Padworth Common Local Nature Reserve and Wildlife Heritage Site covers about 28 hectares in central Berkshire on the Hampshire border between Tadley and Burghfield. It is public common land and managed by West Berkshire Council and the Countryside Service department have given permission for the ringing project and support it with practical help and grants.
The site is a dry heath with woodland in the north and around the fringes. Lowland Heathland is now a rare and threatened habitat which supports many rare plants, insects, animals and birds.
The underlying rocks beneath the Common are sands and gravels overlying clays. For the geologically minded these formations are the Silchester Gravel, Bagshot Formation and London Clay. On the highest parts of the Common the sands and gravels are about 4 or 5 m thick but they are much thinner elsewhere. This combination of strata gives the Common its distinctive environment - it rapidly dries out in dry weather but any period of heavy rain rapidly causes flooding and the development of boggy areas.
Heathland is not a static habitat and Padworth Common is no exception. If it is not managed carefully heathland gradually reverts to scrubland at the expense of the species of birds, mammals, reptiles and insects which specialise in this habitat. Even without this natural process, English heathlands are under severe threats from urban spread. West Berkshire Council's Countryside Service are committed to protecting what is left of the heathland under their.
The heathland habitat degraded over many years and the Council has been taking active steps to reverse this process for a number of years. Their first management plan was issued in 1994 and the south side of the common has been has been under the Countryside Stewardship Scheme since 1997. The current plan envisages a lot of work over the next 10 years with pine clearance and scraping, stock fencing and grazing and a rotational mowing regime. The management plan is reviewed and updated annually and information from our studies supports this process.
A number of the bird species breeding on the Common are unusual and several are rare enough to be protected by law - disturbance in the breeding season is illegal without the proper licenses. Our survey work is designed to keep disturbance within appropriate limits and is continually reviewed to ensure the birds aren't jeopardised. All our surveyors are working with the appropriate Schedule 1 licenses.
Nigel Cleere started an ornithological project on Padworth Common in 2006 and passed it on to us in 2007. Previously little organised survey work has been carried out and we are attempting to build up a better picture of the bird life.
Bird populations on the common are anything but static and the character changes radically through the year so it will take us several years to gather information on the changes through the years. But even in the first few years we have already found some surprises.
The group is regularly recording details of birds using the Common as well as ringing. With the support of the West Berkshire Council's Countryside Service we run a feeder to attract birds to a regular food supply and we have also have a nest box project with over 40 boxes.
Because of the habitat degradation that has occurred over many years, the populations of heathland speciality birds are fairly small on the Common and one of our objectives is to track their improvements as the effects of the Countryside Service's management activities take effect. The rarer species are a high priority for the Council but they obviously try to take a balanced view and take into account all the fauna and flora on the common.
Population changes are likely to be complicated because of the combination of climatic factors and management activities which are understandably concentrated on improving things for the rarer heathland specialities.
Migration has a marked effect on winter bird populations and this is certainly true at Padworth where the selection of species present in the winter is very different to the summer variety. Moreover, many species are at least partially nomadic. This means it is very hard to estimate the number of birds using a site from simply recording the maximum number seen on any particular day. Robust statistical techniques have been developed to help quantify bird populations using ringing mark and recapture rates. If the bird population is static a ringing exercise will catch an increasing number of birds that have already been ringed, in contrast if there is a high turnover of birds re-traps will be uncommon.