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Habitat Report

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Limits and Guidance

This report will help you understand which habitats are on your land, and what options you have for managing them. This is not legal advice, but it is, to the best of our knowledge, up-to-date, based on in-depth research into scientific publications, white papers, conversations with experts and official guidance from government and NGOs.

Before you start work on any project, it is important to check whether your work is affected by any legislation.

Where possible, we’ve highlighted some of these laws in the text below (e.g. felling trees may require a license), but this is not an exhaustive list. Certain interventions, such as re-routing waterways, digging ponds or changing land use typically require planning permission. In some areas, like SSSIs and National Landscapes (AONBs), your options will be restricted by specific guidance, so it is essential that you refer to this before applying any of our advice.

Built-up Areas & Gardens

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Habitat info

Just over 5% of the UK is urbanised – this includes everything from the local park to an industrial estate, which clearly vary a lot in their value for biodiversity. Some animals piggyback off our existence – bird feeding, compost and waste create artificially-high populations of urban foxes, rats and house sparrows. In wild ecosystems, these animals are found much less often; and even smaller species like headlice, woodlice and house spiders may benefit from urban development!

However, these habitats often share other less beneficial characteristics – they are typically treated with pesticides and/or fertilisers. The presence of cats and dogs results in very high predation and disturbance to local animal populations. Artificial and sealed surfaces create a heat island effect with soils prone to waterlogging in winter and drying out in summer.

Developed Land; Sealed Surface [inc. buildings, roads]

u1b

Onsite condition: good

Status: None

Biodiversity Value: 1/3

Rarity Value: 2/3

Artificial Unvegetated, Unsealed Surface

u1c

Onsite condition: poor

Status: None

Biodiversity Value: 1/3

Rarity Value: 2/3

Suburban Mosaic of Developed and Natural Surface

u1d

Onsite condition: good

Status: None

Biodiversity Value: 2/3

Rarity Value: 1/3

Built Linear Features [inc. walls, paths, railways, tracks]

u1e

Onsite condition: moderate, good

Status: None

Biodiversity Value: 1/3

Rarity Value: 2/3

Sparsely Vegetated Urban Land

u1f

Onsite condition: moderate

Status: None

Biodiversity Value: 2/3

Rarity Value: 1/3

Value

Residential gardens make up nearly 5% of our land area in England (slightly lower in the UK as a whole). This compares favourably with the 8% of the country that is a designated SSSI; there is huge potential in our gardens to protect and restore the nation’s biodiversity. While individual gardens may only act as a refuge or stepping stone, working collectively across many gardens with a single vision, we can create biodiversity impact on a landscape scale.

But not all of these habitats are of equal value – Built Linear Features generally don’t have the same benefits as a natural linear feature like a river or hedgerow. That is, unless they sit in a strip of uncultivated land (grassland, woodland, scrub), which can act as a valuable wildlife corridor through an urban area. Sparsely-vegetated Urban Land is a ‘seral’ habitat, where a surface like gravel is slowly colonised by pioneer species. This can create a valuable low-nutrient area which is rich in wildflowers and home to specialists like Black Redstart, Linnet and Slow Worm.

Sparsely-vegetated Urban Land develops from Artificial Unvegetated, Unsealed Surface if this habitat falls out of use over time. However, the latter is of little value to biodiversity, with no plant life and few patches of bare soil. With even less value in most modern developments is Developed Land; Sealed Surface – here, the surfaces are generally designed to minimise plant growth. However, in older buildings, access to roof and subfloor voids, eaves, and even the inside of buildings can create nesting and foraging opportunities. ‘Green buildings’ featuring Swift and Bee bricks, Bat boxes, green roofs and living walls may also create biodiversity value.

Protect

Pesticides (including herbicides) will not only kill the target species, but also destroy valuable soil organisms and pollute nearby watercourses. However, we have been using pesticides to control ‘weeds’ for many decades now and it is impossible to stop using them in some areas without consequences. It can result in significant damage to paving, roads, kerbs, bridges and other essential infrastructure. This creates hazards which disproportionately affects those on low incomes and/or with mobility impairments. It also requires more frequent maintenance, with significant carbon emissions resulting from replacement of hard infrastructure. Other options for ‘weed’ treatment in sensitive areas of infrastructure include hot foam, white vinegar, steam and flame.

Urban trees are an essential biodiversity component of this landscape, as they allow birds, bats and invertebrates to shelter, forage, breed and disperse from one green space to another. They also intercept rainwater, provide valuable shade, and reduce heat by transpiring, which means trees can be important in reducing human heat-related fatalities. However, we are losing street and garden trees planted by earlier generations, as they are removed rather than being replaced when disease or old age makes them a hazard. 

More than a third of a tree is typically hidden below ground, but pavements are too narrow, and roots are sealed-in, in tiny spaces that inevitably lead to cracking and lifting of hard surfaces. Damage to root systems during construction work or garden landscaping is often the cause of tree dieback or death, so it is important to keep a protected zone around tree roots during these operations. On the street, better urban design and tree selection can minimise damage to infrastructure while maintaining benefits to humans and wildlife alike.

Cats and dogs have vastly different reputations – while most Brits understand the impacts that a cat can have on the local ecosystem, dog-owners are much less aware of the effects of their pet. While we have both wildcats and dogs (wolves) which are native to this country, the level of predation and disturbance created by a dense neighbourhood of cats and dogs is unlike anything in nature. Even a fairly sparse population of feral cats or low level dog-walking can reduce the productivity of an ecosystem significantly.

The impact of cats is offset somewhat by bird feeding, which supports both birds and rodents at a higher density than in a natural habitat. But both dogs and cats scare away our more timid wildlife; cats can have a devastating impact on less common species, which may be wiped out by a few nest predation events. Playing regularly with cats can reduce their drive to hunt; using a bird safe cat collar improves this, and keeping them indoors is even better. The impact of letting a dog off a lead should not be underestimated, especially in nature reserves, and scrub or hedgerows within urban areas. Dog fouling of grassland can increase nutrients, so that over time the habitat may shift towards Modified Grassland; binning waste is worthwhile.

Turning short turf over to wildflower meadow is an obvious win for biodiversity, but in many situations, it defeats the point of a lawn, which is a functional feature. While plastic turf is about the most toxic invention humans have ever created (produced from fossil fuels, shedding microplastics, boosting urban heat), short turf is an important asset both at home and in the community, for sports, sunbathing, dog-walking and access to green spaces. It is a better alternative to hard materials like gravel or tarmac, as it reduces urban heat, cushions impacts, absorbs rainwater and provides some biodiversity benefits. 

Managed correctly, short turf can be home to more than one species, with a varied community of native and/or non-native wildflowers and grasses that provide a hard-wearing surface with benefits to biodiversity. Grass trimmings should be removed rather than left to rot in place, reducing nutrient load over time. The diversity can initially be improved by planting resilient and vigorous wildflowers on scarified patches (e.g. Birds Foot Trefoil and White/Red Clover). Over time, as nutrients decrease, other species of wildflower may be seeded. Yellow Rattle can help to reduce the vigour of the grass, but in short turf is difficult to maintain – it is an annual, so needs to grow to full height and set seed every year.

Restore

The best way to bring biodiversity back in an urban area is to coordinate a network of efforts across a neighbourhood, district, town or city. This will achieve a much greater impact than one garden alone, and this power is harnessed by organisations like Rewild My Street and initiatives like London’s National Park City Maker Groups. All groups start somewhere, so even if a local initiative doesn’t exist, then you could kick off local biodiversity recovery by starting such a scheme in your area.

SUDS (Sustainable Urban Drainage Solutions) features like rain gardens and swales can reduce local flooding while boosting biodiversity. Even existing infrastructure can be retrofitted with reedbeds, marginal plants and riparian trees to improve the quality of habitat, filter the incoming water and beautify the area. Native planting is key here – SUDS are aquatic features so any seeds will spread quickly in floodwater – non-native species could invade sensitive ecosystems beyond your local area. SUDS aren’t restricted to streets, and there’s plenty of advice out there for landowners on installing rain gardens – you can also connect a pond to your gutter outflow. Just be sure to create a rock-filled soakaway onsite, that will deal with heavy rain beyond the pond’s capacity, to avoid flooding your kitchen!

Wildflower meadows are perhaps the most well-known rewilding intervention in urban areas – they’re ideal for existing Modified Grassland habitats. They’re also relatively easy to achieve if you’re willing to do a bit of manual labour in the autumn. The first step is checking how deep your soil is – if it’s under 15cm deep then scarifying is your best bet (keep going with it until you have a lot of bare earth). Over 15-20cm deep means you can use a rotavator to dig over the surface of the lawn (or sections of it) to create a fresh seedbed. Both rotavators and scarifiers cost about £50 to hire for a weekend, and make a lot of noise. Next, buy a cheap soil testing kit to check your soil pH in a few spots – below 5.5 is suitable for Acid Grassland; 5.5 – 6.5 is Neutral Grassland and beyond this is Calcareous Grassland. The final step is to order an appropriate seed mix from a seller like Habitat Aid (they supply locally-sourced mixes). Follow the instructions provided to get your seeds established, and if the grass returns too vigorously, consider planting Yellow Rattle to knock it back.

Ponds are an easy win in a garden, as they not only provide a stepping stone for aquatic life (much of which has an airborne stage in its lifecycle); they’re also a watering hole for landlubbers like mammals and birds, while attracting invertebrates that in turn attracts bats, birds and amphibians. In short, if you want wildlife in your garden, you can’t go wrong with a pond (or three). Ponds should have a shallow margin, suitable for access, a deep end which remains ice-free year-round and be planted with native pond plants. If you’re concerned about mosquitos, then a population of native Stickleback fish will keep their larvae under control, but they need a pond deep and large enough to avoid overheating. With plenty of native marginal plants, these fish won’t eat all your tadpoles, but they could stop newts. Your pond will suffer from algae as it gets established, but more plants (especially floating plants like water lilies) will help balance out light and nutrient availability; just avoid duckweed as it rapidly takes over.

Established trees are already present in many mature gardens & parks – these can provide benefits in the form of nest holes, shade, cover and roosting space for many different species. As a rule, with standard trees in grassland (even if non-native), if it’s already well-established, then it’s better to leave it in place. New planting of trees should ideally be done in a naturalistic way – a patch of three, a single tree, a clump of five. Trees should be chosen based on their suitability to the location, soil type and climate – e.g. in the wild, a single Spindle or Alder would not appear in the centre of an exposed dry grassland, but an Elder, a Hawthorn or a Pendunculate Oak might. Enrich the biodiversity around trees or at woodland edges by planting underwood species like Dogwood, Hazel, Bramble and Field Maple. These will create structural diversity, connecting the canopy to the ground flora.

Balance is key when working in urban landscapes – while a green roof is better than a flat roof, a solar roof is better still. The energy generated to power the building still needs to come from somewhere, and this energy footprint is likely to have a bigger environmental impact elsewhere (with more power lost en route). Gardens are a place for play, relaxation, and practical things like composting, growing food, drying clothes and storing recycling bins. A truly sustainable (i.e. long-lasting) design factors in all these elements, many of which play an important role in reducing the household’s environmental impact.

