Just another Autumn?

The strange and disturbing times seem to have become the new normal but I have accepted that rather than continually moan about life or get distressed about our impact on our natural world that instead I should concentrate on the areas where I might be able to make a difference. Actions like moderating how much I consume and considering where exactly does it come from.

Actions like trying to raise and promote local issues that we can all attempt to influence. For Francis and I those issues tend to centre on the countryside of Surrey and we would encourage you to look at, with a more considered eye, your garden, your street, your local countryside. Find out who owns what, who manages what and ask questions whilst offering time to help.

By all means revel in the wonder and joy that countryside and wildlife enriches us with but just maintain a level of heightened awareness about our impact and realise that very little of our environment can be “left alone to look after itself”.

For all the glory to be enjoyed with views to be enjoyed at Newlands Corner

Or St Martha’s

Try and be aware of the details, the last of the summers Chalkhill Blue Butterflies

Sheltering in the grass amidst dozens of people and dogs.

Harebells and Robins Pincushions, the former an increasingly rare beauty and the latter a wild rose plants response to the activity of a tiny wasp larva. Both amazing!

Late summer turf with Harebells
Robin’s Pincushion Gall

Try and remember that your actions impact not only on the wildlife but on other happy wanderers like yourself. In other words its back to behaving responsibly!

I have no idea what the cause of the rash of fires during the exceptionally hot bit of August but I do know from experience most are likely to be as a result of the carelessness or outright stupidity of a small number of people.

Chobham Common National Nature Reserve

Barbecues or a casual disregard as to disposal of a cigarette butt can have devastating consequences. Does anybody actually need to be told not to light a disposable barbecue in the countryside? If you are not in a clearly marked bbq safe area then DON’T LIGHT THE BLOODY THINGS!

Monument on Chobham

The major fire at Chobham Common was covered by the media not because of the damage to a National Nature Reserve but due to the risk of some rather nice housing. Yes, I do understand, but there had already been a big fire at Thursley National Nature Reserve and several other heathlands and a little coverage of these fires possibly relating to climate change and peoples ignorance of fire risk in the south east wouldn’t have hurt.

Access and Conservation, conflict or essential partners?

 

Unsurprisingly,  the impact of Covid has led to lots of research and much media coverage continuing to show what for many is common sense; access to the countryside or at least open space is essential for the physical and mental well being of all us humans.

Yes, I do believe acknowledging and promoting the benefits of the countryside is a good thing but…………it’s just not as simple as that.

We live in a world which seems to feed anger, anxiety, stress, polarisation and this constant and all pervading sense of edginess. It seems we are all expected to have a view on absolutely everything and then defend that view even if we don’t know what we’re talking about and have clearly been shown to be wrong. And under NO circumstances should you apologise or acknowledge a mistake or admit fault.

I just don’t get it!

It is human to make mistakes, to misjudge, to jump to the wrong conclusion but it is essential that these mistakes are acknowledged, even quietly, in order that we can learn from them and move on. There is much truth in the old adage; you only learn from your mistakes. Trouble is we seem to have a decreasingly small communal memory to learn from.

Modern news and social media operates on volume (all meanings of the word!) and turnover and this encourages, almost forces, people to take a view on often incomplete, inaccurate or completely out of context, stuff. Stuff that is often irrelevant to most people or much more important than people realise.

What, you might ask, has all this got to do with Secret Surrey?

Francis and I share many values and may well disagree on a few but central to both our core beliefs are 2 ideas.

Acceptance, and no little joy, that we humans are part of a staggeringly beautiful and awesome world. This world is not there to serve us as some kind of resource larder and will continue to reject us if we continue to treat it as such.

A cohabitee!

Secondly, change for the better is most effective when it starts at a local level and then gains momentum. Recent events have clearly shown the positive power of the individual and local community projects to effect change.

Further discussions on green philosophies can be found elsewhere but will attempt to explain why I am so concerned for the Surrey countryside right now.

As more people had time and were encouraged to get out and exercise more and more people did just that with some clear differences in how they behaved.

Many people chose and continue to choose to use the outside as an outside gym, track and velodrome, no bad thing and clearly good for health but please don’t try and tell me that this is a clear indication that this group necessarily appreciate looking after the countryside and the wildlife that we share it with. I’m sure some do but using the countryside for exercise and leisure can lead to abuse. Don’t get me started about littering or the conflict caused between different “user” groups! Back to the bad old days of cyclists v dog walkers v walkers v joggers and the assertion of one individuals rights over another. Why do we seem to have a minority of blinkered individuals that assert what they see as their rights without accepting any responsibility for their actions or their impact on others, let alone on the countryside?

