Ecology projects

1. Local sites

Because of the way sites are selected for national protection, the wildlife-rich habitats of Berkshire, Buckinghamshire and Oxfordshire receive virtually no legal protection. Just over one percent of our region is protected – the national average is just under eight percent.

Our Local Wildlife Sites, without the status of national sites, but which may have just as much wildlife value, therefore support the vast majority of our wildlife. Most survive thanks to sympathetic landowners, and they need support. Without these sites quite simply we would have virtually no wildlife left.”

Matt Jackson, Head of Conservation, Policy and Strategy at Berks, Bucks and Oxon Wildlife Trust (BBOWT)

Local Wildlife Sites are sites with ‘substantive nature conservation value’ and are important for nature and people alike. These sites cover 5% of land in Britain and have been shown to have positive effects on our quality of life, health, wellbeing and education.

Along with Sites of Special Scientific Interest and National Nature Reserves, Local Wildlife Sites represent the best known semi-natural wildlife habitats in the country and are home to many of our rarest, threatened and protected species. In Buckinghamshire and Milton Keynes, there are 432 Local Wildlife Sites covering an area of over 5800 hectares.

Many of these Local Wildlife Sites represent habitats which are becoming increasingly rare, so these sites act as a refuge for species or provide stepping stones or corridors between nationally designated wildlife sites.

In 2014 The Royal Society of Wildlife Trusts carried out a review of Local Wildlife Sites in England and found that over 11% of Local Wildlife Sites had been lost or damaged in recent years. Therefore it is especially important that we monitor and protect the sites we have in Buckinghamshire and Milton Keynes.

We are currently reviewing Biological Notification Sites and, in collaboration with the Natural Environment Partnership working towards assessing if the current Biological Notification Sites are of reasonable quality and where possible, designate more local wildlife sites, adhering to strict nationally adopted guidelines using structured survey methodology. We are also working to resurvey the county’s Local Wildlife Sites to assess their condition and species presence.

We aim to collect data about these sites so that they have more weight in the planning process. With better data we can also give more detailed advice to landowners who work with us to conserve these sites and the public who wish to visit these sites.

2. Chilterns chalk scheme

Chalk streams are one of the most important Biodiversity Action Plan habitats in Buckinghamshire due to the rarity and diverse nature of this habitat. The Chilterns Chalk Streams Project is a partnership between; The Chilterns Conservation Board, The Environment Agency, Affinity Water, The Chiltern Society, Chiltern District Council, Dacorum Borough Council, Thames Water and The Wildlife Trusts. The partnership aims to conserve and enhance all major chalk streams in the Chilterns AONB and to encourage enjoyment and understanding of them. The main work that this partnership carries out includes:

  • Raising awareness of the importance of chalk streams and the need to conserve them
  • Providing management advice on riverside management
  • Practical conservation management to improve streams for wildlife
  • Carrying out surveys to assess the quality of wildlife habitats and locate rare species
  • Providing educational resources for schools to help children understand the chalk stream environment
  • Improving physical access to the streams where appropriate, and providing information about their special qualities

3. Peregrine falcons

In partnership with Aylesbury Vale District Council, Bucks Bird Club and local volunteers, a nesting platform was installed after two peregrine falcons (Falco peregrinus) were spotted flying around the town centre in 2007.

The platform has been successfully maintained since and can be seen from street level on the 12th Floor of County Hall. It provides a safe haven for the birds and encourages them to breed and, in 2012, two chicks successfully hatched and fled the nest! 

The peregrines also successfully bred in 2013 and 2014.The offspring of these peregrines were ringed by licensed bird ringers allowing us to track how far the young have dispersed from the nest. The latest sightings have been of one of the young birds in the Oxford area. 

Huge thanks should be given to the dedicated volunteers who have made this project a success by investigating prey remains, managing a blog, ringing the chicks and organising public watch events.

How important are the Aylesbury peregrines?

