There is something about an expanse of open heathland in the heat of summer that is quintessentially English. Haze shimmers in the distance to create little mirages of refracted sky at the horizon of purple heather. The brown pods of the gorse pop open in the heat, shedding a shower of seeds into the dry sand below.
At first this seems like a barren, unforgiving landscape, but close examination reveals a wealth of life, specially adapted to the harsh conditions. The dry acidic soils encourage the growth of what seems like mono-cultures of plants – heathers, gorse, birch, Scots pine, purple moor-grass, but within these blocks of vegetation there is a host of animal life that can only exist within this habitat. The key is the dry sandy soil itself – wherever it is exposed at the surface, numerous insects tunnel their way through the soft material to create thousands of tiny burrows. Heath sand wasps may be seen dragging their caterpillar victims down to an underground prison where in a paralysed state they will be devoured by their grubs. There are spider-hunting wasps and many mining bees, each one with a complex and particular life-history in which the heathland plays a crucial part. Heath tiger beetles are returning here too, thanks to a recovery programme and can be seen in the late summer on purpose made scrapes.
In June and July the blue confetti of tiny silver-studded blue butterflies can be seen fluttering over the bell heather. Their lives are inextricably linked to some of the ant species found here. The ants are duped into taking the caterpillars down into their subterranean nests and tending them in return for being able to feed on a sugary excretion they exude, until they emerge the following year as an adult butterfly.
There are also birds associated with this landscape. Woodlarks rely on the bare sandy patches among the vegetation for nesting, and their haunting melodies can be heard filling the air in a descending lament at the passing of spring. From the ribbons of gorse that line the paths can be heard the scratchy song of the Dartford warbler, another bird almost lost in Britain as heathland has decreased.
The razor-sharp needle armoury of the gorse provides home to thousands of their spider prey, as well as impenetrable protection for their nests. On warm, still summer evenings, nightjars ring out their curious churring call; sitting on the dead bough of a tree silhouetted against the setting sun, they purr like giant cats, and then fly off with a display of wing clapping and aerobatic manoeuvres. People come just to hear them, and it’s worth the visit.
The three key heathland birds: woodlark, nightjar and tree pipit, all nest on the ground. This makes them vulnerable to disturbance by dogs running free. The birds see dogs as predators, whatever the size and harmless character of the dog and can abandon their nests resulting in the loss of eggs and chicks. It is essential for visitors to keep dogs on a lead or on the path from March to September.
Many of the plants can only exist in this habitat. In wet, peaty seepages where almost no other plants can survive the very acid conditions, insectivorous sundews unfurl the sticky red droplets on their leaves ready to entrap any insect lured by the promise of some free sugar. The leaves then slowly curl over as the insect struggles – an ant, a fly, even a damselfly – and gradually digests them, absorbing nutrients which they can’t find in the soil.
There’s a wet track at the lowest point of Stedham Common, in the south-west corner, and another at the dip of the gas pipeline track on Trotton Common where they are usually numerous – July is a good time to see them. The rare marsh clubmoss only seen in a few sites in Sussex can be spotted by the eagle-eyed in one or two of these areas.
The Sussex Wildlife Trust, initially with West Sussex County Council and now with the National Park Authority has been working hard to restore proper lowland heathland habitat to Iping and Stedham Commons for some years.
Much of the scrub has been removed, the heather has been rejuvenated by mowing, controlled burning and litter scraping, and in many places the pine has been cut down and is steadily being replaced by heather.
The real key though is the return of grazing to the common, which keeps the mixture of heathland habitats in balance. However, heathlands everywhere have suffered the same fate as the one that almost destroyed Iping and Stedham. They’ve become fragmented through development for timber, or housing schemes, or golf courses. Through our Living Landscape scheme, we are seeking to restore and reconnect the remaining fragments of viable heathland in the Greensand Ridge – a narrow block which extends from Petersfield to Storrington. Here we work with other landowners and farmers to manage their land in a sustainable way so that heathland wildlife can move freely between these sites.
We’re also working with other partners to ensure that heathlands in the Greensand Ridge are not only saved but improved, and of course Iping and Stedham are also just parts of the outstanding sites that make up the South Downs National Park. The long distance Serpent Trail that links many of these greensand heaths runs through the reserve.