Lowland Heathland

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Lowland Heathland

Wildlife Trust)

1. Habitat Definition

Lowland heathland forms an open landscape, generally occurring on poor, acidic, sandy soils below 300 metres in altitude. It is characterised by the presence of dwarf-shrubs of the heather family, notably ling Calluna vulgaris, bell heather Erica cinerea, bilberry Vaccinium myrtillus, and cross-leaved heath Erica tetralix, the latter usually occurring on wetter ground. Heathlands also include areas of gorse, bracken, acidic grassland, valley bogs, bare sandy or peaty ground, scattered trees and shrubs and open water habitats.


2. Current Status and Distribution [top]

Heathland is a priority for nature conservation because it is an internationally rare and threatened habitat.

European lowland heaths are largely confined to an area bordering the North Sea and Atlantic coasts of western Europe, most notably in the UK, France, the Netherlands, Germany and Denmark. The UK with some 58,000 ha, of which the largest proportion (55%) is found in England, supports an important proportion (about 20%) of the international total of this habitat. In England only one sixth of the heathland present in 1800 now remains

The UK heaths are more 'Oceanic' character than those of eastern continental Europe, and support some species eg. bell heather and Dartford warbler, not found further east. The counties of East and West Sussex still support significant areas of lowland heath, although these are now a tiny fraction of that which previously existed. The West Sussex heaths are known to have declined from around 7,505 ha in 1813 to around 671 ha by 1981 (Rose 1991) representing more than a 90% loss. By 1996 only 640 ha of open heathland remained in West Sussex (J. Mycock pets comm). East Sussex has lost probably in the region of 50%, but most of the 2,000 ha or so remaining occurs within the specially protected area of Ashdown Forest, with relatively little found elsewhere.

In Sussex, heathland occurs principally in two Natural Areas; the Wealden Greensand and the High Weald, but in former times it may have occurred more extensively in the Low Weald and elsewhere.

2.1 Wealden Greensand

A tract of heathland sites, formerly very extensive but now very fragmented, occurs along the Folkestone Sands and Hythe Beds of West Sussex from the Hampshire/Surrey border (across which it continues into both adjacent counties) to Washington in the south east. East of Washington, although a narrow belt of Greensand outcrops, the characteristic 'Wealden Greensand landscape' virtually disappears. The Wealden Greensand heaths include the largest and most important sites in West Sussex, such as Ambersham and Heyshott, Iping and Stedham, Woolbeding and Chapel Commons.

2.2 High Weald

The largest area of heathland in the High Weald (and the largest area of heathland now remaining in SE England) is Ashdown Forest, which consists of some 2,600 ha of outstanding importance for both landscape and nature conservation. Owned by East Sussex County Council and managed by a Board of Conservators under its own Act of Parliament as 40% woodland and 60% heathland, Ashdown Forest rises to 220 metres above sea level. With its high rainfall and largely silty soils resulting in poor drainage, Ashdown Forest has a somewhat 'upland' character, distinct from the warmer, drier heaths of much of the Sussex Greensand.

Heathland also occurs in the western High Weald in the general area of St. Leonard's, Tilgate and Worth Forests near Horsham and Crawley where estimates from aerial photography and ground survey suggest that some 594 ha remain in eighteen or so scattered fragments (Ann Griffiths pers comm). Significant parts of the western High Weald consisted of 'heathy forests' from Mediaeval times until after the Second World War, when much was planted with trees for forestry.

Another block of around 190 ha of heathland and heathy woodland occurs at Broadwater Forest and The Warren near Tunbridge Wells on the East Sussex/Kent border.

Some small fragments of coastal heaths occur on the cliffs near Hastings and Fairlight.

2.3 South Downs

On the South Downs of both East and West Sussex there remain a few small fragments of 'chalk heath' occurring where acidic superficial deposits (loess or clay with flints) overlie the chalk. This gives rise to interesting plant communities comprised of a mixture of characteristic chalk grassland and heathland species. Lullington Heath National Nature Reserve is the largest example of this habitat but extends to only 25 ha. Small areas of chalk heath occur also at Kingley Vale NNR and Levin Down Site of Special Scientific Interest (SSSI) in West Sussex. The potential for extending or recreating chalk heath in Sussex is considered to be extremely limited. Chalk heath is most appropriately included within the Chalk Grassland Habitat Action Plan.

2.4 Low Weald and South Coast Plain

Chailey Common Local Nature Reserve (169 ha) is the only significant area of heathland remaining in the Low Weald. It is not known to what extent heathlands formerly occurred on other acidic soils in either the South Coast Plain or the Low Weald and Pevensey Natural Areas, but there appears to be little, if any, potential today. Ditchling Common (57 ha) is acidic grassland with a somewhat heathy character, and Vert Wood near Laughton may once have been heathland. In West Sussex some heathy vegetation occurs at Binstead Woods near Arundel.



3. Biodiversity of Sussex Heathland [top]

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.

3.1 Flora

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.

