The Common is actively managed for wildlife, with a particular emphasis on maintaining and restoring the areas of open heathland, a rare and important habitat once widespread in Norfolk.
The management of Litcham Common: an update for the 2020s
There have been a lot of changes to Litcham Common over the past two decades, including the felling of trees and the introduction of grazing, initially on one half of the common and then over the whole site following the installation of the cattle grids. We hope that this article will help people better understand what we are trying to achieve as we move into the 2020s.
Why does Litcham Common need managing?
Litcham Common is predominantly a heathland site. Heathlands are open areas with few trees, often dominated by heathers and gorse. These plants thrive on nutrient-poor soils where most plants would not be able to survive.
Early humans cleared the woodland from Litcham Common and the rest of Norfolk around 4,000 years ago. Subsequent grazing and other management kept the areas as open heathland with unique assemblages of plants and animals.
In relatively recent times there has been a dramatic loss of heathlands worldwide as the land has been used for agriculture, forestry and building development. In Britain over 70% has been lost since 1830. Litcham Common is a small remaining fragment of what was previously 500 acres of heathland in the parish, and now amounts to just over 60 acres in total. Despite suffering considerable scrub and tree encroachment over the past 70 years, the common still retains a wealth of important wildlife species and in recognition of this is designated as both a County Wildlife Site and Local Nature Reserve.
Natural succession means that without management to control invasive species such as birch, heathland will revert to woodland. If this happens many rare plant and animal species would face further population declines. In particular, once trees and scrub cast shade on an area and their leaf litter enriches the soil, plants that can only survive in open sites with nutrient poor soils will disappear, as will the wildlife associated with them. A photograph taken by the RAF in 1946 shows the common with virtually no trees, and demonstrates the dramatic increase in tree cover which has taken place since World War Two. One rare and beautiful plant that has sadly been lost from the common due to this process is the Marsh Gentian.
Doesn’t the world need more trees?
We often read and hear on the media that it is good to plant trees, so it may seem strange that they are cut down on the common. Tree planting is one strategy put forward to help combat the world’s environmental crisis and the very real threat of global warming. However, the earth is also facing a separate (but linked) ecological crisis with huge biodiversity losses both in the UK and worldwide. In this country many communities of native plants and wild flowers have become incredibly isolated and vulnerable, with small populations only surviving on marginal land such as road verges. It only takes a small change in land use, for example if verges are no longer cut, so that scrub takes over, for those plant communities to be gone from a parish forever. Unfortunately, there are several reported cases of well meaning community projects that have actually planted trees on some of the UK’s few remaining wildflower rich grassland sites. Native trees are valuable habitats in their own right, as well as being beautiful to look at and fun to climb, but in the wrong place they can result in the damage and destruction of other rarer habitats and their associated wildlife.
How is Litcham Common managed?
Having taken advice from the Norfolk Wildlife Trust and with funding from Natural England, specific areas of trees were removed from the common in order to enlarge and reconnect the remaining open areas of heath and acid grassland. (Isolated patches of a habitat are far more vulnerable to species loss than those connected to other areas of the same type). Mature birch trees in particular self seed profusely and so it has been important to remove a significant number of these. The majority of this work has now been done, although a limited amount of mature tree felling will still take place each year. We aim to strike a balance, and visitors will note that a very large number of mature trees remain on the common, and the intention is that it will stay that way.
Our main ongoing work is to continuously tackle the re-growth of scrub and young trees that inevitably occurs, in order to maintain the open heath. In this we are ably assisted by the ponies that will eat all manner of vegetation and also open up the grassland sward which encourages a wider variety of plants.
Importantly, surveys indicate that the management work is achieving its objectives. The conclusion of the latest report by Norfolk Wildlife Services, which looked at the changes between 2013 and 2016, was that “In every area surveyed both the total number of species and the mean number of species increased.”
We also carry out work to keep the paths clear and maintain the car park for the benefit of the general public.
How can I help?
New volunteers are always welcome on our monthly conservation tasks; the more people we have the more we achieve! However, we are grateful to all those who enjoy using the common and help look after it in the process, for example by removing litter as they walk round.
Anyone who would like to find out more is welcome to contact Tim Angell (01328 700045) or one of the other members of the Management Committee, who are listed on the Litcham village website.
