The Journey of the Wilderness - A Rags to Riches Tale

It would be fair to say that the Wilderness at Warley Woods has had a chequered history, this portion of the site has changed multiple times (often drastically). To start this story we will take a look at the Wilderness before it came into being.

The Warley Hall Estate (Private ownership) (1820 - 1905)

The area where the Wilderness is now was originally the location of a walled garden built for Warley Hall (Warley Abbey) and there was a greenhouse at this location that served the house.

The People's Park (1906 - 2004)

The land on which the park sits had been privately owned for many years: originally owned and then leased out by the Galton family and then sold on several times.  In 1905, as parcels of the parkland appeared to be being sold for timber, residents became concerned that the land was going to be eventually sold off for housing feeding the rapidly growing Bearwood area. A committee raised money by public subscription and the proceeds were given to Birmingham City Council which purchased the land and opened it as a public park in 1906.

During Birmingham City Council's time managing the park, they made the modern-day Wilderness the home of one of their nurseries. Multiple greenhouses were erected providing space for staff to grow plants to go across the City of Birmingham in bedding schemes. Teams of staff were called "indoor" and "outdoor" as there was work for so many.  The location was also home to an orchard (it is possible that some of the trees were remnants from its days as a walled garden on the Warley Hall Estate). The area was out of bounds to the general public.

Over the years was being used less and less by the Council, it started to fall into disrepair and over the course of the years, the numbers of greenhouses dwindled until only the original greenhouse remained standing. The decline of the park over the years had upset residents so when this iconic building was torn down in 1996 it sparked a series of events that would eventually lead to the formation of Warley Woods Community Trust. 

Warley Woods Community Trust - For the People, by the people (2004 - Present)

The old site of the greenhouses had been wiped clean, there was little left that even hinted at was once there. The recently formed Warley Woods Community Trust wanted to renovate this part of the site, whilst paying homage to the history of the location. The Trust secured funding from the Big Lottery Fund project to build a walled community garden.  But alas, it was not meant to be. 

2004 - Illegal Fly-tipping

2004 was a dark year for Warley Woods as thousands of tonnes of building waste and soil were illegally dumped on the site of the
proposed walled garden. Luckily the money the Trust raised for this project was allowed to be spent upgrading other areas of the site (and there was lots of work to be done after years of neglect).  

The Trust fenced off the area to protect site users whilst soil tests were carried out and the mounds made safe.  Luckily nothing too nasty had been dumped and the area was opened back up and the public were able to use it again. At a loss of what to do with the area, or how to raise funds to clear it again, it was left to its own devices - on a long list of things that needed attention at Warley Woods. 

Nature Finds a Way

Several ideas were being bandied around of how to develop the spoil heap, from golf practice areas to even a BMX track, despite the ideas being imaginative they were not especially practical. Over the course of the years of deliberation, the spoil heap had come alive.  Strange plants that were alien to Warley Woods were germinating.  Pools of water were greening over in the troughs of the uneven terrain.  Nature had begun claiming the area for her own; her green fingers utilising the canvass she had found. 

The community once again came to the rescue.  Wildlife enthusiasts from the community noticed the value in this habitat.  They saw the plants found nowhere else on site as more than unwanted weeds.  Here they were serving a purpose; the bare earth, flowering plants, damp ditches and wetland habitat provided an irresistible mix, perfect for invertebrates. In 2008 the decision to save the area from development was taken.  It was to be left to nature and after a small public competition became known by its new name, The Wilderness. 

The Trust secured funding from Community Spaces for £50,000. This money was spent on signage, the steps, boardwalk, paths and gate along with wildlife surveys and recommendations for management from the Wildlife Trust.

Warley Woods volunteers worked diligently year on year fighting back the invasive scrub that would close up this botanically diverse area, turning it into woodland.  Proactive management helps keep it as an interesting mosaic habitat. 

Wild Warley - Putting the Water Back Into the Wilderness

In 2019 Warley Woods Community Trust was successful in securing money for the Wild Warley project from the Heritage Lottery and Ibstock Enovert Trust. This was to mean yet more changes for the Wilderness, but this time it would be to celebrate it for what it had become. 

Over the years the Wilderness slowly lost its ability to hold water year-round.  This is probably due to the soil heaps that make up the Wilderness settling. Without water, at all times of the year, we would be missing out on some great species, as well as damaging the resilience of our inhabitant species during periods of extended drought.

