Dartford warbler winning at Whitmoor Common

Jon Hawkins

Surrey Wildlife Trust awarded highest standard for heathland management at Guildford reserve

Surrey Wildlife Trust’s management of Whitmoor Common, the largest area of open heathland in the Guildford area, has been awarded the highest standard for heathland management by Natural England. The Dartford warbler, an indicator species for biodiversity, and the window-winged caddis fly are just two species to benefit from the rare lowland heathland which is now in favourable condition.

The success of Surrey Wildlife Trust’s management at Whitmoor Common has improved the ecology of three quarters of the 183 hectare reserve. Landscape scale scrub clearance by contractors in winter, cattle grazing, the Trust’s volunteer work, specialist conservation work and support from Whitmoor Common Association have all contributed to the ecological improvements.

Katy Fielding, Surrey Wildlife Trust liaison officer at Whitmoor Common, said: ‘Lowland heathland is rarer than rainforest and Britain holds twenty percent of this resource in Europe, so we have a real responsibility to look after it.  Our hard work building up the mosaic of habitats and micro habitats, together with the diversity in age and structure of gorse, heather and woodlands is creating the optimum conditions for wildlife.

The Dartford warbler needs different age heather and gorse for survival in winter for overnighting, nesting, sheltering and feeding.  For example, the canopy of cobwebs over gorse filled with spiders provides food.  The younger, bushier, dome-shaped gorse is vital for shelter if it snows, as the difference in temperature could be as much as 10 degrees under the snow topped covering. This can be the difference between life and death for these birds.

Katy added: ‘The quality of the habitat will determine survival rates.  The Dartford warbler got hit hard last winter and many would have perished because it was so wet and cold, followed by a sustained snowy period.  The bird is a UK resident; it doesn’t migrate, so it’s very vulnerable to the cold.  Places such as Whitmoor with well managed habitat will help increase their survival rate and hopefully the breeding pairs here will increase numbers too.

The Species Protection Trust also confirmed last year was a good year for the rare window-winged caddis fly, which was breeding in small pools across Whitmoor. The hydrology is important to the site as there is a gentle flow of water to the reserve, which is fed by the topography of the area from the Hogs Back.

The Whitmoor Common Association is formed out of the residents association that live on and around the Common.  They do a lot of scrub clearance and fundraising and recently raised £3,000 towards resurfacing and raising the summer ride bridleway, a well-used path linking the Jolly Farmer pub and Salt Box Road.  Popular with dog walkers, horse riders and families, Whitmoor Common needs constant management, especially for scrub clearance. However, the reserve is improving every year helped by the Belted Galloway cattle grazing in the spring.

Cattle grazing is important for structural diversity in the grasses on Whitmoor, such as molinia a deciduous grass that is green in the summer and goes brown in the winter. If it is not grazed it becomes thatch and suppresses opportunities for other plants and invertebrates. Grazing cattle when the grasses are growing and flushing provides ecological opportunities for invertebrates and plants which may otherwise be outcompeted.

Whitmoor, which is not far from Guildford, is well worth a visit at any time of year to discover fine examples of one of Surrey’s most precious habitats. Whitmoor and Rickford Commons combine iconic heathland with patches of pine, birch, oak, holly and hazel woodland. Around the wetter areas there is a mix of heath and willow with an area of alder carr.

The conservation management of Whitmoor Common is supported through a 10 year Higher Level Stewardship scheme agreement. This began in 2009 and provides payments for specific conservation outcomes. 

More about Whitmoor Common