It was 10.15 pm on 22 July when Anne Robinson and I set off across Iping Common, near Midhurst in West Sussex, under a full moon. I had not expected to hear anything, but soon we heard a nightjar churring and then another. There were at least five calling across the heath in the moonlight, and they kept going for 15 minutes. It was an unforgettable experience.
Earlier that day we had walked around the National Trust’s Black Down Common, Haslemere, the highest hill in East and West Sussex and the South Downs National Park, and enjoyed the stupendous views from the Temple of the Winds on the southern prow.
The South Downs may be best known for its chalk cuesta, but the greensand ridge behind it is just as beautiful, in a different way. On these acid soils, of sand, gravel and clay, are woodlands and heaths such as Iping and Black Down Commons—a habitat which is becoming rare. Fortunately, thanks to a brilliant efforts of the South Downs Campaign and others, this land was included in the national park, which was confirmed in 2010. The greensand is an integral part of the South Downs landscape.
The greensand heaths are fragmented, some are protected as common land, many are not—despite having common in their names, and therefore they have no public access either. They are becoming wooded and scrubbed over and the heathland species shaded out, to the detriment of birds such as nightjars, woodlark and Dartford warbler, and snakes, lizards and invertebrates.
In 2011 the South Downs National Park Authority established the South Downs Heathland Partnership of landowning and conservation bodies. The members are Defence Estates, Forestry Commission, Natural England, South Downs National Park Authority, West Sussex County Council, Hampshire County Council, East Hampshire District Council, RSPB, National Trust, Sussex Wildlife Trust, and Hampshire and Isle of Wight Wildlife Trust. The authority has appointed a heathland project manager, Jonathan Mycock, and is developing a five-year wooded heaths project which will, provided funding is secured, endeavour to join up the heathland across the national park.
Meanwhile, Sussex Wildlife Trust has four heathland reserves on the greensand ridge in varying states of management: Stedham, Iping, Burton Pond and Graffham Common. It is working on these under its Greensand Heaths Living Landscapes project. At present it is consulting about the future management of Iping Common, following the advice in the multi-agency document, A Common Purpose, and the Open Spaces Society’s Finding Common Ground. We dropped in to the drop-in session in Stedham on 22 July where Jane Willmott, living landscapes officer, and Michael Blencowe, community wildlife officer, were gathering views from the public.
The trust acquired Graffham Common (only part of which is registered as common land), south-east of Midhurst, in 2009 and 2010 and is gradually restoring the conifer plantation to heath. It has consulted the Open Spaces Society about the management of the common land part of the site is seeking the Secretary of State’s consent for fencing, and is proceeding with its plans there to improve the habitat and public access.
These greensand gems are linked by the Serpent Trail, a 64-mile route from Haslemere, Surrey, through West Sussex to Petersfield, Hampshire. The route snakes across the greensand taking in the main heaths.
A glance at the map shows that much of the greensand is occupied by conifers, including land which was once common—Fyning Common, Rogate Common, Fenced Common, Great Common, Lord’s Common, to name a few. To achieve its landscape-scale ambitions, the national park authority will need to return these to heathland. Ideally, of course, they will also be returned to common, by reregistration, which would in due course secure public-access rights there too.
Reregistration may be possible if we can find evidence that these areas were wrongly excluded from the register in the late sixties, using the measures in the Commons Act 2006 part 1 which provide for reopening of the registers in certain circumstances. But that depends on part 1 being implemented in Hampshire, West Sussex and elsewhere—so far, seven years on, it has only been commenced in seven English registration authority areas.
But what a prize it would be to return these lost commons to the public, and restore their wildlife and their former heathland beauty. It’s a really worthwhile project.