Grazing Proposals - Silchester Parish Council

Silchester Common History - Grazing Plans
Date posted
23 Jan 2007
Paul Edgar, Project Officer
North East Hampshire Heathlands Project
September 1992
appendix i
appendix ii
appendix iii
The Natural Landscape of Britain
The Effects of Human Activities
Recent History of Silchester Common
Traditional Management
Conservation Management
Short Term Management
Scrub Clearance
Bracken Control
Long Term Management
Controlled Burning
Vegetation Cutting
Turf Cutting
Grazing Regime
Public Access
Figure 1 – Silchester Common
Heathland in 1790
Heathland in 1990
Pamber Forest & Silchester Common SSSI
General Geology
Past Mineral Extraction
Recent Management
Proposed Fence Line Specifications
Proposed Fence Line
New Fencing on Silchester Common
Silchester Common, together with Pamber Forest and several adjacent areas, is part of
a large Site of Special Scientific Interest (SSSI) which covers 306 ha (758 acres). This
extensive and diverse area is of great value for the recreation of local residents and has
long been recognised by naturalists for its rich flora and fauna. The varied habitats of
the area support a corresponding variety of plant and animal life, with many rare
species present, making this one of the best sites of its size in Hampshire.
Silchester Common itself (Figure 1), one of the few surviving tracts of heathland in the
Thames Valley region of north Hampshire, is owned and looked after by Silchester
Parish Council. A Management Committee, of local people and specialist advisors, has
been formed to ensure that required works take place on the Common. The culmination
of extensive research, planning and consultation, started in 1989, by this Committee
has been a proposal for the reintroduction of grazing to the Common. To this end, the
Parish Council has entered the Countryside Stewardship Scheme, administered by the
Countryside Commission, to obtain the funding necessary to implement this scheme.
The views of Silchester residents have been sought about the grazing plans, and the
associated fencing required, in order to gauge local opinion. The generally positive
response of local residents, and their desire to see the Common looked after and
protected, has enabled the Parish Council to proceed with an application to the
Secretary of State for the Environment, for permission to fence parts of Silchester
This report has been prepared by the North East Hampshire Heathlands Project, one of
the bodies consulted, on behalf of Silchester Parish Council and results mainly from a
request by many local residents for more background information about the grazing
proposals. The reasons for the need to reintroduce grazing, the various management
options investigated by the Parish Council and the actual grazing and fencing plans are
outlined. This report will also be provided to funding bodies and other organisations and
people with an interest in the management of the Common.
The primary aim of Silchester Parish Council is to enhance both the public enjoyment
and wildlife value of the Common. The widespread problems of neglect and abuse of
heathland have led to a serious deterioration of many similar sites, with a subsequent
increase in Development pressures. The involvement and support of local residents is
seen as essential if Silchester Common is to be improved and protected for the benefit
of current and future generations.
i. The Natural Landscape of Britain. After the last Ice Age the British landscape
gradually came to be dominated by primeval woodland – the ancient “wildwood”. The
poorest soils at first supported open pine woodland, with a shrub layer dominated by
heathers in places. After many centuries of climate warming this type of woodland
shifted further north, and today the only remnants to have been spared human
destruction can be found in the Caledonian Forest of Scotland. This natural forest, with
thick carpets of heather between the massive, spreading pine trees, bears little
resemblance to densely packed modern conifer plantations.
In southern England the pines gradually gave way to deciduous woodland which also did
not have a continuous tree cover. Various natural forces created a variable patchwork of
habitats, which could support a tremendous diversity of plants and animals. Open oak
and birch woodland grew on poor sandy soils with a heathy shrub layer below and in
glades. Natural tree deaths, storms, and occasional lightning induced fires created the
warm sunny clearings required by many species and which were also essential for the
growth of new tree saplings. Another major influence on this primeval landscape was
grazing by large herbivores. The wild boar, aurochs (the ancestors of our modern
cattle) and deer helped maintain a natural balance. The plants and wildlife of modern
Britain had many millenia to adapt to the activities of herbivores, a continuing process
which shifted north and south in Europe as habitats were affected by successive Ice
The impact of these and other herbivores (including insects) was considerable. Trees
had to produce numerous seeds partly because most saplings that managed to
germinate would have been eaten. Many plants evolved mechanisms to cope with
grazing and trampling such as growth buds at their base, or even underground, and a
low growing habit. Other species became unpalatable by developing chemical defences
in their foliage. The herbivores covered large distances and their numbers were kept in
check by their predators, such as wolves in ancient Britain, so no one area would have
been grazed continuously. As soon as the grazing pressure was lifted the adapted plants
responded with vigorous growth and could often flower and set seed better than those
that had not been grazed. Other plants evolved to take advantage of the effects of
grazing and a large number rely on it to prevent more aggressive species from
smothering them. Some plants are so dependant on grazing that they will only
germinate in hoof prints in poached ground.
Large unfragmented areas, with balanced populations of herbivores and predators
would have once contained every conceivable habitat and microhabitat for plants and
therefore for the animal life that ultimately depends on them. Ranging from dense
woodland to open, grazed clearings, glades, bogs and floodplains this countryside was
naturally balanced until man gained the ability to alter his surroundings. Thousands of
years of human modification of the English countryside have resulted in the complete
absence of any natural landscapes, and, especially in the last few decades, the
destruction, fragmentation and degradation of the few pieces of original semi–natural
habitat remaining.
ii. The Effects of Human Activities. The destruction of the original forests followed
the development of agriculture. This did not happen all at once and the rates of
clearance over the centuries have varied with the tools available, the demand for timber
or farmland and the pressures of the population. The poorer soils, of little use to early
farmers, developed large tracts of open heathland as trees were removed and the
heathy vegetation of natural clearings and the more open forest spread out. These
heaths were exploited in many ways, usually to supplement farming on the better soils,
and a commoning system was well developed by the Middle Ages.
