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Conservation

Home > Conservation
Stanwick Lakes is a beautiful space for people to enjoy the great outdoors but it is also a very special site for important wildlife and conservation work.

    There are 3 special status designations within the 750 acre nature reserve that signify how important the whole area is to wildlife that aim to preserve and protect it:

    • – Site of Special Scientific Interest (“SSSI”)
    • – Special Protected Area (“SPA”)
    • – RAMSAR designated Wetland

    Due to these designations, Stanwick Lakes is an internationally important wetland site providing valuable habitat, as well as resting and feeding conditions for large numbers of over-wintering water birds. Many of the birds that pass through or over winter here migrate thousands of miles from Iceland, Scandinavia and Russia when food becomes scarce or the climate becomes harsh. Others are present here all year round.

    Many of these birds are facing declines worldwide, as well as a loss of suitable habitat in which to feed and breed. The river, meander, ponds and lakes at Stanwick Lakes support a wide range of aquatic plants, fish, worms and insects, all of which create an environment that supports key species and health ecosystems.

    Conservation work at Stanwick Lakes

    With such a significant responsibility, the conservation work, land management, and commercial activities which helps raise funds charity and operations, that what we are able to do on site is regulated by Natural England.

    Any work undertaken on the SSSI part of the site must first receive approval from Natural England (and, in some cases, Historic England).

    In any work carried our, the conservation team comply with a 10-year Environmental Stewardship Agreement for the reserve which sets out, in fine detail, what work must be undertaken to manage the habitat across the whole site – all 750 acres. This may be as specific as detailing as specifying the height of the grass at certain times of the year, the conditions that must be present on a number of the islands and, in some areas, tree and foliage density.

     

    In addition, the site has a detailed, significant and Natural England approved (120+ page) 5-10 year Management Plan. This document was prepared with the assistance of external ecologists and a specialist consultant. Within the document, the site is split into 10 Zones,  each with a habitat-specific plan of works ascribed, designed to maintain, improve and cultivate the environment for the benefit of the wildlife for which the area is designated and aim to attract.

     

    Our conservation team – made up of our Rangers and Conservation Volunteers – follow the plan, whilst simultaneously monitoring and reviewing the site; noting what is happening with water levels, habitat structure, species diversity, encroaching vegetation.

    Our Rangers are joined by corporate volunteers from time to time. Our thanks go out to these business. This partnerships creative a great opportunity for businesses to fulfil their corporate social responsibility locally, foster team-building among employees, and improving wellbeing, whilst the nature reserve and facilities at Stanwick Lakes get valuable support for conservation efforts as well as access to additional resources and expertise.

    All of the work undertaken by the Conservation team is Regulated and designed to positively impact the whole site for all of our visitors; wildlife and humans alike.

    Conservation is an evolving science with new ideas, techniques and theories coming to the fore all the time. Working together, as a team with all our invaluable volunteers, colleagues and many varied contributors, we are striving to provide the best we can, every day.

    Along with support from our visitors and the general public, we can preserve and protect Stanwick Lakes for future generations to enjoy.

    Conservation FAQs
    Why does conservation works need to take place on the nature reserve?

    To manage the natural environment in a way that is sympathetic to the wildlife, local communities, and history of the site. Like most other disused gravel pits and quarries, Stanwick Lakes’ complex of lakes and ponds has developed into a wetland that is now hugely important for its bird life, flood mitigation, and carbon sequestration, among other things. The practical work we carry out aims to maintain and enhance this wetland habitat, providing the best conditions possible for wildlife to thrive. Specifically, this means ‘arresting succession’, or keeping the vegetation in its current stage of development. Left to its own devices, grassland would scrub over, reed beds and ponds would dry out, and trees would take over. Stanwick Lakes would ultimately become Stanwick Woods and lose its value as a wetland habitat along with the benefits mentioned above. For much more information about wetlands and their importance, visit the Wildfowl & Wetlands Trust website here.

    Tell me more on the status of the site...

    Stanwick Lakes is part of the Upper Nene Valley Gravel Pits, a collection of wetland sites along the river Nene, stretching from Northampton Washlands up to Titchmarsh Nature Reserve near Thrapston. Together, these sites are formally classified as a Site of Special Scientific Interest (SSSI), Special Protection Area (SPA), and Ramsar site, with all the legal protection that this entails. All these designations were put in place to protect these sites for the vital habitat they provide for the spectacular array wetland birds and overwintering wildfowl that rely on them. Below is a description of each designation:

    Site of Special Scientific Interest (SSSI) – Often referred to as a ‘Triple-S I’, this designation provides legal protection to important natural environments against development, pollution, and unsustainable management under the Wildlife and Countryside Act 1981. Landowners and those responsible for managing land notified as a SSSI are legally required to manage it in a way that conserves its special wildlife and geological features. At Stanwick Lakes, this means grazing certain areas, removing scrub, and clearing islands to maintain the wide-open spaces needed by the wetland bird communities. It also means that all the work we carry out has approval from Natural England, and that we must seek their written permission whenever we want to change management practices or introduce new ones. A short Natural England document regarding the designation can be viewed here.

