The Dragonfly Project has ceased Operations

For 22 years, our dedicated group of volunteers has been working tirelessly to share their love and enthusiasm for these amazing creatures with the general public. At Ashton Water Dragonfly Sanctuary, at the National Dragonfly Museum, then Woodwalton Fen, and for the last 10 years at Wicken Fen, we at The Dragonfly Project (TDP) have shown thousands of visitors how beautiful, interesting, and sadly endangered damselflies and dragonflies are. And we’ve shown people how they can help.

In 2009, after discussion, negotiation and planning with our friends, colleagues and partners at the British Dragonfly Society (BDS) and The National Trust, our dream of a Dragonfly Centre was realized with the opening of The Dragonfly Centre at Wicken Fen.

Now, at the end of 2013, it’s time to take stock. It's been 22 years of hard, exciting, and successful work. Our friends at BDS have gone from strength to strength, and are now in a position to expand upon their excellent study and conservation work to take on the challenge of educating and enthusing people about dragonflies. They have already taken great steps in this direction.

We at The Dragonfly Project are extremely proud of our achievements, but believe that this is the time to hand over the baton of our work to The British Dragonfly Society. The Dragonfly Project will close at the end of 2013.

But, please be aware …!

The British Dragonfly Society Ceasing operations is not an end for us, it’s a beginning. It’s a new and exciting time for the BDS and all the individuals who have supported TDP over the years. Many of us will continue to volunteer for BDS as they take on and develop the training courses, walks and demonstrations that we pioneered. We will still be watching dragonflies and telling anyone who will listen how amazing they are.
See you out there!

The British Dragonfly Society - working to conserve dragonflies and their wetland habitats

Here’s what we achieved:

  1. From a start in 1989, we opened the first publicly-accessible dragonfly reserve in Europe in 1991, averaging over 100 visitors per open day, 3,500 people between 1991 and 1994.
  2. Between 1995 and 2001, 22,000 people visited the National Dragonfly Museum, quite apart from those who came on our Dragonfly Courses.
  3. When, in 2002, Adrian Colston originally invited the Dragonfly Project to The National Trust at Wicken Fen (while we were at Woodwalton Fen) he stated specifically that if we could win our spurs and prove dragonfly-related activities to be of financial advantage for the National Trust, then he might possibly be able to make a cottage available to us for a centre at some point in the future.
  4. We worked for six years (2003-2008) at Wicken to demonstrate to the National Trust the attraction of dragonflies to the general public, and the financial advantage that would accrue to the National Trust from our work. Had it not been for our dedicated weekends at Wicken, the Wicken Dragonfly Centre would not now exist.
  5. During the six years we were in the National Trusts's Wren Building at Wicken prior to the opening of the Dragonfly Centre, we had countless folk come and spend time with us, finding out about dragonflies, and we had countless folk thereafter.
  6. Over 1000 people from all over the country spent half a day with us on Safaris at Wicken, and over 400 people spent a whole day with us on Dragonfly Courses.
  7. We promoted dragonflies on TV and Radio, prime time, national and local, over two decades, and given talks countrywide. Our most recent successes were three appearances on BBC’s Springwatch.
  8. We worked for 25 years (13 at Ashton, 1 at Woodwalton, 11 at Wicken) directly interacting with the public on behalf of dragonflies, complementing the BDS's different focus which until November 2012 was primarily on the Study and Conservation of dragonflies.
  9. In 1989, it was virtually impossible to find any dragonfly-related item in any shop. Now, on visits to Gap, Marks and Spencer, and Liberty, for example, there are dragonfly motifs everywhere, on jewellery, shirts, scarves, even underpants! And dragonflies now feature regularly on TV. We can certainly claim a great deal of credit for this. We have accomplished much. And we're confident that the British Dragonfly Society will now be able to carry our work forward.
The Dragonfly Centre

The Dragonfly Project - Our Story
by Ruary Mackenzie Dodds

Ashton Water Dragonfly Sanctuary

It all began in 1989 at Ashton Water, a 3-acre lake in Northamptonshire, which had been reduced to a mudbath by a herd of enormous Chinese Pére David deer. The Ashton estate was long-accustomed to the activities of Naturalists. Originally the home of Charles Rothschild, the man who discovered that fleas were the vector of plague, the house was lived in by his daughter Miriam Rothschild, and owned by his grandson Charles Lane. Miriam’s niece, Kari de Koenigswarter, was one of the two co-founders of Ashton Water Dragonfly Sanctuary, along with Ruary Mackenzie Dodds.

