Here in the West Midlands we are very privileged to have areas of a unique and nationally important habitat that is in decline: Lowland Heath. In particular, Walsall Countryside Services are the custodians of what is left of the former Staffordshire Heaths, an area of heathland that once stretched from Sutton Park to Cannock Chase! Currently, what remains of this habitat is represented by parts of Barr Beacon, Shire Oak Park, Brownhills Common and Pelsall North Common. *They are all LOWLAND heaths, even Barr Beacon, as they all come in at under 300m above sea level. All of the above sites are managed by Walsall Countryside Services in what is called a ‘Higher Level Environmental Stewardship Agreement’ – a 10-year plan devised through working with Natural England to decide what is the best way to manage the sites in order to consider biodiversity, protected species, rare habitats and of course, the value of the site to visitors and local residents. There are numerous plant species that grow in this habitat, which is dominated by heather, cross-leaved heath and numerous other plants which thrive in the acidic soil. In and around this diverse assemblage of plants, several protected species are thriving. You might wonder what is so special about this habitat, and what ‘protected species’ we are talking about, as unless you look closely, or know exactly where to look, these species can often be elusive and hard to observe. Because of this, Countryside Services regularly monitor the sites for heathland bees, butterflies and other invertebrates, as well as reptiles.
Here is a brief introduction to just a few of these species:
Very few people have seen lizards in the West Midlands. They are absolutely dependant of the type of habitat that heathlands provide, and because the heathlands are rare (and getting rarer!), so are reptiles. In the past two years, common lizards have been seen on 5 occasions on Pelsall North Common alone – so much that Walsall Countryside Services have adopted a 1km square on Pelsall North Common as their site for participation in the National Amphibian and Reptile Recording Scheme (NARRS). We hope to record more reptiles in the future. Managing the habitat (and where we can, extending the range of that habitat) can help these creatures to thrive.
Another reptile which has recently been recorded is the Slow Worm – actually not a worm at all, nor is it (as many people first think) a snake – but actually a type of legless lizard. In 2012, the species was recorded on Barr Beacon, which was the first record of the species in Walsall for over 35 years! We are currently managing the habitat with creatures like the slow worm in mind!
Tormentil Mining Bee
One of the UK’s smallest bees, measuring only 8mm in length, the Tormentil Mining Bee is a Biodiversity Action Plan target species. Our population on Pelsall North Common is a huge priority for Walsall Countryside Services, as the nearest and most recent record to the south is from Sutton Park in 1904, and to the north, Chasewater in 2004. This means that our population may represent the only surviving group of these specialist heathland bees in the area. Without the heathland, this species would simply die out (and quickly!) as it is what scientists call ‘Oligolectic’, meaning that it is completely reliant on one or two species of plants – in this case, Tormentil. Tormentil is one of the plants that will disappear when succession takes hold of the heath, taking the Tormentil Mining Bee with it.
Green Tiger Beetle
This stunning beetle was recorded in Walsall for the first time in 2012! Walsall Countryside Services cleared some scrapes in the south-facing bank of Barr Beacon’s heathland, in order to create nesting opportunities for mining bees. Much to everyone’s delight, the Green Tiger Beetle moved into the bank that very same year. It is important that this species is allowed to establish itself and become a thriving population, and so the management of the site is now tailored to this and other heathland specialist insects.
Great Crested Newts
The great crested newt has a bit of a stronghold in Walsall – particularly in the north of the borough, where we have breeding populations on Pelsall North and Brownhills Commons. Many people don’t realise that although the great crested newt is an amphibian, it is essentially a terrestrial (land-dwelling) animal which happens to still breed in water, and the rough, grassy terrain with lots of cover that heathlands provide is just as important to this animal’s success and wellbeing as its aquatic habitat. The great crested newt is a protected species, and a high priority in conservation.
So, why does managing habitat mean that we have to cut down trees like conifers?
Basically, the name of the game is Biodiversity, which in a nutshell, means getting as many types of animals and plants to thrive in a habitat as possible. Because birch and pine grow really well in acidic soils (which all heathlands have) they can soon encroach on open heathland if left to their own devices. This leads to shading out heather and other plants (including Tormentil), making the area unsuitable for many of the heathland species that depend on the open habitat.
Plantations and woods that have grown on former heaths (like those at Barr Beacon and Brownhills Common) become dominated by a few species of trees, directly reducing biodiversity. No heathland means no lizards, slow worms, newts, tiger beetles or tormentil mining bees. If we don’t act, we will lose them all.
Fortunately, the remedy is simple – we remove the majority of the trees, increasing sunlight and biodiversity comes flooding back! Amazingly, heather seeds can survive for over 75 years, in the soil, and will germinate readily when the conditions are right again.
Our management of heathlands has resulted in the presence of some amazing species on our sites, including the species mentioned above, but many more as well, from birds to butterflies and many other species of heathland specialist animals.
Walsall Countryside Services are also working with the Wildlife Trust under the Nature Improvement Area programme, to plan to extend and where possible, connect areas of heathland to enable movement of species between sites and reduce genetic isolation of insect populations.
So if you see a few windswept Countryside Rangers taking down trees on Brownhills Common or other heathland sites this winter, you’ll know what we’re up to.