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Chobham Common

Chobham Common is a area of lowland heath a globally rare and threatened habitat, in Surrey, England. It was formerly a freehold owned by the Earl of Onslow, and purchased for £1 by Surrey County Council in 1966. It is managed by Surrey Wildlife Trust for nature conservation and informal access.

Chobham Common is a National Nature Reserve, Special Protection Area under the EU Birds Directive and a Site of Special Scientific Interest (SSSI).

Animals

Plants

History

It is believed that, like other inland heaths, Chobham Common was created when early farmers cleared the primary woodland that once cloaked the country. This exposed and degraded the fragile soils that underlie the site, creating the conditions favoured by heathland. After the initial clearance the area would have been kept free of trees by grazing and fuel gathering. There is evidence that the area was occupied during the Neolithic period and the Bronze Age; analysis of peat cores from areas with similar geology and patterns of settlement elsewhere in southern Britain would suggest the heathland on Chobham Common was created at some time during these periods.

Chobham Common was used by the military during the 1920s and 1930s, and throughout the Second World War, when it was severely damaged by tanks.

Immediately after the Second World War, the southern part of the Common was ploughed and seeded with an annual grass to allow the natural vegetation to re-establish, while the area north of Staple Hill, which was not as heavily damaged, was allowed to recover naturally. By the 1950s, the Common was recovering well with large tracts of open heath. At this time the Common was heavily grazed by rabbits with little scrub and large areas of close cropped heather and gorse. Myxomatosis reached the area in 1955 and consequently the heather and gorse on Chobham Common grew on and scrub began to develop. By the 1960s scrub was starting to become a problem.

Monuments

Loss of Heathlands nationally

Over 80% of the heathlands that once covered extensive areas of southern Britain have been lost, with similar losses on the near continent where the remaining lowland heathland of oceanic temperate regions occurs. This dramatic decline began during the eighteenth century and early nineteenth century as changes in agriculture, which resulted in the loss of grazing on heaths, and as the growing availability of cheap coal as an alternative to other fuels, brought traditional heathland management to an end in many areas. Large areas of heathland were lost to neglect or subjected to agricultural “improvement” and enclosure as arable farming methods advanced. During the twentieth century' 50% of the heathland that remained in 1919 was converted to commercial forestry and substantial areas have been lost to development and invading scrub.

Maintaining the Common

The survival of Chobham Common as an extensive area of lowland heath is largely due to the historic isolation of the Chobham area where traditional heathland management continued until the early twentieth century. While turbary (turf cutting)was still practised on a small scale at the beginning of the twentieth century it had ceased to be an important factor in the management of the Common by that time. Rough grazing and the cutting of heather, gorse and small trees began to decline after 1914 and had almost completely ended by the time of the Second World War. Photographic evidence and verbal reports indicate that during the early part of the twentieth century large tracts of Calluna vulgaris (heather) with extensive areas of wet heath and open bog dominated the Common. There was little scrub and the only trees of any great size were at the Clump on Staple Hill and the Lone Pine to the south of the Beegarden.

Management Plan

In 1984, Surrey County Council produced the first management plan for Chobham Common which acknowledged invading scrub, fire and erosion as the main threats to the site. The Surrey Trust for Nature Conservation (now renamed the Surrey Wildlife Trust) had carried out small-scale scrub clearance work from 1974 onwards and Surrey County Council began clearing scrub on the Common from the 1970s onwards; however despite their best efforts the scrub continued to advance. While describing birch and pine invasion on the Common as “Possibly the most serious problem for nature conservation” the 1984 Management Plan states, “Widespread invasion control is difficult to justify financially. Intervention management will therefore be limited to the more significant open habitats and places where an acceptable level of tree cover can be maintained at low cost”.

From the late 1980s, a more aggressive approach to scrub management was adopted together with more active conservation management starting with the large scale annual events for schools and volunteers such as “Purge the Pine” and “Free Christmas Tree” events. While these events, which involved over 1,500 volunteers in some years, dramatically reduced the threat to the Common from pine invasion, birch remained a major threat to the site.

The 1992 Management Plan took a much more positive approach to conservation management of Chobham Common . In the same year the site was proposed as a National Nature Reserve (NNR) and a substantial grant covering a ten-year period was awarded to Surrey County Council under the Countryside Stewardship Scheme for the management of 280 hectares of the Common. The Scheme was extended to cover the whole NNR for a further ten years in October 2002. At the time of writing at least seventeen hectares of scrub management takes place each year together with at least twenty hectares of conservation mowing, and bracken control. Bare ground creation and heather cutting, and pond, scrape and pool creation are also carried out to enhance bio-diversity. The restoration of conservation grazing on Chobham Common is seen as a priority by site managers.

Fire

Fires occurred fairly regularly during the 1950s and 1960s and the whole of Chobham Common was seriously damaged by major fires in the early and mid 1970s which caused the loss of the smooth snake (Coronella austriaca) and sand lizard from the site and allowed extensive areas of purple moor grass and bracken to establish. Since 1976, a network of fire tracks and firebreaks has been created and progressively upgraded. Since 1990 rangers and volunteers have fire watched during periods of high risk and in 2006 the rangers were equipped with a fire fighting system. These measures together with close liaison with the Surrey Fire Service have served to reduce both the frequency and scale of fires on the site.

The major utilities that cross Chobham Common were constructed during the 1950s and early 1960s. The M3 motorway was completed in 1974 cutting the site in half. Some attempts were made at mitigation work at the time, but with hindsight they were both inappropriate and inadequate and large blocks of gorse (Ulex europeaus) developed in the zone of disturbance on either side of the motorway creating further fragmentation of the site and causing serious fire risks. Following serious fires in 2001 and 2002 the Department for Transport provided funding for clearance of the gorse in the zone of disturbance and this area is mown annually to suppress any gorse regrowth.

Erosion Problems

The first car parks on Chobham Common were created in 1936 at Staple Hill and south of the Monument. After the Second World War, the recreational use of the Common grew dramatically. This recreational use developed in an ad-hoc manner with walkers and horse riders creating tracks then abandoning them for new routes as they gullied and became impassable, causing wide scale erosion of the site.

It is also reported that during the 1950s and 1960s visitors regularly took vehicles onto Chobham Common further adding to the problem. An aerial photograph dated 1964 clearly shows severe erosion problems on Tank Hill and Staple Hill. By the time Surrey County Council acquired Chobham Common in 1968 there were nine car parks on the area covered by this plan. Initially the Council wished to develop a country park but these plans were soon dropped in favour of informal recreation and nature conservation.

Erosion and disturbance continued to be serious problems through the 1970s and 1980s. While attempts to restrict horse riding proved unsuccessful, by the late 1980s both walkers and riders were showing a marked preference for the growing network of high quality fire tracks.

In 1992, a consultative process began to resolve long running conflicts of interest between horse riders and other users, and to rationalise the rights of way networks in order to meet the needs of visitors while protecting sensitive habitats and species. Following a public enquiry in 1996 the present network of rights of way and agreed horse rides which incorporates the fire track network was installed. Since then there have been few serious erosion problems and disturbance has been greatly reduced.

Access

Chobham Common is open to the public and has six car parks, an extensive network of footpaths, bridleways and other tracks and three self guided trails.

References

External links

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