On Thursday we went on a Ranger-led wildlife walk on Bramshot Heath near Fleet. It was an event for children organised by Hampshire & Isle of Wight Wildlife Trust, where the Trust have done a great deal of work over the last year or two to restore this scrub/woodland to heathland.
Up until a few hundred years ago, large swathes of Surrey, Hampshire and Dorset were heathland. Left to its own devices, heathland will fairly quickly revert to scrub. Silver birch is one of the ‘pioneer species’ which rapidly colonises open areas, particularly after fire. If it’s not managed, after a few years heathland heather will be crowded out by birch and gorse. Once that happens, the biodiversity of the heathland specialist plants and animals is lost.
Clearing the site caused a bit of controversy amongst some local residents, who objected to the barren look of the landscape after tree clearance and the fencing of the area to allow for cattle to be brought in. Change is always difficult, especially to a landscape you know and love, but this is the most sustainable and effective way of managing heathland and preventing reversion to scrub; the cattle graze the birch saplings and grasses which can overwhelm the heather and more delicate low-growing plants. The proof of the pudding is in the eating, as they say: within a year of clearing Bramshot Heath, ground-nesting heathland birds like the nightjar and larks had returned, and reptile numbers had increased. The rare carnivorous plant sundew can also be found on the site, which traps insects in its sticky ‘dew-drop’ secretions and digests them. Like day of the triffids. But in Hampshire. 😉
My daughter was thrilled to get to hold a slow worm, even when it pooed on her in protest. Slow worms are commonly mistaken for snakes, but in fact they are legless lizards. A closer look reveals quite obvious differences; they have very ‘lizardy’ heads, with no clear differentiation between head and body. They have eyelids and external ears, too. Their colour is amazing to see – gold with a wonderful metallic sheen. They’re not particularly slow, although they’re fairly easy to catch if you find them under the protective cover they prefer. Try looking under a few logs when you’re out and about in the countryside. You might get a gloriously shimmery surprise.