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Why tree removal for heathland restoration is important

As a woodland conservation charity, we get a lot of reports about tree felling from concerned individuals worrying that something untoward is happening at a site. The removal of trees, particularly if it’s at a site that someone loves, can be very upsetting, and it can sometimes appear to come out of the blue. If you’re concerned we recommend that in the first instance you speak to the landowner to find out what work they’re undertaking, but there are lots of reasons for tree felling. One of these is to restore heathland habitat. Let’s take a look at what that means and why it’s important.

The importance of native habitats

Our primary interest is in trees and woodland. However, as a conservation charity we value all important native habitats, which include heathland, wetland and peatlands. Across our estate we manage significant areas of these types of semi-natural habitats in addition to our woods.

Heathland is an important native habitat. It occurs on acidic, impoverished, dry sandy or wet peaty soils, and is characterised by the presence of a range of dwarf-shrubs. Heathland’s importance is in providing a home to many specialised species that cannot live elsewhere.

Many of the UK’s heathlands have been intensively managed, for example through conversion to conifer plantations. To protect their unique wildlife it is vital that they are sensitively restored and managed.

Heathland is also a priority habitat for nature conservation because of its internationally rare and threatened status. The UK has lost over 80% of its heathland since 1800, but what remains represents 20% of all lowland heath in Europe. Inappropriate management (through a modern perspective) during the last century has left many of our heathlands covered with secondary woodland and conifer plantations. 

Heathland restoration work at Brede High Woods in East Sussex, which includes Sedlescombe Heath (Photo: WTML)
Heathland restoration work at Brede High Woods in East Sussex, which includes Sedlescombe Heath (Photo: WTML)

Heathland restoration

Heathland restoration requires active and decisive intervention. This means that trees need removing and a new management plan needs putting in place to preserve the habitat in its new, or rather old, state.

Heathland restoration can look dramatic and devastating, particularly if extensive felling work is taking place. However, such restoration programmes are undertaken in consultation with ecologists and with the proper ongoing maintenance, those areas that have been felled will heal with time. The UK Government has an internationally binding commitment to restore our heathlands and many restoration projects are run in consultation with the two main Government agencies, the Forestry Commission and Natural England. Policy details are available on the Forestry Commission website if you’d like to learn more

If you are concerned about work being undertaken at a specific site, it’s worth first having a look online to see if you can find a management plan. Many heaths are also Sites of Special Scientific Interest (SSSI), and as such their management plans are published on the relevant regulatory body’s website. In England, where most heathland is found, this information is available on the Natural England site here.

Heathland on Smithills Estate, Lancashire (Photo: Russell Hedley/WTML)
Heathland on Smithills Estate, Lancashire (Photo: Russell Hedley/WTML)

Our view

We recognise the national and international significance of restoring heathland. Secondary woodland and conifer plantations can grow anywhere, but heathland cannot as it depends on specific factors, such as soil type. We unambiguously support the restoration of semi-natural habitats, where sufficient remnants survive to enable them to function properly as ecological units. In policy terms we are as passionate about this as we are about the restoration of Planted Ancient Woodland Sites (PAWS).

We very much believe in a ‘right tree in the right place’ policy, and for heathland habitats the science suggests that the presence of trees endangers the native, ecological adapted specialist fauna and flora. Our landscape scale approach to conservation places equal value on non-woodland semi-natural habitats and we fully support their restoration where appropriate and feasible, as part of a vibrant mosaic of spaces for wildlife.

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