Lowland heathland can feel as wild as any British habitat but the wildness and natural appearance are false, in the sense that the habitat exists principally as a result of human activity originating in the clearance of vegetation for grazing by livestock. Heathland managed in the traditional manner offered not only rough grazing but the cutting of useful and profitable products, notably gorse, heather, bracken and scrub, and in places the extraction of peat, sand or gravel. Crucially, these were done on a small scale and hence were self-sustaining. The benefits to wildlife of this regime, along with regular but minor soil disturbance and burning, were considerable.
Given this background, heathland can continue to support a wide and unique range of resident fauna, particularly invertebrates, only through systematic management, which is both time and labour intensive. Usually, interfering with natural succession, which in heathland often involves keeping down scrub and birch, is a debatable practice. In this instance, though, it's necessary because of the habitat's dependence on humans from the start.
Unfortunately despite the immense ecological wealth of lowland heathland it has tended to be viewed for many years by landowners, including local authorities, as an inefficient use of valuable space appropriate for large-scale afforestation, drainage, intensive agriculture, mineral extraction and/or development.
With 58,000 hectares, principally in Dorset, Hampshire, Norfolk, Suffolk, Surrey and Sussex, Britain still has 20 per cent of the international total of this endangered habitat. That's a large proportion, as well as a large responsibility, and the losses here over the last two centuries reinforce how essential it is to protect what remains. Realisation that the current tally is only one sixth of that present in 1800 is numbing, and Dorset's losing 75 per cent of its total in the 20th century is even worse. In place of close-packed masses of Southern Wood Ants (Formica rufa), pictured below, we now find close-packed masses of people, especially around Bournemouth and Poole.
Moreover, even where the destructive actions just mentioned did not occur, lack of grazing and to a lesser extent burning management up until 1960 tended to change the character of much heathland as pine, birch, bracken, rhododendron and other scrub encroached.
It would be disastrous if such rare and handsome species as Southern Wood Ant, Sand Lizard (Lacerta agilis), Smooth Snake (Coronella austriaca), Dartford Warbler (Sylvia undata), Wood Lark (Lullula arborea), the pictured Silver-studded Blue butterfly (Plebeius argus), Mottled Bee-fly (Thyridanthrax fenestratus), Hornet Robber-fly (Asilus crabroniformis) and Heath Tiger Beetle (Cicindela sylvatica), which are all denizens of the habitat, suffered a collapse because of short-sightedness, ignorance or folly, including by planners at both national and local level.
The 8,400-hectare Thames Basin Heaths on the margins of Berkshire, Surrey and Hampshire has threatened to becomne a battleground. Through development, because of its proximity to London, this area has already declined drastically in size from around 15,000 hectares a century ago.
The remaining heathland contains a National Nature Reserve at Chobham Common, thirteen Sites of Special Scientific Interest (SSSI) and three sites in Surrey included in a Special Area of Conservation. These are the shiniest jewels in a crown designated in 2005 as a Special Protection Area under EU Habitats Regulations, which have full force in British law, and containing a wonderful mosaic of dry and wet heathland, mire, acid woodland and acid grassland.
So the ecological value of the overall habitat is indisputable, yet those in charge of regional development in the south-east, bless them, set down as a necessity the construction of getting on for 40,000 homes around the Thames Basin Heaths by 2016, with probably more to follow. Ahead of a public inquiry, mitigation proposed by Natural England, and supported by such conservation groups as the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds, included a ban on building within 400 metres of the SPA, and a charge on developers for building within five kilometres.
So the situation is not desperate yet, although the notion that an impost ever stopped anyone doing anything for long, if at all, is based on wishful thinking. Look at smoking, where health, not cost, is the key to giving up. Look at the increasing ownership of so-called gas guzzlers. Put the construction ban on the Thames Basin Heaths at 5km and the charge distance at 10km and you may get a result, but there are no guarantees.
Development on this scale even within 5km of a valuable habitat invariably has a detrimental effect, potentially creating in this instance further fragmentation and isolation of sites, which would lead to the impoverishment of fauna through inhibiting recruitment and dispersal. There would almost certainly be additional light pollution, noise pollution, risk of disturbance by extra human visitation, increased road and rail infrastructure, which are never good news for wildlife, increased pressure on water supplies potentially affecting the delicate hydrology of the heaths'and so on.
Happily, environmental organisations led by Natural England, the Wildlife Trusts, the RSPB (Farnham Heath is a superb example) and the National Trust, along with informed landowners including from the farming community, are managing some of our remaining lowland heathlands effectively and recreating others such as Roydon Heath in Norfolk.
Clearly there is some hope, but no confidence given the forecast increase in population in southern England over the next 30 years. Time will tell whether a sufficient amount of lowland heath habitat can be regenerated, enabling us to reach a position whereby many more sites host all six species of British reptile, for instance. English Nature intended that 6,000 hectares (at a cost of about £300 per hectare) should be re-established by 2010. Another 6,000 hectares on top of that would be little more than a good starting point. Pockets are fine, but the whole pair of trousers would be better.
Any inquiries - please e-mail me at Nature Conservation Imaging.
Images © Jeremy Early. All rights reserved.
In 2013 I published My Side of the Fence - the Natural History of a Surrey Garden. Details may be found, and orders placed, via this hyperlink My Side of the Fence. In November 2015 Surrey Wildlife Trust published the atlas Soldierflies, their allies and Conopidae of Surrey, jointly written by David Baldock and me. Details are on this web page: Atlas.