Settled right on the edge of Winchester and barely a stone’s throw from the historic city’s centre is Winnall Moors, a wetland oasis of lush reedbeds, marsh and wet meadow fed by the River Itchen and it’s winding tributaries. Historically used as grazing meadow, the Hampshire & Isle of Wight Trust restored it back to biological glory whilst providing sensitive yet engaging access to the public as a nature reserve, creating a rich biodiversity from the otters that fish along here and through the city at nightfall, to the scarlet tiger moths that flitter among the yellow flag iris at summer’s height. And all of it free for anyone and everyone to experience.
Leaving behind the city and re-aquainting with nature as I walk in on this heavily overcast and rather showery June day, it is like catching up in the pub with a friend whom one sees far less frequently than before. Whilst in my A2s attending the local sixth-form college last year, I would drive down to the reserve every Friday after finishing my day’s lessons at quarter to three, spending my time just wandering with my camera and binoculars before picking up a friend who would finish his college day two hours later.
Since finishing college last summer, it’s become harder to find the time to come down to Winnall as often as I like – despite being on a year out, near-daily work and volunteering commitments and the constant bugbear of fuel saving mean that when I do get the chance, such as today, the visits are fresh and almost feel as new as when I first found this gem. I’ve only just entered through the wood-carving arch and already nature abounds – a bloom of buttercups, marsh saxifrage and ragged robin adorns the grassy bank at the entrance; mayflies are scattered across the wildlife trust’s information panel, including one newly emerged subimago individual, the husk of it’s adult form still left behind; and a shower of seeping calls cascading down the river hails the arrival of the kingfisher, shooting above the bank as if someone has launched a shard of sapphire from a cannon (the kingfishers are breeding, and the wildlife trust has set up a camera into their nest). More self-centred folk may call this a welcome, but such early ecstasies are just part of the everyday package when it comes to Winnall Moors.
Heading North along the edge of the reserve, I come to my favourite walking track within the moors. An almost islanded thin strip of land, the path is sandwiched between two tributaries, on the right managed as part of the reserve and the one to the left belonging to the adjacent recreation ground. The contrasts between the two are striking. Where wildlife is the priority, the banks are an explosion of colour and greenery. The edges of the stream are impossible to see so rich is the vegetation, which themselves are alive with the songs of reed buntings and sedge warblers, and brown trout are visible drifting placidly in the clear waters typical of a chalk-based wetland, remaining stationary in the current with a demeanour rather akin to a bored pensioner waiting at the bus stop.
On the other side, maintained for ‘public leisure’, the banks are compacted and guarded from any sort of growth by neatly aligned wooden girders. If the reserve stream was the hedgerow, its neighbour’s little more than an A-Road. How anyone thinks this is more appropriate to a setting designed for people to relax than one where wildlife can flourish goes beyond me.
Carrying along the bank, eyes to the right, I’m searching for the sight that always proved to be the highlight of my Friday afternoon visits to Winnall Moors – water voles. Their relative abundance here is an illustration of what most rivers and streams would have once been like across the country, before the ‘tidying’ of river banks as shown in the recreation ground and the introduction of mink took their toll. But it isn’t long before the ‘jizz’ of the water vole (to most naturalists this is the term used to identify a brief bird sighting going by certain characteristics, but can apply just as well to mammals in my case at least), a flash of brown in the corner of my eye just a small shade paler than the soil of the bank, rapidly paddling down towards me along the stream’s edge at a rather static pace like a fluffy clockwork toy on the water’s surface. With myself remaining still, the vole stops briefly to pluck a rather large blade of old reed from the bank, before carrying on past me and down the way I came with his newfound prize clutched in his incisors as a dog would swim with a stick.
It’s not long after this sighting that the rain really begins to fall, and despite not having anything vaguely waterproof to wear I linger on to the wet meadows at the end of the reserve – the city is barely visible here, just the famous cathedral looming distantly over the reeds in the South, and to the North woods and hills forming as the South Downs ‘begins’. Whilst I may not be able to come here as often anymore, and even less so once I begin university, it makes those savoured opportunities when I can all the richer.