of Sussex Heathland
In Sussex, heathland is a habitat of
outstanding importance supporting a range of species which are nationally
or internationally rare or endangered. It must be emphasised that
it is not just the open heather-dominated land that is important,
but the whole matrix from bare ground to scattered scrub and old
trees that support a rich diversity of species.
The flora, especially that of dry Calluna-dominated
heathland, is somewhat limited, and in many respects heaths are
a paradox, being plant communities of low diversity important because
of their rarity. The richest areas tend to be wet heaths and valley
mires which contain a number of species of conservation significance
such as marsh gentian, bog asphodel, white-beak sedge, sundews and
marsh clubmoss. Many species of bryophytes and lichens also occur.
A contrasting habitat, also derived from heathland is short, grazed,
mown or trampled acidic grassland which may support a range of species
such as the now nationally rare chamomile, upright chickweed and
bird's foot. Heathland loses its plant species diversity rapidly
where management by grazing or cutting declines to the extent that
coarse tussocky vegetation takes over and trees and bracken begin
to invade. Some heathland/mire plants are now extremely rare in
Sussex, such as yellow centaury and cranberry, or believed extinct,
such as pale dog-violet, bog orchid and hairy greenweed.
Southern lowland heaths are of outstanding
importance for their invertebrates, especially insects and spiders,
and many rare and characteristic species occur. Some of these, such
as the silver-studded blue butterfly, emperor moth, bog bush-cricket,
small red damselfly and the raft spider are well-known to conservationists.
Many others, especially the wide range of Hymenoptera (ants, bees
and wasps), are less well known, except to specialists.
The dry Greensand heaths of West Sussex
have been relatively well-recorded recently by entomologists and
have yielded a long list of interesting fauna, including such characteristic
species as the beefly Thyridanthrax fenestratus, the sand wasp Ammophila
sabulosa and A. pubescens, wood tiger beetle Cicindela sylvatica,
slave-making ant Formica sanguinea, mason wasp Eumenes coarctatus
mottled grasshopper Myrmeleotettix maculatus and many others. Edwards
and Hodge 1993, recorded 113 'heathland indicator species' from
the West Sussex heaths, several of which are nationally rare. Some
of the few areas of wet heath and carr to be found on these heaths
have also proved to have important species assemblages associated
with them (Edwards and Hodge 1997). The cooler, wetter heaths of
the High Weald are much less well known entomologically.
Many of the invertebrates of lowland
heaths are dependant on a warm microclimate and sheltered conditions
providing 'hot-spots'. Areas of bare sand and peat, including banks
and old quarries are particularly important together with a good
nectar supply from flowering plants. Locally, patches of acidic
grassland within heathland areas may be extremely important, and
the only remaining native colony of the field cricket in the UK
occurs in this habitat in Sussex.
3.3 Reptiles and Amphibians
All of the native reptiles and amphibians
occur, or are likely to have occurred, on the West Sussex Greensand
heaths including the rare and specially protected sand lizard, smooth
snake and natterjack toad. The native population of the Smooth snake
is now thought to be extinct, but the species has been re-introduced,
as has the sand lizard which is now thriving locally on some specially
managed sites. There is some dispute as to whether the natterjack
toad was ever native in Sussex, but it is recorded in Smith (1951)
and it seems logical to suppose it once occurred on the Wealden
Greensand heaths, given the once large populations on neighbouring
sites close by in Hampshire and south-west Surrey, and the historical
continuity of habitat.
The heaths of the High Weald are not
known to have supported the three rarer species.
The Sussex heaths are of outstanding
importance for birds. Although the number of characteristic heathland
species is small, Sussex supports internationally important populations
of three Annex 1 species under the European Birds Directive - nightjar,
Dartford warbler and woodlark. All three species occur on the larger
Wealden Greensand sites, whilst nightjar (1.1% of British population)
and Dartford warbler (2.1% of British population) are the reason
for the classification of Ashdown Forest as a Special Protection
Area for Birds (SPA) under the European Birds Directive in 1996.
Other characteristic species include linnet, stonechat, tree pipit
and hobby. During the winter months, heathland can be important
for such species as hen harrier, merlin and great grey shrike, which
regularly appear in Sussex. Curlew formerly bred on Ashdown Forest
and Weaver's Down but are now extinct as a breeding species in Sussex.
Much has been written about the cultural
significance of heathland. Although natural in appearance, and possessing
a 'wilderness' quality, heathlands are an ancient landscape which
is the product of human activity over hundreds, if not thousands
of years. It is believed that in some parts of the country, heathlands
had already become very extensive by the Bronze Age as natural woodlands
on acidic soils were cleared by felling, burning and grazing. Gradually
agricultural activities became the dominant land use. Heathlands
were enormously important for grazing and the gathering of wood,
turf, peat, bracken, heather, gorse etc for fuel, building materials,
bedding and other uses, right up until the end of the 19th century.
