There was life at Paxton Pits before the wildlife – the area has been inhabited for thousands of years. For most of the last 5000 years, the land was farmed. But a century ago, the aggregates industry found that it was rich in sand and gravel. As this was removed, many of the holes were allowed to fill with water, creating the Paxton Pits which we know today.
In the beginning…
The first extraction at Little Paxton was fairly low-tech but, with the growing demand for houses and roads after the Second World War, gravel was extracted on a more intensive scale. The areas that now form the Nature Reserve were dug between the 1940s and the early 1960s. Find out more about the history of quarrying at Paxton Pits. The operators allowed nature to take over unhindered, and by 1980 Paxton Pits were already noted for their birds and wildlife.
In 1985 Huntingdonshire District Council (HDC), in collaboration with conservation organisations, the gravel companies, and water sports and angling interests, produced the Ouse Valley Recreation Local Plan, which included the establishment of a Local Nature Reserve (LNR) at Paxton Pits. Support came from many local people after a public meeting to discuss the proposal was set up by the RSPB.
Local involvement and volunteer support have been the hallmark of the Reserve. Local birdwatchers contributed 6000 records, which formed the basis of the Nature Conservancy Council’s (NCC) designation of 325 acres of Little Paxton Pits as a Site of Special Scientific Interest (SSSI) in 1986. A plan for managing the Reserve was produced by the NCC and the RSPB’s local representative, again with much local input.
In December 1988, the LNR was declared following agreement between HDC, English China Clay (ECC, now Aggregate Industries) and Redland Aggregates (now Lafarge Redland). The Reserve was officially opened on 18th June 1989.
Initially the Reserve’s management focused on providing visitors with the best opportunities to see wildlife, while safeguarding the habitat, through the construction of the Heron and Meadow Trails and completion of the Kingfisher Hide and its access bridge in 1992. There was little time for habitat management, except for starting to manage the Meadow by traditional methods (hay cut in July, grazing to December, and then letting the flowers bloom). The display of meadow buttercup, orchids and other wild flowers demonstrates the effectiveness of this low-cost management regime.
Shortly after the opening, Redland Aggregates provided the Reserve with a Visitors’ Centre. It is largely staffed through the efforts of a Volunteer Wardening Scheme.
Given the increasing importance of the Reserve, HDC purchased the northern part from ECC/CAMAS (now Aggregate Industries) when it became available in 1994. The purchase included the Moorings Meadow and the island in the River Great Ouse, providing the potential to increase the size of the Reserve.
1995 saw formation of the Reserve’s support group, The Friends of Paxton Pits Nature Reserve. It supports the Volunteer Warden service, publicises the Reserve, organises working parties and raises funds for Reserve projects. The Reserve also began to act as a ‘springboard’ for improving the conservation value of the surrounding gravel pits.
The appointment of a warden in 1996 allowed a new concentration on the long overdue habitat management tasks. Recognition of the outstanding achievement in the management of the Reserve came from English Nature with a SSSI Award being given to HDC and Ray Matthews in 1996, representing the massive volunteer effort over the years.
In full leaf…
Improvements to the Reserve came thick and fast in the late 1990s. The Friends won a national competition in Birdwatching magazine for a new hide. Dedicated to the memory of Derick Hayden, the long serving Aggregate Industries Quarry Manager, the new hide was opened in April 1997. RADAR gates were installed to provide wheelchair access to the Reserve, as was a pond dipping platform to accommodate school groups.
Visitors now number over 100,000 per year, attracted by Paxton Pits’ reputation for ease of seeing birds and hearing nightingales. The Reserve hosted BirdLife International’s World Birdwatch in 1997 and 1999, attracting live coverage on BBC Radio 5. The LNR celebrated its tenth anniversary in May 1999, with a day of events and extensive media coverage. The Reserve is now professionally staffed, but the volunteer effort has by no means reduced; in fact it now approaches 300 working days each year. During 1998-99, HDC, in conjunction with local expert volunteers and naturalists drafted a new Plan to provide the framework for management until 2009.
Trends suggest that visitor numbers will increase – not surprising given that the pace of development in the area. The pressure on the District’s wildlife is now acute, and the Reserve is far too small to safeguard its remaining wildlife resource. The 1984 Ouse Valley Recreation Local Plan anticipated this when it envisaged a reserve of more than double the present size. The Reserve is above all making an important contribution to the Cambridgeshire Biodiversity Action Plan (BAP). Many important habitats and species in the BAP (e.g. water rail, kingfisher and great crested newt) are found on the Reserve, as are all six dragonflies mentioned in the Plan. The new Management Plan focuses on the needs of these threatened species, and will help the local community and local government to fulfil its commitment to the Biodiversity Convention signed by the UK at the Rio Earth Summit in 1992.
The next generation…
The first step towards this came in October 2001 when Huntingdonshire District Council bought 15 hectares of farmland between the River Great Ouse and the Reserve’s eastern boundary, with a view to recreating water meadows and managing low-intensity arable land to provide food for birds such as skylarks, yellowhammers and song thrushes. The next step in the continued development of the Nature Reserve came in 2002, with the extension of the Reserve’s Visitor Centre. Both are good examples of Paxton Pits’ role for birds and for people.
The quarry was mothballed during the economic recession after 2008 and this delayed the further development of the Reserve but the big prize is coming over the coming years. Aggregate Industries are extending sand and gravel extraction, providing a unique opportunity to make the Nature Reserve more than 3.5 times larger, with many miles of footpaths, bridleway and cycleway, and lots more wetland and grassland habitat for wildlife.