There are currently less than 1500 breeding pairs of peregrine falcons in the UK. Peregrine numbers declined during the 19th and 20th centuries because of illegal killing by humans and widespread contamination by persistent toxic agricultural chemicals such as DDT, which through accumulation in the food chain, caused the collapse of the peregrine population in the UK in the late 1950s.

Most of the present day population breeds on cliff-ledges or other undisturbed inaccessible locations. The UK breeding population makes up around 20% of all European peregrine falcons and every breeding pair is therefore immensely important for the survival of the species.

The birds arrived in Aylesbury without any aid from people. Being the tallest building in Aylesbury, County Hall most accurately reflects their natural habitat. Perhaps more than this there is a plentiful supply of prey such as pigeons, however, we also know they have taken other prey including Golden Plover (Pluvialis apricaria) and Ruff (Philomachus pugnax) - both wading birds. These could have been caught at Tring or other reservoirs or while flying over in migration.

When is the best time to see them?

The birds are most active at the start of the breeding season around February and March. Egg-laying typically occurs by the end of March to early April and hatching during the first week of May. Once hatched, the chicks are likely to be taking their first flight within just six weeks!

You can see the falcons around County Hall as it gets dark or hunting further afield. If you are lucky you may see a hunting peregrine which will spot its prey at distance, before stooping at speeds of up to 180kph (113mph) when it will attempt to intercept its prey in mid-flight.

Alternatively, you can view the live webcam hosted by Buckinghamshire Bird Club.

Are peregrines protected?

The peregrine is afforded the highest degree of legal protection under Schedule 1 of the Wildlife and Countryside Act 1981. 

It is an offence to intentionally take, injure or kill a peregrine or to take, damage or destroy its nest, eggs or young. It is also an offence to intentionally or recklessly disturb the birds close to their nest during the breeding season. Violation of the law can attract fines up to £5,000 per offence and/or a prison sentence of up to six months. 

The Nature Conservation (Scotland) Act 2004 widens this protection and provides additional protection for the peregrine in Scotland.

Presentation on the Aylesbury Peregrine project

In 2012, Mai Nielsen, previously of Buckinghamshire County Council and Matt Dodds from Aylesbury Vale District Council presented a talk on how the Aylesbury Peregrine project provided a positive example of urban biodiversity conservation at an international conference in Zvolen, Slovakia.

The conference proved a fascinating insight into the problems faced by urban biodiversity during refurbishment and maintenance operations throughout Europe, but also how many species have come to depend on buildings for their survival. All expenses were paid by the EU.

All images are © M. Wallen. Used by kind permission.


4. Chiltern woodlands

The woodlands within the Chilterns are also of vital importance due to their biodiverse nature. The Chiltern Woodland Project was founded in 1989 by The Chiltern Society and is now an independent charity.

The project:

  • Aims to promote and encouragement the sensitive and sustainable management of Chiltern woods in order to protect the landscape of the Chilterns and maintain and enhance its biodiversity
  • Raises the awareness of the woodland economy and enjoyment of woodland
  • Provides advice on practical woodland management
  • Carries out woodland ecological and archaeological surveys
  • Organises events for a wide variety of people to help achieve these aims

5. Roadside verge nature reserves

Buckinghamshire and Milton Keynes has an extensive road network, often lined by grass verges. These grass verges have the potential to form corridors for wildlife, therefore tying in with the landscape scale conservation measures that are thought to be needed in order for wildlife to adapt to climate change and move through what can sometimes be an inhospitable landscape.

In response to the importance of roadside verges for wildlife, in the early 1970s, a number of roadside verge nature reserves (RVNR) were established by the Berkshire, Buckinghamshire and Oxfordshire Wildlife Trust. Roadside verges have been recognised in the Buckinghamshire Biodiversity Action Plan as having the potential to provide for providing food, shelter and corridors between habitats for wildlife if managed sensitively. Many of our invertebrate, bird and mammal species have been recorded to breed on roadside reserves.

