Wednesday, 8 December 2010

Pipeline - the Heath's tale

At present the preferred route (preferred by the water company and local council) for the pipeline would have greatest effect on Banstead Heath, in fact, among other things, cutting it in two for the duration of the work and effectively for a long time after.

Banstead Heath is one of four areas of common land that make up Banstead Commons (the others are Banstead and Park Downs and Burgh Heath), it has an area of approximately 300 hectares (750 acres). The Heath lies on the North Downs between Tadworth roundabout and Walton Heath (also common land but with associated golf course) and just reaches the M25.

The area is heavily used by the local populace for walking with and without dogs and horse riding but surprisingly not many naturalists appear to use it as their local patch, which is a pity. There is a dearth of records for both flora and fauna and the Heath has some real surprises for those bothered to look.

The Heath has existed as common land within its current boundaries (give or take a little) for over five hundred years. At the end of the nineteenth century there was some gravel extraction (which was one of the contributing factors that led to the formation of the Banstead Commons Conservators) but otherwise, until WWII, traditional commoners' practices, cutting wood, grazing etc, meant that it was an open area probably mainly of heather and probably gorse. During WWII a large part was used as a military encampment and some was ploughed. After that the whole area began to scrub up and birch colonisation started. It was not until about twenty years ago that significant management began, aimed at improving the Heath both as an amenity and as wildlife habitat. Since then some dramatic improvements have occurred.

The Heath cannot be described as a place of silence, the proximity of the M25 ensures that, but even in the height of summer, it is possible to find a peaceful spot away from the madding crowd just to enjoy your surroundings.

A number of roads fragment the Heath but apart from a gas pipeline on the south-eastern edge, the main body of the Heath (over 200 hectares) has been untouched by construction, cables and pipes.

JUST the place then to carve up with a pipeline, no thought to history, no thought to users, no thought to wildlife and most important, no guarantee that the pipeline will not cause significant long-term damage to the Heath.

Why? For the water company it will save them a lot of money (mainly because they put no value on the Heath), for the council it seems that they wish to avoid the short-term disruption on the A217 and the associated reaction from the public. Interestingly in the only published test of public opinion (Surrey Mirror online poll in July, not scientific) that I know of, a considerable majority supported the route along the A217 rather than crossing the Heath.

Thursday, 2 December 2010

Pipeline across the Heaths - what value do we put on the countryside?

Following on from the potential damage to Box Hill, another tale of local problems regarding habitat destruction is potentially more serious

Sutton and East Surrey Water Company (SESWC) have declared their intention to install a water main from a reservoir at Mogador, Kingswood to Burgh Heath. They have a fairly simple choice between routing it across 4km of common land mostly on Banstead Heath and Burgh Heath or going down the A217, either in the road or alongside. If they cross the commons they will clear a 20m (yes, ~60ft) swathe along the length of the route to enable the work to take place. Both the water company and the local Council prefer the route across the commons, I wonder why!!

Both Banstead Heath and Burgh Heath are well-used amenity areas for local people but more importantly (as far as I am concerned) are important habitats for both flora and fauna. Construction of the pipeline would cause massive short-term damage and the long-term effects could change the areas irrevocably.

At this point I must declare my interest, as I have been a Banstead Commons Conservator (BCC, I am currently Chairman) for the past 15 years. The BCC manage this area of Commons although most is owned by the local authority and the SESWC require BCC permission to carry out this work. So far this has not been granted!

The whole situation is quite complex, the nature of the Heath, the role of the Conservators, etc. and I aim to address and explain individual aspects over the next few weeks.

I would stress that this blog will be my personal views that may or may not be shared by other conservators.

Sunday, 7 November 2010

Let's trash Box Hill

When I started this blog almost two years ago I saw it, like most blogs as a self-indulgence to publish anything that took my fancy plant-wise especially with local relevance. My posts have been more infrequent than I intended and having been busy with other things this summer, I haven't posted anything since June.

In that period a number of things have happened highlighting the lack of real value put on countryside that have caused me varying degrees of anger, and so for the short-term at least the nature of this blog will change. It might not be campaigning but it will feel like it.

I am going to start with Box Hill.

I have known the area around Box Hill for many years both as an area of outstanding beauty and as a bit of a botanical paradise. However, as the result of a passing conversation a while back I suddenly had a brilliant idea, why not turn it into a race-track. There is an area of Box Hill, known by the locals as the Zig Zag, a steep-sided valley in which a road enters at the bottom and then through a couple of hairpin bends traverses one side of the valley to eventually reach the summit of the Hill. Motor cyclists (and others) love racing up it and the valley sides make a perfect ampitheatre for spectators. Couple this with the route either to the south or north of Box Hill and we could set up a nice lap for a competitive race. The fact that the National Trust own it and I believe it is an SSSI should not really prove a barrier. Great idea!

