Heathland and the perception and preference for landscape


I would admire the persistence of the protagonists for heathland and other open landscapes if I was able to muster any respect for their absolutist views. We are perhaps polar opposites in outlook: they, wedded to secondary landscapes that require a constant fight against nature to maintain them; myself, appealing for wild nature to be left alone to make its own decisions on how to order itself (self-willed). Observers might think that this is just a difference in opinion, and that physical manifestations of a range of landscape type have an equal right to exist. I would agree if that were the reality, but there is no escaping the exclusionary and often arrogant force with which the open-landscapers pronounce their views. The consultation on the Public Forest Estate (PFE) in England last year gave them yet another opportunity in which to take their dogmas out for a walk.

The land grab of the Public Forest Estate

The contents of my consultation reply on the PFE is lost to the online questionnaire, but a collection of illustrative responses has just been published by the Forestry Commission (1), as well as the detailed findings of the consultation (2). I found one un-attributed quote that, if it did not come from me, is certainly the message that I tried to convey in my response to the Forestry Commission:
“The increasing use of the Public Forest Estate to meet targets in the BAP for restoration of open habitats is a disturbing trend. The Estate should not be inexorably burdened with this”

I had formed that view from reading the responses to the prior consultation, on deforestation to open habitats (see The defence of woodland – Forest Neighbours and Gib Torr (3)). The demands on the PFE from the tree persecuting, open-landscapers shockingly read like a mass land grab for the purpose of deforestation. I soon found many of those serial offenders giving it another go in commenting on the PFE. Thus from the RSPB:
“There is an urgent need to enlarge the small and fragmented areas of UKBAP habitat on the PFE, such as lowland heathland”

They suggested that an essential step to achieving this would be an ambitious plan for restoring open habitats. The RSPB have a section on their website on “Restoring heather-dominated habitats”. At least they say “it is very unlikely to involve the removal of any established native woodland, which often has its own vital role to play in the landscape” (4) Only very unlikely? Why not never? Only often? Why not always? However, plantation woodland is expendable to them, as are “areas overtaken by scrub woodland due to lack of management”. This thing about management, especially “traditional management” is the modern day delusion of the conservation industry. It was extractive landscape use that turned sandy areas into heathland by sucking the life out of them and keeping them free of regenerating tree and shrub growth, and it was the removal of that extractive use – NOT the lack of "management" – that has allowed these barren heathlands to naturally re-vegetate and rebuild soil. Trust to the perversity of the conservation industry to bend the reality of the meaning of words to their own ends. Thus they equate their contemporary "management", that has no productive purpose, to former land use.

Another plug for the BAP and open habitat restoration from the PFE came from Staffordshire County Council (but we can guess it was written by Stephanie Wickison):
”Restoration of further open habitat, principally heathland and bog, from conifer forest, in key locations, would enable UK Biodiversity Action Plan objectives to be met”

The New Forest Association went even further and ventured that others could do the job of deforestation to open habitat better than the Forestry Commission - more evidence of the land grab of the PFE:
“This policy [on land sales] needs to be radically amended to enable larger areas of the Forest Estate to be transferred to other organisations with expertise in the management of land for landscape and biodiversity conservation. This may include land, which is currently wooded that should be restored as an open landscape such as heathland, mire or grassland”

They made the same land grab proposal in a response to a different question, but in that response they named those organisations they were thinking of as the RSPB, National Trust and Wildlife Trusts. It would probably have been too bold of the RSPB to have made an outright demand for land to deforest, but they did make it clear that they weren’t happy with the innovations that the Forestry Commission were bringing to their forest design process:
“The RSPB has concerns that the Forestry Commission is using ecologically and conservation unproven design concepts in its Forest Planning, in particular ‘wooded heath’ and ‘moorland fringe’”

Moorland fringe pops up in FC Scotland’s strategic plan for the Galloway Forest District (5). It’s a concept being used in forest design to get away from the often stark, hard edge of conifer plantations. A fuzzy edge is going to be created by “replacing conifer plantations on the forest edge with an open scrubby habitat comprising moorland species with a sparse mixture of native broadleaves and conifer regeneration”

Common sense tells you that that this will bring more than just a visual improvement. The introduction of broadleaves and a graded density of shrub and woodland edge cover, adds many more habitat niches so that surely even the RSPB must welcome it. Moreover, the Forest District and Scottish Natural Heritage (SNH) are already engaged in monitoring, researching and further developing the methodology, and so it is a bit unfair of the RSPB to slur it by saying it is “unproven”. How would you know until you tried it?

