Another week, another challenge for the volunteers at Northchurch Flats where they have been working on and off for the last three months. Located at the southern end of the extensive Northchurch common, where the chalk is exposed at the surface, it was once downland. The Trust hope to restore the floristic value of the habitat at this important southern gateway to the Ashridge estate. To this end the foresters have felled twenty six established trees and the volunteers have built a dead hedge along with forty two habitat piles. That’s a lot of activity in such a small area.
Moving northwards to where the clay overlays the chalk, the habitat changes to bracken and gorse with an interplay of trees. Carved out of this on the level area is the one hundred acre hay meadow which was given over to the war effort for arable farming. Now that planning restrictions have terminated’ the Trust are eyeing this next for restoration – to restore it to it’s former glory as a working common. The area is criss-crossed with paths along with three lengthy bridleways, giving access to horse riders and bikers along with the ubiquitous dog-walkers. Restoration would be a lengthy process but would be speeded up by the presence of grazing livestock as in past times. Being an open access area fences and hedges are not allowed, so there remains the problem of enclosing the sheep or cattle on the common, which is why it is such a rare sight in England. This aspiration has been given a realistic boost by a successful trial which has just been carried out by the N T at Woolacombe Bay in north Devon, where they have grazing cattle on the sand dunes – the cattle are fitted with electronic collars. The grazing area is surrounded with an underground cable which alarms the cattle if they move too close to the hidden fence – more work for the volunteers!
It will take many decades to return the habitat to what it was when Carl Linnaeus the famous Swedish botanist visited Ashridge in 1736, when he was so overwhelmed by the gorse in full bloom that he knelt down and praised God for showing him so glorious a sight. At this time, even the Bridgewaters had commoners rights on the common, where they employed a shepherd; a certain Thomas Edmond, with a “fallowdog” to control some three hundred sheep whilst grazing.
Some fifty years ago wood warblers, tree pipits and nightjars were regular migrants in the area when insect levels were much higher than today, and the heathland was more extensive. The reintroduction of grazing livestock would certainly increase the insect levels, so these birds could return one day.
Berkhamstead and Northchurch commons are registered as one common, extending to over one thousand acres and the combined area is the largest in the Chilterns.
Thanks to Richard Gwilt for his contribution.