For those of you who know the area you might think I have gone mad, however this is exactly what is being proposed for 2012 although not for motorcyclists but cyclists. It is proposed that the Olympic road races for both men and women would incorporate this area in a lap that would involve the riders ascending the zigzag perhaps up to seven times.

Obviously there has been much public consultation and discussion about this!! Well apparently no, at least not in the natural history world, it seems to have been kept quiet, with no posters advertising it even though the National Trust are apparently proud that the route has been chose for the race. Funny that the cycling press has been carrying the story for a long while. One wonders why it has not been broadcast more widely in the local area, or perhaps it has and I have missed it.

I love cycle road racing, the Zig-Zag would be a great place to watch a race and I know it will only be for a few days but is it really acceptable that such a special place as Box Hill is subject to the intense trampling there is likely to be (have you watched the Tour de France) even for the Olympics? I don't think so but of course the Olympics mean money!.

The provisional schedule for all Olympic events is due to be submitted to the International Olympic Committee this November and the final schedule will be approved early in 2011. There is still time to make changes, write to the National Trust!

Overall, I can't help thinking that it illustrates the real problem that is associated with habitat protection in general, in that if money or other high profile influences come to bear, then for most it is nothing more than lip service!! Sad or not?

A lone brave cyclist sets out to take on the terror of Britains' answer to Mt Ventoux

Next : Pipeline across the countryside!!! Watch this space

Wednesday, 23 June 2010

Pollinators, or rather the lack of.

Earlier this week, the funding of new research into the disappearance of pollinating species was announced.

Great, but isn't it amazing that almost fifty years since the publication of Rachel Carson's Silent Spring we still don't seem to have scientific evidence that the wholesale use of pesticides/herbicides/fungicides/rodenticides/anyothercide are in some way deleterious to all forms of wildlife especially when mixed together!

Tuesday, 22 June 2010

Yellow is the colour

Locally, south-facing chalk downland has turned yellow over the past couple of weeks. It seems to be a great year for Bird's-foot Trefoil (Lotus corniculatus), Horseshoe Vetch (Hippocrepis comosa), Common Rockrose (Helianthemum nummularium) and in some places Kidney Vetch (Anthyllis vulneraria), these coupled with the odd buttercup all have similarly coloured flowers and are in full bloom at the moment. Good news indeed for many invertebrates especially the different species of blue butterflies that variously utilize these as food plants.

An evening stroll over the North Downs scarp at Denbies, nr Dorking last week proved extremely yellow but also provided a variation of one of the
se that transformed a beautiful plant into a real stunner.
Common Rockrose normally has bright yellow flowers (above) with papery petals that benefit from close inspection. However, on this occasion I was lucky enough to find a much lighter variant (left), that seem to enhance the ephemeral appearance of the normal flower, almost poppy-like. Although this variant is not uncommon, on this occasion I only found one amongst literally thousands of the normal form, I have seen it before and it is well worth looking out for.

Absolute magic.

Tuesday, 15 June 2010

Southern Marsh Orchid

This time last year we made a visit to the Sussex coast to see a veritable confusion of Dactylorhiza species and hybrids.

This year we decided to simplify matters and so ventured to a site closer to home but still in Sussex where Southern Marsh Orchid (
Dactylorhiza praetermissa, right) grows alone. In a fairly small, boggy area surrounding a feeder stream to a pond there was a good show of several hundred plants.

It is an imposing species that unfortunately all too readily hybridises with other members
of the genus (especially Common and Heath Spotted) usually resulting in enormous variation in flower pattern and even difficulty in finding any "typical" examples of the parent species. The remarkable thing about the plants at this site was that uniformity of flower colour and lip pattern was very similar as the picture below of flowers from three plants covering the width of the population. Made identification rather easy, not often the case.

Incidentally and sadly, not so long ago there was a large population of this species on the southern side of Reigate Heath. Unfortunately now extinct because of the habitat drying out, apparently caused by water abstraction!!

Wednesday, 19 May 2010

Conservation grazing???

Chalk grassland is very much an artificial habitat around here, requiring management to prevent natural scrub progression occurring rapidly. The usual way to deal with this is by winter grazing with sheep or goats and on Banstead Downs there are a number of areas that have been grazed for over twenty years on a three/four yearly rotation. This year a small flock of Herdwicks did the sterling work through all the snow and cold weather (below). Their grazing opens up the sward and helps to maintain a low soil fertility level, in addition they do tend to nibble at some of the scrub. The important thing is they are removed in the early spring so that they do not eat the hopefully burgeoning flora!

A similar pattern of management on Park Downs to the south of Banstead has been interrupted following a dog attack a few years ago that resulted in the death of a number of goats. One of the the dogs is still around and forage harvesting has been used to keep the herbage down. Not ideal.

