Volunteers Encouraging Rare Reptiles Back To Shaftesbury’s Breach Common

A team of volunteers and professional ecologists has been clearing ponds at Breach Common, to encourage great crested newts. It is hoped that regular maintenance activity could increase the range of wildlife present. Alfred went along last Friday, before the lockdown restrictions.

On Thursday and Friday, the jarring mechanical buzz of chainsaws filled the air along a stretch of Breach Lane behind Shaftesbury Home Grown. A small group of helpers in hi-viz jackets was busy cutting, sawing and removing branches. “It’s a bit of action down on the common to relieve these ponds of their willow burden,” explained the man in charge of activities, Shaftesbury-based Mike Cummings, who works with Darwin Ecology.

Mike Cummings (far right) with the volunteers at Workhouse Pond.

His company has been engaged by the Town Council. Volunteers from Planet Shaftesbury and members of the town’s Open Spaces group have encouraged this project in the hope that it can protect a species that is suffering a rapid decline in numbers.

“Last year we did some commercial great crested newts surveys in the area. We found a single male in one of the ponds. He was probably looking for a partner. The males, when they come back to a decent pond, will establish a courtship zone at the bottom in a prominent area. They go into a tail-flicking routine to try and attract a female. There was just one newt last year,” stressed Mike.

Often when these reptiles make the headlines it’s because their discovery puts the brakes on building works. “Newts are more known for their bothersome impact on development projects,” laughed Mike. “They are a protected species because they need specific pond requirements of a certain size, type and depth. The availability of suitable ponds is much less than for the average smooth newt which gets on with most small garden ponds. They (great crested newts) are a lovely species and are about four or five inches long, with a bright orange belly and a very black, warty back. They spend most of their time out of the pond and come back at this time of the year to breed. We don’t have any breeding newts in this area because the ponds are too dry and not suitable,” said Mike.

That’s not always been the case and Mike and his team of volunteers would like to reinstate Breach Common as a habitat. “People who have lived in the area for a long time say there used to be a lot of great crested newts around here,” said Mike. “There were all sorts of other frogs and toads too.”

Mike says the common would have been used as a grazing area for cattle and sheep. From time to time farmers would have dredged the ponds for standing water that the animals could drink. Mike believes that ‘targeted management interventions’ could increase the biodiversity value for a wider range of species than the bramble scrub is currently supporting.

“I’d like to see the classic mosaic that we talk about in conservation habitat management. I’d like to see a mix of trees, some woodland areas, some scrubby areas as well as open areas of grassland and some ponds which we are filling in as well as some ponds that we have dug out. It’s a variety and that’s a spice of life and the truth with biodiversity,” he said.

Mike says without intervention the ponds will dry up and that’s not good for the newts. “The ponds are filling up with willow leaves. It’s leaving the amphibians without anywhere decent to breed. They can lay their frogspawn and have tadpoles in the pond, but they will die every year because the ponds dry out before they become adults and can leave the ponds themselves. We’re trying to favour a bit of amphibian recruitment,” said Mike. “The first phase is clearing the vegetation around the ponds and making deadwood habitat piles with the willow, which will also benefit other species. Eventually, there will be a second phase to try and dig out the ponds a bit and re-establish some deeper water areas which will then be good as breeding areas.”

Mike says the wood being cut around the ponds will be left there. “It’s deadwood habitat piles that will rot down there in the future. Lots of invertebrates will eat it. We are stacking the willow up on bearers to stop it re-sprouting again. It’s quite boisterous and hard to manage.”

One of the ponds being cleared on Breach Common.

We walked down to a second pond nearer to the Foyle Hill junction known as the Workhouse Pond. Mike says his team have cleaned up that site and created a formal dead hedge there. “We are targeting two ponds this year, and just opening them up, but there are lots of ponds here that need help. We don’t want to do them all at once. We want a successional range of different pond types, some filled in and some with lots of open water and some that we are just clearing.”

It’s labour-intensive and Mike hopes that volunteers will come forward to assist with some strategic management projects. “What would be lovely for Breach Common would be to establish a management committee and re-establish the friends group, so people can come out and do voluntary work,” said Mike.

One of the volunteers busily sawing a willow branch was Planet Shaftesbury member Karen Wimhurst. Her saw sliced through the wood and she stopped and smiled at the thud of the branch falling onto the ground. “That’s so satisfying,” she beamed. “I never realised there were ponds here. It’s a regular walk for me around Breach Common. I don’t come around this bit. It’s been a revelation for me,” she added.

Mike says that traditional breeds could be reintroduced to the common to help the land management process. “One aim for the future would be to get some grazing animals back in here in a managed way. It could be low-intensity grazing of old breeds of cows, like belted Galloways or Dartmoor ponies, pigs, that kind of thing. It would start to manage itself without having to do these interventions,” he said.

Mike says this is a really important outdoor space for Shaftesbury. “There’s a real compromise to be met between having it open and accessible for the people to come and visit and walk around but also having wild spaces which are unimpacted. The idea is to get the animals to do some of the work for you, but we don’t want to go back to a bold, grazed habitat. Schemes like the New Forest are really good, extensive grazing schemes but that’s thought to be overgrazed. We don’t want to take that to this level here. We want to keep the character of Breach Common.”

Mike says one of the projects this year is to try and pull up the invasive species like Himalayan balsam. You’ll see its pink flowers all across the common. “If we do that for two years, we will deplete the seed source and you probably won’t see it here,” said Mike.