Lucas Marsh: An Urban Oasis

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Tucked away and hemmed in by a sports centre, refuse tip and a housing estate just outside of Oadby town centre, a mere 2 miles or so down the road from the edgeland, is a real urban oasis. Lucas Marsh is a small, 1.5 hectare site managed by the Leicestershire and Rutland wildlife trust. It is part of the larger Brock’s Hill country park (a mix of deciduous woodland, picnic and play areas) but while the crowds amass in the main park I suspect many of the visitors to the country park have never even stepped foot in Lucas Marsh. They are missing a gem.

The Marsh developed as a bi-product of industry at the turn of the century; the area was excavated for building materials and the shallow pit left behind became a drainage hole for the surrounding farmland. Over time, the site has become an invaluable resource for local wildlife and the range of rare habitat makes it an extremely important area for the County. A mix of reedbed, rough grassland, dense scrub, scattered woodland and mature hedging mean that this diminutive area is vast in it’s diversity. A relatively new spinney consisting of rough grassland, Oak, Ash, Silver Birch, and Hazel opens up into a marsh dominated by strands of Greater Willowherb and Common Reed but woven into this typical wetland fabric are Blunt-flowered rush, Water Figwort, Ragged Robin and Meadow sweet amongst others whilst the boundary hedge contains Guelder-rose adding to the diverse habitat. On the eastern edge of the site, two large ponds surrounded by Ash and Willow provide an oasis for Blue-tailed and Large Red Damselflies whilst Speckled wood, Orange tip, Ringlet, Meadow Brown, Peacock, Red Admiral, Holly Blue and Green-veined White butterflies can be found in abundance here in the summer.

Of course, this wetland area makes perfect habitat for many of our migrant birds; nesting here in early summer are Blackcap, Whitethroat, Lesser Whitethroat, Willow Warbler, Chiffchaff and Spotted Flycatcher whilst year round residents include breeding Kingfishers and Great Spotted woodpeckers. There’s plenty of mammal action too, as we will see a little later.

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It has been a while since I had a snoop around the marsh (it does get tricky underfoot over winter, despite the boardwalk) and, with the weather still not being at it’s best I thought I would divert my attention away from the edgeland once more and pay this little reserve a visit whilst it was at least dry.

Entering the main spinney, all is quiet save for a pair of Blackbirds digging for worms and a handful of Great Tits rummaging around in the canopy for gnats and insects.IMG_20170417_150827813 The woodland is coming into leaf well; the small new green leaves adding a vibrant contrast to the grey skies they are not yet full enough to hide. On the woodland floor, a small clump of Cowslip shone citrus-yellow. Stepping onto the boardwalk and over a small stream, even in April, the change in temperature is tangible as I head into the marsh proper; the warm damp air, as I’ve know it here in summer before, can be quite stifling. Of course, this moist pocket of woodland fringed marsh is a breeding ground for all manner of ferns, moss and fungi. The trees here bare the growth of fresh white mushrooms; the boardwalk, lying deadwood and rocks are thickly painted over in a lush green Jurassic carpet that wouldn’t look out of place in the rainforest. Even today, despite the cloud and single-figure temperatures, gnats and midges dance away above the stagnant bog and saturated ground.

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The cracked and crippled timber of half fallen Willows, Blackthorn and Hawthorn gives way to an open area of reedbed and Willowherb. Today, it’s brown, grassy and a little lifeless though the new shoots can be seen poking heads above the quagmire. The dead, bare stems rustle gently in the breeze while Chiffchaff sing heartily from the tops of the mature hedge canopy. Picking through the silt on the marsh edges, Blackbirds dredge for worms and hammer Kentish Snails against rock or stump then guzzle down the prized innards. Thick areas of scrub, mainly bramble, encroach across much of the bed-edges and now in full leaf they shake and shiver with the activity of unseen birds; Wrens, Robins, Tits and Warblers all revelling in the thorny cover.

