Being a manmade habitat created by the removal of vegetation, heathland needs careful management to survive. If it is neglected, the surrounding vegetation will soon spread and take over the open landscape. Management for conservation purposes aims to let the entire heathland ecosystem thrive as a whole, promoting diversity and taking into account the rare wildlife which characterise the habitat.
Cutting back vegetation and removal of invasive plants, such as rhododendron, is important but needs to be supplemented by other methods to be effective.
We have returned to the traditional management method of low level grazing by sheep, cattle and ponies on some of our reserves. Although careful control is necessary to ensure the land is not put under excessive pressure. In addition to grazing on invasive grasses the livestock remove a portion of each year’s plant growth. This keeps the heather and other plants in their juvenile stages for longer and limits nutrient accumulation in the soil, making it more difficult for invasive plant species to take hold.
Controlled burning of small areas in succession helps maintain a patchwork of varying age, allowing for a mosaic of habitats to form. Turf stripping has a similar effect allowing small areas to be ‘re-set’ to bare ground which is itself an a vital habitat in the life cycle of many species. Both techniques help to deplete nutrients, which is essential to the effective management of lowland heathland.
The Sussex Wildlife Trust uses a combination of these methods to manage and restore heathland areas on its reserves, taking particular care to prioritise species of special conservation interest and value that would not be able to survive were it not for the careful maintenance of these habitats.