Despite having come through the mildest, wettest winter on record, as at 6th march my frogs and most in my areas area still to spawn. I have at least 6 poor females who have been in amplexus for well over a week. The cool nights just keep preventing them from spawning. Not heard a single croak yet. Smooth Newts stacked in on 22nd Feb, and I had a female GCN egg laying that night despite not seeing a male as yet! Could be another frog/toad mash-up breeding season!
Driving up and down the A31 through Hampshire (and on many other roads across Britain) in late January and you may be aware of numeous patches of fine dark green leaf spikes sticking up from the otherwise closely cropped verges. Only after the rabbits have eaten away everything else does the sheer abundance of Wild Onion or Crow Garlic Allium vineale manifest itself. It’s a plant you can miss with ease amongst the summer luxuriance of our verges and grassy banks, but rabbits even very hungry ones obviously dont like the taste of the stuff, and give it a head start by nibbling the competition!
Yet again Countryfile blindly rubber stamp another eco-fraud, this time it’s the ‘wonderful restoration’ of the old A3 in the Devil’s Punchbowl. What a joke! The lack of imagination at this very high profile site beggars belief. The old road lies above superb restored heathland yet the carriageway has been plastered in clayey topsoil and is developing into a completely inappropriate neutral grasland mix with areas actually planted with trees! Very little exposed sand is present (less than that beside the active A3), Despite the great aspect and obvious value to bees and wasps etc. I was commissioned to do a survey of the old trackways pre tunnel as in the days of the horse and carriage Fairy Shrimps bred in the rutted roadways. Obviously they were long gone in the shady acidic pools that remained, but how hard would it have been to make little rutted area and allow some seasonal pools development, and reintroduce the lovely things. All those dogs would help keep them from revegetating too much..so..win..win!!
Boundless Copse disappeared under the approaches to the southern tunnel entrance. The slopes of which are covered in a grassy monoculture. The Copse had superb acidic seepages, relict heathy glade edges which hade numerous rare and nationally scarce invertebrates, and plenty of reptile, bird and mammal interest. All gone without an ounce of compensation. All that dull plantation woodland sits on former heathland. I cannot see a single tree removed to compensate for those glades and seepages. Just classic Noddy Town species poor dross. EIA what is the point!!
You join me at the bottom of Chalky Hill, a quiet little byway too remote to warrant one of those gradient warning signs: You know the ones, they used to say 1:5 (blimey) or 1:3 (help!), but now give a percentage which I don’t get despite the (doubtless EU inspired) public information film! Anyway Chalky is on one of my regular circuits and as I turn to begin the long drag I mutter to myself,
Hello old chum, I’m here again. The hill is silent, never changing, the same challenge no more no less, as it is sheltered from the wind beneath a lofty chalk plateaux of high Hampshire downs, so one is spared a malevolent head wind, but equally, denied a welcome boost.
To a weekend rider like me it is a killer, and in post xmas cathartic mode when I am nearer 16 stone than 15 to get to the top without stopping requires a special tactic: For as I turn, I imagine I have 4 minutes on a chasing peloton with ‘the Big Mig’, ‘Wiggo’ and ‘the Cannibal’, straining to reel me in, an imagining so strong that half way up with thighs burning and vision narrowing, I look over my shoulder and seeing them not there, renew my effort and grind to the top counting each turn of the pedals. A 100 turns gets me over the top and a little downhill respite, slowing to gob at the horrid, barking golden retriever which flies out scaring passers-by. Whether it is oxygen deprivation, I cannot say, but the feeling of height is palpable. Pausing I look across at Butser Hill to the east, and the Berkshire Downs way away in the North West. The escarpment has been planted with a vineyard, it seemed a good idea 6 years ago, but just as the young vines began to climb, the winters which had been so mild for so very long, returned with a vengeance.
It is a good place to stop and think, or at least clear one’s head of unwelcome thoughts. Lately I have seen Ravens ( the first to grace these parts in two centuries), flying over that same seemingly anonymous expanse of ground which on winter evenings becomes very hallowed ground indeed, host to a special scene which may have gone on for centuries, for if the winter wheat isn’t too high or it is left fallow, it is used by roosting Golden Plover. As the sun sets my eyes search the big sky in this open place, but it is often the ears which first pick up those lovely nomads. The haunting wolf whistle call rings out as the sub-flocks circle at amazing speed, nervously checking that the landing zone is safe. They drop in almost in a free-fall. After ten minutes as the light fades I leave them nestling down all facing into the wind, and wish them luck. They will need it in such a biting wind, how tough they are. The huge field is a shallow saucer shape, which provides some protection from the wind, whilst enabling whoever is on point duty to spot any approaching predator such as a fox.
