From the Iron Age to B-Lines!
Batheaston Commons; From the Iron Age to B-Lines! By Rob Kendall
Batheaston is extremely fortunate to have not just one but two commons! The commons, Little Solsbury Hill (part owned by The National Trust) and Bannerdown, have been managed by The Batheaston Freeholders Association since 1719… that’s nearly 300 years! What’s more, the Freeholders Association was one of the first in the UK so thanks to their innovation and continued guardianship the commons are still accessible by the “common man”… that’s you and me! Today, The Freeholders are alive and well (not the originals!) and, in the spirit of our forebears, we are now managing the commons under a Higher Level Stewardship agreement with Natural England. Both commons are “open-access” which means you are allowed to walk freely across them, this is in addition to the public footpaths and a bridleway on Bannerdown. The Freeholders objective is to ensure the commons provide continued access and enjoyment for everyone… and for wildlife.
Our commons are very special places and have a long history of utilisation by man. On Bannerdown 50 years ago there were almost no trees due to hundreds of years of grazing by livestock and quarrying for stone, much of which was used to build houses in Batheaston. The history of Little Solsbury Hill goes back over two thousand years to the Iron Age… those Iron-Age folk obviously appreciated a fantastic view! (see photo). Despite a history of exploitation by man the commons have never been intensively farmed and there are no traces of herbicides, pesticides or other chemicals which means they are a haven for wildlife… and for people!
The commons are officially classified as unimproved calcareous (limestone) grassland and have been accredited with containing some very special meadow flowers e.g. four types of orchid. However, many of the flowers only thrive in nutrient poor alkaline soil which is why you will see cattle grazing the commons for part of the year. The science here is that as plants grow they draw nutrients from the soil, the cattle graze the plants and convert those nutrients into their body mass, net result; the nutrients in the soil are reduced… simple! But there’s more. Grazing cattle help to reduce the invasive scrub and they produce “cow-pats” which support a fascinating eco-system all of their own! So, with help from the cattle, we reduce the scrub and get improved flower meadows with lots of bugs supporting an equally diverse variety of butterflies, moths, mammals, birds and bats… Amazing or what?!
During the summer of 2014 we started our involvement with a couple of exciting national projects; Magnificent Meadows is working to restore and improve wildlife-rich grasslands by ensuring they are managed sympathetically as havens for wild flowers (more info at www.plantlife.org.uk/wild_plants/work). B-lines is creating a network wildlife corridors linking wildflower-rich meadows (more info at www.buglife.org.uk/campaigns-and-our-work).Through our association with these projects we are receiving expert advice and support in our work and we hope that our commons will become “strategic hubs”
with wildlife corridors radiating out from both hills. It is also an opportunity for us to help others; Avon Wildlife Trust came to Bannerdown in July to harvest some Yellow Rattle seed (see photo) which was taken to receptor sites at Friary Court near Freshford and Cuckoo Corner near Newton St Loe. This is brilliant stuff. We should be really proud of our commons!
Grazing cattle are great but we can’t expect them do all the work! Without input from us humans the commons will be over-run with impenetrable scrub and we will lose the wild flowers and wildlife they support. For short periods during the winter we have contractors working on both commons to clear some “heavy duty” scrub and improve our wildlife corridors e.g. between the Bannerdown “Butterfly Bank” and top meadow. Throughout the year we also organise small work parties to complete a variety land management tasks. We are supported by some brilliant organisations such as Avon Wildlife Trust, The National Trust, The Cotswold Volunteer Wardens and Community Payback teams. But there is always more to be done! So, if you can spare 2 or 3 hours occasionally to help with our nature conservation work (no experience necessary) we would be delighted to hear from you. We will then contact you when we are organising future work parties. Please see the Contact Us page for ways to get in touch.
The commons are wonderful places to explore, escape the hassle of modern life and enjoy some fabulous views. We hope you can find the time to visit.
Secretary of Batheaston Freeholders Association
(Guardians of the Batheaston common lands since 1719)
Mobile 07925 786821