In urban green spaces, biodiversity shouldn’t be the only priority, or even necessarily the highest. Creating safe, accessible parks and gardens in urban neighbourhoods is vital, as this lures kids away from screens and can kick off a lifelong passion for nature. This is doubly important in economically-deprived neighbourhoods, where local green space may be the only accessible nature for many families. Accessibility is also important for older generations and those with limited mobility – in this case, non-slip, sealed surfaces are preferable for paths, as gravel and bark are too loose.

Arable & Horticulture

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Habitat info

Arable and Horticulture is a very broad category, taking in everything from sterile Christmas tree farms to biodiverse organic field margins managed for conservation. Productivity can be artificially increased in the short term by pumping fertilisers and pesticides into land, but soil health can suffer. Government policy and subsidies have encouraged this for decades, but now we are beginning to see a shift in farming and policymaker mindsets.

Regenerative agriculture focuses on long term productivity, rather than short term yields. By restoring soil health and water quality, we safeguard the future of our farms and garden businesses. You’ll find that the health of livestock, quality of produce, biodiversity and climate resilience of the system benefit from this holistic approach.

However, given that most nature-friendly farming techniques tend to have lower yields, it’s worth noting that any switch away from intensive agriculture is likely to result in biodiversity loss elsewhere. Your farmland footprint will shift to another part of the world, where regulations may be less stringent. Making an arable farm more biodiverse is not necessarily the clear win for nature it may at first appear.

Arable Field Margins

c1a

Onsite condition: good

Status: Priority Habitat

Biodiversity Value: 2/3

Rarity Value: 1/3

Temporary Grass and Clover Leys

c1b

Onsite condition: moderate, good

Status: Priority Habitat

Biodiversity Value: 1/3

Rarity Value: 1/3

Cereal Crops

c1c

Onsite condition: poor

Status: Priority Habitat

Biodiversity Value: 1/3

Rarity Value: 1/3

Non-cereal Crops

c1d

Onsite condition: moderate

Status: Priority Habitat

Biodiversity Value: 1/3

Rarity Value: 1/3

Intensive Orchards

c1e

Onsite condition: poor

Status: Priority Habitat

Biodiversity Value: 2/3

Rarity Value: 2/3

Horticulture

c1f

Onsite condition: moderate

Status: Priority Habitat

Biodiversity Value: 2/3

Rarity Value: 2/3

Value

Arable fields are an essential part of our food system, and at Life to Land, we do not support rewilding of these systems. This land is typically highly productive, so taking it out of farming results in a large farmland footprint being shifted to another part of the world. The land may only be suitable for restoration if it is already severely degraded (DEFRA Agricultural Land Classification 4 or 5), and therefore low yield. It’s worth noting that offshoring arable production to create nature in Britain is a policy that disproportionately affects those in economically disadvantaged parts of the world.

That said, there is some biodiversity value in the crop systems themselves, with certain crops and production strategies providing more benefits than others. While intensively-cultivated annual crops and grasses have relatively low value for nature (Cereal Crops, Non-cereal Crops, Temporary Grass and Clover Leys); if they are under organic production this can improve biodiversity value significantly. Add-ons like Arable Field Margins (and less common wildflower or agroforestry strips) typically have much higher value for wildlife than the crop around them, especially given their linear form, which enables wildlife to disperse across the landscape.

While Intensive Orchards are not as biodiverse as Traditional Orchards (not listed here), they still create structural diversity that is of value to local wildlife. The value of Horticulture is hard to define as this subcategory includes such diverse practices as Christmas tree farming and polyculture. A good rule of thumb is that biodiversity is highest in habitats with: 

  • Less exposed soil
  • No pesticides or artificial fertilisers used
  • A diverse mix of crops of differing heights
  • More perennials than annuals
  • High density of semi-natural features like scrub, ponds and hedges
  • Less mechanical soil disturbance
  • A diverse mix of livestock raised alongside crops

Protect

Pesticides (which includes herbicides) are not just damaging to pests, but also to beneficial soil microorganisms and pest control species. It is not just the active ingredient in the pesticide which may be harmful, but also the formulants, which are documented to have toxic effects. For example, the most common weedkiller, Roundup (glyphosate), has negative effects on microorganisms living in the soil that are beneficial to plant growth. By liberally applying pesticides, farmers and horticulturalists could reduce the productivity of soil ecosystems over time.

Tilling or digging of soils destroys their quality by breaking up soil structure and enabling erosion, while reducing organic matter in the topsoil. Soil organic carbon (SOC) is essential for crop productivity; however, despite the popular belief that tilling reduces SOC, in fact research shows time and again that it actually shifts this carbon lower down in the soil. Nevertheless, this lower position reduces beneficial biological activity and productivity, so the downwards shift in SOC is bad for agriculture and horticulture. No-till systems are now in more widespread use, even on an industrial scale – these reduce erosion and compaction, and maintain SOC in the top fraction of soil, although occasional tilling may be used to maintain system health.

Artificial fertiliser is a complicated issue – correctly applied, it can maintain healthy crops and soils, but overdoses can cause the loss of soil organic matter through mineralisation effects. Without artificial fertilisers, our current stock of farmland would only support half of the global population. But fertiliser production is currently highly carbon-intensive, and, once applied, its breakdown creates further emissions that increase the baseline CO2e level. The fertilisers are often packaged in slow-release granules, which are made from microplastics, and these were found to be a significant source of microplastic pollution in our waterways.

Runoff from fertilised fields also leads to algal blooms in rivers and streams, polluting drinking and bathing water both in rivers and coastal environments. However, it is worth mentioning that this runoff is more of an issue in organic systems, where manure is applied with less precision than artificial fertilisers. Many habitats have transitioned away from biodiverse, nutrient-poor systems, becoming enriched and dominated by a few species (e.g. Modified Grassland) due to overspill of artificial fertilisers and muck spreading. Large field margins along the edges of waterways (‘buffer strips’), and treatment wetlands in ditches can intercept nutrient pollution to minimise this particular impact.

Monoculture crops are an essential component in most productive farming systems, producing vegetables, cereals and fruit which are consumed by even the most ‘ethical’ of consumers. However, these monotonous blocks of non-native habitat can present issues for nature, as the creation of large, machine-accessible fields often resulted in the removal of hedgerows, farm woodland and ponds.

Using farm machinery doesn’t mean wildlife has to be excluded, and many farms are now experimenting with in-field wildflower strips that offer additional benefits in the form of organic pest control. By diversifying the structure of the crop, and adding pollinator-friendly plants, polyculture – even with commercial crops – can also improve the biodiversity of an arable or horticultural system.

Restore

Huge farmland fields and large horticultural plots may suffer from crop wind damage and poor soil health, especially if tilling is used. In extreme cases, the soil may even be carried away by the wind. But growing tree lines through the centre of large fields, or even in regular strips across arable and horticultural land, can minimise wind damage. This ‘alley cropping’ system can be designed around standard-width farm machinery, with 24m lanes that are separated by 2-3m wide tree crops.

The combined effect of reduced wind speed and increased evapotranspiration from the trees does slightly dry out the soil, especially during drier periods. But wind damage is reduced and pest control is improved due to higher biodiversity levels. Alleys are typically oriented north-south to minimise the impact on crop productivity, though east-west can also be used, especially on hillsides or in wider systems. Though yield declines within 1-2 tree heights of the edge, the productivity increases for 8-12 heights beyond this, often resulting in overall yield increases.

Over the past few centuries, farms have faced increasing pressures to maximise field sizes and specialise in producing a limited selection of crops or livestock. This maximises profit, which is a high priority as farm finances have been increasingly squeezed by supermarket pricing and reliance on government grants. It may be difficult to shift a farm away from this optimal system without heavy investment, but doing so can have enormous benefits for biodiversity.

Reducing your reliance on greenhouse gas-emitting artificial fertilisers, and switching instead to manure produced on site is one of the most effective ways of decarbonising your farm system. But this isn’t possible unless you have both livestock and arable within the same property, or are easily able to trade with neighbours. Some carbon calculators still treat greenhouse gas emissions from livestock (which come from carbon in the grass they eat) as if they are the same as those from the production of artificial fertilisers (which come from carbon buried underground for millions of years). This will inevitably be fixed in the future, but in the short term is leading to a lot of bad advice being given to farmers.

Biodiversity is highest in mosaic landscapes – patchworks of arable, horticulture, pasture, woodland, wetland and other systems. This is what makes switching to a diversified farm system so valuable for nature – and rotating fields between these systems increases the value, allowing soils to recover their organic matter. Pasture can be added into a crop rotation cycle, and the livestock will condition the soil with their fertiliser, while grazing-off the stubble of old crop.

As artificial fertilisers took over, crop rotation fell out of favour, but this practice itself is a relatively recent technological innovation. The three-field system was only invented in the late Middle Ages, and it can keep a soil in good condition, while minimising the need for fertilisers by using nitrogen-fixing legumes instead. Leguminous winter cover crops are another method which stand in for this system in modern farming, while reducing soil erosion.

Modified Grassland

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Habitat info

One of Britain’s most common habitats – found everywhere from the back lawn to farmland pastures. Modified Grassland is typically dominated by rye grass and other indicator species like clover and buttercups, with artificially-high levels of nutrients in the soil. 

Years of fertilisers, whether from ‘weed and feed’, agricultural muck-spreading or nitrogen enrichment, have created a lush grass that’s perfect for picnics, but bad for biodiversity. But these systems may be of high value for farm productivity, and livestock could play an important role in a holistic farm system, so regenerative practices like agroforestry and herbal leys are worth considering.

Modified Grassland

g4

Onsite condition: poor

Status: None

Biodiversity Value: 1/3

Rarity Value: 1/3

Value

Even a good condition Modified Grassland holds relatively little biodiversity compared with other grassland types, though abundance may be high. There is little value for nature here, so degraded Modified Grasslands are ideal for rewilding interventions.

Protect

When we lose agricultural productivity, that deficit needs to be made up elsewhere, as our need to eat doesn’t go away. We call this our ‘farmland footprint’. So it’s important to protect high value agricultural land – converting it to ‘nature recovery’ could actually lead to an overall nature loss, as biodiverse habitat elsewhere is converted to farmland to make up the deficit.

If the land is 1 or 2 on DEFRA’s agricultural land classification, then it is worth maintaining the pasture in the farming system. To reduce the overall impact, a switch to regenerative farming practices is worth considering. Agroforestry is becoming increasingly recognised as an important aid to organic farming, with benefits for livestock health. Planting in-field shelter belts, and allowing existing hedgerows to thicken out into denser wedge shapes can improve the milk yield, reduce heat and cold stress effects, and improve the quality of meat production.

Alley cropping systems take agroforestry still further, by subdividing existing fields into strips wide enough to take standard farming machinery. These 24m wide pasture strips are then subdivided by rows of fruit, nut, coppice or timber trees, which can produce a secondary product. The tree strips are protected from grazing by a single high tensile electric fence wire, or two strands where calves are present. This system of alleys, with ends that can be quickly closed and opened also allows for mob grazing of larger fields, improving the quality of the pasture. A good example of this is at Eastbrook Farm near Swindon.

Another method for improving the productivity and biodiversity of modified grassland pasture is sowing a herbal ley. This is a diverse mix of native and non-native grasses and wildflowers, which enrich the soil, improve the quality of forage and increase drought resilience. Deep rooting perennials can also be used to bring up valuable minerals that lie below the surface, improving livestock health. Supplementing this grass with tree fodder in the form of willow leaves and branches from pollarded trees within the pasture can further improve the health and biodiversity benefits of the system.