This is a timeless place, a road sign says ‘Godsfield 2¼’, I’ve been.. blink and you’ve missed it! In the distance you may catch a glimpse of the smoke and steam rising from engines snorting up the incline to Ropley, pulling trains of day-trippers on the Watercress Line. The cows are black and white, and the sheep are mostly Dutch, but the smells and noises are the same. In Highways and Byways of Hampshire the author’s visit to Medstead in 1908, describes a conversation with an old lady, which is interrupted by the rasping calls of Corncrakes. Alas long, long gone, a victim of agricultural improvement (fertilizer and silage growing), but Hares are still common, and one spring afternoon I was delighted to show my young children ‘boxing hares’. A female with no less than seven would be suitors who’s attention she wasn’t finding wholly welcome.
We cycle around these lanes in the summer, and without any planning our excursions have often been filled with lovely serendipitous moments. From a meeting with the gentle giant Shire horses who always seem pleased just to stand with anyone passing their little corner of Upper Wield, and one time we came upon a ploughing match with veteran tractor enthusiasts cranking up immaculate Fordson Majors and Grey Fergies.
‘ It is like living in a Ladybird book with you’ , and I count myself very lucky indeed! For the pace of life, the quintessentially British feel that those lovely little books captured, is still very much alive in this little corner of Hampshire.
Since I wrote my letter on heathland grazing in response to your article in British Wildlife I have found the Minutes and Evidence relative to the rights of Common in respect of Tadley Common and West Heath Common in north Hampshire as at 15th December 1847. The evidence was given by men who had known these Commons since 1775. The rights claimed were:
a) Appendant – which was the right of common of pasture (i.e. feeding), the exercising of which did not need to be proved.
b) Appurtenant – which was the right to lop trees, and cut gorse, furze, underwood (NB. this was not the same as coppice), furze (gorse) heather, bushes, and fern for fuel to be burnt in a commoner’s dwelling. It also extended to common of turbary, which was the right to cut turf or peat for fuel. Turf in this context was the digging out of growing heather to ‘a slight depth’ so that earth and roots together ‘could be dried out to burn slowly with a smouldering flame’. The right was attached to each dwelling.
The pasturing of sheep and turf cutting were confined to West Heath Common, and horses and larger cattle were turned out on Tadley Common. Furze was cut on both Commons. There is no mention of pigs.
In 1838 the parish of Tadley had a total area of 2038 acres, of which 800 acres were Commonland, most of which was heathland. The largest farm was Tadley Place, with 172 acres of arable, 29 acres of pasture, and 7 acres of meadow. The tenant, John Penford, was described as a farmer of ‘small means’ who could not advantageously exercise his right of grazing on either Common. In his words ‘I have cut turf and furze on the Common since 1843 but I have not stocked it. I have had plenty of pasture for my cattle and sheep or I should have stocked the Common with them. I had a right but I did not exercise it so it would have been no benefit to me.’ In other words, he did not need to use the Common as supplementary pasture because the 36 acres of pasture and meadow that were part of the farm were sufficient for the few livestock that he could afford to keep.
In addition to the 212 acres of grass and arable, Tadley Place also had 147 acres of woodland but this was held ‘in hand’ by Oakley Hall Estate, the owner of Tadley Place. The Estate records show that this woodland was a commercial enterprise; hence the reliance that the tenant, John Penford, placed on the Commons as his major source of fuel. This reliance on the Common as a major source of fuel but as a minor source of grazing is also apparent in the evidence of other witnesses. Turf from the Commons was the major source of fuel for the tenant farmers, smallholders, labourers, and the poor. For the latter in the neighbouring parish of Pamber, the Overseers accounts for 1795-1814 registered regular payments for cutting and carting turf. In 1795, for example, the Overseers paid 12 shillings for the cutting of 4000 turves, and 15s 9d for their carting.
Photograph 1 shows the present state of the much-reduced acreage of Tadley Common (100 acres). The furze and birch, which covers most of the Common, also conceals the few cattle that are put there for the ostensible purpose of preventing its growth. This is a graphic example of what the much larger acreage would have looked like if all of the furze and turf cutting had completely ceased in 1848, as it should have done, ‘in Pursuance of the Act of the 8th and 9th Victoria c. 118 [whereby] all Rights of Common in and over the said [Tadley] Commons…were wholly extinguished…namely the Right of Turbary and Cutting Furze…and all other Commonable Rights, whatsoever, from 11th Day of October.
