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 which 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.

 010b.jpg (34488 bytes)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 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 which, 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 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.