by Greg Freeman

IMG_6506Out in the countryside between Woking and Chobham a transformation has been taking place. A 17-acre former mushroom farm that was largely covered over in concrete is being turned into a wetland to attract birds – and the public – by Horsell Common Preservation Society, the charitable membership company that owns great tracts of green land around Woking, (see map, right),  about 80% of the town’s public open space.

I took a tour of the Heather Farm site the other day with the society’s estate manager, Paul Rimmer,  to see the progress that has been made. The society took over the site, which is on the flood plaiIMG_6507n of the river Bourne, in 2010 after a land-swap planning deal that enabled McLaren to expand. Later that year demolition work began of a number of buildings, including asbestos sheds and a boiler house with oil tanks, plus removal of 14 acres of concrete. A main lake and five wildlife ponds have been created with the help of the Wildfowl and Wetland Trust. Paul said: “As soon as we dug the hole, water started to appear, and it was helped by the heavy rains of last winter. We dug a channel from the river bank, so that as soon as it floods, this land floods, too. It’s good for flood defences, and fluctuating water levels are good for wildlife.”

On the day that I visited there were a pair of swans, ducks, and a flock of geese. Grebes and tufted duck have also been spotted. When opened to the public the wetland will have observation areas for the public, as well as a café from where you should also be able to see the birds, in the one remaining farm building, which will also accommodate storage areas for the Lightbox art gallery and local drama groups. It is hoped that all the facilities will be complete for an opening on June 21 2015. Other plans include a biomass boiler using woodchip from the society’s land, which should be able to heat the building and drastically cut bills. There will also be a reed bed filtration system to treat sewerage.

Earlier this year a team of around 100 volunteers planted 15,000 aquatic plants, such as reeds, flag iris, and marsh marigolds. Dogs will be barred from the site, but the society also owns the land that borders the wetland, and Paul said dog walkers would be encouraged to use that perimeter, which it is also hoped will relieve pressure on other parts of the common where ground-nesting birds need protection.

Horsell Common Preservation Society came into being in 1910 when the-then Earl of Onslow wanted help in administering his land. That arrangement lasted until 1966, when the land was offered for sale. The society bought Horsell common, while Surrey county council took over Chobham common. Since 1995 the amount of land owned by the society has increased by 35%.

At the same time as it has been carrying out the transformation of Heather Farm, the society has also been restoring the Muslim burial ground created in the woods outside Woking for first world war soldiers, completion of which will include an Islamic garden within its walls. Paul said he visited Heather Farm three or four times a week. “Every time I come I just can’t stop smiling. I look at this now, and think, ‘Bloody hell, we’ve done well.’ It’s very satisfying.”