Wooded heath, their other point of disagreement, reminded me of one of the questions in the consultation on deforestation to open habitat (6). The Forestry Commission speculated that a more dynamic approach to heathland management, that did not seek to reduce tree cover so drastically, would reduce some of the long-term costs of maintaining the habitat. Their suggestion was a habitat of a third permanent woodland, a third permanent open space and a third shifting between open space and woodland. It is this last component area that is the wooded heath, and which is beginning to pop-up in Design Concept plans of FC England, that look 30 years into the future for woodlands. This a description from the Design Concepts for Bedgebury Forest (7) and Battle Great Wood (8), and the Future Habitats Map for St. Leonard's Forest (9) all in the High Weald:
”Shifting areas of wooded heath support 20-70% tree canopy cover”

Needless to say, the RSPB were very dismissive in response to that question on a more dynamic management approach. They insisted that even on areas that were not SSSI, the very low thresholds of maximum tree cover prescribed for SSSIs should also be maintained there as well (10). Perhaps the RSPB just lacks imagination and is unable to embrace dynamism in landscapes – the FC did make the point that under a system of dynamic management, the monitoring of condition could no longer be constrained by the criteria in Common Standards Monitoring guidance and the need to maintain fixed vegetation types in particular areas. Thus evaluation of success would have to be done on some other basis. Could this be ecosystem function rather than the bean counting approach of the conservation industry?

The dominance of uniform heather

I just wonder if the RSPB has read the recent research report from Natural England that looked at the niche requirements for BAP priority species for lowland heath, and found only 9% actually had a specific reliance on heather (11). More than 60% needed shelter in the sense that trees and shrubs provide wind breaking to open patches. They also made a telling point that those species requiring shelter cannot tolerate the dominance of uniform heather. What perhaps is the most embarrassing finding for the open-landscapers is that 30% of lowland heathland species are associated with trees and scrub, whether it is scattered scrub or woodland edge. Furthermore, the author’s summary conclusion adds considerable weight to the concept of wooded heath:
“There are very few true heathland species; that is those associated with dwarf-shrubs. In fact, most species do not require ericaceous scrub to complete their life cycles. Thus the promotion of ericaceous scrub should not be the only target for heathland management. Rather, ericaceous scrub should be seen as the site fabric upon which other habitats can be maintained and created in order to provide a mosaic of dynamic, resource-rich habitats”

Another serial offender amongst the open landscapers is Dr Lesley Haskins. Haskins got her doctorate in 1978 from Southampton University with a thesis entitled “The Vegetational History of south-east Dorset”. That thesis and a subsequent journal article (12) inform the substance of the Dorset Heaths Natural Area Profile (13), and latterly the book she wrote for the Discover Dorset series entitled “Heathlands” (14). With her obvious regard for heathland, it is not surprising that her footprints can be found where ever there has been an opportunity to idolize it.

In an article in British Wildlfe on the effects of urban development on heathlands of south-east Dorset, she made it very clear that she believes that heathland is only safe in the hands of the conservation professionals (15). Thus the general public is blind to the changes that happen on heath when it is not managed (could it be that they like the trees that have sprung up?) and that opposition to the often drastic management brought in, probably at her advice, makes it sometimes “exceedingly difficult to achieve, and occasionally work may be seriously delayed or even prevented by the opposition of a highly vocal minority”. That accusation of opposition being only from a vocal minority crops up time and again, and I suspect we have Haskins to thank for it being parroted everywhere by the conservation industry.

Haskin’s response to the consultation on deforestation to open habitats was typically lecturing, giving yet another regurgitation of the history of Dorset heathland from her doctoral thesis (I can’t remember much of mine) and extols the “full account of the ecology, importance and history of the Dorset heaths” contained in her book that she forwarded along with her consultation response (16). She pronounces that “The Forestry Commission has itself, singlehandedly, been responsible for major loss of heathland” and thus she demands that the maximum amount of deforested open habitat must to be wrung from the PFE in Dorset.

Her continuing responses allow nothing to prejudice the purity and rightness of the habitat she so admires. It must however have been a brain rush when she wrote “All existing SSSIs should be permanently open habitat” Did she mean the woodland ones as well? It is a possibility, because she has this thing about big open views being the feature that attracts people to heath, and alludes to a survey that suggested people had shown a preference for heath over other open landscapes because the latter do not provide the wide extent and freedom to roam of heaths. Could it not have been that many heaths are on large commons that provide such extensive open access?

