Heathlands are largely artificially created habitats. They only persist if they are managed. Many of the heaths in England would quickly become woodland if no maintenance occurred. 

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What methods are Used to Manage Heathland?

A wide range of methods are used to maintain heathlands. Grazing animals that cleared areas of forest and created the first heathland thousands of years ago are still used to maintain heathlands to this day.  In places such as Ashdown forest, grazing enclosures are created on areas of heath and are moved around so that livestock such as Hebridean sheep and and Exmoor ponies can prevent scrubland plants from encroaching. 

Scrub is the name given to woody plants that would become forests if not managed. Silver birch is the main species that would grow on heathland if not cleared regularly. Silver birch produces a large number of wind borne seeds which grow into saplings that drop leaves and threaten the heather. Special mowers called flails are mounted on to tractors and used to clear the saplings before this can happen.  Bracken can also take over heathland and this is mown away using tractors fitted with rotary swipe cutters.

Heather also has to be cut back to keep it at an even height suitable for invertebrates to use as a habitat. A forage harvester is used to cut the heather but retain the seeds, meaning that they can be planted again on other parts of the heathland. Small areas of land are also ‘scraped’ with excavators to clear the soil altogether. The exposed soil allows the heathland to be restored and the heather cuttings are used for composting. 

In some cases, controlled burning is used to clear away all the leaf matter that has built up under the vegetation so that the bare mineral soil can be used by the invertebrates that depend on it. Burning should only be carried out in winter, to avoid risk of it spreading too far.

Photo: Jim Champion

Read More: What Types of Wildlife Thrive on Heathland?

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