Life on the edge – project to save the nightingales on Bookham Commons


One of the greatest pleasures of an evening, spring walk on Bookham Commons has been hearing the soaring, melodious notes of the nightingale’s song...

Sadly, in the past few years we’ve seen the number of nightingales on the commons fall sharply and this has caused great concern, not only among the ornithological world, but for every visitor who cares about the countryside.

This has led us to take a long, hard look at what’s happening to these birds and the changing world in which they’re trying to survive.

Reasons for the decline

  • Every year these amazing birds fly all the way from tropical Africa (right down by the equator) and have to pass through countries where it’s still considered a worth-while tradition to shoot or trap small songbirds. 
  • Changes in agricultural practices have led to a loss of suitable habitat – efficient farms have no areas of scrub to nest in and fewer insects to feed on. Nightingales are ‘nsectivorous’ all they eat are insects.
  • In Surrey, many heaths and commons are now covered with even-aged young trees that are shading-out interesting plants and the insects that live on them. 
  • On Bookham Commons we have increasing noise and light pollution from the motorway and more air traffic. When the grazing died out in 1949, followed by the rabbits not long after, much of the scrub that grew-up along the woodland edge (where large numbers of birds used to nest) is now becoming over-mature and shaded by young trees.

What can be done?

We've a problem.... our grassland is very rare and precious. Nationally, we’ve lost at least 95 percent of these ‘unimproved’, species-rich grasslands. We can’t let the scrub invade these grassland areas. But we need tight, impenetrable, predator-proof young scrub to attract nesting birds. 

What we have to do is to ‘push-back’ the woodland edge, by careful thinning of the trees and layering the old scrub to provide cover for birds. With 125ha (300 acres in old money) of oak woodland on the commons, we’re not short of trees for people to enjoy.

To slow the advance of woodland (it’s not practical to extend cattle grazing) we’ll use tractor mowing and rotational clearing by contractors and our volunteers. This work will, of course, require an ever-increasing amount of money.

Friends to the rescue

Having funded a fantastic range of improvements (the bird hide, natural play area, information panels, bridges, waymarkers…) for visitors to the area, the Friends are proposing to ‘return to their roots’ and do something to assist the wildlife and habitats of the commons (part of the core purpose of the founding the ‘Friends’). The Friends hope to lessen the impact of this task by spreading the work over three years, sub-dividing three main areas into smaller ones to reduce any disturbance to other wildlife and users of the commons.

Not surprisingly, many other birds and other forms of wildlife too will benefit from this proposal, along with the visiting human population... Visitor surveys have shown that the majority of visitors like the varied scenery of the commons and this work will help to maintain these landscapes for future generations.  

For further information on the project, please contact Ian Swinney.