Local people held various rights to graze livestock, collect wood, turves and other
materials such as bracken and gorse. The amount of exploitation varied with the size of
the heaths and the communities around them, but in general much of the wildlife
preferring open, sunny conditions was able to thrive. Many areas of wood pasture
(grazed woodland) were often retained on the better soils of the commons and this
habitat supported a variety of forest species.
Until recently, much of the traditional human management of the countryside
inadvertently reproduced natural events, to the benefit of the wildlife. Woodland flowers
germinate just as well in a fresh coppice as they do in natural tree fall sites; many
heathland plants and animals favour patches of bare ground created by turf cutting just
as they once needed areas poached and disturbed by aurochs or wild boar; species
which benefit from grazing make no distinction between commoners’ livestock and the
original wild ancestors of these animals.
The wildlife of Britain has adapted over thousands of years to a landscape, and an array
of habitats, influenced by humans. Not all of man’s activities were detrimental and most
species were able to maintain healthy populations. All this has changed in the last few
decades as technological advances have enabled man to alter the countryside so
rapidly, and on such a scale, that most species cannot adapt to the rate of change and
all adjacent habitat is affected.
Approximately 90 % of the heathland in north east Hampshire, existing at the end of
the 18th Century, has been destroyed. Basingstoke & Deane Borough Council has lost
the highest proportion of any area, with over 98 % of its former heaths and commons
irretrievably lost and about half of the surviving 160 ha now severely degraded by
abuse and neglect. Figures 2 and 3 graphically illustrate this loss (which has occurred
on an even greater scale across the border in Berkshire). One major impact has been
the fragmentation of habitats by urban expansion, roads, agriculture and other
changes. The wildlife of small sites is much more vulnerable than that of large areas to
local extinctions.
The virtual end of commoning outside the New Forest has also removed one of the
major factors which was maintaining good populations of many species – namely
grazing. Linked to a lack of grazing, the natural balance of many sites has been further
upset by the increased occurrence of deliberate fires, which usually enables a few plant
species (usually bracken, birch or purple moor grass) to dominate large areas, at
unnaturally high densities, to the detriment of everything else. As a result sites like
Silchester Common have experienced a dramatic decline (well documented by surveys)
in their value as wildlife habitats. This situation will continue to worsen without positive
human intervention, in the form of management, aimed at reproducing some of the
natural factors which so many species are adapted to.
iii. Recent History of Silchester Common. At the time of the Domesday Survey in
1086, what is now the Parish of Silchester was divided into two Manors, united under
one Lord of the Manor by 1167. Until the 16th century the centres of population lay
around the Church and Three Ashes, and nothing is recorded of the Common. By the
16th century a settlement shift had taken place and there were dwellings on the eastern
and northern edges of the Common. There is little primary evidence for this, but it is
known that on the 5th September 1601, Queen Elizabeth the First, on her way to
Basing House met the Sheriff of Hampshire and other Gentlemen of the County on
Silchester Co
In January 1828, the Duke of Wellington purchased the Manor of Silchester from his
Father–in–Law, Lord Longford. In the Schedule to the Deed of Release the Manor is
described as being co–extensive with the Parish, and that the Common and Waste
Lands contained about 200 acres. It is perhaps significant that until the purchase by the
Duke of Wellington, no Lords of the Manor had been resident in – or anywhere near –
Silchester since the fifteenth century. Thus there would be a greater likelihood of
assarting and the building of rough dwellings without any hindrance. The Duke and his
Successors took a closer interest in what was happening on the Common. In 1903,
evidence was given in a case brought against a Freeholder for encroachment that the
Common was, and had been, regarded as Waste of the Manor. Silchester Common was
fortunately spared the land use changes of the 18th and 19th Century Enclosure Acts
which, together with more recent developments, destroyed so many of the
neighbouring Commons and heaths.
In 1965, under the Commons Registration Act, Silchester Common was registered as
common land, as an area of 164.67 acres. Rights of Common were registered for 29
properties on or beside the Common, and these include Rights of Estovers, Turbary,
gravel extraction and grazing for various animals, namely cows, horses, donkeys,
geese, goats, ponies and pigs.
On 22 April 1970, a Scheme of Management for Silchester Common was approved by
the Minister of Housing and Local Government under the Commons Act 1899. This had
been drawn up by the then Basingstoke Rural District Council in consultation with the
Duke of Wellington’s Estate. At the same time a set of Byelaws was passed,
subsequently amended in 1978. As the delegation of this Scheme of Management to the
Parish Council was being considered in 1972, a Common Committee was set up to act
as an advisory body to the Parish Council. Eventually in November 1972, a Resolution
was passed by Basingstoke Rural District Council for the Delegation of Powers to the
Parish Council, with the exception of the powers requiring the approval of the Lord of
the Manor and the Secretary of State for the Environment, also excepting Regulation 4,
which covers encroachment.
The Duke of Wellington decided to sell his Silchester Estate, and it was first auctioned in
December 1972. After passing through a number of hands, the portions of the Estate
containing the Common were bought by John Cook, who offered the Common to the
Parish Council in January 1978. In May of that year the Parish Council became the legal
Owners of Silchester Common.
i. Status. Silchester Common is part of an extensive Site of Special Scientific Interest
(SSSI), National Grid reference SU 615 608, first notified in 1951(Figure 4). Also
included in the SSSI are Pamber Forest (declared a Local Nature Reserve in 1980),
Upper and Lower Inham’s Copse, Lordswood and several adjacent unspoilt meadows.