Why cannot the litter offender grasp the if you arrive in the countryside with “stuff” then take any remaining stuff back home with you? To litter in many places in Europe is simply unacceptable and doesn’t happen. I accept that there also some countries where litter and rubbish is a problem but that doesn’t excuse the supposed enlightened citizens of the UK.If something arrives with you when you enter the countryside either consume it or take it away with you. Its not rocket science, its the same stuff you arrived with just less!

Just at the moment in time that a lot of people are “rediscovering” the countryside where are the Rangers on the County Council Estate? Well, right now there are none!

Let me repeat that, THERE ARE NO RANGERS on the SCC estate. Some of the busiest countryside sites in the county have no site based staff to gently police the public and unsurprisingly a minority of idiots are now taking advantage. More idiots dropping litter, more anti social behaviour, more fly tipping, more wildfires due to idiots lighting barbecues in inappropriate places (will somebody please ban the use of disposable BBQ in the countryside?) and just more unreasonable, inconsiderate and rude behaviour.

Yes I know we are in the mist of a crisis with health and economic but for goodness sake can everybody just behave with a little more respect for the countryside and wildlife. And understand that looking after both costs money, even the basics, and that not having site based staff costs all of us much more, again in every sense, in the long run.

Refuge and playground

 

 

Listen More, Hear More. Look More, See More

Garden Glory Hawthorn

Having already bigged up the year as one of exceptional blossom, showing off my favourite garden tree was irresistible!

The last few days has given many opportunities to walk and enjoy the natural world. Admittedly my work increases my justification to be out and about but fortunately this has only meant travelling a few miles by car on a couple of occasions.

Like many people the increase in time available for a stroll or even just to stop and soak the atmosphere is something I am relishing, the pleasures and joys of discovery just keep coming.

Returning to the military ranges at Ash, with more families than ever before, allows one to appreciate space. Big skies, views , and I mean VIEWS, that I don’t believe can be bettered in Surrey.

Towards London

It’s become a truth that now the overflying of aircraft

Rare sight!

is more unusual than the possibility of seeing special birds like Tree Pipit

Preparing Tree Pipit

Out on the open heath many of the birds are either very discrete or rather unimpressive to look at (like the pipit). Most of the “little brown jobs” make up for their lack of glory plumage with 2 tactics depending on the habitats occupied.

Out on the wide open heath the tactic is to launch up in to the sky and advertise with song. Woodlark, even more than the similar Skylark, take the ascendency to extremes; I have witnessed many disappear out of sight in to a blue sky with the ethereal song drifting on the breeze. A Woodlark song can carry miles, both advertising to a mate and staking claim to a territory to rival males. Not all flying songsters go high, some like the Tree Pipit use a short acrobatic display from a song post to spread the word to a wider audience. Another species that employs this tactic is the Common Whitethroat, a species that looks to be having a good year. Every walk I’ve undertaken over the last 10 days or so has been punctuated with the scratchy song of the Whitethroat. It seems that where there’s a bit of scrub, thorn bush, hedgerow, there’s a plucky bird throwing itself in to the air to deliver, well let’s be kind, the best marketing message to a passing female Whitethroat.

Different place similar view

Whitethroats followed me to Chobham Common! In fact, not really surprising, similar habitat equals similar birds. The land of Woodlark, Dartford warbler, Stonechat, Tree Pipit and soon to be arriving Nightjar also serves up the right recipe for Whitethroat. Another bird also follows the presence of Whitethroat and some of the other highly visible songsters, The Cuckoo.

Distant searching Cuckoo

I had thought that Whitethroat were the most likely candidates for a Cuckoo to parasitise but that may well be assuming a link with Whitethroats on the basis of “visibility”. Goes to show assumptions can be misleading as the research compiled by the BTO indicates that the 4 most frequently recorded host bird species are in fact; Dunnock, Pied Wagtail, Meadow Pipit and Reed Warbler. Still leaves me with a few questions as, of those 4 only the pipit is really found on the open heath. Hmmm, I love a mystery.

During my wanders it seems that its not just Whitethroats that appear to have arrived in good numbers, Blackcaps, Garden warblers and Chiffchaffs are making lots of noise Not strictly “little brown jobs” but certainly discrete and hard to see these three join the group of birds that use the other, a second technique of attracting a mate and defending a territory; stay hidden but shout loud!

