Since Saxon times, Dorset’s most northerly parish, Bourton, has been home to Egbert’s Stone, used by King Alfred to muster his troops before routing the Vikings at the Battle of Ethandun in 878, but placed there decades before by his grandfather to settle the boundaries of Dorset, Wiltshire and Somerset.
A new rallying point for community-mindedness and local pride began as a parish initiative as part of the effort to create a Neighbourhood Plan for the village. Over the last two years, through the energy and commitment of a happy band of volunteers, verges have been tended, trees and shrubs planted, new habitats created and maintained, bat and bird boxes installed (attracting barn owls is a priority), a woodland edge managed and Forty Pond, on the outskirts of the village, has been rescued from oblivion.
If everything goes to plan, within a few years the village could have its own designated nature reserve that will act as a visitor attraction for years to come. ‘There’s a lot of ground to cover before we get to that point, but we have every reason to be optimistic,’ says Bernard Sullivan, who loosely manages the Wildlife and Habitats group that first came together to carry out a survey of habitats in the parish. ‘I have a long-standing interest in wildlife gardening so when my wife, Susie, and I moved here a few years ago, we bought a new house with a garden that had nothing in it, a blank canvas. The purpose was to attract as many species as possible to our garden and having done that, I thought we could try to do it on a larger scale.’
The group now takes care of a stretch of verge and a woodland edge on the main road through the village to Wincanton, the three village entrance gates, a water vole habitat on the Stour in Bridge Street near the Bourton Mill site and Forty Pond, its largest project to date, a former stone quarry on the south-western edge of the village. ‘It is the largest pond area in the parish and a really important habitat now that it has been cleared of debris and overgrowth,’ explains Bernard. ‘The village school has come for a visit, the landowner, Mary Taylor, has been very helpful and we’ve heard all sorts of stories, from older villagers who remember playing on the ice when the pond froze in winter to the story of a village postman who apparently drowned in the pond many years ago – we haven’t found any evidence of that, but we’re not finished yet!’
Its work is a testament to people power, but the group is supported by a small grant from the parish council and regularly seeks the advice of Dorset Wildlife Trust, hosting joint meetings with its counterparts in Wiltshire and Somerset. BBC Radio 4 presenter and naturalist Chris Sperring MBE also visited to offer advice and support.
Bernard goes on: ‘Since we started two years ago, we have won over the few doubters and now people are very supportive of us. Perhaps when we started a few villagers weren’t sure if what we were doing was a good idea, but now they’re far more likely to stop and ask what we’re doing and often say that if they had more time, they’d like to help. We have a regular band of eight or nine people who are nearly always available and a lot more who come when they can. It’s all very informal: we have three or four current projects and I just post a task on Facebook and email the members, and those who can make it turn up.
‘We do all the work, but it has been really useful to be able to call on the advice of the wildlife trusts because everything is a habitat for something, so each time we do something for the benefit of one species, it’s likely to be at the expense of another.’
Whereas the verge used to be cut back every few months, it is now done once a year. Leaving the grass to grow and planting parasitic species like yellow rattle to keep the grass down has allowed wild flowers, including three rare orchids, to emerge and set seed. Last summer, at the eastern edge of the verge, the group noticed a concentration of mining bees, solitary bees first found in the UK on the Dorset coast around the turn of the century. They nest in burrows in the ground rather than in a social colony such as a hive and the displaced soil from these burrows litters the bank. ‘They seem to be attracted by the ivy flowers, so we’ve planted more for them and hope they’ll be back this year,’ says Bernard.
The verge is also home to recently planted gorse, alder buckthorn, crab apple, wayfaring tree, honeysuckle, hazel, yellow buddleia, elder, blackthorn, cherry plum and guelder rose. There’s a hibernaculum – a pit excavated and filled with layers of stones and wood with logs on top – to encourage hibernating reptiles, apples have been left out for slugs, which in turn feed the birds, and the logs are drilled with holes to attract bees and other insects.
The three village entrance gates not only speak of the historic turnpike that ran through Bourton but have now become three little managed habitats – one planted with a bird cherry, and a mountain ash and guelder rose at the others, along with wild daffodils, wild tulips, native bluebells and ground cover such as broom. ‘It’s important that as much as possible we plant native species and seek to attract native wildlife. The entrance gates were put up a few years ago by the parish council and caused some little controversy at the time, but by planting them up, not only have we created habitats but the volunteers who have taken them on make sure the gates are well maintained and kept clean. It all makes for a better-looking village.’
One of the additional benefits of all this activity on behalf of local flora and fauna is that it is also producing a more attractive human environment in Bourton. Among the first activities organised by the Wildlife and Habitats group were village litter picks: refuse is not only unsightly, it also poisons habitats. Since then it has also fought pollution from the development of 35 homes at Bourton Mill – mentioned in Domesday and at one time home to the largest water wheel in Europe, as well as having been through other incarnations as a flax factory, iron foundry and dried milk processing plant – forcing waste liquids to be diverted away from the Stour.
‘We’re only two miles from Stourhead, where the river rises, so pollution in the water here runs the entire length of the river, which is not good for the Stour as a whole and certainly not for the water voles we have nesting in the bank by the bridge,’ says Bernard, adding that one of the reasons so many footpaths pass by and through Bourton is that the various factories on the site once employed hundreds of local people. ‘This year we’re taking on the maintenance of the footpaths from the parish council, so that will be quite a job. It’s not a chore, it’s enormously enjoyable and we get a great deal out of doing it. It’s about people coming together and having a positive impact on their community. It can start with one person, but if you have a small group of people who are prepared to just get on and do things, then you’d be surprised how quickly
‘We’re catching the community spirit. More than just a catchphrase, this is rapidly becoming a necessity at parish level. There are a lot of retired people in Bourton and we have some time on our hands, but we also have a wide range of expertise. Taking action and a degree of personal responsibility ourselves has unexpectedly released a considerable hidden talent within our community, where volunteers get a real sense that they are helping to create something both personal and positive that remote county council departments could never have achieved, even without the funding cuts.’
Bourton is surely not the only community to band together in this way, but there is a palpable sense that others might look upon the achievements of the Wildlife and Habitats group as a blueprint for endeavours that could benefit their own environment. ‘Apart from a few tools, we’ve not bought anything. All it takes is commitment,’ says Bernard. ‘Anyone is welcome to see what we do and have a chat and if that can be seen as a call to arms for other villages and communities, then why not?’
• First published in Dorset Life – The Dorset Magazine.