The SSSI covers an area of 306.8 ha (758.1 acres) and is one of the largest tracts of
semi–natural countryside left in north Hampshire. The status of the Common requires
the Parish Council to obtain consent from English Nature (formerly the Nature
Conservancy Council) before management works or any other activities are carried out.
ii. Geography. The village of Silchester lies roughly at the centre of a triangle
comprising the towns of Reading, Newbury and Basingstoke. It is very close to the
County boundary between Hampshire and Berkshire, the neighbouring Parish to the
north, Mortimer West End, representing the curious bump in the Hampshire boundary.
The population of Silchester is about 1,100, and the village covers some 769 ha.
Silchester is best known for its Roman associations, starting as the tribal capital of the
Atrevates and becoming Roman “Calleva”. The walled site has been preserved because
it was abandoned at the end of the Roman period in the early 5th Century, and was not
reoccupied by the Saxons or any later inhabitants. Only the 12th Century Church and
the Manor Farm lie within the Roman walls.
Silchester Common covers approximately 69 ha, the highest part lying around the 100
m contour line. On its south–western side, Silchester Common is bounded by Pamber
Forest, an ancient Royal Forest. As can be seen from the maps in this report the
Common is shaped like a funnel in the south, such funnels being a characteristic of
ancient commons. The funnel is part of the Parish’s only bridleway, which emerges by
Silchester Brook on the Burghfield – Basingstoke road.
The main watercourse in the Parish is Silchester Brook, which rises in Tadley and flows
through the northern part of Pamber Forest before meandering alongside the bridleway
and then through the village. It is joined by a number of small streams and eventually,
as Foudry Brook, joins the River Kennet to the south of Reading.
iii. Geology. Geologically, Silchester Common lies in the Thames Valley of north
Hampshire. Most of Silchester Common lies on an outcrop of Plateau Gravel, but the
lower part of The Common and Lords Wood are on the Lower Bagshot Beds (Figure 5).
The Bagshot Beds tend to be horizontal, and because of the formation of hardpan, a
capping of gravel and various other factors, characteristically level plateaux with steep
edges develop – seen on Silchester Common where the ground falls away sharply to the
south. The soils of the Bagshot Beds are usually poor and sandy, as on the Common
and in some areas of Pamber Forest, and, like the Plateau Gravel, the natural
vegetation would be open birch – oak woodland with an understorey dominated by
heathland vegetation. In many parts of Pamber Forest the soils of the Bagshot Beds
have a substantial clay content, and are up to 80 feet thick in places, and these richer
soils naturally support taller, denser oak woodland. Both the Bagshot Beds and the
Plateau Gravel rest on the silts and clays, the Tertiary soils, of the London Basin.
iv. Habitats. Silchester Common supports a variety of habitats, associated with such
nutrient poor, acidic soils, of which lowland heathland predominates. The habitats found
on the Common have been surveyed by several organisations and individuals in the
past but, due to the increased levels of management in recent years (see section 4) and
to events such as fires, this work requires regular updating. The last thorough survey of
the Common was carried out in 1986 by the Habitat Assessment Team employed by
Hampshire County Council. In 1992, as part of the planning for future management and
grazing, the North East Hampshire Heathlands Project commissioned a new survey by
the Nature Conservation Bureau. The consultants report is included at Appendix III and
describes the variety of habitats found on the Common, plus the areas of Pamber Forest
and Lordswood which are to be included within the proposed grazed area.
Although subsequent changes to the fence line (following consultation) have resulted in
small adjacent areas being excluded from this survey, the whole of that part of the
Common to be grazed has been mapped. This work will form the basis of the planned
monitoring programme, to be carried out by the Heathlands Project’s consultants, which
is essential in order to determine the effects of grazing on the heathland and other
habitats (section 6 iii). Should grazing proceed as planned on Silchester Common, this
survey provides an important record of the habitats in an ungrazed state, as a
comparison for future monitoring.
The decline in the conservation value of Silchester Common has been variable. Habitats
such as the alder carr, for example, have remained rich, whereas the wet heath and
mire species are now largely smothered by the tussocks and straw of ungrazed purple
moor–grass, Molinia caerulea. Uncontrolled fires, especially the damaging summer
burns, have also encouraged dense stands of bracken and young birch, with very little
structural or species diversity, which can simply outcompete everything else in the
absence of natural checks such as grazing.
In north east Hampshire as a whole, over 30 % of the true heathland plant species are
categorised as rare to some degree. It is this very high proportion of rarities, also
reflected in some of the animal groups, that makes heathland such a high priority for
management. Many species are extremely specialised to survive the often harsh
conditions of heathland and do not occur in other habitats in Britain.
Silchester Common is fortunate in having such an array of vegetation types, in close
proximity to Pamber Forest, with the combination of the various specialists for each
area resulting in a very rich flora and fauna. Silchester Common still supports over 320
species of higher plant, 29 bryophytes and 75 fungi. There is a very diverse spider and
insect fauna, especially ants and many of the rare solitary bees and wasps which thrive
on heathland. The list is considerably enlarged by the presence of woodland species
around the edges of the Common and in Pamber Forest. Over 100 bird species have
also been recorded for the Pamber/Silchester SSSI.
