Thursday, 16 August 2018

Houghton Regis Northern Boundary with Chalton and Chalgrave

On a very hot, still afternoon I visited the spring at Kingsland, on the edge of Parkside, and found it still wet, even after months of drought.  The area was green and full of life in contrast to the brown fields around, a lovely sight and a vital resource for insects and birds.

A speckled wood butterfly alighted on the grasses and a handsome hornet hoverfly (below) paused long enough for me to admire its yellow and red colouring, designed to deter birds from attacking it. 

The eastern boundary with Chalton Parish runs along the ditch on the other side of the field close to the Woodside Link, then turns west along the Sundon Link.  At the new roundabout on Sundon Road the boundary continues to follow the ditch but this time the Ouzel Brook is flowing west... when it does flow!  An elevation of 126 metres above sea level is marked at the roundabout making this a watershed. 

A footpath follows the track alongside the brook and hedge which veer left while the boundary carries on in a north-westerly direction across the A5 towards the ridge, which it reaches at its highest point of 133m offering wonderful views in all directions.  Below, the sun sets behind the ridge.

View from the footbridge over A5 towards the Sundon Road bridge
View from the ridge 

View across a barley field towards the Chalkpit
The boundary dips down towards New Barn then bears left away from the path along the line of pylons behind Grove Spinney (below) next to Grove Farm. 
Looking east from the bottom of Lords Hill B5120

The new roundabout on the A5 with a grand view of Chalk Hill

Pegasus crossing on Lords Hill
While the pylons march across these arable fields, the boundary with Chalgrave Parish sticks to the hedge marked at intervals wherever a footpath strikes up the hill towards Wingfield. 
This is a delightful path to walk along, wide and smooth with all sorts of wildlife sheltering in the hedge and ditch alongside...
...and scenes of rural life just over the hedge!
After the reservoir, opposite Thorn Farm, the path turns up or downhill while the boundary continues along the hedge to the A5 Watling Street shown below.  
I will leave the boundary here to pick up another time and connect with Sewell Greenway.  For now, here are some more views of the changes taking place in Bidwell.
As I climbed the hill towards Wingfield, more and more distant views appeared until I could see Blows Down in all its glory, Dunstable having disappeared in the dip between.  Houghton Regis is surrounded by lovely vistas which lift my spirits when I take to the footpaths.  The northern boundary certainly has some treasures to reveal to those who make the effort!

Monday, 28 May 2018

Exploring the Green Boundaries

This month I thought I would explore the green boundaries of Houghton Regis from east to west with the camera.  We start at the Community Orchard on the boundary with Luton by Wheatfield Road. 

Along the footpath south of the Woodside Link we find a wonderful display of red and white campion.

Across the stream is the chalk meadow where  tufted vetch is blooming.

The Woodside Link runs across our boundary into Chalton Parish.  The road embankments and verges are covered in wildflowers including campion and ox-eye daisies, a wonderful sight for walkers and cyclists.

It appears the cycle paths alongside the Woodside Link are being protected from incursions by banks of soil.  I hope these will be grassed over.

Now we go to the western border where Sewell Greenway starts in Totternhoe Parish but moves into Houghton Regis before exiting into Dunstable.  I'll do the northern boundary another time.

Just across the border is Totternhoe Nature Reserve where I filmed this corn bunting singing for all its worth.
From the bottom of the Greenway you can look up to the village of Sewell, and the two County Wildlife Sites above it.
From half-way up there are views across the Sewell fields below towards the A505 Leighton Buzzard bypass.
And this is the view east towards Maidenbower at the top of the escarpment.

The hamlet of Sewell is accessible from the Greenway.
A walk along Sewell Lane gives more lovely views.
Back on the Greenway is a helpful Information Board.
At the top of the climb is Maidenbower, site of an ancient hill fort of national significance.  This scheduled ancient monument is in Houghton Regis.
Views to the north-west from Maidenbower are long and wide, a beautiful and peaceful spot.
The town boundary is east of Maidenbower running along the edge of Dunstable.  It then turns west again alongside Sewell Greenway and at the old Tidy Tip turns north-east running along the crest of the hill, with the two County Wildlife Sites, Barley Brow and Suncote Pits, right on the boundary.  


At the A5 the boundary turns south-east along the road then north-east around the edge of the Chalkpit Nature Reserve, another green boundary.  In the south-east quarter the boundary touches the corner of Dog Kennel Down then runs through Woodside Estate.  The former wooded boundary between Luton and Houghton Regis was sadly cut down and replaced by the Woodside Link.  The replacement planting of thousands of trees and hedges has now taken place and hopefully eventually will hide the road.  So we return to the Community Orchard where we began. 

