The importance of heathland and controlled burning

A recent visit to Bickerton Hill with Reaseheath College, introduced me to some of the management techniques associated with heathland habitats.

They are specialist habitats of huge importance that support a great diversity of wildlife. The purpose of our trip was to try to locate and identify male adder species, Vipera berus, who are emerging before the breeding season at this time of year. Unfortunately, no snakes were found, but examples of other species which depend on this habitat were.

butterfly and lizard

Peacock Butterfly (Inachis io) and the Common Lizard (Zootoca vivipara)

The two species found illustrates the biodiversity of the area, the peacock butterfly and the common lizard.

Heathland habitats also support a diverse number of plant species such as bilberry, heather and gorse. These plants are specifically adapted to survive low nutrient levels and periodic drought or prolonged water logging. This is of huge importance, because the range of plant species that grow in these areas support a large number of invertebrate, reptile and bird species.

Management of heath prevents the process of succession taking place. Silver Birch (Betula pendula) colonise these areas quickly. They are a fast growing pioneer species, and if left unmanaged, will eventually develop into woodland.

Management techniques include cutting, grazing and burning. All have their pros and cons, but burning of heath has the biggest impact on grouse.

Grouse depend on the new growth of heather as they feed on the new shoots, they also rely on the cover for protection from predators and for nesting sites.

It is important that the heather is burned to set regulations and on a cyclical system, usually between 8 – 25 year cycles. Drier ground is often burned more regularly than wet ground. If areas are left unburned for prolonged periods, succession will begin to take a hold, and mosses, lichens and even birch saplings will begin to colonise. This will prevent the new growth of heather, so it is important to manage the cycles accordingly.

One issue relating to this method of heathland control is having the numbers of people in place to carry out the work. It is generally accepted that there are only between fifteen to twenty five burning days each winter, and on average the fires must be completed within twenty days. That equates to eleven fires of an average of 0.4ha every day. Since it takes two able men with all the correct equipment, and ideal conditions, a single day to complete 6 fires, to complete the required area in the given time is a challenge to say the least!

Employing more people at very short notice is not easy, and this leads to a genuine issue. If the programme is not completed, large areas remain unburned, which leads to an increase in degenerate heather.

Burning of large areas of ground, visible from great distances may appear a drastic measure on the face of it to some, but providing the burn is controlled, is an excellent management tool to create greater biodiversity, and habitat for all types of flora and fauna. There is legislation in place to prevent burning at certain times of the year. It can only be carried out between October and April, with some exceptions depending on location.

A range of tools have been used and developed to complete the job. In years gone by keepers would use an instrument known as a ‘besom’. “These were brushes made from birch saplings and twigs with a covering of wire netting, the whole bound tightly with soft wire.” (Phillips, 2012.)

Today, the tools for the job need to be more efficient at completing the task. Anyone who is serious about burning heather will use light, strong and well designed kit, which do not break and will not melt or catch fire. This will not only ensure the job is completed to a high standard, but more importantly that it is done safely, and will result in the reduction of fires getting out of control.

Controlled burning

This technique is a skill, and should not be undertaken without relevant experience. Without this management technique, we wouldn’t have the numbers of grouse, or large areas of heathland that make up large parts of our country today. Careful consideration and planning must be undertaken before every burn. Weather, and special times of the year such as bird nesting, correct equipment, man power and fire breaks all need to be outlined prior to commencement of a job.

Heathland management by controlled burning has been practiced for many years, and providing it continues, will provide large areas of rich biodiversity, support large numbers of grouse and in turn allow large areas of game management to continue long into the future.


by Richard Laurence, Conservation and Wildlife Management student