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Surrey's wild landscapes

© Surrey Wildlife Trust

Wildlife habitats in Surrey

We have a stunning mixture of landscapes in Surrey, from the beautiful chalk meadows of the North Downs, to the vast heathlands of the Thames Basin and the sites we look after are home to a wide range of habitats and wildlife and include ancient woodland, heathland, species-rich grassland and wetland.

The varied landscapes under our care require careful monitoring and management by the Trust to ensure that they are in good condition for wildlife and safely accessible to the public.

Heathland

Heathland

© Paul Harris/2020VISION

What is it? 

Found in the west of Surrey, our heathlands form some of the wildest landscapes in the county. Once considered wasteland of little value, they are now appreciated and protected for their unique wildlife and beauty.

Lowland heath is characterised by heathers, gorse and grasses. On infertile, well-drained sands and gravels, ling and gorse are dominant. Wet heath is found where either shallow peat or mineral soils are seasonally waterlogged and supports cross-leaved heath, ling and bog mosses. They may also be more species-rich than dry heath.

Why is it like this? 

Lowland heathland is defined by the poor fertility of its soils, which discourages other plants, and a long history of human management.

Only plants adapted to the poor, acidic heathland soils flourish, and some resort to unusual means to gain nutrients – carnivorous sundews have glandular tentacles with sticky droplets on their leaves, while lousewort parasitizes the roots of other plants to gain nutrients.

Conservation

If left to their own devices heathlands eventually develop into woodland. The establishment of now abandoned Scots pine plantations for timber in Victorian times has speeded up this process.

When effectively managed, heaths can support reptiles like the smooth snake and sand lizard and birds like the Dartford warbler and nightjar.

Traditional heathland activities such as livestock grazing have played a vital role in maintaining heathland in Surrey. Our volunteers also regularly cut down birch and Scots pine and we also create bare ground using scrapes. Not all trees are taken down, as we also want to create habitat for the specialist heathland birds

Woodland

Bluebell wood

© Guy Edwardes/2020VISION

What is it? 

Lowland mixed oak and ash woods are the archetypal woodland of the Surrey Hills. Growing on deep, fertile brown soils, oak and ash usually dominate the canopy, with a tall understorey of hazel and field maple. Hornbeam or lime can also form the canopy and elms or sweet chestnut may have been planted.

On acidic soils, carpets of bluebells and wood anemone cover the woodland floor in spring, while dog’s mercury or ramsons indicate more species-rich limey conditions, with rarities such as herb-Paris and Solomon’s seal.

England’s most wooded county, Surrey also has swathes of ancient woodland, home to ancient 1,000-year-old yews.

Wet woodland is characterised by willow, birch and alder that thrive in poorly drained or seasonally flooded soils. Wet woodland known as “carr” is often low-canopied, with willow and alder growing over plants such as meadowsweet.

Why is it like this?

Although they might not look like it, our woodlands have been shaped by human activities over millennia. Most were managed through coppicing for firewood and charcoal. This practice periodically opened up the canopy and provided the habitat favoured by many woodland species. However, coppicing became uneconomical with the arrival of coal and many woodlands were abandoned, cleared or overplanted.

Conservation

Abandonment or insensitive management has resulted in the loss of clearings, coppices and glades, leading to massive declines in many woodland species such as dormice. Conservation needs to reintegrate sensitive woodland management with local economics if it is to be sustainable. The Trust sells some of the timber we remove as part of our woodland management, with the money reinvested in conservation.

Chalk downland

Sheepleas

© Surrey Wildlife Trust

What is it? 

The short, aromatic turf of chalk grassland is flower-rich and humming with insects in the summer and the chalky soil of the North Downs in Surrey give rise to a spectacular range of specialist species.

Famous for its variety of flora (there can be over 40 species per square metre of turf) and its rare and beautiful butterflies, chalk grassland is home to a huge range of invertebrates and there are hundreds of rare species associated with the habitat, including a succession of orchids throughout the summer.

The mix of bare ground, short vegetation and longer tussocks together with plenty of flowering plants are ideal for a range of bees, ants, hoverflies, beetles and grasshoppers. On sunny days with little wind, butterflies including chalkhill, small and Adonis blues can be also be seen on some sites.

Why is it like this?

Woodland clearance, which started during the Mesolithic Period (11,500BCE – 4000BCE), may have occurred first in areas where the woodland was sparse, such as on the thin, well-drained soils found over limestone. Subsequent livestock grazing prevented succession back to woodland and, along with the thin soils, discouraged more vigorous plants. Together with sunny south-facing slopes, this created conditions suitable for the characteristic wildlife seen today.

Conservation

Chalk grassland was once widespread wherever suitable conditions occurred. However, changes to agriculture meant that sites began to be ploughed and downland was no longer grazed. Now the only areas left tend to be those too steep to plough or re-seed. On the remaining sites, scrub encroachment is being managed through grazing and mowing at key times of the year. 

Wetlands & rivers

Thundry Meadows

© Jon Hawkins

What are they? 

Teeming with invertebrates, rich in plants and a haven for mammals, wetlands are a vital part of our natural world. Found mainly in the east of Surrey, these places are home to a wide range of species.

As well as providing a valuable habitat for wildlife, wetland are also vital forms of flood defence and water purification.

Raised bogs are much wetter than the surrounding land – the peat acts as a sponge, retaining rainwater that is only gradually released through evaporation, and sometimes a small stream arising from the bog.

These very wet conditions are ideal for acid-loving bog-mosses, cotton grasses, cross-leaved heath, bog asphodel and deer-grass.

Found in the zone between water and land, reedbeds are transitional habitats. Thickly vegetated yet waterlogged, they are home to species such as bittern.

Drier areas above the winter water level may provide habitat for water voles and scrubby islands may be used by otters.

Surrey is also home to the Wey, Mole and Thames river catchments. These arteries form natural highways through our developed environment and connect our wild landscapes. Species such as otters are gradually returning to these habitats.

Why are they like this?

Wetlands can be found in low-lying areas. Raised bogs began as shallow lakes and wet hollows, which, over time, filled with the un-decayed remains of vegetation until peat formed.

Conservation

Our programme of removing invasive wetland species such as Himalayan balsam, restoring river banks and monitoring and improving water quality through our RiverSearch project are all key to conserving wetland wildlife. 

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