Charlie Bell has a passion for nature and here she tells Matthew Panter how the National Trust’s Stepping Stones project can preserve wildlife under threat.

Charlie Bell has always had a love of wildlife.

She vividly remembers being a child, putting on her wellies, heading outside and digging up worms, while looking at other insects.
She even goes as far as to describe herself as a ‘wildlife geek’.

Charlie, co-ordinating the National Trust’s Stepping Stones project, is not the only one, of course.

Wildlife was something of a Godsend for many during those isolating days of lockdown as we got to witness nature at its loveliest and most inspiring.
Those of us lucky enough to sit in the garden or walk in a park became more appreciative of butterflies , with their brilliance of colour, floating softly in the breeze.

Bees buzzing around flowers, birds singing in the trees and swans, with their young, gliding gracefully across the water, provided special moments of joy and comfort when we needed them most.

It’s the public’s passion for wildlife and nature which Charlie is hoping to tap into in the coming months.

Volunteers are needed in Shropshire to help Britain’s most threatened species and reduce the risk of extinction.

We can all make a difference, Charlie says, as volunteers through the Stepping Stones Project.

“Anyone can provide a stepping stone,” she says.” You might not have a garden but if you have a window box and put a pollinating plant in it for a passing bumblebee, you have provided a stepping stone for it to move across the landscape.”

Small stepping stones can make a big difference, though the Stepping Stones Project has far-reaching aims. The National Trust-led project has been awarded nearly £290,000 in funding to continue its nature conservation work in the Shropshire Hills.

Natural England awarded the money from the Species Recovery Grant to the project, which aims to connect and restore patches of wildlife-friendly habitat between the Long Mynd and Stiperstones.

Shropshire Hills AONB Partnership, local farmers and landowners and 10 local community groups are also involved.

Four key species in the Stepping Stones project area will be supported using money from the grant – the otter, willow tit, small pearl-bordered fritillary butterfly and dormouse.

Patches of wildlife-friendly habitat – stepping stones – and wildlife corridors such as hedgerows, verges and streams which used to link areas of habitat are sadly in decline in the Shropshire Hills.

As a result, the mammals, birds and insects that use them to move around the landscape are under threat. The Stepping Stones Project aims to reverse that threat.

“Over the next 18 months, our teams will be working on a number of projects,” explains Charlie. “Dormice are one of the key species we’re looking to help.

“They are classed as vulnerable and The Mammal Society estimate there are about 930,000 hazel dormice in England and Wales. We don’t have estimates for the number in Shropshire itself. In Shropshire dormice are mainly found in the southwest of the county with records occurring within the Stepping Stones project area, Clun and Wenlock Edge, so we know we are an important hotspot for them in the county.

“They need habitat connectivity to survive but sadly, the isolation of broadleaved woodland, scrub and hedgerow habitats has led to a decline in this very cute little mammal.

“To remedy this, over the next 18 months, we will be creating or restoring around 7500m of hedgerow. Volunteers can help us plant over 30,000 hedgerow trees on three farms across the project area.”
Other planned work includes building three artificial dens called ‘holts’ in local streams to support otters.
“We have lost a lot of trees from the landscape and otters use logs for their den habitats so we will build some artificial ones to help.

“This is a smaller part of the project but is important to us because otters are near threatened according to the IUCN Red List of Threatened Species.”
Helping the conservation of butterflies also features heavily in the project, using marsh violet plants grown by local business Robert Lee Wildflower Seeds. “We are growing and planting out thousands of marsh violet plants to help the small pearl-bordered fritillary,” Charlie explains.

Marsh violet plants are the favourite food of small pearl-bordered fritillary caterpillars but a lot of the plants have been lost due to grazing and drying out. The butterflies need to have that food source for that side of its life cycle and so we are planting 20,000 of them in wet areas across the landscape to create that food source.”

The fourth part of the project will focus on willow tits. It has been described as the UK’s most threatened resident bird, having undergone a substantial decline in abundance and a severe contraction in range since the 1970s.

A National Willow Tit Survey has confirmed the species is present within the Shropshire project area with the team estimating there are 54 breeding pairs nearby – or 1.25 per cent of the national population.

“We are creating wet woodland and installing nest habitat for the willow tits,” Charlie said. “They won’t use pre-made boxes.They like rotting logs and then use their beaks to dig nests themselves so our plan is to tie logs around the trees so they can investigate them and hopefully dig out a nest.” Key to all of these plans is, Charlie adds, support form the public.

“We are going to be kept busy for the next 18 months and this will be a real team effort,” she adds.”We will need support of a lot of groups of volunteers.

“It is great because we have seen a lot of people wanting to get involved. I do honestly think the lockdowns we had helped people to discover more about nature on their own doorstep.

“A lot of nature programmes on television focus on far away places and elephants, tigers and more. That’s great, but we want people to explore our own patches.
“Volunteers can make a real difference in this project. It really is worth it because people can get the benefits from the social side as well as the physical exercise.
“It’s something that can be so rewarding. I have always been interested in conservation. It feels like you are facing up to concern about the future and doing something about it. We can all contribute to helping these wonderful animals.”

To find out more about the project or to volunteer, email or search for Shropshire  Stepping Stones Project on the National Trust website.

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