The conservation volunteers have recently been working along Ling Ride, part of the Ivinghoe common which used to stretch south passed Ringshall down to Witchcraft Bottom. Ling Ride is a rare example of lowland heath which the Trust are now actively restoring to its former state. Lowland heathland is a hugely important wildlife habitat and cultural landscape, and the area that survives today is but a small part of what existed one hundred years ago on the common.
Lowland heathland is a landscape characterised by plants like heather or ling and gorse, and trees such as Scots pine and birch, lying below one thousand feet – above that it becomes moorland – and is usually found on poor acidic soils.
Lowland heathland on the scale that we see today probably did not exist before the arrival of Bronze Age settlers, about 4,000 years ago. These early farmers cleared trees and introduced grazing animals and grew early cereals. This human activity, coupled with a change to a wetter and cooler climate, eventually led to the heathland landscapes. For hundreds of years Ivinghoe common was an open scrub-land used by the commoners from Ivinghoe and Ringshall until 1825 when the Bridgewaters enclosed the land. They grazed their livestock on the common during the summer months which was called transhumance, cut bracken for winter bedding for their animals back at the village, cut gorse for their fires and bread ovens, and dug chalk for building purposes. William Ellis , in “the Timber Tree Improved” in 1750 remarked that gorse was “ so much coveted that at Ivinghoe, and Berkhamsted, and many more commons they will not give it time to grow”.
The trees that we see today on the common have all developed in the last one hundred and fifty years. Some of these trees are now being cut down to allow the heather to re-establish, and course grass is being removed, while invasive gorse scrub is being managed.
Gorse scrub occurs wherever soils are light and free draining, in areas that are relatively free from severe frosts. It is very important for birds, and for invertebrates as a number depend up on it, but it can encroach on to otherwise valuable habitat.
Gorse is relatively short-lived – up to twenty five years – but with careful management, its vigour and value for wildlife can be maintained. The common gorse at Ashridge is Ulex europaeus and is the most familiar and widespread, and has the most robust growth character. It is in flower for long periods, so is an important nectar source in early spring and early winter, when little else is in flower. Old and degenerate gorse is relatively poor for wildlife, and very old, leggy gorse rarely regenerates when cut, although most cut stumps under ten years old will regenerate within a year.
It is perhaps too much to hope for a return of heathland highlights like the nightjar or adder, both of which were native to the area – in 1829 a villager died from an adder bite.
In 1420 the common was given to the Bonhommes in the monastery, and it later reverted to the Crown after the Dissolution in 1538. Queen Mary the 1st gave it to the Bishops of Lincoln in the 1550’s when it was known as Bishop’s Heath, but it reverted back to the Crown on her death. Lord Ellesmere, Chancellor to James 1st purchased it along with the Ashridge estate in 1604. It acquired the name of Ling Ride sometime in the 1800’s.
Thanks to Richard Gwilt for his contribution.