Open heathland is rarer than rain forest. In the UK we have only about 16% left of the area that existed in 1800. That means that from an area similar to the size of Cornwall, only the equivalent of the Isle of Wight remains.

Why we are restoring heathland at the park?

An important part of The Greensand Trust’s work is conserving and enhancing the distinctive landscape, wildlife and history of the Greensand Ridge and wider area. At Rushmere Country Park we are working hard to reintroduce natural habitats for the benefit of flora, fauna and wildlife, re-creating rare endangered heathland habitat at Lord's Hill, Shire Oak Heath and Oak Wood.

Part of this work has involved us removing some of the non-native species of trees within the park around the Oak Wood area. We understand that the felling of trees can be upsetting to our visitors, but we assure you that this work is essential to creating a better natural environment for future generations. All work that we carry out is under license and following the advice of experts within the field of woodland conservation.

Here are some Frequently Asked Questions about heathland recreation:

What is heathland?

Where are Bedfordshire’s heathlands?

Why are you re-creating heathland in the Oak Wood area of Rushmere?

Can't you just plant heathland somewhere else?

Why do you need to remove trees to re-create heathland and woodland?

Which species thrive on heathland?

Who approved the felling?

How much carbon is stored by heathland compared to woodland?

What happens to the wood from the felling?

Will there be any more areas felled for heathland at Rushmere?

Additional Resources

 

The aerial photograph (left) was taken in 1945 before the conifer plantations took hold and show the heathland areas in the park more clearly compared to the present day aerial view (right). 


What is heathland?

Lowland heathland is a broad term that refers to a mosaic of wet, damp and dry habitats, characterised by attractively flowering dwarf shrubs such as heathers (ling, bell and crossleaved heaths) and gorses (common, western or dwarf). They are generally found on poor, acidic soils, in relatively wet areas with a mild temperature and below about 300 metres altitude. They support many rare plants and animals, such as the marsh gentian, southern damselfly, nightjar and sand lizard, which often live only in these areas.

Open heathland is rarer than rain forest. In the UK we have only about 16% left of the area that existed in 1800. That means that from an area similar to the size of Cornwall, only the equivalent of the Isle of Wight remains. The process of loss and disintegration has been particularly fast in recent decades. However, this country still holds 20% (more than 60,000 hectares) of the whole world’s lowland heathland. We therefore need, not only to preserve and improve our remaining heathlands, but if possible, to re-create them in areas where they have recently been lost. There is a special case for linking small fragments of heathlands, where the few remaining species are stretched for space and risk disappearing in the event of a fire, to create areas which can maintain a wider range of wildlife and can survive in the future.

Where are Bedfordshire’s heathlands?

All of Bedfordshire’s heathland sites occur on the geological outcrop of acidic sandy soils known as the Greensand Ridge, which stretches across the county from Leighton Buzzard to Gamlingay. These sites can be roughly grouped into four areas – Heath and Reach, Wavendon and Aspley, and areas around Ampthill and Sandy. Heathlands are declining in Bedfordshire because of the pressure of visitors and less management. Heathlands are sensitive, people trample plants and disturb wildlife and if they are not managed by grazing animals, plants like bracken and trees take over from heather and grass species.

Why are you re-creating heathland in the Oak Wood area of Rushmere?

The area was historically an area of heathland known as ‘The Warren’ which was first planted with conifer plantations in the 1800s, though most of the existing plantations date from the middle of the 20th century.

A large stand of conifers on the area to the south of the Greensand Ridge Walk was blown over by the storm of 1987, with the more open conditions encouraging the re-establishment of the former heathland vegetation which was lost to the conifer plantations.  The current work will further reduce the tree cover to encourage the rare heathland habitats to develop, while retaining scattered mature oak, Scots pine and larch.

The spruce in the plantation to the north of the Greensand Ridge Walk has been felled, while retaining broad-leaved trees such as oak and birch, as well as Scots pine and the large Douglas fir. Native broad-leaved trees such as oak, birch, rowan and field maple will be planted on the cleared areas to encourage the development of more natural mixed woodland that will be of greater benefit to wildlife and be more in keeping with the landscape of the Greensand Ridge.

Can't you just plant heathland somewhere else?

No - Heathland is a habitat that requires very low levels of fertility. Most farmland, even on the sandy soils, has too high levels of fertility from fertiliser application and other agricultural improvement for it to establish. Attempts have been made to create new heathland on cultivated land and even on restored quarries in the area but they have been unsuccessful for the above reason. We therefore need to protect former heathland and provide the right conditions for it to flourish once again.

Why do you need to remove trees to create heathland and woodland?

The spruce plantations were planted as a commercial timber crop with the eventual aim that they would be harvested. Their removal will allow them to be replaced with a natural woodland cover dominated by native broadleaved trees that will provide greater benefits to landscape and biodiversity. 

As the conifer plantations have matured, they have shaded out the heathland vegetation and this hugely impacts on the wildlife which can only live within this habitat.  The heathland and native woodland that we will be restoring following the removal of the plantation conifers will support a much wider variety of our native and declining wildlife including a wide range of birds and insects. 

The new areas of woodland will predominantly be allowed to restore by natural regeneration which should start in the current growing season and is likely to be at a high density, though with planting of additional native species to enhance its diversity.  

For more information on tree removal for heathland restoration our conservation partners The Woodland Trust have written an excellent blog which explains why this is necessary.

Which species thrive on heathland?

Typical heathland species include:
Birds: Nightjar, Dartford warbler, Stonechat, Woodlark, Tree pipit
Reptiles: Common Lizard, Grass snake, Adder, Slow worm
Invertebrates: Digger wasps, Bees, Green Tiger beetle, Heather beetle
Plants: Heather, Wavy Hair grass, Bracken, Dwarf gorse, Spring Vetch, Bilberry, Heath Dog Violet
Many species which depend on heathland habitat are endangered as a result in the loss of this habitat and are unable to survive anywhere else.

Who approved the felling?

The felling was approved by the Forestry England under a felling license and the restocking by natural regeneration and planting are within the license. The license application was also placed on the public register for public consultation.

How much carbon is stored by heathland compared to woodland?

This is all dependent on the type of woodland, age and its condition. An article in the recent National Trust magazine describes how carbon capture in mature woodland such as the recently felled spruce plantations slows after a certain period and maximum carbon capture is in young woodland from c. 15-25 years, so the new woodland that will develop on the former plantations will in the long-term store more carbon. Non woodland habitats such as heathland and peatlands are also good very good at storing carbon and store it indefinitely. 

What happens to the wood from the felling?

The wood from the felling will be sold with all proceeds going towards our environmental conservation work including new woodland planting, volunteer tasks and heathland restoration works including the planned re-planting of native species.

Will there be any more areas felled for heathland at Rushmere?

There are no current plans to undertake further heathland restoration in any additional areas of the park with work now concentrating on bringing the existing heathland areas at Oak Wood, Lords Hill and Shire Oak Heath into good condition. 

Additional Resources

Here are some other resources you may find useful to help your understanding of the importance of heathland and why we need to restore it at the park. 

HeathlandInformation_V101.pdf

naturalenglandheathland.pdf

New Forest National Park 

RSPB Heathland Conservation