Just as it did in medieval times, the modern day Wrekin Forest encompasses far more than just trees alone. Open farmland surrounds the hill on three sides, providing the backdrop for the secluded stream valleys that connect its wooded heart to the flood plains of the River Severn. For many birds, insects and mammals the arable fields, pastures, hedgerows and watercourses piecing this landscape together are as important as the hill’s inner sanctum, providing food, shelter and a means to explore the wider landscape.
Owing to its mineral-rich geology, large swathes of land surrounding The Wrekin are of fairly marginal quality, and really only suitable for grazing cattle and livestock (although crops can be found growing on more fertile soils). Much like wooded landscapes, all farmland is certainly not equal when it comes to attracting wildlife. Thankfully, there are a number of telltale signs that should alert you to the presence of some potentially interesting habitat.
Some Features To Look For:
Hedgerows, streams, and the verges of green lanes and minor roads provide the linear ‘yin’ to the expansive ‘yang’ of the open field. However, the same low maintenance, wildlife-friendly approach that allows marginal features to flourish in that situation is equally valuable here as well.
At their most elemental, hedges are essentially stock-proof barriers but these enduring landscape features have been with us so long that they, like woodlands, are capable of attaining great age and conservation value. In general terms, those that work best for the widest range of wildlife will be broad, tall hedgerows containing dense outgrowths of bramble and dog rose with thick herbaceous cover at the base and the occasional solitary tree. Wild hedges are hugely important sources of seed and berry food, shelter and breeding habitat for birds, insects and small mammals, while the thick carpet of leaf litter that builds up beneath them in autumn can support numerous overwintering species. In terms of the bigger picture, hedgerows are also vitally important navigational features for creatures that roam well beyond their territories (Noctule bats, for instance, can travel up to 10km from a roost site in search of food, using hedges to guide the way).
The wooded stream valleys of the Wrekin Forest are a vital part of the area’s ecology but manmade ditches (which form part of a 500 000km UK-wide network) reach much deeper into the landscape than their natural counterparts. Where they are found alongside hedgerows and field margins, they can be particularly valuable for wildlife. Clear water, a variety of vegetation (on the bankside and in the water) and an abundance of insects are all good signs of an interesting ditch, while channels with a shallow profile will generally attract the widest range of creatures. Tussocky margins either side of these watercourses also help to slow the progress of any pollutants that might run into the channel. Ditches that are cleared a little and often (preferably along one side, or down the middle third) will also provide the greatest continuity for wildlife.
Birds: Skylark, Lapwing, Song Thrush, Dunnock, Linnet, Yellowhammer, Common Whitethroat, Curlew, Snipe, Kestrel, Barn Owl, Quail
Insects: St Mark’s Fly, Noon Fly, Brown Hawker, Silver-washed Fritillary, Orange-tip, Speckled Wood, Green-veined White, Brimstone butterfly, Robin’s Pincushion Gall (Dipoloepis rosae wasp), Helophilus pendulus (hoverfly), Common Froghopper
Mammals: Fallow Deer, Roe Deer, Brown Hare, Noctule Bat, Bank Vole, Field Vole, Common Shrew, Stoat, Weasel
Plants: Wood Barley, Hogweed, Cow Parsley, Cowslip, Primrose, Greater Stitchwort, Lesser Celandine, Wood Anemone, Cuckoopint (aka: Lords and Ladies), Great Willowherb, Bush Vetch, White Bryony, Hedge Woundwort
Some of the best Wrekin Forest farmland can be found immediately south of the hill itself. Spout Lane, the ancient thoroughfare between Little Wenlock and Neves Castle, is a particularly good location from which to view it, running beside open pasture, fields of spring crops, woodland edge and straight through a stream valley. Radiating from this ancient thoroughfare (and modern day ‘quiet lane’) are several other old green lanes and minor roads connecting surrounding farmsteads, villages and hamlets, where many a thick hedgerow and grassy field margin can be seen en route.
If rich, floral roadside displays are your thing (and why wouldn’t they be?), a springtime walk along Buildwas Lane — which links the Severnside village of the same name to Little Wenlock — really is a must. Its ancient, high hedgebanks harbour colourful annual displays of classic early flowering plants, such as Primrose and Cowslip, while offering some of the best views of the Shropshire Hills to be found anywhere in the county. Privately owned, and strictly off limits to walkers, the rough grasslands and wetlands of Devil’s Dingle (a former waste disposal site for the now redundant Ironbridge Power Station) can also be seen from the lane.
If you want to experience wildlife-rich pastures more closely, head for the Tom Pickering Benchwalks encircling Little Wenlock. Here, damp, tussocky pastures reclaimed from old surface mining sites are regularly favoured by waders, including Lapwing, Snipe and Water Rail, while other farmland birds, such as Yellowhammer and summer-visiting Common Whitethroat, find interest in the scattered hedgerows fringing the area.