Thank you for joining me.  Next month I look forward to exploring the northern town boundary, much of which is still green and runs along footpaths. 


Saturday, 7 April 2018

Looking for New Life in March and April

I was lucky to catch this pair of frogs spawning!  When they separated I could still see them clearly on the bed of the stream the water is so clear.



Can you find two insects in the picture below?

Part of the planned seeding - Speedwell...

Shepherds' Purse (white) and Self-heal (pink)
So what else lives in the stream?  This is the spot we tested for water quality.

And here are some of what we found...
Freshwater shrimps - the larger male holds onto the female until she sheds her skin and he can mate with her.  Now I know what the egrets and herons we often see fishing in the stream are looking for!  There are also midge larvae, water hoglouse and leeches.  

 It's a bit of a mystery what's going on in the borrow pit, but these Canada Geese love it, and the Reed Bunting below.  Others have told me they've seen several varieties of duck, a little ringed plover again and even a snipe! 

To finish off, here is video of one favourite spot, where the south-flowing Ouzel Brook joins Houghton Brook underneath a grove of rare native Black Poplars.  I have been unable to spot where this conjunction appears on the HRN1 plans so far.  Clearly there is plenty of water in Ouzel Brook at the present after all the rain and snow we've had in March, but sadly its path along the hedge is blocked with debris and rubbish.  The hedge and ditch could (and should) become a vital green corridor for wildlife in the new estate. 

I love watching the ripples and reflections at this spot, it's very restful.  Other items that glint in the sun are not so welcome as creatures could get trapped inside an aluminium drinks can or plastic bottle.  Only at this time of year can one see the bed of the brook so clearly before vegetation grows up in and around the stream.  See what you can spot in the water while you can; shrimps, fish, snails and soon tadpoles are all there to be spotted with the naked eye, and you even may be lucky enough as I was to see a frog.  The easiest place to spot activity is against the golden gravel background in sunshine.  I am hoping I might also see sticklebacks one day.
 For more details of where to spot what, please contact me via the 'contact' button.  Don't miss the opportunity to spot spring happening right here!



Friday, 2 March 2018

News Catch-up on 2017 and into 2018

Welcome to the first post for six months.  This is due to the environment around Houghton Regis deteriorating so much that I was despondent and unable to find much positive to record.  Let me tell it in pictures:
The replanted hedge held out hope of reducing traffic noise in years to come but it wasn't long before all the canes had been removed and were scattered all over the grass, many broken.  Even if it survives it is too close to the knee-rail.  The weight of the plastic protectors is too much for the saplings to bear so many are lying on the ground.  I tried replacing the canes but after the first frost the ground was too hard to push them in.  Thousands of plants, hedges, trees and shrubs have been planted all over the Woodside Link site and many hedging plants have been flattened by wind and snow once the canes have been removed by vandals. The trees have sturdier protectors but even these are scattered widely.  Below shows the remaining trees that were planted in the borrow pit before it flooded and their stakes and protectors floating around the edges.  There should be rows of trees filling the space in the middle.  It wasn't supposed to flood.  Clearly the drainage isn't sorted yet.
Incongruously, these lovely cornflowers have managed to survive and even flourish on the bank of one of the ponds, but there has been no sign of any other wildflowers springing up yet.  Even this spot has been spoiled by rubbish now and most of the photographs I take are to report fly-tipping to the council.  It was sad to watch the workmen treading through rubbish to plant trees and bushes to beautify the landscape.  The cycle-paths and fields became off limits as traveller encampments sprung up, blocking paths and leaving piles of rubbish every time they were moved on.  This lasted from August to December when finally, after they had all left, permanent bollards were put in place along the cycle paths to prevent further incursions.  But the damage had been done, verges rutted and rubbish buried in the mud of a very wet winter or sunk in the stream bed. 