    Special Protection Area (SPA) – Where the UK-specific SSSI designation applies more broadly to any site with special wildlife or historical features, SPAs are recognised internationally, and selected specifically for the presence of rare, threatened or vulnerable bird species, or the regular occurrence of certain migratory birds. As with the SSSI, those responsible for the management of land protected by SPA status must adhere to certain management practices, but this time with the specific goal of conserving the habitat needs of those birds named on the designation. At Stanwick Lakes, we are lucky enough to regularly host large numbers of wigeon, gadwall, shoveler, tufted duck, great crested grebe, and others, all of which are named in the SPA designation. More information on the SPA can be found here.

    Ramsar – This designation signals a wetland of international importance, chosen not necessarily just for its rich wildlife, but for its importance to human life. Although not directly affecting management through legislation the Ramsar Convention provides a framework for the conservation and wise use of wetlands as a vital natural resource. Wetlands provide humankind across the globe with freshwater supply, food and building materials, flood control, groundwater recharge, and climate change mitigation. Ramsar promotes positive action and co-operation to ensure these habitats are treasured and their benefits conserved for future generations. More information on Ramsar can be found here.

    How do we decide which conservation work to carry out?

    Our work is guided by and structured around a range of different sources, chief among which is the 10-year management plan. Produced in co-operation with an ecological consultant in 2022 and based off extensive habitat survey work, this document outlines an annual scheme of practical habitat work aimed at achieving the conservation goals of the site. It considers obligations set out by the SSSI and SPA designations, as well as stipulations made under the Environmental Stewardship scheme from which we receive funding. All the work prescribed is common practice for the management of a site of this nature, and widely practised on wetland nature reserves across the UK. Unfortunately, limitations in budget and staffing mean there is more work than it would be possible for us to complete each year, so we have to prioritise the jobs of highest impact. There is also an element of working reactively depending on the weather; some work becomes difficult or near impossible when water levels are particularly high.

    When is work carried out?

    During the Spring and Summer, the work is concentrated on maintaining the site for the benefit of our 200,000+ visitors.

    Most of the practical conservation work takes place during Autumn and Winter, between the months of September and March, outside of the breeding season when the risk of disturbing nesting birds is low.

    Outside of this window, the only work that will take place is for public amenity. This includes cutting the grass along path edges, removing overhanging vegetation along walking/cycling routes, and removing potentially hazardous trees from public areas.

    What happens if we do not do this work?

    If we did not carry out the work outlined in the management plan, ecological succession would see trees take over and the site lose its value as a wetland as described above.

    Who carries out the work?

    Practical conservation work is carried out by the rangers and a team of dedicated volunteers. We hold regular work parties every Wednesday and are particularly active between September and March.

    What can you do to help as an individual?

    If you fancy lending a hand, we are always ready to welcome new volunteers to our weekly conservation work parties. Pop in and see us if you are interested and we can give you all the details. If you can’t get out and join us then there is still plenty that you can do at home and in the garden. Visit the websites of organisations like the Wildlife Trust and RSPB for lots of creative ideas.

    What are we (Stanwick Lakes) not responsible for?

    Wildlife welfare – although we work hard to provide the right conditions for wildlife to thrive, we are unfortunately not properly equipped to deal with injury, disease, or other welfare issues affecting wild animals. In those instances where an injured or sick animal is brought to our attention and it is safe and appropriate to do so, we will retrieve it and pass it on to a local animal welfare charity with the correct facilities for treatment and rehabilitation. In other cases we must unfortunately let nature take its course.

    Livestock – most of the fields at Stanwick Lakes are grazed under license by a third party, and some are leased out as pasture; none of the livestock present on the site are owned or managed by us, nor are we responsible for their security and the upkeep of livestock fencing. We liaise very closely with our grazier, and any concerns over livestock should be reported to us so we can pass them on.

    Dog bins – North Northants Council are responsible for emptying all but 2 of the dog waste bins on our site. Although we will empty those close to the hub ourselves if they start to overflow, some of the bins further out regrettably do not get checked as frequently. Issues with dog waste bins can be reported directly to North Northants Council here.

    Moorings – A small mooring is located on our site just by the zip lines and is managed by an external organisation. If you would like to use the mooring, please get in touch directly with the Friends of the River Nene here, where you can purchase a membership.

    River – The Environment Agency is responsible for items of river infrastructure, such as the sluice gate and lock present on our site. We do not have control over the operation of these items, and the Environment Agency can alter water flow through the site as they see fit without warning.

    Things you may see of concern...