In early 2021 Works were started to enlarge and deepen the existing pool, which was barely a foot deep in places. With the use of an excavator, the material was removed and banked up at the far edge of the pond. The wet winter allowed us to see how the water interacted with the landscape a series of small intermittently wet scrapes and pools were added to the wilderness as well as a great start on the main permanent pond excavation.

The rain did not ease up and it made the site unworkable in the end so excavations were abandoned until the weather improved enough to make the workplace safe. 

By the early Summer, the excavations were completed with another visit from the digger.

Thanks to the help of the amazing Wild Warley Conservation Volunteers the final forming, and removal of sharp materials was completed in record time. Once finalised this pond will provide essential habitat for a wide range of species from Amphibians to Dragonflies as well as a plethora of other invertebrates and aquatic plants. You can read more about the Wild Warley vision for The Wilderness here

The next chapter for The Wilderness is only just beginning. It will be fascinating to see how this habitat changes as the pond biota develops.  How long will it be till we see amphibians or dragonflies visiting? If the case of my pond is anything to go by the first twelve months marks a massive change from what essentially starts as a bowl of tap water into a functioning ecosystem teaming with life.

Planting the Pond - 2022

We wanted to kick-start the transformation of the pond’s ecosystem and the best place to start is with plants and when it comes to our pond only native varieties will do! There is lots to consider when selecting plants for a pond, each brining their own benefits:

  • Marginals: these grow around the edges of the pond, they like boggy soils or being slightly submerged. Marginals often have gorgeous floral displays which provide great foraging for invertebrates. We planted species such as Purple Loosestrife, Yellow Flag Iris, Flowering Rush, Ragged Robin and Arrowhead.
  • Oxygenators: as the name suggests these plants release dissolved oxygen into the water, having a good amount of oxygen is essential for supporting amphibians and larger water invertebrates. We threw in Water Starwort and Hornwort.
  • Floating plants: help to shade the pond, reducing evaporation and protecting the pond from large temperature swings. We put in Frogbit and planted Native Lilly.

There is one other essential thing I have not yet mentioned, and it isn’t a plant. Every fully functioning aquatic ecosystem also requires a clean-up crew, in this case snails! We introduced Ramshorn snails who will do a good job of eating algae and breaking down decaying plant material.

Freshwater Survey - 2023

We were lucky enough to have a freshwater ecologist offer to survey our developing pond. This came at a fortuitous time for us as the pond is starting to establish but still has some distance to go so it was the perfect time to check in and gather some baseline data.

Reassuringly we have some of the essential pond ecosystem building blocks already present, here is some of what was found:

 Along with these species pictured, there were also a good number of mosquito larvae, daphnia (water fleas) and Ramshorn snails. The presence of snail eggs mean we have a healthy reproducing population which is essential for nutrient cycling and removing unwanted algae from the pond.

Some species such as the freshwater shrimp rely entirely on this aquatic ecosystem to survive, others like the mayfly spend the vast majority of their life as nymphs in the pond before emerging solely to mate. 

We have yet to find evidence of Dragonfly or Damselfly larvae in the water, though they have been seen holding territories over the pond so it is probably only a matter of time.

One group of species we are still missing are the amphibians (newts, frogs and toads). Amphibians come to water bodies primarily for breeding. it is hoped we will have them using the pond in the not to distant future! 

2023 saw another important change for the pond as the decision was made to fence it off. The water was not dropping the suspended sediment and clearing as it was getting continually mixed by dogs playing in it. since fencing the water quality has improved drastically and we have witnessed broad bodied chasers laying their larvae in the water. 

Now it is time for us to be hands-off and let this valuable ecosystem find its own balance. Disturbance can be a real problem for aquatic ecosystems breaking stems and trampling plants. The churning of sediment reduces light getting into the pond, it settles on plants reducing their ability to photosynthesise, and it lifts nutrients into the water column leading to algal growth. We know many dogs love water, but the truth is we do not have the space for both a wildlife pond and a place for dogs to dip it is for that reason we have asked all dogs to be on lead whilst in The Wilderness. This protects our pond ecosystem from flea treatment and constant disturbance. To find out more about dogs and ponds read Buster and Molly's guide. We thank you for your cooperation.

If you would like to find out about wildlife pond building and what you may be able to expect in a garden pond, follow my personal experience in Pondlife - A Newt's Tale

Doug Barber, Conservation Manager

Special thanks to Ibstock Envovert Trust and Heritage Fund for making the pond possible, Alan Reynolds and Martin Bottoms for the use of their photographs and last but certainly not least the Wild Warley Conservation Volunteers for all they do for Warley Woods and its Wildlife. 

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