Aylestone Meadows is, according to the 2012 survey of Leicestershire and Rutland Wildlife Trust, the best and most extensive site for wildlife within Leicester, forming part of a larger wildlife corridor, the Soar & Wreake Floodplain Living Landscape Project. As well as the well-known and loved animals and birds such as Badgers, Foxes and Robins, a huge number of species are found here and since it ceased to be farmland it is continually becoming more biologically diverse and the habitats more mature. Some areas such as Spearwort Field are grazed by the rare Longhorn Cattle, which suppress the more aggressive vegetation in a traditional form of management.
The following are just a few of species noted in 2012:-
Moths: Over 170 moth species were recorded during the survey, with ten of these being locally important – for example, Old Lady (Mormo maura), Dingy Footman (Eiloma griseola) and Scarce Footman (Eiloma complana).
Otters (Lutra lutra): Historically, Otters have suffered terribly, firstly through widespread use of the D.D.T pesticide that worked its way up the food chain and began to harm the Otter cubs, and secondly through Otter hunting which was illegalised in 1978. Today, the Otters are making a comeback, with sightings recorded for the first time in thirty years in Leicestershire along the Rivers Biam and Soar. Known to be on the reserve for the past six years, and recorded during the 2012 survey, they are one of the priority species of the Wildlife Trusts Biodiversity Action Plan.
Peregrine Falcons (Falco peregrinus): Like the Otters, Peregrines are at the top of their food chain, so D.D.T harmed them tremendously during its heyday. They were also persecuted because they hunted carrier pigeons during the world wars. But now these threats are finished with, and the Peregrine is more widely respected. It has returned from the brink and is sometimes seen perching on the gas towers near the canal in the northern half of the reserve.
Hybrid Willow (Salix x taylorii): This willow was first recorded in 2011and is the off-spring of four parent species: Goat, Grey and Purple Willows along with Osier. It is the first of its type in Britain, perhaps even worldwide.
Buzzards (Buteo buteo): Though once rarely seen in Leicestershire, these raptors are now commonly seen on the Meadows. Look up!
Song Birds: The area is rich in bird-song on spring mornings, with resident and migrant birds such as Warblers, Chiffchaffs, robins, tits, buntings, thrushes and blackbirds.
Little Egret (Egretta garzetta): These migrants are now becoming established in wetlands throughout the south and midlands. There are at least three living and possibly breeding in the reserve.
Bats: Three species of bats were found during the 2012 Wildlife Trust survey, with help from Leicestershire and Rutland Bat Group members. These were Common Pipistrelle (Pipistrellus pipistrellus), Soprano Pipistrelle (P. pygmaeus) and Daubenton’s (Myotis daubentonii). All of the bat species of Britain are protected by British and European legislation, as well as forming part of Leicestershire and Rutland Wildlife Trusts Biodiversity Action Plan.
Axiophytes: These are considered indicator species for good quality habitats such as ancient woodland or unpolluted rivers. A total of thirty-eight were found on the Meadows, including Field Maple (Acer campestre), Aspen (Populus tremulus), Meadow Cranesbill (Geranium pratense) and numerous species of Sedges (Carex spp.).
Throughout the past people have often taken plants and animals from continent to continent. Sometimes this has benefited people, sometimes alien species have integrated into British ecosystems perfectly well (as in the case of Horse Chestnut), but often the effects are damaging. Below are invasive species known to be on the Meadows.
Floating Pennywort (Hydrocotyle ranunculoides): An aquatic plant native to both North and South America as well as parts of Africa that was released into the waterways of Aylestone Meadows in 2004, this species can rapidly dominate areas. Whilst threatened in part of its home range, its sale will be banned from sale as of April 2014. The council are leading efforts to remove it from the site with their greenlife boat, but it is perhaps a lengthy battle.
American Mink (Mustela vison): Originally brought to Britain from North America to breed in fur farms, the Mink was released into the wild by animal right activists whose frustrations can be understood even if the action proved to be misguided. Now, amongst other conservation issues, the Mink is one of the main factors in the decline of the Water Vole (Arvicola amphibius), the population of which has declined by an estimated 97%. American Mink have been on the Meadows and breeding for 18 years, though fortunately due to competition their numbers often decline with the return of the larger Otter, which may pave the way for an additional comeback for the Water Vole.
Signal Crayfish (Pacifasticus leniusculus): A lobster-like species introduced from North America, the Signal Crayfish has proved highly successful in Britain, spreading quickly and threatening the future of the native White Clawed Crayfish (Austropotamobius pallipes). It was recorded on the Meadows during the 2012 Wildlife Trust survey, thought the White-Clawed is known to live in the reserve too.
Eastern Grey Squirrel (Sciurus carolinensis): This squirrel originates from North America, and its introduction here soon proved to be a mistake. Having the same food requirements as the native Red Squirrel (Sciurus vulgaris), competition was inevitable. The Grey’s greater ability to store fat meant it began to displace the Red. In addition, the Grey carries a disease called squirrel pox that it is immune to, but the Red is not. Now, the Grey is common on the Meadows and the Red has been locally extinct since the late 1940s.
Himalayan Balsam (Impatiens glandulifera): An introduced wildflower that originates from the Himalayan mountain range (surprisingly), as a lover of wet environments this species is now present on the Meadows along the river and stream banks.
Japanese Knotweed (Reynoutria japonica): A shrubby wildflower native to Eastern Asia that is perhaps one of the most competitive species in Britain, growing so dense that native species cannot co-exist with it.