The Fauna Of Tunbridge Wells And Rusthall Common
The 256 acres of Tunbridge Wells and Rusthall Commons provide an important and most unusual refuge for wildlife within the urban area. Unlike most public open spaces, they have never been landscaped or cultivated. This is not to suggest that they are pristine wild countryside, something which in any case does not exist in present day England. They owe much of their present appearance to human activity, and active management is required to maintain them in a fashion beneficial to their natural inhabitants. But the Commons nonetheless represent a genuinely ancient landscape, which long ago achieved a state of equilibrium between the needs of humanity and nature.
At the end of the last Ice Age, as temperate conditions reasserted themselves, the vast expanse of the primeval Wealden forest gradually came into existence. Within the forest, open heathy areas would have become established on thin soils, quite probably around the rock outcrops which brought the present Commons to the attention of their prehistoric inhabitants. Deliberate clearance of the forest cover, for hunting purposes, very probably took place as early as the Mesolithic, some 7000 years ago. This would have transformed the Commons into a mixture of open grassland and heathland, with heather and gorse the most conspicuous vegetation, as they remained until the early twentieth century.
Deliberate planting of commemorative and ornamental trees, mainly between 1860 and 1940, led unintentionally to the reestablishment of woodland, as the traditional practice of grazing declined and finally ceased altogether in the inter-war period of the twentieth century. The Commons today consist of a mosaic of habitats, in which surviving areas of heath and grassland, along with the open sandy areas around the major rock formations, coexist with tracts of secondary woodland. Further diversity is provided by a series of semi-natural ponds. Current management aims to preserve this diversity, and a reasonable balance of the different elements, by containing the spread of woodland and expanding the open areas.
Small Tortoiseshell butterfly
The present conservation management programme on the two Commons continues to improve them as a habitat for wildlife, and the long-established resident butterflies and dragonflies are flourishing in consequence. In addition, new species continue to appear. Some of these may have been present all along, but previously in such small numbers as to escape detection, but others are evidently new visitors or colonists for which conditions have now become suitable. It is fortunate for the Commons that the development of Tunbridge Wells has never cut them off completely from access to the open countryside. If they had become isolated islands in an urban landscape, it would have been much more difficult for wildlife from outside to reach them. Tunbridge Wells Common is open on its western boundary to the woodlands and meadows of the county border, and these same extensive habitats are adjacent to the southern edge of Rusthall Common.
The Commons have been noted for many years as a good spot for bird watching, bearing in mind their urban location and relatively small size. In the early 1960s local ornithologist Harold Betteridge listed 36 species nesting on the Commons, and made a photographic record of their nests. Nowadays, around 40 resident species can be found, along with about 15 summer or winter visitors. Familiar garden birds such as the Robin, Chaffinch, Blue Tit, Great Tit and Wren may readily be seen, and there are also records of more elusive relatives like the Bullfinch, Hawfinch, Goldcrest, Linnet and Redpoll. The large numbers of Magpies cannot fail to be observed, and their relatives the Carrion Crow, Jackdaw and Jay are also to be found. One of the most characteristic of the resident species is the Long-tailed Tit, often seen in small flocks moving from tree to tree; its elaborate nests of moss, spider webs and hair, covered with lichen, are constructed in gorse bushes. Groups of the colourful Goldfinch may be observed on occasions feeding at thistle seeds in large stands such as that beneath Mount Edgcumbe Rocks. The Song Thrush finds abundant snails of various species on the Commons, and its characteristic ‘anvils’, stones arising from bare ground and surrounded by shell fragments, can often be spotted along footpaths. The Mistle Thrush is also resident. The Nuthatch and Treecreeper inhabit the various wooded areas, where the occasional Pheasant has also been seen. Nightingales have been confirmed as nesting on Tunbridge Wells Common in the past, and adult birds continue to be reported.
Page last updated: 18/12/2012