Ningwood Common – a unique reserve

Ningwood Common Wildlife Reserve is the only place in the country where you will find a natural population of the rare Reddish Buff Moth. But for volunteers and staff, maintaining the Island’s equivalent of the giant panda is a full time challenge.

Every wildlife reserve is important and Ningwood Common on the Isle of Wight is no exception. In fact as the only home of the last remaining population in Britain of the rare Reddish Buff Moth, it holds a unique place among the Trust’s reserves.

The reddish buff thrives on Ningwood’s warm heathy grassland making the most of the short grasses and abundant sawwort, the food plant of the Reddish Buff’s Caterpillar. The current challenge for the Trust is to ensure these favourable conditions continue to exist. To maintain this vital habitat takes significant human endeavour as well as careful management of the other species likely to call Ningwood home.

The western part of the reserve is the stronghold of the Reddish Buff Moth and is a Site of Special Scientific Interest. Due to the rarity of the moth, the Trust is obliged to keep the population thriving at Cranmore and is required to maintain strong links with both Natural England and Butterfly Conservation who advise the Trust on management of this species.

In 2008 with funding from the West Wight Landscape Project, the Wildlife Trust undertook a much needed clearance of the scrub on the site to increase the area for the heathland and Reddish Buff habitat. This work, which involved the removal of scrub with a digger, disturbs the soil and brings deeply buried seeds to the surface and prevents the need for future use of herbicides to keep scrub regrowth in check. Whilst the initial lack of vegetation looks quite dramatic, the grassland, sawwort and heather will colonise this open ground very quickly. The scrub clearance will be complemented by the introduction of grazing animals – native breed cattle – during the summer months. Native breeds are hardy and can live on the poor nutrient levels found in the heathland plants as well browsing thorny scrub.

The open areas will also provide homes for the small pearl-bordered fritillary – a small orange butterfly that is found only at Cranmore on the Island. This lovely insect and its distant relative, the dark green fritillary, are increasingly rare butterflies feeding on violet plants in open grasslands and they will benefit from the new sunnier and warmer conditions. These conditions will also benefit the nationally rare nightjar, a ground-nesting bird, that was lost from Cranmore twenty years ago and has returned due to the management of this site in recent years. Not all the scrub has been removed as this is home to the elusive nightingale, a summer visitor to the Cranmore area, whose song can be heard both night and day.

Ningwood Common, a name taken from a nearby area of the Island which has now been lost, is a fragment of a much larger area of open heathland which covered much of the north-west coast of the Island at the beginning of the 20th century. This whole area would have looked similar to the New Forest with a mixture of cattle, sheep, horses and goats which roamed freely on common land, keeping the area open and allowing the wildlife to thrive, maintaining the dynamic mosaic of habitats. This land would have provided the local community with medicinal plants, gorse for fuel (particularly for bread ovens) and fodder for stock.

Nowadays, the land around the reserve is developed with housing, large gardens, improved pasture and forestry, all of which has reduced the area of heath. For visitors there are good links to the long distance routes passing the reserve whilst a permissive path forms a welcomed diversion from the unmade road. The permissive route passes through woodland dominated by ash and oak trees and is home for red squirrels, common dormice and lovely butterflies such as silver-washed fritillary and white admiral. The woodland also includes a number of flooded clay pits, once used brick-makers, but now deep shaded ponds.

The Wildlife Trust takes regular walks through the reserve during the May and October Walking Festivals and work parties are very busy here in the autumn and winter. If you would like to help this work please contact Chris Archbold (01983 529199 – or – chrisa@hwt.org.uk) the reserve’s warden.

Sawwort

The sole food plant of the Reddish Buff grows in warm sunny areas and is abundant on the heath. Its fine lamina leaves are a useful indicator that the micro climate is likely to be suitable for the moth to lay its eggs.

Nightingale

This shy bird can be heard singing from the depths of the densest scrub both day and night. It prefers low dense scrub to nest in alongside open areas of short sward for foraging. Which is why at Ningwood staff and volunteers work hard to manage the scrub correctly rather than just clear it wholesale.

The scrub

The scrub is made up of a variety of young and bushy trees, many of which are low and thorny with an edge of grasses and herbaceous plants. This provides good cover for nesting birds until the plants mature and become ‘leggy’ and bare.

Reddish Buff

Cranmore (the area in which Ningwood is located) is the only Site of Special Scientific Interest designated for a moth – the Reddish Buff.

Small Pearl Bordered Fritillary

Cranmore is also the only site on the Isle of Wight for this butterfly. The favoured food plant of the larva is common Dog-violet. Interestingly, it prefers to lay its eggs on larger leaves than the closely related pearl bordered fritillary, which prefers smaller leaves.

Silver Washed Fritillary

A butterfly strongly associated with open broad-leaved woodland. Interestingly, the eggs are laid on tree trunks well away from the violets that are its food plant. The tiny caterpillars crawl down to the woodland floor to find their first meal.