The fact that this did not happen was due to a combination of ecological, social, and economic factors that affected Tadley. The coarse sands and gravels of north Hampshire are among the least fertile soils in England, and within this region those of the Tadley district are the worst; too poor for cultivation and even for the planting of larch, which was the universal crop of other areas of enclosed heathland along the
Photograph 1. Cattle-grazed Tadley Common September 2013.
north Hampshire and south Berkshire border. The extensive heathland of Tadley, with its impoverished soils and unregulated commons was, however, suitable for human settlement. From the end of the eighteenth century it attracted many itinerant families who were looking for a place to settle. In 1801 the population was 497, and by 1911 it had risen to 1229. These families were seasonal migrants who used Tadley as their home-base whilst they were working the various summer harvests around southern and south-eastern England. In the winter the men found work in the north Hampshire and south Berkshire woodlands, mainly cutting and working-up the hazel underwood of the so-called coppice-with-standards woodlands that had been extensively planted in the early eighteenth century. Most of them were self-employed, earning their living by making such products as barrel hoops, wooden handles, and crate rods. Others earned their living from making and selling heath and birch brooms throughout the summer months, the materials for which were cut on the heathland. The latter in particular were sold to the iron and steel works in the Midlands where their principal use was for removing the scale that immediately formed on the molten metal as it made contact with the cold air.
It was, therefore, the increasing use of birch and heather for broom-making, when added to the increased use of gorse and turf for fuel by the settlers, that kept the heathlands shorn of vegetation from the middle of the nineteenth century to the middle of the twentieth century, and not the grazing of domestic livestock, which was minimal. The 1950s was the decade in which the heathland economy that had
Photograph 2. Cattle-grazed Silchester Common in September 2013.
existed, at varying levels of intensity, for at least a thousand years, came to an abrupt end. It was also the decade in which the Atomic Weapons Research Establishment (AWRE) was built on the former Aldermaston Aerodrome. Tadley Common had been requisitioned in 1939 to provide the accommodation for the ancillary support services for the wartime airfield, and it was never returned to the local community. Instead it was developed as housing accommodation for the scientists, technicians and engineers who were drafted into AWRE. The indigenous population of broom-makers and other wood-workers found alternative employment in AWRE as labourers and drivers and, more importantly, were given the security of regular work, paid holidays, and pensions.
The cost to the public of the ill-conceived and hastily drafted cattle grazing policy for SSSIs that was introduced by the government of the day, and implemented by English Nature, has been, and continues to be, astronomical. As with Tadley Common, the furze and birch that covers most of Silchester Common (Photograph 2) conceals the few cattle that are put there for the ostensible purpose of preventing its growth. In 1991, the initial cost of fencing Silchester Common (165 acres) was estimated at £27,739. This figure included an estimated £5000 for the initial clearance of the trees and gorse. Thereafter the estimated annual maintenance cost was £20,600, of which £15,000 was the warden’s salary. In total, therefore, over £600,000 has been wasted on Silchester Common over a period of 22 years, because in 2013 it is in the same vegetative state as it was in 1991, before the fence was erected and the cattle were introduced.
This expensive fiasco was not done in the interests of wildlife conservation. There was no logic employed and no research was undertaken. It was entirely a knee-jerk reaction on the part of English Nature to satisfy the demand of its political masters.
Gloucester Record Office: D2240/Box 34 Papers relating to the rights of Common attached to Tadley Place 1847.
Hampshire Record Office: 15M70/PO1 Pamber Overseers of the Poor; 10M57/Z73/1 & 2.
Robert Hunter: Open Spaces, Foot-Paths, and Rights of Way, London 1896.
E. J. T. Collins: Farming and Forestry in Central Southern England in the Nineteenth and early Twentieth Centuries, in H. Brandl (ed.) Geschichte der Kleinprivatuald-wirtschaft (Freiburg University, Germany 1993) pps 290-306.
Hampshire County Council: Report on Silchester Common as part of the North East Hampshire Heathlands Project, 1991.
Silchester Parish Council: Grazing on Silchester Common, Working Party Report, 1991.
