Surrey's Habitats : Heathland
Heathlands are one of the most ancient and characteristic of our landscapes supporting some of rare wildlife. Like all other landscapes they have been shaped by people.
Lowland heathland is an open landscape, generally occurring on nutrient-poor, acidic sandy soils no more than 300 metres above sea level. It is characterised by the presence of dwarf shrubs of the heather family, notably ling Calluna vulgaris, bell heather Erica cinerea, and cross-leaved heather Erica tetralix, as well as many species that are nationally or internationally rare or endangered.
Much of the wildlife found on heathland is specialised in nature, adapted to exploiting the unusual and often extreme environments it offers. It is very important for invertebrates, and many rare and characteristic species occur in Surrey. Heathland is very important for reptiles like the sand lizard and smooth snake, and the birds found there are heathland specialists - stonechat, Dartford warbler, woodlark, tree pipit and nightjar.
Heathland is an ancient landscape which was largely created by human activity thousands of years ago. From the late Stone Age onwards, and especially in the Bronze Age, our ancestors burned and felled the original woodland to grow crops. The light sandy soils in the west of Surrey were easily worked but their fertility was quickly exhausted as nutrients were used up or washed through. These spent and highly acidic soils could then only support certain plants which spread out onto the cleared open areas, helping form the landscape and habitat we recognise as heathland.
Over the following centuries this heathland provided food, fuel and shelter to local people. Heather, gorse, bracken and turves were cut and have been variously used for animal bedding and fodder, and fuel and building materials, whilst the heathland itself was grazed by domestic animals.
The rights of local people to use the products of heathland were jealously guarded, recognised and incorporated into Commons legislation which has protected many areas from enclosure for agricultural use until the present day. It is only in the last 100 years that heathland has become almost entirely disconnected from the farming communities that created it and which it helped to sustain. With commoners no longer exercising their common rights, heathland rapidly began to revert to scrub and woodland. Without active management heathland would in time disappear; altogether we have lost 80% of the heathland present 200 years ago.
Surrey still supports a significant area of lowland heath - about 3000 hectares or 13% of the UK total - although this is only a fraction of what previously existed. It is largely confined to two areas: the London Basin in the north-west of the county and the Wealden Greensand in the south-west and centre. It varies greatly depending on topography and soil conditions.
Reserves with this habitatWisley Common, Ockham & Chatley Heath
Bisley & West End Commons
Hankley & Elstead Commons
Whitmoor & Rickford Commons
Barossa & Poors Allotments