Hare Hill Open Space – Report by Kathy Miller
I moved to this area some 33 years ago. One of the very first things my husband wanted to show me was what is now Hare Hill Open Space, or "The Common" as it was known back then (although in reality, it has never been common land!). At 5am on a sunny June morning I saw it for myself and instantly fell in love with this beautiful green space which abounded with wildlife. I'm a country girl, and this looked like a piece of pure heaven to me. At that time the site still belonged to a developer, Mr Pelham, although access was unrestricted. The site was much more open back then with more meadowland and quite an array of wildflower species. The public had walked on the site, sledged down the hill in winter with their children, exercised their dogs and walked their children to school across there for many years after it ceased to be used as agricultural land in the mid 1960's.
The site, which brings Rowtown and Ottershaw together, is an oasis of tranquility for both people and wildlife. Having been farmed until 1964, it was bought from the developer by Runnymede Borough Council in 1998, urged on by a local campaign, and designated as a Green Space and later, a SANGS. In late 1998 I volunteered to be an honorary warden for the Open Space and have been so ever since, doing my best to report back any problems and carry out small maintenance tasks. A few years ago my husband Richard joined me as a voluntary warden. Now we help to maintain the site and help RBC to implement the suggestions outlined in the 10 year management plan formulated by Surrey Wildlife Trust, as well as provide liaison between the public and the council. In 2016, a voluntary warden from Ottershaw, Keith Harris, was also appointed who helps to report in any concerns.
Map available on RBC's website, showing footpaths and areas covered by Tree Preservation Orders (TPO's),
with Hare Hill centered.
Badgers, foxes, roe deer, hedgehogs, moles and voles and more all make good use of the site. Bats can be observed both in the woodland and meadow areas in spring and summer. The native population of grass snakes & slow worms suffered very badly during the lockdowns, when the site saw a massive increase in footfall. We monitor these beautiful reptiles using a series of carefully placed survey mats, which it’s very important not to disturb. Very sadly, no reptiles at all have been recorded this year but we have had reports of them in adjacent gardens so hopefully, they might eventually migrate back onto the site. The lockdowns saw almost every existing pile taken apart and scattered by the public, denying so many creatures the shelter and safe potential breeding space that it badly needs. To that end, we’ve rebuilt the many ‘habitat piles’ on site. Some are secured by deer fencing, others are just left as natural piles of wood, stone, leaf litter and earth.
Until a few years ago, we also had glow worms inhabiting particular areas of this 27 acre site but they too have disappeared. The reason isn’t totally clear but they were doubtless the remnant of a very old population that were associated with the lines of very old oaks that lined some of the old tracks across the open land that used to lay between Ottershaw and Rowtown. They aren’t really a woodland species but did well for many years until brambles began to cover most of the woodland floor and the grassland areas were gradually encroached upon by trees and brambles. RBC cut back the saplings and brambles on ‘the hill’ two years ago, opening it up once again as a grassland. Once again, children have somewhere to sledge again in winter or have a lovely picnic in summer.
A diverse insect population can also be found on site, a few of them being relatively rare & having a nationally notifiable status. The wealth of standing deadwood on site is very important for a rich and diverse insect population (and is home to some of the rarer longhorn beetles who will only inhabit standing deadwood) which sustains the diverse wildlife higher up the food chain. The standing deadwood is not any kind of negligence on the council’s part, but a deliberate policy to enhance biodiversity.
In winter, or times of exceptional rain, the lowest point of the site used to flood and I saw grass snakes in the water and mallards upon it many a time. A few years ago, we discussed the idea with RBC of establishing a permanent wetland area to increase biodiversity. The council liked the idea, so the drainage ditch that would otherwise drain this spot was built up to allow water to accumulate. The speed at which new species appeared was astonishing. It's hard to appreciate how much lives in the water until you observe it at night under torchlight. Within a couple of years, we had several nationally notifiable water beetles breeding in there as well as damselflies, dragonflies, newts, frogs, toads and nesting moorhens (who successfully brought off 5 broods of 5 young each time over the course of a single summer). Mandarin ducks, herons and grey wagtails have also visited quite frequently and we even had a kingfisher on site for a short time. The area rapidly became known as "Soggy Bottom" - a name that has stuck!
