Old Warden Tunnel Nature Reserve
Written by: Sophie Stocking
The Nature Reserve at Old Warden Tunnel consists of the Railway cutting and Tunnel of the former Bedford-Hitchin branch line. The cutting incises into the Greensand Ridge with the slopes of the Tunnel entrance and baulk offering a varied topography for the grassland & scrub habitats that have established across the site since the branch line closed in the 1960’s Beeching cuts.
The site is typically managed by manual cutting of the grassland to reduce the dominance of certain species and reduce the cover of scrub, providing open grassland rich in wildflowers. This is very labour intensive and arduous on the slopes with works completed by a team of volunteers alongside and with the support of staff from the Wildlife Trust.
The site is capable of sustaining a low level of grazing for small flock of sheep, but the site fencing was failing and insecure in places. The project allowed for the full lengths of the stock fencing to be replaced on both sides of the Reserve with a local contractor completing the works.
The works commenced in October 2021, with the existing fencing being removed from both sides, prior to the encroaching boundary vegetation being flailed back by the neighbouring farmer. This presented an opportunity for the fence to be closely aligned to its prior position and also give clearance space for the installation and future maintenance of the fence.
The fence was then reinstated over the following 3months around various issues and delays as detailed below. We also managed to replace the aging badger gate infrastructure, which has subsequently been observed as being used by the local badger population.
Benefits to People
All site visitors will be accessing the Reserve which on the immediate face of it is unchanged, but in the coming months and years we trust that the grassland areas will be richer and more diverse for them to enjoy.
The works allowed me to build relationships with contractors & neighbours who helped deliver the practical works and establish a connection with personnel from the utility company operating the pipeline with a clear understanding of their requirements for our future operations to manage the Nature Reserve.
Benefits to Heritage & Landscape
The site is yet to be evaluated through a grassland survey and this is scheduled for the coming months, but already we can see the benefit to the site following only a few weeks of grazing. There is less dense material in the grassland sward and the spring wildflowers are already showing on the sheltered cutting slopes.
It is very early in the year to assess the full impact of the grazing facilitated by the renewed fencing, but we expect there will be a bloom of the usual wildflowers and these will support a diverse range of invertebrates. Surveys will be completed in the coming months to ascertain the populations present on the site and these surveys will feed into the long term monitoring of the condition of the site.
Challenges & Lessons Learnt
The site fencing crosses a large bore oil pipe line operated by Exolum Pipeline systems, which is buried at varying depths and presented an issue for the the areas where fence posts were being driven in mechanically.
We contacted Exolum engineers who attended the site to establish the depth and line of the pipe and mark out safe crossing points and placements of fence posts were adapted to avoid any risk of puncturing the pipe.
We also faced delays brought on by bad weather but this was a minor concern compared to both the lead and assistant contractor catching Covid-19 and all works halting on site for nearly 6 weeks with a very slow recovery for the lead contractor. The assistant contractor pressed on alone as best as they could upon regaining their health, but significant delays were caused to the site works progress and completion of the fencing didn’t come until mid-January 2022.
The design phase of the project was completed prior to me taking over the supervisory role and the site works visits had not identified the need to consult with the pipeline management company to determine constraints & safe work areas. This was a necessary hurdle that needed to be overcome once the project was underway, but it was resolved in good time and with a minimum of impact to our proposed actions.
Clear and constant communication with neighbours and contractors is one key point to maintain to ensure timely actions and resolve any issues before they develop adversely. However, certain things are outside of our control no matter the planning and much time was lost with the delivery of the project due to ill health and necessary isolation precautions.
We are pleased to see the renewal of the fencing completed at the Old Warden Tunnel Nature Reserve, which will enable us to deliver conservation grazing with sheep to the wildflower rich areas of grassland, which complements the scrub management we undertake for the benefit of a diverse range of animals, including butterflies and birds, and we are thankful for the support of the Greensand Country Project to enable this to happen.
– Aidan Matthews, Senior Reserves Manager for Bedfordshire Wildlife Trust.