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The Woodland Education Centre
The Heathland Restoration Project
Trialling different methods of management for heathland restoration.


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Conclusions 1996 - 2001
Six years of experimental management
and annual  ecological surveys.

The following points are a summary of the results of the ecological surveys carried out annually from 1996 - 2001. Some points may appear very obvious and hardly worth mentioning. However, these have been included because it is often all too easy to overlook the obvious!

1.  Lowland heath habitat is successfully being restored over much of the project site.
Ling and Bell Heather in section 8 Heather and Bell Heather, the plants perhaps most characteristic of dry, lowland heath in England have colonized many areas of the project site.

Many other characteristic heath species are also well established.

This heath vegetation has naturally regenerated without the need for artificial seeding.

2.  The local environmental conditions have had a considerable impact on the development of lowland heath habitat on the project site.
Heather in section 9 in 2001. The northern half of the project site is more open than the southern half, with a warmer, drier microclimate. (Site description here) Sections 7, 8 and 9 in the northern sector, all of which are differently managed, most resembled lowland heath habitats throughout this six year period. All of these sections rapidly developed notable quantities of heathers, as well as a variety of other plant species characteristic of lowland heath.

Section 9 (left) on the northern-most border of the project site has consistently been the section closest to a lowland heath habitat. The management in this section has consisted of hand weeding. The development of characteristic heath vegetation in section 9 was very rapid. It far surpassed that of the unmanaged control section (5), which would be expected to look similar initially.

This all indicates that the local environmental conditions in the northern half of the project site are more favourable for lowland heath vegetation.

3.  Different management regimes have selectively favoured different combinations and abundance of heath (and other) species, resulting in slightly different heath-type vegetation in different sections.
Bell Heather, gorse and bramble in section 7. Within the northern-most area of the project site, which is most favourable for heath regeneration, typical heath species occur with varying abundance in differently managed sections.

For example, Bell Heather is most abundant in section 7, Heath Speedwell is most abundant in section 6 and Tormentil is most abundant in section 8.

4.  Hand weeding is ineffective as a means of maintaining lowland heath vegetation and preventing succession to woodland on anything but the smallest of areas. The amount of labour needed to effectively control succession by hand weeding alone is simply uneconomic.
wpeDD.jpg (45574 bytes) By 2001, six years into the experiment, succession to woodland was well under way in section 9. Silver Birch was the second most dominant species after bramble, reaching heights of over 1.5 metres. Other tree seedlings such as cherry, willow and Rowan were also well established and many of these were beyond pulling out by hand at this stage. Bramble occurred over the majority of the section and much of the regenerating Heather had become coarse and rank.

Section 9 is the largest section on the project site, with an area of approximately 0.3 hectares, as oppposed to approximately 0.1 hectares for section 5. Hand weeding was deliberately assigned to this largest section to test whether such management would be effective on an area likely to be much smaller than any other site selected for lowland heath restoration.

5.  Natural succession to woodland was taking place in the control section (no management) within the short time span of 6 years.
Hazel and European Gorse in section 5. Hand weeding did retard succession to some extent in section 9. 

By comparison, the control section in 2001 was a tangled, impenetrable mass of European Gorse, young trees and brambles reaching up to 4 metres in height in places.

Virtually all of the Heather and Bell Heather which had colonized the control section initially, had been eliminated by this time through lack of ground level light.

Natural succession had effectively already eliminated any chance of establishment of a heath habitat within the short space of 6 years.

6.  Annual cutting controls the height of tree seedlings. It may also slightly inhibit their establishment.
Silver Birch in Section 9 Annual cutting prevented tree seedlings from reaching any significant height.

Silver Birch was generally less abundant in annually cut sections than in the control (5) and hand weeded sections (9). It occurred with percentage frequencies of from less than 10%, to 45% in annually cut sections in 2001. These frequencies had not changed significantly from the preceding year. In contrast, in section 9 (left) the percentage frequency of Silver Birch had reached 70%.

Tree seedlings in section 8. Autumn cut sections appeared to have more tree seedlings than spring cut sections. This may simply be a result of the fact that the tree seedlings in autumn cut sections were much larger and more prominent at the time of sampling than the tree seedlings in the spring cut sections. (Tree seedlings in spring cut sections would have been cut to ground level not long before sampling and so would not have had much time to regenerate.)
7.  Spring cutting appears to favour the development of Heather and Bell Heather.
Heather and Bell Heather in section 4. Sections 1 - 4 form the southern area of the triangular Heathland Restoration Project area and are quite different to the rest of the project site. All four strips are bounded by woodland, with the increasingly tall control strip (section 5) to their north. These four sections therefore have a very different microclimate and environmental conditions to the more northerly sections 6 - 9.

The conditions in this southerly area are so different that it was doubted whether this part of the Heathland Restoration Project site would ever regenerate as heathland. It is therefore notable that heathers first  appeared in 1999 in both spring cut sections on this southern side of the project area, but had still not established in the neighbouring autumn cut strips by 2001.

The much lower height of the dominant vegetation over the summer growing season results in less competition for light at ground level. This promotes seedling establishment generally, as well as the development of small ground level herbs.

8.  Visual indications suggest that spring cutting is negatively affecting spring flowering plants such as Bluebells.
Bluebells flowering in sections 1 - 4 Spring brushcut strips (2 and 4 left - the white lines have been superimposed to aid the viewer) appeared to have fewer bluebells than those cut in the autumn, although as the spring-flowering Bluebells have all died back by the time of the summer survey, their true abundance is not reflected in the survey data.

Bluebells flower early in spring, using stored reserves from underground bulbs. It is likely that cutting soon after flowering prevents them from replenishing those reserves for the following year.

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