Ebernoe Common is a great example of a Low Weald woodland with a long history of traditional use. In fact, as soon as you enter the car park you are faced by a Victorian church and school house; the building of both of these was encouraged by the Peachey family who, for hundreds of years, owned most of the reserve.
Wandering around the woods, there is evidence of industrial use over many centuries including a brickworks, ponds, an iron furnace site, clay pits and a small quarry. There are also the remains of several cottages, barely visible now apart from partially hidden foundations or a subtle change of vegetation. Connecting all these features with the surrounding landscape are drove roads and public rights of way. The long history of management and intervention has created dynamic woodland that is incredibly diverse and contains a great number of opportunities for wildlife.
This site is dominated by old wood pasture where Commoners would have turned out their cattle or pigs to graze and browse on young trees and scrub, beech mast and acorns, or on the grassy meadows in glades and clearings. Grazing stopped by the middle of the 20th century and the wood pasture became more and more overgrown. When Sussex Wildlife Trust bought the reserve in 1980 great effort went into opening up glades and rides, and restoring grazing to the reserve. Volunteers have helped to mow and rake open areas that were covered in bracken and bramble and we now have species rich rides and glades full of flowers such as primrose, devil’s-bit scabious, adders’-tongue fern, sneezewort and various orchids. There are small areas of coppice here too but they are limited as they needed to be protected from the commoners’ animals. To the north, Furnace Meadow is rich in flowers, with quaking-grass, cowslip, pepper-saxifrage and betony colouring the grasslands throughout the summer months.
The ponds have also been returned to their former glory. Furnace Pond, which was associated with an iron furnace in the 1500s, and Fish Pond, which was probably used for keeping carp, have both been opened up by the removal of invasive reedmace to achieve a balance of open water and bankside vegetation.
In the sticky clay areas of the northern part of the reserve the trees are predominantly oak and ash, but there is a great variety of other species too, including field maple, hazel and wild service tree. To the south the soils become more acidic and sandy; here beech is the more common forest tree, and in places the lemon-scented fern and wild daffodils grow.
Wherever you walk, you will see a wide range of trees and shrubs of all ages, with deadwood and damaged trees left as they have fallen. There is still much evidence of the Great Storm here, and much of the damage that occurred has been utilised by the interesting and often rare species that are found on the reserve. There are several nationally important lichen species at Ebernoe Common and at least 1,000 fungi species have been recorded so far.
There are important populations of saproxylic (deadwood) invertebrates too – such as Leptura aurulenta these are associated with dead wood in some way. Bats also make use of the cracks and hollows that have formed within the woodland; indeed 14 of the 17 species of breeding British bats have been recorded here, including colonies of the rare barbastelle and Bechstein’s bats. Daubenton’s bats can easily be seen, as they skim across the surface of Furnace Pond, taking insects in the air or even from the water surface.
Over 70 bird species have been recorded on site: 45 of those species have been confirmed as breeding here. Owls can be heard all year round whilst the meadows fill with the beautiful song of nightingales and warblers in the summer months.
Surrounding the woods are the Butcherland fields and woods that were added to the reserve in 2000 – these have a long history of arable use but are now pasture, with woodland allowed to move in from the edges. Eventually these will form a type of wood pasture and the edges of the existing woodland will begin to blur: cattle will be able to move between the old and newer wood pastures helping to create a natural patchwork of habitats across the whole site. These former arable fields have already changed substantially, with new flowering plants appearing every year and many shrubs becoming well established. Nightingales have taken up territories here in good numbers alongside whitethroat, linnet and turtle dove. Barbastelle bat flight lines have been recorded between Butcherland and Ebernoe and already we have seen improved foraging opportunities for this species.
There’s a good chance that as you’re wandering through the trees and across the glades you may come across one or two of our friendly rare breed cattle. It’s like taking a step back in time to when Commoners would turn out their livestock to graze freely.
With all these amazing habitats in one place it is easy to see why Ebernoe Common is a National Nature Reserve, a Site of Special Scientific Interest and a Special area of Conservation.