A suitable management regime, particularly grazing, will prevent the minority of
aggressive and invasive species dominating habitats, to the detriment of everything
else on the site, and provide the conditions for the declining species to re-establish
healthy populations.
i. Traditional Management The Rights of Common, registered under the Commons
Registration Act, 1965, for 29 properties on or beside the Common (Appendix I), are
now very rarely exercised. Within living memory of some residents, however, these
Rights were still being exercised by the Commoners. Gorse and bracken were regularly
gathered for animal bedding and fuel, as well as fallen wood and loppings. It is not
known to what extent all grazing Rights were exercised, but local residents remember
keeping pigs and ponies, and cattle belonging to the Dairy roamed the Common. Annual
burning was recorded, which would have been of most value carried out in the wetter
areas during winter to promote a flush of new grass in the spring for the livestock.
Apparently this often used to happen on 5 November, an exciting addition to the
bonfires and fireworks.
Gravel was certainly being extracted on a small scale from Silchester Common past the
turn of this century. The numerous pits, many now concealed by birch and gorse, bear
witness to the past exercise of this Right (Figure 6). Where gravel extraction has
exposed a clay layer there are patches of slightly richer soil which show in a different
vegetation, and elsewhere deep extractions are belied by wet areas and ponds. These
old gravel workings add to the diversity of habitats on the Common.
The Commoners also have a Right of Turbary – the right to dig turf or peat for use as
fuel. It is quite likely that peat was extracted from the valley bogs in the 19th century
and earlier. Although not strictly legal, there is some evidence that the peat was burnt
to use the ashes to fertilize clover and fodder crops on nearby fields.
The result of traditional management was to keep invasive species in check, remove
nutrients from the ecosystem (thereby favouring heathland species), provide bare and
disturbed ground suitable for seed germination and maintain a form of grazing by large
animals centuries after the wild British herbivores had been forced into extinction or
domesticated by man. The Commoners of the past were inadvertently conserving much
of the wildlife value of the heathland, probably without so much as a second thought.
ii. Conservation Management. The decline of traditional Commoning practices
outside the New Forest has led to the subsequent degradation of many heaths through
the encroachment of invasive scrub and bracken, usually aggravated by arson and
other forms of abuse. Conservation management is relatively new, but in all types of
habitat it is the reinstatement of the traditional methods that is proving to be the most
effective way of managing sites for wildlife, landscape and public access.
In 1970 it was realised that steps must be taken to control the vegetation, as the
encroachment of birch, gorse and bracken was physically restricting public access to
Silchester Common and greatly increasing the fire risk, and that a Management Plan
was needed. A Scheme of Regulation was approved in this year (Section 2 iii) and in
1972 the Common Advisory Committee was constituted, with the objectives of the
preservation of natural features, exercise and recreation. The fact that the Common
was no longer grazed by animals was minuted as being the main cause of the problems.
Implementation of these objectives did not happen immediately, but in 1974 the first
Volunteer Conservation group came to work on the Common, and the Parish Council
joined the Hampshire and Isle of Wight Naturalists’ Trust.
From 1973 onwards The Common was used by the Department of Botany at the
University of Reading for small research projects and peat borings, recognizing the
importance of Silchester Common as a surviving tract of heathland with valley mires.
In 1977 other Conservation Groups started to visit The Common, and in May 1978 the
Parish Council became the legal Owners of the Common. Later that year a Management
Schedule was drawn up with the assistance of the Nature Conservancy Council and the
Hampshire and I.O.W. Naturalists’ Trust. The first major task undertaken was to clear a
fire–break across the northern part of The Common. An important step was taken in
1981 when The Common was divided up into 27 geographical areas and a list of
priorities for conservation work drawn up. Tools were purchased and sources of labour
and revenue sought.
From 1984 – 1989 work schedules were prepared annually by the Conservation
Coordinator, Richard Place for the full–time Working Parties provided by NACRO.
Although it was merely checking the encroachment, much excellent and important work
was carried out by the Working Parties, and it was a great blow when the Regulations
were changed and they were withdrawn in late 1988.
In August 1990, the North East Hampshire Heathlands Project was established with
funding from, among others, Hampshire County Council, English Nature and
Basingstoke & Deane Borough Council. Silchester Common was immediately identified
as one of the priority sites in the region. A proportion of the Project’s budget has been
utilised each year since then to employ specialist contractors to carry out short term
heathland management (Figure 7). Most of the work has involved clearing scrub and
spraying bracken, in particular where heathland vegetation was still persisting.
This management has opened up large areas of the Common, permitting easier public
access and allowing the populations of many species to begin building up their numbers
again. About 6.5 ha of scrub have been cleared and the stumps treated to prevent
regrowth and over 12 ha of bracken have been sprayed (with almost 100 % eradicated
in the short term). Further work has also been carried out for adjacent landowners in
Lordswood and String Lane Copse in Pamber Forest.
Recent management has been concentrated in the area that is planned for grazing. This
is because overgrown heathland, especially bracken infested land, is unsuitable for
grazing livestock. As much short term management as possible must be completed, to
provide better grazing, before animals are put onto a heath. Once the spread of scrub
and bracken has progressed beyond a certain point livestock would be unable to do
much good. They cannot eat trees and bracken is poisonous. Introducing livestock after
this type of management has been done, however, prevents a reinvasion of the heath
(which would inevitably occur without grazing) and reduces the need to repeat this
expensive process every five years or so. The acceptance of Silchester Common into the
Countryside Stewardship Scheme in 1991 has enabled the Parish Council to proceed
with its grazing plans.