Ashton Water

Ashton Water was the first place in Europe set up specifically for dragonflies and intended for public opening. We erected a WWF-funded deer-proof fence around the lake, put in local, native, dragonfly-attracting water plants, and got the boathouse rethatched and repainted. Kayaks proved very useful for monitoring dragonflies.

In 1990, we carried out a phenological study of damselfly emergence, among other things noting that almost 50% of Blue-tailed Damselflies emerged upside down. The data was subsequently published in the British Dragonfly Society’s scientific Journal. We also recorded dragonflies over a four month period, using five daily transect walks. Data collected was passed to the Biological records station at Monks Wood.

We opened the Sanctuary to the public for the first time in 1991, having cleared a new access route, with visitors entering up a bumpy track from the village of Polebrook. A growing number of volunteers began to join us and Chris Packham paid his first visit to Ashton to make a TV piece for ‘Nature Detectives’. Beside the lake was a small observation hut which we had re-thatched and in 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 wider range of local native water-plants.

The National Dragonfly Museum

Inspired by the success of the Sanctuary in terms of raising public awareness, the volunteers moved on to open a Registered Charity (1046086) at Ashton Mill in 1995, proudly titled ‘The National Dragonfly Museum’. We were encouraged to do so by Miriam Rothschild, Dr Norman Moore, Professor Philip Corbet and by several other BDS members.

In a phenomenal effort, the volunteers refurbished the old mill buildings, dug ponds, drove paths, erected three observation platforms in the Ashton mill 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 returned the Victorian engine house to operating condition after fifty years of inactivity and damage. We refurbished the agricultural and fishing exhibits previously on show at the mill. 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 our official Opening Day, a year later, in July 1996. In fact we forgot to get a ribbon and, immediately prior to the ceremony, Chris very kindly trudged into Oundle to purchase one himself!

One of our secret weapons was our TV-Microscope link which 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 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 they’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!”

The Dragonfly Project

Volunteers at Woodwalton Fen

And so, 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. 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 agreed to let us use their educational building for summer weekends to continue our public-awareness-raising work.

A New Dragonfly Centre?

Even before we started, Adrian Colston, the then Property Manager at Wicken, talked 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 at Wicken every summer after 2003, running 18 half-day Dragonfly Safaris and 4 One-day Courses every 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 Andy McGeeney, Peter Mill, and Pam Taylor especially, the BDS had begun to concentrate on educational aspects, 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, and the Working group turned their attention to Wicken.

The Wicken Fen Dragonfly Centre

The Dragonfly Centre

And hence the new Dragonfly Centre was born. If you haven’t had the chance to visit it yet, do go. You’ll be delighted. It is a wonderful statement for dragonflies and for the BDS. It stands right beside the car-park at the entrance to Wicken, so everyone who comes to Wicken cannot miss it.

The Centre is manned as often as possible, ideally every weekend during the summer and many school holiday weekdays as well … (By YOU perhaps? Please e-mail Clem Tacconi on

The new Dragonfly Centre is really doing its job. As volunteer Tim Gossling commented after an afternoon’s stint: “We ought to warn folk manning the Centre for the afternoons: they need to eat lunch before they start. Otherwise they’ll be talking to visitors so much they won’t get the chance!”

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 volunteers who have stuck together through thick and thin. And how marvellous it was in 2009 to have Chris Packham once again to cut the ribbon. We actually remembered the ribbon this time!