Why we manage heathlands by cutting down trees

hath

Here in the West Midlands we are very privileged to have areas of a unique and nationally important habitat that is in decline:  Lowland Heath. In particular, Walsall Countryside Services are the custodians of what is left of the former Staffordshire Heaths, an area of heathland that once stretched from Sutton Park to Cannock Chase!  Currently, what remains of this habitat is represented by parts of Barr Beacon, Shire Oak Park, Brownhills Common and Pelsall North Common.  *They are all LOWLAND heaths, even Barr Beacon, as they all come in at under 300m above sea level.  All of the above sites are managed by Walsall Countryside Services in what is called a ‘Higher Level Environmental Stewardship Agreement’ – a 10-year plan devised through working with Natural England  to decide what is the best way to manage the sites in order to consider biodiversity, protected species, rare habitats and of course, the value of the site to visitors and local residents.  There are numerous plant species that grow in this habitat, which is dominated by heather, cross-leaved heath and numerous other plants which thrive in the acidic soil.   In and around this diverse assemblage of plants, several protected species are thriving.  You might wonder what is so special about this habitat, and what ‘protected species’ we are talking about, as unless you look closely, or know exactly where to look, these species can often be elusive and hard to observe.  Because of this, Countryside Services regularly monitor the sites for heathland bees, butterflies and other invertebrates, as well as reptiles.

Here is a brief introduction to just a few of these species:

Common Lizard

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Very few people have seen lizards in the West Midlands.  They are absolutely dependant of the type of habitat that heathlands provide, and because the heathlands are rare (and getting rarer!), so are reptiles.  In the past two years, common lizards have been seen on 5 occasions on Pelsall North Common alone – so much that Walsall Countryside Services have adopted a 1km square on Pelsall North Common as their site for participation in the National Amphibian and Reptile Recording Scheme (NARRS).  We hope to record more reptiles in the future.  Managing the habitat (and where we can, extending the range of that habitat) can help these creatures to thrive.

Slow Worm

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Another reptile which has recently been recorded is the Slow Worm – actually not a worm at all, nor is it (as many people first think) a snake – but actually a type of legless lizard.  In 2012, the species was recorded on Barr Beacon, which was the first record of the species in Walsall for over 35 years!  We are currently managing the habitat with creatures like the slow worm in mind!

Tormentil Mining Bee

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One of the UK’s smallest bees, measuring only 8mm in length, the Tormentil Mining Bee is a Biodiversity Action Plan target species.  Our population on Pelsall North Common is a huge priority for Walsall Countryside Services, as the nearest and most recent record to the south is from Sutton Park in 1904, and to the north, Chasewater in 2004.  This means that our population may represent the only surviving group of these specialist heathland bees in the area.  Without the heathland, this species would simply die out (and quickly!) as it is what scientists call ‘Oligolectic’, meaning that it is completely reliant on one or two species of plants – in this case, Tormentil.  Tormentil is one of the plants that will disappear when succession takes hold of the heath, taking the Tormentil Mining Bee with it.

Green Tiger Beetle

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This stunning beetle was recorded in Walsall for the first time in 2012!  Walsall Countryside Services cleared some scrapes in the south-facing bank of Barr Beacon’s heathland, in order to create nesting opportunities for mining bees.  Much to everyone’s delight, the Green Tiger Beetle moved into the bank that very same year.  It is important that this species is allowed to establish itself and become a thriving population, and so the management of the site is now tailored to this and other heathland specialist insects.

Great Crested Newts

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The great crested newt has a bit of a stronghold in Walsall – particularly in the north of the borough, where we have breeding populations on Pelsall North and Brownhills Commons.  Many people don’t realise that although the great crested newt is an amphibian, it is essentially a terrestrial (land-dwelling) animal which happens to still breed in water, and the rough, grassy terrain with lots of cover that heathlands provide is just as important to this animal’s success and wellbeing as its aquatic habitat.  The great crested newt is a protected species, and a high priority in conservation.

 So, why does managing habitat mean that we have to cut down trees like conifers?

Basically, the name of the game is Biodiversity, which in a nutshell, means getting as many types of animals and plants to thrive in a habitat as possible.  Because birch and pine grow really well in acidic soils (which all heathlands have) they can soon encroach on open heathland if left to their own devices.  This leads to shading out heather and other plants (including Tormentil), making the area unsuitable for many of the heathland species that depend on the open habitat.

Plantations and woods that have grown on former heaths (like those at Barr Beacon and Brownhills Common) become dominated by a few species of trees, directly reducing biodiversity.  No heathland means no lizards, slow worms, newts, tiger beetles or tormentil mining bees.  If we don’t act, we will lose them all.

Fortunately, the remedy is simple – we remove the majority of the trees, increasing sunlight and biodiversity comes flooding back!   Amazingly, heather seeds can survive for over 75 years, in the soil, and will germinate readily when the conditions are right again.

Our management of heathlands has resulted in the presence of some amazing species on our sites, including the species mentioned above, but many more as well, from birds to butterflies and many other species of heathland specialist animals.