    If you see the Rangers out and about doing some work, and don’t really understand why they’re doing it, they will always be happy to stop for a chat about conservation of the site and explain the work. Here are some of the things you might see happening over the autumn and winter months:

    Tree felling – We fell trees for a few reasons, depending on the habitat in which we’re doing so, but always with good reason.

    Woodland – The main purpose for felling trees in a woodland setting is to thin the canopy cover, letting more light on to the woodland floor and giving the plants there chance to flourish. Thinning is a normal part of woodland creation and management; it is easier, more efficient, and cost effective to plant trees at a high density with a view to start thinning them after 10 years or so of growth. Creating variety in the age and height structure of the vegetation is also important, and is achieved by ride-widening, cutting scallops along path edges, and opening up glades. Much of the plantation woodland at Stanwick Lakes is now around 30 years old, having been planted by Hanson during quarrying operations, and has unfortunately missed out on any of the early-years management. The result is a lot of closely packed, tall trees with very little side-branching and a sparse, light-deprived understory with poor ground cover.

    Wetland – On the areas of the site which are closely managed for wetland birds, trees are undesirable for a couple of reasons. Primarily, they will eventually cause delicate habitat types such as reed-beds, scrapes and marshland to dry out and scrub over as they grow bigger and take up more water. In large, open areas with good potential for ground-nesting birds to breed, trees will break line of sight coveted by the birds and provide cover and perching spots for predators such as corvids.

    Reed bed cutting – Reed beds are a hugely important habitat type, home to several specialist species including the rare and elusive Bittern, and a priority habitat of the UK Biodiversity Action Plan. We manage our reed-beds with a ‘rotational cut’, meaning we cut a specific portion each year, and that over a 5 or 10 year period the whole reed bed is cut once. Cutting and removing old plant material prevents it rotting down and raising the level of silt at the bottom of the reed bed; over time this would dry the reed bed out and make it more difficult for the reeds to grow. Cutting also promotes vigorous new growth in the reeds, which spread through an underground network of rhizomes, helping them maintain dominance and stop the incursion of trees and scrub.

    Bonfires – Our habitat management work generates a lot of ‘waste’ vegetation, and we try our best to use as much of the material as possible. Felled trees provide timber for our traditional craft courses, go into the construction and maintenance of various heritage projects, are chipped to create garden mulch, and provide firewood to heat some of our structures over the winter. We also leave some piles of cut material to rot in situ and provide good habitat for various reptiles, invertebrates and small mammals. Where none of this is feasible however, we must get rid of the material when leaving it to rot would be detrimental to our efforts. To this end we have frequent bonfires to dispose of excess material. Although the plumes of smoke can look alarming, we keep fires safe and under constant supervision until they are extinguished. The chemical process of burning is just an extremely accelerated version of natural decomposition, so while it is unfortunate that carbon is being released into the atmosphere sooner, there are no additional pollutants being released.

    Island clearance – Keeping islands clear of vegetation for the benefit of breeding birds is something we are required to do under the Environmental Stewardship Scheme. Long Island, which can be seen from the main bird hide, regularly hosts a good number of successful breeding pairs of Common Tern. These birds traditionally nest in coastal habitats with shingle beaches and rocky islands, but in recent years have moved further inland as coastal habitats have been lost, and suitable habitat such as disused quarries have become available. It is therefore important that we now maintain the nature of these islands and keep them clear of vegetation for future generations of these birds.

    Grassland mowing – When the nutrient content of the soil is high, grasses and highly competitive species such as nettles, thistles and docks will maintain a monopoly on an area of grassland. We mow large areas of grassland and rake off the cuttings in late summer to combat this and to promote the growth of wildflowers, which require a much more nutrient-poor soil. If the grass was not cut and allowed to die back, or if it was cut and then not raked off, the old plant material would decompose and return all its nutrients to the soil. By removing the material and as many nutrients as possible with it, we are depriving the soil and taking the competitive advantage away from the most vigorous species. Over time this creates a much more diverse mix of vegetation, which in turn allows a wider variety of insects to thrive, and so on as the benefits move up the food chain.

    What should I do if I have any concerns?

    You can report any concerns directly to the ranger team, who will then pass them on to the relevant body if it’s not something we can deal with ourselves. If you are out on the further reaches of our site and need to speak with us urgently, you can contact the Visitor Centre on 01933 625522 during normal opening hours (09:00 – 17:00, 7 days a week). Other concerns and comments can be emailed to info@rftrust.org.uk, or submitted via the contact form on our website which can be found here.

    Conservation is an evolving science with new ideas, techniques and theories coming to the fore all the time. Working together, as a team with all our invaluable volunteers, colleagues and many varied contributors, we are striving to provide the best we can, every day.

    Along with support from our visitors and the general public, we can preserve and protect Stanwick Lakes for future generations to enjoy.

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