LIST OF LIFERS
|Aeonium arboreum||Tree Aeonium||Garrison Wall|
|Agapanthus praecox||African Lily||Appletree banks|
|Aichryson laxum||Canary island Stonecrop||Tresco|
|Amaryllis belladonna||Jersey Lily||Tresco|
|Anemonia viridis||Snakelocks Anemone||St.Mary’s|
|Anisantha rigida||Ripgut Brome||St.Martins|
|Aptenia cordifolia||Heart-leaf Iceplant||St.Mary’s|
|Arcitalitrus dorrieni||New Zealand Land hopper||Tresco|
|Armadillidium album||a pill woodlouse||Tresco|
|Asparagonopsis armata||a red seaweed||St.Martins|
|Asterina gibbosa||cushion star||St.Mary’s|
|Asteropectus irregularis||a starfish||St.Mary’s|
|Atherina presbyter||Sand-Smelt||The Road|
|Martasterias glacialis||a starfish||St.Mary’s|
|Autotylus pictus||marine worm||St.Mary’s|
|Briza minor||Lesser Quaking-grass||St.Martins|
|Ceratochloa cathartica||Rescue Brome||St.Martins|
|Chrysocoma coma-aurea||Shrub Goldilocks||St.Mary’s|
|Clathrus ruber||Birdcage fungus||Garrison Wall|
|Clubiona genevensis||a spider||Tresco|
|Convolvulus sabatias||Ground Blue convolvulus||St.Mary’s|
|Coprosma repens||Tree Bedstraw||Tresco|
|Corallina officinalis||Coral weed||St.Martins|
|Coryphoblennius galerita||Montagu’s Blenny||St.Mary’s|
|Crocidura suaveolens||Lesser White-toothed Shrew||St.Mary’s|
|Cymbalaria muralis||Ivy Leaved toadflax (White form)||St.Martins|
|Cyrtomium falcatum||House Holly-fern||St.Mary’s|
|Cytoseira tamariscifolia||a sea weed||St.Mary’s|
|Delairea odorata||German-ivy||New Grimsby|
|Dictyopteris membranacea||a marine algae||St.Martins|
|Disphyma crassifolium||Purple Dewplant||New Grimsby|
|Drosanthemum floribundum||Pale Dewplant||Tresco|
|Echium pininana||Giant Viper’s-bugloss||Tresco|
|Erepsia heteropetala||Lesser Sea-fig||St.Mary’s|
|Eucalyptus globulus||Southern Blue-gum||Tresco|
|Eucalyptus pulchella||White Peppermint-gum||Tresco|
|Francoa ramosa||Bridal Wreath||Tresco|
|Fumaria occidentalis||Western Ramping-fumitory||St.Mary’s|
|Geranium maderense||Giant Herb-Robert||Tresco|
|Gobiusculus flavescens||Two-spot Goby||St.Mary’s|
|Halopteris filicina||a marine algae||St.Mary’s|
|Helichrysum petiolare||Silver-bush Everlastingflower||St.Mary’s|
|Hydrobates pelagicus||European Storm-petrel||Off Lands End|
|Ixia campanulata||Red Corn-lily||Tresco|
|Ixia paniculata||Tubular Corn-lily||Tresco|
|Lampranthus falciformis||Sickle-leaved Dewplant||Tresco|
|Leptospermum lanigerum||Woolly Tea-tree||Tresco|
|Leptospermum scoparium||Broom Tea-tree||Tresco|
|Liocarcinus puber||a crab||St.Martins|
|Littorina saxatilis||Rough winkle||St.Martins|
|Luma apiculata||Chilean Myrtle||Tresco|
|Malva pseudolavatera||Smaller Tree-mallow||St.Mary’s|
|Mola mola||Sunfish||Off Lands End|
|Nerophis lumbriciformis||Worm Pipefish||St.Mary’s|
|Ochagavia carnea||Tresco Rhodostachys||Appletree banks|
|Olearia avicenniifolia||Mangrove-leaved Daisy-bush||Tresco|
|Olearia macrodonta||New Zealand Holly||Garrison Wall|
|Olearia x hastii||Daisy Bush||Tresco|
|Oscularia deltoides||Deltoid-leaved Dewplant||Tresco|
|Oxalis megalorrhiza||Fleshy Yellow-sorrel||Tresco|
|Oxalis tetraphylla||Four-leaved Pink-sorrel||Tresco|
|Pelargonium tomentosum||Peppermint-scented Geranium||Tresco|
|Phormium cookianum||Lesser New Zealand Flax||St.Mary’s|
|Phormium tenax||New Zealand Flax||Appletree banks|
|Polycarpon tetraphyllum||Four-leaved Allseed||St.Mary’s|
|Polysiphonia lanosa||a red alga||St.Martins|
|Pomatocerus triqueter||tube worm||St.Mary’s|
|Pomatoschistus minutus||Sand goby||St.Martins|
|Porcellana platycheles||Broard-clawed Porcelain Crab||St.Mary’s|
|Procerodes littoralis||marine flatworm||St.Mary’s|
|Puffinus griseus||Sooty Shearwater||Off Lands End|
|Roccella fuciformis||a lichen||Outer Head|
|Roccella phycopsis||a lichen||Outer Head|
|Ruschia caroli||Shrubby Dewplant||New Grimsby|
|Saccorhiza polyschides||Batters Alga||St.Martins|
|Selaginella kraussiana||Krauss’s Clubmoss||Tresco|
|Senecio glastifolius||Woad-leaved Ragwort||Tresco|
|Sparaxis grandiflora||Plain Harlequinflower||Tresco|
|Spirorbis borealis||Tube Worm||St.Mary’s|
|Symphodus melops||Corkwing Wrasse||St.Mary’s|
|Tectura virginea||a mollusc||St.Martins|
|Trioza vitreoradiata||a psyllid||Tresco|