Restore

Other types of grassland may have changed to Modified Grassland if fertiliser has been applied. This creates a lush sward that typically reverts to agricultural weeds like thistles, ragwort and dock when mowing or grazing ceases. Converting Modified Grassland back to Neutral, Acid or Calcareous Grassland is possible – follow the steps on those pages in the Information section.

Other habitats may be considered as a goal here, including woodland, ponds, scrub, hedgerows, fen and even river or bog. Each of these habitats requires a different approach, but most will benefit from nutrient-stripping, as the artificially-high levels of nutrients in the soil can make even a woodland habitat grow unnaturally.

Stripping off the nutrients can be done over a number of different time periods, depending on the project’s timeline. Doing it quickly could have a significant medium term carbon footprint, as the best system for quick nutrient removal involves scarifying the land – removing some strips of turf while leaving others. This can be repeated, and is better for avoiding issues which arise from large-scale removal of grass, like runoff and soil compaction. 

On less-fertilised soils, or over longer timespans, the grass can be grazed, or mown and the arisings removed and composted offsite (or downhill onsite). This will slowly reduce the concentration of artificial nutrients in the soil.

However, this is only the first step in restoring the previous habitat or creating a new one from scratch. While trees and scrub could return naturally from the seedbank in the soil, this is unlikely to happen very quickly in the centre of open fields, especially if they are far from a woodland or hedgerow seed source. Natural regeneration, while not a myth, is typical of habitats that are less degraded than Modified Grassland.

Try to identify the previous habitat based on old maps, and plants which appear in the first year or two of rewilding, then look at the relevant page in the Information section to find out how to restore your habitat.

Acid Grassland

Info

Habitat info

Acid Grassland may at first appear a low biodiversity habitat, but the community of organisms living here are uniquely-adapted to the special conditions. Without management, this grassland would succeed to scrub or woodland, as we are missing the wild herbivores that would have kept it tightly grazed in the past.

With well-drained, nutrient-poor soils which may overlie gravel or sandstone, the vegetation cover here can often be patchy, with areas of bare ground, lichen and mosses. The grass may be short, but it can support a high level of invertebrate diversity, and the habitat is ideal for reptiles or ground-nesting birds.

Lowland Dry Acid Grassland

g1a

Onsite condition: poor, moderate

Status: Priority Habitat

Biodiversity Value: 2/3

Rarity Value: 3/3

Upland Acid Grassland

g1b

Onsite condition: moderate

Status: None

Biodiversity Value: 1/3

Rarity Value: 1/3

Bracken

g1c

Onsite condition: good

Status: None

Biodiversity Value: 1/3

Rarity Value: 2/3

Other Lowland Acid Grassland

g1d

Onsite condition: poor

Status: None

Biodiversity Value: 2/3

Rarity Value: 3/3

Value

While Bracken is a relatively low value habitat when it is the dominant vegetation in a landscape, the other types of grassland here are valuable for biodiversity. Acid Grassland is not only ideal for invertebrates, reptiles and ground-nesting birds, but is also a fungi hotspot in autumn, with colourful waxcap mushrooms found in healthy ecosystems.

Protect

The main threats to this habitat are encroachment of scrub or bracken, and enrichment from fertiliser. Encroachment happens when livestock is removed – though some amount of scrub can be beneficial, creating a more structurally-diverse habitat. At high stocking densities, Bracken may start to encroach.

It is important not to remove grazers altogether, as they will maintain a low sward height, which is essential for much of the community dependent on this unique habitat. Fertilisers will increase the dominance of grass and the sward height, turning this habitat into low value Modified Grassland. Grazing is more suitable than mowing, but if mowing is the only option, it must take place once per year in September.

As Bracken is a nitrogen-fixing species, its presence shifts the habitat away from the nutrient-poor community of plants typically found in Acid Grassland. Bracken is part of the succession process that shifts this habitat towards scrub and woodland. The plant’s toxicity to livestock makes it more likely to dominate in heavily-grazed upland areas. It may be worth keeping this plant under control to maintain diversity – more on this in the Information section.

Restore

Acid Grassland may have reverted to Modified Grassland if fertiliser has been added over time. This will create a lush, tall sward that typically reverts to agricultural weeds like thistles, ragwort and dock when mowing or grazing ceases. Taking Modified Grassland back to Acid Grassland is possible, but the method depends on the extent of modification.

If the grassland is highly-enriched, then it may be necessary to strip off the topsoil, though this will have a significant medium term carbon footprint. The best system for this involves scarifying the land – removing some strips of soil while leaving others. This can be repeated, and is better for avoiding issues which arise from large-scale removal of grass, like runoff and soil compaction. On less-enriched soils, the grass can be grazed, or mown and the arisings removed and composted offsite (or downhill onsite). Over time, this will slowly reduce the concentration of nutrients in the soil.

However, the unique Acid Grassland community will then need to be restored. This may return naturally from the seedbank in the soil, but if this doesn’t happen, then green haying is also an option. This involves taking a cut of a healthy Acid Grassland meadow nearby and spreading the arisings on your land to transfer the seed. This will only spread plants which have seed heads at the time of the cut. Habitat Aid also offers locally-sourced mixes of meadow seeds which are appropriate for your soils.

Neutral Grassland

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Habitat info

Neutral grasslands are typically thought of as ‘hay meadows’, and these habitats could not survive in modern times without management. With no livestock grazing, this grassland would succeed to scrub or woodland, as we are missing the wild herbivores that used to graze our landscape.

The soils, such as alluvial clays, are richer than those in Acid Grassland or Calcareous Grassland, but not as artificially nutrient-dense as in Modified Grassland. Even so, the vegetation can be lush, especially in lowland floodplain habitat, which is increasingly rare. The ground is not acid or alkali, but neutral, hence the name, but in upland meadows, grass vitality is knocked back by hemiparasites like Yellow Rattle.

Lowland Meadows

g3a

Onsite condition: poor

Status: Priority Habitat

Biodiversity Value: 3/3

Rarity Value: 3/3

Upland Hay Meadows

g3b

Onsite condition: good

Status: Priority Habitat

Biodiversity Value: 3/3

Rarity Value: 3/3

Other Neutral Grassland

g3c

Onsite condition: moderate

Status: None

Biodiversity Value: 2/3

Rarity Value: 2/3

Value

Neutral grassland is prime grazing land, so much of it has been lost in conversion to Modified Grassland or Arable and Horticulture, which is either fertilised or drained. This shifts the community of plants away from a more diverse wildflower meadow towards a habitat dominated by rye grass and clover.

A healthy neutral grassland can hold a rich diversity of wildflowers, including abundant orchids. These in turn support an abundance of invertebrates, which form the food supply for birds, mammals and amphibians. This habitat may be part of a rich mosaic of ponds, scrub, woodland and grassland which is of huge importance for a wide range of organisms.

Protect

Unlike other biodiverse grassland habitats, manual cutting is an intrinsic part of the management process for neutral grassland. Hay making is a traditional technique that can also create produce for sale into the local market. It should be carried out after plants have gone to seed – this varies depending on the location – mid July in southern lowlands and late September in northern uplands.

Grazing is also an integral part of the management here, with grazing from late September to December, at a low-enough stocking density that the sward height stays at least 2in tall. High stocking densities can cause poaching of soil, especially during wet periods. If mowing is the only option, the land should be mown three times each year, with cuts at the end of October and in February, too. It is worth cutting different areas at different times, and leaving some areas for a year, creating a patchwork of sward heights that reflects grazing patterns.

The main threats to this habitat are encroachment of scrub, overgrowth of grasses and enrichment from fertiliser. Encroachment and grass dominance happens when livestock are removed or haymaking doesn’t take place. However, some scrub is beneficial in a mosaic habitat, creating a more structurally-diverse ecosystem. Use a brushcutter during the February mow to reduce scrub levels and maintain valuable open grassland areas.

Restore

Neutral Grassland may have changed to Modified Grassland if fertiliser has been added over time. This will create a lusher sward that typically reverts to agricultural weeds like thistles, ragwort and dock when mowing or grazing ceases. Taking Modified Grassland back to Neutral Grassland is possible, but the method depends on the extent of modification.

If the grassland is highly-enriched, then it may be necessary to strip off the topsoil, though this will have a significant medium term carbon footprint. The best system for this involves scarifying the land – removing some strips of soil while leaving others. This can be repeated, and is better for avoiding issues which arise from large-scale removal of grass, like runoff and soil compaction. On less-fertilised soils, the grass can be grazed, or mown and the arisings removed and composted offsite (or downhill onsite). Over time, this will slowly reduce the concentration of artificial nutrients in the soil.

Upland Hay Meadows are the natural home of a helpful hemiparasite called Yellow Rattle. This can be re-introduced to reduce the dominance of grasses. Yellow Rattle is a sensitive plant that requires fresh seed and scarification of the grass before sowing.

Lowland Meadows are seasonally flooded, in a pattern of inundation that keeps grass in check and favours the survival of specific wildflowers like certain orchids and Marsh Marigold. Restoring the high natural water table may be a significant barrier due to drainage infrastructure, but it is essential if a healthy ecosystem status is to be attained.

However, the unique Neutral Grassland community may then need to be restored. While this could return naturally from the seedbank in the soil, if it doesn’t happen, then green haying is also an option. This involves taking a cut of a healthy Neutral Grassland meadow nearby and spreading the arisings on your land to transfer the seed. This will only spread plants which have seed heads at the time of the cut. Habitat Aid also offers locally-sourced mixes of meadow seeds which are appropriate for your soils.

Calcareous Grassland

Info

Habitat info

Calcareous grassland can be some of our most wildflower-rich habitats, but this habitat type is also fairly uncommon as it requires calcium-rich soils. Without management, this grassland would succeed to scrub or woodland, as we are missing the wild herbivores that would have grazed the land in the past.

The well-drained, nutrient-poor soils here overlie limestone and calcium or base-rich (alkaline) rocks like shales and dolerites. This creates poor conditions for plant growth, leading to high competition, and a high diversity of wildflowers, as grass can’t dominate the system. This in turn leads to a high abundance of pollinators and invertebrates, with some threatened bird species also relying on the habitat.

Lowland Calcareous Grassland

g2a

Onsite condition: moderate

Status: Priority Habitat

Biodiversity Value: 3/3

Rarity Value: 2/3

Upland Calcareous Grassland

g2b

Onsite condition: moderate, good

Status: Priority Habitat

Biodiversity Value: 3/3

Rarity Value: 2/3

Other Calcareous Grassland

g2c

Onsite condition: moderate

Status: None

Biodiversity Value: 2/3

Rarity Value: 2/3

Value

Calcareous grassland has often been lost from our landscape due to changes in agricultural practices and land use over the past century. This has led to this land shifting into forestry, or being enriched with nitrogen fertilisers that push it into low value Modified Grassland. 

A nutrient-poor Calcareous Grassland holds a huge amount of value for our native wildflower diversity, particularly given the fragmented and scattered nature of these sites. This habitat may be home to rare orchids or a rich mosaic of scrub and grassland which is of huge importance for a wide range of organisms.

Protect

The main threats to this habitat are encroachment of scrub, and enrichment from fertiliser. Encroachment happens when livestock are removed – though scrub is beneficial in a mosaic habitat, creating a more structurally-diverse ecosystem.

