Different habitats support different species, occur in different conditions and can serve many different purposes. Each therefore requires a different management prescription, built on baseline evidence gathered about the habitat and species within it before work commences. Monitoring and evaluation of practices helps ensure that work is having the desired effect and that habitats are protected, enhanced, expanded and safeguarded for the future.
In the UK 45 habitats have been identified as a priority for conservation, 15 of these are found in Berkshire, and can be categorised into the following groups:
Towns and villages often contain areas very rich in wildlife, much richer in fact than intensively managed countryside. There are not only diverse parks and gardens, but also remnants of ancient natural systems (such as woodland), pre-industrial landscape (such as meadows) and naturally seeded areas on disturbed ground, which are unique to settlements.
All of these areas harbour wildlife and provide much more opportunity for contact between people and nature than many parts of the countryside.
There are 3 different types of priority habitat grassland in Berkshire:
- Lowland Meadows
- Lowland Dry Acid Grassland
- Lowland Calcareous Grassland
Grasslands are rich, diverse habitats supporting a wide range of plants and animals. They have very high conservation value in terms of contribution to overall biodiversity but also have significant aesthetic, historic and recreational value.
Woodlands represent the greatest area of any priority habitat in Berkshire. They cover 18,000 ha of which 9,160 ha (7% of the county) is priority habitat. Woodlands have been well recorded over the last few centuries and are an integral part of our cultural heritage. They vary from the wooded valleys and wet woodlands of the river corridors to traditional Hunting Forests and parkland.
Windsor Great Park is an internationally important site, which deserves special mention for the sheer number and age of its veteran trees, some of which date back to the time of William the Conqueror. The park holds more ancient oaks than Belgium, Luxembourg and the Netherlands put together. There are further large estates and associated parkland throughout the county and this habitat adds to the local distinctiveness of county as well as supporting an important mosaic habitat for assemblages of invertebrates, birds and fungi.
There are three different types of priority woodland habitat in Berkshire:
- Lowland mixed deciduous woodland
- Wet woodland
- Wood-pasture and parkland
Rivers and associated wetlands contain habitats that support a rich variety of plants, mammals and invertebrates as well as often defining our landscapes. They are important in terms of both culture and recreation. The main river catchments that occur in Berkshire are the Thames, Kennet, Lambourn, Pang, Loddon and Colne, although there are great differences in gradients and geology within these lowland rivers. Ponds are another important habitat both regionally and locally and have now been added to the UK priority habitat list. These wetlands have a range of uses and, as a result, there can be conflicts between tourism, recreation, industry and biodiversity.
The priority wetland habitats found in Berkshire are:
- Rivers (including Chalk Rivers)
- Lowland Fens
- Floodplain Grazing Marsh
- Eutrophic Standing Waters
Lowland Heathland is a UK habitat of principal importance. The majority of the Berkshire heathlands are on the acid free draining soils and gravels of the south eastern edge of the county and at Greenham Common in West Berkshire. This has become a highly fragmented landscape and undergone significant decline with only a reported 2% of the county's heathland left, compared the national average of 5%. The principal threat, historically, has come from development pressure. However, the areas that remain support rich assemblages of invertebrates, specialist bird species and native reptile species. Thames Basin Heaths Special Protection Area (SPA) is an important network of heathland sites which overlap into Berkshire; they provide critical habitat for rare ground-nesting bird species. The SPA is protected by law and developments must mitigate any likey adverse affects on the SPA using Suitable Alternative Natural Greenspace (SANG) measures.
Traditional Orchards are a long established and widely distributed habitat and make a significant contribution to biodiversity, landscape character and local distinctiveness across the UK. There are many regional variations on this theme, including apple, pear, cherry, plum, damson and walnut orchards. Although cobnuts (a type of hazelnut) and management varies from fruit tree orchards and has affinities with coppice woodland, they are also included in the definition of this principal habitat.
In Berkshire we aim to maintain the extent of our Traditional Orchards, but to do this we need to know where they are.The People's Trust for Endangered Species have used aerial maps to identify potential traditional orchards in Berkshire although this data requires ground-truthing to confirm its accuracy. The Traditional Orchard dataset is available as a GIS layer from the MAGIC website.
Hedgerows are important for wildlife, landscape, farming and archaeological reasons. Hedgerows are important for butterflies, moths, farmland birds, bats, and dormice. They provide food and shelter and act as wildlife corridors for species including reptiles and amphibians allowing movement and dispersal between other habitats.
How are they threatened?
- Agricultural development and monoculture have seen many hedges removed to increase agricultural yields.
- Increase in urban development has seen tracts of hedgerows removed or dissected.
- Inappropriate hedgerows often become 'gappy', and can result in the hedge degrading into a few isolated trees.
- Use of herbicides, pesticides and fertilisers right up to the base of hedges, leads to nutrient enrichment and a decline in species diversity.
Further information about the value of hedgerows for wildlife, together with information on managing hedges can be found on the Hedgelink website.