Protecting rare New Forest lowland heaths

Panoramic shot of New Forest lowland heath in winter frost with scots pine

Lowland heaths like the ones we care for in the New Forest are the product of thousands of years of human interference. In fact, this ancient and wild terrain would revert to woodland if we didn’t give it a helping hand. So, over winter, when there are no ground-nesting birds, our rangers carry out essential conservation work.

Famously romanticised in the novels of Thomas Hardy, and characterised by acid-loving heather, gorse and bogs, fine grasses and wildflowers, lowland heath once cloaked vast stretches of England. Today, it’s an international rarity - less than one sixth survives – and the New Forest’s heaths are considered some of the finest in Europe. 

Our New Forest team looks after 4,000 acres, managing the gorse and heather to promote growth and provide bushy and productive plants. The result is a landscape staggeringly rich in wildlife, providing a haven for over half the UK’s dragonfly species, and all six of our reptiles.

The southern hawker dragonfly is one of the last hawkers to be found in the New Forest
Close up of the yellow and blue southern hawker dragonfly

Ranger Catherine Supple helps manage the sites with her volunteers:

‘These heaths are made up of an incredible mosaic of habitats, and it’s this mix that makes them so attractive to wildlife,” says Catherine. ”The smooth snake for example loves the moisture-rich mires in the summer but in cooler months it’ll move to the drier south-facing heathland.’

‘In winter the most important job is to remove birch and pine seedlings so they don’t seed into wet areas and dry them out,” says Catherine. “We coppice gorse and burn small areas of heather on a rotational basis, to retain scrub of different ages.’

Volunteers getting stuck in with seasonal work
Volunteers working in the New Forest, Hampshire

The older gorse makes good perches for birds like the Dartford warbler, whereas butterflies like the silver studded blue love young flower-rich gorse and heather.  It also provides cover for ground-nesting birds such as the nightjar and reptiles like the adder. 

In the New Forest, gorse is known as ‘furze’ and its coconut-scented flowers are an important nectar food source for insects such as bumblebees. 

Grazing animals – cattle, sheep, ponies, even pigs - play a vital role too. Here in the New Forest the prehistoric marsh clubmoss thrives in boggy ground poached by cattle. Soil routed by pigs is home to the critically endangered small fleabane plant. 

Ponies and other grazing animals help to preserve these fragile lowland heaths
Several ponies grazing on purple heather in the New Forest

You’ll see the results of our work every summer, when once again these fragile heaths are transformed into seas of rich purple heather dotted with yellow gorse, and alive with the gentle hum of insects.