The ultimate goal of any management scheme is not to preserve habitats as some sort
of unchanging garden, nor is it desirable to eradicate any of our native species,
however invasive they can be. Instead, Silchester Parish Council has investigated ways
of restoring, as far as possible, the balance of nature which has been so upset by the
removal of grazing, frequent arson attacks on the Common and the problems of habitat
fragmentation and the isolation of populations. Successful management will permit the
full range of species to survive on Silchester Common, without any becoming a threat to
the habitat, and allow all natural stages of vegetation succession to develop.
i. Non–intervention. Letting nature take its course is sometimes advocated for various
sites. In the absence of original native species, like aurochs which had such an
important influence on the natural landscape, with sites isolated and many species
unable to disperse naturally, with the negative aspects of human impact, such as fires,
continuing in an uncontrolled way and with all the knock on effects of these problems
on the delicate natural balance this option was quickly ruled out for Silchester Common.
Public consultation has shown that the whole village also wishes to see the Common
managed (Appendix II), despite the fact that non–intervention is obviously the cheapest
Until recent years, and the availability of better funding, very few of the sites to have
escaped direct destruction, including Silchester Common, were being managed
adequately anyway and the result is a wholesale decline in wildlife. Sites that have been
degraded through abuse and neglect are almost impossible to defend against planning
applications on conservation grounds. In contrast, the New Forest, still traditionally
managed and grazed, is now one of the most species rich and important semi–natural
landscapes left in Europe, a fact recognised by its special legal protection through its
own Acts of Parliament.
Non–intervention has actually been practised deliberately by many landowners who find
themselves with an unwanted SSSI they wish to develop. There is no legal requirement
to manage such sites, although it is technically illegal to destroy them. By refusing to
allow any positive management, landowners can let their sites deteriorate to such an
extent that English Nature is forced to denotify them as SSSIs and development is
possible. Alternatively, English Nature has to use public funds to compensate the
landowner for the money he is potentially losing by not developing the site, a system
wide open to abuse as people have sometimes received payments to prevent
development that was never intended.
All the evidence supports the need to manage sites positively and Silchester Parish
Council would be failing in its duties if it allowed the diversity of the Con-u to completely
deteriorate. Unchecked scrub and gorse encroachment, and litter accumulation, would
also severely increase the risk of a major fire (which happened in 1976 when most of
the Common was burnt) and one would inevitably occur again sooner or later. Many
neglected sites have suffered such fierce fires, because of the amount of combustible
material that has built up, that adjacent housing has had to be evacuated and
numerous species have became locally extinct. Minimising the risk of a very serious fire,
which would certainly be a threat to some properties, is obviously highly desirable.
Studies on other sites have shown that grazing is the best method of preventing the
build–up of excessive amounts of highly combustible plant litter on heathland.
ii. Short Term Management. This involves the management of the most degraded
areas of heath and fen, almost always where severe fires have occurred in the absence
of grazing. A more balanced and diverse mix of habitats, with all stages of vegetation
succession present can be achieved by simple techniques.
a. Scrub clearance. Removal of scrub from recently invaded areas of heathland, where
this has been shown to be to the detriment of the site, is a straightforward task but is
expensive as contractors are necessary to clear large areas. Young pine can simply be
removed, as cutting will kill them outright, but deciduous species require stump
treatment with chemicals approved by English Nature to prevent coppicing. Chemicals
are unnecessary if the site is grazed as cattle in particular eat the regrowth.
Dense stands of young secondary birch woodland can be thinned, retaining a good
number of birch and species like oak. This is normal forestry practice, as the trees grow
much better with reduced competition but is pointless for the purposes of heathland
management unless cattle are present to break up the litter, promote the germination
of heather and other species and control the massive numbers of tree seedlings always
produced. If light grazing can occur then imaginative thinning, so that dense woodland
grades gradually into the more open areas, is an excellent way of adding to the overall
species diversity and improving public access. A felling licence has been obtained from
the Forestry Authority for thinning young secondary woodland along the “funnel” of the
The seeding ability of birch is so good in the absence of grazing that many heathland
managers are forced to remove the majority of trees to avoid future problems. The
woodland edge, if present, is often very abrupt as a result, with no sheltered glades or
trees in the open. This is a unfortunate since birch is one of the most valuable native
tree for insects, and scattered trees on open sunny heathland support a different fauna
to birch woodland, adding to the diversity of a site. The type of open birch–oak
woodland created by thinning plus grazing is possibly the closest approximation to parts
of the original “wildwood”, which once grew on these soils.
b. Bracken Control. Where this species is not spreading there is no need to control it.
It has a limited wildlife value, compared to the vegetation it often replaces, but there
are some 45 insect species which are able to feed on bracken and many are restricted
to it (out of 10,000 or more invertebrate species recorded from some sites). Bracken in
the shade of trees supports a richer fauna than bracken in the open. Bracken, however,
has the ability to take advantage of severe fires and become dominant before the
former vegetation can recover. After several years its dense litter and toxic secretions
kill all other plant life. The whole plant is poisonous, and it can even exude cyanide gas
in small quantities. The spores are thought to be carcinogenic when inhaled and the tick
which carries Lyme disease is mainly found in bracken litter.
Large, spreading bracken stands therefore need to be controlled, either by regular
cutting or spraying with the chemical Asulox (a specific, degradable herbicide, not a
pesticide). Countryside Commission funding is available for both control methods and
work has already begun this summer. Grazed heathland is not easily reinvaded by
bracken, as the emerging fronds are very susceptible to trampling damage in the
iii. Long Term Management. Once the worst of the habitat deterioration has been
tackled by the short term management it is important to prevent a repetition of the
same problems and the need for further, expensive remedial work. Adequate fire
breaking is vital, but not always possible on slopes, and helps to slow down any decline.
