range of species including common cat's ear, common knapweed, red clover, bird's-foot trefoil, greater bird's-foot trefoil, meadow buttercup, eyebright, germander speedwell, ribwort plantain, yarrow, tormentil, betony, common sorrel, bladder campion, wild carrot, kidney vetch, heath bedstraw, wild thyme, common dog violet, pignut, common bent, sweet vernal, crested dog’s tail and red fescue.

Seed harvesting and nature corridors

In order to connect areas of similar habitat nearby, we worked with Natural England and the Devon Wildlife Trust to oversow one of the fields with an array of wildflowers. The seeds had all been harvested locally with the aim of creating species-rich grassland for animals, birds and insects to migrate and colonise.

And this process works both ways: one of the positive consequences of increasing the diversity of species here is that it’s now possible to harvest seeds directly from these fields to use on land we care for elsewhere.

Endangered marsh fritillary butterfly returns to Brownsham

One of the UK’s most threatened butterflies, the marsh fritillary, has recently been found at Brownsham, near Hartland, for the first time since 1974. Brownsham is home to one of Britain’s rarest grassland habitats – culm grassland – which is one of the butterfly’s preferred habitats.

Threatened species

Brightly coloured and speckled, the marsh fritillary is listed by Butterfly Conservation as one of the UK’s most threatened butterfly species, due to habitat loss and degradation. It’s also considered vulnerable at a European level. The Bideford Bay and Hartland rangers were really pleased to discover the butterfly in one of the restored areas of culm grass, which is only found in north and mid-Devon and small areas of Cornwall.

How does it work?

Work to restore the land has helped provide the ideal habitat for the marsh fritillary to re-colonise. Rangers removed scrub and woodland from the area which, once cleared, allowed dormant seeds of mixed grasses and flowers that had been lying under the scrub to regenerate. A mix of native-breed cattle were then introduced – including highland cattle and belted Galloways – to lightly graze the land, helping to promote a varied age and height structure to the vegetation.

A purple devil's bit scabious flower growing in a wildflower meadow
Devil's bit scabious | © National Trust Images/Clive Whitbourn

The marsh fritillary’s main food plant, devil’s bit scabious, is also found in the rare culm grassland, so the arrival of the butterfly is a strong indicator that the hard work to improve habitat is working. It also means that the restored grassland is in a healthy condition for all wildlife.

Thank you

With your ongoing support, we're able to continue our vital conservation work. Thank you for helping to protect these special places.

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