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  • Julie Muller


Updated: Jan 28, 2022

(Nearest post code - DY13 9JB

Visited by Shep and Zak

Today Shep and I came for a walk at Hartlebury Common - an area of heathland very close to Stourport on Severn in Worcestershire.

Zak, a Border Collie, standing under a big oak tree at Hartlebury Common in Worcestershire
Zak standing by a big oak tree at Hartlebury Common, near Stourport-On-Severn in Worcestershire

We jumped out of the car anxious to start our walk but were stopped in our tracks by the sight of a large brown and white cow with enormous upturned horns munching the grass by the side of the car park. I am always a bit frightened by any animal bigger than me, so I barked a terse greeting before running off in the opposite direction. Shep jumped up and down attempting to look scary! The cow didn’t even bother to raise her head.

And so, we set off to explore. The common is quite an exciting place to visit. There are so many interesting smells to investigate. The soil was soft and sandy to our feet and there were many mounds of sand, covered in bright yellow gorse to run between. There were loads of ant hills, too, all of them covered in rosettes of bright green moss, wild thyme and heather and littered with rabbit droppings. Julie and Rose led us down a steep sandy path between stands of gorse interspersed with mountain ash, oak and crab apple trees. Piles of gently fermenting apples and large brown shiny acorns littered the ground. We heard a rustling in the branches above our head and saw a cheeky squirrel peering at us. Shep got so excited that he charged down the hill dropping his ball in the process. It was only Rose ‘s and my sharp eyes that helped him to find it.

As we walked towards the bottom of the hill, we were aware of traffic buzzing past on one side of us and then the sounds of human voices coming from gardens neighbouring the Nature Reserve on another – a reminder of how close we were to the town.

When we emerged on to the lower part of the common, it felt as though we were walking on an enormous beach but, instead of seaweed and seashells, this beach was littered with low growing heathers, gorse, broom and small trees. As we scampered across the sand, we could hear the roar of more traffic from another busy road and amongst the vegetation we spied four more long horned cows peacefully munching away, one of which had her two horns growing in the opposite direction to each other – one up, one down.

I wondered why these animals were so from the cow that we met on our arrival.

In any case, these gentle giants live here because they have a very important job to do. They are ‘employed’ to control the growth of the vegetation on the heathland. Hartlebury common is the one of the biggest areas of dry heathland in Worcestershire and it supports all kinds of unusual and endangered plants. For example, plants like the tall, grey/green tower mustard, which is on the verge of extinction, which is mainly found in Norfolk, and the sand catchfly which lives here because it just loves the sandy conditions. These plants are very fragile and so easily damaged.

Shep, a Border Collie, relaxes under a big tree at Hartlebury Common in Worcestershire
Shep relaxing at Hartlebury Common

Shep raced towards me, ball in mouth, leaving delicate pawprints in the soft sand. Hoof prints and footprints added to the picture. He sent showers of loose sand in all directions as he ran towards me and I soon realised that he was thoroughly wet through as if he had just taken a bath. Where had he been? We followed him to a swamp like area littered with low tree stumps, reeds and rushes. I was desperate for a drink and so I waded into the water just up to my knees. The water was cold and refreshing. I grabbed a stick and chased Shep across the sand. Shep turned around, looked at me and then just rolled, the soft sand clinging to his wet coat, it was just like playing on the beach.

This flat part of the common is actually the lower of two river terraces left behind by the River Severn. Julie wasn’t looking forward to the climb back up to the top terrace, but it wasn’t too bad. As we got close to the top, we saw electric pylons striding across the skyline. These huge metal structures are just so tall when you get close to them

We quickly trotted past. Our noses had picked up the scent of something much more interesting – probably a rabbit judging from the number of droppings although we actually hadn’t seen one so far today. Rabbits have lived here on Hartlebury Common for centuries. In fact, in the past, a man was employed solely to farm them. The land has never been viewed as particularly profitable. Humans have made a living from it in whatever way they could. Certain people (commoners) were given right to use it for their own benefit – some were allowed to cut turf, some to fish, some to graze animals, some to cut bracken. There is also evidence that hemp was grown and used to make rope. This was a very smelly process that involved bundles of hemp stems being submerged in water so that it decomposed, and the useable fibres extracted to spin the rope.

All of this human activity has made the common what it is today and over time the common has developed habitats that have encouraged a wealth of invertebrate species to flourish. This includes many butterflies and moths that are not found everywhere. Apart from the well- known Emperor moth, you find heath rustics, crescents and the fox moths. They all have found their own particular niche on the common to which they are most suitably adapted. The best time to see them is during the long summer days and now, Autumn is just around the corner. Our noses were constantly being assailed by the sweet smell of rot courtesy an enormous array of fungi of all shapes, sizes, colours and odours.

Zak, a Border Collie, standing by a tree skeleton at Hartlebury Common SSSI in Worcestershire
Zak at Hartlebury Common SSSI in Worcestershire

The higher part of the Common is very different to the lower part. Here the sand is darker and more compacted and is vegetated with beautiful purple heather. It also seemed to be far more popular with our canine friends and their humans. There were dogs of all shapes and sizes and it was clear that they were having just as much fun as we were. It was lovely to see them playing. Shep would have loved to join in but he hasn’t quite learnt the art of gentle play.

We both kept an eagle eye out for the lone long horn as we got back to the car. Where on earth was she? Then we spied her – lying down on the grass surrounded by the picnic tables.

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