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Preserving And Photographing Heathlands

Preserving And Photographing Heathlands - Niall Benvie looks at ways we can safe-guard Britain's heathlands for future nature photographers.

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Landscape and Travel

Visit 2020VISION for more information on the nature photography project they are working on.

With almost 20% of Europe’s lowland heaths, Britain has an international responsibility for this fascinating and fragile habitat. As Niall Benvie discovers, the way we manage them is key to their future.

Guy Edwardes/2020VISION

Heathlands need us as much as we need them. Without our grazing animals, controlled fires and scrub clearance, many lowland heaths would revert to woodland and bracken thicket after a couple of generations. And without heaths we would be deprived of settings that have inspired writers and film makers, of places that lure the visitor with the promise of a glimpse of exotic species found nowhere else in these islands and where bees work their alchemy to conjure golden honey from rustling heather flowers.

The majority of our lowland heaths – excepting those on the serpentine -sweetened soils of the Lizard Peninsula - have developed on hungry land that is either light and dry or peaty and waterlogged: its flavour is normally acidic. These conditions encourage gorse and various species of heather to flourish, creating a dazzling setting in late summer for heathland specialists such as the Dartford warbler, smooth snake and sand lizard. The hobby, a nimble migratory falcon, is most at home on warm heathlands where it takes large aerial insects like dragonflies on the wing. The hunt is fast, intense, breath-taking. Heaths may lack the biodiversity of broad-leaved woodlands but they make up for it in the drama and colour of animals and plants that live there.

More than 80% of the lowland heath we had in 1800 has vanished as it has been built upon, grazed to the bone, burned, drained or simply allowed to become overgrown. Demand for houses and roads, particularly in the crowded South, has gnawed away at the edges of heathlands, sometimes completely displaced them. SSSI status was no protection for Canford Heath adjacent to Poole in Dorset where in the 1980’s over half of it was replaced by a huge new housing estate. Now, in the place of sand lizard, smooth snake and dwarf gorse there is Tranquil Moments Beauty, Gladiator Academy and Ladbrookes.

Heaths are accessible on foot and by motorbike, flammable, and sometimes sit on top of useful aggregates. Too often they are regarded as wasteland to be abused at will: they are viewed with the same contempt as bogs but are more vulnerable. Perhaps their apparent lack of productivity- they produce no food or timber, after all – is at the root of this disregard but a fundamental shift in attitudes to these places needs to take place before a meaningful reconciliation can begin.

Guy Edwardes/2020VISION

The process is beginning in Suffolk. A large number of partners, including Suffolk County Council, English Nature, the RSPB, DEFRA, the Forestry Commission and the National Trust, have formed the Sandlings Group. It aims to “protect, restore, and promote the understanding of the Sandlings Heaths in the Suffolk Coast and Heaths are of Outstanding Natural Beauty and beyond.” The initiative is backed by its share of the £26 million “Tomorrow’s Heathland Heritage” project, a 10 year programme run by English Nature to reverse the decline in area and quality of heathlands and to restore, even recreate, them.

Central to this effort is the reconnection of scattered areas of heathland between Lowestoft and Ipswich to give fragmented populations of species including woodlark, Dartford warbler, nightjar and silver studded blue butterfly the chance to expand their ranges. Management, perhaps more than in any other habitat, is vital. Encroaching bracken and birch needs to be removed to maintain the open character of heathland that makes it attractive to these species. The Suffolk Wildlife Trust employs a “flying flock” of Hebridean sheep - adept at taking out tree seedlings – which it grazes around the Sandlings area wherever they are needed. Sheep are much less effective than cattle at inhibiting the establishment of bracken (though generally less destructive on wet ground) so this invasive fern is subject to a twin assault: cutting and, until the recent ban on Asulox, aerial spraying. The withdrawal of this chemical and lack of an effective alternative is already causing land managers elsewhere considerable concern as helicopter spraying is the only practical way of tackling large areas of bracken.

An ambitious aspect of the project, run in conjunction with the RSPB, involves attempting to recreate heathland – primarily as a way to reconnect isolated pockets of habitat. At Minsmere, 181 hectares of former arable fields have had their fertility reduced, their acidity increased and deep rooted weeds eliminated. Where necessary, species characteristic of acid grassland - including heather – have been sown where they have failed to colonise naturally. This is a long term, expensive process which may take decades to complete but already a colony of the very rare silver studded blue butterfly is making use of the new heathland (extending to about 25 ha) and the open habitat favoured by stone curlews and woodlarks has been recreated.

Chris Gomersall/2020VISION

Woodlarks or Waitrose? Nightjars or Next? When the chips are down, which will we choose? Once we know the answer to that we’ll know what future our heathlands have.

Top tips for photographing heaths:

1. Focal Points

The isolated trees that are a feature of many heaths create a great focal point in a landscape photograph. Try shooting with the sun behind the tree, using the trunk the block it. If you expose for the shaded side of the tree you’ll get an amazing high-key look.

2. Colours

Time your shoot to co-incide with peak colours; this varies from year to year but if you can, set aside some time to shoot in August and keep an eye on how the colours develop.

3. Close-Ups

While you may reach for the wide angle for landscape pictures, it is also great for close-ups when you position yourself above, but close to the subject. The effect is a dramatic falling away towards the edges so that the subject appears to rocket towards you. If works especially well with bracken and heather.

4. Weather Forecast

Misty conditions greatly add to the atmosphere of heathland pictures. Check the forecast for a cool, clear night followed by a sunny day and remember that hollows tend to keep the mist for a bit longer. This is the best time too, to photograph spider’s webs.

5. Go Wide

Heaths are often quite flat and you may find that the best composition is a panorama. If there’s not much of interest in the foreground or the sky above you, then you should probably be shooting a panorama.

Visit 2020VISION for more information on the nature photography project they are working on.

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Lowland heaths are entirely man made habitats in the first instance.... so man has always contributed to there existence and are generally a really well protected habitat.

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