By Ian Fisher
Sites of Special Scientific Interest, also called SSSIs, are the country’s best wildlife and geological sites. SSSIs around our area are designated by Natural England, and in common with the rest of England, they include special features that need protecting because of their environmental and landscape value – there are over 4,000 in England, covering around 7% of the country’s land area, with many more in Wales and Scotland. Northern Ireland has ASSIs, Areas of Special Scientific Interest that fulfil the same role.
SSSIs preserve our remaining natural heritage for future generations. Wildlife and geological features are under pressure from development, pollution, climate change and unsustainable land management, and SSSIs are important as they support plants and animals that find it more difficult to survive in the wider countryside.
In the Hatleys we are fortunate to have an SSSI right on our doorstep, with several more nearby. Although not all can be extensively visited (like Gamlingay Wood), many have public footpaths through or alongside them. Most of the sites are wooded, part of a network of village and community woodlands that are the remnants of vast mediaeval woodlands. These were often used for coppicing and large areas were cleared for farming.
Buff Wood (16 hectares) is our very own SSSI, opposite the Post Office in Hatley St George and running parallel to the East Hatley road. It became a special site in 1958 and is now a nature reserve used for scientific research and managed by the local Wildlife Trust and the Cambridge University Botanic Garden on behalf of the Hatley Estate. It is a private wood, and anyone wanting to gain access must request this from the Estate Office.
Buff Wood is important because its main woodland was planted from the Middle Ages onwards and the mixture of trees (ash, maple, oak, hazel and elm), combined with the wetness of the ground, is not found in many other places in the UK. It also has good populations of oxlip, primrose and other ancient woodland plants such as wood anemone, early-purple orchid, herb-Paris, and green hellebore (a plant rarely found in Cambridgeshire woods). Traditional coppicing methods keep these features of the woodland intact, some of which may otherwise be lost. Just nearby is the Local Nature Reserve of St Denis Church, a tiny 0.02 hectares, preserved for its graveyard flora and fauna.
Directly to the north of Hatley St George (past the small and undesignated Baulk Wood) lies Hayley Wood, first an SSSI in 1955 and covering 52 hectares. This site is a nature reserve run by the Wildlife Trust and can be extensively visited. There are display boards in the centre, as well as a tower to climb to view the birds in the woodland canopy. Amazingly, Hayley Wood has a recorded history of over 700 years and is one of the largest oxlip woods in Britain. The frequently waterlogged soil is ideal for oxlips and also good for meadowsweet.
Locally, it is renowned for the bluebells on the drier parts, where yellow archangel also grows. The trees are mainly field maple, ash, hazel and hawthorn, growing below larger oak trees, and they are managed through traditional coppice-with-standards methods. An old parish boundary hedge to the north dates from somewhere around the 11th century! Much like Buff Wood, there are rides and ponds that increase the wildlife diversity, and on the south side are extensive badger setts. Best time to visit? Definitely during May when the bluebells cover the ground.
Gamlingay Wood and Waresley Wood
Slightly further afield, but still at hand to the west and north-west, are Gamlingay Wood (notified in 1949, 46 hectares), Waresley Wood (notified in 1954, 62 hectares) and Weaveley and Sand Woods (notified in 1958, 76 hectares).
These woods are also all of ancient origin and hold well-developed plant and animal communities. Gamlingay Wood sits on a sandy loam soil that is unusual for Cambridgeshire and has a mix of oak, ash, hazel and field maple that are also coppiced. Typical plants include oxlip, dog’s mercury, bluebell, yellow archangel and wood anemone. Small drier areas have a vegetation type including oak, birch, bracken and creeping soft-grass, a combination extremely rare in the county. Gamlingay Wood is also managed by the Wildlife Trust, as is part of Waresley Wood over the border into Huntingdonshire District.
Waresley Wood is predominantly coppiced ash and hazel, with elm, birch and aspen, oak, hawthorn, privet, dogwood, wayfaring tree and dog rose. Primrose, bluebell, oxlip, early-purple orchid and dog violets thrive. Across the other side of the B1040, Weaveley and Sand Woods have their own unique woodland mixture, including early-purple and common spotted orchids, adder’s-tongue fern and the uncommon herb-Paris, butterfly orchid and pignut.
Just over into Bedfordshire, Potton Wood (notified in 1970, 85 hectares) is owned by the Forestry Commission and is not only important for its tree and shrub vegetation but also for the neutral grassland flora found along the rides, some species of which are uncommon in the county. Plants to look out for are bluebell, dogs mercury, yellow archangel, wood anemone, wood millet, and the interesting primrose-oxlip hybrids.
Orchids do well here, with four species (birds-nest, butterfly, lesser butterfly, and common spotted), and there is a large variety of breeding birds.
Towards Sandy lies Sandy Warren (notified in 1970, 16 hectares), owned by the RSPB and part of The Lodge Nature Reserve. It has a network of visitor tracks and is easily accessible. Although there is woodland present, the site is important as one of the few remaining examples of formerly extensive heathland in the area and the RSPB is slowly converting secondary woodland back into heath. Here you can see heather and tufted hair-grass, heath bedstraw and sheep’s sorrel.
The site attracts large numbers of breeding woodland birds – recently the heathland Dartford warbler has made an appearance. Sandy Warren is also important for dragonflies, natterjack toads and a wide variety of fungi. During the summer months you may catch glimpses of sheep brought over from Minsmere on the Suffolk coast. The visiting flock helps to graze the heathland and stop shrubs and saplings taking over.
Kingston Wood and Eversden Wood
Finally, out to the east, the nearest SSSIs are Kingston Wood and Outliers (notified in 1971, 49 hectares) and Eversden and Wimpole Woods (notified in 1954, 66 hectares), both on the other side of the Roman Road (formerly called Ermine Street, but now with the far less romantic name of the A1198 ). Again, both are important for the woodland species present and their ancient history (the former has plant records going back over 300 years).
Eversden Wood also supports a nationally important summer maternity roost for the barbastelle bat. In fact, six bat species have been recorded here, the others being brown long-eared, Natterer’s, noctule and two species of pipistrelle.
Some useful websites
To find out more about SSSIs in England, visit Natural England or its interactive site called Nature on the Map.
The NBN Gateway also has data on all the SSSIs. Select the SSSI of interest for a map and a species report for that site.
The Wildlife Trust has information on its reserves / SSSIs, found from Visit a Reserve by selecting the county of interest.
First published on the original Hatley website, August 2006; with minor changes for this website 4 April 2019. ▲