My patch, Bourley and Long Valley (B&LV), lies in northeast Hampshire, extending just into Surrey on its southern boundary. It is sandwiched between the towns of Fleet, Aldershot and Farnborough, all of which are within easy walking distance of its boundary. With a total area of around 1,000 ha, it contains a sizeable expanse of lowland heath and is one of several heathland sites on the Hampshire, Surrey and Berkshire borders. Despite being within easy commuting distance of London, these have remained undeveloped thanks to their proximity to Aldershot, ‘Home of the British Army’, and their use by the MOD as military training grounds. Together, they now comprise the major part of the Thames Basin Heaths SPA (Special Protection Area).
I first discovered B&LV in 1976, when work brought me to live in Fleet. Live firing had ceased long before I ventured into the area but it was still a little daunting to pass signs warning of unexploded munitions and occasionally to wander into the middle of fire-fights. Even though I knew the troops were using blanks, it still came as a shock – and still does – particularly in the dark, to find myself surrounded by camouflaged squaddies letting rip with their assault rifles. And it was in the dark that I made my first visit to B&LV. I went in search of European Nightjars Caprimulgus europaeus and fortunately met no squaddies that night. I had heard Nightjars elsewhere but my close encounters during that long hot summer of 1976 were memorable. They cemented the species high on my list of favourite British birds.
My initial stay in Hampshire was short-lived. In 1978 my family and I were on the move again and it was not until 1984 that we returned to Fleet. At that time, Hampshire Ornithological Society was debating whether to embark on its first county breeding bird atlas and I was soon involved with the project. B&LV was close to home so I began to explore it in greater detail. My birding interest at the time was predominantly in building my life list and twitching rarities wherever they turned up, but gradually I found myself becoming more and more interested in our local breeding birds.
Although B&LV is best known for its heathland birds, a large part of it is covered by woodland, mainly forestry plantations, and scrub. There are also small reservoirs, built years ago to provide an independent water supply for the army garrison in Aldershot, and smaller ponds – including one originally constructed as a swimming pool for cavalry horses! During my visits I found several interesting breeding species such as Turtle Dove Streptopelia turtur, Lesser Spotted Woodpecker Dryobates minor, Common Nightingale Luscinia megarhynchos, Wood Warbler Phylloscopus sibilatrix and Lesser Redpoll Acanthis cabaret, as well as heathland specialists including, in addition to Nightjar, Woodlark Lullula arborea, Tree Pipit Anthus trivialis, Common Redstart Phoenicurus phoenicurus and Stonechat Saxicola rubicola. Dartford Warblers Sylvia undata were thin on the ground at that time following the hard winter of 1962/63 and subsequent setbacks.
One of the enjoyable aspects of long-term patchwork is identifying and monitoring trends. The disastrous declines in some of our farmland and woodland birds are certainly confirmed by changes at B&LV. For example, the five woodland and scrub species mentioned above have all disappeared as regular breeding birds. Some open-country species, such as Yellowhammer Emberiza citrinella and Meadow Pipit A. pratensis, have also gone, but it’s not all bad news. Several pairs of Common Buzzards Buteo buteo have moved in, Firecrests Regulus ignicapilla have become almost as common as Goldcrests R. regulusin suitable habitat and the heathland specialists, including Dartford Warblers, are doing well. Numbers vary from year to year but in 2019 there were 27 Nightjar, 21 Woodlark and 30 Dartford Warbler territories.
Another major benefit of patchwork is that experience and knowledge of the area can be used to influence developments on and around the site. Discussion about establishing an SPA to protect the internationally important populations of heathland birds in the Thames Basin began in the 1990s and English Nature (now Natural England) started to collect data for candidate sites. B&LV was not even an SSSI at that stage, despite having healthy populations of Nightjar, Woodlark and Dartford Warbler, all heathland species listed in Annex 1 of the EC Birds Directive. My survey results helped the site to achieve SSSI status and finally, in 2005, to its incorporation, along with 12 other heathland sites, into the Thames Basin Heaths SPA.
Also in the late 1990s, Farnborough Airfield, which borders the northern boundary of B&LV, came up for sale. Probably best known for its biennial air show, it was no longer needed as a military airfield. Its proximity to London made it ripe for conversion to an executive jetport but to meet Civil Aviation Authority regulations changes had to be made on B&LV. These included clear-felling around 50 ha of woodland. The site had already been designated as part of the proposed SPA but English Nature consented the clear-felling provided the affected land was restored to heathland. Again, my survey results were of value and I was drawn into discussions about how to regenerate the heathland and subsequently into monitoring the impact on bird populations. One of the most striking findings was how opportunistic some species are. Within weeks of trees being felled, Woodlarks were singing over the broken ground. Other ground-nesters, including Nightjars, Lapwings Vanellus vanellus, Stonechats, Skylarks Alauda arvensis, Tree Pipits and Meadow Pipits, were soon to follow, all breeding within two years of the clearance. Dartford Warblers appeared when heather and gorse reached a suitable height. But the influx was short-lived. As soon as the vegetation became too dense, the populations of many of these species went into decline. So learning about heathland habitat management became another aspect of my patch birding.
So much for the history. My interest in B&LV and its birds has continued to grow and is increasingly concentrated on particular heathland species, especially Woodlark, Nightjar and Dartford Warbler. I suspect that some who read this will be surprised by my failure to mention a single rarity. Of course, I enjoy seeing unusual birds on my patch but I get enormous pleasure and satisfaction from focusing on our local breeding birds – and on the avenues that open up as a result. Suffice it to say I can’t recommend patchwork strongly enough. If you don’t do it, give it a try!