Management Techniques

Threats to heathland are:

  • Encroachment by scrub, trees, bracken and grass
  • Lack of resources to fund management
  • Excessive recreational pressures
  • Fragmentation and habitat loss caused by roads and housing development
  • Conversion to forestry plantations
  • Public opposition to management, especially tree and scrub removal and fencing for conservation grazing
  • Water abstraction from aquifers affecting wet heaths and mires
  • Uncontrolled fire
  • Fly tipping and other forms of misuse/abuse

Management Techniques

Tree and scrub clearance, heather cutting, turf stripping and grazing

Controlled burns

Grazing

Bracken control

 

Management Techniques

Loss and fragmentation of heathland in Surrey is still continuing. By far the greatest threat is encroachment by trees, scrub, bracken and grass and the loss of species diversity resulting from a cessation in traditional management. Heathland is no longer integrated into the economy of the county and many areas are now managed for their nature conservation and recreational value. The Agri-environment schemes, Countryside Stewardship, Wildlife Enhancement Scheme and Reserves Enhancement Scheme have had a considerable effect in funding management in recent years.

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Tree and scrub clearance, heather cutting, turf stripping and grazing

A major part of heathland management is removing young trees (often referred to as ‘scrub’) to prevent the heathland being lost to developing poor quality woodland.

In Surrey, the main problem tree species are Scots pine and birch, sometimes also oak and sallow. A major part of heathland management is preventing these trees from taking over. Pines, when cut close to the ground do not survive but other species ‘coppice’, sending up several new shoots. In order to kill this scrub, it is usually necessary to treat the cut stump or the regrowth with a herbicide such as ‘Roundup’. Where there is grazing, this might control the regrowth and kill the stump without the need for chemical.

When invading trees have taken over heathland, this ‘secondary woodland ‘(so called to distinguish it from ‘ancient woodland’ which has a much longer history and is much richer in wildlife) can be restored to heather. Heather seed can survive several decades in the soil so, if a site has had heather – even 80 years before – all that may be needed is to cut down the trees and heather will grow, though usually stripping off any layer of leaf mould or pine needle litter speeds up the process. A long-arm excavator is the most common piece of machinery to carry out this task, though rakes and wheel barrows work equally well on small areas! Areas of grass and bracken litter can be treated in the same way.

Litter or turf stripping can also be very effective in restoring heather in areas which have been taken over by bracken or the sometimes the aggressive grasses, wavy hair-grass and purple moor-grass. The bare ground initially left by these operations can be very valuable for heathland invertebrates such as solitary bees and wasps.

The age of heather stands can be controlled by cutting, giving diversity in the heathland habitat, to the benefit of a range of heathland wildlife which depends on different ages of heather. Regular cutting also maintains the vigour of heather stands. To prevent build up of organic matter and fertility which is to the detriment of heathland, it is necessary to collect the cut material so cutting is usually by forage harvester into a trailer. Cutting produces enormous volumes of material, hence is mainly used for cutting fire breaks to help stop fires spreading across the heath.

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Controlled burns

Burning of heather stands can be very effective at promoting their regeneration, particularly as, unlike cutting, the burning may remove some of the accumulated organic matter under the stand. Controlled burning needs skill to achieve the best results and ensure that the fire does not get out of control. Ideally, it is done in late winter to minimise damage to heathland wildlife.

Burning is an ancient practice, and a recognised form of heathland management, especially on Britain’s upland moors, but also in areas such as the New Forest. Surrey, however, is no longer the wild uninhabited place it was at the end of the 18th century. Even our wildest areas are not far from roads, housing and businesses, and a deliberate "management" burn on any of these areas needs to be carefully planned. As burned heathland is an extremely good firebreak, managing heaths by controlled burns has the benefit of helping to prevent large areas being burned by summer wildfires.

Uncontrolled burns during the summer months often caused by arsonists or carelessness can cause long-term damage to heathland and its wildlife. In summer, heath fires burn much hotter – especially if there is a covering of scrub. There is a greater chance that heather rootstocks will be killed by a summer fire and sometimes a summer burn is so severe that even heather seed will be killed. Summer burns will kill any wildlife unable to move quickly enough. See link to ‘fire awareness‘.

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Grazing

Grazing by domestic livestock can benefit heathland in a number of ways. It can reduce the amount of scrub that develops, as animals graze off seedling trees. Grazing can promote diversity of flora and fauna by reducing the dominance of grasses such as purple moor-grass and wavy hair-grass. Grazing can promote ‘structure’ in the vegetation to the great benefit of heathland wildlife. It can also benefit heathland invertebrates that make use of dung. Different grazing animals – cattle, ponies, sheep and goats – will have different effects on the vegetation. The nature of the site – its size, topography and the make-up of its vegetation – and the level of stocking are also important determinants on the effects of grazing (please see ‘Grazing‘ for further details).

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Bracken control

In recent years, the spread of bracken has become a major problem on heathland. It could be that the bracken, like grasses, is benefiting from nutrient enrichment through air pollution. The vigour of bracken can be reduced by mechanical treatment – regular cutting or rolling, especially with a special roller called a ‘bracken bruiser’. Mowing and rolling are most effective when done when the bracken frond has just finished unfurling and food reserves in the underground root system (rhizome) are most depleted. This is also the time when it is best to treat bracken with a herbicide. Usually on heathland the selective chemical Asulox is used for this and, in normal circumstances, it does not affect the growth of plants such as heathers that may be growing with the bracken.

There are disadvantages to the mechanical methods of bracken control. Regular cutting keeps all vegetation short and rolling works best where the vegetation is short, this makes control of bracken in taller vegetation a difficult proposition. Both methods can harm ground-nesting birds.

Under dense stands of bracken, there is often a thick layer of litter that it is frequently useful to strip to allow heathers and other heathland plants to re-establish.


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Contact details

Project Manager – Dr Rob McGibbon
Senior Project Officer – Marcus Turley

Project Officer – Christina Smith

Surrey Heathland Project, Artington House, Portsmouth Road, Guildford, Surrey GU2 4DZ
e-mail:rob.mcgibbon@surreycc.gov.uk
Telephone: 01483 579713
Fax: 01483 579740


The Heathland Project is supported by:

Surrey County Council, Guildford Borough Council, Waverley Borough Council, Woking Borough Council, Runnymede Borough Council, Witley Parish Council, Wonersh Parish Council, RSPB, English Nature, MoD and the Herpetological Conservation Trust

Surrey County Council
working in partnership
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Surrey Countryside Management