Something fantastic has happened, something that has taken a decade to achieve – Canvey Wick has been transformed from a brownfield site condemned be developed into a protected and highly valued nature reserve – opened this week by wildlife presenter and author Steve Backshall.
Canvey Wick is not a normal nature reserve, it is exceptional, astounding and of enormous significance. It is not pristine or unaffected by human activities, it is the polar opposite, a corner of the country that has been repeatedly meddled with and disturbed by humans.
A history of churning, dumping and landscaping on Canvey Wick has been hugely fortuitous for the endangered species that have found sanctuary in its sunlit, open habitats.
In the past the dynamic power of the Thames carved through a huge floodplain that included the whole of Canvey Island. Vast swathes sand, silt and shingle were built up and washed away. Humans have tamed the Thames; bound her between sea walls so she no longer creates the fresh open ground that a wide range of coastal plants and animals need to survive. The power of the Thames has been exchanged for the power of people. Life typical of sundrenched sand and shingle has found a home on Canvey Wick.
Canvey Wick was a low intensity grazing marsh until the 1960's when several meters of sandy and shingly Thames dredgings were dumped on the land. Then in the 1970s an oil refinery was built, but due to a crash in oil prices it never became operational and the site was abandoned.
The wildlife has thrived and it is now one of the top five sites in the UK for endangered species. It is home to at least 30 red listed invertebrates and three species that until recently were thought to have become extinct in Britain.
Canvey Wick’s treasures include the Shrill carder bee and Brown banded carder bee that depend on the low growing vetches, peas and trefoils in the low nutrient soils – and the Scarce emerald damselfly – a species that depends on the hot shallow ditches and flushes that dry out in the baking heat in this the driest valley in the UK.
The ecology of Canvey Wick is gorgeously complex; unsullied sandy soil supports an abundance of Bird’s-foot trefoil, feeding on its leaves are Morley weevils (Sitona cinerascens) – a beetle only known couple of sites in Britain; then buzzing around and snatching the weevils is an endangered wasp, the 5-banded weevil wasp (Cerceris quinquefasciatus). The weevil wasp takes the beetles back to its burrow in the sand where she buries them and lays her eggs. Her larvae will feed on the weevils and repeat the cycle next year……unless the endangered ruby tailed wasp Hedychrum niemalei can find the burrow and lay her eggs, because feeding on the weevils in the 5-banded weevil wasps larder is the only way her larvae will reach adulthood.
In 2003 a large proportion of Canvey Wick and its precious ecology was threatened by a proposed business park development. Buglife highlighted the potential for wildlife devastation and the story was picked up in one of the national newspapers. It was described as "England’s rainforest" by Natural England officer Dr. Chris Gibson and I said it had "More biodiversity per square foot than any other site in the UK".
Stunned by the public reaction the developer, a Government development agency, thought again and retracted the proposal. Then in February 2005 the majority of the site was protected by English Nature who recognised its huge importance to biodiversity and designated most of the site as a Site of Special Scientific Interest (SSSI).
Canvey Wick is not a 'pristine or typical' nature reserve, it's wild, it’s different, it's rough around the edges, wildlife thrives in the untidy messiness and industrial skeletal remains that make the site so unique. The rubble piles and cracked tarmac bases provide warm refuges, fringed by mosses, lichen and wildflowers. The bare sandy substrate is great for burrowing and basking bugs, the messy scrub and dead brambles provide shelter and overwintering habitat.
Buglife is delighted to be working with the Land Trust and RSPB to make Canvey Wick great for bugs and people. The UK's first Bug Reserve is a sunlit home for wildlife, a national beacon for entomologists wanting to understand invertebrate ecology, and of course it is now open for the people of Canvey Island who can experience this unique and amazing place.
The opening ceremony on 17th September was attended by over a hundred local people and supporters of the reserve, including Rebecca Harris, the local MP. When nightfall came Steve Backshall cut the ribbon and led over 70 people onto the reserve on a light trapping expedition. Crowded around the moth traps on a sweltery Essex night we watched the beetles, moths, caddisflies and other bugs flying in to be identified, announced and passed around the assembled throng.
This reserve is a testament to what can be achieved against the tide when people have clear objectives with a strong ethical basis and organisations are prepared to work together to create a better planet.
Please come and visit Britain’s first Bug Reserve.