Last week I took a walk over Dunton Hills with Annie Gordon from the Essex Wildlife Trust accompanied by wildlife enthusiasts Kerry Precious and photographer Mark. Annie was impressed with the biodiversity supported in the area which she described as an important wildlife corridor connected to the nature reserves at Langdon Hills.
The best find of the day was an Oak Tree surrounded by owl pellets. After Annie had these examined later they were confirmed to be from a Barn Owl, a rare animal which is in decline in the UK. Thought to have been once common, an estimate in 1997 put the number of Barn Owls in the UK at just 4000 pairs. The Owls which swoop in complete silence at night feed on small rodents such as voles, mice and shrews which are themselves rare. The Owl's presence here is testament to a thriving population of small mammals that burrow along the ditches and hedgerows in the area which could be classed as a wet meadow landscape. Further examination of the remains of fur and bones in the pellets may reveal what the owls feed on.
The site within the metropolitan green belt has been proposed for the construction of up to 6000 homes by Basildon and Brentwood councils. Barn Owls need large areas to hunt so there is no way to mitigate the loss of natural habitat wiped off the map by this development. A public consultation is now in progress and Annie Gordon will submit her expert objection on the basis of what she has seen at this site. There is a danger that sites like this will be neglected because they are not designated as conservation areas as the councils look desperately for sites to fulfill its targets for thousands of new homes. Already we have are about to lose an important Local Wildlife Site at Dry Street on the other side of the Langdon Hills Country Park. Without these connections to the wider countryside the managed conservation areas can lose much of their biodiversity. To protect the area we need as many people as possible to register their own objections saying how important the local wildlife is to us. To participate follow the instructions at http://www.basildon.gov.uk/dunton
Other sightings during our walk at the site included deer tracks, song thrushes, woodpecker holes and a pair of buzzards. There were many burrows and other traces that remain to be identified and later in the year it should be possible to find newts and other animals around the established ponds. Bats and the rare butterflies may also be present so it is important to continue the search. Many of these animals and their habitats are protected under legislations such as the Wildlife and Countryside Act 1981. The woods in the area show the characteristics of ancient woodland that are themselves protected by law. The field boundaries are said to be of middle Saxon origin and are marked by rows of Oak trees some of which must be hundreds of years old themselves.
Any large housing development like the Dunton Garden Suburb will require an Environmental Impact Assessment but these are often conducted on behalf of the developer themselves and they cannot be trusted to do a thorough job. This makes the work of organisations like the Essex Wildlife Trust vitally important to ensure that nothing is overlooked. The Trust relies on charitable donations and with so many new housing developments proposed for the countryside they have to focus on the sites of highest importance. You can help by signing up as a member of the trust at https://secure.wildlifetrusts.org/essex. Please mention Annie Gordon and her work at the Dunton site as how you found out about them.