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Pining for a clearer common


Last week Lucy Shield, Lucy Potashnik, Nicola Loweth, Richard Brown and I used our conservation day to go and help restore some of Frensham common – an SSSI designated area – back to its original heathland.

Justin and the WWF crew on Frensham commonJustin and the WWF crew on Frensham common

The 400 hectare common is inundated with pine trees, grown after the Second World War when Britain was on a drive to become more self-reliant. The trees were planted to provide quick growing timber for industry, and for things like planes, with the common chosen as it was considered to have little value.

Nowadays we have a different perspective on our open spaces and of course the need for timber to be grown in places like these has decreased whilst the value of our open spaces has increased – not least for outdoor enthusiasts such as dog walkers, horse riders and mountain bikers – but also and more importantly for our valuable rare species.

We were accompanied by one of Waverley’s rangers, Steve Webster who provided guidance and sage advice: “when cutting, make sure there is a row of branches between your hand and the saw. That way if it slips, you only cut more tree, not hand.” Steve also proved to be extremely knowledgeable about the area as well as nature, films, and playing Celtic instruments in front of Liam Neeson.

I now know the common has provided the set for many memorable movie moments including some of Snow White and The Huntsman, Robin Hood and also Skyfall. I also learnt that Liam Neeson is not averse to buying a round. As well as SSSI status the area is home to six rare reptiles including the Adder and Smooth Snake, and less impressively the A287. Photos exist of Kitchener inspecting the troops at Frensham before a sea of canvas tents, when soldiers were camped there ahead of going to fight the First World War.

The spot we were primed to clear would open up the view across the King Billy’s Ridge, and after a short ride on the back of a Land Rover we set to work to reclaim some space for the Adders.

Part of the reason to restore the heath by removing pines is to allow the heather to grow back. The pine needles kill off foliage and remove the cover the species need to move between areas without being picked off by predators and birds of prey, so removing pines restores ground cover creating a wildlife corridor for them to travel, in much the same way WWF is working to conserve habitats for species across the globe.

After a bit of early over-exertion we all arrived at a suitable pace that meant we could keep going over the day and get the most pine trees cut, with a few stops for tea and biscuits.

Lucy takes on another pine - and wins. Lucy takes on another pine – and wins.

Another learning point was if you cut them low enough pines won’t grow back (whereas birch stumps need to be treated in order to stop them returning in greater numbers than before). While we worked Steve began the task of controlled burning the fallen pines, which also provided the oven for lunch’s baked potatoes.

Land and habitat management is an expensive and time consuming business, and sometimes the old ways have proved to be the best. A cheaper and more effective solution to the clearance of pines would be to return grazing animals to the land as they would have done years before, with emerging pines providing some food- however these sorts of schemes can cause concern for people who fear a loss of open spaces due to the need for fencing that these schemes require. Another concern for Steve and other rangers is the cost of fires both natural and man made. The cost of fighting fires and the aftermath can be high financially and environmentally, and can – on occasion – result in a loss of life.

At the end of the day we were able to look at an area that was satisfyingly clearer than when we started. We could see over to the ridge and Steve told us that the work we had done will not have to be repeated for at least 5 years.

As everyone posed for a picture my calls for all to “say trees” was understandably met with groans. As we gazed over the land we had cleared, I tried to ignore the remaining acres of dense pine and focus on the positive. The bit we had done was clear, the adders would get some more ground cover, but I suspect clearing the rest in the 5 year period would be a big ask – certainly a lot of conservation days.

Find out more information on Frensham Common

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