Along the Wey

More Whitethroats along the river near Send and Old Woking. The flood plain is dotted with scrubby thorns and bramble patches perfect to display flight from and been seen and heard.

Here the supporting chorus is different from the heath. Sadly Skylarks and Meadow pipits are increasingly hard to see or hear but closer to the river and the wet bits 2 more “hide and shout” warblers can be heard, Sedge and Reed warblers. Often found fairly close to each other neither has what you would call an attractive song, more scratchy stuff!

Home of Reed and Sedge Warblers

If you’ve never walked across this area please do! But do get a map and try and stick to the paths. It’s steeped in history and much of the area is protected both as common land and protected flood plain. It would be a wonderful idea to join up the management and protection of this beautiful are right through from Woking to Guildford and then on to Godalming.

Remains of Henry VIII’s Palace

The value to local people of the river meadows is also reflected in the number and age of churches, worth a visit on their own.

Across the meadows to Old Woking

Some of the meadows are cattle grazed, would be nice if it was all, and of those that are it was good to find the Surrey Wildlife Trust Galloways are back on the land given to SWT by Crest Nicholson, the national construction company. Yes it is possible for big companies to do good things! But it has been quite a while since a gift of this type has been made, sadly.

Sustainable work force

The more you look the more you find. A Reed bunting was no surprise but a Wheatear at the top of a tree (spotted by my wife whilst I was staring up at a Woking Peregrine) was.

Smart male Reed bunting

Top of the tree Wheatear

The more you look……

Beautiful Demoiselle

More and more damselflies are on the wing or waiting in the sun for their new form to dry and harden.

As you may have gathered I am fascinated by all of it, the natural world, and I love the images that are created where the natural and manmade worlds meet. As we crossed the river I noticed these tenacious couple of plants growing in chinks in the bank piling. Nature adapts.

More than just clinging on.

And nature rarely gives up.

Despite pruning, a tree continues.

Remember

Listen More, Hear More, Look More, See More.

I might be a bit angry about some of the things going on, or not, in Surrey’s countryside but if we don’t all get out and enjoy it at the minute how are we going to understand just how important it’s protection and management really are?

 

 

 

 

 

What Now?

Okay, so 2019 was not the best of years! For many of us it would be very easy to be overwhelmed by a sense of hopelessness and a sense of doom as regards the future of our planet. After giving it some thought and a couple of wonderful walks I have decided to remain, perhaps misguidedly, positive about the coming year. I would far sooner encourage and support action than slide into apathetic negativity.

My deer family

Trying to bring that approach into a county-based environment is actually more manageable than, at first, I had thought. Unless you live with your head in a bucket you are likely to fully understand your responsibilities in trying to cut down emissions and waste. It is up to governments to act on the bigger issues and to encourage or in force organisations and individuals to toe the line.

So, what does that mean to us all at a local level, a Surrey level?

What can we actually do at local level past throwing money at good causes?

I do understand that some people with take issue with some of the following suggestions and neither am I implying that everybody in Surrey is affluent, food banks and rough sleepers clearly indicate the folly of believing that, but they are a few ideas to consider.
It also goes without saying that there are a lot of other priorities facing most residents, health and education are just 2.

Winter heath, Chobham

In no particular order!

• Explore and learn about the environment on your doorstep, take pleasure in the small things.

• Make the time to contribute to recording schemes either by Apps like iRecord or through Surrey Wildlife Trust. Data is an essential weapon in the cause of conservation and environmental politics.

• Learn about your local authorities and councillors, Parish, Borough and County. Engage with those authorities in an informed way and hold them to account when they fail to deliver. Don’t only engage negatively, if they deserve praise or support give it!

• Stick to the facts, the science, rather than empty rhetoric or a polarising opinion which seems to be the political norm these days. Truth and reality should be undeniable.

• If you do spend leisure time in the countryside please do consider the impact you have. For instance; Horse riding is a great pursuit but is everything being done to manage the pasture and hedges where the horse is kept? Golf is hugely important in Surrey, is your club doing everything it can to manage the course for wildlife and to minimise damage to the environment? If you shoot then you might consider reducing the complex impacts of your hobby by concentrating on clay pigeons? And, of course, if you walk a dog then be aware that wild life doesn’t really appreciate being disturbed by our lovely mutts!

