Getting to work on Romsey's new nature reserve - Fishlake Meadows

© James West

Martin De Retuerto, reserves manager at Hampshire & Isle of Wight Wildlife Trust, talks about why this nature reserve has huge personal significance for him

Working in wildlife conservation and covering the area where you’ve grown up, you notice a huge amount of change over the years. 

This can be easily demonstrated by how Romsey’s countryside has receded, as the town and its population has grown. But rarely do we see an example where development has actually helped to secure and protect an important place for wildlife within touching distance of a busy town centre.

Having grown up in Romsey and gone to school nearby, this very stretch of countryside was a regular place to roam with my friends. The barge canal was the perfect conduit to being ‘out of sight, out of mind’ and forays to the drained farmer’s fields were not uncommon. As years passed the Fishlake housing estate was built, removing some of that rough hinterland and, north of the road, (unbeknown to many) pumping operations that ensured the fields remained dry were ceased.

Winter flooding of the meadows began to be more and more profound and it was impossible to miss the ponds growing each summer. In the early 2000s I remember seeing that patches of reedbed, interspersed with bulrushes, started to characterise the southern end and hearing chattering reed and sedge warblers, audible from Fishlake Road. The lines of planted poplars were starting to die back and become their own ‘wild’ spectacle. I remember thinking that this special place could one day make a brilliant nature reserve!

Martin de Retuerto at Fishlake Meadows

Fast forward to recent years and Fishlake Meadows is unrecognisable. It looks and sounds as though it has always been there; an area of wildness, uncommon in our lowland chalk river valleys. In fact, it is possibly the best glimpse of how the Test Valley would have looked over 2000 years ago (minus the big grazing aurochs and tarpan!); a dynamic, shifting swathe of ponds, lakes, reedbed, willow scrub and fen grassland.

Amazingly this wild space has come into being by accident, and few places succeed into such richness due to abandonment of human activity. Bordered by the artificial barge canal to the east and raised Fishlake Stream to the west, the wetland and meadows find themselves contained like an arena, offering ample scope to view and listen to the plethora of birdlife that has given the reserve its reputation amongst wildlife enthusiasts.

During a cold spell in winter the cacophony of wildfowl, waders and gulls can be deafening, thousands of birds seeking the cover and sanctuary offered within the mix of habitats. Visiting during one such cold spell in 2014, I enjoyed one of those wildlife moments that literally leaves you breathless.

While walking along the east-west path along a former drainage ditch, a kingfisher flashed past me, flying across Ashley Meadow. As I turned to follow its course I stepped backwards and disturbed a tussock where a bittern had been taking cover. The hulking bird jumped into the air and caused such a commotion that I nearly fell into the ditch. It was truly magnificent to come within feet of such an iconic species. Lacking grace, it partially gained flight and then crashed into some scrub a few metres away from me.

Bittern by Ian Cameron-Reid

The spectacle highlighted the importance of Fishlake Meadows: a place - walking distance from town and home - with such diverse and impressive wildlife.

So, though it’s unlikely many visitors will ever [nearly] tread on a bittern, visit now and there’s a good chance that you’ll see an osprey fishing in the larger lakes. Keep your eyes peeled and you’ll possibly spot a peregrine falcon perched on a dead tree or a hobby catching dragonflies.

Sights of kingfisher are pretty likely. Gatherings of hundreds of swallows and martins, almost guaranteed. Come on a guided walk and the signs of otter will be exposed. Smell the carpets of water mint in flower. The magic doesn’t en

Osprey with fish

© Darin Smith

Working for Hampshire & Isle of Wight Wildlife Trust I find myself in a dream position, yet with a keen sense of responsibility. The Wildlife Trust is embarking on a new partnership with Test Valley Borough Council, hoping to deliver on the promise and hard work undertaken by the council to secure this place through the planning system.

Soon Wildlife Trust reserves staff will be visible on site, looking forward to speaking with local residents and visitors. We will establish a volunteer group and would like to hear from those keen to help with practical work parties, wardening or public engagement activities.

Knowledge of the reserve’s wildlife is mostly down to the contribution by many skilled and dedicated surveyors who have already collated a detailed record over many years. We will develop a survey and monitoring programme to help inform management decisions going forward.

Despite the reserve’s diversity, the habitats are at risk. Our Reserve Officer will begin a programme of work over the winter that will include new fencing, access improvements and scrub management. Drier areas will be made ready for the introduction of cattle grazing, which will help keep scrub at bay and maintain the open wetland habitats that make Fishlake Meadows so special. Large grazing animals will form an important piece of the ecological jigsaw, helping us to recreate the historic activity that defined the wildlife in this area.

Some management work will be subject to feasibility and weather conditions. We hope to improve accessibility for visitors in this first winter, potentially including sensitively located viewing areas. In due course the Wildlife Trust and Test Valley Borough Council plan to develop bolder, more innovative plans for access, viewing wildlife and education. The potential is incredible and we at the Wildlife Trust are determined to fulfil its promise