Swailing update

The cold snap at the beginning of February meant that conditions were suitable to undertake controlled burning (swailing) on Colaton Raleigh Common, and those walking on the heaths north of Woodbury Castle during the week of the 2nd February may have noticed work parties from the Pebblebed Heaths Conservation Trust undertaking this work. Unlike the large uncontrolled fire on Colaton Raleigh in 2010 that many might remember, managed burns are part of heathland management.

Heathlands are dominated by dwarf shrubs, with heather (Calluna vulgaris) being one of the defining species. Upon germination heather goes through a series of distinct growth phases (pioneer, building and mature) that can last in excess of 30 years before it degenerates. Controlled burning resets the heathland ecological clock back to zero, and is a useful tool in conservation as it can help create a mosaic of habitats of different ages to support a wide range of wildlife. It ensures that the needs of all species are catered for and can also help to remove some of the nutrients held in the leaf litter layer, ensuring that heathland does not become too fertile. Once an area is burnt, regeneration is either from remaining rootstocks, or from a seedbank. Whilst walking on the Commons over the next six months take a look at how the vegetation recovers. Typically grass comes back first, and then gorse, and finally heather, although it can take a few years for heather recovery to be evident.

Heather burning is legally restricted between the 1st November and the 31st March. This avoids the period of active plant growth, the breeding seasons of reptiles and birds, and limits any adverse impacts on wildlife. The weather is closely monitored before and during a burn. Too wet and the vegetation can be hard to ignite; too dry and the risk of a fire getting out of control increases. Ideally there is a light breeze of predictable speed and direction.

Other work undertaken by the Pebblebed heaths Conservation Trust in January has been scrub clearance on the western fringe of Woodbury Common (close to the bridleway below Estuary car park), just north of Woodbury Castle and at Four Firs. The latter work has markedly improved visibility around this junction.


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