I will get off my high horse next week and return to our countryside and wildlife but in the meantime, have a better year!

Winter Heath, Christmas day, Ash ranges.

Missing the Point?

Feeling like a mushroom?

 

Having kept my powder dry for a couple of weeks, and aware of the fact that nobody is likely to listen, I have finally decided to put words to my concerns both for Surrey and the rest of England.

Call be narrow minded or over focused on one issue but I find the existence of “elephants in the room” hard to ignore.

Much is being written and spoken about the climate emergency and the collapse of biodiversity in the UK. Comment and commitments are continually being made by national and local government, pressure groups, NGOs, in fact it seems that everybody has something to say on the 2 topics.

The government finally put forward an Environment Bill (without any certainty that it will now become a reality) and we can now all read the latest State of Nature report. Nearly all of it perfectly laudable in its intent and desired outcome. So what is my problem?

It is stating the obvious  that an essential part of protecting Biodiversity and helping to reverse its dramatic decline is to protect what Biodiversity you still have. To at least attempt this requires immediate, constant, sustainable management which requires immediate, stable, sustainable funding. 

Hoped for improvements in funding countryside management through the use  of planing system and offsetting or the expansion of the principles of Natural Capital are at this time hopes and do not address the fundamental question of who pays, right now, for the management of countryside and the protection of our increasingly appreciated but threatened Biodiversity?

In Surrey we have  the largest public open space (largely sites of major importance to Biodiversity) landowner, Surrey County Council still bizarrely promoting the importance of enhancing Biodiversity on one hand whilst maintaining the ridiculous position that managing the countryside should and could be self financing! I could puke at the stupidity of it.

Council Folly

Treating Biodiversity as some weird kind of political issue extends to national government as well.

The flagship wildlife sites, Biodiversity hot spots, are meant to be the designated National Nature Reserves. There are presently 224 of these wonderful places in England, some small but most are hundreds of hectares. So you would think that at least the management of these gems would be secure?

Of the 224 NNRs the majority of them, about 150, are managed by Natural England. By my very rough estimate that means about 60,000 hectares of land is meant to be managed by an organisation that has been financially gutted by successive governments. Natural England’s annual budget has been cut over the last 10 years from £242 million to under £100 million and its staff from around 2500 to around 1500. Now I know that managing the NNRs is only one part of the duties of Natural England but I also know that cutting the overall budget has had real and pretty dire consequences for the teams trying to manage these supposedly critical reservoirs of Biodiversity. We now live in a political world where even the Chief Executive of Natural England stating they have insufficient funding to manage the NNRs raises little comment, not even criticism from ill informed MPs.

What I find even more bewildering is that we are not really talking about huge sums of money, 10s of £millions not the £billions promised to tackle climate change or build HS2. Surrey County Council should be contributing at least a £million to manage their estate and I would suggest that a sustainable budget for the NE managed NNRs should be ring fenced and protected from cuts.

Why is the funding for managing sites of such importance to Biodiversity so ignored or marginalised? If you are a conspiracy theorist then there is plenty of scope for imagination to run wild but my tendency is that the overwhelming majority of politicians either just don’t care or simply don’t believe that government should have a role in directly managing land at all, least of all land important for Biodiversity. My suspicion is that the latter group of politicians think it’s easier and maybe better for conservation land management to be undertaken by charities like the RSPB and National Trust.

Recent history shows that even the Royal Parks were not regarded as important enough for the tax payer to fund directly and have quietly been charitablised. There have been past attempts to sell of the state forestry land and an aborted attempt to shift the Natural England NNRs to a further new charity, the first became such a hot political potato that I doubt that any government will repeat the attempt but the second I fully expect to be revisited.

What is so wrong about using tax payers money to protect Biodiversity directly through the conservation management of land that all of us as tax payers own?

Why is it politically acceptable to spend billions on anything related to climate change but not Biodiversity?

When you vote do ask yourself these questions.

A real product of people power

Connections

I realised the other day that it had been quite a long while since I had written about the progress of my wildlife garden/ reserve. As I thought about this, the news of the latest report on the state of the UKs wildlife was being reported by the mainstream media and although the two different points,  my reserve and the state of the country’s wildlife may seem very different, there are connections between the two and some hope to be found. So, with this piece I write a “two in one” , information on my back yard and some of the points raised in the latest report on our wildlife.

