Peartree Green: after the fire

On 12 August 2022, after weeks of dry, hot weather, the inevitable happened: there was a serious fire on Peartree Green local nature reserve. I was sitting in our garden when my partner came out around 5 pm and said, “Something’s on fire over there”. I turned to look and said, “Oh my god, that looks like the Green”. It was. It took the fire crews several hours to bring it under control, and around a quarter of the reserve was damaged. The picture below, by Sherin Sullivan and reproduced in the Southern Daily Echo story, gives a taste of how bad it was.

Much of the Southern Hill, an area of long grass that provided a home to small mammals such as mice and voles, as well as to grasshoppers and crickets, butterflies and ladybirds, was burnt. The fire spread down onto the southern plain as far as Phil’s Hill, so we lost the blackthorn stand, several apple trees and a thicket of gorse, on the right of both pictures below. The second photo below was taken on 28 October, eleven weeks later.

The western slope of Phil’s Hill was also badly burnt, but is recovering well, as the pictures below show. Both were taken with my back to the railway line which forms the western boundary of the nature reserve.

The fire swept along much of that western boundary, meaning you can now see trains clearly as they pass. And this is one of the positive outcomes of the fire, as sightlines have been improved, meaning that people feel safer. There are fewer places to hide too – in the past, there have been camps and dens built along here. These have caused damage to the nature reserve, especially to the trees and plants, through littering, camp fires, and structures being attached to branches with nails and screws. Another positive was that Phil Budd, the Chair of both Friends of Peartree Green and Southampton Natural History Society felt that in most places the fire damage was quite shallow, as the fire had swept through quickly. The burning of large areas of brambles and other scrub has opened up areas for grasses and flowers to come through, and it will be interesting to see what we get.

When I had a look around the day after the fire, I just cried. This is a place I know really well, having walked around it hundreds of times since moving to the area six years ago. I’m lucky to live only three minutes’ walk away, and the reserve has been my “nature classroom”, as I’ve learned about the wildlife it supports – 1,340 species, at the last count. We have a fantastic range of wildflowers, and I’ve enjoyed working out what they are, sometimes with a book, sometimes on a guided walk with Phil. The young Ash tree below marks the extent of the fire on the western stretch of the circular path, heading north. I’m not sure it’ll survive, which is sad for me as it’s one that helped me learn what an Ash looks like. On the bright side – literally, as well as figuratively – a patch of Common Toadflax came up around the base – and in fact this flower seems to be almost everywhere the fire was. Previously I only saw it in one particular place on the reserve.

Bird watching became more interesting after the fire. One local resident, Ian, was there most days and spotted some species not seen often, and in a couple of cases, never recorded before. On 1 September, for example, he noted “A new species for the autumn here was a juvenile Wheatear while a second juvenile Whinchat showed well. A Lesser Whitethroat fed in the open and there were still 3 Spotted Flycatchers. Also seen were 2 brightly plumaged Chiffchaffs and a male Great-Spotted Woodpecker”. I wondered if there were more birds than usual, or if it was just that they were more visible, with the scrub reduced. Ian felt it was a bit of both. Then on 2 September came the bird he’d been hoping to see, a Wryneck. The photo below is by Ian, and you can see why this bird, a type of woodpecker, is hard to spot. This one stayed around for a few days and attracted people who’d never been to Peartree Green before.

We also had an astonishing number of supportive messages and offers of help from the local community. The picture below shows two of the wonderful people who joined a litter pick on 21 August to clear items revealed by the fire. You can see what a difficult job this was! Southampton City Council also sent a team with a truck to remove the rubbish. As well as the 20 or so people who joined this effort, other local residents also organised themselves to clear litter. We are very grateful to them all, and it shows how special the reserve is for local residents. We are fortunate to have it in Peartree, and we are very lucky to have so many people who clearly treasure it. Even though our wonderful volunteers are the reason we were awarded Wilder Group of the Year from the Hampshire and Isle of Wight Wildlife Trust, I hadn’t realised just how much support there was. Thank you everyone.

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