The first week of June is Volunteers’ Week – a week where we’re encouraged to celebrate the amazing work of volunteers in communities across the UK. We have a wonderful array of volunteers that work with us at South West Lakes Trust from conservation heroes to fantastic fishing bailiffs, watersports warriors and site maintenance stars.

Thanks to nature enthusiast and volunteer Liz Crow, two lakes in North Devon are now better managed for wildlife - in particular dragonflies and damselflies - by working closely with South West Water and local anglers. 

Liz's story

I have always loved nature, wanted to make new friends, and when I moved to Bideford, North Devon, in 2021, I soon became a Volunteer at Godborough, the local nature reserve owned by Devon Birds.

What fun, I was welcomed in. I looked forward to Tuesday mornings when I was part of an enthusiastic group meeting up to maintain, monitor and improve the various habitats which includes three ponds. In spring 2022 we all decided we needed some expert input to help us to learn to identify the abundant damselflies and dragonflies. We knew nothing...books alone were of limited help. What were those “little blue ones and big green ones?” There is a Buddhist saying “when the Student is ready, the Master appears” - and so it was.

A former Chairman of the British Dragonfly Society and author, Andy McGeeney, happened to have recently relocated to North Devon. We invited him to visit Godborough and learned that the scientific name for both dragonflies and damselflies is Odonata, that they are top predators with a hunting success rate of up to 95% (lions are way behind with only 25% of  hunts being successful), a fascinating life cycle and they are the world's fastest flying insect.  

We were hooked; his knowledge and enthusiasm sparked an ever increasing interest in the Odo (above), as we call them for short. Exciting discoveries were made including small red damselfly, a first record for North Devon, and I thought I would take a look at other local sites to see what else was out there. 

Gammaton Reservoir, above, owned by South West Water and leased to an angling club, was just up the road, a beautiful place I already knew, with two large earth faced Victorian reservoirs. A good place to start, and to my delight, Odo rich. I found lots of species including very thrillingly a colony of small red-eyed damselfly, above, a recent arrival to North Devon that has been spreading west since arriving in Essex from the Continent in 1999. I was always friendly with the anglers I sometimes met up there, chatting about the Odo and other interesting wildlife that was about. 

Another local South West Water reservoir, Jennetts, looked worth a visit but it had a security gate. I was on a mission of discovery so I emailed South West Lakes Trust, a long shot I thought, as I am not an expert, with only enthusiasm and local knowledge to offer. I was beyond delighted when only a few days later I received a reply from their Ecologist, Emma Scotney, who gave me the magic gate code and put me on their volunteer list. 

I now had a South West Lakes Trust lanyard, (proper!) and was feeding back records to Emma, also to the County recorder for Odonata. More new species were found there, including white-legged damselfly and scarce chasers. All good information to add to the national database; the presence or absence of Odo can be of importance in monitoring climate change as well as the ecosystem health of our rivers, lakes and ponds. 

Emma put me in touch with South West Water's Biodiversity Action Officer, whose job it is to look at their sites and, where possible, make improvements for wildlife. She also was very supportive and interested in what I was finding and suggested we met at Gammaton next season.

A winter meeting with Andy McGeeney resulted in the formation of the North Devon Dragonfly and Damselfly Group with 20 people attending. The word was spreading, connections made, and we planned field trips for recording Odo along the Taw and Torridge especially for white-legged damselfly that we had found at Jennetts Reservoir as there were few recent records.

Last year in 2023 I decided to target Gammaton as the most species rich local site for Odonata other than Godborough. I was also compiling an ever increasing list of interesting plants like sneezewort, Southern Marsh orchids and wall rue. Back in autumn I’d seen lots of unimproved grassland indicator species of fungi including the rare ballerina wax cap (above), there were silver washed fritillary butterflies on brambles and I had recorded lots of birds including woodcock, treecreepers, and blackcaps.

By the beginning of June, the long grass was alive with immature damselfly hunting other insects. Small copper, skippers and green-veined white butterflies nectared on the flowers by the path up to the first reservoir. Hundreds of tiny froglets were hopping about. Over the water emperor dragonflies, four-spotted chasers and black-tailed skimmers were charging over the abundant floating aquatic vegetation and laying eggs. Drifts of glittering damselflies were emerging from the water, taking their maiden flight to the safety of the bank side plants to land and harden their wings, later dispersing to feed and mature before returning as adults to reproduce.