 

Firstly, the back yard.
The weather over the summer was quite variable, there was no long weeks of sunshine this year and there were quite a few days of overcast and rainy weather. Even with this variable weather the temperatures overall were warm again with some record temperatures being recorded in July. The reserve has shown progress in the variety of flowers that have come in to bloom with over 50 species now being recorded and with these flowers there seemed to be an increase in the variety of insects that have been noted in the area.

This increase in insects has obviously come from the increase in flowering plants which as we know are vital food sources for many insect groups and not just the obvious groups like bees and butterflies with hoverflies, Hairy Shield-Bug and Bristle Thighed Beetle all being noted.

After all these points I’ve made about the insects and the flowers in the reserve I’ve realised that I have not mentioned that the reserve is only getting about 2 hours of direct sunlight each day which will have an effect on how the plants grow and which insects may occur.

Large Elephant Hawk moth caterpillar

I noted that butterfly activity is at its peak in the sunny couple of hours in the morning and would become less so when the area when shaded. It never seemed to bother Large and Small Whites much and they were ever present from July to September with a few still about in early October.

Almost the last butterfly

In nature this is common and environments will adapt to availability to the suns and its movement.

As I look at the site now I am making plans for some winter work to increase the sunlight in the area.
Two bird species have increased in breeding numbers quite dramatically over the last 20 years and one of them, the Red Kite, can now be described as common in many parts of the country, including here in Surrey. The reintroduction of this species has led to 1200 breeding pairs present in 2018. They have been greatly aided by various conservation organisations and have even become tourist attractions as some people have started feeding them. The other species I saw had increased was the Bittern, a heron species that needs large reedbeds to breed in but can be found in smaller reedbeds when on wintering grounds. In 1997 there were only 11 calling males heard during the breeding season and the
the Bittern faced extinction for a second time. Conservationists started a scheme to protect, enhance and create habitats that were suitable for breeding Bittern. 20 years on and the UK has its largest Bittern population it has ever recorded with 188 booming male birds being recorded from over 70 different locations nationwide last year and there have been a few locations around Surrey where birds have wintered so how long will it before there’s a big enough reedbed for them to breed in? There’s the clear evidence that if humanity helps our natural world and its inhabitants nature can recover which takes me back round to my reserve/ garden where 18 months ago there was an area of rank overgrown grassland full of old rubbish and now there are many species of wildlife using the area to feed, breed and prosper. If this was done by more people over larger areas of our country and world-wide we may have a chance to repair some the damage that humanity has caused.
Let’s do what we can and see if people worldwide can make a difference politically and physically.

Late harvest

For the people ?

One of the privileges of older age, for me, is that I get to walk round wonderful places with wonderful people. Walking a new or familiar place on your on is one good thing but walking in the company of someone who is “part of” a place is just a whole different experience. You share part of the vision and experience of a much more informed and passionate friend whose enthusiasm is thankfully all too apparent.

Over the last couple of weeks amongst my regular haunts

Wey navigation

Evening light

…..and some wonderful wildlife at home

Small Copper

…..some more familiar than required!

Visitor at Work

I have walked with friends at Richmond Park and Norbury Park. Both are, on paper, greatly protected public open spaces but both are sadly showing the signs of the pressures created by the reductions in funding at the “pointed end” of service delivery and conservation need.

It is an admittedly personal view but one of the serious problems with conservationists is that we tend to be nice people who don’t want to cause a fuss. We, the public, get outraged by “obvious” harm to the countryside and wildlife like say, the threat posed by fracking or a new housing development or even fox hunting BUT the more insidious and obscured threat that financial cuts and neglect present to our environment is often ignored completely or invisible, packaged in political rhetoric.

It staggers me that no real comment has been made in response to the Chair of Natural England, Tony Juniper, admitting there is insufficient funding to properly manage the “in house” National Nature Reserves. These are a big share of the  premier wildlife sites in the country. Within the conservation sector this fact has been accepted as reality for some years but now its out there on the wider stage what’s the response from the establishment? Deafening silence, and I don’t believe that’s just because of other priorities (can’t think what!), more that most politicians, local and national, seem to regard the countryside as verging on the irrelevant and a financial burden that shouldn’t fall on the public purse.

In London!

