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Thames Basin Heaths

Thames Basin Heaths by Martin D’Arcy

A very special place

So close to London, excellent transport links and every kind of urban facility. Yet with wonderful countryside and amazing wildlife! We are very lucky in Surrey, Hampshire and Berkshire, where we enjoy the best of both worlds. If you have always lived and worked in this area, you might take for granted the swathes of heathland scattered across this part of the world, but these are precious remnants of an ancient landscape, and a haven for wildlife you won’t find elsewhere.

We can celebrate the fact that our heathlands are home to every species of native reptile, rare Silver-studded Blue and Grayling butterflies, a dazzling array of dragonflies, and rare birds including the Nightjar, Dartford Warbler and Woodlark.

Nightjar

Nightjar on the SPA by Rob Solomon

Who wouldn’t be captivated by the Nightjar? Every year it flies from Africa to breed near Guildford, Woking and Camberley! Motionless, perfectly camouflaged during the day, it feasts on flying insects at night. You could walk on the heath every day of your life and never know it was here, but visit on a summer evening at dusk and you may hear the magical, mechanical churring of the males. A ghostly bird, enshrined in mythology as the milker of goats! Its Latin name, Caprimulgus, literally translates as such, and harks back to an old myth that Nightjars would suck milk from livestock.

Woodlark on the SPA by Michael Jones

Woodlark photographed on the SPA by Michael Jones

And what about the Dartford Warbler, who braves the winter here, rather than heading off to warmer climes like some other birds? Cold winters have a devastating impact on these shy, yet striking little birds, but in mild years they can explode in numbers, even dispersing into new areas.

And the Woodlark. I’m sure we wouldn’t be alone in missing its beautiful fluting song, should it succumb to its rapid decline. A picky bird, with very specific habitat requirements, we’ll forgive its fussiness and hope it heralds many springs to come.

Map showing the distribution of the Thames Basin Heaths Special Protection Area

Map showing the distribution of the Thames Basin Heaths Special Protection Area

 

Special protection

Heathlands are open areas, largely devoid of trees, so birds nest on the ground, making them extremely vulnerable to disturbance by people, their pets, and predators. Thankfully the Thames Basin Heaths are protected by law. Protected by the Wildlife & Countryside Act since 1981. And more recently, in 2005, they were designated a Special Protection Area, the Thames Basin Heaths SPA. In accordance with an EU Directive to protect wild birds, enshrined in UK law by the Conservation of Habitats & Species Regulations in 2010. Over 8,000 hectares of heathland across Surrey, Hampshire and Berkshire were included in the SPA, included because these amazing birds choose to breed here every year.

A strategic solution

Dartford Warbler by Ralph Clark

Dartford Warbler on the SPA by Ralph Clark

With the designation of the SPA came a huge challenge. Local authorities have a legal requirement to protect it, by ensuring that new development doesn’t have adverse impacts. Every planned housing development within 5km of the SPA has to demonstrate this. To make this workable, a ground-breaking mitigation strategy has been developed to protect the SPA, without bringing the planning system to its knees. The strategy was published in 2009, as the Thames Basin Heaths Delivery Framework. A joint, strategic solution signed up to by all local authorities wishing to progress development, including Guildford, Runnymede, Elmbridge, Surrey Heath, Woking, Bracknell Forest, Rushmoor, Waverley and Wokingham Borough Councils, Hart District Council and the Royal Borough of Windsor and Maidenhead.

The Thames Basin Heaths Partnership team warden the heaths

The Thames Basin Heaths Partnership team 2016

The strategy is two-fold. First it provides alternative places to go, alternative greenspaces, called SANGs, Suitable Alternative Natural Greenspaces, designed to soak up some of the additional recreational pressure generated by new development. There are well over 40 SANGs across the whole of the region. Some of them are places open to the public for the first time, others are existing places, invested in for the future. Find one near you in our free online directory.

The second part of the strategy is a warden team, on the ground, on the SPA, telling the story of the heathlands to visitors, 7 days a week. That’s us, the Thames Basin Heaths Partnership team. Our wardens are there to spread the word about the wildlife, inspiring visitors to appreciate what they may have been taking for granted.

But who pays for all this? A small, one-off levy on any new house pays for it. A practical, workable solution to what could have become a debilitating problem for councils, and a disaster for our wildlife and open spaces.

For everyone

Silver-studded Blue butterfly by Gary Attfield

Silver-studded Blue butterfly by Gary Attfield

It’s not just the wildlife that benefits from all this protection of course. The habitat is protected for the birds, and that protection means we still have these wonderful wild areas to enjoy. Without the protection, they may have been built on years ago. A nice win-win situation for people and wildlife.

If you haven’t already, we hope you will go to one of these amazing places and see for yourself. August is the perfect time, when the heather is in full bloom and the heaths are a purple spectacular. Chobham Common National Nature Reserve, and Horsell, Whitmoor, Ockham & Wisley Commons, Yateley Common and Bramshill Plantation are just a few of the places in the Special Protection Area. So we encourage you to go out and see for yourself how lucky we are.

A partnership

The Thames Basin Heaths Partnership is a partnership of the following 26 organisations:

 

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