|Watsonia borbonica||Bugle-lily||Appletree banks|
|Woodwardia radicans||Chain Fern||Tresco|
Jonty Denton intuitively answered the question he asked in the title of his article Conservation grazing of heathland – where is the logic? (BW 24: 339-346) when he wrote ‘Indeed, it could be argued that grazing is simply being used as a quick fix to get politicians off Natural England’s back’.
On 4 May 2004 my MP tabled a written question (Question No: 201) in the House of Commons on my behalf asking the Secretary of State for the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (DEFRA) what guidelines she issued to English Nature (EN) prior to its recent assessment of Sites of Special Scientific Interest (SSSI). The answer I received was that EN assesses the condition of SSSIs according to common standards agreed for the UK through the Joint Nature Conservation Committee (JNCC) and not on the basis of Government guidelines.
As is so often the case with Government answers this was palpable nonsense. In his letter dated 14 May 2004, EN’s Regional Director told me that in August 2000 ‘the internal methodology of site unit condition assessment was being revised’. There was no scientific research underpinning this revision. EN was simply responding, in a panic, to the Government signing-up to the EU’s Public Service Agreement, and that part of it which required 95% of all nationally important SSSIs to be brought into favourable or recovering condition by 2010. The only tangible evidence that EN could produce to convince the Government, MPs, and local councillors that this was being achieved was to fence off these SSSIs and graze them with ponies and/or cattle and to declare the resulting enclosures as being in a ‘favourable condition’. It was not done for the benefit of wildlife but as an attempt to try and meet impossible Government demands. In the process, not only has it done severe damage to serious wildlife conservation, it has also wasted huge sums of public money.
Two examples from Hampshire alone serve to illustrate the latter point. In 1998 EN rushed through a public enquiry, with little or no public consultation, which allowed the fencing off of Odiham Common (280 acres) as a five-year experiment. In 2003, as a result of another public enquiry, the fence had to be removed. One of the reasons given by the Inspector in making her decision was that EN had made no formal survey of the site and had relied instead on data that was decades old. The cost to the public of this fiasco was in excess of £250,000. In 2006, in a volte-face (perhaps reverse-ferret is more appropriate in this context), EN took one of its landlords to court because he had taken it upon himself to fence-off a very sensitive SSSI on his land in the New Forest to protect it from damage by the public. EN lost, at a cost to the public of £50,000.
To return to my own experience, in 1997 I received a letter from EN’s Hampshire and Isle of Wight Team Manager in which he wrote of ‘the excellence with which your land has been managed for nature conservation, and how proud we would be to achieve a comparable quality on one of the National Nature Reserves which we manage’. In 2004, even though EN were still paying me £200 per acre per annum towards the maintenance costs of my site, because of a change in EN’s methodology and my refusal to fence off my SSSI and graze it, the site was declared to be in an unfavourable condition. The reason I was given was that because of the ‘scrub development, and local dominance of Deschampsia and Molinia’…English Nature does not believe that the management regime you operate will sustain the scientific interest of the SSI in the long term’. In 2006 EN brought in one of its National Nature Reserve managers to ‘independently’ assess my site and he gave it a glowing report and found it to be in a ‘favourable condition’, much to the chagrin of EN’s Lyndhurst office that had insisted on the survey. Meanwhile, my site is being sustained in the long term, while EN and its Hampshire staff and headquarters at Lyndhurst have long since disappeared.