'Soggy Bottom' in all it's splendour!
All had been going exceedingly well until the summer of 2016. The pond is supplied by spring water that arises under Walton Leigh Recreation ground and percolates down through the soil as well as surface run off, emerging on the Open Space through a large pipe near the terraced houses in Howards Lane. Official government figures state that our particular area of Surrey has had less than 59% of average rainfall since July 2016. By September 2016 , the water flowing in had stopped. Natural leakage between the soil and clay/sand bedrock means that water levels steadily drop in the absence of rain. On many occasions since, the pond has almost totally dried out but not quite - until spring 2021. A spring drying out means that the vast number of tadpoles and young newts and toads that hatch early in the year perish when this happens and is so hard to watch, but many amphibians take risks by favouring temporary ponds for breeding and this is nature, red in tooth and claw. The adult newts and frogs can go into a form of stasis when this happens, often burying themselves in the mud which stays moist just below the surface. Also, many species specialise in inhabiting the drying out mud so something benefits from all of these situations. Two reasons why it’s so important not to walk on the dried out mud!
We have an ongoing programme of sycamore sapling removal. Although naturalised for centuries in this country, sycamores are not a native species - they come into leaf very early, shading out most plant life on the woodland floor. Their leaves rot incredibly slowly which smothers emerging species, plus the seeds are so fertile that the saplings rapidly choke large areas of woodland. The work done so far has made some of the woodland sections much more open, enhancing the feeling of safety and security of walkers by bringing better visibility across these areas. Hopefully, in time, we will also see a much greater diversity of woodland plants and a resultant increase in the diversity of wildlife. We’ve also been clearing back or removing brambles in some woodland areas to leave a more open woodland floor. We’ve already experienced a little magic this spring - several larger sycamores were taken out last autumn in the woodland, leaving much more open areas which have now become grassy glades. Within weeks, bluebells and arum lilies and ferns, long dormant, began to emerge! These areas were also set with woodland wildflower grass and seed mixture and although the results were a little disappointing this year, the odd weather really didn’t help and we’re hopeful that next spring will be better. Seed can lay dormant for quite some time! We’ve received a very kind donation from former WARA this autumn, which will be used to purchase as many native English bluebells as possible. These will be planted where small native populations already exist to enhance the population. There are very few native English bluebells left on site as most are of the Spanish variety or have hybridised with English ones. Dry hedging has been built around one or two sections of the woodland to try and give a degree of protection to these areas while the vegetation recovers or where bulbs have been or will be planted or seed set.
RBC have been absolutely amazing in the last decade and have invested heavily in Hare Hill Open Space. They’ve provided native wildflower & woodland seed, wetland plants, keep management plans up to date (and yes, they’re very expensive!), provided reptile survey mats, continue to organise an annual mow for the meadow, help to keep the paths open and much much more. The new cross-site hardstanding path between Howards Lane and Fletcher Close must be their biggest single investment to date though, but is so welcome as it allows disabled access and will make those journeys across site from Rowtown to the schools so much easier when it’s muddy.
We’re very lucky that until Covid came along, The Egham and Staines Conservation Volunteers would come and help us out twice a year with some of the bigger tasks (and it’s not at all unusual to find staff from the Open Spaces team helping out too). Hopefully, those volunteer group days will be back very soon. RBC can’t possibly pay for everything that needs to be done to keep our Open Space on track as a space that benefits both people and wildlife - they have over a hundred other ones to look after too! In the meantime, there’s just Richard and myself carrying out most of the tasks like keeping drainage ditches clear, litter picking (although I’m sure that many people pick up litter as they walk around and a massive thank you to everyone who does), clearing smaller fallen trees, helping to keep paths clear throughout the year, making small repairs etc. We’re very fortunate that a couple of lovely young men come and help us out once a week, either clearing brambles or sycamores or laying bark chip paths and the work will never ever be done so if you ever fancy helping out (it's hard but very rewarding work!) please contact Kathy at ‘firstname.lastname@example.org’
OWARA Note: Many thanks to Kathy Miller for this great outline of the wildlife that occupies Hare Hill. Particular thanks to her and Richard for their efforts to preserve and enhance this wonderful green space for all residents in Ottershaw Ward to appreciate and enjoy.