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YateleyCommonEvolved

Page history last edited by PBworks 15 years, 2 months ago

How Heathland Evolved

I have reproduced below part of the the evidence submitted by The Yateley Society to the reopened third Fox Farm Inquiry in September 1998. The Society's expert witness was Mike Edwards BSc, Fellow of the Entomological Society of London. The Inquiry was reopened by the Secretary of State to hear evidence into a Environmental Impact Assessment prepared by the Appellant. Mike Edwards carried out a full entomological survey of the '138 acres' for the Society in 1996. His evidence included a very succinct explanation of the origins of lowland heath commons, and is given here exactly as submitted to the Inquiry.

 

2.1 The origins of heathland go back more than four millennia to the tribes which cleared and grazed the poor sandy soils. Such soils, easier to clear than the rich vegetation of river valleys and forests, became exhausted. By the time of the Norman Conquest, these areas of poor acid heath were considered as 'waste of the manor', a term still applied in the laws relating to common land. Copyholders of the manor acquired 'common rights' over the 'waste of the manor' such as to graze animals, collect firewood, cut peat and dig gravel. The 'waste of the manor' became known as 'common land'. The common rights and the common land are now protected by law.

 

2.2 Yateley Common, of which the 138 acres I surveyed for the Yateley Society form part, is now the rare internationally protected habitat known as lowland heath, because it has evolved as land managed by man over several millennia employing specific agricultural husbandry which has now almost disappeared. Lowland heath is not natural habitat and will degrade if left unmanaged. Symptoms of degradation of lowland heath are the invasion of young birch and other trees. Other symptoms of heathland degradation are the invasion of gorse, bracken and coarse grasses such as Deschampsia flexuosa. Eventually, if not managed, the open heath will revert to densely packed woodland as seen at the south-west and north-west quadrants of land at the roundabout at the intersection of the A30, A327 and Cricket Hill. Such woodland shades out the low growing heathland flora requiring a warm, dry soil, and the fauna which relies on such flora and the warm, dry conditions.

 

2.3 Modern heathland management attempts to emulate the ancient ways of the commoners, but in many ways will be deficient, even if grazing is re-introduced. Modern management is therefore a complex mix of methods to try to achieve the same ecological ends as the commoners' activities. However, since present day management is not the same as the husbandry of the ancient commoners, lowland heath is at considerable risk to degradation, and I consider that, in all dealings with this habitat, the Precautionary Principle must apply.

 

2.4 To understand the ecology of the lowland heathland today it is important to know how heathland evolved over the millennia. Commoners' animals were grazed on the "waste of the manor", which was already in poor agricultural condition because of its previous use. Since common land was unfenced, the commoners' animals grazed by day, but were returned to their byres and folds by night. The excreta collected during the night (dunging out) was then spread over the arable fields and pasture to improve their fertility. There was thus always a nett loss of fertility of the heathland, and a nett transfer of fertility to the farmed land. With this continual nett loss of fertility, heathland thus became poorer and poorer.

 

2.5 Lowland heath is the matrix of plants which grows on this poor acid soil, under the specific conditions of management resulting from grazing of commoners' animals and from other rights which they enjoyed. The soil of lowland heaths is warm and dry in summer, and cool and weel drained in winter. As such it provides an important habitat for many plants and animals.

 

2.6 There are, however, even rarer areas of heath where streams run through the poor acid soils, or ancient gravel pits have filled with water. Such wet areas are home to many rare species and, because of the rarity of such habitats, enjoy additional protection, as does Castle Bottom National Nature Reserve.

 

2.7 Management of the lowland heaths by the commoners resulted from the necessities of their husbandry. Some areas were preferred for grazing, some areas for peat digging, some for gravel digging, gorse cutting, and for coppicing. Over the centuries this pattern of different anogsd changing management resulted in the heathland matrix we find today.

 

2.8 Heathland is not therefore a uniform area consisting only of heather, as claimed by the Appellant using the narrow definition of the Nature Conservancy Council in 1989. The best, and most up-to-date, definition of heathland can be found in proposal 3 in the latest Government White Paper Access to the Open Countryside in England and Wales (Appendix 8):

Heath is characterised by the presence of dwarf shrubs such as heather, gorse, cross-leaved heath, bilberry, and crowberry. It may include scattered trees, scrub, bareground, bogs and open water. Lowland heath is found below 300 metres; upland heath on higher ground

 

2.9 I therefore consider that all the land comprising the 138 acres which I surveyed for the Yateley Society is heathland, within the definition in para 2.8 above.

 

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