Something else is needed, however, to keep the levels of nutrients in the system low
and habitat diversity high, for the full range of species to survive. The options
considered by Silchester Parish Council are reviewed below.
a. Controlled Burning. Paradoxically, controlled winter burning is often used to
manage heather moorland and the heathland of the New Forest, although it is far more
recent than other traditional human activities. Correctly done, it has proved to be a very
useful technique as it removes nutrients from the system, controls smothering
vegetation and stimulates the fresh growth of heather and some other species. When it
is used too frequently controlled burning replaces too much of the older heather with
young growth, unsuitable for certain species. The extinction of the sand lizard in the
New Forest by the early 1980 was a result of over enthusiastic burning and the Forestry
Commission now allows less burning and has had to re–introduce this species.
Summer heath fires (it is illegal to burn heather between 31 March and 1 November
without a special licence) are far more damaging and encourage invasive species,
especially where the litter and scrub have built up on ungrazed sites, and directly kill
many species. Any contravention of the provisions of the Heather and Grass etc.
(Burning) Regulations 1986 is an offence under section 20(2) of the Hill Farming Act
1946, as amended by section 72(2) of the Wildlife and Countryside Act 1981, and
offenders are liable to a fine of up to £1000.
Any burning in the absence of grazing is unsuitable for humid or wet heath, because
this can lead to increased dominance by purple moor grass. Many rare species are also
fire sensitive and cannot even tolerate moderate winter burns. Damage to the habitat or
species on a SSSI through burning by the landowner is an offence under the Wildlife
and Countryside Act 1981. There is a lack of local expertise with this technique anyway
and a poor burn does more harm than good. Burning also tends to foster the impression
that all fires are beneficial for heathland and copycat blazes are not uncommon, usually
at the wrong time of year.
Another major drawback with burning is the nuisance factor for the local residents
which would no doubt result from the smoke. The emission of smoke so as to be
prejudicial to health or cause a nuisance actually constitutes a statutory nuisance under
the Environmental Protection Act 1990. If anyone, including members of the public
using the Common, is physically endangered by burning operations an offence has been
committed under the Health and Safety at Work etc. Act 1974. In addition, the
presence of Silchester Road, which crosses the north of the Common, is a further
complication since it is an offence under the Highways Act 1980 (as amended in 1986)
to light a fire so as to cause injury, interruption or danger to road users.
There is very little habitat on Silchester Common which is ideally suited to controlled
burning and the location and use by the public mean that it is almost impossible to
burn, even if enough experienced personnel were to be found, without contravening one
or another of the abeve Acts. This option has therefore been ruled out as a
management technique by the Parish Council.
b. Vegetation Cutting. Invasive species are checked, and nutrient levels are kept low,
by a cutting regime. This requires the removal of all cut material, preferably with a
forage harvester. Disadvantages include the need to use machinery and the possible
soil compaction caused. Access is limited to relatively flat areas with few obstacles, such
as stumps, so most of the Common could not be cut adequately. The impact on
invertebrates is not always positive in the short term, because their habitat is suddenly
changed completely, but done in small areas at any one time they benefit overall as
their food plants remain abundant.
Although cutting the vegetation and large grass tussocks can be very helpful in
maintaining diversity in the absence of grazing, it is expensive and its value is
somewhat limited in reproducing natural conditions for the germination and growth of
certain plant species. Cutting tends to produce homogeneous blocks of vegetation which
lack the many subtle variations and microhabitats, like hoof prints, created by light
grazing and needed by most of the insects and smaller plants. Cutting a small patch
each year, so the accessible areas are treated on a long rotation of about 20 – 30
years, is often not possible when numerous uncontrolled fires occur.
c. Turf Cutting. Before the widespread availability of coal in the 19th century most
people were limited in their sources of fuel. Trees were valued for timber and often
strictly protected against removal for cooking or heating purposes. Coppicing, pollarding
and the commoners right to collect fallen wood (estovers) and cut scrub, gorse and
heather helped to alleviate this problem. Turf and peat were also cut as a fuel source
(turbary), in a scattered haphazard way, from the very earliest times of human
occupation. Again, the nutrient status of the soils was kept low and a patchwork of
fresh germination sites and the small areas of bare ground, loved by many insects, was
created. Peat cuttings often filled with water on wet sites and these tiny acid ponds
duplicated the natural habitat of a variety of species. In more recent times, the creation
of rotovated fire breaks, which expose bare sand, has provided one of the most
important insect habitats on heaths.
Plants and animals benefiting from this activity originally exploited microhabitats like
hoof prints and waterlogged poached areas, the spoil created by burrowing animals and
the rooting around done by species like wild boar, and also the depressions (sometimes
holding a small pond) and the soil on the vertical root plates exposed by fallen trees.
The burrowing solitary wasps, most abundant on sandy heathland, illustrate the
diversity which evolved under natural conditions. Various species require either damp or
dry sand, loose or compacted sand, large or small patches of bare ground with varying
degrees of shading, and flat, sloped or vertical sites facing in all directions of the coir –
and every permutation of these conditions.
Turf cutting done manually on a small scale (nothing to do with mechanised peat
stripping for the horticultural industry) would be extremely beneficial. This has been
done on several sites in recent years, with excellent results. Light cattle grazing would
have similar effects in smaller patches, creating a better mosaic of vegetation and bare
ground. Turf cutting is labour intensive, and impractical for large areas, but one or two
turf cuttings a year, of about 20 or 30 square metres and confined to parts of the bog,
would be very valuable. Again, machine cutting is impractical on the Common
d. Grazing. Detailed studies, carried out by the North East Hampshire Heathlands
Project, of cattle grazing on Passfield Common in East Hampshire (which Silchester
Parish Councillors have visited) have produced the following observations in the first
two years:
Species diversity is increasing
Some species apparently “lost” from the site have reappeared
Many seeds are provided with the opportunity to germinate
A more diverse mosaic of vegetation is developing
Most established heather plants are invigorated
Purple moor–grass tussocks are broken up and sward height is reduced
Flammable litter has been largely removed
Grazing through most of the growing season kills coppiced birch stumps
Birch seedlings are dramatically reduced in number
Bracken has greatly diminished vigour
Significant savings have been achieved on management expenditure
A report on the Passfield Common monitoring to date has been produced (and is
available from the Heathlands Project Officer) and many of the findings are similar to
those of other heathland managers elsewhere in the country. Grazing has improved this
site dramatically, allowing many species to flourish, and has greatly reduced future
expenditure on short and long term management. In addition, it has not been
necessary to use chemicals at all on the site. The reasons for this are obvious if the
natural processes are considered.