It is important not to remove grazers, as they help maintain a variety of sward heights, which is essential for much of the community dependent on this unique habitat. Fertilisers will increase the dominance of grass and the sward height, turning this habitat into low value Modified Grassland. 

Grazing at low density is more suitable than mowing, and should take place from mid-July throughout the colder months until April, allowing a rest period without grazers for flowering and seeding. If mowing is the only option, it should take place once per year in mid September.

Restore

Calcareous Grassland may have reverted to Modified Grassland if fertiliser has been added over time. This will create a lush, tall sward that typically reverts to agricultural weeds like thistles, ragwort and dock when mowing or grazing ceases. Taking Modified Grassland back to Calcareous Grassland is possible, but the method depends on the extent of modification.

If the grassland is highly-enriched, then it may be necessary to strip off the topsoil, though this will have a significant medium term carbon footprint. The best system for this involves scarifying the land – removing some strips of soil while leaving others. This can be repeated, and is better for avoiding issues which arise from large-scale removal of grass, like runoff and soil compaction. On less-enriched soils, the grass can be grazed, or mown and the arisings removed and composted offsite (or downhill onsite). Over time, this will slowly reduce the concentration of nutrients in the soil.

Re-enriching the calcium levels in the soil can be achieved by ‘liming’ them, though this is quite an intensive process. It is worth speaking to a neighbouring farmer who may be able to do this for you, while putting some money into the local economy.

However, the unique Acid Grassland community may then need to be restored. While this could return naturally from the seedbank in the soil, if it doesn’t happen, then green haying is also an option. This involves taking a cut of a healthy Acid Grassland meadow nearby and spreading the arisings on your land to transfer the seed. This will only spread plants which have seed heads at the time of the cut. Habitat Aid also offers locally-sourced mixes of meadow seeds which are appropriate for your soils.

Hedgerows

Info

Habitat info

Hedgerows are not just a collection of individual shrubs, but also a linear feature, which makes them very valuable in our landscape. We have a lot of fragmented patches of nature in Britain, and hedgerows act as a sort of highway system that connects these up across the ‘green desert’ of Modified Grassland, Arable and Horticulture land uses.

The best type of hedgerows for wildlife, like any system, are native and diverse, with everything from ground flora to climbers, shrubs and trees. But any line of dense vegetation can help animals to move across the landscape, so even clipped formal, non-native hedgerows hold some value.

Native Hedgerow

h2a

Onsite condition: poor, moderate

Status: Priority Habitat

Biodiversity Value: 3/3

Rarity Value: 1/3

Non-native and Ornamental Hedgerow

h2b

Onsite condition: moderate

Status: Non-native

Biodiversity Value: 2/3

Rarity Value: 2/3

Value

Hedgerows provide a wide range of different services for wildlife and humans. For humans, they are a better windbreak than fences, creating a visual barrier that doubles as a security system (especially thorny hedges). For animals, the benefits go even further:

  • refuge from predation and weather
  • nesting and roosting opportunities
  • fruit, nuts, nectar and leaves to eat
  • lookout post for prey and predators
  • hunting spot for insect, bird and mammal prey
  • ambush spot for predators
  • twigs and leaves for nesting material
  • landmark for navigation, especially for bats

With all these benefits, it’s no surprise that Native Hedgerow is a Priority Habitat under the UK Biodiversity Action Plan. While hedgerows are inherently artificial, they carry much of the benefits and biodiversity of scrub (the wild equivalent of a hedge), with the additional benefit of connection across the landscape. 

Protect

As we’ve established, the linearity of a hedgerow is key to its value, so removal of any part of a hedge will obviously damage its potential for biodiversity. Removal or destruction of ‘important’ hedgerows is also restricted by The Hedgerow Regulations 1997, which covers everything from ancient hedges to long hedges and those containing protected species. Animals travelling along the system will waver about crossing open grassland or an artificial surface, where they will be exposed. This means it is important to plan carefully around existing entrances, rather than opening up new holes in valuable hedgelines.

Hedgecutting is regulated, to protect nesting birds from disturbance during the breeding season. It is an offence to intentionally damage, destroy or take the nest of any wild bird while it is in use or being built. While the bird breeding season is not recognised in law, this is widely interpreted as running from 1 March to 31 July. There are exceptions to the hedgecutting dates above, if:

  • the hedgerow overhangs a highway, road or footpath over which there is a public or private right of way and the overhanging hedgerow obstructs the passage of, or is a danger to, vehicles, pedestrians or horse riders;
  • the hedgerow is dead, diseased, damaged or insecurely rooted and is likely to cause danger by falling on to a highway, road or footpath; or obstructs the view of drivers or the light from a public lamp;
  • to carry out hedge-laying or coppicing during the period 1 March to 30 April (inclusive)
  • to trim a newly laid hedgerow by hand, within 6 months of it being laid; 

Keeping a hedge healthy does require a bit of maintenance. Flailing is the typical method for maintaining ‘tidy’ hedgerows, and this involves a tractor-mounted hedgetrimmer, which may be a necessity on larger projects. However, flailing does not need to occur as frequently as is typically prescribed (once/year), and doing it less often will result in more flowers, more trees, more wind protection for livestock and more diversity. Hedge-laying is an alternative to flailing that takes much more effort but results in denser hedges and a rotational system which is good for biodiversity; especially ground flora, as it mimics coppicing.

Stopping hedgecutting after a long period of flailing can result in top-heavy growth of scrub with low diversity beneath due to dark conditions. Over time, parts of the hedge may topple sideways, especially in exposed locations. A better approach is to lay the hedge one section at a time (over a few years), while allowing natural regeneration of scrub in the verge beside it, creating a ‘wedge’ shaped regrowth pattern that is self-supporting.

Restore

In cultivated landscapes without hedgerows, their addition can significantly improve the local biodiversity. Grants are available to subsidise this kind of planting, especially when the hedge connects two patches of woodland. Planting new hedgerows – even subdividing land where hedges already exist – can be a great way to add structural diversity to grassland ecosystems.

In the farmed landscape, there are other ways of bringing hedges into fields, which have greater benefits in terms of yield. Livestock are sensitive to both cold and heat, and their productivity declines when they are exposed to these extremes of temperature. High, wedge-shaped hedges act as more-effective windbreaks which reduce the impact of windchill and create shade on hot days. ‘Wedges, not hedges’ is the best way to think about this change in practices, which sacrifices some field margin productivity in favour of thicker hedgerows that lead to higher livestock productivity.

Subdividing existing fields with new hedges and tree lines is now a common practice, and these can be a mix of fruit-, nut-, timber- and fodder-yielding varieties which add to the productivity of the system. This is referred to as either a shelter belt (pure hedgerow) or alley cropping (individual trees), but a mix of the two could provide both productivity and biodiversity benefits. More details of these systems are provided in the Information section.

In projects where biodiversity is the main priority, and livestock enclosure is not important, then hedgerows can be allowed to succeed into areas of scrub and woodland. The management here involves ‘scalloping’ cuts into the hedge as it thickens out, to reduce the regularity of its edge and improve the structural diversity. This creates sheltered ‘bays’ that can be much warmer or cooler than the surroundings, with very different humidity levels, enhancing the biodiversity of the system.

Dense Scrub

Info

Habitat info

Scrub is perhaps the most undervalued of British habitats, but also one of the most invasive. The dense vegetation not only supports a diverse population of animals, but also creates a protective nursery for trees. As the saying goes, ‘the thorn is the mother of the oak’ – where natural regeneration of trees is held back by deer and sheep browsing/grazing, thickets are about the only places where new woodlands can form.

But dense scrub is valuable on its own merits, for many of the same reasons as a hedge – it creates an impenetrable refuge for small mammals and birds, while providing fruit, nuts, leaves and nectar throughout the year. In most cases, scrub is not a permanent habitat – it is ‘seral’ – a transition stage between grassland and woodland, and it will spread quickly if left unchecked.

Blackthorn Scrub

h3a

Onsite condition: good

Status: None

Biodiversity Value: 3/3

Rarity Value: 2/3

Hazel Scrub

h3b

Onsite condition: moderate

Status: None

Biodiversity Value: 3/3

Rarity Value: 3/3

Sea Buckthorn Scrub

h3c

Onsite condition: poor

Status: None

Biodiversity Value: 2/3

Rarity Value: 2/3

Bramble Scrub

h3d

Onsite condition: moderate

Status: None

Biodiversity Value: 3/3

Rarity Value: 1/3

Gorse Scrub

h3e

Onsite condition: moderate

Status: None

Biodiversity Value: 2/3

Rarity Value: 1/3

Hawthorn Scrub

h3f

Onsite condition: poor

Status: None

Biodiversity Value: 3/3

Rarity Value: 2/3

Rhododendron Scrub

h3g

Onsite condition: moderate

Status: Non-native

Biodiversity Value: 1/3

Rarity Value: 2/3

Mixed Scrub

h3h

Onsite condition: moderate

Status: None

Biodiversity Value: 3/3

Rarity Value: 2/3

Willow Scrub

h3j

Onsite condition: good

Status: None

Biodiversity Value: 3/3

Rarity Value: 2/3

Juniper Scrub

h3k

Onsite condition: moderate

Status: None

Biodiversity Value: 2/3

Rarity Value: 3/3

Value

Just like artificial Hedgerows, natural Dense Scrub provides a wide range of different services for wildlife:

  • refuge from predation and weather
  • nesting and roosting opportunities
  • fruit, nuts, nectar and leaves to eat
  • lookout posts for prey and predators
  • hunting spots for insect, bird and mammal prey
  • ambush spots for predators
  • twigs and leaves for nesting material

 

While scrub isn’t linear, like a hedgerow, it usually benefits from being wider, and often taller, than a typical hedge. Many birds, like the Nightingale and Lesser Whitethroat, prefer nesting in scrub that is much deeper than a standard hedge, due to the protection this provides them. And the depth of scrub allows small stands of trees to grow within a single clump.

There are a wide variety of different scrub types, and these vary in their value for wildlife. On one extreme is non-native Rhododendron, which creates inhospitable conditions at ground level while producing toxic leaves and spreading rapidly.

Gorse and Sea Buckthorn tend to be highly-invasive natives, but the former produces abundant nectar, while the latter has fruits. Native Juniper spreads slowly and is threatened, but provides only a meagre fruit crop and the small bushes create little shelter.

Other types of scrub have a more-developed community of plants associated with them, creating a more biodiverse habitat. However, Blackthorn, Bramble and Mixed Scrub can all be highly invasive, which can create issues on sensitive grassland habitats. In contrast, Hawthorn, Hazel and Willow typically spread with seed, rather than root suckers, slowing their rate of colonisation.

Protect

Protecting scrub is not the same as leaving it alone. This habitat will revert to woodland if it is abandoned, and this process tends to be permanent. As the renowned ecologist Oliver Rackham states time and again; cutting down a woodland doesn’t kill it – trees regrow from cut stumps. So, taking no action to remove scrub is similar to planting woodland in its long term effect.

