Quantock Hills Blog

How do you create a heathland?

- A wonderful opportunity to visit Prees Heath Common reserve

Iain Porter

Posted by Iain Porter on 10 July 2014

How do you create a heathland? Yesterday I had the opportunity to visit Prees Heath Common Reserve in Shropshire, which is an excellent example of heathland reversion and creation undertaken by Butterfly Conservation and other partners. The common has had an interesting history with it being actively managed around the turn of the 19th century through grazing, removing wood and minerals which created a rich tapestry of heathland. During the First World War the Common was used as a trench warfare training camp for infantry soldiers and then in the Second World War it served first as a internment camp for foreign nationals then as a bomber training airfield.

After the war the airfield was decommissioned, but importantly much of the concreate from the runway and access roads was left in place. While the rest of the common land was let for intensive farming a small area surrounding the runway and access road was left alone as it could not be ploughed and it was in the small patch of remenant heathland that the Silver-studded Blue butterfly servived. This is a scarce butterfly species which is rare in the midlands. In the early 1990s a planning application for the extraction of sand and gravel was submitted and there was a real fear that it would be the end for the local population of the Silver-studded Blue butterflies. A group of conservation organisations, local residents and commoners worked together to raise funding to buy part of the Common with the aim of restoring it to heathland. This aim was realised in 2006 when an area of 58 Hectares (145 acres) was purchased by Butterfly Conservation but then the hard work began.


Heathland species, such as heather and gorse, need nutrient poor soils but much of the land had been improved over the past 30 years by the application of manure and fertiliser. This made achieving the aim of restoration very challenging. In 2009 the first step was to invert the soil but due to the depth of improved soils it required a special plough which was able to plough to 1m depth. This brought the nutrient poor sands to the top which would be ideal for planting heather seeds and plants. However the nutrient level was still high and it required a further treatment of sulphur before heather could be planted.


Looking at the heathland yesterday I was impressed with how well it has come back. The techniques used, which were laregely untried at the time, have been successful and it was interesting to see the results. The population of Small-studded Blue butterflies is increasing and other species such as Pyramidal Orchid and Heath Dog-violet have come back to the site. In essense it is a great success story but there are still challenges for Butterfly Conservation and the other partners. How do they manage the site into the future now the big capital investment has been spent (and it was big costing nearly £1,000 / ha to revert to heathland). This was one of the main discussion points yesterday and it has certainly made me think more about our aims into the future and about the legacy of projects that we are currently developing. It feels as though we entering a different period where funding for basic maintainence of landscape is not always certain and we need to be more creative in our approach. Still it gave me something to think about while I was stuck on the M6 in a massive traffic queue on the drive home!

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