A wild heath that’s a key part of the Jersey National Park
Jersey has 19 Sites of Special Interest covering a total of four per cent of the Island, taking in woodlands, heath and wetland, wild open stretches of the coast and duneland. Tim Liddiard, senior natural environment officer at the Environment Department, looks at Portelet Common
PERCHED above Ouaisné Common to the north and Portelet Bay to the east and stretching out to Le Fret Point are the beautiful heathland and coastal slopes of Portelet Common.
Portelet SSI was designated in 2007 for its ecological, archaeological, historical and architectural interest and covers approximately 31 hectares, roughly the same space as 31 rugby pitches. Ecologically, it forms part of the Island’s south-west coast heathland complex and is integral to the character of the Jersey National Park.
The area is under multiple ownership that includes the Tenants of La Commune de Haut, the National Trust for Jersey, the Société Jersiaise and the public.
A network of footpaths around the site provides some of the most spectacular views in this part of the Island. There is also a strong sense of isolation, with granite spires emerging from the cliffs, weathered by millennia of Atlantic gales.
The site is characteristically Atlantic dry (maritime) heathland with a limited global distribution, dotted along the north Atlantic coast of Europe. This habitat is rare and considered a European conservation priority.
Portelet supports a number of plant and animal species that are of significance not only in Jersey but also in Great Britain and internationally. At least 30 of the recorded 125 species of plant have restricted distributions throughout either the British Isles or Jersey.
Up until the 17th century, the greatest impact upon the landscape – the issue that would have had the strongest effect on an area’s shape, character and the wildlife found there – was grazing. The tenants would have grazed sheep, cattle, goats and ponies and the remains of dry stone walls running down the western coastal slopes can still be seen today, which would have been built for stock control.
The archaeological site of La Cotte de St Brelade, also a designated geological SSI, is owned by the Société Jersiaise and is one of the foremost middle Palaeolithic sites in Europe. ‘Cotte’ means ‘cave’ in Jèrriais and finds from the site include remains of woolly mammoth and rhinoceros, and skull and teeth from Neanderthal man. These finds help build a picture of how La Cotte was used over a period of 190,000 years.
The oldest building on site, La Cotte Battery, was constructed in 1795 as a defensive magazine and battery and is owned by the National Trust for Jersey. Positioned strategically above Ouaisné Bay, it commands a position that also takes in St Brelade’s Bay and Beauport beyond.
Immediately east of the Common is Portelet Bay and the rocky islet, Ile au Guerdain, with a Martello tower perched on it which is often referred to as Janvrin’s Tomb.
There are a number of old stone quarries at the site, and the granite from here was used to build the sea wall at West Park. Quarrying continued on the site up to the Second World War and remains from the quarries can still be seen today.
During the Second World War, occupying forces constructed a complex of defensive concrete bunkers and gun emplacements around the south-west coast of Jersey. Bunkers found at Portelet form part of a complex known as Resistance Nest Le Fret, which includes two searchlight shelters, a Jagerstand-type casemate for a 10.5 cm field gun and a personnel shelter. Resistance nests provided small pockets that would house groups of up to ten men with light weapons.
Site management is targeted at improving the condition of habitats, with the intention of preserving the accompanying geological, historical and archaeological features. A lot of the work focusses on the removal of invasive non-native plants which, if left unchecked, would smother more desirable plants such as heather and gorse and have an impact on biological diversity. The lack of livestock grazing since the 17th century has resulted in the encroachment of gorse, bramble scrub and invasive tree species which can become dominant. Management is carried out, generally by removing vegetation, to replicate the actions and outcomes of traditional grazing.
- The removal of invasive tree species
Without management, the site would quickly become a holm-oak-dominated woodland. Not only would this be disastrous for the wildlife found there, it would also not provide a very interesting or dynamic landscape. There are a few fungi associated with holm oaks but generally not many birds or insects depend on these trees.
In addition, in recent years silver birch has become increasingly problematic in heathland environments and, as with the holm oak, this requires close control.
- The removal of Hottentot fig
This fleshy-leaved South African plant favours the warm coastal climate of Jersey’s south-west coast and has no local predators, its natural predator being the tortoise!
Many volunteers and organisations have lent their time and muscle to successfully controlling this invasive plant over the past 20 years and specialist teams now use rope access to control the fig on steep cliffs.
- The removal of gorse
Much of the site is covered with gorse and because this plant tends to spread into adjacent habitats it needs to be controlled. Gorse is cut on rotation to ensure it doesn’t spread and also maintains a varied age structure. When the gorse reaches maturity (after ten to 15 years) it becomes less dense and doesn’t offer the protection birds need.
- The removal of bracken
When grazing was commonplace across Portelet, bracken was controlled by constant trampling and nibbling by livestock. It was also collected by the tenants to be used for animal bedding.
Bracken is now cut either by hand on the steeper slopes or by machine where topography allows.
The animals and plants which are found at Portelet reflect the exposed Atlantic coastal heathland environment, including the Rufous narcissus hoverfly, which was first recorded here in 2015 and is still the only known site for this species within the whole of the British Isles.
Its presence shows that the site management of thinning and controlling the dominating holm oak is paying dividends at conserving populations of less common species. Wild daffodils that grow on the coastal slopes in spring, giving the area a yellowish glow, also helps this hoverfly, which lays its eggs in the plant’s underground bulbs.
The commonly found small and beautiful little flower bee, a solitary nesting bee species, nests in very good numbers on the bare compacted soils along path edges. It feeds on heather and other heathland plants such as Jersey’s own subspecies of spotted rockrose, tiny heath pearlwort and autumn squill, whose flowers herald the changing seasons.
Birds seen here include the elusive Dartford warbler, the charismatic linnet with its reddish breast in the breeding season and the stonechat, whose call sounds like two pebbles being knocked together.
Portelet sits in a prominent position overlooking Ouaisné Common. It can be accessed from beach level at Ouaisné up a fairly steep footpath, which passes a number of quarrying relics.
Bus route 12a provides a frequent service to Ouaisné junction, from where it is a short walk (600m) to the site.
If travelling by car or bicycle, the small car park on site includes bicycle racks.