The story of the landscape beyond The Wrekin is essentially a tale of the passage of water. South of the hill, the forest’s undulating terrain slopes inexorably towards the River Severn, with numerous stream valleys providing the means for rain that washes down from the hills to be disgorged into the famous waterway. While they might seem like two separate entities, the reality is less distinct and it’s perhaps more accurate to view the area’s terrestrial and aquatic habitats as an interconnected whole, comprising various wetland features that influence water quality and enable countless creatures with links to the river to move far and wide beyond it.
Rising amid the Cambrian mountains of mid-Wales and flowing southwards through the marches for 220 miles towards the Bristol Channel, the Severn is Britain’s longest river. Its arrival on the southern boundary of the Wrekin Forest marks a significant change in character, as the wide floodplains of the river’s upper catchment begin to give way to steeply wooded valley terrain that forms the backdrop for its passage through southeast Shropshire and north Worcestershire. The wildlife and habitats associated with the river and its tributaries (which by this point already number the rivers Vyrnwy and Tern, as well as the Clywedog and Vyrnwy reservoirs) are internationally significant and reflected by numerous official designations that speak of a rich ecological heritage. That is no less true for the section between Buildwas and Ironbridge, where vertical woodlands, pasture, riverside meadow, thick hedgerow and scrub all form part of a complex jigsaw that supports many plants, insects and animals.
The high conservation value of the upper and middle reaches of the Severn also extends to the river’s tributaries, which are notable spawning grounds for Brown Trout and Atlantic Salmon. Such diverse natural heritage relies on good water quality but the factors influencing that particular facet of river life go far beyond the channel itself — which is merely a single element of a much larger picture. Water movement in the rocks and gravels beneath the bed, and the land over which the river flows in times of flood, all influence waterway health and the type of wildlife present, forming part of a wider ‘riparian zone’. Rivers are constantly changing environments sculpted by the interactions of water, sediment and plant life. Throughout the year, a river moving naturally over its plain will produce a wide range of aquatic features across its backwaters, such as seasonal ponds, side channels and oxbow lakes, all providing the means for many species to move into the wider forest landscape.
The loamy, clayey soils of the land adjacent to the Severn at Buildwas make the area naturally suitable for wet flood meadows. Although only available for agriculture on a seasonal basis, the grasslands here can be very productive for cattle and livestock when winter floodwater is left to flow naturally over them, annually replenishing the soils with nutrients and minerals for the next season. Floodplain grazing marsh once covered large areas of Shropshire but the Severn Valley is one of just a few places where you can still witness a system of husbandry that has declined rapidly both in and outside the county. This traditional pattern of low-level seasonal grazing and midsummer cutting for hay is highly beneficial for ducks, geese and wading birds, too, providing them with habitat for winter feeding and summer breeding. Their fortunes are greatly aided by the cattle themselves, which help to create a lumpy and bumpy, tussocky surface that is readily utilised for nesting (and which benefits local plantlife by grazing out more dominant coarse grasses). Waders tend to fare best where they can build nests close to a ready source of food and, in summer, the exposed mudflats at river’s edge are extremely helpful in this respect. However, the divots created by wandering hooves will also stay filled with water long after the floodwaters recede, creating tiny microhabitats that are valuable for insects. The ditches that help to maintain water levels on the grazing marsh are also important in this respect, and can be utilised by Otter, small mammals such as Water Vole, and various bat species.
Aside from providing good grazing, the geology of the wider Wrekin Forest has created ideal conditions for wet woodland, which fringes many of the steep-sided stream valleys connecting the hill to the Severn. It might conjure up images of a swamp-like morass but tree cover within this type of habitat can be surprisingly sparse, enabling light to penetrate the canopy and create a highly variable mix of wet and dry ground conditions that vary according to the fluctuations of seasonal flooding. Consequently, life in these secluded places can be extremely rich, and just as varied. Among the principal reasons for this diversity is the presence of trees adept at coping with life in a dynamic and relatively fast-changing environment. Alder, birch and willow are typical wet woodland species, and all are capable of supporting large insect communities (those of the Wrekin Forest are especially notable for rare craneflies) and providing shelter and foraging for birds and bats. Where plenty of light reaches ground level, abundant spring flowers, ferns and wetland specialist plants, including many reeds, sedges and classic species such as Marsh Marigold, may also proliferate.
Birds: Dipper, Kingfisher, Grey Wagtail, Oystercatcher, Goosander, Common Whitethroat, Garden Warbler, Reed Warbler, Sedge Warbler, Sand Martin, Little Ringed Plover
Insects: Beautiful Demoiselle, Banded Demoiselle, various riverfly species (mayflies, caddisflies and stoneflies)
Fish: Brown Trout, Atlantic Salmon, Twaite Shad, River Lamprey, Pearl Mussel
Mammals: European Otter
Plants: Common Comfrey, Meadowsweet
Travelling from source to sea, the Severn Way is Britain’s longest riverside footpath. At Buildwas Bridge, it provides the means for a wonderful riparian walk into Ironbridge, just at the point where floodplain gives way to wooded valley. However, this is far more than a journey through trees alone, with verdant flood pasture and thick scrub providing wildlife interest throughout the year. Within the Severn itself, exposures of bedrock, boulder and rapid shallows add another nuanced layer pregnant with intrigue, and this is the place to view the hunting skills of Dipper (now a sporadic visitor and just about hanging on in these climes), Kingfisher and Goosander (the latter is chiefly a wintertime attraction but several pairs do now breed in the area). The passing of the seasons is particularly evident here, and if you’re walking in spring or autumn it’s best to keep an eye to the sky for the many passage migrants for whom the Severn is a long distance migratory route.
If you’re feeling particularly adventurous, you can also turn your riverside trundle into a full blown tour of the riparian zone by traversing Lydebrook Dingle, one of The Wrekin’s many wooded stream valleys. More details about its incredible array of fauna and flora can be found by visiting the website of the Severn Gorge Countryside Trust, while a route leading to The Wrekin via Braggers Hill and Buildwas Lane is featured in our Walk Around The Wrekin booklet (available from the downloads section of this website).
Starting from Buildwas Bridge at heading east along the B4380, public footpaths from the village of the same name give wider access to the floodplains of the Buildwas River Section, and its famous meanders (which are perhaps at their most scenic viewed from the roadside higher up the valley, where parking spaces and seating are available). This area is a Site of Special Scientific Interest, owing to its fossiliferous geology, which is rich in the well-preserved shelly remains of the Silurian age. Large breeding colonies of Sand Martin can be seen in the sand banks here, while it is also the location of the only two natural shingle bank sites in Shropshire where Little Ringed Plover breed — a vanishingly rare local wader species of which only twenty pairs are known to nest in the entire county.
Wherever you’re walking, do bear in mind that the Severn is a powerful and dangerous river and, depending on the weather, its banks and floodplain can become extremely muddy. Please take care!