Richmond Park as a Royal Park was funded directly from government but now the Royal Parks are managed by a charitable organisation that receives much reduced direct funding. Yes, the Royal Parks have for years raised income from activities and properties and yes the Royal Parks have become pretty expert in this area of fundraising but, and it is a huge but, though the overall budgets for running the Parks have remained fairly stable the money available for the pointy end of service delivery (rangers, estate workers, policing ) has diminished and will continue to decline as the costs of fundraising and property management increases. This isn’t rocket science, its inevitable when you, in essence, shift funding from direct taxation to a much more indirect tax (charity fundraising and income generation). Crudely you get less bang for your buck! The irony of all this is its seems many politicians believe that making new charities to undertake those jobs that they regard as superfluous saves money, FOR WHO EXACTLY? Taxpayers? I think not.

Glorious Richmond veteran

The other side

Richmond Park is a simply amazing place, full of seemingly impossible contrasts. Herds of large deer and the violence of the Red deer rut surrounded by the most cosmopolitan London. Ancient trees, wonderful flowers ..

Harebells in the grass

We also saw hunting Hobby and nesting terns, Sand Martins and Black Headed gulls.If you haven’t been go, go and walk away from the crowds, its a little piece of wildness amongst all the civility.

Don’t go and behave like the fools we witnessed.

Well meaning stupidity? Or selfish risk taking?

Less budget for service delivery means less police and less rangers which means more illegal parking and more people approaching too close, even feeding, large potentially dangerous wildlife. Without bodies on the ground to educate and to enforce if need, then numbers of fools increase.

Norbury Park, once viewed as the jewel in the crown of the Surrey County Estate , faces a different set of challenges but the root causes are very similar to those at Richmond park. Central as a cause of continued challenges is the abrogation of responsibility by the landowner using the same mechanism of shifting the management of the countryside to the charity sector.

Norbury view

The agreement between Surrey County Council and Surrey wildlife Trust is approaching 20 years old but for the past few years a small number of councillors have decided to renege on the spirit of the agreement and push for  reducing the “cash” contribution to £zero. I am very aware of the political justifications put forward but my bewilderment and anger is that the implications of this action are ignored and even worse disguised with empty rhetoric from ignorant politicians who continue to promote 2 falsehoods; the countryside in Surrey can pay for itself and they, the politicians, know how to achieve this. Defying advice and simple common sense seems to have become “de rigueur” for many politicians together with a complete unwillingness to consider that they might be wrong. For me an admission that a person was or is mistaken is NOT a sign of weakness but of strength and to be both respected and applauded.

So what difference does less money and hence less staff with often less knowledge actually make?

At Norbury Park I would point to the lack of detailed management like at the view point above. The view is now obscured by scrub, one of the benches is now viewless! As a conservationist the signs are there that lack of management affects Biodiversity, the open areas need to be regularly cut to maintain the quality of sward (in the absence of rabbit or domesticated stock grazing).

Ever diminishing Harebells

The remaining pockets of chalk grassland should be managed or they will disappear, with all the attendant species of insects.

Downland glade barely holding on.

Beginning to rage too much so I will write a short post about the wonder of Norbury Park but just want to finish this  on pointing out another problem of lack of funding, the push to use the countryside to produce an income even though it conflicts with what we, the people, have as an image of that countryside.

There is an important conversation to be had to try and answer the questions

How do you adequately fund the management of publicly owned protected countryside?

Is it a legitimate expenditure of the public purse and tax revenues?

 

 

 

Free Therapy and Heaths

Most people now accept the powerful positive effects on the human spirit, and body, of enjoying the countryside. For me personally I cannot imagine a life without daily contact with the green environment and recent events have brought in to sharp focus its calming effect on both my mind and body.

In the company of good friends I recently returned to two famous heaths, one of which I know intimately, Chobham Common, and the other, the Devils Punchbowl at Hindhead, less so despite the familiarity of having driven round it for decades. The contrasts between the two sites is worth noting both as to the differences in consequences of different owners and the level and type of public usage.

Most access to the Devils Punchbowl is via the owners, National Trust, car park for dog walkers and site seers whilst there seem to be many mountain bikers taking advantage of some well way marked trails. Unless you are a NT member there is a charge at the car park but this is a long established “destination” car park with a rather good cafe, loos, and the facility to do some fun crafts with kids and interpretation with the adults. Yes it was sunny, the car park was packed! In other words visitors know they are getting something more than “just countryside” for their money unlike visitors at Chobham Common who are largely regulars and not getting anything new or extra for the car parking charges imposed. Not surprisingly many visitors to Chobham Common are now using any alternative parking that is available free!

