A visit to Langley Mead, Shinfield

Standing for Suitable Alternative Natural Green Space, SANGS are a measure in planning law for protecting environmentally sensitive sites from the effects of housing development, by providing alternative green space for amenity use - dog walking, Sunday strolling, bird watching, and otherwise enjoying the countryside. Thames Valley heaths constitute a limited habitat that might otherwise be unduly encroached upon by the increasing number of residents if such provision did not take place. Ground nesting birds in particular would be at risk. So, for every 1,000 houses built, local council's designate 8 hectares of land to be set aside at the developer's expense.

Langley Mead is one such place; indeed at 18 hectares it is one of the largest in the district. It is owned and managed by the University of Reading according the requirements of the SANGS designation and was opened to the public in May 2015. Previously it was agricultural land, enclosed long before the time of parliamentary enclosure, as the Earl of Fingal estate map of 1756 shows. This created a landscape with meadows, hedgerows and commons rich in a wide variety of plant life, which the new Langley Mead attempts to preserve.

On the day of the EEG visit, Sunday 20th September 2015, 25 of us turned out to join one of the WBO countryside officers for a tour, members ranging in age from pensioners to a three-year-old. The car park was full to overflowing. While Duncan explained the concept of SANGS outlined above, it became obvious that this was a popular spot, as several dog walkers squeezed past with their pets. We set off along the 2.4km of footpaths, on a circuit of the designated space.

Not knowing what to expect, members of the group had come in a variety of footwear, but as it happened the paths were well-made with hoggin, compact and well drained - apart from the stretch near the river bank that was constructed of raised duckboards. Being so new the evidence of intensive site management abounds, with brand new fences, gates, enclosures, benches and information boards. It is intended to let it mellow and allow nature to take its course, and already dead trees are being left where they have fallen.

At present the flora and fauna is of a limited spectrum. Red clover of a suspiciously agricultural vigour was conspicuously abundant in the field, though white clover was present too, as was birdsfoot trefoil, ribwort plantain, yarrow and other common wildflowers. Invasive Himalayan balsam could be seen by the river. Newly sown yellow rattle had been in evidence earlier in the summer as a means of controlling the growth of grass, though on this occasion the grass was being kept short by a herd of black cattle. Wildlife sightings, as we wandered through the site, included a red kite, a ruddy darter dragonfly and a common blue butterfly. There were two owl boxes on the site, though sadly no sign of their occupants.

With extensive housing development planned in the district it is reassuring to know that such measures are available to retain protected green space. Other local SANGS are in the pipeline and we'll soon become familiar with the designation.

Edwin Trout

For more information, including directions to get there, see the Langley Mead website.

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