It is not so much a case of NE’s Panglossian view of the past, as it is the complete distortion of the cultural-historical land-use history of heathlands/commons that has brought about the present management issues that Jonty Denton rightly questions. Here is a sample taken from one of EN’s publications: Common land [was] created by centuries-old livestock farming practices. In the lowlands, under-grazing and scrub invasion is the problem because there may be few or no practising commoners, and owners choose to run stock on cultivated grasslands for better productivity.1 As EN were aware, such cynically simplistic and totally fallacious statements, cobbled together for purely political purposes, required a PhD thesis in repudiation. As one who has spent the last thirty years researching the landscape and land-use history of the north Hampshire commons and woodlands. 2. I have found contemporary evidence that in 1798 its heathlands were a ‘wide extent of heath and scattered furze, with wide boggy bottoms; very little interrupted by enclosures and quite free from the fir plantations, which have now swallowed up so much of it’.3 Of the latter, Cobbett was complaining in 1826 that in north Hampshire ‘Plenty of fir trees and other rubbish have been recently planted but no oaks’.4 Initially the conifers were used for hop poles, and then for pit-props.
In Hampshire, records confirm that whilst the heathlands owned by the Crown were a supplementary source of fodder for livestock at a time when all such sources had to be utilized, the physical presence of the commoners’ livestock, when coupled to their oral testament, also provided the evidence needed to strengthen their claim to prescriptive common rights over the heathland. But both of these uses were of secondary importance and almost insignificant by comparison with the primary use of the heathlands, which was as a source of fuel, that included birch, blackthorn, sallow, gorse, heather, turves, bracken, and peat, used by the community at large. It was the interaction of all these uses, not to mention spontaneous or controlled burning, that maintained the flora and fauna on the heathlands that survived until at least the 1950s. In that decade the cessation of those disparate land-uses led to the heathlands being covered in the dense growths of birch, gorse, and heather that have been abundant ever since, and that a few fenced-in cattle are failing to control.
1. English Nature, For the common good, in Sitelines, Issue 44, Summer 03, p12.
2. Alan Albery, Woodland Management in Hampshire, 900 to 1815, in Rural History (2011) 22, 2, 159-18, (CUP 2011).
3. A Sexagenarian, Recollections of the early days of the Vine Hunt, (London, 1865), p35.
4. William Cobbett, Rural Rides, (Aylesbury, 1983), p. 65.
Before anyone had seen a word of what I had written I was approached by three people high up in conservation (with whom I had never met or corresponded with before) telling me what to write and hoping I wouldn’t ‘rock the boat’. Clearly a raw nerve was exposed, but the paranoiac reaction seemed excessive, and it is troubling that so many felt all was hunky dory. The grazing revolution started at more or less the same time as British Wildlife was born, yet these pages are hardly strewn with great success stories, surely anyone with a proven positive would have been keen to publish and share? It came as no surprise that not one correspondent responded with positive input on the cost effectiveness argument.
I have long shared Trevor Beebee’s desire to see more extensive ‘blasted heath’, but at sites like our beloved Woolmer Forest the priority for creating such a landscape is the proven restoration method of pine plantation removal and scrape and seed. Examples of this are manifold and grazing has not been a necessary follow up at least in the medium term. Lack of space meant I did not mention the on-going Red Deer grazing scheme on the Pirbright Ranges in Surrey. I for one hope this is a success, and maybe one-day be extended to the landscape so splendidly described by Gilbert White. It seems eminently sensible to use our largest native herbivore especially one with such a proven track record of woodland suppression.
I regularly drive past extensive sandy areas (created by sand and gravel extraction) ideal for Natterjacks and the early seral stage specialists, which are crying out to be brought into conservation management. Targeting these areas rather than persisting with a dogged insistence in trying to turn the clock back at sites like Frensham Little Pond which now supports an extremely valuable reed and Carr assemblage, not just Reed Warblers. It is tragic that after 20 years of supposed positive mitigation for protected species legislation on development sites the length and breadth of the country have yielded so very little in terms of new areas of heath or anything else to offset the relentless spread of concrete.
