Wildlife on Cannock Chase

Forestry Commission Wildlife and Conservation Ranger, James Stewart, came along to our November meeting to give a fascinating, and at times humorous, talk on Cannock Chase and its wildlife. However many times you may have visited the area, it is always refreshing to see the Chase through an expert's eyes. Many members learned something new about this important area for wildlife, such as its national importance as a habitat for nightjars, with nesting fifty pairs.

The Commission manage six thousand hectares of land there (the remaining three thousand are looked after by the County Council). Extensive tree planting masks its natural state as lowland heath, a rare commodity in England. Lowland heath develops on sandy soils and this influences the type of shrubby habitats which develop and hence the type of wildlife that can flourish there. For example, the Chase does not have a large owl population, since small ground burrowing rodents do not flourish in the sandy soil. Quite simply, less food for the owls means fewer owls. Conversely, snakes (adders and grass snakes) and lizards do well, helped by a careful management policy by the Commission which sees cleared land with south facing banks retained to enable them to find suitable sites for hibernation.

Indeed, conservation management is the name of the game. Before his colleagues clear fell any woodland, James has the responsibility of inspecting the sites to assess the level of wildlife activity. Nesting buzzards and other raptors are protected by 200 metre exclusion zones, dead or ancient trees are usually retained as insect habitats and a felling plan developed which ensures a progressive felling of trees over time to ensure that a range of alternative habitats can regenerate, thus ensuring that no animals are "homeless".

But management also means being ruthless where necessary. The annual deer cull can generate adverse public concern, yet as James explained, unless numbers of fallow deer (the most numerous) are controlled at a level of about 1500, they would simply multiply, graze out all the vegetation and starve. The cull starts in November, when the fauns have become independent. Red deer can also be spotted on the Chase as well as the biggest pest, the tiny muntjac deer which causes extensive tree damage., as do rabbits, the latter being preyed on (usefully in James's view) by the fox population.

James's presentation packed in much information in the hour allotted to him. Space precludes a detailed mention of his discussion on badgers, bats, butterflies, dragonflies, damselflies, otters, crayfish and biting flies on summer evenings! Nevertheless, next time you go for a walk on Cannock Chase, just consider the massive, but largely hidden range of wildlife, often just a few feet away. Finally, James shared a useful piece of information with us. If you open your curtains one morning and find a deer in your back garden, it's yours, since no one owns them. This could solve your problem about what to eat on Xmas day!

Roger Hockney
November 2010