Heath care plan - Black Down, Ludshott and Hindhead

Heathland in bloom on Black Down with grazing belted galloway cows

We tend to think of ‘proper’ nature as being free from human interference, but our lowland heaths were created by a partnership between humans and grazing animals over thousands of years. The result is a landscape rich in rare and special wildlife, providing a haven for over half the UK’s dragonfly species, and all six of our reptiles.

This ancient wild terrain was famously romanticised in the novels of Thomas Hardy. It is characterised by acid-loving heather, gorse and bogs, fine grasses and wildflowers and once cloaked vast stretches of England. Today it’s an international rarity - less than one sixth survives - but you’ll find beautiful examples in southern England, such as the commons at Black Down, Woolbeding, Hindhead and Ludshott.

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

In a new Heritage Lottery Fund project, called ‘Heathlands Reunited’, eleven organisations led by the South Downs National Park Authority have joined forces in West Sussex and Hampshire to expand and connect heathland in the national park. This will create wildlife corridors forming an area of heathland greater than 1,200 football pitches by the end of the five year project.

Looking over the route of the old A3 road at Hindhead Commons and the Devil's Punch Bowl
A man looks over the route of the old A3 road at Hindhead Commons and the Devil's Punch Bowl

‘We have been working to restore the heathland here for over 15 years and as a result we’ve been able to reintroduce nationally endangered species such as the sand lizard and silver-studded blue butterfly. We are incredibly proud that breeding pairs of Nightjar have more than doubled in the past decade,’ said David Elliott, Lead Ranger for Black Down.  ‘Lowland heath will revert to species poor secondary woodland if we don’t give it a helping hand, so we carry out conservation work in winter when there are no ground-nesting birds’.

Silver Studded Blue
silver studded blue butterfly

The most important job is to remove birch, pine and invasive species such as rhododendron. Other work includes cutting back gorse and burning small areas of heather to create just the right habitat for heathland species. Over past winters conservation work has also seen the recreation of bog ponds which now support rare plants such as the sundew.

A close up of a round leaved sundew, a rare wetland plant
A close up of a round leaved sundew, a rare wetland plant

Grazing animals play a vital role in maintaining the open heath and hardy breeds such as belted Galloway and Sussex cattle are often seen grazing the commons. So, look kindly on our fragile lowland heaths. If we don’t continue to manage them we’ll lose this incredible landscape, and with it, the rare and special wildlife it supports.