Haskins was more restrained in her consultation responses on the PFE, but threw in again this thing about wide open views:
“The provision of nonwoodland or open habitat can have additional benefit for public recreation and appreciation when linked to the opening up of wide and attractive vistas”

I want to challenge that statement, but I need to go back a few years to establish a link. In 2006, Natural England warned local authorities in the south with large areas of heathland Special Protection Areas (SPA) that urban development was affecting the bird species for which these heathlands were designated (17). Under the legislation of the European Birds Directive, Natural England could require councils around areas like the Dorset Heathlands, New Forest, Wealden Heaths, Ashdown Forest and Thames Basin Heaths, to review their policies so that development did not occur within 400m of a heath, and that any development between 400m and 5km would only be permitted if alternative greenspace could be provided to divert increased recreational pressure. The new greenspace would be paid for by a levy on new dwellings in that restricted development band, thus Surrey Heath Borough Council for instance, requires a £3,400 contribution for each new dwelling (18).

Sacrosanct heathland

You might regard this as an incredible imposition in the cause of allowing the nightjar a trouble free existence during that birds temporary residence here during our warmer months. But we don’t get to question this use of the legislation by Natural England, nor is it widely recognised that there is no provision in the Birds Directive for SPAs to be de-designated. Thus we are potentially stuck with these heathlands for all time, unless somebody does something about the EU legislation.

Ever helpful, Natural England, provided local authorities with guidance on how to develop new Suitable Accessible Natural Green Space (SANGS (19)) and local authorities set about consulting on provision of these and on other mitigation measures to reduce impact on the heaths. In response to the consultation in 2007 on the Dorset Heathand Development Plan Document, Haskins couldn’t resist getting in a slightly offbeam answer to a question on what location and type of greenspace would be an alternative to visiting heathland (20):
”It is important NOT to choose sites which have an existing interest which would suffer - have a high potential to be restored to heathland as is the case for most Forestry Commission sites. These already have access and should be safeguarded for RESTORATION, not exploited further”

In the same consultation, the Open Spaces Society made an important point about these new SANGs, and any attempts to restrict use of the heathlands (21):
“SANGS must be genuine new open space and access land, not just existing public-access land with improved facilities. Furthermore, the Open Spaces Society respectfully reminds Natural England that much of SPA is acknowledged common land or other access land with established /legitimate rights to walk”

However, it is Hurn Parish Council that go to the heart of this issue with heathlands. Their response pointed out that they weren’t consulted on the original phase, of the Dorset Heathlands Interim Planning Framework (although the conservation industry undoubtedly were) and they are quite clear on what issues were at stake (22):
“there needs to be a balance struck between conservation and people’s freedom. This Document purports an overriding bias towards an “untouchable” heath, to the detriment of not only people and their quality of life, but other parts of the landscape and its wildlife. It could be said that there is something morally wrong with the concept that heathland should be forcibly made sacrosanct”

People like Haskins really must make an attempt to understand what motivates those less obsessed with heath than she obviously is. It is perhaps a truism across continental Europe, with its far greater national aspiration, that the prospect for wild nature is always better when it is not regarded as someone else’s responsibility. The nature conservation industry’s focus here is so often on priority species and habitats that mean little to ordinary people. This is exclusionary and denies that the commonplace in its natural entirety and great variety is just as important to our appreciation of wild nature. It is thus first and foremost the commonplace that needs to be appreciated if what we want to do is help people build their eco-literacy.

Heather not needed

While looking through the guidance on SANGS, I came across this startling statement on landscape and vegetation (18):
“SANGS do not have to contain heathland or heathy vegetation to provide an effective alternative to the SPA”

It goes on to say that surveys of people clearly show that woodland or a semi-wooded landscape is a key feature that people appreciate in the sites they visit, particularly those who use SPAs: “This is considered to be more attractive than open landscapes or parkland with scattered trees”

So much for the Haskins take on open landscapes and their vistas. The visitor survey is contained in a widely circulated but unpublished report, commissioned by Natural England. I got a copy of it from Footprint Ecology, the consultants that carried out the survey, and it is perhaps one of the better ones conducted on the perceptions and preferences for landscape (23). As well as questions about their patterns of visits, people out walking at various locations inside and outside the Thames Basin Heath were shown photos that represented hypothetical ‘ideal’ sites, and asked to select which showed the kind of site they would want to visit.

Woodland scenes across the photograph series consistently outscored open landscapes. In a comparison between woodland, scattered trees and open heath, the latter scored only 4%. Another high scorer was a photo showing undulating topography, and scenes with open water were also favoured. The trend was that a semi-natural looking landscape comprising plenty of variation (ups and downs, and both open and closed views) was regarded as most desirable by visitors, with some of the respondents describing their preferred choice of photograph as being wild. Even some relatively narrow paths through quite enclosed woodland (deciduous preferred) scored highly. When asked whether this choice posed issues of personal safety, some people suggested that the path through the trees looked “more interesting” or “more intriguing”.