In response to Keith Alexander, I agree and have no problem with well designed winter, spring and autumn ‘pulse’ grazing, indeed winter grazing with Hereford x Friesian crosses on Churt Flashes, Surrey was very effective at controlling pine up to 2m. However graziers are reluctant to winter graze in the more severe winter conditions which prevail away from Cornwall. I do however firmly believe that no grazing is better than bad grazing especially on small sites. His points about the details of the Vera model are not the issue. I believe the theory has considerable merit, however it was taken by many as a green light to trust to luck with grazing, believing ‘nature will find a way’. It is hard to believe anyone would seriously have contemplated removing the fences around Holmsley and Wootton Enclosures had it not been for the sheer fashionability of Vera at the time. His theory appealed (especially to many of the fresh faces coming into heathland management posts, and dare one add people in NE (keen to appease the politicians) who could hijack it to justify the condition assessment fudge) rather in the way the 1970s trend for viewing the native American tribes on the plains as ‘living in harmony’ which was far from realistic! It is human nature to favour methods which reduce hard graft, after all who could disagree that driving around counting cows is more appealing than slogging away cutting down trees? It is telling that Vera’s works are cited many more times in the conservation literature than the academic.
Several respondents have expressed concern that my article could result in ‘the baby being thrown out with the bathwater’, and remember how hard it was in the early days to get site owners to countenance grazing (something with which I was actively involved and remember well), and didn’t want to have to start again. I do not think there is any danger of this, and it cannot be an excuse for grazing for grazing’s sake.
I have been involved with herptile politics for far too long to reignite the in-house fighting, but reiterate that on dry heath sites with good reptile population grazing simply isn’t worth risking. On more extensive humid heaths the jury is still out and on-going research may help clarify the situation. I can confirm that extremely heavy high density cattle grazing did indeed help juvenile Natterjacks but at the other end of the enclosure the effects on the mature humid heath were far from desirable!
As for the New Forest, the invertebrate fauna over large tracts may be stable, over others it is extremely depauperate, but is Clive Chatters saying that the likes of Alan Stubbs (with 5 decades worth of collecting experience in the Forest) is deluded? On top of the catastrophic decline of many of the butterflies for which the place was once legendary, are we still in denial that over grazing is not an issue? Yes some butterflies are in free fall despite what would appear to be positive management, but the sheer size of the New Forest should have buffered the worst effects. Not rhetoric, just an inconvenient truth!
To say that the Holmsley and Wootton Enclosure example ‘does little to illuminate heathland restoration’ is astonishing! If the fences had been removed, both enclosures would have been thrown in with the surrounding heathland grazing regime, so I believe it is highly pertinent to the issues discussed. The trespass grazing was necessary and helpful as I point out (hardly an anti-grazing stance!), but the removal of the fencing which had been advocated ( and the critical protection against over grazing it provided) was a threat to the survival of some of the last populations of species (including plants) manifestly in decline in the New Forest. In this way the enclosures act as substantial exclosures (something worryingly absent or hopelessly inadequate for most grazing schemes) which enable us to see what is being suppressed by grazing (and for that matter the obverse of scrub/woodland development). My view expressed at the time that removing the fences would be an act of crass stupidity is endorsed by some of the greatest entomologists in the land. In hindsight I was far too diplomatic listing the likely impacts of moderate summer grazing on the scarce inverts. I would encourage the reader to look again at the original photo (page 340) and make up their own minds as to the likely effect on the fauna (and flora) present if subjected to the severe grazing pressure on the surrounding heath. They may conclude as I do that it would have been too much for most of the species listed! Yes fences are ugly, but if that is what it takes to keep species from local extinction then what is wrong with having different grazing densities in different areas, it is no more unnatural than grazing with domestic animals. There is no consistency: I was appalled to see hideous permanent fences going up across Dry Sandford Pit, a small site in modern Oxfordshire in the name of targeting key habitats.
Many of the sites coming into grazing in Surrey and North Hampshire are structurally very similar to those within these enclosures, sites which in many cases already possess rich assemblages including heathland BAP species, after a century without grazing. Without thorough comparison of the relative values of these assemblages we may well be robbing Peter to pay Paul just to satisfy condition assessment criteria! Indeed my concerns extend to other habitats, and the rush to re-establish grazing in pasture woodlands is currently also a very great cause for concern, as the grazing pressure has already had a very marked effect on structural diversity at sites like Burnham Beeches, and parts of Windsor Forest.
