It’s no secret that I’m an outdoors loving wildlife enthusiast so of course I jumped at the opportunity to take a stroll around a Habitat First Group estate with resident ecologist Dr Phoebe Carter. I’m absolutely not an authority on British creatures. Having loved all things great and small from my early childhood I know a few things but I’m very much an enthusiastic amateur. To get the chance to spend time with an expert who has devoted her life to ecology and the natural world was a real treat and after an hour and a half walking the countryside with her, I came away having learnt a huge amount.
I met Phoebe on a cold, cloudy day in January at the Lower Mill estate near Cirencester. I’ve had a connection with Habitat First Group over the last 18 months, their support towards my Olympic campaign has meant a huge amount to me and as a proud brand ambassador I’ve managed to spend a little time there with my family. Leaving the family at home this time, I was eager to find out more about the site’s local wildlife and how it’s managed in terms of protection and welfare.
The whole ethos of Habitat First group is to create a luxury holiday home environment for residents with minimal impact. From the human side, it’s a beautiful place to stay and a wonderful way to spend time with family, truly bringing people closer to nature. Large glass windows fill the properties with light, through most of which there’s a waterway, lake or woodland view to admire. The latest ‘Habitat’ houses are on another level aesthetically and eco-wise, with impressive wood and stone structures topped off with sloping wildflower roofs which create even more habitat opportunities for wildlife. It certainly doesn’t feel as thought there are 340 homes on site, but as the development is coming to completion there won’t be any more new building taking place in the years to come.
Of course, this all must come at a cost. You can’t build a house without having some sort of impact on the environment, so what is done to mitigate against this alteration of the landscape?Well, Phoebe is employed for a start. One of her roles is to create rolling 5 year environmental plans which put in place the work needed to develop and maintain the waterside ecology. It’s a detailed analysis resulting in a programme of work that creates an environment friendly for people alongside the flora and fauna. The success of her work is immediately evident without even knowing the specifics of her studies. Stepping out of the front door of the incredibly beautiful show home you’re immediately immersed in nature. Trees grow everywhere and you’re never more than a couple of meters from some cool clear lake water or trickling stream. Phoebe starts by telling me about the otters that have made their home on the site, thriving in the clean water, using the nearby streams and tributaries as their motorways. We start looking for Otter spraint (poo) as apparently it’s smell is really pleasant!? It’s something I’ve never come across so I’m pretty enthusiastic in the search.
As we walk, we talk about other mammals that have found the habitat to be perfect. Water voles, along the banks, badgers in the woodland, foxes and the invasive Mink. It’s starting to dawn on me what an incredibly huge task it is to come up with plans to ensure as many species as possible are thought about. Water voles for example need the river bank foliage to remain fairly long to allow for discreet movement away from predators, but that’s not the best conditions for some of the plant species that require a little more light. Aesthetically it’s good to have some grassy banks on the lake and river sides for the residents so the plan is complex and all encompassing.
Still on the lookout for the elusive otters we walk on, further and further away from the houses which is where I start to realise what a tiny part of the estate the homes actually play. The area is a vast 300 acres of nature reserve, with two SSSI’s (Sites of Special Scientific Interest) one a lake and another a grassland. Large open meadows, thick hedgerows, lakeside woodland, open pastures and kilometre after kilometre of water. It’s a calm day and I can’t help but think how good it would be to get out there on the water in a rowing boat. My thoughts are interrupted by a blackthorn hedge that was planted with the intention of helping the brown hairstreak butterfly. Searching for eggs that remain throughout winter on the bare wood and hatch in the spring, I find myself engrossed. I could spend all day doing this, it’s fascinating and I don’t even really know what I’m looking for! In the end we abandoned the search as there was still so much to talk about, but those eggs were there for sure.
It’s not often you get to encounter a real beaver. I still haven’t, they were all asleep, but there is a beaver family on Flagham Fen, held within an enormous enclosure. They have a whole lake and wood to themselves and interestingly the maintenance work on and around that particular lake is non existent. “We haven’t had to do anything” Phoebe told me. Where the groundsmen are busy cutting back the fast growing Alder and Willow and coppicing the hazel in other areas the beavers do it all for them. They are woodsmen, natural guardians of the land and so a real help to the staff here. It excites me thinking about what these mammals are capable of and how they and we could live together. We’re obviously far from allowing beavers free into our waterways country wide outside of the small experimental pockets that exist now, but it’s fascinating to hear first hand the benefits they bring. We didn’t get into that debate, there are pro’s and cons for sure, something for another day but perhaps they will be a regular sight in years to come.
As we looped back to the estate we were conveniently on the subject of bats. Only a few weeks previously I’d been on a ‘bat walk’ with my eldest son Jasper in woodland not far from home. It was such a fun thing to do, using a bat detector - easily found online, we walked listening for clicks from the machine. As a bat swooped over our heads the frequency of the clicking would increase until the bat grabbed it’s prey. We could only see millisecond glimpses above us but through the detector you could build up a picture of what was happening in the aerial acrobatic hunt! Bats were fresh on my mind so I asked if there were any around. Phoebe surprised me with the extent she and her team had thought about bats. There are garages spaced at intervals that house the rubbish bins around the housing estate. In each of these there are attics which have been adapted for bats of different species. The bat entrances have to change to accommodate the flight patterns of bats entering their roosting site so on each garage there’s a slightly different bat entrance. I was so impressed and wondering how I could adapt the roof of my house to accommodate for the swooping flight of the lesser Horseshoe bat. Sadly I’m not sure our landlord would be too keen on the house adaptions I was contemplating.
As we walked towards the final cotswold stone arching bridge back to the start and the prospect of a hot cup of tea, Phoebe suggested having a last look for the elusive otter poo under the bridge. I was sceptical, with houses all around and only a tiny stream the chances were so slim. With miles and miles of hidden wooded streams and lakes why would they be here? Seconds it took, seconds to find what we’d been looking for. On all fours under the low bridge the both of us were peering down and smelling otter spraint. Phoebe was right, it’s not a nasty smell at all, it’s musty, floral and strangely sweet, shining with fish scales. What a find! Now I know what I’m looking for I always keep my eyes peeled and according to Countryfile the other night, there are now otters in all our rivers countrywide!
The afternoon drew to a close far too quickly. There are endless plant, bird and animal species to mention that are encouraged, supported and thriving on the site. It was fascinating to pick Phoebe’s brains and have such an in depth insight into how the process is run. Marrying a holiday home development in an environmentally conscious and eco friendly way is not an easy task, but here at Habitat First Group, it’s an essential and valued part of what they do. Quietly, without fuss, the hard graft is done and the results speak for themselves.
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