It is often assumed that natural succession of heathland, bogs, fens, marshes, ponds,
chalk grassland, meadows and other open habitats will eventually lead to dark, closed
canopy woodland and therefore all of Britain was once covered with this habitat. The
majority certainly would have been but it is usually forgotten that various natural
processes such as grazing affected the vegetation so the original forest was highly
diverse. Storms are probably the only natural factor that humans have been unable to
interfere with. Others, such as regular flooding of river valleys, the frequency of fires,
natural tree falls and the very nature of the soils and water tables are all influenced by
man. In less disturbed wooded countries, the natural variation and diversity is much
greater than in Britain.
The removal of native herbivores by man was partly compensated for by the
domestication of some. Although natural behaviour was modified to a certain extent,
the livestock allowed to roam the heaths would usually act like their wild ancestors.
Many of the effects they had on their environment were also similar and grazing
adapted plants and animals benefited. The number of commoners’ animals on the
heaths, however, was much greater than natural populations would have been in the
wildwood. This maintained the open nature of the heaths and prevented any natural
succession back to woodland.
The economic climate, fragmentation of heaths and modern traffic have ended
commoning and grazing almost everywhere. Although originally introduced by man,
rabbits kept natural succession in check until myxamatosis wiped most out. The balance
has therefore swung to the other extreme with much less grazing now taking place than
would have naturally occurred in Britain.
The cessation of virtually all grazing by large herbivores, except deer, in most areas has
led to the problems described earlier. Some regions, such as the upland moors and the
New Forest, are conversely becoming overgrazed in places. Either extreme suits some
species but neither allows the full range of plants and animals, native to a particular
area, to be present.
If the right grazing regime is practised to suit all species, however, this management
technique is by far the best option and easily the most cost effective in the long term.
An initial expenditure of about £12000 by the Parish Council (through Stewardship
Funding and grants from the Heathlands Project and Basingstoke & Deane Borough
Council) will enable the Common to be stockproofed with adequate access points for
locals (Appendix II). Subsequent grazing would cost a maximum of £3000 a year, even
if a farmer had to be paid to put livestock on the site (the Heathlands Project, however,
is now running a much cheaper grazing scheme). Without grazing, the tasks of – scrub
and bracken control and vegetation cutting would cost in excess of £70000 over ten
years (the time it would take to manage the whole Common at current expenditure
levels) and then the process would have to be started all over again. A rough
comparison of the likely costs of management on Silchester Common, with and without
grazing, illustrates the savings that can be achieved (excluding the savings on work in
Paniber Forest and Lordswood):
Cost of Management
Over Ten Years
Over Twenty Years
With Grazing
Without Grazing
Over Thirty Years
Grazing is the most environmentally friendly option as it would avoid the need to use
any chemicals on Silchester Common, create ideal conditions for many plants and
animals, keep invasive species in check, reduce the risk of severe fires and solve the
long term management problems. Most other management techniques are merely
trying to recreate, in a less satisfactory and more artificial way, the effects of grazing
anyway. The rest of this report summarises a grazing feasibility study, carried out by
the Parish Council, with the assistance of the Heathlands Project and English Nature,
once it was decided that this was the best option for the site.
i. Fencing. This is the biggest problem for those wishing to graze commons where fast
roads run past. Fencing across any part of a common requires the permission of the
Secretary of State for the Environment. Fencing against the boundaries does not require
permission and it is actually a legal requirement for adjacent landowners to fence
against livestock, if they are causing a problem, and not the duty of the commoners. In
this way most commons already have parts of their boundaries fenced (Figure 8). The
legal status given to commons was originally to protect the commoners’ rights from
landowners taking advantage of the various Enclosure Acts, from the mid 18th Century
on, and fencing out commoners so the land could be converted to some other use, such
as building, farming or forestry.
There is often opposition to the fencing of common land, for perfectly valid reasons,
such as worries about access, although the ecological advantages to be gained from
grazing should not be ignored. Neither should the legal rights of the commoners, as it
was to protect them that Common Laws exist in the first place. Most have the right to
graze animals on Silchester Common but this right has been effectively removed by the
dangers of fast roads, both to the animals and the traffic. The Parish endeavoured to
find out, before any definite plans were made to fence anywhere on the common, what
sort of problems a fence would create for local residents and how these could be
reduced by modifying these proposals.
An invisible fencing system, favoured by the Open Spaces Society, is currently being
tested. This involves cables hidden underground which give a mild shock to animals
fitted with a special collar (ie it does not shock people, dogs or wildlife) who come too
close. The Parish Council is awaiting the outcome of these tests with interest.
In the meantime, several alternative routes for standard fencing were investigated to
see if grazing was a practical proposition on this site. Stiles, bridle gates, field gates and
cattle grids were proposed at various points along the fence line to allow access.
