As a result of its management over the ages and in more recent times, Silchester Common is one of the largest remaining fragments of lowland heath in the South of England. This heathland would have been much more extensive in the past and would have stretched across much of Southern England. Today all that remains are a few isolated pockets of this type of habitat such as the Surrey Heaths, Silchester Common and Greenham Common.
Silchester is also fortunate in that it has Pamber Forest on its borders. This forest is an ancient broadleaf oak forest which is a remnant of a much larger royal hunting forest. Because of its age, the forest supports a large variety of different species of flora and fauna.
Pamber Forest is managed by the Hampshire and Isle of Wight Wildlife Trust, which has a website dedicated to the Forest with lots of really helpful information about the trails in the forest, the wildlife that can be seen and their conservation programmes. Pamber Forest is an amazing place and I would encourage readers to visit and learn more about it. In the remainder of this article though I shall concentrate on Silchester Common, as this is less documented.
The heathland on Silchester Common is special because the soil is very acidic and poor. This means that only a limited number of species and plants can make a living in this kind of environment and those that do are often specialised to living in such conditions. This makes the preservation of this type of habitat all the more important as its occurrence has declined substantially and some of the species that live on it are under threat.
Pamber Forest and Silchester Common are some of the earliest pieces of land to be designated as a Site of Special Scientific Interest (SSSI) in the UK. They were first designated in 1951 shortly after the legislation was passed to enable this kind of designation to be made.
Silchester Common is included in the SSSI designation for the following reasons:
- Silchester Common, together with Tadley Common, is one of the largest remaining areas of lowland heath in north Hampshire. This is a nationally rare habitat which has suffered a significant decline in extent and consequent fragmentation in the past 150years;
- The heathland habitat present represents a very good example of the characteristic vegetation type of dry heaths in south east England, typified by a mixture of heather, bell heather and dwarf gorse, and has transitions to wet heath;
- The common includes species-rich examples of valley mire, an exceptionally rare habitat in south east England and the habitat present supports a wide diversity of plants, several of which are locally scarce;
- In addition, the lowland heathland and associated areas of scrub and open woodland provide supporting habitat for scarce birds including stonechat, woodlark, nightjar and Dartford warbler.
Birds on the Common
The author has not seen a Woodlark on the Common but there are records of recent sightings of these birds from other bird watchers so they should still be present.
Stonechats are definitely present on the common and are breeding in good numbers. Here is a picture of a male adult alongside a young Stonechat that fledged last year. Both images were taken on Silchester Common
Dartford Warblers are difficult to see as they use the large gorse bushes as protection and only rarely pop out into the open for a brief appearance. You are more likely to hear them rather than see them. The adult has a distinctive grey head and red eye. Again, they are breeding on the Common and here is a photo of a juvenile born on the Common last year.
Nightjars are one of the last birds to arrive in the UK in the summer (usually late May) as part of their migration journey. They come here to breed on heathland habitats and it is a really special sight on a summer evening to see their display flights. The males circle around showing off the white patches under their wings in low swooping dives. They can also be heard calling to each other during the dusk with a noise that is described as a churrr.
This is an unforgettable noise that is unlike any other bird noise you will have heard and is quite magical on a Summer evening. The nightjars are also one of the first of the summer migrants to leave for their feeding grounds in Africa and are gone by September.
Insects on the Common
The birds on the Common are a very special sight but for me there is no question about what should feature as one of the highlights of Silchester’s wildlife – it is the annual display of glow-worms that can be seen on the Common. The early part of July invariably sees an amazing display of glow-worms lighting up the darkness of the Common.
The glow-worm is actually a beetle. The males are small and can fly but don’t produce light. The females have no wings but they have the amazing ability to produce light in their own bodies (bioluminescence). They use this light to attract the males by climbing up plant stems and glowing a brilliant shade of bright emerald green. As soon as the female has mated she turns off her glow.
This amazing natural sight only happens for a few short weeks every July (usually in the early part of the month). It takes the larvae about three years to reach maturity and so the intensity of the display varies from year to year.
As well as the glow-worms the Common also supports a rich variety of other insects including butterflies, moths, dragonflies, damselflies and a multitude of different beetles. The dragonflies are some of the most spectacular and easiest to spot. Here is an image of a female broad-bodied chaser pausing to hunt in one of the many occasional ponds that form on the Common.
Finally, the Common is also home to three of the four species of snakes that live in the UK. It supports strong populations of slow worms, grass snakes and adders.
Adders are the UK’s only venomous snake species and they are uncommon. There is a strong and healthy population on Silchester Common and they are an amazing sight in early Spring when they can be seen basking on south facing slopes in the heather and near to the many paths that criss-cross the Common.
The female adder is always brown in colour as in this photograph. Young males can also be brown but mature males are a lovely silvery green colour as in this photograph.
Adders are poisonous (although rarely fatal for humans) so treat them with respect and observe them from a safe distance. They will only strike as a last resort if they feel threatened.
There are, of course, many other species – too numerous to mention – that live on the Common including mammals, amphibians, plants and fungi that I haven’t covered in this article due to space considerations.
All this rich variety of habitat and species makes Silchester Common a rather special place. It needs protecting and managing to maintain the habitat in this condition. There a numerous work parties that take place during the Autumn and Winter to help preserve the Common – so if you have some spare time and would like to volunteer then please come and join us.