The New Forest is a collection of internationally rare and important habitats, none more so than its large areas of lowland heath. Not only do these areas of New Forest lowland heath represent the largest contiguous tract in Western Europe, they are also rarer globally than rain forest. Lowland Heath is defined as being below 300m (1000 feet) in altitude and is characterised by its covering of heather and gorse. These areas provide excellent habitat to many of the UK’s rarer species of birds and reptiles. Dartford Warbler, Nightjar and Woodlark nest in it and it also provides a home for the Sand Lizard and Smooth Snake.
Since the mid 1800s the loss of this type of habitat has been dramatic across Europe with many such areas being overplanted with trees, converted to farmland or falling victim to the built environment. In order to understand this rare type of habitat it is important to appreciate how it evolved. After the last Ice Age most of Northern Europe was covered with woodland. Around 2000BC when man changed from hunter gatherer to farmer, large scale forest clearance took place. Their primitive farming methods leached the soil of nutrients so they would move on and clear another area of woodland (often by fire), leaving their previous plot for rough grazing by their animals. This continual cycle of cultivation, grazing and burning led to a poor soil base and the acid heathland that we see today. In fact the typical characteristic of a lowland heath is barren infertile land, acidic and very low in nutrients.
Lowland heath is also classed as a priority habitat under the UK Biodiversity Action Plan. If left to its own devices these areas would gradually be encroached by bracken and pioneer species of tree such as pine and silver birch. As a consequence the New Forest’s lowland heath has to be managed sensitively to ensure its survival for future generations and to protect the valuable wildlife habitat it provides. One of the traditional methods of management is burning. Burning has probably been carried out in the New Forest for centuries in order to control scrub, provide regrowth for the commoners’ stock, reduce accumulated biomass and to keep nutrients low.
This burning, which is carried out by Forestry England usually takes place during February and March and to the uninitiated the spectacular fires may appear quite alarming at first glance. However, this work is undertaken by three teams who are very experienced in controlled burning techniques and fire fighting equipment is always on site. The burns take place at this time of year when the worst of the winter weather should be over, the vegetation is likely to be quite dry and the damp ground offers protection to the peaty soil and the seed bank that it contains. The impact on wildlife, particularly breeding birds and reptiles, is also minimised. The controlled burning calendar, location and size is agreed in advance with the Commoners Defence Association and Natural England. Commoning also plays an important role as the grazing with browsing by ponies and cattle prevents the invasion of scrub.
Only two to three per cent of New Forest lowland heath is burned each year and it only takes place after careful on-site assessment the previous summer. Many people don’t realise that, as already described, heathland is a low nutrient habitat and controlled burning helps maintain this status. Allowing vegetation instead to rot and decay would return nutrients to the soil and, ultimately, destroy the delicate balance of our heathland. Gorse and heather burning also encourages new growth, which is beneficial to a variety of flora and fauna, and results in a mosaic of different aged habitats. It also creates effective fire breaks to protect large areas of heathland, woodland and private property from wildfire. The rotation for heather burning is 20-25 years and for gorse, around 12-15 years.
Cutting is used both in conjunction with burning and as an alternative method of vegetation control. Cutting is carried out using mowing/swiping with a tractor mounted machine or hand cutting with chainsaws, brush cutters , bow saws or loppers. Cutting is primarily used for controlling pine and birch succession, gorse, willow and general scrub management.