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Young geographer: biodiversity expert in the making, Bonnie Ray

Watercolour by Bonnie Ray Watercolour by Bonnie Ray
15 Sep
Bonnie Ray is a biodiversity expert in the making. By exploring the nature on her doorstep, she has shown that vital UK biodiversity hotspots can come in all shapes and sizes

Bonnie Ray is a young explorer with a keen interest in the UK’s nature. As part of her A-level geography coursework, Bonnie evaluated biodiversity on the calcareous grasslands of Darland Banks – a small, 45-hectare nature reserve of chalk grassland, scrub and woodland.

She knew that the area was home to many rare species of butterfly, an abundance of plant life, and a single herd of grazing cattle, but she wanted to find out whether grazing – even on this tiny nature reserve – could boost the region’s biodiversity. ‘I chose to look at plants and invertebrates for my fieldwork, and I wanted to see how the land management influenced biodiversity,’ says Bonnie.

Bonnie Ray headshotBonnie Ray is passionate about exploring and protecting the nature on our doorsteps

She compared the amount of species on grazed versus non-grazed areas by sampling portions of land, then used Simpson’s Diversity Index (SDI) to calculate the biodiversity of each sample. Bonnie was astounded to discover that the biodiversity within grazed areas was double that of non-grazed areas.

‘Cattle pull out grasses and plants to create different levels of vegetation. They’re also heavy animals, so their trampling promotes germination because it literally pushes seeds into the soil,’ says Bonnie. Her fieldwork shows that sustainable grazing in the right reserves can benefit biodiversity, while reinforcing the contribution of small reserves to net biodiversity in the UK. ‘Calcareous grasslands are an undervalued ecosystem; in winter they look like scrubby wasteland, yet they have been called the “European equivalent of tropical rainforest”. The Darland Banks area is flanked by housing, roads and agriculture, it’s only 45 hectares, supports dog walkers, and yet it has the largest population of man orchids in the UK,’ she says.

Sarah Battersby Darland BanksThe calcareous grasslands of the Darland Banks are a surprising UK biodiversity hotspot

The Darland Banks reserve is managed by Kent Wildlife Trust, which is adopting a ‘wildling’ management policy across many reserves under its supervision. Here, natural processes are given free rein, with little attempt to control species outgrowth. This hands off management of biodiversity is becoming an increasingly popular strategy in the UK: The Knepp Estate in West Sussex has been on a ‘wildling’ mission since 2001, defying goal-driven principles of conservation, and instead aiming to give nature as much freedom as possible.

Through its wilding strategy, The Kent Wildlife Trust is connecting woodlands, heathlands and grasslands. Its Wilding & Wildwood project, run in conjunction with the Wildwood Trust, employs a team of ecologists who are paving the way to a wilder Kent through carefully considered species reintroductions and integrated land management. At the same time, the Trust is safeguarding small nature reserves, such as the Darland Banks, and helping to manage sustainable grazing.

finished underwing adonis Bonnie Ray 1Bonnie is also a watercolour painter. This rendition of an Adonis Butterfly was painted following sightings during fieldwork on Darland Banks

The UK’s grasslands were once grazed by aurochs – one of the largest herbivores to occur in postglacial Europe. These giants dispersed seeds across great distances in the UK, taking with them the full compliment of insects and birds that benefit from dispersed plant species. Bonnie’s work has shown that restoring grazing can be a boon for biodiversity. Disturbance of grassland by free-roaming cattle provides a check on galloping scrublands and promotes the diversity of plant and insect life. Bonnie is hopeful that more nature reserves across the UK will implement sustainable grazing strategies: ‘grazing is all down to the cattle at the moment – the myxomatosis outbreak of the 1950s decimated the UK’s rabbit population, and the great aurochs were wiped out many centuries ago.’

Bonnie is passionate about the value of nature, and hopes to study environmental science during her undergraduate studies. She’s starting to see a change in the mentality of her community in Kent. ‘People are realising now how important nature is,’ says Bonnie. In her community, ‘guerilla gardening’ is taking off. ‘People are turning council verges into small wildflower meadows and other types of biodiversity hotspot. We’re seeing people take their appreciation of wildlife and nature into their own hands.’

If you’re a Young Geographer (under 21) with an interest in exploration, scientific discovery, the natural world or human cultures, and want to be featured on our site, send your answers to the questions below to [email protected]. If you’ve been chosen, we’ll contact you to arrange an interview.

Describe your project and its background (150 words max)
What impact could your project make? (150 words max) 
Where do you want to take the project in the future? (150 words max) 

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