Project Origins and History 1989 -2002

Heathland is internationally important. It is a living link with our Bronze Age past and many rare plants and animals depend upon it. Its heathery landscape can surprise and thrill us – wild country around large urban developments such as Guildford and Woking. Indeed, Surrey has a significant part of the national heathland resource but its heathland is very threatened.

In 1988, Surrey County Council and the Nature Conservancy Council published "A Strategy for Surrey Heathland". This document stated that Surrey had lost over 85% of its heathland since the late 18th century. Heathland, which for thousands of years had been a dominant part of the landscape of west Surrey, was on its way to disappearing.

As a result, in 1989, the Heathland Countryside Management Project was set up to help stop the decline. Since then the Project has been working to promote the conservation of heathland in the county. As well as direct practical work the Project worked in many other ways. It organised seminars and training days for heathland managers and coordinated the circulation of information and new techniques amongst managers across the country and even in Europe. It assisted with grant aid applications and the preparation of management plans. Development of new mechanised heathland restoration techniques and the re- introduction of grazing to the heaths were other key areas of work.

Together with other heathland managers, the Heathland Project worked on hundreds of hectares, clearing scrub and bracken before they took control of the heathland, trying to establish the sort of ongoing management that would keep heathland in good condition for years to come.

It soon became clear however, that despite the regular, enthusiastic and committed volunteer work parties, the Project was not even beginning to keep pace with the rolling tide of scrub invasion- an invasion of staggering proportions. It was obvious that this pattern of working was not the best use of limited resources. By utilising smaller numbers of chainsaw certificated volunteers and contract staff, and adapting the Project tractor for forestry work, some progress was made; grant aid directed to mechanised clearance by contractors improved the situation. However until major funding could be attracted, the tide of scrub encroachment could at best only be slowed.

To help prevent sites that had been cleared scrubbing over again, the Project started to build up its grazing programme. The Project gradually established a viable conservation grazing force of cattle, goats and ponies, which with a programme of fencing works, allowed many heathland areas to be managed successfully in a traditional and unobtrusive manner.

Mechanised work eventually took less prominence for the Project. With funding coming from Countryside Stewardship and Wildlife Enhancement Schemes, it made more sense to use contractors who were increasingly becoming able to work sensitively on heathland. Grazing continued to expand with, at the height of the grazing programme, a total of 390ha (all organisations) being grazed each year. Our grazing programme was intended to kickstart grazing by local farmers, but this has not happened. The grazing year for heathland does not tie in well with the few remaining livestock farmers in the county and heathland grazing, for most, has not been an economic proposition. Animals can indeed prosper on heathland, but with ample convenient pastureland in the county, the practicalities of grazing heathland make it less attractive. With heavily overstretched staff (a situation made worse by the 2001 foot and mouth disease outbreak) and the imminent start of Surrey’s Last Wilderness, the Project dispersed its cattle and goats early in 2002.

In October 2002 the Project, now called the Surrey Heathland Project, commenced delivery of a 5 year programme called Surrey’s Last Wilderness for a partnership of 13 organisations. Surrey’s Last Wilderness is part of English Nature’s Tomorrow’s Heathland Heritage programme, which is a large-scale national scheme funded by the Heritage Lottery Fund. A major role of the Project is now contract management. Our first hand knowledge of heathland management, accumulated over many years, ensures work is delivered by contractors to a high standard and at competitive prices.

The Project still continues with some of its original roles such as promoting heathland. If our heathland is to survive, it is essential that people who live in Surrey know more about the heathland that is still around them. Many may be unaware it even exists as so much is invisible from roads, behind dense screens of trees. Illustrated talks and guided walks demonstrating the natural and cultural history of heathland, are organised by the Project. The Project continues to offer advice to heathland owners and managers and organises seminars and training courses.

 

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Contact details

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

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