One of the amazing things about nature is its capacity to throw us surprises.
Most of us have seen what happens when land is left to its own devices: scrub and trees gradually invade and take over unless grazing or manual clearance halts this succession. Leaves and other plant material decompose bit by bit building up an enriched soil layer to make a lovely seedbed for more tree saplings. But this is not great for heather and its associated species. Nothing surprising here and an all-too-common reason for loss of heathland.
Luckily heather seed can live in the soil for nearly a century and, given the right conditions, it will germinate after this long period of dormancy.
All good news for heathland restoration, but it does mean removal of scrub, trees and the topsoil which can be an expensive or even awkward process particularly if the site has archaeological interest or there is local resistance to tree removal. Reigate Heath has a certain level of both…. more on this later.
We have one area for which we have fairly recent photographic evidence showing how fast trees can colonise an area. We call it the Glade.
Figure 2: the glade in 1970s
In the 1970s you can see how open it was – like a dry heath with a few stands of Silver Birch (Betula pendula) and one lone Scots Pine (Pinus sylvestris), but by 2007 it is more like a coniferous woodland that has been there for ever and all the heather has gone (see below Fig.3).
Pine trees dominate a wide area with a dry understorey of bramble (Rubus fruticosus agg.) and bracken (Pteridium aquilinum) and a small, slightly damp strip of ground wound down through them towards the east into a small area of Sphagnum moss within the woodland.
Five years on and some brave work led by Reigate and Banstead Borough Council’s former Countryside Manager Ian Wright using funding from a Higher Level Stewardship Agreement following tasks agreed within the Management Plan (assented by Natural England), a section of the pine woodland was felled and top-soil was scraped mechanically and taken off-site. Follow-up work has been carried out by Reigate Area Conservation Volunteers and the Council’s Rangers. The unusual branch shape of the original pine (that probably was the seed source for all the other mature trees seen today!) was identified and left; this has now all but died but is an iconic reminder.
Why do I say ‘brave’? Inevitably, large scale change excites passion in people who care deeply about their own experience of a site. A few people went to the local newspaper to complain about the Council’s way of managing the heath.
It takes patience, trust and understanding to believe that what looks like a mud bath at the start will soon be a huge swathe of lovely heather and a rich nectar source for our precious pollinators. And of course, everyone has a right to express their concern about a site. It shows they care about it which is important. Perhaps many of those pictured above are beginning to realise what treasures have appeared in the Glade now that the smothering carpet of trees has been partially removed, and there are still large areas of pine woodland elsewhere on the heath relative to locally- and nationally-rare heathland.
The Glade on Reigate Heath SSSI is now seen as a case study of just how successful heathland restoration of wet and dry heath areas can be even in small areas and within a relatively short time frame (2011-2015). Historically we knew that the whole heath was renowned for its patches of wet heath in amongst glorious stretches of acid grassland plants. Just look in the old Floras of Surrey (found in the Holmesdale Natural History Museum). But we had no idea what surprises the heath had waiting in the soil for us!
Where there was a dry mono-stand of pine, we now have a wide area smothered in Ling (Calluna vulgaris) alongside a wetter peaty expanse covered in Cross-leaved Heath (Erica tetralix) seedlings and several other species you’d hope to find in such a habitat such as Greater Bird’s-foot Trefoil (Lotus pedunculatus) and no less than four Sphagnum moss species (Fig.8)! Because the nectar source is improving there are more and more solitary bee and wasp holes appearing in compacted bare ground. This is good news because the Heath has no less than 15 Red Data Book species of insect most of which need this kind of habitat.
The biggest surprise came last year (May 2015) when this pretty-leaved bog plant was spotted – the Marsh Pennywort (Hydrocotyle vulgaris) – now spreading prolifically throughout wet parts (see Fig.11 below). Great news for the SSSI because this plant is one of our citation species and it has not been recorded on the heath since 1952!