I believe this preference for woodland, water and variety in landscape topography is very much continuing evidence that people still react to landscapes in a way that our very early ancestors 50-200,000 years ago will have done when they viewed the biophysical reality of the wilderness in which they lived. Survival was a combination of a need to secure the food, water and shelter amply provided in those ecologically rich landscapes, coupled with the psychology of fear that comes from being a species that was not immune from predation.

The basis of survival was a response to both visual and audio stimuli, the simple cues of a varied landscape and vegetation, the movement of animals, and the sounds of water. Many theories have been proposed to explain this, but prospect-refuge theory arising from habitat selection offers one of the simpler approaches to understanding landscape experience (24). Thus during the prolonged hunter-gather stage of human evolution (agriculture has only been around for a brief period in our species history) frequent moves through the landscape were necessary to ensure sufficient food, water and shelter. The perception of three-dimensional landscape features, their form, spatial arrangements and movement would therefore have acted as sign-stimuli, bio-indicators of the environmental conditions that were either good or bad for safety and survival. In moving through this wilderness landscape, the response to the likelihood of predation is the ability to see (prospect – to look out onto varied landscapes rich with opportunity) but not be seen (refuge – to hide out of sight of predators) so that the chances of surviving are increased.

Nowadays, there is little need for this human sensitivity to wilderness landscapes because the threat of predation has been removed from the UK with the extermination of wolf, lynx and bears, and agriculture has destroyed the wilderness landscapes that could sustain us with their self-perpetuating, ecological richness. But that doesn’t stop us from exercising those ancient instincts, and that is why the conservation industry’s obsession with heathland is so out of step with ordinary people. The tree persecuting, open landscapers have lost that sensitivity and would definitely not survive in wilderness.

Mark Fisher 9 March 2010

(1) Analysis and summary of consultation submissions, Part 2. Detailed Findings, The long-term role of the Public Forest Estate in England: consultation, Forestry Commission England, December 2009


(2) Analysis and summary of consultation submissions, Part 3 What respondents had to say - a collection of illustrative quotations, The long-term role of the Public Forest Estate in England: consultation, Forestry Commission England, December 2009


(3) The defence of woodland – Forest Neighbours and Gib Torr, Self-willed land, January 2010


(4) Engaging the public in lowland heathland re-creation, RSPB 2008


(5) Galloway Forest District Strategic Plan 2007 - 2017 Forestry Commission Scotland www.forestry.gov.uk/pdf/GallowayFDSP.pdf/$FILE/GallowayFDSP.pdf

(6) Restoring and expanding open habitats from woods and forests in England: a consultation, Forestry Commission March 2009


(7) Bedgebury Forest – Design Concept, Forestry Commission 2008


(8) Battle Great Wood – Design Concept, Forestry Commission 2008


(9) St. Leonard's Forest - Future Habitats Map, Forestry Commission 2008


(10) Open habitats response, Nick Phillips, RSPB 2009


(11) Managing for species: Integrating the needs of England’s priority species into habitat management. Natural England Research Report NERR024


(12) An Ecological Survey Of Heathlands In The Poole Basin, Dorset, England, In 1978, Webb, RN & Haskins, LE (1980) Biological Conservation 17: 281-296

(13) Dorset Heaths - Natural Area Profile, English Nature 1997


(14) Heathlands, Lesley Haskins, Discover Dorset Series, Dovecote Press 2003 ISBN 1 904349 01 3

(15) Heathlands in an urban setting—effects of urban development on heathlands of south-east Dorset, Haskins, L., British Wildlife, April 2000, 229-237


(16) Open habitats response, Dr. Lesley Haskins


(17) Local Development Framework - Dorset Heathland Joint DPD, Borough of Poole


(18) Thames Basin Heaths Special Protection Area, Surrey Heath Borough Council


(19) Guidelines for the creation of Suitable Accessible Natural Green Space (SANGS)


(20) Issues and Options Consultation, Dorset Heathand Development Plan Document,


(21) Open Space Society consultation response, Dorset Heathlands Joint Development Plan Document: Issues and Options September 2007


(22) Hurn Parish Council consultation response, Dorset Heathlands Joint Development Plan Document: Issues and Options September 2007


(23) The “Quality” of Green Space, features that attract people to open spaces in the Thames Basin Heaths area (2005) Liley et al, Footprint Ecology, 2005


(24) The Experience of Landscape, Appleton, J. (1975). London: Wiley


www.self-willed-land.org.uk  mark.fisher@self-willed-land.org.uk