In wild mosaic habitats, the balance between grassland, scrub and woodland is kept in check by a number of factors that either aren’t present in Britain, or are hard to replicate…

Flooding can kill off both woodland and scrub, so beavers are an ally in scrub management; wildfire is a natural control, especially on gorse. And grazing the land at high stocking density every so often can prevent scrub from encroaching, or even reverse the spread of scrub, with the right livestock:

  • Bison break open dense scrub and light woodland
  • Cattle trample brambles and browse scrub edges
  • Deer browse scrub edges
  • Goats* can remove scrub entirely
  • Ponies graze grass, keeping the sward height low to prevent scrub regrowth
  • Pigs turn over the soil, and can eat some scrub roots

 

Herbivores rarely cause substantial damage to scrub, except when it is in poor condition and liable to collapse, or very early in its growth and highly palatable. To remove scrub with livestock requires overstocking the animals in fenced-off areas for limited durations to cause trampling of dense scrub habitat. The siting of watering holes and troughs also increases grazing pressure, which, in turn, resists the encroachment of scrub.

Rhododendron ponticum is an invasive type of scrub, with special measures required to prevent its spread, detailed in our Information section.

*Goats are seldom recommended, except in grassland, scree or very sparse scrub habitats where high browsing pressure results in the survival of few tree saplings to maturity. While they are relatively low-maintenance, they also escape frequently and eat just about everything, even stripping bark, which can damage or kill mature trees.

Restore

Bringing scrub back to health is similar to the way that an underwood is maintained – coppicing is not too different from scrub management. If its growth is going unchecked, scrub can be cut on a 7-year cycle, just like Hazel, which will rejuvenate the stands, preventing the habitat from succeeding to woodland. However, it is worth leaving a few patches of scrub to revert to woodland, as this will improve the structural diversity of the landscape, creating new opportunities for biodiversity. 

Scrub can be cut back using loppers, chainsaws, and a brushcutter with a metal blade during winter. The bushes and climbers, once cut back to ground level, will resprout rapidly with multi stemmed shoots. It is good practice to leave any deadwood and a few mature shrubs within the cut area as a refuge. You can create more standing deadwood by ‘ring-barking’ a mature shrub at the base. Regular burning is to be discouraged as this kills organisms which have survived scrub control, although occasional wildfire can be beneficial to biodiversity.

The spread of scrub and the philosophy of rewilding can be difficult to reconcile on smaller plots of land. In the absence of a large, diverse and carefully-balanced guild of herbivores, keeping this habitat ‘wild’ and biodiverse requires manually recreating natural conditions with a saw, loppers and brushcutter. This might seem counter to rewilding principles, but think of yourself as a replacement for these missing herbivores and you’ll begin to understand the importance of your role here.

While woodland can indeed be very valuable, rewilders typically strive to avoid it taking over the entire landscape, opting instead for a mosaic of different ecosystems, maximising the edges, where most biodiversity lies. This reflects what you would likely have seen in a wild British landscape, prior to human involvement. Rewilding is *not* meant to be goal-oriented, but it *is* meant to replicate natural conditions – that’s the tightrope we are walking here.

So scrub control is a key strategy in creating and maintaining a mosaic landscape, as scrub is the transition habitat between grassland and woodland. If you visit a rewilding site on agricultural land (with rich soils) where manual scrub control doesn’t happen, you’ll see that most of the land is on its way to becoming forest. Whereas, on sites which have been managed for decades with scrub control, a mosaic has still been maintained.

The ideal is not just dense scrub, but a mosaic of scrub, woodland, grassland, wetland and other habitats, with plenty of edges where they slowly transition into one another. These edges, or ‘ecotones’ are where much of the biodiversity lies, as you will find on your own land.

Dwarf Shrub Heath

Info

Habitat info

Heathland and Willow Scrub are habitats that have benefited from our impact on the environment. Heathland developed when woodland was cleared for livestock grazing, and the habitat is, in some places, maintained for grouse shooting. In contrast, Willow Scrub benefits from an overpopulation of deer, which browse down regenerating trees that might otherwise take the place of this low vegetation.

However, these ecosystems aren’t human-made, and they do exist without our influence in special cases, like Lowland Heath in coastal areas or Willow Scrub in mountains above the treeline. As such, they have a unique community of organisms associated with the habitat, and are relatively biodiverse compared with other human-maintained ecosystems like Modified Grassland or Coniferous Woodland.

Lowland Heathland

h1a

Onsite condition: good

Status: Priority Habitat

Biodiversity Value: 2/3

Rarity Value: 2/3

Upland Heathland

h1b

Onsite condition: moderate

Status: Priority Habitat

Biodiversity Value: 2/3

Rarity Value: 1/3

Mountain Heaths and Willow Scrub

h1c

Onsite condition: moderate

Status: Priority Habitat

Biodiversity Value: 2/3

Rarity Value: 2/3

Value

The UK holds approximately 20% of the world’s Lowland Heathland, and this habitat, along with Upland Heathland, is home to a wide variety of reptiles. In fact, all 6 species of British reptiles are found here, as the mix of low scrub, exposed stone and soil, and dense grasses makes this ideal habitat for them. Alongside reptiles, heathland is also home to unique bird species like the enigmatic Nightjar, Dartford Warbler and Stonechat.

Poor, typically acidic soils, which overlie thin peat or rock near the surface of the ground, shape the vegetation that is found in these habitats. Heather and Cross-Leaved Heath, as well as Gorse, tend to dominate Heathland, while low-growing Willow is found in Willow Scrub areas. In places, stands of pioneer trees like Birch and Aspen can be found, and this habitat may be colonised by non-native Rhododendron (see also Rhododendron Scrub).

The structural diversity of healthy heathland can be high, as ponds, streams, bog, heather, scrub and woodland transition into one another in a mosaic landscape. This patchwork is valuable for a diverse range of plants, invertebrates, birds, mammals, reptiles and amphibians. That is why, despite the human-created nature of the habitat, conservationists have been battling to protect the remnants of lowland heath for the past century (we have just 16% of what existed in 1800). But degraded heath, where landowners burn the heather frequently for grouse shooting, or deer and sheep populations are very high, can be of lower value due to the uniformity of vegetation cover.

Protect

Non-native Rhododendron are ideally-suited to colonise this habitat, with its low-growing vegetation and acidic soils. The plant’s toxic leaves make it inedible to livestock and deer, so it spreads unimpeded. This means it is important to identify and remove any Rhododendron as soon as they appear, to minimise the costs of control. Pulling plants is effective, as is cutting them and treating the stumps with a herbicide to prevent regrowth. Note that the seeds may persist in the soil so it is worth checking back to ensure regeneration does not occur.

Encroachment of scrub and trees can cause a heathland to close over and turn into scrubland, then woodland. While this is a natural process, it does also represent the loss of a Priority Habitat, and in the case of SSSIs, landowners will be required to maintain the status quo. This could be achieved through scrub management – though burning of heathland has both carbon and biodiversity implications – so use of brushcutting equipment is likely to have less of an impact.

Maintaining a structurally-diverse habitat can best be achieved using livestock, like Highland Cattle, which can graze and browse at low density alongside semi-wild horses like Dartmoor Ponies, which create valuable wild ‘grazing lawns’ that are home to rare species of wildflower. The Rare Breeds Survival Trust can offer advice on which livestock is suitable for your particular conditions.

Restore

A uniform heathland with thousands of hectares of knee-height heather is not a natural ecosystem, and it would be better to shift management of these habitats towards a wilder approach. Not only would this benefit nature, it also locks down more carbon in our uplands, reducing wildfire risk and slowing the flow of stormwater, mitigating flooding downstream.

This doesn’t necessarily mean forest or bog rather than heath, but it does at least mean a mosaic habitat with more trees and scrub. This should arise naturally through regeneration, but if the seedbank has become degraded, the approach taken by Trees for Life – growing locally-harvested tree and scrub seeds in bulk and planting out the cultivated seedlings – would be most effective at establishing an locally-appropriate, diverse ecosystem.

In some areas, heath might be better replaced by upland forest, such as temperate rainforest, or bog, especially where these habitats have become degraded or destroyed and reverted to heath over time. Getting these pre-existing habitats re-established will take a large upfront effort, which trails off over time as natural processes take over.

Where a high deer population artificially maintains the presence of a heathland habitat, then measures to reduce the numbers should be taken. This has proven effective in restoring more structural diversity in the Cairngorms, where the deer were culled, with the population reduced to a much lower, more sustainable level. The cull needs to be maintained over time, though, in the absence of predators like lynx and wolf, which would naturally control the number of deer.

Broadleaved & Mixed Woodland

Info

Habitat info

This category covers everything from traditional ‘deciduous woodlands’ to mixed woods that are up to 80% coniferous (Other Woodland – Mixed). Broadleaved woodland also includes the native species Yew and Box, which could at first glance look like conifers.

Most types of woodland have high value for biodiversity, as a healthy forest contains a great deal of both species and structural diversity, with niches occupied all the way down from from the canopy to the forest floor. However, much British woodland is plantation or poorly managed, with disease, invasive species and deer affecting the health of these habitats. Restoration is necessary to maximise the benefits for nature, and this work must be maintained over the long term.

Upland Oakwood

w1a

Onsite condition: poor, moderate

Status: Priority Habitat

Biodiversity Value: 3/3

Rarity Value: 2/3

Upland Mixed Ashwoods

w1b

Onsite condition: good

Status: Priority Habitat

Biodiversity Value: 2/3

Rarity Value: 2/3

Lowland Beech and Yew Woodland

w1c

Onsite condition: moderate, good

Status: Priority Habitat

Biodiversity Value: 2/3

Rarity Value: 1/3

Wet Woodland

w1d

Onsite condition: good

Status: Priority Habitat

Biodiversity Value: 3/3

Rarity Value: 3/3

Upland Birchwoods

w1e

Onsite condition: moderate

Status: Priority Habitat

Biodiversity Value: 2/3

Rarity Value: 2/3

Lowland Mixed Deciduous Woodland

w1f

Onsite condition: poor

Status: Priority Habitat

Biodiversity Value: 3/3

Rarity Value: 1/3

Other Broadleaved Woodland

w1g

Onsite condition: poor

Status: None

Biodiversity Value: 2/3

Rarity Value: 1/3

Other Woodland - Mixed

w1h

Onsite condition: moderate

Status: None

Biodiversity Value: 2/3

Rarity Value: 2/3

Value

This category covers a wide range of woodland types – those which have a significant value for nature have been recognised with the Priority Habitat status by the UK Biodiversity Action Plan. The remaining two categories – Other Broadleaved Woodland and Other Woodland – Mixed are catch-alls for lower value forestry (typically plantation). 

However, one habitat recognised by the UKBAP has relatively low biodiversity – Lowland Beech and Yew Woodland, which is typically characterised by a dense canopy, low levels of underwood and low diversity of ground flora.

Within the remaining categories, Upland Mixed Ashwoods would score higher for biodiversity, but they are plagued by the twin issues of Ash Dieback and invasive Sycamore. Upland Birchwoods have a relatively low diversity of canopy and underwood, due to the dominance of a few main tree species.

This leaves the highest quality habitats: Upland Oakwood, which covers rich temperate rainforest habitat; Wet Woodland – a tangled mess of verdant swampy vegetation with high productivity and dense underwood; and Lowland Mixed Deciduous Woodland, which includes much of our biodiverse lowland ancient Oak woodland.

