8 Sept 2022

A note from Rob Free, ARC’s Weald Reserves Manager

There were three heath fires on Hankley Common in July but the last one was by far the worst.  It started Sunday (24th July 2022) and was still flaring in places almost two weeks later. Hankley is a Ministry of Defence (MoD) training area in Surrey. The MoD closed the site until Surrey Fire and Rescue had dealt with the last of the flare ups and declared it safe.

Unfortunately, the summer drought made the heathlands so dry that the heather began to die off and turn dry and brittle, making it even better fuel for heath fires. It is a great concern if summer droughts are to become the norm in future.

Once we were allowed back on site, the scene was one of utter devastation; almost 70 hectares of prime lowland heathland had been reduced to ashes with even the usual damp, mossy layer beneath the heather canopy burnt entirely away down to sand.  Three particularly good sand lizard areas (foci where the females habitually congregate to lay their eggs) were destroyed.  These three areas formed part of the nucleus of land managed by ARC since the 1970s and it was very upsetting to see literally decades of hard work undone so thoroughly.  The sand lizard  is special on Hankley being native to the site and not reintroduced by ARC.

We would like to put a special thank you out to our undaunted band of volunteers and our friends at RSPB who helped with rescuing surviving reptiles in the burnt areas.  These few had sheltered in burrows underground but, on emerging to hunt for food, were easy prey to predators.  They were carefully captured over several days and moved to safety in unburnt habitat nearby.  In all 25 sand lizards, 3 slow worms, 7 common lizards and 1 palmate newt were successfully moved. Two female sand lizards and four sand lizard hatchlings were retained to join ARC’s captive Weald race sand lizard breeding programme.  This has been running for many years and has successfully repopulated many heathland sites in the Weald with sand lizards, most recently our own reserve in Hurtwood.


Only last winter ARC’s Weald Field Team and volunteers spent close to six weeks clearing pine scrub in the Drop Zone (where parachute training is permitted) and a contractor was employed at a cost of £14,500 to clear another section. Perhaps it was not an entirely wasted effort as the heath would have been far more combustible and dangerous covered in small, resinous Christmas trees.

Hankley is home to all six of the UK’s native reptile species as well as wide a variety of other wildlife. It was very sad to see some key sand lizard areas, used to found the Weald race captive breeding programme over 30 years ago, now wiped out. The site does have 320 hectares of open habitat so rare species, be they reptiles, birds or invertebrates, will survive elsewhere but it will be many years before the burnt habitat is sufficiently regrown for sand lizards or smooth snakes to reside in once more.

We would like to thank the Fire Service for their hard work to get this fire under control. The cause of the fire was not established. 

Please be extra careful when you're out on our heaths and forests in spring and summer, as just a tiny spark can cause devastation. BBQs and campfires are not allowed on our heaths or forests, by law and cigarettes should be extinguished and binned.