A soaring success for ancient insects – Wicken Fen announced as UK’s new dragonfly hotspot

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Four-spotted Chaser dragonfly at Wicken Fen, Cambridgeshire | © National Trust Images/Ross Hoddinott

Today (Sunday 30 June) Wicken Fen National Nature Reserve in Cambridgeshire will be designated the UK’s newest dragonfly hotspot, a title awarded by the British Dragonfly Society recognising years of conservation efforts to create ideal conditions for these ancient, winged insects to thrive.

The internationally important nature reserve which marked 125 years of being cared for by the National Trust in May, will join the cluster of only 23 other dragonfly hotspots across the UK and is also the first time the ‘hotspot’ designation has been awarded to the conservation charity.

Dragonfly hotspots are special places, carefully chosen by the British Dragonfly Society, because of their exemplary variety of dragonfly and damselfly species as well as providing easy access for visitors to enjoy them during the summer months with opportunities to learn about these insects descended from similar creatures that lived on earth even before the dinosaurs.

Dave Stanforth, Programming and Partnerships Officer for the National Trust at Wicken Fen said: “Dragonflies and damselflies are absolutely fascinating insects. Their ancestors existed more than 300 million years ago. 

“They depend on water in all stages of their lifecycle and all need water bodies to breed. 

“Eggs are laid by adults either directly into water or onto plant material on or at the water’s edge. At the larval stage most species spend between one to two years underwater before developed final-stage larvae climb out of the water onto vegetation for a final moult when the adult dragonfly or damselfly emerges. Adults will then rely on a watery habitat to provide food – hunting over or near water to feed on other small insects during their very short life-span which is typically one or two weeks, exceptionally six to eight weeks. 

“With its plethora of ponds and watercourses, this means that Wicken Fen is an ideal place for them.

“The work undertaken by the team with careful rotation cutting on the Sedge Fen and ditch management to create successional stages for the dragonflies and damselflies – ie a mix of open water and young through to mature vegetation, has created the optimal habitat for these fascinating insects. In particular it is the ‘dragonfly bay’ areas of open grass alongside the water which have provided these insects – which are nature’s most successful stalkers – to have great places to perch, but they also allow visitors to get fantastic up-close experiences of these beautiful creatures.”

Places like Wicken Fen are becoming ever more important for the survival of dragonflies and damselflies, who are being increasingly displaced from their usual habitats further south and on the continent due to climate change.

For species like the striking emperor dragonfly with its incredibly vibrant sky-blue body, which is found here after starting to spread northward about twenty years ago, as well as the southern migrant hawker and willow emerald damselfly, Wicken Fen has become an invaluable refuge.

As one of the last remnants of undrained fen in East Anglia, Wicken also has important environmental designations, and in addition to being National Nature Reserve, is a Site of Scientific Interest (SSSI), Special Area of Conservation (SAC) and a Ramsar wetland of international importance.

Many of the works which have contributed to the hotspot designation form part of the larger Wider Wicken Fen Vision, a 100-year project launched in 1999 to create an even more diverse landscape for wildlife and people in this remaining stretch of fenland.

In total, 22 of the UK’s 57 species have been recorded at Wicken, including the rare Norfolk Hawker, which has been classed as Endangered in the British Odonata Red List 2008.

Rosie Hails, Nature & Science Director at the National Trust said: “We are delighted that Wicken Fen has achieved the status of dragonfly hotspot. It is a wonderful nature reserve which allows visitors to immerse themselves in nature. We hope for places like this to act as sources of these insects to replenish ponds and lakes across the countryside.”

Tim Coleshaw, Chair of Trustees for the British Dragonfly Society, said: “We are thrilled to be officially designating Wicken Fen as a dragonfly hotspot and continuing our partnership. We hope this new hotspot and their passionate staff and volunteer team will help inspire even more people to love these fantastic insects and to get involved in monitoring and conserving them.”

As part of its new hotspot status, Wicken Fen will also be looking to recruit new volunteers to become dedicated wildlife guides to ensure more visitors get to find out about these ancient insects.

Source: National Trust

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