The actual marsh is brief and scant but the moisture runs through the rest of the reserve and so too the expedited growth, the re-greening, the sense of real wildness, despite the proximity to intense civilisation. The site is always on the boundary of overgrown, even now (though in Summer, it really is like a jungle) but it works only to its credit. It keeps much of the noise, much of the outside at bay. Off the boardwalk and into a copse of Ash, Willow and Hazel (the Hazel fruits well but don’t the Badgers know it; rarely is there anything left for human hands to pick) immediately I am reacquainted with an extensive badger set. Each year, the labyrinth grows and this is no exception. Several new IMG_20170417_145144707entrances have scarred the woodland floor since I was here last and the latest excavations are fresh; footprint fresh in fact. At the entrance to one such tunnel lies a clump of dried, soiled grass; recently removed bedding from one of the sleeping chambers discarded and no doubt replaced with a fresh bundle from the copse floor. Bending down by one of the entrance holes I run my fingers across a fallen Hawthorn trunk; the bark once crackled now worn smooth by furry behinds, obviously a favoured grooming and scratch post. I pick from the base some chequered hairs; the distinctly black and white sections easily visible against the skin of my wife’s hand point only to badger.

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Further up the path I inspect the entrance to an entirely hollowed (but thriving) Oak. I shine the lamp from my mobile phone deep into the crevice and it’s clear that If I could squeeze through the entrance (which I can’t, fatty!) there would be room enough for me to lie comfortably in foetal position. I have no doubt that this has, in the past, been home to foxes; it is for all intents and purposes the idealised den of a children’s picture book, however with the path straying from it’s original route and ever closer to the Oak, it would be a risky place to raise a family given the frequent footfall now.

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Finally, the path meanders on to two large ponds that sit side-by-side flanked by Willows. Moorhens paddle blissfully around the secluded pools whilst Great, Coal and Blue Tits all madly gather up the flying insects drawn in by the water from the canopy. in Summer, this place is alive with Dragonflies, Damselflies and all manner of invertebrates. Today, it’s more sedate but the water appears well oxygenated (lilly-pads sit atop in abundance) and I imagine below the surface life is in full throng. It is the banks though that truly catch the eye today. Proliferations of Primroses, Lesser Celandine, Wild Strawberries and Bluebells are all in flower whilst just as the Wood Forget-me-nots are dotted blue amongst the copse floor here too they have spilled over into the open ground and everywhere a mat is mauve or cream or yellow. A green froth of extensive nettle beds have been left to feed the larvae of a host of butterflies and moths; yet more food for the ever hungry mouths of Tits and the gapes of eating machines that are their young. In a couple of weeks, as they did last summer, Swallows will descent upon the pool to sweep up great dancing blankets of insects, themselves an extension of the pool, a ripple of life that extends above the waters surface and no further.

Like life in the edgeland, in Lucas Marsh I am reminded how nature can adapt to not only exist, but thrive alongside us. Given the habitat, no matter the location, life will find it and their world will simply revolve around it. I am reminded still of the attraction, the importance of water; with it comes the very beginnings of life. The sea, rivers, lochs and lakes, a garden pond; a muddy puddle is suffice enough to hatch a thousand gnats, those gnats suffice enough to feed five hundred spiders, those spiders suffice enough to feed one hundred birds, those birds suffice to feed our mammals, to feed on berries and seeds, to sow those seeds, to grow our woods, our flowers, to feed our Bees who pollinate our crops, our grain and meadows which as silage feeds our cattle, which in turn feed us. You may have noticed I talk highly of insects on this blog, an often overlooked part of our ecology and yet the single most important. A famous biologist once said: “If all insects on Earth were to disappear, within fifty years all life on Earth would end. If all human beings disappeared from the Earth, within fifty years all forms of life would flourish”. It is a sobering thought. Wetlands and marshes are a valuable piece of the jigsaw, they are an environment in which life thrives in such diversity and abundance that it can rarely be matched by any other and yet across the world it is these habitats that are in the most rapid decline.

Lucas Marsh, an internationally recognised wetland it might not be, but within ten minutes in this urban oasis I have witnessed the entire food-chain unfold before me. That is a spectacle well worth watching and of an importance truly worth remembering.

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