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Our work at Headley Heath

A view Headley Heath in summer with blue skies and green vegetation
Headley Heath in summer | © National Trust Images/Gary Cosham

As a designated Site of Special Scientific Interest (SSSI), Headley Heath provides a rich habitat for many different species of flora and fauna. Find out how we manage and conserve our site to continue to provide a home for much of our resident and visiting wildlife, plus how our herd of belted Galloway cattle play an essential role in the conservation programme.

Habitats at Headley Heath

Our special ecosystem

Headley is one of the few places where alkaline or chalk-loving plants (like cowslips) and acidic or chalk-hating plants (like heather) can be found growing together.

This mix of geology – with both sandy soils and chalk grassland – leads to a great diversity of plants and insects, which creates a rich ecosystem.  

Heathland

This heathland may look natural, but it is in fact man-made, created many years ago when our ancestors began clearing forests for farming. Heather and other plants grew in the poor, sandy soil, providing people with fuel and thatching materials. Animals also grazed the heath.

 Lots of Surrey’s heathland has now been lost, mainly due to the decline in the old agricultural system, which has allowed trees to grow (natural re-afforestation) and change the habitat.  

Today we are striving to protect our precious heathland and its many unique plants and animals.

Chalk downland

Chalk downland is a special type of grassland habitat, found on chalk hills such as the North Downs. It’s an extremely rich habitat and supports a great diversity of plants and animals.

The plants are specially adapted to the tough growing conditions (thin, fast-draining soils, low nutrients and high levels of calcium carbonate from the chalk). Because of the difficult conditions, no single plant species can dominate, and so a diverse range of plants live together.

Pink heather and yellow gorse at Headley Heath, Surrey
Pink heather and yellow gorse at Headley Heath, Surrey | © National Trust Images/Andrew Wright

Woodland

The woodland is a mix of beech, silver birch, goat willow, oak and rowan and is home to many creatures. It’s found mainly on the south and west sides of the heath, where the soil is clay with flints.  

Ponds and wetlands

Our ponds are home to a wonderful array of aquatic life, including dragonfly nymphs, newts, grass snakes, toads and frogs. Various grasses and rushes thrive in the damp ground near the water’s edge.

Helping the habitats flourish

To keep all our wonderful habitats thriving they need a helping hand. If we didn’t cut down young trees (especially quick-growing birch) or clear bracken and scrub, we would rapidly lose our special habitats and the unique wildlife they support.

Our dedicated volunteers help us with this never-ending task, as do our herd of munching belted Galloway cattle (also known as the 'furry lawn-mowers').

Cattle helpers

Historically heaths were maintained through grazing by the animals of local villagers, but our herd of nine belted Galloways does exactly the same job today. We work in partnership with the Surrey Wildlife Trust Grazing Project who provide the cattle and manage them.

Two belted Galloway cows face each other at Headley Heath in Surrey
Belted Galloways at Headley Heath | © National Trust Images/Juliet D'Costa

The belted Galloways are chosen for their docile nature and are tested before they go on the heath to ensure their good temperament and calm behaviour. They usually keep together as a herd and are not dangerous to dogs or people. 

Do remember that they are livestock; they are not tame. If you find yourself near them, walk calmly past and put all dogs on lead. Do not go up close to them or touch the cattle, for fear of frightening them.

Grazing zones

So we can maintain Headley Heath as a natural landscape, we are managing the cattle within three zones through harmless underground electric fencing. The cattle wear collars which discourage them from crossing between areas. 

This allows for a better, more targeted, system of conservation grazing across the site whilst not needing unsightly traditional fencing and gates across the heath.

There are signs on site and the website informing visitors where the cattle are, so you can avoid those areas if you wish.

A bench with the inscription 'Friends of Headley Heath' under a Silver Birch tree

Discover more at Headley Heath

Find out how to get to Headley Heath, where to park, the things to see and do and more.

A path through green leafy woodland at Headley Heath in Surrey
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The history of Headley Heath 

From being the home of a Queen Mother to playing a role in defending the nation during the Second World War, Headley Heath has a truly remarkable history.

A rough path next to a cordoned off area with a sign saying 'Caution bees nest ahead'.
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Volunteering at Headley Heath 

Find out all you need to know about the current volunteer roles on offer at Headley Heath and how to get in touch. We're always on the lookout for new team members

Scaffolding surrounding the Rotunda at Ickworth, Suffolk, with trees in the foreground

Our cause 

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A volunteer and a member of staff tending the garden at Rainham Hall, with the trees starting to bud around them and a view of the hall in the distance.
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