Wandering through Dorset’s heaths in the blustery winter twilight, when the distances draw in and my senses quicken in the gathering dusk, I relish a faint tingle of apprehension and excitement. The heath feels edgy in the half-light, unpredictable - I am somewhere untamed and nature is in charge...
In truth, while we treasure places like this that feel wild, we have virtually no real wilderness in England. Over thousands of years, people have shaped and re-shaped the countryside, and most of our wild places have evolved into the habitats we know and love by the intertwining of nature and human activity. Heathland is no exception - the vast majority of English heaths are semi-natural cultural landscapes – they have developed from natural habitats through a combination of human interference and ecological processes. The characterful heathland species that we wish to see flourish, such as sand lizard, heath tiger beetle, nightjar and sundews, are here because of the long-standing relationship between people and heaths – a relationship that now has a different slant.
As far back as 5000 years ago, humans were clearing trees in the lowlands for timber and to encourage suitable vegetation for grazing livestock. In sandy or gravelly places, the soils were quickly depleted and dwarf shrubs such as acid-loving heather began to dominate the landscape in the place of trees. The infertility meant that heathlands were not suitable for cultivation, and they persisted as part of a subsistence farming system that integrated the use of both infertile and tilled areas.
In addition to grazing for livestock, heathlands also provided a wealth of other resources, such as heather for thatch, gorse to heat bread ovens and for animal fodder, bracken for livestock bedding, sand, gravel and clay for building, and turves for fuel. In addition to being cut, grazed, trampled, quarried and criss-crossed with cart tracks, heathland was also deliberately burnt to promote young growth palatable to livestock. Together, these traditional heathland practices prevented heathland from naturally returning to woodland. Instead, this landscape was an intricate mosaic of heather and gorse of different ages and disturbed areas of sandy heath, clay pits, pools and tracks that created the ideal conditions for characteristic heathland species to thrive. For example, Woodlarks nest in tussocks and feed on bare ground, Purbeck Mason Wasps use bare clay faces left by quarrying but also depend on the Heath Button moth larvae that thrive on regenerating heather following burns.
However, times changed and with them the economic necessity for traditional heathland activities. From the mid 19th century onwards, thousands of hectares of heathland vanished as agricultural practices intensified and heaths were afforested with timber crops or lost to housing development. Most of the patches that remained were no longer used and so developed into secondary pine and birch woods. The species that depended on the open heathland mosaic were either lost outright from those places, or gradually dwindled as conditions deteriorated. From 1800 onwards, about 80% of lowland heathland was lost; today we have some 58,000 hectares left in England (equivalent to about a third of the area of Greater London). To put our responsibilities for this habitat and its species in context, consider that, globally, lowland heathland is restricted to the Atlantic fringe of north west Europe and that the UK holds about 20% of this.
Luckily, the unique value of heathland was recognised before it was too late. Most remaining areas were designated as Sites of Special Scientific Interest under the under the Wildlife and Countryside Act 1981 and later as Natura 2000 sites under the Habitats Regulations. However, heathlands need more than just protection: to retain the characteristic heathland habitats and species on these sites, we have to be proactive in creating the kind of conditions that once resulted from traditional practices (we also need to reconnect them and make them meaningful for local communities – but that’s another blog!). To do this, land managers of heathland use a suite of well-established management techniques that replicate traditional activities, including rotational cutting of gorse and heather, ‘conservation grazing’, clearance of encroaching trees and scrub, bracken control, controlled burning and turf cutting or scraping. In Dorset’s Heathland Heart, we have the opportunity to work with our partners to use and further develop some of these techniques to create suitable conditions for key heathland species right across the Dorset Heaths, particularly those dependent on bare or disturbed ground. We look forward to describing how we get on in future blogs.