Why we love heaths and what we're doing to reverse their decline

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Why we love heaths and what we're doing to reverse their decline

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Centuries ago, visitors to our region’s heaths would have encountered open spaces brimming with life and human activity.

Vast heathland habitat once sprawled across the south east. This common land was the heart of the peasant economy and was alive with people herding livestock, cutting gorse for bread ovens, collecting birch for tools and besom (twig brooms like those associated with witches), gathering bracken for bedding and making potash which they used to feed crops and for the glassmaking industry.

Over centuries this prolonged human activity shaped a unique habitat, leading to highly adapted communities of wildlife. They rely on this special landscape and struggle to exist elsewhere, making heathland one of the UK’s richest but scarcest habitats.

Farnham Heath's landscape (c) Andy Hay RSPB-Images.com

Lowland heath is home to some of Britain’s rarest wildlife including all twelve of our native reptile and amphibian species. Specialists such as sand lizards and smooth snakes depend on the sunny, sheltered patches of bare ground found on drier heaths. 

Male sand lizard (c) Ben Andrew RSPB-Images.com

Listen carefully and you’ll hear the distinctive churring of nightjars and the knocking call of stonechat. The rare Dartford warbler (pictured below) is completely restricted to heathland and breeds under the protective cover of dense heather or compact gorse. And look out for crossbills tearing at pinecones, woodcocks displaying and tree pipits perching.

Dartford warbler (c) Ben Hall RSPB-Images.com

As heathland is lost it becomes harder for these species to exist in Britain. Lowland dry heath is, on a global scale, rarer than tropical rainforest. In the last 250 years over 85% of our heaths have been lost and fragmented due to a lack of active management and changes in agriculture, development and extraction. So we’re taking action.

We’ve joined forces with ten other organisations to expand and connect the existing 1% of heathland left in the South Downs National Park. The Heathlands Reunited project will create wildlife corridors forming an area of heathland greater than 1,200 football pitches.

At RSPB Farnham Heath in Surrey, we’ve given a boost to one of the UK’s rarest and most threatened reptiles with the introduction of 21 young sand lizards.And we’re leading a Back from the Brink project to make field cricket populations more robust by extending and joining patches of habitat, and starting new populations by translocating crickets on restored heathland.

Watch our short video about the field crickets here

As well as being vital for wildlife, heathland is also an important space for millions of people, with recognised benefits for health and wellbeing. We asked RSPB Farnham Heath Warden Mike Coates for his tips on how people can connect with and protect heathland habitats.      

“The best thing you can do is become a peasant volunteer! We don’t have peasant farmers any more so rely on volunteers to manage the site to replicate this 18th century agricultural system.

Dog walkers should always keep dogs on leads. Ground-nesting birds such as tree pipit, nightjar and woodlark are vulnerable to disturbance and may leave nests exposed to predation or the wet and cold as a result.

Be very careful around fires, the habitat is naturally dry and flammable, so please don’t have a barbeque in the middle of a heath!

Come and enjoy our reserves and events, the RSPB manages heath in five reserves across the south east, Farnham Heath, Hazeley Heath, Pulborough Brooks, Broadwater Warren and Blean Woods.

Comments
  • An excellent blog, marred only by the use of "football pitches", a unit of measurement known only to the RSPB. There is no standard size for a football pitch, only maxima and minima. If you must use it, please give hectares or acres as well. Otherwise, great stuff!