I grew up not far from The Forest, as we called it. It was only later, when I had travelled the World, did I understand just how special it is. Lowland heath, its ecological label, is rare … really rare, so its plants and animals are treasures. It was first a royal hunting estate, after 1066, and its resident villagers were dispersed. Yet, with poor, sandy and gravel soils it must have been hard work to eke out a living there. Today, the surrounding population, within an hour’s drive, is large – Bournemouth and Poole, Eastleigh and Romsey, Southampton, Fareham, Gosport and Portsmouth. Their residents flock to this open space and many have loose dogs that are the curse of wildlife and wild areas. Even the dog poo is changing the ecology with extra nitrogen and an acidification of the pH.
Belatedly, the authorities are finally closing car parks and restricting ad-hoc parking along roads and lanes. ‘Full’ signs are needed on some days.
Annette and I took our caravan to near Brockenhurst, having booked our spot nine months ago. Once there we walk and gently explore, yet this time it was for me to lead a field trip.
I lead a U3A group called Flora and Fauna, and we aim to generate data for conservation organisations. This time, however, it was just a learning exercise.
The first location was the Reptile Centre, which was opened specially for us, and the lead forester taught the group about the UK’s reptiles (see the previous article). The ultra-rate Smooth Snake was the star, and we saw the adders, slow worms and green lizards. Later in the day, a mature male adder wandered across our routeway to re-enforce its design and beauty.
The Oak Inn at Bank delighted our hunger at lunch, before we headed into the mature forestry areas for woodland ecology.
Finally, a line transect was completed from wet heath to dry heath, looking only at three heathers: cross-leaved heath, ling and bell heather. The % cover, just to the nearest 10%, was recorded along a 90m line. The data clearly showed the plants’ niches. Cross-leaved heath is a damp-lover, bell heather only lives in the dryest locations and ling is the one that is tolerant of both conditions.
Our next excursion is to record orchids and butterflies for a conservation group and the UK Army on Salisbury Plain.