My Freshwater Habitat: Gemma Stride, the Beaulieu River, New Forest National Park
27th September 2023
Freshwater Habitats Trust Senior Project Manager Gemma Stride has a deep connection with the New Forest, where she has worked since 2007. For her My Freshwater Habitat blog, she has chosen a section of the Beaulieu River which is “a place of inspiration and to truly connect with nature and watch the seasons change.
The New Forest is a beautiful landscape, with such a unique range of habitats now lost from much of lowland England. There are so many places I could choose, however there is one special place that fills me with joy. On the eastern side of the Forest runs the Beaulieu River and its many tributaries down to the coast where it flows into the Solent. There is a section of the river and surrounding landscape: Buck Hill and Starpole Pond, which is bursting with freshwater habitats and rare species.
Why is this stretch of the Beaulieu River so special to you?
From the lush banks of the Beaulieu River – laden with ferns, mosses and trees – to ponds and mires hosting some of the UKs most rare and vibrant plant species, this is a place that I have visited with my family on a frequent basis for many years.
As a child, I had opportunities to embrace nature and I feel very privileged to now live near a rural landscape, a natural space where I have been able to provide similar experiences to my children and see how this benefits their understanding of the natural world – and how a connection to a special outdoor place creates a real sense of belonging. This is one of the reasons why I love the Forest so much.
We love exploring the streams, the plants, watching the fish and listening out for Nightjar and Lapwing. Sometimes we play Pooh sticks over the wooden bridge and make miniature boats out of strands of rush. At other times, we just sit watching the ponies and cattle munching away on the vegetation, carving the landscape we see in front of us.
I was also lucky enough to survey the area as part of the stream restoration program. This little piece of the New Forest has become a place of inspiration and to truly connect with nature and watch the season change.
Can you tell us about some of the species at this site?
The New Forest is an internationally significant place for freshwater biodiversity so there are many species that I could mention. There is such a deep history to the New Forest and places like Buck Hill.
When I’m there, I can imagine when Dragonflies were the size of seagulls and vast lowland swamp forests were dominated by giant Club Mosses, Tree Ferns, Horsetails and grazing prehistoric creatures. This was also a time when clean, unpolluted water fluctuated in depth and force throughout the seasons.
Marsh Clubmoss (Lycopodiella inundata) can be found in a variety of wetland habitats across this very special part of the Forest. It’s from a group of plants that have remained virtually unchanged since they first evolved more than 400 million years ago. Marsh Clubmoss is not only a reminder of our prehistoric past, but also an indicator of exceptional habitat quality.
A few years ago, I found two additional areas at Buck Hill where Marsh Clubmoss had not been recorded before. The area has a range of ideal habitats for this species to thrive so I hope I find more. Unfortunately, it has disappeared from one area on the edge of a historic track, but the entire area is monitored by Species Recovery Trust and volunteers (myself included) who keep an eye on how it’s doing.
When did your fascination with freshwater wildlife begin?
I have always been fanatically drawn to water and growing up I was more in it than out. I have many memories of walking home with waterlogged shoes and muddy knees. Whether it was adventuring along a suburban stream or splashing in the waves and hunting in rockpools on the northeast coast, I was captivated, curious and emotionally charged by the feelings water evoked. One of my most vivid memories is stream dipping on a school outing and being mesmerised by the creatures found in the water. I remember very clearly taking great pleasure drawing a mayfly and a freshwater shrimp although I didn’t know what they were at the time!
I have a fascination for plants – particularly those associated with New Forest mires and ponds. There are so many species that have an incredible story to tell but are often overlooked by larger landscape features. My role here in the Forest is to tell this story and enable others to share in that excitement about the deep history of the New Forest landscape.
What can we do to protect this stretch of the Beaulieu River?
The New Forest is the second smallest National Park but is one of the most visited. It also has the highest proportion of designated land for nature conservation than any other in England.
This wetland landscape, from source to sea, is ancient and fragile, with areas boasting pristine streams, ponds and mires. This makes the New Forest one of the best and most Important Freshwater Landscapes and coastal areas in the UK. These habitats and species are dependent on the ancient practice of traditional grazing and clean water free from pollution. Our role at Freshwater Habitats Trust, in partnership with other organisations, is to continue to protect the landscape.
Part of our work is educating visitors and holiday makers about its special qualities and how small positive actions can ensure the protection of species and habitats for many years to come. We have developed a water code to share with visitors, partners and business to ensure our message is heard by many. For a range of information and short videos we have a dedicated webpage.
Gemma Stride has been actively involved in the New Forest for more than a decade, from managing volunteers for the Forestry Commission to woodland management and restoration for the New Forest Land Advice Service. She has a fascination for unusual species and from time to time will be involved in monitoring rare plants and wildlife such as Marsh Clubmoss and Noble Chafer. Freshwater Habitats Trust co-hosts the New Forest Catchment Partnership with the New Forest National Park Authority.