The Pebblebed Heaths have been occupied by people since at least the Bronze Age, when turf cutting, burning and grazing helped turn the once densely wooded area into the sweeping open landscape that we love today.
Though semi-natural, heathlands have high wildlife value and support species that are rarely found elsewhere. Without continued management and protection, this threatened habitat can quickly revert to scrub and, ultimately, to woodland.
Whilst scrub and woodland also have a significant wildlife value, heathlands are now so rare in Europe that there is a particular need to protect those few areas that remain to ensure the survival of this distinctive landscape, as well as the specialised species that depend on this habitat.
Conserving biodiversity is more than protecting the variety of species on earth; it is about protecting the habitats that support them too. We undertake a wide range of work to ensure that this unique environment continues to thrive and can be enjoyed by generations long into the future.
Grazing is widely regarded as an important tool to maintain this rare habitat in an ideal condition. Potential
benefits include: the inhibition of tree seedling growth; a reduction in the cover of grasses; maintenance of
structural diversity of vegetation; and an increase in herbaceous plant diversity.
Grazing has been reintroduced to lowland heathland in the UK, with rare breed cattle such as Devon Reds and
Dartmoor Ponies used within temporary seasonal enclosures and permanent fencing on the Pebblebed Heaths. Their
presence helps to improve the habitat for some rare European protected species, including the southern
The controlled burning of heathland (also called swailing, or muirburn in Scotland) essentially resets the heathland clock back to zero, creating pioneer habitat. It is a useful tool in conservation because it creates a mosaic of habitats, all of different ages and variations, which ensures that a wider range of species are supported and catered for.
Heather burning is legally restricted between the 1st November and the 31st March. This avoids the period of active plant growth and the breeding seasons of reptiles and birds, thereby limiting any adverse impacts on wildlife.
Fires are not allowed on the Pebblebed Heaths and are illegal under the CROW Act unless undertaken by staff of the Conservation Trust. Please help us conserve the heaths by not having recreational fires or barbeques.
Mowing of dry heath can be used as an alternative to burning (swailing) to return maturing areas of heather to its pioneer stage, and can break up areas of even aged heath to increase their wildlife value.
The surface scraping of heathland vegetation using a machine is a management technique used to remove all above ground vegetation, creating pioneer heathland habitat and bare ground.
When undertaken at deeper profiles (known as turf stripping), it can also be effective in controlling bracken through the removal of rhizomes.
Scraping and the removal of vegetation from the site can be more effective than burning or mowing in removing nutrients, which is necessary to ensure a continued heathland presence.
When heathlands are not managed and protected, they often revert back to scrub, with birch being one species that can quickly dominate the landscape.
Although grazing can help reduce the speed of scrub incursion, there is usually a need for additional active clearance, using chainsaws or tractor-powered mulching machines. This helps ensure the open heath communities and beautiful open views across the heathland.
However, it is important to undertake any clearance work with sensitivity and great consideration. Small woodland copses within the heathland and those following watercourses can also provide important wildlife habitats.
Due care is therefore required to ensure that all woodland habitats are maintained and protected in the appropriate places, allowing scattered trees and scrub to provide shade, foraging and nesting sites for heathland birds, mammals and invertebrates.
Scrub clearance is only undertaken outside of the bird breeding season, between 1st March and 31st July.