Netley common is important for wildlife associated with lowland heath and its value for nature conservation is locally rich, hence its designation as a Site of Importance for Nature Conservation (SINC).
Netley Common consists of open heathland and grassland with islands of scrub and gorse, surrounded by a mixed woodland fringe consisting mainly of oak, aspen, sweet chestnut, and silver birch. Scots Pine dominate the high forest towards the east and an acidic wet flush extends down the slope to the west.
It has some interesting flora and shallow pools associated with it, such as a small colony of round leaved sundew, aromatic bog myrtle and bog asphodel. Three native heathers can be found on Netley Common: ling (common heather), bell heather and cross leaved heath along with associated scrub species like dwarf gorse, common gorse and young birch and willow.
Reptiles such as common lizards and adders can sometimes be found basking on the heath when it's sunny but slither away to the cover of a bush when disturbed.
These creatures are protected by law and should not be taken away from their natural habitat. Birds such as linnets, yellowhammer and dartford warblers prefer to nest in the areas of open scrub on the heath, while woodpecker, blackbirds, and jays nest in the surrounding woodland. Foxes, rabbits and even roe deer have been seen, especially around dusk.
The heath is also important for its creepy crawlies, as well as its elegant butterflies and dragonflies.
In the past Netley Common and other heathlands, such as those in the New Forest, would have been maintained naturally by grazing animals. Commoners' cattle, sheep and horses, as well as wild deer, would have kept woodland and scrub encroachment to a minimum and ensured fresh heather growth, as would natural fires on hot summer days.
Today on the Common, in the absence of suitable grazing animals, the rangers have to clear areas of scrub to allow light to get to ground level. This means the heather can reseed in areas that had been overgrown by gorse. Since 1999, Highland Cattle have been introduced to paddocks on the Common to graze on the scrub and bramble; so far they are doing a great job. Encroachment from the nearby woodland onto the heathland also has to be stemmed.
Rhododendron ponticum is a particular problem due to its vigorous growth so the Rangers regularly cut and treat areas of this non-native species. Because the heath is so small and so close to residential areas, we do not practice heather burning. All fires, natural or otherwise, have to be put out as quickly as possible.
In general, the Countryside Service tries to recreate the work nature once had the freedom to do before the area was developed and our fragment of heath isolated from the countryside around it.
Netley Common is alive with history. A bronze-age round barrow or tumulus is located in the east corner. This is the last remaining one of four and is thought to be 3,500 years old. Its original use is thought to have been as a burial mound. A flint hammer stone has been found here but no other finds; the tumulus is thought to have been raided by treasure-hunters in days gone by. The tumulus now needs to be looked after to prevent trees growing on it and people walking over it.
A Roman road crosses the site. It ran from Southampton, then called Clausentum, to Portchester, crossing the Hamble River at Botley. It was surfaced with tightly packed pebbles and flints and had a drainage gully on one side. It was severely damaged in places by activities during the preparations for the D-day landings and is now hard to detect on the ground, although there is a slightly raised contour to the land along its length. Any leaning trees along this route may be removed to prevent damage to the monument.
The Common boasts an important military use in the past. It was used by the military from at least 1794 to 1800 for training and transit camps. Soldiers from the Netley Camp were called for by the magistrates of Southampton in 1796 to disperse a mob demonstrating against high bread prices. Netley Common was of course much larger in the past and we cannot be sure if these soldiers were encamped on the area which remains undeveloped today.
Canadian soldiers were quartered on Netley Common during the second world war in the run up to D-Day. Evidence in the form of concrete foundations and brick holes can still be discovered today amongst the brambles. There are also a few signs, such as the base of an old pigsty, of old smallholdings which used to be spread around the countryside.