Recently however, nature has decided to help in the form of the local rabbits. Park Downs has had a rabbit population that for the past ten years at least has varied over a fairly regular two to three year cycle. Once they reach a certain density, myxamatosis appears and the numbers drop down, they then recover and the cycle repeats itself. The past two years have seen a break in that cycle, numbers have increased continuously and have reached very high levels with no sign of myxomatosis yet.

Rabbits tend to have "favourite" feeding areas and rather than graze the whole site lightly they create small areas of close-cropped lawns and although the botanical diversity increase in those lawns, they have only a small impact on the site overall. This cold winter and increase in numbers has however seen a dramatic increase in the area grazed and the effects are beginning to be seen.

On the good side rabbit grazing tends to favour the growth of less coarse grasses offering an advantage to other chalk grassland species that cannot normally competee hence species diversity increases, It also alters the physical characteristics of existing species, for example Cowslip, the picture below shows this plant growing fairly typically in a non-grazed area (left) and a grazed area (right), the plants are about 1/3 of the size, quite a difference. It doesn't help that in the latter example something nibbles the flowers just as they open, neverthless the species is increasing even in those areas.

On the bad side, in the short term rabbits do not restrict themselves to grass and many plants fail to flower especially orchids that have there flowering stems renmoved as they elongate. In the long term, the effects can be more serious in that in well-grazed areas rabbits tend to dig for roots etc (I assume) and this can lead to rapid degradation of the sward. This is just beginning to happen in some areas on Parks Downs.

It is a great shame that the rabbits can't be removed for the summer, proper conservation grazing!

Thursday, 18 February 2010

Rubbish Blog

Please note the title is not meant as a comment on the quality of this so-called blog but I am well aware that if the cap fits etc.. I will continue:

Back in early 2009 when the frost and snow was thick about, I was on the early morning dog walk when I spotted, sticking out of the snow, what was unmistakebly the foliage of an orchid. On closer inspection this view was confirmed with a second plant closeby. Although I had no idea of their identity, I set about extricating the two plants from the surrounding vegetation and took them home.

Once cleaned and potted up it was clear one of the plants was not going to survive but the second appeared to be fairly healthy and about a month later it began to grow and eventually, in early June it began to flower with rather attractive flowers. Once it did flower I realised I hadn't got a clue to its identity but eventually I have narrowed it down to a Dendrobium, I think! It carried on flowering, eventually with a total of three spikes until just before Christmas when the final flower, pictured below, shrivelled. Hopefully with a bit of TLC over the winter the process will be repeated next year.

This story in itself is only a mildly (if that) interesting anecdote of no real botanical significance because quite obviously these plants were not native, both were still in their damaged pots and I am probably guilty of theft.
Those orchids are however symbolic of one particular antisocial habit that really gets my goat, namely that of casual garden rubbish disposal. We are lucky in Banstead, the town is almost encircled by countryside, whether it be downland, woodland or farmland, public or private. Unfortunately a small proportion of the population regard this as an opportunity not to walk and appreciate the flora and fauna but to rid themselves of assorted garden rubbish. Some literally throw it over the garden fence when they are lucky (!!) enough to live in a situation where this is possible, others take more trouble to transport it to the site. Some will even barrow it many yards into woods to hide it from obvious view.

The strange thing is that if you talk to any of the guilty individuals they usually can see nothing wrong in what they do and find it difficult to believe that technically it is fly-tipping, something of course they would never do.

So, if any are`reading this, unlikely I know, here are a few points to consider:
This habit results in unsightly festering piles of rotting plant material that disfigure the countryside. Worse since you rarely bother to sort out pots, labels and other sundry materials you are contributing to the ever-increasing amount of non-biodegradable rubbish in our countryside.
2) By throwing out plant waste you encourage those even more selfish individuals who see a pile of rubbish anywhere and assume that it is the local tip. They start off with other garden refuse such as wooden fencing (chain-link fencing in one local example) and then eventually any rubbish they have.
3) Garden refuse frequently contains viable plants that can be the source of invasive alien species that can cause long-term damage to the habitat.
4) Compost heaps are excellent ways of disposing of garden waste producing a useful endproduct. Failing that, for a small charge the Council will take it away and compost it for you.
5) and finally, what you do is classified as fly-tipping, anti-social and illegal.

Please stop doing it.

Wednesday, 20 January 2010

NOT botany

On this day two years ago my two and a half year-old granddaughter Maddie died suddenly from viral sepsis believed to result from a Flu infection. Her death created a great gap in our family life that can never be filled.

Her Mum and Dad have been wonderful and this year they are running in the London Marathon to raise money for the Child Bereavement Charity who helped them through their darkest days. They hope to raise £2500 each, no mean task, neither have a history of running and so they are working very hard to get ready for the big day.

This post is a blatant request for anyone who feels so inclined to support their effort by donating towards their target (Tom and Sam). It really is a good cause.

Before Maddie died I would have been mortified by posting this request (and I apologise to anyone who does think it inappropriate) but now anything goes!

Please help if you can.