Country diary: This wildlife-rich meadow is no place to build houses

Country diary: This wildlife-rich meadow is no place to build houses

Country diary: This wildlife-rich meadow is no place to build houses

Langstone, Hampshire: Corridors like these are vital for biodiversity, and the abundance of birds, bats and mammals is the proof

On watch ... roe deer doe in Southmere field.

Last modified on Fri 29 Oct 2021 07.33 EDT

Known locally as Southmere, the nine-acre field at the end of my road is a traditional hay meadow – threatened habitat that has declined by 97% since the 1930s. It hasn’t been ploughed or artificially fertilised since the second world war, so in summer the grass is aglow with meadow buttercups, red clover, common knapweed, meadow thistle, great burnet and pyramidal orchids. This floral abundance supports a plethora of insects, which in turn attract birds and mammals.

Three species of pipistrelle bat – common, soprano and the rarer, migratory Nathusius’ – are a common sight, swooping above the grassland in pursuit of moths and midges. Surveys have found serotines, noctules, western barbastelles, and Leisler’s bats, and in 2020 a greater horseshoe was found – the first record for the borough and an extremely rare species in the county.

Evening light on Southmere field.

In addition to the ubiquitous crows, magpies and wood pigeons, you can find swallows, buzzards and kestrels foraging here; this summer, a pair of barn owls nested in a tree on the western boundary, their chicks’ rasping, begging calls carrying through the neighbourhood. During the winter months, the field provides refuge for flocks of brent geese, and it’s a significant feeding ground and high-tide roost for waders, most notably red-listed curlews.

At this time of year, the visiting roe deer doe’s pelage has faded from rusty red to grizzled grey, making her harder to spot against the bleached grasses and biscuit-coloured cow parsley, but I’ve learned she lifts her head every time the resident pheasant crows. Mice, voles and shrews scurry through the thatch, though I’ve only ever glimpsed them in the jaws of the local foxes – a battle-scarred dog and svelte vixen.Backing on to Southmoor Nature Reserve, Southmere forms part of an arc of undeveloped green space linking the coastal fringes of Langstone and Chichester harbours between Farlington Marshes and Emsworth. Wildlife corridors like these are vital, allowing movement between core habitats, enhancing biodiversity, and helping to mitigate urban fragmentation.

Residents have been dismayed to discover that, despite a no-build covenant from 1980, a developer is seeking planning permission to construct 65 houses here. When a hotel and restaurant were built on nearby Bosmere field, the developers argued that the presence of Southmere would mitigate the loss, providing a possible habitat if wildlife were displaced. Now it’s next in line. I understand the need to build affordable housing, but only 19 of the 65 dwellings are designated as such, and government-imposed housing targets could be met by developing local brownfield sites and vacant buildings instead.

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