A once declining heathland landscape at Wisley and Ockham Common, has been transformed by Surrey Wildlife Trust into a thriving nature reserve of the highest conservation status. Awarded favourable condition by Natural England, the reserve is benefitting the UK’s rarest reptile - the sand lizard – which depends on this sandy heathland habitat for its survival.
A fifth of lowland heathland in Europe is found in the UK. However, over the last 200 years Surrey has lost 85 per cent of its heathlands to farming and woodland regrowth, which has decimated the sand lizard population. Here at Wisley and Ockham Common fast growing pine and silver birch tree scrub was taking over when Surrey Wildlife Trust started managing the site.
After more than a decade of scrub clearance and GIS mapping of vegetation on the 300 hectare reserve, Surrey Wildlife Trust has created a dynamic heathland landscape. In this mosaic habitat of new and mature heather and gorse, the sand lizard population is expanding steadily with each new generation.
The Amphibian and Reptile Conservation Trust (ARC) rescued 41 sand lizards from a suburban housing development near Bournemouth and began a reintroduction programme at Wisley and Ockham Common in 1991. The sand lizard population is now doing very well.
The sand lizard has an average life span of 10 years and is up to 20cm in length. Both sexes have brown varied patterns down the back with two strong dorsal stripes. The male has striking bright green flanks during the breeding season in late April and May. Then around June sand lizard females lay their eggs, which are buried in sand exposed to the sun which helps to keep them warm until they hatch some six to eight weeks later between late July and early October.
Lowland heathland is a prime location for the rare sand lizard, it provides both mature sunny habitats and open undisturbed sand when well managed. So ARC has helped to create the perfect conditions for females to lay eggs at Ockham Common by creating scrapes of barensand.
Rob Free, Weald reserves manager of ARC, said: “The whole site was quite overgrown fifteen years ago but it’s really transformed now. Old aerial views of Wisley and Ockham Common from 1945 show how we have turned the clock back to its former glory. The heathlands are simply heaving with life at this time of year: invertebrates, bees, wasps, ants and spiders, which sand lizards also love to feed on.”
Surrey Wildlife Trust has achieved success on this nature reserve with help from contractors and volunteers, as well as ARC, to keep down scrub encroachment. Regular grazing on Wisley Common by its herd of Belted Galloway cattle help to keep the grasses under control. The hooves of the cattle also create thousands of tiny pockets of bare earth for beetles and burrowing bees to colonise.
Zoe Channon, Surrey Wildlife Trust liaison officer at Wisley and Ockham Common, said: “We are so lucky in Surrey to be able to preserve this vast natural wilderness of lowland heathland, which is one of most ancient British landscapes. Carved up into quarters by the A3 and M25 and once facing decline, Wisley and Ockham is now a wildlife haven. It’s so rewarding to spot basking reptiles, especially the sand lizard, warming up in the early morning sun on the miles of sandy pathways. But our work is never done on a site this size.’
Wisley and Ockham Common is part of Surrey Wildlife Trust’s Thames Basin Heaths nature recovery network, which is all about creating a ‘living landscape’ with connective wildlife corridors. The strategy is being developed to transform isolated pockets of wildlife into thriving populations at a landscape scale across Surrey.
Getting to these remarkable reserves is easy, located at the junction of the M25 and the A3 with parking available at Boldermere Car Park, Pond Car Park & Wren’s Nest Car Park. Parking charges apply.