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Grazing ]


Why manage heathlands

Loss and fragmentation of heathland in Surrey is still continuing in some places. 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 but many areas are now managed with nature conservation as the prime or a major aim. The Agri-environment schemes, Countryside Stewardship, Wildlife Enhancement Scheme and Reserves Enhancement Scheme have had a considerable effect funding management in recent years.

Threats to heathland are:

Encroachment by scrub, trees, bracken and grass.

Bracken encroachment at Farley Heath

Scrub encroachment at Cobbett Hill

Lack of resources to fund management.
Excessive recreational pressures.
Water abstraction from aquifers affecting wet heaths and mires.
Uncontrolled fire.
Acidification and nitrogen enrichment from air pollution.
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.
Fly tipping and other forms of misuse/abuse.


How can heathlands be managed

Mechanical management – heather cutting, tree and scrub clearance, turf stripping

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 detrement of heathland, it is necessary to collect the cut material so large scale cutting is usually by forage harvester into a trailer.

A major part of heathland management for conservation 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. 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 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.

001b.jpg (43439 bytes)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.


Controlled burns

005b.jpg (30948 bytes)Controlled 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 contol. It is usually done in late winter to minimise damage to heathland wildlife.



Grazing by domestic livestock can benefit heathland in a number of ways. It can reduce the amount of scrub which 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).