By Tom Simpson
Gatwick Greenspace Partnership Officer - Learning & Engagement
The Gatwick Woodlands, sitting on heavy clay soils, are typical of the Low Weald landscape. The area is home to a series of small wet woods such as Aldar Carr in Upper Pickets Wood, Hazel and Hornbeam coppice in Lower Pickets, ancient semi-natural Oak woodlands in Horleyland Wood Local Wildlife Site (LWS) and the wet grasslands of Goat Meadow. These habitats contain a network of small ditches and ponds which hold water throughout the year and are important features for amphibians and reptiles, particularly Grass Snakes (Natrix helvetica). The most abundant reptile at Gatwick, the Grass Snake is a target species on our Biodiversity Action Plan. We have a well-recorded population with, interestingly, a small percentage of melanistic (black) snakes.
A number of individuals have turned up which are completely black (melanistic), and a brown colouration with two lateral light stripes down the length of the body Image by Rachel Bicker
The mix of natural and man-made ponds across the site are in a constant state of change. Ponds will naturally silt-up over time, turning into other habitats such as bogs and, eventually, scrub and woodland. Historically, this was not an issue as new ponds would be created through natural processes like holes being left behind from wind-blown trees and flood or rain water filling scrapes. However, in the modern developed environment, habitats are fragmented and natural processes disrupted. Therefore, on a site like this, we actively manage our ponds to keep them open. Thanks to long-serving Gatwick Greenspace Partnership volunteer Adrian Slaughter, we have an excellent historical record of the management of some of our ponds. Adrian’s record-keeping helped to inform a recently-completed project that we hope will boost our reptile and amphibian populations further and also provide a fantastic space for environmental education.
The Gatwick woodlands once sat within the landholdings of Rolls Farm (Roles Farm on the above map from 1903), which was divided into two farmsteads of Upper and Lower Rolls Farm. The garden of the old Lower Rolls farmhouse contained a small pond which had been well maintained over the years. It even had a dipping platform built in 2003 by former Gatwick Greenspace Partnership (GGP) employee, now Senior Ranger at Buchan Country Park, Simon Rowledge.
Simon Rowledge (back) building a dipping platform with volunteers in 2003
GGP Staff removing pond weed from Rolls Farm pond in 2007
I visited the pond with Adrian in August 2018, shortly before the Rolls Farm building was demolished, with a view to restoring it to its former glory. We found the area overgrown with vegetation and the pond itself now only a shallow depression full of silt. However, the pond profile and skeleton of a dipping platform were intact. We decided that “all” we needed to do was remove the silt, check and level the banks, put in a new liner, landscape the entire area, and to add a couple of amphibian hibernacula and some pond plants.
Clearly, we were going to need some help! Luckily Gatwick Airport Ltd (GAL) staff are always willing to work for wildlife in their local greenspace and, combined with GGP’s experienced volunteers, this was shaping-up to be an exciting project.
Rolls Farm Pond in a state of neglect in 2018
GAL Security and Terminals removing the silt
Work began in October 2018 when a team from GAL Security and Terminals spent a day removing accumulated silt and clearing vegetation. This gave us a better view to measure-up for a new liner, which was funded by GAL’s Community Engagement department.
It was almost a year later, in September 2019, when we made it back to the pond with GAL’s I.T department. These fantastic volunteers went “all-in” on the project, committing four groups for a day each over the following three months in order to prepare the pond or the coming spring.
GAL I.T working on the pond with GGP Volunteers
Their work was complemented by a group of enthusiastic volunteers from UKPowerNetworks who followed Amphibian and Reptile Conservation Trust's advice to build a new Grass Snake egg-laying heap. These heaps have proven to be a simple yet effective way of boosting juvenile recruitment. The key to their success is their composition and structure, which allow the heaps to maintain an even temperature, perfect for incubating grass snake eggs, but are not too compact so the animals can move around within them.
UKPower Networks in front of the Grass snake Egg-laying heap
The pond was completed in late January - just in time for storms Ciara and Desmond to fill it. The final touches were added by GGPs young Wildlife Rangers, the next generation of conservationists who could be looking after these habitats in years to come. They gave the pond a botanical boost by carefully translocating sedges, rushes, water mint and plantain from the nearby Gatwick Stream flood meadow. We would expect these plants and others to colonise naturally over time, however, providing some instant cover for amphibians and invertebrates can speed up the process and help the habitat get going.
The Wildlife Rangers found three large clumps of frog spawn in the flood meadow scrapes, a sure sign that there are amphibians in the area. Due to social distancing measures currently in place we will have to wait until next spring to sow some wildflower seed around the edges and to check the pond’s progress so far but we like to imagine that the local wildlife is flourishing in the area.
The pond restoration has been a fantastic addition for wildlife and environmental education and a project that would not have been completed without the willing volunteers of GAL and GGP. In future, the pond and surrounding habitats will be used as a space for local school children to learn all about wildlife and will, perhaps, inspire the next generation to keep our beloved ponds healthy and thriving for years to come.
A huge thank you to everyone involved and particularly to Gatwick Greenspace Partnership volunteer Adrian Slaughter who has clearly demonstrated both the importance and pleasure of maintaining recorded links to the history of our wonderful landscape.