Kingdom of the dragonflies

A few miles from Sudbury, just over the border into Essex, lies a wonderful place called Foxearth Meadows nature reserve – a paradise for dragonflies and damselflies.

The 11-acre site is made up of ponds, wetland meadows, ditches, scrub and woodland, and when it was officially opened to the public in May this year it was billed as the only nature reserve in the country that is currently being managed primarily for dragonflies and damselflies.

I meet reserve manager Mark Prina there on a sunny and warm morning in early July. We had corresponded several weeks earlier and decided to convene at short notice when the forecast is favourable. The conditions are perfect for dragonflies and damselflies – the weathermen have done their job.

The reserve owner and Mark’s employer is an organisation called A Rocha UK, a Christian charity undertaking practical nature conservation and education with local communities and motivating others to care for the environment.

Mark Prina Photo: Ross Bentley

Foxearth is the first site the charity has bought in the UK, although it oversees community projects in west London and its international arm is involved in conservation schemes worldwide.

Originally farmland, the Foxearth site was bought in 1997 by A Rocha UK supporters Keith and Maureen Morris, who over the years managed the location as a wetland reserve. Two large-ish ponds already existed on the site, the remnants of old gravel pits, and Keith’s work added a number of smaller ponds to the reserve.

Keith, who was Suffolk dragonfly recorder for a few years, obviously knew what he was doing as these initiatives have enhanced the location for dragonflies and damselflies, species that are collectively known as Odonata. So far 22 species have been identified, a number, Mark informs me, that roughly equates to half of all regular British species.

Sadly, Keith died in 2009 and the site was sold to A Rocha UK in 2015. Since then Mark and a volunteer team have been working to restore the area to its former glory and to build on Keith’s legacy.

Flag iris at Foxearth Meadows

Insect producvtivity

Invasive plants have been removed, reed beds managed, and stagnant and overgrown ponds have been opened up.

Mark continued: “We want to encourage high levels of insect productivity because that is what dragonflies feed on, and you need clean water bodies that are functional and have plenty of oxygen.”

“We are looking to create many varied aquatic habitats, so we are managing the banks, the depths and the sizes of the ponds, so we can attract as many different species of dragonfly as possible.

“Each species has its own particular requirements – some don’t want too much vegetation around the edge of a water source, others require lots of vegetation – and they will not go where the conditions are not what they are adapted for.”

Emperor dragonfly Photo: Skylight55

Jurassic Park

As the morning starts to heat up, we stand by the main pond and watch for a while.

And it soon becomes apparent why Odonata have such a big fan club: an impressive emperor dragonfly, showing off its blue fluorescent tail, slowly makes its way across, hovering a few feet over the water; a substantial brown hawker appears from the side, resembling an insect crossed with a helicopter; a four-spotted chaser alights on a reed and displays its eponymous wings.

Four-spotted chaser Photo: Erik Karitz

I look around and see a blur of pink willowherb in the tall grassland while the yellow flower of fleabane mingles with wild mint at my feet.

Then, the damselflies start turning it on: I see azures and large reds, adding yet more colour to the proceedings, while banded demoiselles flit about looking like small bow-ties in search of a dress shirt.

There’s so much going on, and these beautiful beasts seem so prehistoric, I feel, for a few fleeting moments, like I’ve stepped into a miniature Jurassic Park.

Banded demoiselle Photo: Divina Michaelis

Wildlife benefits

Mark tells me that high numbers of dragonflies in an area are indicators of the health of the natural environment, and that as they manage the site specifically for Odonata, so other wildlife will benefit.

During my brief stay I saw plenty of wildlife; a kestrel hanging in the air; the black and white tail of a reed bunting disappearing into tree foliage; a comma butterfly offering up a full display of its ragged wings.

Mark says at some stage he will mow some sections of the site and introduce cattle to graze.

“It will bring a more varied sward and new plants to the site,” he explained.

“If we leave the vegetation, especially in the drier areas of the site, you end up with rank grassland and not much else. You don’t get any broadleaved herbs or many wildflowers, so we want to get a regime in place that increases the botanic diversity.

“But we have to be careful – we don’t want to mow the lot because there are lot of interesting things in the tall vegetation as well.”

So far Mark and his team have recorded around 18 of the 19 Odonata species on Keith’s original list. Three species have been added since then, including, in June, a variable damselfly which may be the first in the area since 1943.

This article first appeared in the East Anglian Daily Times in August 2017.

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