Thomas Hardy used the fictional Egdon Heath in his novels to exemplify untameable nature whose enemy was civilisation.
Since Hardy was born, the area of lowland heathland has shrunken considerably and since he died the rate of loss accelerated. Some has been lost to housing, some to agriculture and much to forestry plantations. Where pine plantations have been planted there is still a window of opportunity to restore the land to heath after the crop of trees is harvested. And government policy has long been for more of this to happen but the Forestry Commission has been slow to move on this subject.
Lowland heath is an internationally important habitat - rare in world terms and unlucky enough to have been common in southern England where decades of human pressure have been greatest. The Lawton report could easily have had lowland heath in mind when it called for more, bigger, better managed and better connected habitat areas - but then again that is the refrain that applies to most habitats of conservation interest.
The RSPB has been involved in restoring heathland on many sites - here at The Lodge for one, but also places like Farnham Heath too. It can be done, and it can be popular too, once one gets over the knee-jerk reaction that any tree is a good tree even if it is an American species planted in sterile rows across a previously nature-rich habitat.
Given the huge scale of loss of heath it is surely time to 'Lawtonise' heathland and make a real difference to its extent over the next few decades. Think what a cultural asset it would be in the crowded south of England to have more areas for recreation and enjoyment of nature.
What has happened to the Forestry Commission's Open Habitats Project? This project was announced only 2/3 years ago and its aim was/is to remove plantation forestry from sensitive habitats wrongly planted up years ago. These habitats not only include heathland but also chalk/limestone downland. The project seems to have sunk into one of numerous Government "black holes" but it is very important and needs to be high on the agenda of this " Committee" that is to review the future of England's forests and woodlands following withdrawl of the "sell off" proposals.
We spend 90% of net income on conservation, public education and advocacy
The RSPB is a member of BirdLife International. Find out more about the partnership
© The Royal Society for the Protection of Birds (RSPB) is a registered charity: England and Wales no. 207076, Scotland no. SC037654