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Surrey Wildlife Trust on Surrey's unique insect heritage at Chobham Common

PUBLISHED: 14:53 24 November 2011 | UPDATED: 14:33 20 February 2013

A specimen of the red barbed ant (Photo courtesy of Natural History Museum)

A specimen of the red barbed ant (Photo courtesy of Natural History Museum)

Tucked away in a quiet corner of Chobham Common is the only colony of the red-barbed ant in mainland Britain. But now they're battling for survival...

Originally published in Surrey Life magazine May 2007



Tucked away in a quiet corner of Chobham Common is the only colony of the red-barbed ant in mainland Britain. But now they're battling for survival...



by John Rennie


Most of us come across ants when they invade the kitchen in the summer or start undermining the garden paving, or maybe cause a mild annoyance on a picnic. What few people realise, however, is that Surrey is a very special place for ants. In fact, for one particular ant species, there is a site in our county that is unique on mainland Britain.

The red-barbed ant (Formica rufibarbis) is found only on Chobham Common, which is owned by Surrey County Council, managed by Surrey Wildlife Trust and is the largest national nature reserve in south-east England. Tragically, though, there's only one colony, and it's dying out because there's no queen.

The ant's rapid decline in Britain has been caused mainly by the loss of suitable heathland habitat - but now a rescue operation is underway. And as this is the only site on mainland Britain where the red-barbed ant still exists, the Heritage Lottery Fund has awarded the Zoological Society of London (ZSL) a 49,000 grant to rescue this rare species from imminent extinction.

Save the colony
This prestigious society will be working with Surrey Wildlife Trust and other partners to save this colony and to introduce it to other sites in Surrey. Already, large scale habitat restoration has created enough suitable sites for the species to recover, after breeding and reintroduction work starts later this year.

"This must be one of the more unusual Heritage Lottery Fund projects," says Jill Barton, head of conservation for the Surrey Wildlife Trust. "We have been seeking solutions to save this population for some time and this has become critical now that we have only one colony left, with a finite time ahead of it. We will be co-operating with other conservation organisations and our local ant expert to create the best conditions we can. Working with ZSL on the recovery programme, we will also be looking to recruit volunteers to assist with survey, monitoring and habitat management work once the breeding colonies are in place."

The red barbed ants of Surrey


According to the national ant expert, Dr John Pontin, writing in Ants of Surrey, the red-barbed ant is possibly the rarest resident animal in mainland Britain. Without a queen, though, this colony will die out in a short while. The only other known colony is on the Isle of Scilly. Past locations for this rare species, including Reigate Heath and sites around Weybridge, saw the ant die out because of poor heathland management.

However, on the plus side, Surrey has many other ant species and is one of the best places to find some 30 out of the 42 native species. Dr Pontin says that ants can be found in almost every corner of the county, from our back gardens, to woodland, chalk downland and heathland. He adds that ants are a very complex species, being highly social, living in structured societies complete with sophisticated communication systems and often interacting with other species from beetles to butterflies.

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