Some of the designated Roadside Nature Reserves (RSNVs) have been designated due to their importance to a species (e.g. the caterpillars of the striped lychnis moth Cucullia lychnitis) or for the importance of the habitats they contain (e.g. chalk grassland). The existing RVNR networks totals 21ha in area and covers approximately 25km of road verges. These roadside verges will be surveyed again in due course in order to inform management plans.

Roadside Nature Reserves can support a wide variety of invertebrate pollinators are likely to form a key part of Buckinghamshire’s effort to contribute to the national pollinator strategy which was launched on 4 November 2014. This will then help provide benefits to the economy as approximately 80% of all flowering plant species, including crops, are pollinated by animals. RSNVs also support diverse assemblages of many rare and threatened plant species, including orchids.

6. Habitat mapping

The county is recognised for its rich and varied landscape and habitats. Ancient parkland, chalk grassland and beech woodland are just a few of the habitats making up our rich natural environment which make the area a prime location to live. The environment is coming under increasing pressure from development, climate and land management change, making understanding our natural surroundings a priority.

In partnership with Buckinghamshire and Milton Keyes Environmental Record centre, Milton Keynes Council and Natural England we have developed a habitat map covering all of rural Buckinghamshire and Milton Keynes. It has a fine grain environmental assessment of the habitats present in the county. We have created a detailed record of the habitat types present, their management status and origin. The database holds information of well over 65,000 individual habitats.

The report gives an overview of the habitats present in the county, their distribution and underlying characteristics. Data is pooled into 5 administrative areas presenting a summary of the habitat resource for each district. This is a major step forward in our understanding and creates an important tool to conserve the natural environment.

We hope the project will help inform those involved in decision making related to our environment. The data can be used by local communities to provide awareness of the natural environment and act as an aid in decisions relating to their rural surroundings. The data can also be used as a basis for further research and provide a baseline for climate change studies.

The report can be downloaded below, alongside appendices with further information about the project. Hardcopies are available for £5. Contact us to order a copy

7. Wildlife sites project

Local wildlife sites are important wildlife areas. They include chalk and limestone grasslands, neutral hay meadows and pastures, as well as wetland, heathland and ancient woodland.

Unlike Sites of Special Scientific Interest (SSSI), owning a Local Wildlife Site (LWS) does not confer any legal or statutory obligations on the landowner. The conservation relies on the voluntary co-operation of landowners and managers. Sites are also recognised within the local planning system.

In Buckinghamshire and Milton Keynes 45% of ancient woodland and at least 35% of chalk grassland has been lost since the 1930's. In many instances, wildlife has been lost, as old meadows have been reseeded, marshes drained and ancient woods abandoned or replanted with conifers. Protection of Local Wildlife Sites will help to maintain our valuable wildlife heritage.

There are 392 sites identified in Buckinghamshire and Milton Keynes, most are managed sympathetically by their owners. The Wildlife Sites Project aims to encourage the continuation of this trend, so the wildlife is retained and enhanced for the future.

How the system works

A list is made of potential Local Wildlife Sites. Subject to landowner/tenant permission for access, sites are surveyed to record their flora and fauna. This data is used to assess each site's wildlife value in a county context, considering all plants and animals. Sites are then judged against criteria and, after consultation with landowners, a list and maps of Local Wildlife Sites will be drawn up. Management advice and support for grant aid applications will be given on sites passing the criteria.

What does this mean for landowners?

Local Wildlife Sites are a priority target for agri-environment grants, such as DEFRA's Environmental Stewardship Scheme. This aims for environmental benefits and to make conservation part of normal farming practice. If you own or manage a Local Wildlife Site, maintaining the wildlife importance of the site relies on your co-operation, with possible financial support from agri-environment schemes. There is no control over agricultural or forestry operations, and no new rights of access are created.