Protect

Keeping a woodland in healthy condition isn’t just a case of sitting back and letting it grow. We’re missing many of the wild animals that would maintain it in good condition, from Aurochs to Beavers, Bison to Straight-tusked Elephants. In their absence, humans have historically been good stewards of thriving ecosystems, with high diversity. In some places, woodlands are still maintained in good condition by foresters, but elsewhere, we’ve largely forgotten how to do this…

In the past, woods were maintained by the local community, who sustainably harvested firewood, timber, coppice products, food and charcoal from the forest. It’s still possible to do this, and even to build a small business around it, though profit margins may be slim or non-existent unless supply chains are already in place for the produce.

We’ll go into more detail about each of these forestry techniques in separate articles in the information section. For now, here’s a summary of each one:

Timber: The tallest trees are grown slowly over long periods of time for high quality wood, which is used in furniture, construction etc. These trees grow best when surrounded by underwood and other timber trees, which forces them to grow tall and straight.

Coppice: The underwood, between canopy and forest floor, is made up of scrub and smaller trees that are cut in rotation, typically every 7 years. This produces rods for fencing, poles for gardening, and roundwood for charcoal or kindling. Certain species are specially-adapted to grow in this low light environment.

Firewood: Any trees which are too crooked to be good for timber, or coppice that is too large for rods, can be used for firewood. This has traditionally been the best way to use up the lowest quality wood, and is now a low carbon method of heating your home.

Charcoal: An industry used to exist in our woodlands, processing coppiced roundwood into charcoal. The wood was roasted slowly in a kiln (under low oxygen conditions), which turns it into a black fuel that burns very hot and clean – better for cooking food or use in industry.

Food: Whether it’s feeding up pigs on acorns, foraging for mushrooms and sweet chestnuts, or growing a dedicated food forest with a variety of different trees and shrubs designed to supply the table, woodlands have long been a reliable source of food.

Restore

Most of British woodlands are now degraded in some way, but they can be restored. And a restored woodland is not just productive, but beautiful, too – creating additional value as a tourist destination. Let’s step through a few common ways that woodlands can be degraded, and how to fix them…

Same Age Plantation: The woodland was planted in rows, and/or all trees planted at the same time. The result is a lower biodiversity system with a ‘corridor’ effect. This should be addressed by irregular felling of trees to break up the canopy and encourage growth of underwood. The trees can be used as lying deadwood on the forest floor (very valuable habitat), or taken away for timber and firewood.

Invasive Species: Rhododendron, Cherry Laurel, Sycamore and plantation conifers are all problems in a native woodland as they outcompete native shrubs and trees, and create a dark monoculture in the underwood. Conifers will be killed by cutting back, but the other species will grow back vigorously from cut stems, so a brush-on herbicide, while not ideal, is the only way to control large populations.

Disease: Some diseases are spreading in trees across the UK, including in Ash, Oak and (non-native) Larch. You must comply with any government orders to fell trees, but otherwise, it is often best to let diseased trees rot in place, so long as they pose no danger to the public. They will contribute standing deadwood to your ecosystem, and keeping them in place avoids spreading the disease beyond your local area. If the tree disease is reportable, like Acute Oak Decline, then record its location and report it to the relevant authorities.

Deer and Sheep: These herbivores slow or stop the regrowth of a woodland by browsing saplings, causing the underwood to die off, creating an unnatural gap between the ground flora and canopy. This has a devastating impact on the woodland biodiversity, so sheep must be excluded from woodland, and deer numbers should be kept at natural levels through population management.

Dog Walkers: The impact of dog walking on a woodland is surprisingly high, and it can, and does, cause the local extinction of threatened species. Marked trails with a good quality surface like woodchip or gravel that route visitors away from bird nesting areas can reduce impacts. Effective signs are worded in a positive, informative way, rather than prohibiting access to existing public rights of way. Fencing-off sensitive areas is also advisable if dog walking is a significant issue.

Coniferous Woodland

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Habitat info

Most coniferous woodland in the UK is a plantation, with the rare exception of Caledonian pine forest, which is found only in Scotland (and Kielderhead in England). Scots Pine is our only native conifer, as Yew is classed as a broadleaf, however, much Scots Pine is planted in dense rows with little biodiversity value.

While conifer plantation has low biodiversity beyond supporting some fungi and a few specialist birds and mammals, it does supply timber. This is an important low carbon construction material, and sourcing it locally is much more efficient – timber is heavy and carbon-intensive to transport. So conifer plantations are an essential crop in our shift to a low-carbon future, despite their poor biodiversity value.

Native Pine Woodlands

w2a

Onsite condition: poor

Status: Priority Habitat

Biodiversity Value: 2/3

Rarity Value: 2/3

Other Scots Pine Woodland

w2b

Onsite condition: poor

Status: None

Biodiversity Value: 1/3

Rarity Value: 1/3

Other Coniferous Woodland

w2c

Onsite condition: moderate, good

Status: Non-native

Biodiversity Value: 1/3

Rarity Value: 1/3

Value

We have relatively few Native Pine Woodlands left in the UK, and what is remaining is under pressure from overtourism. These woodlands are home to enigmatic species like the Capercaillie, Red Squirrel and Pine Marten, all of which are under threat. This habitat used to be much more widespread, but human activity and a changing climate have caused it to retreat to isolated locations which are unsuitable for other land use.

While conifer plantation might at first glance seem to be bad for nature, it, like any other crop we grow, is an important part of our modern life. Without these woodlands, a shift away from concrete and steel towards timber construction would not be possible. Conifers have a very high yield class, meaning that they grow quickly, putting on biomass more rapidly than most native trees, which also locks down carbon.

There is a lot of hot air from industry lobbyists who claim that conifer plantations are valuable for biodiversity. You need only walk through one to see that this is not the case. While there are a large number of fungi which thrive on the dank, dark forest floor, there is little else below canopy level. In the canopy, specialist birds from the boreal forests of Northern Europe like Siskin, Lesser Redpoll and Firecrest have flown over to take advantage of these invading trees. Some forests are the last outpost of Red Squirrels and Pine Marten, but these animals merely hang on to life here, as they do better in Native Pine Woodlands.

Protect

Old growth forests are very different from conifer plantations. In these ancient woodlands, there is a mix of tree heights, with young and old growing alongside deadwood, ferns and rich undergrowth. In contrast, same-age plantation trees are packed so closely together that light cannot reach the forest floor, so moss is typically the only ground cover. 

Studies have shown that the loss of this understory vegetation has a significant impact on species diversity. Therefore, selectively felling trees to improve light penetration, and allowing the natural regeneration of undergrowth (even non-native species) can improve the biodiversity of conifer plantations. These plantations can be treated like arable fields – not a wild habitat, but a necessary agricultural crop that can be grown in more nature-friendly ways, while supporting a low-carbon economy.

In a Native Pine Woodland, trees will be spaced unevenly, and the short lifespan of Scots Pine means that there is plenty of deadwood lying around. Protecting this woodland requires removing non-native trees, maintaining good quality public footpaths to dissuade people walking into the undergrowth, and managing deer numbers at natural levels to allow regrowth of saplings.

Restore

If you would prefer to swap out a non-native conifer plantation for a higher-biodiversity ecosystem, the process is not as simple as clearfelling the trees. This would cause a sudden change in the local environment which could be damaging to animal and plant life. Instead, foresters recommend slowly transitioning from one ecosystem to another, taking out small sections at a time, while leaving trees in place.

These standing trees, especially in upland habitats, can be valuable bird and bat refuges and perches. They create structural diversity within the newly-felled habitat beneath, and change the local ecosystem with effects on shade, wind and the water table. Expect the felled area to begin regenerating rapidly, with many new conifer saplings appearing – these will need to be cut back regularly with a brushcutter until they no longer appear. But a conifer can be killed off by cutting at the base, unlike many broadleaf trees.

What happens next depends on the habitat which pre-existed the conifer plantation. The needles from these trees will have acidified the topsoil, so the resulting habitat is likely to be Acid Grassland (including Bracken), or Dwarf Shrub Heath. But if a woodland had been growing onsite beforehand, it may naturally regenerate despite the poor conditions. This is a better strategy than tree planting, preserving the existing genetic diversity of the local habitat. However, if a broadleaf woodland is the goal, then tree planting should reflect the native diversity of trees in the area, and replicate the non-linear, irregular spacing of a real woodland, to maximise biodiversity.

Rivers & Streams

Info

Habitat info

Britain has some of the world’s most biodiverse watercourses, in part because our nation is home to more than 80% of global chalk streams. These aquifer-fed waterways have, in good condition, crystal clear, cool waters which are perfect habitat for breeding fish, specialist invertebrates and flowering aquatic plants. Yet many of our streams have been degraded by pollution, channelisation, water abstraction and climate change.

Chalk streams aren’t the only habitats of value here – the blue veins which weave through our countryside connect up fragmented patches of habitat, allowing the dispersal of animals and plants in the water and along the banks. These waterways provide us with important resources, while also carrying nutrients and sediment from one ecosystem to another. In fact, nutrients flow not just down but up healthy rivers, from the sea to the highest headwaters, in the body of migrating fish.

Rivers (Priority Habitat)

r2a

Onsite condition: good

Status: Priority Habitat

Biodiversity Value: 3/3

Rarity Value: 2/3

Other Rivers and Streams

r2b

Onsite condition: moderate, good

Status: None

Biodiversity Value: 2/3

Rarity Value: 2/3

Value

Our streams and rivers are not just aquatic habitats, but linear features that join up ecosystems across the wider landscape. They enable the flow of nutrients both down (with gravity) and up (with fish migration) the river system, boosting the productivity of habitats in and around headwaters, floodplains, estuaries and coastlines. The cyclical patterns of intense winter flows and summer lows create diversity in the landscape, enriching floodplain soils and refilling our reservoirs.

These habitats have been channelised to drain agricultural land and canalised to allow for the passage of boats. They have been shaped by human settlements, and shape human settlements, providing aesthetic beauty and recreation, drinking and bathing water, sewage dilution, industrial and agricultural water, generating fine aggregates for construction, and cooling the heart of cities and towns during summer heatwaves.

Their biodiversity value is hard to understate, yet many of these systems are highly degraded, with pollution in many forms – nutrients, sediment, pharmaceuticals, microplastics, pesticides and hot water all flow in from sewage ‘treatment’ plants, urban areas, farms and industrial works along the riverbank. Many rivers and streams are a shadow of their former winding form, with much of their path now hemmed in by high banks, concrete walls, routed through pipes and culverts, or dried up due to land drainage and water abstraction.

There are some remaining healthier river systems, which have been awarded the Priority Habitat status – but even here, biodiversity is knocked back by human impacts. Rivers have high potential for biodiversity, supporting threatened mammals like Water Vole, all manner of invertebrates, birds and amphibians, alongside the occasional Grass Snake. With a range of different flow rates, a jungle of submerged plants thrive in the slower-flowing lentic zones – backwaters and eddies, while algae and a thriving biofilm support diverse fish and invertebrate species in faster flowing rapids and riffles – the lotic zones.

Protect

While pollution is an issue for biodiversity in river systems, it tends to be more of a problem in the immediate zone around a sewage outflow. Low levels of nutrient pollution throughout the system are also likely to be an issue, but are hard to resolve on a single site without substantial investment in river or stream diversion work (see Restore). Creating buffer strips, fencing-off intensively grazed fields and widening existing buffer zones along the edge of a watercourse will reduce the nutrients and other pollutants flowing into the system – this is the easiest course of action for tackling local nutrient pollution.

