Heathland

Western Surrey is a very different world to the North Downs where I live. We have ancient woodlands, flowery meadows, steep slopes of chalk downland, and traditional hedgerows linking them all.

Out there, they have heath.

Heather in bloom 18 Jul 2018

Lowland heath is a national treasure. The UK holds 20% of the world’s total, and one of the best surviving fragments is on the common land of Thursley. Now a national nature reserve, for thousands of years this landscape has been used by humanity: gorse was cut for fodder, bracken was turned into potash for glass-making. Turf was cut for roofing. Hardy livestock wandered here and there.

Thursley Common1 18 Jul 2018

The people who lived in this harsh and exposed landscape were – reputedly – the original heathens, heath-dwellers, which presumably back then had less to do with religious values and more with social class. Regardless, their agriculture and the land’s natural qualities combined to produce a tough, sandy, prickly ecosystem. Or, some would say, Bronze Age humanity provided an unexpected niche for wildlife that would naturally have thrived in heath-filled forest glades opened by our extinct megafauna.

But Britain urbanised itself, and people lost their connection with the land. Most of our heathlands were overrun by development and commercial forestry. Now they’re recognised as a priority habitat and are a major focus of conservation.

Heathland is harsh yet subtle. Gorse fires roar with depressing frequency and the sun beats hot. The soil can be pure sand, and blows into your hair and trips your boots. But in the shadows, small living things lurk.

Sand lizards are one of Britain’s rarest reptiles. 

Sand lizard 9 May 2017

And this might be our strangest plant – the carnivorous sundew, which eats insects.

Sundew Thursley 18 Jul 18

Dodder is scarcely more conventional. Sometimes compared to pink spaghetti, it is a parasitic plant that taps into the vascular system of its host.

Dodder Thursley 18 Jul 2018

Marsh clubmoss is less dramatic, but it is an endangered species in the UK.

Clubmoss Thursley 18 Jul 18

It likes heaths that flood in winter. That may still happen this year, but after months without rain, much of Surrey is looking like the Kenyan savannah. We need a good storm or two soon.

Small Details

I’ve been reflecting on the nature of memory lately. The basic themes may set the tone but the small details are what bring thoughts alive. That holds true with the outside world, too.

Take Dorset, for example. I barely knew the county before last month, but it is easy to describe in broad brushstrokes: an erratic quilt of heath, farmland and trees, heaped up high into grassy hills, threaded with tiny lanes and dotted with quaint villages. To the south it is underscored by vivid white: mighty chalk cliffs guarding the channel, crumbling cradle of a thousand dinosaur bones.

Old Harry Rocks May 18

The Jurassic Coast is a World Heritage Site, of course. Even away from it, the countryside is refreshingly free from motorway noise.

Dorset countryside2

Zoom in a little, and exploring is flavoured by small details. Sundews are not unique to the south-west, but are intriguing little things. They are carnivorous plants that eat insects.

Sundew Dorset 17 May 2018.jpg

Another heathland predator is very seldom glimpsed. This is the shed skin of a smooth snake Coronella austriaca, Britain’s rarest reptile.

Smooth snake skin 17 May 2018

I have only ever seen one, and that was in western Surrey last year.

Smooth snake 09 May 17

Back in Dorset, the flowers are shining.

Centuary 17 May 2018

…or not. The twayblade is one of the green orchids and easily overlooked.

Twayblade orchid 17 May 2018

Quiet and reclusive perhaps, but it is just as important ecologically as any of its brighter peers.

Keep looking. Keep remembering.