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Countryside in the heart of Letchworth

PUBLISHED: 12:05 06 January 2015 | UPDATED: 12:05 06 January 2015

Black squirels were first spotted on the common in Letchworth a century ago. Photo Brian Sawford

Black squirels were first spotted on the common in Letchworth a century ago. Photo Brian Sawford

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Countryside Management Service projects officer Ellie Beach gives a guide to work on Norton Common that has enhanced habitats for years to come

Volunteers planting wetland species on a bank cleared of concrete along a course of the PixVolunteers planting wetland species on a bank cleared of concrete along a course of the Pix

Norton Common is a Local Nature Reserve in the heart of Letchworth. With ancient trees, open grassland, meadow and watercourses of the Pix brook flowing through it, the site is a key attraction in the town for people and wildlife.

The Countryside Management Service has played a key role in managing the site for many years alongside reserve owners North Hertfordshire District Council and the dedicated Friends of Norton Common. Our collective efforts have been rewarded by the site winning a Green Flag award for the past five years. This year saw major work on the watercourses across the common to address incidents of flooding and improve wildlife habitats as well as public access.

Norton Common was once arable and grazing land. Evidence of historic cultivation can be seen in the way the ground regularly undulates across much of the site. Known as ridge and furrow agriculture, the undulations were produced by ploughing strips of large open fields in the same direction each year. This was the usual way of farming until the 18th century, when the fields were divided and enclosed with hedges. Following enclosure, the commoners of Norton were granted rights to graze cattle here. With a decline in grazing, by the end of 19th cntuey bushes covered much of the previously open land. In 1903 the common was integrated into the design of the new Letchworth Garden City and paths were opened up through the scrub. An open air swimming pool and bowling clubhouse and greens were added in the 1930s.

A surprising variety of wildlife can be found on Norton Common and in 2006 it was designated a Local Nature Reserve. The spring-fed meadows boast an array of wildflowers such as southern marsh orchid, meadow cranesbill, cowslips and wild carrot. Butterflies including orange tip and skipper, alongside other insects, thrive among the wildflowers. Dragonflies and damselflies can be seen hawking above the meadows in the summer months.

The Pix supports bats which use it as a corridoor to hunt insectsThe Pix supports bats which use it as a corridoor to hunt insects

The woods provide places for birds to roost, feed and nest. Residents include tawny owl, woodpeckers, bullfinch and song thrush, while in summer visiting chiffchaff and blackcap can be seen. Bats use the edges of the woodland and watercourses as corridors along which to feed. Muntjac, a small deer with a distinctive bark, introduced from China, can be seen roaming the common throughout the year. Letchworth was the first place to record a wild black squirrel back in 1912 and they are now a regular sight enjoyed by visitors. Black squirels can now been spotted in neighbouring towns.

Work to address issues affecting the watercourses that flow through the reserve started last winter and was completed in early summer. The channels were heavily shaded, had steep banks, were blocked with debris and had outdated concrete structures – all contributing to erosion and leading to localised flooding. The project led by CMS has re-naturalised watercourses across the site, reducing erosion and flooding, making them more attractive, and increasing opportunities for wildlife and improved access for visitors. Many hours were contributed to the project by the Friends of Norton Common and CMS conservation volunteers who were involved in coppicing bank side trees and planting wetland plants in the channels. None of this would have been possible without funding from NHDC and Hertfordshire County Council.

At a recent event to celebrate the completion of the project, Peter Burt, NHDC environment portfolio holder said the outcome of the watercourse project is fantastic and thanked everyone involved for their support and hard work. ‘Their efforts will be appreciated by the whole community for many years,’ he added.

Terry Douris, cabinet member for highways and waste management at County Hall added, ‘This project has been made possible by local authorities working together in partnership with the local community, enabling great things to be achieved on Norton Common for both people and wildlife.’

Autumnal colour along an avenue of trees on the commonAutumnal colour along an avenue of trees on the common

Visiting Norton Common

Norton Common is an interesting and attractive place to visit at any time of year, at the moment the trees are putting on a great autumnal display. Parking is available next to the swimming pool and bowls club off Icknield Way. Bus stops are found on all main roads and the site, which is a short walk from Letchworth Railway Station.

A Norton Common leaflet is available to download from hertslink.org/cms/getactive/placestovisit/nortoncommon

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