Saving our heathlands in the South Downs

A view over the sloping purple heather at Black Down towards the distant horizon, with tall pine trees to either side.

Rare reptiles and amphibians such as the sand lizard and natterjack toad thrive on heath but less than 1 per cent of former heathland remains in the South Downs National Park. What’s left is fragmented, reducing the diversity of plants and animals that make heaths both interesting and scientifically important. The Heathlands Reunited project, led by the South Downs National Park Authority with 10 partner organisations including the National Trust, aims to create and improve heathland at 41 sites covering an area greater than 1,200 football pitches.

Belted galloways grazing
Heathland in bloom on Black Down with grazing belted galloway cows
Belted galloways grazing

Heathlands are ‘man-made’ and only exist because our ancestors used them to dig peat for fuel, harvest heather and graze animals, unwittingly creating a unique ‘mosaic’ of habitats which many plants and animals now can’t survive without.  Without people working the ground, our heaths have gradually returned to scrub leaving the wildlife trapped and vulnerable in a few remaining ‘islands’. A staggering 60 per cent of heathland species are dependent on bare, sandy, south facing ground.

Male natterjack toad
Male natterjack toad
Male natterjack toad

“A key part of the project will be with the local people who use and enjoy the heaths, for example, to get involved in scraping patches of bare earth or even encouraging communities to adopt and take responsibility for their heath.  Rare heathland species that will benefit from the project include:

  • The sand lizard, Britain’s rarest reptile, needs open sandy ground to incubate its eggs.
  • The striking Minotaur beetle needs sandy ground to burrow in.
  • The natterjack toad, Britain’s rarest amphibian, hunts best in warm, open sandy ground and needs warm shallow pools to breed in.
Silver Studded Blue
Silver Studded Blue Butterfly
Silver Studded Blue

In the 1980s less than 100 field crickets remained in the UK, on one heathland site in what is now the South Downs National Park. A careful reintroduction programme saved the species from extinction but Heathlands Reunited will create more places where these insects can be reintroduced.  Like many UK butterflies the silver-studded blue has suffered a decline due to loss of its preferred habitat – warm lowland heath.

Working in partnership towards bigger, better, more joined up heathlands
Heathlands Reunited project logo
Working in partnership towards bigger, better, more joined up heathlands

This five year project was officially launched in September 2016 at the Secrets of the Heath event with 2000 people attending. This project has been generously funded by the Heritage Lottery Fund which have provided a £1.44 million grant which has been match funded by partners to bring the project total to £2.37m.  “Heathlands support many rare and endangered species but are themselves among the world’s most threatened habitats,” says Stuart McLeod, Head of HLF South East. “This is an important intervention that will not only restore and recreate many hundreds of acres".  Find out more about the Heathlands Reunited project and updates on the work it has been carrying out here.