India? Africa? No, Croxley Common Moor

Cows drinking from the River Gade that borders the moor

Cows drinking from the River Gade that borders the moor - Credit: Archant

The rare habitat at Croxley Common Moor is being enhanced for wildlife. Countryside Management Service projects officer Heidi Hutton explains the 10-year project

Dyers greenweed likes the thinner soils on the higher areas

Dyers greenweed likes the thinner soils on the higher areas - Credit: Archant

A quarter of a mile from Croxley Green underground station on the Metropolitan Line lies the tranquil open space of Croxley Common Moor. A Site of Special Scientific Interest (SSI) and a Local Nature Reserve, the moor is bordered to the north by the River Gade and Grand Union Canal and to the south by the Ebury Way, a well-used path for walkers and cyclists that links Watford and Rickmansworth.

Purple loosestrife and meadowsweet thrive in the wet soil

Purple loosestrife and meadowsweet thrive in the wet soil - Credit: Archant

The Countryside Management Service, in partnership with the land owner Three Rivers District Council and local volunteers the Friends of Croxley Common Moor, manages the moor with the aim of protecting and enhancing wildlife while promoting visitor enjoyment of the site.

The river and centuries of grazing have sculpted the landscape of the moor, a habitat which is by no means common in Britain. More than 250 different species of plant have been recorded here and this great diversity is thanks to the undulating nature of the land. On the higher and drier areas with thin soils are plants such as petty whin and dyer’s greenweed. The lower areas are much wetter and nutrient rich, supporting rushes, sedges and the distinctive purple loosestrife.

Numerous large ant hills created by yellow meadow ants indicate the grassland has remained undisturbed by ploughing for hundreds of years. The hills are important for plants such as large thyme and purging flax. The open character and special plants found on the moor are a result of centuries of commoners grazing livestock. In times gone by, this form of management prevented trees and scrub developing on the site. During the middle of the last century, cattle grazing here became less common, causing dense scrub to develop. Today, around 30 cattle graze the moor during the summer months.

While the cattle are vital to maintaining the moor’s open nature, they can be rather selective about what they eat, preferring the more palatable grass and flowers than woody scrub, which is the collective term for areas of dense thorny trees, typically hawthorn and blackthorn. The development of scrub is the first stage of the successive change from grassland to woodland. On the moor, scrub has both a positive and negative impact. Left unchecked, it would quickly invade areas of flower-rich grassland. However, some scrub is desirable as it provides nesting and a rich source of winter berries for birds such as the song thrush and migrant warblers.

A recently produced plan for Croxley Common Moor sets out targets for the management of scrub over the next 10 years to maintain the right age and structure of scrub across the area. Currently, scrub covers around 18 per cent of the moor. Natural England, the government’s adviser on the management of SSSIs, has set a target of 10 per cent cover, with a five per cent target on the most valuable grassland. The level has been set to ensure there is enough young scrub, which is favoured by certain bird species including white throat, lesser whitethroat and black cap.

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Studies have shown that over the past 10 years more scrub has grown than has been removed. To achieve the 10 per cent target, scrub removal will be focused in the wetter areas and along the Ebury Way, where it has grown in recent years. Valuable older trees and areas of well-established woodland will be retained.

The Friends of Croxley Common Moor play a key role in managing scrub. They meet on the second Sunday of every month throughout the winter. Members are experienced and knowledgeable about the needs of the area and for this reason they have been allocated the more critical and sensitive areas to work in.

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