Looking after rare lowland heath
Once widespread, heathland such as Kinver Edge is now an increasingly rare habitat in Europe. Important for reptiles, many birds, bats and moths, heathland has great ecological value. Our outdoors team work year-round to maintain this habitat, here's an explanation of how it’s done:
Why we need to manage the heath
The heathland of Kinver Edge is the product of years of human presence. Generations of people have grazed their animals here and used the trees for firewood and tools such as besom brooms. This has created a patchwork of some open, sunny areas, other places with shrubs such as heather and gorse, and other areas with clumps of oak and silver birch trees - this is a varied heathland landscape. There are many rare plants and animals that need heathland to survive, and by keeping the landscape open and varied we help to protect them.
How it's done: clearance and cows
The best way to manage the heath sensitively is to graze it with cattle. We use a herd of English Longhorn cows, an ancient breed, who crush the bracken, chomp on bramble and nibble leaves and grass. Their trampling creates bare sandy areas that bees nest in and releases heather seeds. By roaming around they naturally create a ‘mosaic’ of different habitats across the landscape, which is ideal for wildlife.
In areas where scrub and gorse start to dominate our team clear small patches each year from October to March, stopping in spring so as not to disturb nesting birds. Some of the felled wood is sold to raise money for our conservation work, some is used for events such as making bug hotels, and the rest is removed from the heath so that we don't add nutrients to this low-nutrient habitat.
As well as protecting and improving the heathland we've got, we are also carrying out an ambitious restoration project on the former site of an aging conifer plantation. We hope this newly cleared area may provided nesting opportunities for rarities such as nightjars that have been absent from Kinver Edge for many years and it will certainly provide increased habitat for all reptile species on site.
Another challenge for the team is controlling the invasive plant Himalayan Balsam. This non-native plant has found its way into the British countryside, where it quickly suppresses other flowers and reduces biodiversity. We've been removing it from the heath by strimming it, mowing and pulling by hand throughout the spring and summer. There is even a dedicated team of local families who take their children out balsam bashing - they love ripping out the massive stems in the name of conservation!
By far the easiest and most efficient way to control balsam though is with the cows - the English Longhorns love eating up the fleshy balsam stems. This year we have introduced the cattle into a new area of Kinver Edge where the Himalayan Balsam has started crowding out a beautiful display of bluebells. Already they are having a great impact and targeting this invasive weed, allowing our native plants and animals to thrive again. We hope to eventually eliminate Himalayan Balsam from the Edge.
Under the guidance of our ecologists we regularly monitor the current heathland, and restoration area to check the condition of the habitats, see what plants and animals are living here, and so measure the success of our management plan. We are already seeing the return of key plant species such as heather, heath bedstraw and wood sage to the newly restored heathland area. Wildlife such as the green tiger beetle, tree pipits, green hairstreak butterflies and common lizards that live in heathland have all been spotted in the restoration area too - a fantastic result for nature.