My brief rant for the day!

Back to therapy. Though I had driven round the Punchbowl many times on the old A3, and drunk many a cuppa at the cafe, I have never wandered much of the site other than close to said cafe. I have a vague recollection of helping with some work with the NT wardens but that was probably over 20 years ago. Always intended to have a look but probably wimped out at the thought of having to climb back up if I went down!

Our friends however guided us up the easy path up Gibbet Hill where the views are just glorious.

Recently cleared view

On the way up you pass a commemorative stone which if you don’t know the story I won’t spoil it by explaining too much, go and discover it yourself!

Sailors Stone

The views from this path are great all the way to the top

but really I should have paid more attention to the pony grazing on the heath to the other side of the path. Though many may still have some reservations about grazing heathlands that are open to the public, most issues can be minimised by using what appears to be a common sense approach. On the NT site it seems that the grazing animals have been excluded from the area of most public use, the path up Gibbet Hill and the path along the route of the old A3. Have to say that the fencing is for the large part well sited and now largely invisible behind gorse and scrub. If I was to get all professionally picky I would probably prefer a little more scrub removal from the Punchbowl but heathland management is often a subjective thing and maybe the site managers have a different vision!

If you have never been to the Devils Punchbowl but you have driven through the A3 tunnel, you really should make the time.

View down to the old A3

The old A3 followed the curve of the Punchbowl and was locally famous for the dramatic view (and for interminable traffic jams exacerbated by the traffic lights just round the bend). The opportunity to erase the road after construction of the tunnel was taken and to be honest its now almost impossible to imagine that a major trunk road has been replaced by a sandy path.

No more traffic jams….

The whole place feels well managed with good sign posting and paths in generally good condition. I am not aware of staffing and funding levels for the place but I would be surprised if the cafe and parking charges make up more than a small part of the running costs of the whole site. More likely is that Agri Environment scheme grants combined with National Trust membership fees core fund the Hindhead Common complex, all of which is in stark contrast to the situation at Chobham Common.

Visiting my old haunt, with another friend a couple of days after the Punchbowl, it is clear that the continued Surrey County Council cuts to the grant made to Surrey Wildlife Trust and the long term reduction in site based staff is now clearly beginning to manifest itself as an appearance of neglect.

It is simply not possible to reduce a countywide workforce of 32 to 12 over 20 years without there being severe consequences. The subtlety of some of these consequences does not mean they are unimportant.

Heathlands have always been prone to both wildfires and acts of deliberate arson but with the lack of site based staff with detailed site knowledge (and some equipment) the risks of more frequent and more damaging fires has greatly increased.

One of this years wildfires

Fire has often been used on heathland for centuries as a management tool, particularly to encourage a flush of grass for grazing animals, BUT was always during the autumn or winter when conditions were more favourable. Happily this approach fitted in with the needs of wildlife unlike spring wildfires that can be devastating for newly emerged reptiles and small mammals.

As always there is an opportunist in the natural world and the fires on Chobham Common appear to have encouraged Woodlarks to breed in much better numbers than previously. We saw several Woodlarks including young birds.

Woodlark

Snatches of song form tree tops and some odd contact calls (which were new to me) were frequently heard and I suspect the high altitude ethereal song will have to wait till early next year when their cycle starts again.

Chobham Common is still a beautiful and wondrous place with regulars like

Female Stonechat

and increasingly rare

Distant Tree Pipit

Dartford Warblers are frankly all over the place! And difficult to catch with a small compact camera!

More unusual plants can be found if you know where to look

Petty Whin

And insect life is beginning to crank up! Always something new.

Black Headed Cardinal Beetle

Heaths and therapy, yes it works for me.

 

 

To Build or not to Build

Much has been written concerning the proposed development of Blackwell farm to the west of the Royal Surrey Hospital in Guildford and I am not well informed enough to speak with authority on its merits or with outrage at its failings.

Last week I did however walk over the land adjoining the proposed site and was frankly rather surprised at what we found (I was with a mate). My intention was to check on the status of 2 rather rare Surrey visitors previously found on a forgotten piece of land near Wood Street Village, Nightingales and Turtle doves. Sadly no burst of song from the scrub or quiet purring from the trees or hedges. I will be repeating the visit next week much earlier in the day as though I expect to be disappointed again the habitat still looks and “feels” right and there is always hope that an odd pair of these 2 threatened species will have returned.

