What is it?
Heathlands are a legacy of the past use of landscapes by people and because of all their activity are exceptional places for nature. The poor quality sandy and acidic soils are of little value for farming, but used to be key to the livelihoods of local people: through grazing animals, peat digging, tree and scrub clearance for firewood and the cutting of bracken for bedding, a whole variety of ground conditions were created, in the process creating niches to be exploited by many rare and unusual species.
Why is it special?
Heathlands are made up of mosaics of extremely dry and very wet ground conditions and this in combination with bare, exposed sandy soils or mud, patches of young heather plants, stands of bracken and gorse, plus birch woodland mean that a wide range of very specialised species thrive in this habitat.
These include predatory beetles such as the heath tiger that as larvae ambush their prey from a burrow, wasps that specialise in paralysing spiders to feed to their young, bees whose larvae feed exclusively on pollen from heathers and cross-leaved heath.
The Sussex Wildlife Trust manages some exceptional heathlands, including Iping Common (one of the species-rich sites in Sussex) and Old Lodge in Ashdown Forest. Because of its altitude, this last site is highly unusual in that it supports many species that are more normally associated with North and West of Britain.
How do we manage it?
Heaths are some of the most complex sites to manage with significant effort going in to the removal of tree and scrub regeneration, to reinvigorate stands of heather, and to minimise the risk of fire through the maintenance of fire breaks. Grazing is also a key management tool with the cattle helping to graze stands of purple-moor grass, to browse trees and scrub and to lightly poach the soil, in the process creating germination niches for scarce plants such as marsh club-moss.
Volunteers, working alongside staff and supported by contractors, are key to the good management of Sussex Wildlife Trust’s heathland nature reserves.
Heathland nature reserves are well worth visiting year-round, from the height of summer when the Heather is in flower right through to the depths of winter when a heathland landscape can be at its most striking.