As both linear and aquatic features which join up our landscape, rivers and streams are doubly susceptible to invasive species. These can spread rapidly through the connected, flowing system, whether through seeds, by swimming or being transported in or on the body of other organisms. Invasive plants which are of particular concern include Himalayan Balsam, Floating Pennywort, Giant Hogweed, Crassula, and Water Fern. Animals include Signal Crayfish, American Mink, Killer and Demon Shrimp, and Zebra Mussels. Many of these organisms dominate their ecosystem, outcompeting native equivalents and/or predating native species. Tackling them requires specialist knowledge (with too much detail to go into here), but identifying them and getting experts involved is half the battle.

Rivers and streams are fed by smaller watercourses like drainage channels, which may contain standing water for some of the year. While these sources aren’t necessarily flowing, and may not be river or stream habitat, working to improve them will have beneficial impacts downstream. Treatment wetlands can be installed inline in drainage ditches (i.e. shallow ponds containing a reedbed) – these pre-filter nutrients and sediment from your land, while also creating new habitat. Leaky dams can slow the flow of floodwater through drainage channels, causing sediment to drop into the channel, rather than flowing downstream (this can create local flooding around the dam). Funding is available for the creation of leaky dams in some areas.

Working further back from the water, stream and river protection extends to land management in most habitats. Water flows through every ecosystem – as a rule, river health can be improved downstream by slowing its flow and treating or mitigating pollutants like pesticides, fuel, fertilisers, sewage and urban runoff. Trees intercept rainwater with their leaves, and hold soil together with their roots, so planting trees or encouraging natural regeneration on slopes is an ideal way to improve water quality downhill.

Abstraction of water from wells can reduce the supply left to fill smaller streams, to the extent that many of these streams dry up sooner in summer than they would under natural conditions. Reducing the use of well water to only what is needed, and minimising irrigation of crops at times when evaporation rates are high can not only reduce the impact on the aquifer, but also improve soil health. Digging ponds on your land can help to recharge the aquifer over time, even if they dry up in summer months.

Restore

Any work you plan on doing which will affect the supply, bank or course of a river or stream is subject to legislation in the UK. You will need to ask a professional company for flood modelling, (which can cost £5-10K) before applying for your flood risk activity permit (FRAP). Drainage channels like rhynes/reens may also be covered by similar legislation, and at the very least, it is worth contacting the internal drainage board to find out more information. For work directly on a river or stream, you must speak to the Environment Agency – the local permitting person will be able to assist you with this. Design, permits and planning alone can cost upwards of £75K for river restoration, though this is for a medium-sized project.

You may have hidden streams and rivers that run below the surface of your land in culverts or pipes. In recent years, ‘daylighting culverts’ has become common practice – excavating these hidden waterways and restoring their natural form. This allows light to reach the riverbed, encouraging the growth of plants, which boosts biodiversity in the stretch, while creating meanders that can slow the flow and slightly reduce flooding downstream. Regardless of the biodiversity benefits, there is also an aesthetic appeal of running water, which adds interest to the ecosystem in every season.

Many of our rivers and streams have been straightened and channelised, even if they don’t run through pipes. Rivers were straightened to fit them into our formal landscape, and carry flood water away rapidly, but this just increased the peak height of floods in narrower sections like towns and cities. This straightening also scoured the riverbed clean, destroying aquatic vegetation and biodiversity, while carrying sediment away. Efforts are now underway in many river systems to reverse the work – ‘rewiggling’ watercourses everywhere from the Scottish Highlands to the Somerset Levels.

As many watercourses have been dredged or scoured over time, deepening them into unnatural v-shaped channels, rewiggling also involves raising the water table. This is typically achieved by blocking up the current river and routing the flow across the former floodplain. The new course can be further improved by adding wetland pools which join the channel via small tributaries. These will flood during high river flows and settle pollutants and sediment out of the system, preventing them from travelling downstream. However, the tributaries must join at exactly the right angle, to prevent these side channels silting up or diverting the river entirely. This is the kind of nuanced technical issue which leads to the high cost of design work in these restoration projects.

Beavers are the ultimate ecosystem engineers, restoring health in a landscape with flowing water, and anything we do is just a feeble attempt to recreate their behaviour. But if you have a highly degraded stream, or barely-flowing ditch, it may be possible to turn this into a biodiverse ‘beaver’ wetland without any help from the creatures themselves. We can use logs embedded in the channel walls to back flow up into the area behind the dam. This can be excavated to create a pond, with shallow sloping sides suitable for marginal plants. Rock dams can also be used in place of ‘leaky’ log dams, and these are less likely to break down over time. As with any intervention that keeps water on the land for longer, this work can help to recharge the underlying aquifer.

Standing Open Water & Canals

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Habitat info

While most waterbodies in this category are ‘lentic’ (slow or non-moving) systems, canals are lotic (flowing). They may also sit above the water table, or be separated from drainage systems, making these artificial rivers less nutrient-polluted than our actual rivers, acting as refuges for some pollution-intolerant species. With a nationwide network carrying water across watersheds, canals may transport plants and other organisms from one region to another.

In contrast, lakes, ponds and ephemeral water bodies only affect the local area. Like streams and rivers, they may be polluted by nutrients, sediment, microplastics and other human activities. But these habitats can also be highly biodiverse, even if they were created artificially, which makes their loss from rural landscapes over the past few centuries even more significant. While some types of lake have high biodiversity potential at scale, ponds are typically undervalued, even by ecologists, as even newly-dug systems may support a substantial variety of terrestrial and aquatic species.

Eutrophic Standing Waters

r1a

Onsite condition: poor

Status: Priority Habitat

Biodiversity Value: 2/3

Rarity Value: 3/3

Mesotrophic Lakes

r1b

Onsite condition: good

Status: Priority Habitat

Biodiversity Value: 3/3

Rarity Value: 3/3

Oligotrophic and Dystrophic Lakes

r1c

Onsite condition: poor, good

Status: Priority Habitat

Biodiversity Value: 3/3

Rarity Value: 3/3

Aquifer-fed Naturally Fluctuating Water Bodies

r1d

Onsite condition: poor

Status: Priority Habitat

Biodiversity Value: 2/3

Rarity Value: 3/3

Canals

r1e

Onsite condition: moderate

Status: None

Biodiversity Value: 2/3

Rarity Value: 3/3

Temporary Water Bodies

r1f

Onsite condition: moderate

Status: None

Biodiversity Value: 2/3

Rarity Value: 2/3

Other Standing Water

r1g

Onsite condition: poor

Status: None

Biodiversity Value: 3/3

Rarity Value: 2/3

Value

Most larger water bodies in the UK are Eutrophic Standing Waters – this means they have higher levels of nutrient input, which typically leads to high productivity. But a highly-productive ecosystem is not necessarily healthy (e.g. a conifer plantation) – and these lakes are typically characterised by low water clarity, high algae concentrations and low levels of submerged vegetation. Many of these systems are in Poor condition, including most fishing and ornamental lakes, which are of low value to biodiversity, but this category also includes some water bodies in Good condition, which are extremely biodiverse.

Mesotrophic, Oligotrophic and Dystrophic Lakes are more rare, and the few examples which exist are often under threat from nutrient pollution. These systems are low in nutrients (Oligo), contain moderate (Meso) levels or are acidified and coloured by nutrient/sediment input (Dys). This results in lower productivity ecosystems than a Eutrophic lake, but with clearer waters that are more suitable for submerged plants. The specialist community of zooplankton, phytoplankton, plants, fish, amphibians and invertebrates which are at home here make these valuable for biodiversity despite the lower bioabundance.

Aquifer-fed Naturally Fluctuating Water Bodies and Temporary Water Bodies are both ephemeral in nature. They may be seasonal, or arise for longer periods and then disappear again, creating unique communities of organisms which thrive in temporary standing water. Amphibians are more likely to thrive in non-permanent ponds, as their young are less likely to be predated by fish, while predatory invertebrates benefit from the lack of competition. With a shifting waterline comes a specialist plant community which is adapted to the variable soil moisture levels and seasonal drying (though fewer aquatic plants are present than in a permanent pond). Meanwhile, waterbirds and mud-feeding species value these seasonal ponds as a rich source of invertebrates, while terrestrial animals use the habitat as a watering hole.

Canals vary significantly in their value for biodiversity depending on their traffic levels, nutrient load and presence of invasive species. A healthy canal can be a low nutrient refuge for threatened aquatic species which allows these organisms to disperse easily across a large region. Conversely, these are also systems where invasive species quickly spread from one place to another, carried along by boats and the current. Canals are a mixed deal for biodiversity, with both positive and negative impacts at the local and national level.

Other Standing Water is perhaps the most important ‘Other’ category in this system. Ponds have been rudely dumped into this catch-all term, which also includes drainage ditches and low value lake ecosystems. Yet ponds are one of the highest biodiversity systems in the British countryside, supporting not just aquatic life, but also terrestrial and airborne animals, which use this habitat as a watering hole and hunting site, especially in summer.

The edges of lakes are the richest zone in terms of biodiversity and bioabundance, and a pond is like a lake which only has edges. There is less open water in this system, so fewer fish, but the high levels of sunlight in the shallow water creates rich plant growth, which in turn fuels up to ⅔ of the UK’s freshwater invertebrate species. These are rich and abundant ecosystems, which restore the local aquifer while acting as an effective nutrient and pollutant treatment station. They are also a rapidly-maturing system, with benefits to local biodiversity from very early-on in their development. We have lost many ponds from our rural landscape, and the artificial creation of these ecosystems is both an affordable and effective method for biodiversity restoration.

Protect

To make this section easier to follow, it’s important to understand the idea of eutrophic stable states. Waterbodies flip between two different states – eutrophic and mesotrophic/oligotrophic. A eutrophic state is dominated by algae and phytoplankton, with murky water. In contrast, mesotrophic/oligotrophic systems are dominated by submerged plants like waterlilies, with clear water. This is not a typical equation, though – waterbodies can become eutrophicated when nutrient levels are raised, fish stocking density is too high, plants are destroyed by wind, choked by algae or damaged by human activity – but it takes much less effort to push a system into eutrophication than it does to pull it out.

Alongside artificial dams/weirs and invasive species, eutrophication is perhaps the biggest threat to the health of aquatic habitats. While eutrophic lakes and ponds do occur naturally, these are far less common in the wild, as we now have many different factors which cause this kind of ecosystem to develop. Agricultural fertilisers and muck spreading, untreated sewage outflows, fishing bait, fish stocking and urban runoff can all shift a waterbody into a eutrophicated state by raising nutrient levels.

Submerged plants protect the sediment at the bottom of a waterbody from being stirred up into the water column. This stirred-up sediment releases nutrients, which lead to algal blooms, which kills off submerged plants (i.e. a vicious cycle). This means excess sediment in the water and damage to submerged plants are both issues that can shift a water body towards eutrophication. So herbicide contamination, bank erosion, sediment input, boating, predation of algae grazers (by fish), and intensive leisure activities can threaten the health of a clear water lake. In canals, the passage of more than 1000 boats each year will hamper the development of a diverse ecosystem.

Acidification of a water body can cause it to shift into a dystrophic state, with low productivity and stained water, characteristic of blanket bogs. But some acidity resists eutrophication, so that the reduction in British acid rain over the past few decades has led to more eutrophication, especially in upland areas and Northern/Eastern England. Additionally, fish are more successful at breeding in higher pH water, which exacerbates this effect by boosting fish populations. This compounding effect means nutrient inputs must not only be reduced down to, but significantly below 1980s levels to maintain the same level of eutrophication. 

