Many of you will have heard the terrible news this Tuesday afternoon (31st March 2015) that on one of Dorset's best-known and best-loved heathlands was largely lost in a huge fire. The Fire Service believes it was arson, with the fire started deliberately in three places. Much of Amphibian and Reptile Conservation's (ARC's) Town Common reserve, and ARC & Christchurch Borough Council's St Catherine's Hill reserve have gone up in flames. The Fire Service estimated 800m x 800m, which would be over 60 hectares (150 acres) gone; but current estimates by ARC staff are more like 80 hectares.
This is a huge disaster for heathland and wildlife in the area, and it will take many years to recover. Heather and other vegetation will begin to recover within five years, but it takes 15-20 years for the full suite of wildlife to return. Many rare reptiles, including sand lizards and smooth snakes, will have been lost. Heathland can contain hundreds of reptiles per hectare, so the tally of dead or homeless reptiles could be in tens of thousands.
Yesterday, the day after the fire, ARC welcomed volunteers to assist with reptile capture efforts. A team of around 30 people gathered on St Catherine's Hill at 9am, and divided into teams sweeping the blackened expanse in the cold sunshine, looking for reptile survivors. The weather was around 7C, a bit too cool to entice most surviving reptiles out, but many common lizards and a few snakes were out and about, in the charred remains of their habitat.
CGO Ecology sent a team of six (Noel Bergin, Wes Jameson, Rory Chanter, Andy Fear, Charlie Caldwell, Chris Gleed-Owen). It was our Senior Ecologist Noel Bergin who reported the fire on Tuesday afternoon, as the team were working nearby. We captured 29 live common lizards, a few missingtheir tails but otherwise unscathed; and we caught a live grass snake and a live adder. All were moved several hundred metres to the nearest intact heathland.
Here's a good ITV report about the fire, with footage from the reptile rescue efforts. Near the beginning, you will see the CGO Ecology team (Noel, Wes, Andy, Rory, Charlie, Chris), a couple of us in hi-vis, doing a sweep of the blackened landscape.
We believe the burn relatively quite shallow overall, and that many reptiles will have survived beneath the burnt upper layers of vegetation. The problem remains that they will starve without food and habitat to sustain them, and so additional rescue efforts will be needed. The chief problem is currently the weather. After a sunny but cool start yesterday, we are now experiencing several days of rain and overcast weather, with temperatures too cool to entice most of the reptiles out.
So we will have to wait until the next mild and sunny days over the coming week or so, to try again at rescuing more reptiles.
[Lizard photo by Noel Bergin; other photos by Chris Gleed-Owen.]