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
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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