As the summer days stretch out ahead, why not visit one of our local wildlife sites to get that Swallows and Amazons vibe? George Cook of the Avon Wildlife Trust waxes lyrical about Folly Farm and Chew Valley Lake and those who live there…
Avon Wildlife Trust is your largest local charity protecting nature in the west of England. Our work involves caring for over 27 nature reserves across the region, including ancient woodlands that turn purple with bluebells in the spring, wildflower meadows that buzz with life each summer and nationally important wetlands.
These reserves are home to all sorts of wildlife and they also provide a valuable place for people to go explore, relax and connect with nature. Close to Bath, we have reserves such as Browne’s Folly. This old quarry of Bath Stone is now a Site of Special Scientific Interest (SSSI) home to many species of rare orchid and the abandoned mines are now safe havens for the threatened greater horseshoe bat.
Another local reserve is the magical Bathampton Meadows, a beautiful sanctuary for many species that was born out of the creation of the bypass. This clever flood defence is owned by the Highway Authority and flourishes peacefully without human visitors.
There are some great reserves that you can explore this summer all within day-tripping distance of Bath. Folly Farm and Chew Valley Lake are two reserves near each other and would make an excellent day out enjoying nature.
Folly Farm Sitting on a bench at Folly Farm, looking out over the valley you can forget that you are so close to the cities of Bath and Bristol. Sunlight dances off Chew Valley lake in the distance, the Mendip hills rise away to the left, buzzards glide effortlessly overhead and the wildflower meadows around you hum with the steady buzz of insects. With stunning views like this, the variety of different habitats and the chance of seeing some incredible wildlife, Folly Farm is one of my favourite nature reserves.
This 250-acre site was historically a medieval deer park but is now home to Folly Farm Centre, an education centre, conference and wedding venue and beautiful nature reserve. A landscape survey revealed remains of a 1780s ferme ornée, a French term which means ‘ornamental farm’. This showed the site would have contained aesthetic features such as pools, cascades and gullies as well as traditional farm features. The restored 18th-century farm buildings are now a beautiful venue for many weddings, conferences and provide accommodation for hundreds of visiting students each year.
The nature reserve surrounding the centre can be explored through different walking routes, including an accessible trail. These offer glimpses of many varied habitats including wildflower meadows, new and ancient woodlands and scrub. The ancient woodland, Dowling’s Wood, and some of the grasslands at Folly have been labelled as SSSI.
As you wander you might see some of the large ant hills, evidence the ground has not been ploughed for a very long time, many bird and bat boxes, badger sets and our herd of six Exmoor ponies. Exmoors are brilliant at navigating rough and uneven terrain and are hardy enough to handle the cold, wet winters. This native breed helps us manage the reserve and maintain its high biodiversity. By eating some of the rough foliage such as thistles and brambles, the horses create more space and let more light in for the wildflowers. The flowers support a wide variety of insects which in turn support the birds, mammals and other wildlife that call Folly Farm home.
Some of the most charismatic species that we have in the UK live here such as badgers, foxes, tawny owls and, my favourite, barn owls. I’ve been lucky enough to enjoy these beautiful birds several times here, watching them gliding silently over the meadows hunting for voles and small mammals. Once, when guiding a corporate group around the reserve, we saw a barn owl sitting in a tree in the middle of the afternoon! Lots of the group had never seen a live owl before and it was great to share that moment with them. During another walk, a slender, brown, furry animal darted across our path. The black tip at the end of its tail gave away its identity – a stoat!
The meadows at this time of year are also a joy to walk through. Splashes of purple, yellow and white from the flowers and from the various butterflies that visit them. My favourite, the marbled white, is an unmistakable white and black butterfly that resembles a chess board. One butterfly that used to be found on the reserve is the marsh fritillary, a beautiful chequered mix of orange, yellow and brown and is now unfortunately one of the rarest butterflies in the country. Populations of these butterflies can fluctuate greatly due to weather conditions and food availability and we haven’t seen one on site since 2021.
Unfortunately, meadows like the ones at Folly Farm are now rare, as across the country we have lost 97% of our wildflower meadows since the 1930s. One nature reserve is not enough to support some of these butterflies and this highlights the importance of wildlife corridors connecting reserves, gardens and wildlife sites together.
This summer, if you want to explore a nature reserve that can provide lovely walks, spectacular views and wildlife, then I highly recommend Folly Farm. Perhaps you will like it so much you’ll want to get married here!
Visit our website to for more information and to plan your visit.
Chew Valley Lake
Perhaps more well-known for its scenic lakeside walks or award-winning fish and chips, Chew Valley Lake is also home to one of our nature reserves, Herriots Pool, a perfect place to go and enjoy some relaxing birdwatching. Bird fans of all ages visit the lake, from tiny toddlers spotting their first teal to enthusiastic elders who come to watch the egrets. Ducks, geese and swans enjoy bobbing on the lake while the summer sky above them is filled with flocks of swifts, swallows, sand martins and house martins catching small insects to feed their young.
Chew Valley Lake is actually an artificial, man-made lake created in the 1950s to act as a reservoir, gathering water from off the Mendip Hills to provide drinking water for the city of Bristol. Before then, the area was farmland and home to the village of Moreton which had to be abandoned for the creation of the lake. It is said that on dry summers when the water level of the lake falls, some of the roads and trees of the sunken village begin to re-emerge from beneath the surface. The lake itself, owned by Bristol Water, is now listed as a SSSI due to it being such an important site for wildlife. It’s a particularly good site for birds and the lake attracts birdwatchers from all over the country.
Our reserve is at the southernmost end of the lake and from the road side you can look out in both directions and see Herriots Pool to the south and the rest of the lake to the north. Herriots Pool is fed from the River Chew so, unlike the rest of the lake, it maintains a consistent water level throughout the year which is great for the wildlife that live there. There are over 11 islands in the pool alongside many channels, lagoons and bays that all provide safe areas for birds to roost, nest and feed. Over 260 species of bird have been recorded on the reserve including familiar faces such as Canada geese, mallards, mute swans, large flocks of black-headed gulls and herring gulls alongside plenty of other birds such as shoveler, pochard, gadwall, little grebes, great crested grebes and reed warblers.
Rarer birds are also spotted in and around the lake. Each year during their spring and autumn migration, ospreys are often spotted at the lake, snatching fish from the water and, although they have always evaded my binoculars, bearded tits can be sighted from the reed beads. In the summer, you might also be able to see a hobby, a small bird of prey that is agile enough to catch and eat dragonflies while flying! My favourite time of day to visit is in the mornings when the roads are quieter and the sounds of the various water fowl fill the air with their quacks and honks.
The lake remains a great place to visit throughout the year. In the winter, over 50,000 gulls roost out on the lake each evening including herring, black-headed, common and Mediterranean gulls. More ducks, geese and swans also come to the UK for our milder winters so the lake can fill up with a greater number of birds and of a greater variety in the winter!
If you want to make it a day out, you can apply for birdwatching permits from Bristol Water that allow you access to various bird hides situated all around the lake for some unique views of the lake and its inhabitants.