The importance of heathland management in Suffolk

Forming pretty carpets of colour and a nectar rich resource for many invertebrate species across several of our reserves in Suffolk, our Heaths and Meadow Officer, Ben Calvesbert, explains why heathland management is important to promote heathland specialist species.

In Suffolk, three types of heather can be found growing: bell heather, Erica cinerea, common heather or ling, Callunais, and crossed-leaved heather, Erica tetralix, although the latter is found growing much less abundantly in Suffolk. Bell heather and ling make themselves at home on a variety of different habitat types. Bell heather tends to grow on heathland, open woodland and occasionally can found be on the coast and it thrives in well-drained, dry, acid soils. Ling also grows on heathlands and open woodland but in contrast to bell heather, it grows on moorland and bogs too preferring both acid and peat soils.  

The main distinctions between bell and ling are their differences in colour and flower shapes with bell heather displaying beautiful bell-shaped flowers in deep purple hues with ling displaying a more delicate, subtle shade of pink with a more typical cup of small petals. They can be found happily growing side-by-side on most Sandlings heaths, with ling being the only species present on our Breckland sites.  

Heather acts as a great nectar source for many invertebrate species, such as the silver-studded blue, a rare butterfly that has suffered huge population declines recently, whose larvae also feed on bell heather plants, with buff-tailed bumblebees, red-tailed bumblebees and ruby tiger moths also benefitting from the supply of nectar. Other invertebrates such as the green tiger beetle, sand wasps and digger wasps have evolved to take advantage of the 3 dimensional structure of heather dominated heathland particularly utilising the warm bare ground and the sheltered spaces between plants. Heathland birds such as woodlark, Dartford warbler and nightjar can all be found nesting amongst heather plants too.  

In order to provide a rich habitat for wildlife and to keep areas maintained as a heathland habitat, and to stop areas from reverting into a woodland habitat and therefore losing specialist heathland species, heather requires managing. Grazing is the most preferable management technique due to having the least impact on other species compared to mowing or burning.  

It is also important to create a mosaic of different aged plants on heathlands as this allows for different species to take advantage of the different stages. Heather has four growth stages. In the pioneer phase, plants establish themselves and flowers are largely absent. In the building phase, plants establish maximum cover and density of the canopy with little flowering. The mature phase gives way to abundant flowering with gaps in the canopy forming and then lastly there’s the degenerate phase where the central branches dye back allowing other plant species to grow.  

Suffolk Wildlife Trust aims to restore and protect our heathlands by promoting good management techniques, managing encroaching vegetation and implementing beneficial grazing regimes. This work is vital if these habitats are to survive. 

Our work in action is exampled by our North Suffolk reserves team who earlier this year painstakingly prepared an area of Gunton Warren reserve clearing bracken, gorse and a range of non-native invasive species that had become dominant, allowing for plots to be re-seeded with heather by hand whilst other areas choked by bracken leaf litter have been scraped back to expose the bare soil beneath. These cleared plots were either re-seeded with heather by hand or left to naturally regenerate from original dormant heather seed now exposed to light.  

For the best Suffolk Wildlife Trust Reserves to see heathlands, head to Blaxhall Common, Sandlings Heaths & Forests, Knettishall Heath, Gunton Warren and Church Farm Marshes. You can find out more about these reserves here