South Downs project means future is ‘looking much brighter’ for heathland

The results of a conservation project that includes the South Downs have been ‘significant’ according to an independent scientific assessment.

The £2 million Heathlands Reunited project started in 2016 with backing from the National Lottery Heritage Fund and is now coming to its conclusion.

According to the South Downs National Park Authority (SDNPA), heathland is a ‘wildlife oasis rarer than the rainforest and home to some of Britain’s most endangered reptile, amphibian and bird species’.

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The project has conserved and enhanced 23,825 hectares – or 18,000 football pitches – of lowland heath, SDNPA confirmed.

Partners and volunteers at a 2021 event to mark Heathlands Reunited success. (Photo by Anne-Katrin Purkiss) SUS-211213-115431001

An independent scientific assessment has revealed that the initiative has been ‘significant’ in restoring the ecological condition of the habitat.

The project focused on heathland at 41 sites, stretching from Bordon in Hampshire, to Pulborough in West Sussex.

Over the years a total of 349 events have taken place, with more than 16,000 people participating in a range of activities aimed at raising awareness and encouraging people to care for their local heath. Nearly 115 volunteers have dedicated almost 50,000 hours to help look after the heaths.

The project was delivered by 11 partners including SDNPA, Forestry England, and the National Trust.

South Downs National Park heathland - Stedham Common (Photo by Sam Moore) SUS-211213-115403001

Andrew Lee, director of Countryside Policy and Management at SDNPA, said, “We all know biodiversity is under unprecedented threat, but Heathlands Reunited is one of the success stories, showing how much can be achieved if we make space for nature. Seeing animals such as the woodlark, sand lizard and field cricket flourish once again is truly inspiring.

“I would like to thank each and every partner, volunteer and member of the public who has been part of this wonderful project. The fight to protect our heathlands will never be over, but I can safely say that our heaths are in a much better place than they were five years ago. The biggest thing we can all do to help them survive is to continue caring for them.

“The success of this project is the perfect springboard for our ambitious plan to ‘ReNature’ the South Downs, underlining how nature recovery at a landscape scale can tackle both the biodiversity and climate crisis. Crucially, it’s only possible because of people working together to make a difference.”

Rob Free, Weald Reserves manager for Amphibian and Reptile Conservation (ARC), said, “ARC has been delighted to be part of this highly successful project. It has enabled us to improve the heathland habitat on our managed reserves at Woolmer Forest, Blackmoor, East Weavers Down and Broxhead. The icing on the cake for us, and a wonderful legacy for the Heathlands Reunited project, will be the reintroduction of Natterjack toads to Blackmoor in 2022 after an absence of 50 years now that the habitat is suitable for them once more.”

While the project has now officially comes to an end, the Heathlands Reunited partnership will continue and the fight to save and restore heaths goes on under the Heathlands Reunited Wealden Heath SAMM project. This community-focused project brings together 12 like-minded organisations to raise awareness and encourage sustainable use of these sites through public engagement events and activities. The project focuses on the Shortheath Common Special Area of Conservation (SAC) and the Wealden Heath Special Protection Area (SPA) which sit in, and are on the boundary of, the South Downs National Park.

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