Where is heathland found?
In European terms, heathland is restricted by climate. A ‘continental
climate’ with harsh winters and hot dry summers is unsuitable for
the development of heathland. The plants that make it up need the
‘oceanic climate’ of the western seaboard of the continent. This
puts the British Isles in prime position climatically for heathland
which is also found in southern Scandinavia, Denmark, Germany, the
Netherlands, Belgium, Western France and the north and west of the
Geology is another important determinant of where heathland can
develop. In southern and eastern Britain, the underlying geology
of heathland is usually sands and gravels, sometimes clays, which
have given rise to acidic soils. In the north and west, igneous
and metamorphic rocks may underly heathland. In Surrey, heathland
is largely confined to two natural areas: the Thames Basin (on Tertiary
sands and gravels overlying the London Clay) in the north west of
the county and the Wealden Greensand in the south west and centre.
Additionally, there is some heathland (notably Headley Heath) on
superficial deposits overlying the chalk in the North Downs Natural
Area (please see ‘heathland areas’ for further details).
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How, why and when did heathland come about?
It is believed that many large areas of heathland have their origin
in the Late Stone Age and Bronze Age, at least 4000 years ago. It
was the activities of our ancestors who had recently become farmers
that gave rise to the spread of a heathland landscape on a large
scale. There is conjecture as to the character of the landscape
of lowland Britain at the time farming first began. Some open areas
may have been heathland or heathy in character. Nevertheless, the
clearance of trees and impoverishment of soils following the growing
of crops greatly expanded the heathland area. Removal of the original
vegetation, and growing crops with associated leaching of nutrients
by the rain on some soils, led to the development of ‘podzols’.
These soils have very infertile acid upper layers above an ‘iron
pan’. Heathland vegetation, adapted to these poor, acid conditions,
followed after the land was exhausted by farming.
It is thought that this open heathy landscape, was perpetuated
over the centuries by the grazing of domestic livestock and the
cutting of fuel. It is likely that with changes of human population
and cultural shifts, the area of heathland ebbed and flowed, there
being times when woodland again took over areas, later to be cleared,
but the scale of loss of heathland since the end of the 19th century
In Surrey as in many areas, the decline of traditional practices,
including grazing, began to happen in the 19th century, accelerating
after the first World War and declining to practically zero after
the last war. Large areas were lost to development in the late 19th
and early 20th centuries and much of the loss since the last war
has been to natural succession.
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History of Heathland in Surrey
Much has been written about the cultural significance of heathland.
Although natural in appearance and possessing a ‘wilderness quality’,
heathland is an ancient landscape that has been influenced by human
activity over thousands of years. It is believed that in some parts
of the country, Surrey included, heathland was already 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. Heathland was 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 to 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
that has protected many such areas from enclosure for agricultural
use until the present day. Since the start of the 20th century (and
especially since the Second World War) heathland has become almost
entirely disconnected from the farming communities that created
it and which it helped to sustain.
Military use of heathland in Surrey began in the 19th Century and
was very extensive during the last two wars. About 60% of Surrey’s
heathland remains in MoD ownership that, over the years, has protected
it against development. Development took large areas particularly
in the late 19th and early 20th centuries but heathland also began
to be lost at a progressively increasing rate through natural succession.
With commoners no longer exercising their common rights, heathland
rapidly began to revert to scrub and poor woodland. Additionally,
much heathland was put to other uses such as golf courses and commercial
forestry. Today, apart from military training, Surrey’s heaths are
treated largely as amenity land for informal recreational uses.
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