The rights of local people to use the products of heathland were
jealously guarded, recognised and incorporated into Commons legislation,
which has protected many such areas from enclosure for agricultural
use until the present day. It is only in the last 100 years (and
especially in the last half century since the Second World War)
that heathlands have become almost entirely disconnected from the
farming communities that created them and which they helped to sustain.
With few commoners, no longer exercising their common rights, heaths
rapidly began to revert to woodland and scrub or the land was put
to other uses, such as commercial forestry. Today, Sussex heathlands
are treated largely as amenity land for informal recreational uses
such as dog-walking and horse-riding, and some are very important
nature reserves. Ashdown Forest, protected under its own Act of
Parliament, is an area of outstanding importance for its landscape,
nature conservation and recreational value and the largest area
of unspoilt open land in the Weald.
5. Benefits to the Community
Heathland today is sometimes seen as
being of no great relevance to local communities since its former
agricultural and social value, which helped to sustain rural populations,
is now largely obsolete. Even those with common rights now rarely
However, many people greatly value heathlands
as quiet refuges for fresh air and exercise, and they are increasingly
important as a nature conservation, archaeological and recreational
resource. Larger heathland blocks, especially, are the nearest thing
to 'wilderness' in the crowded, intensively-farmed countryside of
SE England, and sites such as Ashdown Forest and the larger West
Sussex heaths, where people can wander at will across open countryside,
are important foci for rural tourism which benefits nearby towns
and villages. Some sites are important for military training and
outdoor sports such as orienteering which do not necessarily conflict
with nature conservation objectives.
Many people benefit from walking, riding
or birdwatching in open heathland landscapes, especially when the
heather and gorse are in bloom. There is some conflict here with
public concerns about heathland management such as tree-felling
and grazing since people perceive these landscapes to be 'natural'
and not requiring interference to maintain the open countryside
which they value. Some areas which have been invaded by trees in
recent years are now perceived as woodland rather than heath and
much effort is necessary to inform local people and visitors about
the importance of countryside management.
In recent years some effort has been
expended in attempting to market 'traditional' heathland products
such as birch for besoms and horse jumps and bracken mulch for garden
compost. Much further work needs to be done to develop sustainable
markets for such products.
Heathlands may increasingly have potential
to supply additional grazing in conjunction with farmland used for
organic production, especially for those farmers interested in keeping
hardy breeds of cattle and sheep. The combination of 'traditional'
farming, nature conservation and tourism is already re-established
locally on some heathland areas in northern Europe. Other heathland
products eg. heather honey from hives placed on or near heathland,
may also have limited potential for expansion.
6. Current Trends
Loss and fragmentation of heathland
in Sussex has continued until very recently and is still continuing
in some places. By far the largest threat is the encroachment of
trees, scrub and bracken and the loss of species diversity due to
lack of traditional management, especially grazing. Several areas
are now managed as nature reserves and locally heathland habitat
is beginning to be restored, particularly since the introduction
of the Countryside Stewardship Scheme.
Other threats are:
- Conversion to forestry plantations
- Fragmentation and habitat loss caused
by roads and housing development
- Recreational pressures
- Water abstraction from aquifers affecting
wet heaths and mires.
- Acidification due to acid deposition
and nitrogen enrichment from air pollution
The potential to expand and enhance
heathland in Sussex is considerable, possibly up to 5,000 ha according
to the Sussex Wildlife Trust's "Vision for the Wildlife of Sussex"
(1996), albeit largely confined to areas on suitable soil where
heathland could be expanded adjacent to existing sites such as Ashdown
Forest and certain other parts of the Weald and on the Greensand
of West Sussex.
In nature conservation terms, the largest
sites tend to be of greatest value, enabling extensive rangelands
to be re-established which permit grazing animals to behave naturally,
thus creating a mosaic of vegetation types affording valuable wildlife
habitat. Even where it is necessary to fence against roads such
large blocks retain a 'wilderness' quality and give greater value
In Sussex it would appear that there
is limited potential for re-creating heaths from agricultural land,
but sites currently under coniferous plantations can easily be restored.
There is also some potential to re-create heaths on former mineral
workings and waste tips.
Consultants employed by English Nature
(1998) have investigated the possibilities for heathland re-creation
in West Sussex and the adjacent counties of Hampshire and Surrey.
Leaving aside the issues of current ownership and use, the proportion
of potentially re-creatable heath on the Wealden Greensand was considered
to be 'high' or 'very high'.
