After the fire: Ferndown & Parley Commons

Ferndown Common will take years to recover from this. Photo by Chris Dresh, ARC

For years Ferndown Common will bear the marks of the fire that devastated thirteen hectares of its internationally important habitats last July. In its immediate aftermath it looked like a war zone, a wasteland, but slowly the carbonised gorse and blackened sand will be reclaimed and the first flush of bracken could be seen this summer.

Grass will follow and gorse may return within five years, although it will be a full fifteen years, maybe twenty, before reptiles re-colonise the previously pristine heathland that was only just recovering from the previous, lesser, fire a decade ago.

Fire broke out on the last evening of July, a Thursday, and fire crews remained on site until the Sunday morning. At its height more than a hundred fire fighters struggled to control flames fanned by strong winds and fuelled by tinder dry gorse and heather that had been starved of rainfall for weeks.

‘Very quickly it was clear the operation changed from rescuing wildlife and saving habitats to protecting property and potentially people as well – we were fortunate nobody had to be evacuated,’ says Gary Powell, Senior Reserves Manager for Amphibian and Reptile Conservation (ARC), the charity that manages both Ferndown and the nearby Parley Commons. 

‘The fire appears to have burned very deep and with the extreme dry weather a lot of animals would have been below ground in summer torpor so they would have been killed in their holes by fire or smoke. It’s impossible to quantify how many were lost, but those that survived would have come above ground to find all the plant cover had gone and they would have been picked off by birds.’

Ferndown and Parley Commons are home to a rich variety of flora and fauna including all six of Britain’s native reptile species, a host of rare insects and strong populations of protected birds including nightjars and Dartford warblers. The sites are all that is left of a much larger heath that once stretched from Poole in the south, north to Verwood, east to St Catherine’s Hill and on to the New Forest.

Man has been in this environment for centuries and Ferndown Common is home to two Bronze Age barrows and medieval earthworks, while Parley was divided into long narrow strips for turf cutting during the seventeenth century. Gravel extraction continued on Ferndown Common until the 1950s as gradual urbanisation before and since separated the two commons, once part of the Canford estate, leaving both surrounded by housing and human activity.

Today, the sixty-eight hectares of Ferndown Common are owned by the Erica Trust, set up by Dorset conservationist Lesley Haskins in 2010, and managed by ARC on a long-term lease. ARC owns about three-quarters of Parley Common’s 107 hectares and leases the remainder from Ferndown Golf Club and the Diocese of Salisbury. Both are fully protected as designated Sites of Special Scientific Interest, Special Areas of Conservation and Special Protection Areas.

Formerly the Herpetological Conservation Trust, ARC is a registered charity delivering heathland management and maintenance services for Natural England under the Countryside Stewardship Scheme.

‘We’re a growing organisation with about 35 employees many of whom are involved with managing heathland in Dorset, Surrey and Hampshire – the only areas of the country in which all six native species of reptiles occur,’ says Gary.

Ferndown Common in happier times. Photo by Chris Dresh, ARC

‘Ferndown and Parley are among our bigger sites, some are only three or four hectares, so the habitats on them are incredibly precious. They have areas of dry heathland giving way to humid heath and down to wet heathland – there are three ponds on Ferndown Common with mixed tree boundaries.”

Several species were first recorded at Parley Common including the now extinct Mazarine Blue butterfly, the Speckled Footman, Large Bagworm and Ringed Carpet moths and, in 1853, the first British smooth snake. It is still a smooth snake stronghold.

‘They are incredibly rare,’ says Gary. ‘A lot of attention is also focussed on the sand lizard as well and both are European Protected Species, but we would argue that adders now need the same protection as their numbers are declining. Our rare reptile populations exist on the very fringes of their territories so any losses at all are significant.’

The sandy heathland environment requires close management. Left unchecked the various succession processes would turn it into a pine plantation – seeds arrive on the wind, take root, become trees, which create a canopy that starves the ground of light and kills off the heather.

‘The trees would be too close together to develop any shape so you would have a plantation of tall poles,’ Gary explains. ‘Heathland is a dynamic environment with fast-growing bracken, grass and gorse, as well as invasive species on the edges that need to be managed. We are not trying to eradicate species, with the exception of rhododendron – there’s zero tolerance on that – but create a mixed environment with trees, gorse and some bracken as well as the heather. 

‘These are amenity sites as well as conservation areas. That means we take account of aesthetic considerations so there are feature trees, managed paths for dog walkers and horse riders, gate systems to offer some protection to certain areas at important times of the year – we might close pathways through areas used by sand lizards during breeding season for instance.’

Without explanation the micro-management of such sites can be misunderstood so ARC works closely with local schools, community groups and residents to keep people informed.

‘Ferndown and Parley are open access sites and things have changed even in the last twenty years or so,’ explains Gary. ‘Back then we used to have problems with people riding motorcycles over the heaths, which you don’t see so much today, but we still get people who think it’s a good idea to light a barbecue on the heath.

‘We put out interpretation boards to help get the message across so, for instance, at certain times of year some paths may be closed to prevent disturbance of species – nightjars in breeding season are very sensitive to disturbance as are sand lizards between May and October. We might use notices to suggest horse riders use alternative routes. A lot depends on goodwill but generally people are very understanding.’

One of the important population of Dartford warblers to be found on Ferndown and Parley Commons. Photo by Chris Dresh, ARC

ARC is supporting the adoption of the Firewise Communities scheme from the United States. A joint initiative between the Urban Heaths Partnership, Dorset Fire and Rescue, and Dorset Police, local advisors are working with residents to better protect their homes and gardens from the threat of wildfires. 

‘There are a lot of very simple things people can do such as clearing their gutters, not piling up dry leaves near wooden fences or untreated wooden decking,’ says Gary. ‘It’s hoped that residents will encourage their neighbours to do the same so it cuts down the possibility of fire spreading. Also, people that dump garden waste or old timber on the heath need to think about possible consequences of their actions.’

Managing nature is a tricky business and with many different demands on our pockets of remaining common land conservationists have had to become as good at handling people as they are with the environment. It’s not always easy though.

‘Over time you become hardened to things like the fire at Ferndown,’ Gary admits. ‘But it is deeply upsetting because it is so unnecessary. Fire fighters will almost certainly agree that these fires are invariably caused by human action – arson, accident or gross stupidity. 

‘That means we still have work to do in getting the message out there about fire safety and taking care of the heath. I’ve collected bin liners full of dead animals in the past and shown pictures of them at events as a shock tactic. The six species of reptile are still on Ferndown Common but obviously there were particular parts of the 13 hectares that burned that were home to specific populations and those have been lost now. 

‘Ferndown and Parley and all our heathland sites are very fragile and they have to be carefully managed. Ironically I had been walking the Ferndown site the week before the fire to look at putting in new pathways to act as firebreaks. That work now looks like a reactive move not something that was already planned.’

For all the on-going work of ARC and its partners at Ferndown and Parley if such lands are to be truly commons we must all play a part in their care.

• First published by Dorset Life – The Dorset Magazine.

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