Rubbish emanates from various sources, but someone is always responsible for dropping it in the street or countryside, whether intentionally or carelessly, so I believe our behaviour needs to change as well as reducing the amount of plastic packaging in use.  As a child I thought the rubbish on the streets and in the countryside (mostly tiny waxed paper sweet wrappers and paper cigarette packets) was bad but it was nothing like it is today. 
This egret is trapped by what looks to me like a Chinese lantern or lampshade wound round its leg.  Perhaps it approached thinking it was another egret and got caught, the high wind wrapping the wires tightly round its leg.  I couldn't go closer because it just got more agitated. I rang the RSPCA but fortunately the wind died down so the bird was able to free itself before they arrived.  
Rubbish dropped in the countryside becomes the landowners' responsibility but rubbish on private land near here is still there months after it was deposited by travellers.  Rubbish in the stream is another matter.  Whilst the road contractors used to clear it when I reported it, now the work is finished, whatever 'falls' into the stream remains there with nobody apparently taking responsibility for clearing it.  I am still hoping that something can be done about it before the house builders start messing things up again. 

(above) Car engine parts were dumped here when travellers left.

(left) The green and yellow in the stream is an inflatable turtle.  Not the right place for inflatables.

These fencing clips and panels below left by contractors could trip up dog-walkers and there are also hose pipes and fence bases hidden in the long grass.


Plans are to start building houses at the northern end of the site away from the stream.  However, at present there are two more bridges over the stream on the masterplan.  Bridges shade the stream preventing greenery growing, reducing its value to wildlife for food and protection from predators.  The large area of concrete is an open invitation to graffiti artists, who have already 'decorated' the Woodside Link Bridge, making it look like an inner-city underpass.  The process of building a bridge leads to pollution and more littering as well as the inevitable loss of more mature trees.  Ironically, down in Luton the plans for a new football stadium include de-culverting the River Lea, which currently runs underground through Luton, to create an attractive feature at the front of the development.  And now they want to put more concrete over Houghton Brook, which is not absolutely necessary.  With a little thought and realisation of the environmental implications, it is possible to avoid both planned bridges.
The Environment Agency also has plans to build a retention bank across the site to control the flow of water in Houghton Brook to prevent flooding in Luton.  This will be achieved by diverting the stream and putting a sluice gate in the bank.  I have asked, and am still waiting to hear, how that can be judged compatible with encouraging water voles to spread upstream from Luton where there are still some in the River Lea.  In my view a sluice gate is an obstacle to the free movement of river animals, and should not be permitted.  I do understand the need for flood prevention though, just not like this.  The EA will clear Himalayan Balsam which is a good thing.  The EA project means re-routing the brand new cycle path away from the stream. 
The good news (thank you for reading this far!) is that Groundwork is running RiverLution courses in water monitoring, and a colleague and I will be starting to do this in Houghton Brook in a few weeks' time!  This is very exciting as it has been on my list for a long time.  This is the spot we have chosen, as it should not be impacted by the projects above, and the banks have been re-profiled and vegetation removed during the road-building works, which makes it easier to access, as well as having a handy rail to hold onto!  I have waders if necessary but I doubt we'll need them unless the silt is very deep.  We will record physical, chemical and biological data. 

From this side of the brook it looks fairly clean at present and it is lovely to see the sun shining on the water again as it has been so full of weed all last summer one wouldn't know there was any water in it.  Groundwork, based in Luton, organises litter clearances in the River Lea so hopefully they may organise one for Houghton Brook.

On 31st January the Blue Moon shone down on the still unfinished recreation spaces, reflected in the flooded chalk meadow.  The footpaths are still uneven, rutted tracks deep enough to turn an ankle, roughly cut through bramble and thicket with stems sticking up to trip you up.  They are supposed to be smooth mown paths between longer meadow grasses to encourage butterflies and insects.  No effort has been made to remove the roots or stems so in a month these will start springing up again all over, obscuring the uneven ground underneath.  With the failed wildflower seeding, the vandalised hedges, the unsafe footpaths, the promise of the proposed landscaping is not being fulfilled. 

I wonder what birds spring will bring to the depleted hedgerows and scrub to sing and breed this year?  Will the willow warblers return?  I am hopeful that a stand of young self-seeded willows will be left intact as that's where I filmed the whitethroat singing last year, however, I have a feeling that's where a bridge is destined to stand.  I have missed the golden and little ringed plovers and only heard redwings and fieldfares as there are few trees left for them to feed on.  However, I have seen a heron, three egrets, and red kites overhead. 

This fox has found a safe haven for now in the last remaining patch of scrubby hawthorn bushes and brambles. 

This photo was taken from the bridge on Sundon Road over the A5-M1 link which is now the entrance to Houghton Regis from the east
Thank you for your continued interest and supportive responses.  If you would like to follow my blog, please submit your email address in the right hand column and you will be sent a notification of each new post, as it is no longer being posted on social media.  You may also add a comment at the bottom of the page or send a message by clicking on the 'contact' button.