Surrey wins £1m to restore its 'wilderness'

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The Independent Online

Surrey, the archetypal rich southern county of exclusive golf clubs and detached homes in the stockbroker belt, has been awarded £1m of lottery money to spend on wilderness.

Surrey, the archetypal rich southern county of exclusive golf clubs and detached homes in the stockbroker belt, has been awarded £1m of lottery money to spend on wilderness.

The cash is to restore and enhance the Surrey heathlands, the heather-covered and gorse-dotted open landscapes that give parts of the mostly wooded county their characteristic wild appearance.

Lowland heath is one of Britain's most valuable and distinctive habitats, and also one of the most threatened - only about one-sixth of the heathland present in 1800 now remains, both in Surrey and in the United Kingdom as a whole.

Surrey has the highest amount of heath left in Britain after Hampshire and Dorset. It is concentrated in two main areas, one north-west of Guildford that includes Bullswater Common and Pirbright, and the other south-west of Godalming including Thursley Heath and Churt Common.

The grant of just over £1m from the Heritage Lottery Fund is going to a consortium of 13 local authorities and wildlife groups, led by Surrey County Council, for a five-year programme of improvement to 26 heathland sites.

Scrub will be cleared and grass removed while the native heather, bell heather and cross-leaved heath plants, all a splendid purple or pink in late summer, are allowed to regenerate from their natural seed. Management of invasive scrub will be continued with grazing animals, including Dartmoor and Exmoor ponies, British white cattle and feral goats.

The programme has been called "Surrey's last wilderness". Nick Baxter, the county council's head of countryside management, said: "We call it that because the heaths are a direct link with our Bronze Age ancestors.

"When you go into a heathland site you're looking at the same landscape our Bronze Age forebears saw. They would have cleared the ancient wildwood for agriculture with slash-and-burn techniques, but on the sandy soil the heather would have come in very rapidly."

The heaths are a pleasing contrast to Surrey's woodlands, Mr Baxter said. "You go out in the summer and you hear the insects buzzing and the larks singing, and in the evening you hear the nightjars churring."

Nightjars are one of the rare birds of European importance flourishing on the Surrey heaths. There are thought to be about 140 pairs, out of only 3,400 pairs in Britain. There are also about 200 pairs of Dartford warblers, a bird once nearly extinct but which now has 1,900 pairs across the country, and about 170 pairs of woodlarks out of 1,550 pairs nationally.

The heaths are remarkable habitats for snakes and lizards and are home to all six native British reptiles: the adder, grass snake and smooth snake, the common lizard, the rare sand lizard and the slow-worm, a lizard with no legs. There is also a profusion of rare insect life, such as the silver-studded blue butterfly, the emperor moth and the keeled skimmer dragonfly.

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