We did hear and glimpse lots of regulars, tits, Nuthatches, Blackcaps but the surprise came on leaving the scrub behind and crossing in to the the farmland that then runs along the southern face of the Hogs Back.

Hedgerows

Well not so much the hedgerows! But what was singing at intervals along the hedges, Yellowhammers, quite  a few for a birder like me who has worked on heaths for years where they are now largely absent. A further surprise were singing Skylarks. I cannot tell you how bittersweet it is to experience the joy of encountering both these 2 birds when they used to be such a normal part of my environment (up to about 20 years ago). The habitat needs of both these species are thought to be well understood but the complexity of their needs is certainly not going to be served by greatly increasing the numbers of local human residents and their accompanying dogs.

Ok, I know the following photo isn’t great but its the best I could do with a compact!

“Could do better” pic of a Yellowhammer!

The fields, paths and small pockets of woodland were also dotted with some magnificent trees including some casualties that have been ignored, hooray!

Fungi and wind victim

Always amazing to me that fungi, so incredibly important, can help fell such strength.

Source of the vulnerability

Take wood and add the wrong/right fungi equals paper like rot.

Precursor to a collapse

Some of the standing landscape sentinels are just awe inspiring

In it’s prime

Some years behind its declining neighbour

You can think of Oak trees like these as almost a whole world on their own. Problem is the rest of the world intrudes on their health, air quality and soil compaction from machinery can be catastrophic.

Yes it was the middle of the week but there really is little sign the paths are heavily walked or ridden. The impact on this wonderful area, with fantastic potential for wildlife, of large-scale adjacent residential development is difficult to underestimate. The farmed landscape is broken up not just by hedges but by copses of trees like Wildfield Copse and the traces of an older planned landscape.

Old planted beech avenue?

Anybody who isn’t filled with wonder at spring colours needs to have a word with themselves! Get out there and breathe deep.

As we walked past a copse a final surprise amongst the Bluebells

Early Purple Orchids

Uncertain future yes but what is certain is that if people don’t get out in their local environment then they won’t know what’s threatened till it’s too late.

Misleading Green

Resolved to try and walk a new, to me, path and area of Surrey at least a couple of times a month. Had a couple of hours to fill last week and decided to explore an area of land bounded by the Wey navigation, Old Woking and a newish development at Westfield.

My wife and I frequently park near Trigg’s Lock and walk along the river to the New Inn at Send. Beautiful walk, decent beer and food, beautiful walk back. We never park at Trigg’s Lock and walk across the fields and it was to this end I set out.

Looks good?

Clear blue sky, distant woods and pretty good hedge, what’s not to like? Trouble is it just felt too quiet and lacking in life to begin with.

Look the other way and the view is sadly more……..industrial?

Horse paddocks

Well managed for horses? Certainly. Good for the countryside and wildlife? Depends on where you are standing I suppose.
Horse culture and modern beef cattle production both cause unintended consequences for both the appearance of the countryside and the wildlife that live in it. Little attention is given to maintaining hedgerows and wild flowers/weeds are given little chance to seed and provide food for farmland birds.

The irony in this instance was that feeding in the horse paddocks was the largest flock of Meadow Pipits, 40 odd, I’ve seen for quite a while!

Walking on the path crosses old flood meadows, largely improved grasslands but still with lots of wet scruffy bits.

A herd of Canada geese was happily minding its’ own business but I was amazed to find a dozen Teal hidden under some fallen willow.

Hiding Teal

Long time since I’ve seen these pretty little ducks locally.

Clear skies and wonderful open grown trees make interesting views.

Nearby Woking rises

Path skirts the old printing works, now rather lovely looking flats with some hidden gems to find.

Just as you reach Old Woking there is a small common open to all for a wander and for beady eyed wildlife.

Spot the Kestrel

Fortunately for me Yes moved lower!

Returning across the field and through a farmyard there was a notable absence of any finches and buntings which only a few years ago would have been common place.

Then whilst bemoaning about farmers obstructing paths and missing way markers (carry an OS map!) I stumbled on a tiny field where an old brassica crop had long gone to seed.

Scruffy corner?

Impossible to photograph but I estimate that there were a couple of hundred finches and buntings of half a dozen species crammed in to a small area. Not green or attractive in appearance but clearly really important as one of the few bits of the local environment that was supporting biodiversity.

Did I enjoy my walk and the birds? Absolutely yes but do I think green can sometimes be misleading? Sadly also yes.