Grazing animals to return to East Devon Pebblebed Heaths
A centuries old tradition of using grazing livestock to help manage one of the South West's most important wildlife habitats is returning to the East Devon Pebblebed Heaths.
Following a trial using a small herd of Devon Reds to help control vegetation and maintain boggy areas on the lowland heathland, the Pebblebed Heaths Conservation Trust and other landowners plan to introduce a wider programme of grazing on the 3,000 acres of heathland which covers seven commons between Exeter and the Jurassic Coast.
The practice of grazing animals on the Pebblebed Heaths dates back to the 1800s when commoners brought their cows, sheep, horses and even pigs to graze. Along with the cutting of heather for bedding, the commoners and their stock kept the ever encroaching scrub at bay, helping to preserve the unique landscape.
In more recent times the Pebblebed Heaths Conservation Trust has proactively managed the heathland with controlled burning, gorse coppicing, scrub clearance and bracken control. Although these techniques have been successful, the Trust has been keen to find a more sustainable method.
Senior Commons Warden Bungy Williams explained: "Without this constant management, this land would turn into forest. Trees and scrub would completely take over and there would be a change from wet heath and mire to drier grass-dominated areas which have a lower biodiversity value." He added: "Grazing alone will not achieve the aims of managing the land back to lowland heath but to be able to bring the cattle in to graze after burning or cutting, will keep the vegetation down for longer and will also help to re-establish the important boggy areas which are home to many rare species of flora and fauna".
Populations of breeding nightjars and Dartford warblers have made their homes on the Pebblebed Heaths as well as colonies of extremely rare Southern damselfly. During the summer months, more than 20 species of butterfly can be recorded on the commons, including the pearl-bordered fritillary and the silver studded blue. The heaths are also a regionally important site for rare and scarce plants and invertebrates.
The rarity of the landscape, along with the richness of the wildlife, has earned the heaths special European and national designations including Site of Special Scientific Interest (SSSI), Special Protected Area (SPA) and Special Area of Conservation (SAC). The heaths also form part of the East Devon Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty (AONB).
An application by the Pebblebed Heaths Conservation Trust to fence areas of the heaths to focus the grazing on a specific area as well as protecting livestock from traffic has been given approval by the Planning Inspectorate (Application Decision - 8th June 2012).
Some areas will be permanently fenced and others will have temporary fencing, allowing for a flexible grazing regime. The aim is that the public will still be able to enjoy the same access to the heaths as before with numerous gates, easily opened by walkers, horseriders and cyclists, included in the fencing plans.
Bungy Williams said: "As well as gates on every designated bridleway and footpath, we have included additional gates to ensure that people can enjoy the heaths in the same way they've always done." He added: "For those who take an interest in wildlife and the natural environment, their experience should be greatly enhanced with this exciting new phase of managing our fantastic Pebblebed Heaths."
The Pebblebed Heaths Conservation Trust, Natural England, the RSPB, Clinton Devon Estates and other local landowners have worked together on the proposals. Speaking on behalf of the Pebblebed Heaths Conservation Trust, John Varley said: "We are delighted with this significant milestone in our long term strategy to manage this internationally important natural habitat sustainably, for generations to come."
Details of how the plans are introduced and further community engagement events will be posted on the East Devon Pebblebed Heaths website www.pebblebedheaths.org.uk