However, when I went up a few days later I found to my shock the site transformed into a brown barren desert. Contractors had mown not only  the dam slope but nearly everything down, even right up to the hedge, the long grasses and flowers and their rich biodiversity all gone.

This was bad enough but then another shock, the anglers had not just cleared areas for their “swims”, but dragged out all the aquatic plant material from the top dam margin where the most species in the greatest numbers had been laying. It was piled up in big heaps on the banks and a few red-eyed damselfly were attempting to lay on the scattered fragments that were still floating about, the rest had gone. Very sad to see.

By lucky chance. the long-arranged site meeting with South West Water's Biodiversity Action Officer and the structural engineer was next day, so I had the opportunity to ask if, with her professional expertise and role, she could adjust the South West Water site management plan to be more sympathetic for wildlife. She agreed she would do what she could, and suggested, as I knew some of the anglers, that I speak to them directly.

Again, with perfect timing, a few days later I ran in to the new chair of the angling club together with the club secretary.  To my surprise, although I was shown a “fly” (above) which they use to catch the fish, in the form of a blue damselfly, they didn’t know anything about the lifecycle of Odos, and just how much devastation they had inadvertently caused by removing the water plants. Their thinking was “there’s lots of fish there, so it’s a good place to cast if we remove the weed” but then they noticed that the fish had disappeared - not so surprising without tasty damselflies to eat, and the protective cover under which to hide from the voracious cormorants gone!

Another walk around the site a few weeks later with the angling club committee was very positive. They agreed to limit removal of aquatic and bank side vegetation where possible, and they invited me to give a talk at their AGM which I was delighted to do. Sharing my enthusiasm for Odo, I talked about the discovery of fossil remains showing that their ancestors had been around 300 million years ago, well before the first dinosaurs. Using photos demonstrating the diversity of species at Gammaton and their beautiful colours, I talked about their complex lifecycle and of their amazing, intricate anatomy including their “secondary genitalia” which got a reaction! When I concluded by saying quietly that the sad consequences of their uninformed actions had destroyed a whole generation of many species the room went very still: “we have been hooligans” someone said at the back.

So now we are into the first few weeks of the Odo season at Gammaton and I can see some encouraging improvements have been implemented after the mass destruction of last year. The dam face has been mowed earlier, and other areas so far have been left. Reservoirs have to be managed to ensure access and safety for those using them and I now understand that it’s vital that load bearing areas are close mowed so structural problems would be visible as early as possible. After all there are houses and the lane below and there is a huge weight of water behind those Victorian dams! 

I was up there a few days ago; a warm sunny day but unlike other local sites, apart from moderate numbers of common blue damselfly, there were very few Odos on the wing. As the water weed that was entirely cleared is very slow to grow back, there is little material in which to lay eggs for any survivors from last year. Sadly it’s nothing like the glorious abundance of this time last June. 

The anglers have agreed to leave one corner entirely undisturbed (above) but have still cleared more bankside and aquatic areas for their sport than I would have hoped. Humans like “tidy”, and habits and perceptions of what is “right” are slow to change. However nature is resilient given half a chance. Maybe by next year there will be scores of damsels and dragons back, drifting and dashing about including the small red-eyed damselfly. It is, at least, a start.

Approaching big organisations as an amateur can be daunting, but I hope that my very positive experiences may encourage other people. As individuals we can often feel powerless. Get to know your local sites and if you notice possibilities for a more nature friendly management approach, then let the landowners know. They may well be unaware of what is out there! Gammaton Reservoir is a very special place, and I really hope that my efforts over the last two years to speak up for nature, will keep it so.

Liz Crow, June 2024

How to get involved

We’re always looking for more volunteers off all ages and abilities – no matter the type of experience you’re looking for we can help you discover a new passion for the outdoors. There are four key areas of volunteering with South West Lakes Trust:

  • Conservation, education and maintenance
  • Working at visitor centres and receptions across the lakes
  • Assisting the activity centre team with on and off water experiences
  • Supporting the Angling team to deliver coarse and trout fishing 

With so many options to choose from, you’re sure to find something to suit you or your group. 

Find out more.