Cultural & natural heritage

The history of the commons

The East Devon Pebblebed Heaths comprise a number of adjacent Commons, including those of Dalditch, Withycombe, Lympstone, East Budleigh, Bicton, Woodbury, Colaton Raleigh, Hawkerland, Aylesbeare and Harpford. The core area (excluding Lympstone, Withycombe and Venn Ottery Commons) is owned by Clinton Devon Estates and managed by the Pebblebed Heaths Conservation Trust.

A ‘Common’ is typically characterised by the customary rights of use (commons rights), historically associated with the inhabitants (i.e. ‘the commoners’) of particular properties that are adjacent to common land. Historically, these rights included the right to graze domestic stock and collect wood for fuel. Few legitimate commons rights were being exercised on any of the Pebblebed Heaths by the time of the Tithe Maps between 1839 and 1846. However, grazing did continue at least until the Second World War, possibly on a tenant basis. The Commons Registration Act (1965) recognises one commoner who still retains the right to graze either two horses and two cows or two horses and twelve sheep in Woodbury and Colaton Raleigh Common.


Because of their long history of occupation and use, the Pebblebed Heaths have a rich archaeological history, with over 168 historic features noted in the County Council’s Historic Environment Record.

From the prehistoric peoples who built the large number of barrows and cairns on the heaths, to the military use of the heathlands during World War 2, the footprint of human occupation is evident at every turn.

Perhaps the most important archaeological site is Woodbury Castle – one of the most well-known archaeological monuments in all of Devon. The Castle is an Iron Age hillfort, with its impressive ramparts and ditch echoing back to an ancient era upon the heath. Due to its historical interest, Woodbury Castle is designated a Scheduled Monument (SAM No. DV61).

Vegetation & plant life

The Pebblebed Heaths are defined by two primary distinct vegetation types: dry heath and wet heath. Dry heath typically occurs on slopes and better drained areas, with wet heath in valley bottoms associated with streams, water table flushes or where the land is poorly drained. Although these two broad and locally variable vegetation types define the Pebblebed Heaths, over 37 different plant communities have been recorded, including those associated with woodland, mire and bracken.

Although individual dry heath communities can typically be species poor, over 605 vascular plant species, 378 species of fungi and 1,390 mosses and liverworts have been found on the heaths. This includes 94 of county, national or international significance.

Please read our Biodiversity Audit for further information about the vegetation and plant life that occurs on the Pebblebed Heaths.

Animal life

The Pebblebed Heaths offer a haven for wildlife, supporting over 3,000 species, including many rare or
threatened species. These include:

  • 140 species of bird
  • 9 species of reptile and amphibian
  • 38 species of mammal
  • 50 species of butterfly
  • 517 species of moth
  • 26 species of dragonflies and damselfly
  • 94 species of wasp, bees and ants
  • 243 species of beetle
  • 575 species of fly

Please read our Biodiversity Audit for further information about the animal life found on the
Pebblebed Heaths.

Monitoring & recording

The first formalised monitoring of wildlife on the Pebblebed Heaths was undertaken in the 1970s, with annual monitoring beginning in the late 1980s. All records are archived at the Devon Biodiversity Records Centre.

Key species for which data is recorded annually are the Dartford warbler, nightjar, curlew, stonechat, southern damselfly, silver-studded blue and reptiles.

Conservation status

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 the UK’s lowland heaths are found in the south west (14,500 hectares), with 4,000 hectares in Devon. Covering over 1,400 hectares, the Pebblebed Heaths comprise the single biggest expanse of lowland heathland in Devon.

The main core of the Pebblebed Heaths is notified as Site of Special Scientific Interest (SSSI). The site is also of international conservation value and is designated a Special Area of Conservation (SAC) and a Special Protection Area (SPA) under the EU Birds Directive and the EU Habitats Directive due to its support of rare habitats, nightjars, Dartford warblers and the southern damselfly. The East Devon Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty (AONB) was designated in 1963 and covers all of 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.