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Reserve that has a common touch
In the latest in our occasional series on local nature reserves, STEPHEN LEWIS visits Strensall Common.
I’VE DRIVEN across Strensall Common on the road to Flaxton many times, and always thought it looked intriguing. The fact that the large stretch of the common off to the right of the road is MoD land always put me off getting out of the car.
Many locals do walk their dogs there, I know, at times when there is no shooting. But having once found myself inadvertently stumbling on to an MoD shooting range in Gloucestershire while following the route of an old railway line, I have no interest in repeating the experience. The sound of bullets cracking through the air inches above your head is very sobering.
When the Yorkshire Wildlife Trust told me that about 100 acres of the common to the west of the Flaxton road is actually one of their nature reserves, however, I snatched their hand off for a tour in the company of wildlife trust field officer John Wollaston.
Strensall Common is one of very few areas of lowland heath in the Vale of York – the other is Skipwith Common. The nature reserve part is a tussocky heath of heather and moorland grasses, ringed with oak and birch woods.
It is a very special landscape, John explains, as we follow a broad path through trees that runs around the outside of the reserve. It is formed over a base of glacial clays dumped here at the end of the ice age. But at some point in the last few thousand years it was also a cold, sandy desert. There are still the remains of buried sand dunes, which form slightly drier, higher-lying areas of land.
As a result, the heath is a mix of drier terrain, and lower, boggy ground that is almost always wet.
That makes it a rich habitat for a host of plants and animals. More than 150 plant species are found here, including bell and ling heather, purple-flowered marsh gentian, round-leaved sundew and petty whin.
Then there is the wildlife. There are about 60 species of bird which have been found here, many of which breed on the common. They include curlew, woodlark, whinchat, and green and great-spotted woodpecker. John, who has been trained to recognise many bird calls, picks a number out by their song as we walk around. “There’s a chiff-chaff,” he says. And, a little later on: “That’s a song thrush.”
The other thing you will hear, certainly when the MoD firing range on the other side of the Flaxton road is in use, is the sound of weapons fire: like a crackle of fireworks.
Oddly, despite that distant noise, the common retains an air of peace and solitude. On an April morning between showers, as the sun peeps through clouds to send shafts of golden light pouring through the branches of silver birch, dappling the grassy surface of the heath in greeny-gold, there is an almost unearthly beauty about the place.
Look across it in certain directions, with the long moorland grasses interrupted by the odd oak tree, and you could almost be looking out across the African savannah.
It takes a while to work out what is so special about it: and then it comes to me. This, being common land, was never enclosed. Almost everywhere you go in England, the landscape is divided into squares and rectangles by hedgerows, or lines of trees, fences or dry stone walls. Not this common: it is open and seemingly untamed, the grassland stretching to the horizon in a way that is quite thrilling.
It is only constant grazing that keeps it like this. It has probably been grazed for centuries, John thinks, and the wildlife trust continues that tradition. From April to August, it grazes a herd of Hebridean sheep here, and over the summer there will be some highland cattle.
They keep down the young birch shoots that are constantly springing up across the heath, and which would quickly take over from the heather and moorland grass if left unchecked. Without grazing, within a couple of generations, this beautiful heath would have reverted to birch and oak woodland, John says.
All the more reason to be grateful to the shaggy, brown-fleeced sheep that have made their home here for the spring: they are helping to ensure this timeless landscape remains just the way it is.
Strensall Common forms part of an internationally important lowland heath.
The reserve, which was purchased from the Ministry of Defence in 1978, consists of a number of different habitats, the principal ones being wet heath, dry heath and birch/oak woodland.
There are usually areas of standing water, particularly in winter. More than 150 plant species are found here, perhaps the most noteworthy being marsh cinquefoil, marsh gentian, round-leaved sundew and petty whin.
There are about 60 species of birds, of which about 40 breed regularly including curlew, occasionally whinchat, and woodland species such as green and great spotted woodpecker.
Insects include green and purple hairstreak butterflies, dark-bordered beauty moth, bog bush cricket and glow worm, as well as biting midges. More than 100 different species of spider have been recorded. Mammal records include fox, hare and harvest mouse.
Lizards can be seen in good numbers, sunning themselves; adders occur but care should be taken if encountered.
Strensall Common is approximately six miles north of York. From the York direction, take the Strensall turning off the A1237 York ring road. Follow this road to the edge of Strensall village then take the Flaxton road.
After almost a mile you reach a cattle grid. Cross this grid onto Strensall Common. On your left where a small road leads to a railway crossing, cars may be parked.
Alternatively continue along the main road and park near the corner where the road turns away from the railway. Cars should not be taken across the railway track. Permissive footpaths cross the reserve, as does the Ebor Way.
Dog walkers are welcome, but dogs should be kept on a lead because of ground-nesting birds and the Hebridean sheep.