Figure 8 shows the final version of the proposed fence line after full consultation
(Appendix II) and the incorporation of various suggestions. The actual fencing which
requires permission from the Secretary of State is illustrated in Figure 9, the remainder
being situated off the Common. A total of 93 ha (230 acres) is included within this fence
(about two thirds heathland or associated habitats and the rest woodland of various
ii. Grazing Regime. Cattle are the ideal choice of grazing animal, especially primitive
breeds which do well on such poor land and are the least far removed by selective
breeding from their wild ancestors. The Heathlands Project will be able to provide
suitable livestock, such as Angus, Highland or Hereford Cross cattle, together with care
and supervision by an experienced stockman. Water is not a problem because the brook
never appears to dry up.
Figure 8 – Proposed Fence Line Specifications
Approx. Type of Fencing
585 m
Stock netting
670 m
Stock netting
795 m
Stock netting
290 m
Already fenced
420 m
Barbed wire
1200 m
27 m
680 m
610 m
500 m
50 m
450 m
450 m
Already fenced
Stock netting
Barbed wire
Already fenced
Barbed wire
Already fenced
Barbed wire
Already fenced
Approx. 3 m from road
Approx 10 m from road south of
power lines
Behind Chapel and houses
following track edges
Some repairs to garden fences
Along path edge to replace
derelict fence
Mainly high deer fence
Fence across tail of Common,
parallel to earthwork, N to
Deer fencing (plantation)
Along path edge to Brook
Barbed wire plus stile
Through woods
Barbed wire round field
Access Points
Bridle gate
Bridle gate
Field Gate
Bridle gate
Bridle gate
Bridle gate
Bridle gate
Cattle grid
Field gate
Bridle gate
Field Gate
Kissing gate
Field gate
Field gate
Bridle gate
Kissing gate
Field gate
Kissing gate
Bridle gate
Kissing gate
Kissing gate
Bridle gate
Existing stile
Kissing gate
The density of animals should be low enough to leave some parts relatively unaffected,
but sufficiently high to create habitat and species diversity and control aggressive
plants. The weather and subsequent plant growth affect the number of animals that can
be put onto a heath but about thirty cattle would be suitable in the first year. Work on
Passfield Common has indicated that a period of hard grazing in the first year, followed
by varying periods of lighter grazing in subsequent years produces the best response
from the plants and wildlife of badly neglected sites.
Once the worst of the scrub invasion is in hand New Forest ponies (which do not eat
much birch) could be introduced as these animals are excellent for controlling purple
moor–grass and gorse. There was some opposition to this idea from horse enthusiasts
in Silchester, however, and further consultation would be required before ponies could
be considered. Cattle do more or less the same job as ponies but it usually requires
more of them, as their digestive systems are more efficient and hence they need to eat
less. Sheep grazing, practised in some areas such as East Anglia, has been ruled out for
Silchester Common because of the number of dogs walked on the site.
Spring and summer are the best times to graze but long periods without grazing are
important, especially during the growing season, as natural herds of herbivores would
tend to wander off to other parts of the countryside, giving any one site a rest. These
breaks in grazing could be as long as a year in the future. When no grazing is taking
place the various access points can be opened up by removing, or tying open, gates.
iii. Public Access. Only local residents can decide, on the basis of their own use of the
Common, whether the proposed fence line offers them suitable access or not. During
the consultation process (Appendix II) the Parish Council has listened to many
suggestions for improving public access. It is not the intention of the Parish Council to
keep anyone off the property or restrict walkers, riders or any other user in any way.
It is hoped that control of some of the scrub, dense bracken and tall grass tussocks will
also help to improve general access. The fence will only include barbed wire where this
is already present on existing fences or is not likely to be obtrusive. The rest will be
plain wire and wire netting (to New Forest specifications), which is obviously safer and
has the additional advantage of preventing dogs from running onto the road. Dogs will
not have to be kept on leads, as they cause few problems with cattle, and conversely
the cattle are not dangerous to dogs or humans, the animals to be used having been
reared on a public site in east Hampshire.
iv. Monitoring. As with Passfield Common, the effects of grazing on the ecology of the
site will be monitored at least twice a year by independent consultants, to determine
whether the desired changes are taking place. A system of fixed and random quadrat
recording will indicate what effects the livestock are having on the vegetation and allow
decisions about any alterations to the grazing regime to be made more confidently.
Wildlife recording will also take place, through the use of standard transects for birds
and butterflies for instance. Reports produced as a result of this monitoring will be
made available to anyone interested.
Broombank, Dukes Ride
Coolangatta, Kings Road
Lavey’s Cottage, School
The Stores
3/4 Whistlers Lane
Dial Cottage, Holly Lane
1 horse
25 chickens
1 pony
6 geese
3 horses x
12 pigs
Orchard End, Dukes Ride
Sallow Copse
Keeper’s Cottage (42)
Cherry Tree Cottage
Windrush, Bramley Road
Heathercote House
McCartneys, Kings Road
Brierley Cottage
1 Clematis Cottage,
School Lane,
3 goats
20 chickens
The Forge
24 chickens
The Cottage, Little London 1 horse
1 horse
Chestnut Cottage (now
1 horse
Stacey Place)
3 pigs
Vine Cottage
1 horse
Yew Tree Bungalow
1 horse
Forge Cottage
1 horse
Yew Tree Cottage
1 pony
3 goats
6 Whistlers Lane
Sweet Briar
(also sand
and stone)
Heathersaye House
4 cows
2 horses or
24 chickens,
ducks or geese
2 goats
6 pigs
1 horse
12 cattle
6 geese
1 horse
2 cows
1 goat
1 horse
1 horse
4 cows
1 horse
1 donkey
20 geese
50 chickens
12 chickens