Breathing life back into Ousel Nest

An inspiring conversation with Sammy Kitchen, from Ousel Nest LNR, proves that with steely determination we can accomplish amazing things for wildlife.

Myself and Stephen Cartwright met with Sammy for a question and answer session about this special nature reserve in the heart of Bolton.

David: What is so special about the Ousel Nest?

Sammy: The site is pretty magical. I’ve known it since I was a child. It consists mainly of a meadow but it’s also got a lovely forest around the outside of the meadow and then hidden away at the back, at the base of a sand stone quarry, are two or three interconnected ponds. It’s a really peaceful site where you can go and have a real moment of peace amongst nature”.

D: What are your earliest memories of Ousel nest?

S: In my memory Ousel Nest was full of flowers and I remember it as a wildflower meadow. I was probably nine or ten, and me and some friends would go and play on a wooden climbing frame that used to be there. We’d take a picnic and spend the day hunting for insects and climbing trees.

When she moved back to Bolton in 2014 Sammy found the site degraded, so she got stuck into conservation work which fitted in really well with the Environmental Science course she was doing with the Open University. The practical experience was invaluable – for example, Sammy discovered that mowing the meadow yearly (taking off the top off the grass over 10 or 20 years) will reduce the vigour of the grass and really improve the state of the meadow.

I’d been thinking about doing conservation work somewhere globally, but I really started thinking, “You know what, there is this beautiful place right on my back doorstep that I can do something about.

“If everyone just looked after their back door, if everyone just did a little bit of their patch, then that’s the whole world covered because humans are everywhere.”

David Barnes talks to Sammy Kitchen about the restoration of Ousel Nest LNR

David Barnes talks to Sammy Kitchen about the restoration of Ousel Nest LNR

D: What is the wildlife like at Ousel Nest?

S: Summer is full of butterflies and newts, frogspawn and plenty of invertebrates can be found in the pond. There are loads of birds in the woodland, including buzzards, and we’ve seen the marks of deer and signs of rabbits. Part of the magic of Ousel Nest is that every time I go down there it looks completely different because of the way the light comes in. It’s quite high (170 m above sea level) so you get a different variety of animals and wildlife than you would lower down. For example, we get palmate newts rather than smooth newts, and different types of dragonfly. We think there may be black darter because they like it high and they can live in ponds that dry out. There are all sorts of interesting things that we’re looking to survey so we can understand what’s there and how numbers are faring.

D: Can you tell us about the work you are doing with yellow rattle?

S: It’s a parasitic plant, but in a good way. In the meadow where we’ve sown yellow rattle it has parasitised the grass, stopping it from growing too tall and shading out the wildflowers. Now we have a rich abundance of desirable flowers like tormentil, red clover and knapweed, which are fantastic for insects. Yellow rattle is really interesting because it also self regulates, so it doesn’t overwhelm an area.

D: Where did you find out about these management techniques?

S: I first heard about the benefits of yellow rattle by working with Lancashire Wildlife Trust on one of their meadows. Another effective meadow management technique is to use grazing animals but this isn’t practical at Ousel Nest because it’s a popular dog walking site.

We want a riot of colour at Ousel Nest from July and then we’ll get the butterflies and the bees coming in, and then the birds. It has a filter effect through the whole food web.

New signage at Ousel Nest LNR

D: What do you want to do next at Ousel’s Nest?

S: I’d love some information boards and for us to do regular surveys so we want to recruit volunteers with particular species interests. Once we have enough data we can better argue the case for the site – god forbid somebody ever wanted to build houses there. I would also like to see a better variety of invertebrates, mainly butterflies because we’ve noticed in the last few years that there have only been one or two types and there should be a lot more. So maybe it’s even a case of reintroducing species. We also need to improve the ponds. They dry out in summer which isn’t great for some species and dragonflies need deep water to thrive. They live in the pond for up to five years before they fly off and in that time they need a continual wet area.

D: Does the local community get involved on-site?

S: Engaging the community has been essential to gaining support for the site. After we explained the benefits of meadow management for nature they love seeing us manage the meadow properly, whereas in 2010 it was managed like a football pitch. Education is key and while some people still want the football pitch, most understand what we are doing. The site is still accessible as there is a natural path you can walk around the meadow, which has been formed by walkers, while the rest of the area remains undisturbed and perfect for wildlife.

D: Can you tell us about the support your group has had from many different people?

S: I’m really grateful to Phil Reddell from Lancashire Wildlife Trust. I met him on a flower identification course in 2014 when he was working on the Trust’s South Pennines Grasslands Project, and he managed to get Ousel Nest included in his official funding as one of the sites which he was going to manage.

In the first year we didn’t have a mower so I went up to a local farmer and said, “Can I borrow your tractor and could you come and mow this meadow?” And he did. Then we persuaded Bolton Conservation Volunteers to rake up the grass to allow light through and remove some of the nitrogen. It is really hard work and the first year it was soaking wet, but with 20 really keen volunteers we managed it on a shoestring. Soon we’ll need to start sourcing formal funding but we’ll face that when it comes. We’ve got so far so we’ll keep going.

I spent five years in the Alps and the meadows there are incredible. The noise that the insects make is almost deafening – a rich abundance that we’ve sadly lost in the UK. The difference is incredible and that’s probably how it used to be in the 1950s before the intensification of agriculture and use of pesticides.

Volunteers at Ousel Nest LNR cutting the wildflower meadow in 2017

Friends of Ousel Nest, Lancashire Wildlife Trust and Bolton Conservation Volunteers cut the wildflower meadow in 2017

D: What were your earliest volunteering experiences?

S: One of the first groups I volunteered with was the Gravel Pits Action Group at Darcy Lever. I learnt basic pond conservation and meadow conservation – they were planting heather when I first joined the group back in 2011. They have a resident moth expert, a plant expert and a really diverse and interesting group and I just soaked up the information like a sponge because this was before I started any formal coursework or anything like that, so it was just fascinating to me that there was this group of people in the centre of Bolton, in this really urban area, who were looking after this magical site.

When I was working with Lancashire Wildlife Trust we took the boat to Doffcocker Lodge and learnt about the nesting birds and putting on all the cockle shells.

Every time you volunteer you learn something and you meet people who might not always be as interested in the science of what we are doing, but are just there to meet nice people and have a good day out, get fit and be outside in nature because we don’t realise how much it helps our mental state and how soothing it is.

D: Can you tell us about a memorable wildlife moment? (Stephen Cartwright has been the driving force behind the re-establishment of the Kingfisher Trail along the Croal-Irwell valley, so he was delighted when, in response to this question , Sammy told us about her rare moment of birdwatching when she borrowed her dad’s binoculars.)

S: I stood right at the bottom of the steps and put them up to my eyes and looked towards the pond and straightaway in the sights was a kingfisher just sat on a tree over the pond. It was like it knew I was coming because you don’t see kingfishers there. I was watching it through the binoculars for probably 20 or more minutes and in the end I thought, I’m going to leave it alone, it’s not going anywhere.