A DREAM COME TRUE: A DRAGONFLY CENTRE AT THE NATIONAL TRUST NATURE RESERVE AT WICKEN FEN, CAMBRIDGESHIRE
The Opening of the Dragonfly Centre at the National Trust Nature Reserve at Wicken Fen, Cambridgeshire on Sunday 26th July, 2009 meant that a dream had come true for me and the volunteers of the Dragonfly Project. We had a home again, and we were delighted to share it in partnership with the British Dragonfly Society!
It was particularly fitting that TV Presenter and outstanding naturalist Chris Packham was there to cut the ribbon. Chris has supported the Dragonfly Project volunteers ever since 1991, the first year in which Ashton Water Dragonfly Sanctuary opened to the public. Ashton Water in Northamptonshire was the first site in Europe that was set up specifically to bring dragonflies and people together, and Chris visited the lake with the BBC that year to film dragonflies using a special high-speed camera. His knowledge of dragonflies was already impressive.
Beside the lake was a small observation hut into which we put a video-TV unit showing basic dragonfly information. We were so far from an electricity supply we had to use a generator to drive the TV! But people still came. And so did dragonflies: between 1989 – when we began work – and 1994, the species number recorded at the lake rose from 5 to 16. This was primarily due to a programme of steadily introducing a wide range of native water-plants.
Inspired by the success of the Sanctuary in terms of raising public awareness, we moved on to open a Registered Charity at Ashton in 1995, proudly titled ‘The National Dragonfly Museum’. We were encouraged to do so by Dame Miriam Rothschild, Dr Norman Moore, Professor Philip Corbet and by several other British Dragonfly Society members. In a phenomenal effort, the volunteers refurbished the old mill buildings, dug ponds, drove paths, erected three observation platforms in the different still water/moving water habitats surrounding the museum, produced an introductory video and designed and put up interpretation boards and displays inside the main building. We also set up and ran a Tea Room and a Gift Shop. And it was Chris Packham who returned to cut the ribbon for us on Opening Day in July 1995. In fact we forgot to get a ribbon and, immediately prior to the ceremony, Chris very kindly trudged into the local town, Oundle, to purchase one himself!
One of our secret weapons was our TV-Microscope link that enabled us to show groups of up to 30 people what dragonfly larvae looked like close up, and, more excitingly, how they feed. The children particularly like to witness the action of the labial mask on bloodworms!
Sadly, due to circumstances entirely beyond our control, the Museum had to close at the end of the 2001 season. But we had operated every summer weekend for seven years and had attracted 22,000 visitors, all of whom were shown something of the beauty, fascination and worldwide plight of dragonflies, and led to see that they themselves could help. In 2001 as the Museum’s life drew to a close, Chris Packham once again returned to give the last in our series of Philip Corbet lectures.
After all the work we’d put in, the closure of the National Dragonfly Museum was of course a terrible blow to the volunteers. It looked like the finish of our programmes of Dragonfly ‘Safaris’ and One-day Courses. But, one evening near the end, as we gathered for a drink after another hard day’s work, one of us remarked: “Well, we’re like the crew of an aeroplane. The plane has crashed, yes, but the crew are all OK, the equipment is OK, our morale is OK. Let’s carry on. All we need is a new aeroplane. And, maybe one day, a purpose-built one!”
And, renaming ourselves ‘The Dragonfly Project’ and retaining our charitable status, carry on we have. In 2002 we ran a season from the bungalow-on-stilts in the heart of Woodwalton Fen, Cambridgeshire. We brought our generator back into action to drive the TV-Microscope. But brilliant habitat though it is, Woodwalton has no visitor facilities, not even a toilet, let alone a car-park. So we were delighted when the National Trust at Wicken Fen, Cambridgeshire, agreed to let us use their educational building for summer weekends to continue our public-awareness-raising work.
Even before we started, Adrian Colston, the then Property Manager at Wicken, began to talk quietly of allowing the Dragonfly Project a small home in a disused cottage at the top of the road, provided we won our spurs. Which is why we worked so hard at Wicken every summer from 2003 until 2009, running 18 half-day Dragonfly Safaris and 4 One-day Courses each year.
But our idea of a big purpose-built home had not gone away and we began discussions with the British Dragonfly Society to see if they had similar thoughts. Up until then the BDS’s chief raisons d’etre had been the study and conservation of dragonflies. But, particularly under the presidencies of Peter Mill, and Pam Taylor especially, the BDS had begun to concentrate on public-awareness-raising, too. A Joint Working Group was set up with a view to setting up a purpose-built centre. But in the meantime plans between the Dragonfly Project and the National Trust for the little cottage at Wicken began to move forward. In 2007, it became obvious that a partnership between the Dragonfly Project and the BDS at this site would be a very good thing. The Working group turned their attention to Wicken.
And hence the new Dragonfly Centre was born. It may well spawn copies across the country, but if you haven’t had the chance to visit it yet, do go. You’ll be delighted. It stands right beside the car-park at the entrance to Wicken, so everyone who comes to Wicken can’t miss it. You’ll be particularly struck by the interpretation boards. Only a few people realize the immense amount of work that has to go into the preparation of such boards and Pam Taylor of the BDS has produced exactly the sort of thing the public need to understand dragonflies.
The Centre is manned as often as possible, usually every weekend during the summer and certain weekdays as well, but the Dragonfly Project adds to that by continuing to run our programme of half-day Dragonfly Safaris and TV-Microscope demonstrations, and our One-day Courses.
Chris Soans, the Property Manager at the time at Wicken, and his team worked like trojans to have the building finished on time and looking pristine. Chris knew what was required; he’d been at the Opening of the National Dragonfly Museum back in 1995! He made sure the 26th July was a really grand affair.
Of course, ideally and ultimately, the aim remains the same, namely – ultimately – to set up a purpose-built centre. Why? Because the new Dragonfly Centre doesn’t have a laboratory area, or a library area, or space for staff to work, or a demonstration/theatre space, or a … and so on. But it DOES have two superb interpretation spaces; and two purpose-built ponds right outside; and a small office for administration, writing up scientific data, sneaking a hasty volunteers’ lunch and so on.
The Dragonfly Centre is a stunning building, a brilliant effort and a really wonderful step forward for raising public-awareness of dragonflies, and a dream come true for the Dragonfly Project volunteers who have stuck together through thick and thin. And how marvellous it was to have Chris Packham once again to cut the ribbon. We actually remembered the ribbon this time!
The British Dragonfly Society now have the responsibility for running the Centre and the Project team wishes them the Very Best of Luck. After all, we’re BDS members!
Another responsibility now shouldered by the B.D.S. is having a Dragonfly Stand at The British Birdwatching Fair at Rutland Water. The Dragonfly Project had a stand every year from 1998, initially alone, and then jointly with the B.D.S. and the Society continues this tradition.
Sadly, the Dragonfly Centre at Wicken Fen has now closed, but the British Dragonfly Society is now truly working hard to raise public awareness of dragonflies through the creation of Dragonfly Hotspots throughout the country, including at Exbury Gardens in Hampshire, a project inspired, in a nice twist of fate, by Kari and Ruary.