Heritage: Paradise Lost - Wimbledon Common wildlife we may never see again
Exactly a century ago, a leading geologist called Walter Johnson wrote about the wildlife and vegetation then found on Wimbledon Common.
At a time when the land was far less wooded than today, the views stretched as far as Epsom Downs and Harrow Weald. The wildlife was also far more varied.
Local animals included the brown hare which lived on the open spaces of heath and grassland.
Unlike burrowing rabbits, hares lived above ground, resting in a slight depression known as a “form”. As woodland encroached and people with dogs brought more disturbance the hares died out.
Red squirrels were last seen in the late 1940s. Grey squirrels, introduced from America, had brought with them the squirrel pox virus. They were immune but it proved fatal to the reds.
Water voles, still known through Ratty in The Wind In The Willows, were living on Beverley Brook, although even then declining owing to disturbance and lack of waterside vegetation. They are long gone now and should not be confused with brown rats which are good swimmers and still present.
Stoats have not been seen for many years. Moles were very active 100 years ago and were hunted for their skins. They are thought to be extinct on the Common now after a very rapid decline within the past few decades. Hedgehogs are very rarely seen today as a result of pesticides and chemicals in nearby gardens, although neither toxins are used on the Common itself.
Johnson described bats as "plentiful" back in 1912. While new technology has increased knowledge of the various sorts that do exist, it is thought there are probably few actual bat roosts on the Common these days with the possible exception of the Windmill complex. Most of the animals that do turn up – over Queensmere, for example, have flown in from outlying areas.
The range of birds on the Common too has dropped dramatically over the past century. Regularly seen in those days were pheasants, skylarks, tree pipits, meadow pipits, willow warblers, linnets, bullfinches and yellowhammers. All are now gone. The reasons for these losses are varied and many have also declined nationally.
A major factor could be predation by those species that are still around on the Common such as foxes, grey squirrels and weasels as well as birds of prey, crows, magpies and so on. Grass cutting and removal of scrub and trees, while essential, can also impact adversely on birds that would otherwise have bred in the areas affected. But the biggest problem is the Common’s popularity itself.
Ever more visitors have brought increased disturbance, especially when accompanied by free-running dogs. As a result, 2011 was the first year since records began in 1974 when there were no ground-nesting birds breeding on the Common at all. That alone accounted for seven lost species.
The Commons Conservators have been trying to encourage skylarks back by asking dog walkers to control their pets during the summer months. It nearly worked this summer but despite co-operation by some owners, an uncontrolled dog eventually frightened off the one nesting pair that had returned.
The Conservators will be trying again next year. Those species that are left on the Common are now more precious than ever.
The Wimbledon Society is working with the Wimbledon Guardian to ensure that you, the readers, can share the fascinating discoveries that continue to emerge about our local heritage.