Walsall Countryside Services are also working with the Wildlife Trust under the Nature Improvement Area programme, to plan to extend and where possible, connect areas of heathland to enable movement of species between sites and reduce genetic isolation of insect populations.

So if you see a few windswept Countryside Rangers taking down trees on Brownhills Common or other heathland sites this winter, you’ll know what we’re up to.

29 Replies to “Why we manage heathlands by cutting down trees”

  1. Well written and informative. Neither condescending or arguementative. Helps explain the need for land management rather than dismiss people concerns

    1. Thank you, this is actually my third blog post on the subject, but its a pity that this and our press releases didn’t seem to reach people. Newspapers prefer to print alarmist views by concerned residents rather than the actual facts. 😦

      1. Morgan
        With respect, I’ve reblogged every heathland post you’ve written ( and linked to them many times) – but the first press release to specifically mention Brownhills was last week.

        Until then, there was no move to inform or counter concerns in the community which was already raising petitions and mobilising against something they hadn’t had explained to them.

        This is a wonderful piece of work which I’ve reblogged last night.

        The problem is the people in Brownhills had misinformation spread to them from the Local Committee that all the trees would be cut down. Nobody mentioned ‘heathland management’ in the leak, and with no specific mention of Brownhills, there was nothing to find, on or offline, that explained exactly what was planned. I had a statement from Kevin on which I blogged, but it was too late to make any difference.

        It’s great to see this now available and in printed form. People need targeted, specific information if the troublemakers are to be countered successfully.

        This work is essential, but people fear it, and don’t trust the council. Overcoming that barrier is a Herculean task.

        Best wishes
        Bob

  2. Lovely post. I like how you went over a few of the species that make up the lowland heathland ecosystem. (The slow worm is amazing!)
    Are there any other plants besides trees that could potentially outcompete the existing vegetation that you have to be aware of?

    1. One of the main ones is actually heather believe it or not – one of the other things we do is to cut areas of very mature heather, and leave it on site to drop its seeds, because its really important to have a mosaic of different ages of heather. If the landscape is dominated by heather of all the same age, that also causes a drop in biodiversity. 🙂

  3. Excellent and timely!

    Do I understand correctly that Natural England is legally obliged by CROW to actively carry out or pursue management of the SSSI according to its designation and the Council is equally obliged in the same terms? In other words not taking reasonable steps to restore the heath, where the condition is described as “unfavourable recovering”, would be contrary to the Council’s obligation in terms of its arrangements with Natural England? Also that funding would not have been forthcoming unless it was to pursue that obligation?

    I ask in hope that this would offer some further support, given the decibel level of naysayers.

      1. Thank you for confirming this.

        Re: Bob’s comment, consultation and communication are, as I have found over many years, very difficult, expensive, time consuming, expensive and frustrating in the extreme. Modern ICT ought to make this a lot easier, but, generally, all that can be done is to alert people to the possibility of having their say (mind you, given my experience and Bob’s skill with GPS and other gizmos, we could set up a consultancy …). With more than 100,000 homes and thousands of businesses it is just not possible to visit or even send something to all addresses at the right time – a flyer was included with council tax bills about a forthcoming consultation, but it’s a month early and most of the few people who haven’t already thrown it away will have done so by then. The ususal process is that some sort of designation is consulted upon, receives a derisory, ambivalent response, and when someone decides to act upon it people find at that stage resistance is futile.

        Generally, Government does the minimum required by the law, which usually means an advert in the London Gazette (hands up any avid readers!) and in local papers, using impenetrable legalese and gobbledygook. Not consultation at all. Anyway, we can, perhaps follow the forthcoming consultation on future development land when it comes.

  4. Really enjoyed reading this well presented and informative post, Morgan. How lovely to imagine the historic Heathland stretching from Sutton Park to Cannock Chase. I am reminded of the 21st century situation of Thomas Hardy’s (birthplace) Cottage in Dorset, which in his day backed onto “Egdon” Heath, but is now in a sylvan landscape which most visitors probably think is rustic and authentic!!!

    I love British reptiles! I was also reminded of when I lived in North Devon, and found, to my delight, “Leonard” lizard in my kitchen cupboard, and a whole nest (what is the correct collective noun?) of Slow Worms in my compost heap!

    I might be going on, but it just goes to show how thought provoking you were.

  5. Beautiful photos – my favourites were of the beetle and mining bee. Something I find hard to understand is how the heathland would have kept going hundreds or thousands of years ago when perhaps human intervention was not going on. Would sheep and deer have stopped trees taking over in the past?

      1. Thanks, the video has helped me understand better. With my surname, presumably sometime in the past I had ancestors living by heathland. I love seeing bees buzzing around lavender – thanks for helping keep it going.

    1. Hmmm… Well my instinct is that it would be a ‘Lounge’ which is the collective noun for lizards, and as Slow Worms are a type of legless lizard, that’s probably the most appropriate!

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