History of the Management of Litcham Common
In the early eighties the late William Foster of Lexham Hall became so concerned about the state of the common that he contacted Norfolk County Council for help. This led to Litcham Common being declared a Local Nature Reserve in 1984 in recognition of its important wildlife and landscape value.
A committee, made up of local residents and representatives from Lexham Hall Estate, Litcham Parish Council and Norfolk County Council, was set up to oversee the management of the common. Norfolk County Council funded management work on the common for many years, but this stopped in 2011 as a result of budget cutbacks. Fortunately, Natural Englandhas agreed to fund the management work on the common for the ten year period from 1 March 2012, under a Higher Level Stewardship Agreement.
The main management objective is to increase the area of open heathland and reduce the areas of trees and scrub (particularly birch). However, significant areas of woodland and many of the established trees will be kept so that as wide a variety of wildlife habitats as possible is retained. Four Dartmoor ponies have grazed the western half of the common since June 2008. In September 2012 a project to install cattle grids on the Dunham road was completed, and the ponies are now able to graze the entire site. The ponies’ job is to keep the existing open areas clear of scrub, and maintain a diverse range of plants.
In October 2012 a 5 year management plan was completed by the Norfolk Wildlife Trust. This identifies the main areas of trees and scrub to be cleared, as well as other management work to be undertaken.
Click on the following links to read published Management Plans:
5 year Management plan – “Litcham Common 2052” – published October 2012
10 year management plan – “Litcham Common – The next Ten Years” produced by Norfolk County Council in September 2001
The importance of the common to local people is also recognised, with the provision of a car park, benches and the regular maintenance of the footpaths. Visitors to the common can enjoy many wild flowers such as heather, devils bit and harebells. Their continued presence bears testimony to the work carried out since 1984.
The Management Committee is very grateful to all those who help look after Litcham Common, in particular the volunteers who regularly check the ponies, and the members of Litcham Common Conservation Group who turn out once a month to help with tasks such as scrub clearance and picking up litter.
See How the Common Has Changed
In 1946 the Common was largely open, with only a few tall trees round the perimeter.
◈ The River Nar still ran along the northern border.
◈ There were a number of well defined tracks and paths.
◈ The circular outline of a Bronze Age burial disc can still be seen (on the 2Mb image).
◈ Far more extensive tree cover due to a decline in use of the Common for grazing.
◈ The River Nar now runs through the centre of the field to the north.
The Management Committee
Set up to oversee and implement a management plan when Litcham Common was declared a Local Nature Reserve, under the National Parks and Access to the Countryside Act 1949. The committee meets twice a year, and presents a report to the Annual Parish Meeting (see below for links).
- Neil Foster – Landowner
- Roger Watts – Volunteer
- Norfolk County Council (no named representative at present)
- Tim Angell – Conservation Group Representative (01328 700045)
- Mike Oldfield – Parish Council Representative
- Juliette Short – Volunteer (Ponies)
- Helen Baczkowska – Norfolk Wildlife Trust
The Management Committee is grateful for the support and advice received from a number of organisations, including:
- The Dartmoor Pony Heritage Trust
- Grazing Animals Project (GAP)
- MHA Larking Gowen (Chartered accountants)
- Natural England
- Norfolk County Council
- Norfolk Biodiversity Partnership
- SUEZ Communities Trust
- Norfolk Wildlife Trust
Management & Conservation Group Reports to Annual Parish Meeting:
Other 3rd Party Documents & Reports regarding Litcham Common
- Norfolk Wildlife Trust – Site Management Statement 2017
- Extensive article about Litcham Common and it’s Management from Conservation Land Management Magazine
- Secretary of State: Litcham Common Fencing Scheme Consent (PDF 249k)
- Norfolk Wildlife Trust 5 Year management Plan 2012 (PDF856k)
- Norfolk County Council Ten Year Plan for Litcham Common, by Raz Woolacott 2001-11 (PDF 80k)
- Bye-laws (PDF 42k)
- Graceful Grazing, advantages of grazing with Dartmoor Ponies from NWT magazine ‘Tern’ – Spring 2012 (PDF 6.5Mb)
Litcham Common in the Press
- Conservation Land Management – Spring 2013
- Lynn News – 26th November 2010
- Dereham & Fakenham Time – 17th February 2005
- Eastern Daily Press 06-09-2012
If you would like further information, or have any questions or comments please contact Tim Angell (Litcham Common Management Committee): 01328 700045