The restoration of two ancient commons in Hampshire
PUBLISHED: 10:05 27 September 2016
Take a walk through the Wildlife Trust’s Hook Common and Bartley Heath nature reserve to see first-hand how the Trust is restoring these two ancient commons to their former glory says Ian Stoneman
Located on the edge of the Thames Basin in northern Hampshire, Hook Common and Bartley Heath are known for their extensive areas of wet heathland and expanses of purple moor grass.
The sites’ geology mean that these heaths are different to those found in nearby Fleet, Aldershot and Farnborough. Rather than occurring on the extensive plateau gravels and underlying sands on which these mainly drier heaths sit, Hook Common and Bartley Heath sit on a superficial bed of sand and gravel which overlies the London Clay Formation. This underlying clay restricts drainage and produces a much wetter mire-like heath.
Across the site there is a network of ephemeral pools, formed out of old gravel pits, which are home to a range of frogs, toads and newts, including great crested newt. Grass snakes take advantage of the presence of these species, which form a large part of their diets, and other reptiles lay hidden away, including adders, common lizards and slow worms.
Overhead fly butterflies including small and large skippers, silver washed fritillaries, ringlets and gatekeepers. Many moths have also been recorded including the nationally scarce marsh grass veneer and the white-barred knot-horn. The area is also home to a range of birds including lesser-spotted woodpecker, spotted flycatcher, crossbill, snipe, woodcock and nightingale to name but a few.
The open habitats are also important for native plants. As well as the more common heathland plants such as cross-leaved heath, ling, tormentil, heath bedstraw and heath speedwell, there are also some notable species such as petty whin and the nationally scarce marsh gentian and fringed water lily. These are the jewel in the crown in terms of the botany of the sites.
Commons, like Hook Common and Bartley Heath, often provide important wildlife habitats, having never been ploughed or improved for agriculture. Instead the land was used by commoners to graze their animals and forage for fuel. This means that their natural ecology is mainly intact and, where management provides opportunity, an abundance of native species can flourish.
Bartley Heath was designated a Site of Special Scientific Interest (SSSI) in 1986, followed by Hook Common in 1991. With the Trust taking over the management of each site, work has gathered pace to open them back up and restore the open heathland, acidic grassland and mire habitats that enable wildlife to thrive.
Central to the work is the Trust’s own herd of cattle, which grazes Bartley Heath and Hook Common. Grazing had largely ceased on the site by the turn of the 20th century, allowing much of the site to give way to secondary birch and oak woodland.
When the M3 corridor sliced through the commons in the 1970s, it put an end to any grazing that was still taking place. Grazing the sites once again will help to restore more open areas and build a mosaic of habitats to benefit wildlife. Though progress has been made, there is still potential for further restoration.
Aerial photographs from the 1940s show the commons to be a much more open place, and they provide a reference that can help guide future management. The Trust plans to restore the areas that were most recently open, whilst retaining the older wooded areas.
Walking through areas of woodland on the site, the more observant visitor will be able to make out the occasional older, mainly dead or dying, field oak. Their much-branched skeletal remains attest to the open environment in which they once grew, their fates sealed as the secondary birch woodland surrounded them and stole their space.
Here at the Trust, we combine these on-the-ground observations with the historic aerial photography to inform our conservation work. In the future, we envisage a wider expanse of high quality open habitats fringed by older growth woodlands. Such a carefully planned approach will ensure the habitats grade from heath through wooded pasture to mature woodland.
The work has been given more impetus by a plan to connect the sites to other Trust-managed sites in northern Hampshire to create a Living Landscape – a corridor of inter-linked habitats that provide sanctuary and room to move for a myriad of threatened species.
By linking Hook Common and Bartley Heath to North Warnborough Greens, Greywell Fen, Bassetts Mead and College Copse Farm, this wide expanse of land – known as the Loddon and Eversley Heritage area – will stretch from Greywell to Rotherwick. It’s an exciting prospect, which is sure to thrill any visitor as they make their way across the landscape.
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