By Sam Roberts
The UK has lost over 80% of its lowland heathland in the last couple of centuries, and by area it is actually rarer than the rainforest. Found only in north Western Europe, with 20% of that in the UK, these colourful landscapes are alive with a fantastic diversity of wildlife, from beautiful butterflies, dragonflies, and a huge array of bees, to rarer birds such as the nightjar, woodlark and tree pipit.
Graffham Common nature reserve combines two adjoining heathland sites between Petworth and Midhurst. Originally a dark, dense conifer plantation with little diversity, by felling trees and scraping away some of the top soil a rich sandy acid soil was revealed - lowland heathland one of the UK, and the world’s, rarest habitats.
Two weeks ago, I jumped at the chance to visit this fantastic site. I was there to film the arrival of six British white cattle brought in to graze on the long grasses, such as purple moor grass, which can compete with the heather. This form of conservation grazing takes nutrients out of the soil and helps reduce invasive species such as bracken and birch, allowing an intricate structure of diverse heathland plants to grow.
The cattle also keep patches clear in wetter areas which are ideal for a tiny carnivorous plant – the drosera, commonly known as the sundew. Named after its tiny stems which appear to have dew drops glistening on them, which are in fact mucilage blobs; a sugary substance to attract and catch tiny insects, whilst other enzymes in the sticky cocktail digest them into a nutrient soup. They are extremely rare in the UK so it was an exciting moment when we discovered a small number of these hard-to-spot plants for the first time on this reserve in over 30 years.
Almost as soon as the cattle were released, they were off, exploring and munching the grasses. They truly looked at home and a perfectly natural addition to the rest of the management techniques employed at our reserves – ensuring future generations can enjoy rare habitats that can so easily be lost forever.