8.1 Legal Status
Most important heathland sites in Sussex
are notified as Sites of Special Scientific Interest under the Wildlife
and Countryside Act 1981. Some are Local Nature Reserves declared
by local authorities. Ashdown Forest, protected by the Ashdown Forest
Act 1974, is now also a Special Protection Area for Birds under
the European Birds Directive of 1979. Weaver s Down, part of Woolmer
Forest SSSI which is mainly in Hampshire, is also classified as
part of the Wealden Heaths SPA.
8.2 Protective Ownership
Several sites are owned and managed
by conservation bodies such as the National Trust and the Sussex
Wildlife Trust or by local authorities (both County and District)
as amenity and nature conservation areas. Ashdown Forest is owned
by East Sussex County Council and managed by a Board of Conservators.
The local community has purchased 115 ha of common land near Lynchmere
to manage the land for nature conservation, including restoring
8.3 Planning Policies
International sites, NNRS, SSSIs, LNRS
and local conservation sites (Sites of Nature Conservation Importance)
are identified in County Structure Plans and District Local Plans
and given strong protection from adverse effects of development.
(See Planning Policy Guidance No.9).
8.4 Heathland Projects
The Sussex Downs Conservation Board
has established a Heathland Project for the northern part of the
AONB. The Project Officer advises and carries out land management
on heathland sites including acting as agent for English Nature
s Wildlife Enhancement Scheme (WES) and promoting Countryside Stewardship.
West Sussex County Council s area-based Countryside Management
Unit implements heathland restoration/recreation schemes in liaison
with private landowners in both the High and Low Weald.
8.5 Countryside Management Schemes
By 1998, 1,109 ha of heathland were
managed under DEFRA's Countryside Stewardship Scheme and 128 ha
under English Nature's WES.
8.6 Positive Management by other owners
The heathland importance of Pippingford
Park Military Training Area, within the Pale of Ashdown Forest,
is recognised by the MoD, that of St. Leonard's Forest by Forest
Enterprise and that ofAmbersham and Heyshott Commons by the Cowdray
Estate in undertaking management.
8.7 Heathland Re-creation Plans
English Nature has produced a draft
Heathland Re-creation Plan for West Sussex and the adjacent counties
of Hampshire and Surrey which identifies land where it is theoretically
possible for heathland to be re-created.
8.8 Information Exchange
Scientific and management information
is regularly exchanged through West Sussex County Council's Heathland
Forum, Heathland Project Officers meetings and the Sussex Biodiversity
8.9 Re-establishment of grazing
Grazing is being re-established on almost
500 ha of Ashdown Forest (excluding Old Lodge Nature Reserve) on
50 ha of Chailey Common and is proposed on 35 ha of Stedham Common
by Sussex Wildlife Trust, if an application to the Secretary of
State to fence the site is successful. 10 ha of Chapel Common have
8.10 Vision for Heathland
Sussex Wildlife Trust has published
its vision and ten-year targets for Heathland in its "Vision for
the Wildlife of Sussex" (1996).
8.11 High Weald
The High Weald Forum has published a
Management Plan for the High Weald which includes heathland.
8.12 Species Recovery (EN)
Several heathland species are the subject
of Species Recovery Programmes, notably the Sand Lizard and Field
Cricket in West Sussex.
8.13 Public Awareness (Heath Weeks)
Two 'heath weeks' have been held in
Sussex and a third is planned in July 1998. During the designated
period, various events are held on heathland sites throughout East
and West Sussex and there are displays in Tourist Information Centres
and public libraries. The main purpose of heath week is to increase
public appreciation of the need to manage heathland if it is to
Current Mechanisms & Existing Agri-Environment Schemes
Heathland conservation in Sussex is
largely delivered by a partnership of statutory organisations, voluntary
bodies and private owners.
The majority of heathland falls within
two AONBs, the Sussex Downs (which extends northwards to include
much of the Greensand ridge) and the High Weald, in both of which
heathland is recognised as an important component of the landscape
to be protected and enhanced.
The two County Councils, the Conservators
of Ashdown Forest, National Trust, Sussex Downs Conservation Board,
Sussex Wildlife Trust and English Nature employ site managers and
rangers whose job includes carrying out heathland management directly
and organising the work of contractors, graziers and volunteers.
English Nature's WES scheme is targeted
at SSSIs on the Wealden Greensand heaths of West Sussex and payments
are available over a 3 year period.
DEFRA's Countryside Stewardship Scheme
operates in the wider countryside and on several SSSIs. Heathland
is one of the target habitats and agreements are for 10 years.