3.2 Invertebrates

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.

3.4 Birds

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.


4. Cultural Significance [top]

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 [top]

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 exercise them.

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 and Threats [top]

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:

  • Fire
  • 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

7. Potential [top]

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 for money.

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. Current Action [top]

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 heath.

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 Partnership.

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 been grazed.

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 survive.


9. Current Mechanisms & Existing Agri-Environment Schemes [top]

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.



10. Objectives [top]

a) The National Habitat Action Plan objectives for Lowland Heathland are:

Maintain and improve by management, all existing 58,000 ha in the UK.

Encourage the re-establishment by 2005 of a further 6,000 ha (10%) of heathland, with special emphasis on the key heathland counties.

b) Sussex objectives

i Maintain the integrity of all existing heathlands by prevention of further loss and damage.

ii Ensure all existing heaths are maintained and enhanced by appropriate management.

iii Expand the area under grazing management and introduce appropriate levels of grazing to all heaths where this is practicable and does not conflict with other conservation objectives.

iv Increase the total area of heathland by re-establishing new areas on suitable sites, for example by conversion from forestry plantations, agricultural land or former mineral workings and tips.

v Develop a culture of public appreciation of heathlands, so that the need to manage sites by tree removal and grazing is understood.

vi Encourage the development of markets for heathland products


11. Targets [top]

1. All remaining key heathland sites to be given statutory protection by 2000.

2. All heathland sites to be appropriately and sustainably managed by 2005.

3. At least 80% of Sussex heathland to be extensively grazed by cattle and ponies by 2010.

4. Ashdown Forest to sustain the current 60/40% ratio of heathland to woodland by extensive grazing where possible.

5. Recreate at least 800 ha of heathland from forestry or other land by 2010, where possible linking together or enlarging existing sites.

6. Restore mineral workings on suitable soils to heathland wherever appropriate circumstances arise.

7. Secure long-term funding for the sustainable management of heathland in Sussex.


12. Costs [top]

The true costs of heathland management and restoration will vary from site to site depending on a number of factors, most importantly the existing condition of the heathland and whether large-scale tree clearance or other works are required. Michael (1997) points out that the full economic costs of management, restoration and re-creation are often under-estimated in countryside management schemes which in turn affects the amount and composition of the take-up of the scheme.

Costs may initially be very high and an example is given (Appendix 1) for a hypothetical 50 ha site based on payment levels in the Dorset WES where the total cost of restoration is in the region of 1175 per hectare. It should be noted that cattle grids may not often be required, thus reducing the cost considerably. By contrast, the cost of ongoing maintenance in WES is 60/ 66/ha/year. Under Countryside Stewardship the base payment for maintaining existing heath is 20/ha/year and for recreating heath is 225/ha/year. 'Hidden' costs for heathland may include the costs entailed in organising public meetings etc. in connection with the fencing and grazing of commons and the costs of Public Inquiries under Section 194 of the Law of Property Act 1925.


13. Action Plan [top]


14. References: [top]

EPR - Ecological Planning & Research (1998) - Lowland Heathland Re-creation plans, Hampshire, Surrey, West Sussex and Isle of Wight (report for English Nature)

Edwards and Hodge (1993) - An Entomological Survey of the Remaining Heathlands of West Sussex (WSCC)

HMSO (1995) - Biodiversity: The UK Steering Group Report (2 vols) (HMSO)

Michael (1997) - Key future issues in lowland heathland conservation (EN)

Rose (1992) - Report on the Remaining Heathlands of West Sussex (WSCC)

Smith (1951) - The British Amphibians and Reptiles (Collins)

Sussex Wildlife Trust (1996) - Vision for the Wildlife of Sussex (SWT)


Appendix 1: A hypothetical example of the full costs of heath land restoration based on current (1997) payment levels in the Dorset Heaths WES.

This assumes a square shaped site of 50 ha, of which 25 ha requires restoration from dense established scrub and 10 ha from bracken. The site includes a public bridle way. A 7 metre wide firebreak is installed to bisect the site.

Firebreak (7 metres wide) @ 0.26 per metre - £184
2 Cattle grids @ £12,500 each - £25,000
2 Stiles @ £50 each - £100
2Bridlegates@ £150 each - £300
2 Field gates @ £200 each - £400
Stockproof perimeter fencing @ £2 per metre - £4,243
Water supply @ £500 - £500
Bracken control @ £300 per ha - £3,000
Removal of dense established scrub @ £1,000 per ha* - £25,000

Total cost of restoration work £58,727 or £1,175 per hectare.

By contrast, the cost of ongoing maintenance in the Dorset Heaths WES = £60- 66 per ha per year (the higher figure applies, calculated on the basis of a 50 ha site, if a discretionary payment for the continuation of grazing of £300 per site is made).

From Michael (1997)

*Where dense established scrub occurs in very wet conditions or includes a significant amount of rhododendron, then the costs of its removal will exceed 1,500 per ha.