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Thursday, 20 February 2020

February Indoor Meeting. Thames Basin Heathlands - A talk by Des Sussex
Steve Day

February Indoor Meeting. Thames Basin Heathlands - A talk by Des Sussex

Another large turnout gathered on Thursday 13th February to hear a talk from Des Sussex, an employee of Natural England, about the Thames Basin Heaths.

The heaths are made up of fragments of heathland and woodland habitats spanning over 8200 hectares in Berkshire, Surrey and Hampshire. It is one of the most important wildlife sites in Europe and provides a home for some of Britain's rarest breeding bird species: Dartford Warbler, Nightjar and Woodlark. Due to the presence of these birds the Thames Basin Heaths is designated and lawfully protected as a Special Protection Area (SPA).

Thousands of years ago heathland covered vast areas of southern England and in the last century the Thames Basin Heaths have shrunk by 53%. The pressure on the habitats is relentless as the population grows and with it an increasing demand for houses. Thousands of new homes are planned to be built before 2026 within a 5km radius of the SPA.

Despite all these pressures and the fragmented state of the heaths, often bisected by roads, the wildlife is doing surprisingly well. The SPA accounts for 28% of the countries Dartford Warblers, 10% of all the Woodlarks and 8% of all Nightjars. The numbers of birds present year to year is also encouraging. The Nightjar numbers are stable and the numbers of Dartford Warblers are increasing due in part to the recent mild winters. The Dartford Warbler is our only resident warbler and is very vulnerable to cold winters. The population can crash in extreme cold as happened in the very cold winter of 1962/63 when only a handful of pairs survived the winter. Woodlarks appear to be thriving as they soon colonise patches of bare ground after tree felling. A lot is still unknown about Woodlarks such as where they disperse to in autumn and winter after the breeding season.

All of these birds nest on or just above the ground so their nests are very easily disturbed by animals and people walking their dogs. Managing the heath for the volume of visitors and the demands of the wildlife is a delicate balancing act. Leaflets and information educate the public on the sensitivities of the heath and the damage that can inadvertently be done during the nesting season.

Keeping the heaths free from trees and overgrown scrub is a constant battle and as well as an army of volunteers, cattle, goats and deer have all been used to control excessive growth. The animals also reduce the grass that dies back in the winter producing a dense ground cover that easily burns when dry. Fire is a constant problem on the heaths and although it does clear the ground it is disastrous during the nesting season and for snakes and lizards in all seasons.

As well as birds the heath provides home for the rare silver studded blue butterfly, sand lizards, adders and a multitude of spiders and dragonflies. The rare carnivorous Sundew plant can be found in some of the boggy areas and in the summer the heaths are covered in the glorious purple of the heathers.

We are fortunate in having these special habitats on our doorstep and Des gave a very informative and entertaining talk. He is a passionate advocate of our heaths and the combined efforts of Natural England, volunteers and the team of wardens at the Thames Heath Basin Partnership are doing their utmost to protect and preserve our heaths for the future.

Next month professional wildlife photographer Tom Way will be visiting us to talk about his passion for Africa. This will be a marvellous opportunity to see stunning pictures of many iconic African animals and birds.

The meeting Is on Thursday 12th March and starts at 8pm at the Finchampstead Memorial Hall. Admission £3 members and £4 non-members.

Steve Ormerod