NE kindly invited me down to Dorset to look at the impacts of grazing there, including several of the sites which Andy Byfield eludes too. On the humid heath at least, I saw nothing negative and only positives from the grazing there: just floristically and entomologically rich sites. However extrapolation from these well studied, extensive grazing schemes is somewhat misleading. For reasons beyond me the Poole Basin heaths do not have a serious birch problem (see fig 1), thus grazing densities can remain low with clear benefit in terms of Molinia control, and mosaic creation (and Sika deer are something of a joker in the pack). However in my area (Surrey and North Hampshire) birch is the chronic problem,
Fig 1. Exclosure on Hartland Moor after 20 years of grazing: No birch scrub at all even in the absence of grazing, despite a seed source in close proximity.
and grazing far more difficult to balance. Trying to increase overall floristic diversity is often dependent on exposing an existing viable seed bank, or more likely, through colonisation from other sites. In a fragmented landscape, without some intervention the goal of seeing many of the key species return too many sites may require considerable patience, or simply remain a pipe dream. The botanical evidence is strongly supportive of grazing, but in a world where the threat of invasive species grows daily, the goal of bringing back lost species, could well be outweighed by losses through stock spreading problem taxa such as Crassula helmsii.
Andy Byfield’s assertion that grazing is ‘essential for plants and much else’ is unsustainable. It may be for a few plants, but a look through the 2002 Plant Atlas shows that after 80-100 years without grazing (except by Rabbits) only 4 native vascular plants became extinct on the heaths in my area, (the same number as in the continually grazed New Forest). The same heaths support more species of bee, wasp, spider, herptiles etc., than the later! This is an academic point of logic, not an anti-grazing stance. I support sensible grazing but am not willing to exaggerate the case for grazing as essential, when it is not on many sites, especially on dry heaths where fire is critical and will happen with increasing frequency as public pressure increases.
Many species have declined because of the cessation of other large scale activities such as bracken and birch harvesting, turf stripping, and no-one seems to even consider the ending of peat cutting (which created many of our most important water bodies) for which there is considerable well documented evidence! All these activities create localised effects with clear edges, and it is these edges that so many specialists require, heavy grazing leads to (for want of better word) blandification. The vast majority of ponds on heathland are man-made, and the creation of a pond or two on many of my local sites would bring back far more heath species than grazing at a fraction of the cost of even the fencing. That I am ‘misguided’ in implying that grazing is principally for tree encroachment, is somewhat revisionist to say the least! Every interpretation board I have seen explaining to the public why their local site is being grazed has ‘control of tree and scrub encroachment’ at the top! I sat in many meeting where this was exactly what was promised to the MoD, who haven’t forgotten!
For most of the small sites being grazed there just isn’t space to eliminate the problems affecting the vastly more species rich fauna that over- grazing can have. If you live on the only stand of alder buckthorn, aspen, or live in the only Sphagnum pool etc., it is unlikely your ‘grazing tolerance’ will be much help! Outcome: you lose several rare species in the pursuit of attempting to bring back commoner albeit declining plants, or worse still, simply to appease politicians!
I reiterate that the correct timing and stock type are critical, and it is in this area that more research and a much more imaginative and diverse approach is needed. Above all I believe there is no doubt that there is need for further research and a couple of PhD level studies is required as a minimum, before we continue trusting to luck, and placing some of our last great wildlife havens in the hands of cowherds with little knowledge, working from management plans which completely neglect even the basic invertebrate assemblages needs.
Finally thanks to all the many people who took time to respond: whatever the arguments it is indeed encouraging that so many still care!
Four Marks is a dry parish: Not a single permanent stream or even a winterbourne occurs…yet the recent glut of new developments eager to entice customers to live here, have resorted to some very wishful thinking. We have a large new development called ‘Meadow Brook’ complete with evocative bird names like Lapwing Close and Goldcrest Way for the crowded (wader free) little cul de sacs. The old Windmill Inn is being flattened as I write to be replaced by Riverwood!!
Given that ‘Riverwood’ will be higher than the highest railway station in Southern England, perhaps the developers know something the rest of us don’t??
I’m off to rename my pond LAKE BLACKBERRY
My low input gardening obviously a winner!! I moth trapped a fortnight ago for first time this year, and got a single E.limbata and Garden Tiger. Given my hit rate ( I have had Evergestis 4 times in 6 trap nights and similar for Garden Tiger in Four Marks over past few years, both must be doing pretty well!
Newly fledged Blackbird begging in garden as I type (3.8th!!) so much for being safe to flail hedgerows in july!!