On Friday 7th August a large wildfire took hold on Sunningdale Nature Reserve, a part of Chobham Common Site of Special Scientific Interest (SSSI) in Surrey managed, by Amphibian and Reptile Conservation (ARC) on behalf of the owners, Sunningdale Golf Club.  Over 40 hectares of precious lowland heath habitat has been burnt on Sunningdale together with an equal area east of the Chobham Road on the Common proper as the fire raged over the weekend.

ARC is devastated by the news.  Sunningdale is home to many rare and nationally important species including smooth snakes, sand lizards, nightjars and silver-studded blue butterflies. The less mobile of those species carry a real risk of local extinction when their habitat goes up in flames.

Sunningdale has been managed by ARC for almost 50 years and a great deal of time and effort has gone into restoring and maintaining the heath over that time.  Our field staff and volunteers routinely spend around a month each winter on site cutting back invasive Scot’s pines, gorse and rhododendrons to keep the habitat in ideal condition for the rare species found there.  It is disheartening to see an area that we painstakingly and laboriously cleared of dense gorse by hand over many weeks not so many months ago reduced to blackened ash. Gorse being notoriously combustible and it is perhaps fortunate that we did take the time to do this clearance work as the fire would have raged unstoppably through the gorse.

The damage could have been far worse had it not been for the sterling efforts of the fire service, to whom we are extremely grateful.  A lot of good habitat at Sunningdale has been saved from destruction and neighbouring properties are thankfully undamaged. This was also aided by fire breaks and bare ground added to help halt the spread of fires. This being said, nearly a week on, the fire service still has a heavy presence on site and there are still many hotspots. We ask that members of the public avoid visiting the site for the time being.

It will take many years for the heath to recover sufficiently to provide enough cover for the rare reptiles present on site.  Once the site is safe ARC will be coordinating a rescue effort to relocate any surviving reptiles to safety before they are picked off by predators.  Often species such as the adder are present in very low numbers (sometimes just tens per nature reserve) so that each and every animal is vital to the continuing genetic health of the local population.

It is a measure of how dry our countryside is that the fire was able to spread across a normally wet area of bog and jump a major road.  The heaths in southern England are tinder dry at present and ARC has already helped with wildlife rescues at Thursley National Nature Reserve in Surrey and Wareham Forest in Dorset this year. 

We would ask all visitors to our reserves and to the countryside generally to be particularly careful and alert at this time; never light a fire or disposable BBQ and always take cigarettes and litter home with you. 

In these difficult times our resources are extremely stretched; if you would like to help support our work to protect heathland sites from fires and other threats please consider making a donation to our Heath Hero Appeal or become an ARC Friend to give more long lasting support.