Lowland heaths of West Europe: Management for conservation
Gimingham, C. H.
West European heathlands are often of high conservation value, but throughout the region their area has declined steeply in recent years. Heath is a semi-natural vegetation type, owing its origins and maintenance to human use and management. In addition to direct destruction of heathland and its habitats, loss has resulted from abandonment of traditional management practices followed by successional change to other vegetation types (e.g. woodland, scrub, Pteridium aquilinum, grassland). To illustrate some of the ecological effects of management, five kinds of traditional practice are reviewed: grazing, controlled burning, cutting, turf stripping or sod cutting ("turbary", "plaggen" etc.) and periodic cultivation. A feature common to all is the continuous or periodic depletion of the nutrient fund contained in the system, or at least prevention of nutrient accumulation. Abandonment of management permits accumulation, which may be increased by inputs from polluted rainfall. In addition, traditional practices (apart from grazing) have tended to create dense, even-aged stands of Calluna vulgaris (or other Ericaceous species). A return to traditional management will secure the conservation of heathland landscapes. But nature conservation in heathland requires not only maintenance of the typical physiognomy, but also full representation of characteristic plant and animal communities, and creation of structural heterogeneity and horizontal mosaic. To some extent careful management of grazing animals may achieve these aims, but this is often difficult to achieve in practice. It may be necessary to have recourse to cutting, burning or turf-stripping, with modifications to allow application on a small-patch basis. This will produce a mosaic of stands of varying age. Frequency of treatment can be varied to provide opportunities for pioneer species as well as those of mature or degenerate stands. Certain elements of the flora or fauna may require special measures.