The Pebblebed heaths are amongst the most important conservation sites in Europe due to the rarity of the habitats and species found. The UK supports 58,000 hectares of lowland heath which represents about 20% of the European total. Approximately 25% of these are to be found in the south west (14,500 hectares), with 4,000 hectares occurring in Devon. Covering over 1,400 hectares, the Pebblebed heaths comprise the single biggest expanse of lowland heathland in Devon.
An examination of a map showing the extent of heathland on the 1842 Tithe map and the OS maps from 1859 and 1985 shows that a considerable area of the Pebblebed heaths has disappeared, mostly to the north of Aylesbeare and Harpford Commons, to the north-west of Colaton Raleigh and Woodbury Commons, and from around the south-westerly and south-easterly boundaries of Woodbury, East Budleigh and Withycombe Raleigh Commons. It has been estimated that some 640ha of the Pebblebed Heaths have been lost since 1906, with post-1947 losses amounting to 380ha, mainly to conifer plantations, conversion to grassland and mineral extraction. However, some areas of plantation have been recently returned to heath and a large commercial quarry will be returned to heathland over the next ten years.
The main core of the Pebblebed heaths were notified as Site of Special Scientific Interest (SSSI) between 1952 and 1986, as a nationally important example of Atlantic-climate lowland heathland supporting a wide diversity of heathland-associated communities and important populations of birds and invertebrates.
The East Devon Pebblebed Heaths were designated as a Special Protection Area (SAC) in June 1996 under the EU Habitats Directive. The designation covered 1119.94 ha, with the primary reason for selection being the occurrence of significant areas of north Atlantic wet and dry heaths and the populations of southern damselfly (Coenagrion mercuriale), for all of which the Pebblebed Heaths were considered one of the best areas in the UK.
At the same time and over the same area as the SAC, the heaths were also designated a Special Protection Area (SPA) under the EU Birds Directive, qualifying under Article 4.1 as the area regularly supports 2.4% of the UK population of breeding nightjar (Caprimulgus europaeus) (as at 1992), and 8% of the UK population of breeding Dartford warbler (Sylvia undata) as at 1994.
The East Devon Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty was designated in 1963 and covers all the Pebblebed heaths. The AONB Management Strategy recognises the Pebblebed heaths as a significant landscape feature in East Devon, containing important natural habitats and archaeological features. The adopted strategy states that “The protection and, where appropriate, enhancement of these important elements in landscape character will contribute to the conservation of the overall beauty of the area and its diversity. The Council will have special regard to the effect of proposed developments on these different landscape elements”.
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