Reducing nutrient inputs ideally means stepping human activities back from the waterline, with a buffer zone of wilder habitat. Rural car parks, arable land, urban development, ditches and paths can all leach nutrients or sediment into pond/lake water, so these are the highest priority. Any activity which directly introduces nutrients or pollutants into the water itself could be limited through signage or restrictions; fishing bait (especially ground baiting), duck feeding, spraying of herbicide and intensive grazing of livestock could all be mitigated by working with local stakeholders. Destruction of submerged plants is typically caused by boats and the smothering effect of periphyton – a sort of leaf surface algae which is usually grazed by snails (which are eaten by fish) – so, reducing boat activity or removing predatory fish can restore plant health.

To prevent the spread of invasive species into new ecosystems, biosecurity protocols must be followed when carrying out any maintenance work in the area. This includes detailed risk assessments, the mapping and marking out of any invasive species on site, and washing of all equipment before and after use. Invasive species include not just plants (of which there are many!), but also animals like the giant Signal Crayfish and the tiny Killer Shrimp. With so many species to cover, it is better to look at a dedicated guide.

As with any ecosystem, a high predator presence is likely to have negative impacts on biodiversity. Dogs are commonly found around ponds, lakes and canals, but they drive off waterborne species like ducks. Their disturbance also reduces the abundance of shoreline wildlife – they are even known to eat water voles. Flea collars create unsafe levels of pesticide contamination in ponds when the number of dogs using the water regularly rises above 1. Requiring dogs to be walked on a lead may help alleviate some of these issues, but many nature reserves and landowners have banned dogs entirely.

Contrary to popular belief, it is valuable to have some muddy areas around pond/lake edges, created by intensive animal activity. Whether it’s livestock movement, deer, fox or humans activity, some patches of ‘poached’ ground where plants are sparse and bare mud is visible in winter are valuable habitat for invertebrates, with variability in disturbance, encouraging the formation of a sloping vegetation profile. The mud itself can be used as nesting material by everything from birds to bees, while footprints in it can be a useful way of identifying which species are visiting your pond/lake.

Restore

The value of artificial lakes and ponds is similar to their wild equivalents, as both types of ecosystem typically end up with the same community of organisms. In fact, artificial ponds and lakes include some of the UK’s most valuable aquatic habitats, such as Hatchet Pond in the New Forest, which is one of the UK’s reference condition lakes, or Orton Pit in Cambridgeshire – reputed to be home to the highest concentration of Great Crested Newts in the UK. Creating an aquatic habitat from scratch has the potential to deliver enormous value for biodiversity, especially in an area with scarce Standing Water resources.

Digging a pond or creating a lake by flooding a low-lying area of land isn’t without its issues. The resulting habitat will create short term increases in atmospheric carbon, but in the longer term, by ‘rewetting’ the adjacent soils, local carbon sequestration may offset this impact. Flooding high value (Priority) habitat is to be discouraged, but certain areas may benefit from rising water levels; in scrub and woodland, this can create valuable riparian zones, Wet Woodland and carr habitat, while limiting encroachment across grassland. Flooding or digging up Modified Grassland and degraded Arable land can lead to high nutrient levels in the water, but may offer benefits to the landowner in the form of increased water availability during drought.

Making a large new water body typically requires planning permission, and may also require consent from the authority which manages drainage in the area. But creating these features isn’t just a case of digging a pit – the profile of the hole should encourage colonisation of marginal plants, with shelves or gentle sloping margins – the structural diversity in a pond will be reflected in its biodiversity. Seasonal (‘ephemeral’) ponds and scrapes are almost as valuable as permanent water bodies, and the difference between the two may be hard to determine until after the hole has been dug. However, a pilot hole can allow you to assess the depth of the water table at its lowest point during late summer/early autumn.

New ponds do not need to be planted out, and in fact, placing plants into the water risks spreading invasive species – birds will bring water plants in over time on their legs (but only if you tip them generously). However, if your local area is lacking certain species due to a scarcity of water bodies, then sourcing seed within the region is a good way of improving plant diversity (be sure to check the plants are native). Some species, like Common Reed and Bulrushes, will rapidly colonise a new pond, so caution is advised when taking this approach. Transplanting rushes from damp ground immediately adjacent to the pond/lake into the margins can help to kickstart a thriving new ecosystem, by creating a valuable refuge and perch for invertebrates, without the risk of invasive aquatic hangers-on.

When an invasive plant has taken over an existing pond, it may be next to impossible to remove it. The species could be washed into nooks and crannies in bank vegetation, sink into the substrate or be regularly transported-in on wellies or animal fur. The best course of action is usually mitigation, rather than eradication. This starts with reduction of nutrient inputs, as high levels of nutrients favour lush, dominant growth of invasive species. Regular removal of plant matter may be necessary to reduce dominance and comply with legislation which specifies that landowners must prevent invasive species spreading off their property. However, in smaller, degraded water bodies it may be worth considering the ongoing cost of control versus the cost of creating a replacement, healthy pond nearby.

Pigs and wild boar are valuable in restoring degraded grassland, but wild boar are restricted to limited parts of the UK, and pigs require huge areas of land. For smaller landowners, pond creation can provide some of the benefits of pig rooting, as this process involves scraping off topsoil from a large area and spreading it across the land in jumbled clumps of turf and earth. On the pond edges, by stripping off the topsoil, a nutrient-poor substrate is exposed, while in the jumbled clumps, wildflower seeds, long-buried below the grass, are exposed and germinate. What you’ll typically get is a flush of thistles, ragwort and other agricultural weeds, unless the land was in particularly good condition prior to digging the pond. But this flush of growth will create an abundant ecosystem, which supports large populations of butterflies and seed-feeding birds.

Fen Marsh & Swamp

Info

Habitat info

Unlike Bog, which is a habitat above the water table, Fen Marsh & Swamp sits below it. As a result, the water flowing into the system contains more minerals, which creates a much more verdant, lush habitat, where healthy trees can grow in the less-waterlogged patches. Some of these sites are wet year-round, while others are only seasonally-inundated, and this has a big impact on the species you’ll find there.

Like Dense Scrub, Fen Marsh & Swamp is often a ‘seral’ zone – a transitional habitat in the process of becoming something else. Reeds are a pioneer species that colonise everything from river margins to saltmarsh, while quaking mires are ponds and lakes in the process of becoming land. This means these habitats move over time, encroaching on open water or being lost as land dries out. In pre-human times, natural processes would have maintained a mosaic landscape, but our ecosystems tend to shift towards dry woodland unless we intervene.

Lowland Fens

f2a

Onsite condition: poor

Status: Priority Habitat

Biodiversity Value: 3/3

Rarity Value: 2/3

Purple Moor Grass and Rush Pastures

f2b

Onsite condition: poor, moderate

Status: Priority Habitat

Biodiversity Value: 2/3

Rarity Value: 2/3

Upland Flushes, Fens and Swamps

f2c

Onsite condition: moderate, good

Status: Priority Habitat

Biodiversity Value: 2/3

Rarity Value: 2/3

Aquatic Marginal Vegetation

f2d

Onsite condition: moderate

Status: None

Biodiversity Value: 2/3

Rarity Value: 1/3

Reedbeds

f2e

Onsite condition: poor

Status: Priority Habitat

Biodiversity Value: 2/3

Rarity Value: 3/3

Other Wetlands

f2f

Onsite condition: good

Status: None

Biodiversity Value: 2/3

Rarity Value: 2/3

Value

The nutrient-rich water and soils which are typical of fen habitat typically support dense, green vegetation at the height of spring. However, the category Fen Marsh and Swamp contains myriad conditions, which vary enormously in their value to wildlife, and even non-Priority Habitats, like Aquatic Marginal Vegetation can be of high value when it is in good condition, so there’s no easy rule-of-thumb.

Wetlands in general have high biodiversity, as they are highly-productive ecosystems, because water is not a limiting factor. But waterlogging, drainage, oxygen and nutrient availability, and pollution can impact biodiversity. These habitats, which are often highly-connected to our river system, are vulnerable to invasive species like Himalayan Balsam and Swamp Stonecrop, which can become a near-monoculture, reducing biodiversity significantly.

Seasonally-flooded fens are often valuable bird nesting sites, especially for wading birds which are particularly affected by fox predation. Reedbeds are another habitat which have high value for birds, with this relatively low plant diversity habitat hosting a huge abundance and diversity of roosting and breeding birds, from Starling to Bittern. But, in the absence of livestock (and wild herbivores), these habitats tend to revert to scrub or wet woodland, so management is an intrinsic part of many fenland landscapes.

Protect

Many of these habitats are threatened nationally, including Lowland Fens, Purple Moor Grass and Rush Pastures, and Upland Flushes, Fens and Swamps. These have historically been drained, and converted to agricultural land, making their protection and restoration today a high priority for landowners. All fens are dependent on a relatively high water table, so it is important to avoid unintentionally lowering this by digging ditches which connect to a watercourse.

Nevertheless, ditches may become silted up over time and require maintenance; in the wild the only parallel we find with this artificial habitat are the ‘canals’ dug by beavers. These can be over 500m in length, and, similar to ditches, will become colonised with Aquatic Marginal Vegetation over time. ‘Desilting’ mimics the beavers’ maintenance of these ditch habitats, which are important connections between waterways and water bodies across the terrestrial landscape, like aquatic hedgerows. When desilting a ditch, the impact on the height of the water table should be taken into consideration.

Seasonally-flooded fenland habitats are typically maintained in good condition by grazing with cattle (not if sphagnum is dominant), but the livestock must be kept at relatively low density to avoid ‘poaching’ the soil. Poaching is compaction of the ground, which creates a ‘hard pan’ during dry spells and a waterlogged surface (puddles) in wet conditions. While small amounts of poaching can be beneficial around the edges of ponds and across grassland, too much can lead to the dominance of species like Silverweed and Creeping Thistle.

Meanwhile, Reedbeds may require a different kind of management to maintain the open nature of this habitat. These stands of Common Reed, with some other plant species mixed in were traditionally cut to supply thatch for roofing homes. But thatch fell out of favour due to its tendency to catch fire and the regular cost of re-roofing. Now, even the few thatched houses left in the UK are largely supplied by production in Europe. But reedbeds still need maintenance to avoid scrub encroachment, with a 4-10 year cycle of autumn/winter (deep water) or early spring (shallow water) cutting, in sections, much like a coppiced woodland. Cuttings should be removed, and are typically piled up at the edge of this habitat as refuges for amphibians and reptiles, sold to thatchers or burned off if there is an excess of material.

As fens receive nutrients from inflowing water, they may suffer from the effects of pollution, which can come in many different forms. Microplastics, nutrients, chemical and pharmaceutical pollutants, and sediment all flow in from streams or runoff neighbouring land. These can cause damage to sensitive aquatic ecosystems, but mitigating the impacts may be as simple as setting up a treatment wetland at the point where water flows into your land. Read more about creating a treatment wetland in the Information section.

Restore

A degraded fen habitat is typically suffering from either low water levels, high nutrient influx or an invasive species.

Nutrient inflow is already addressed above with treatment wetlands, although if the land itself has been nutrient-enriched, such as with fertiliser, then a strategy should be developed to strip nutrients over time. It may be necessary to strip off some of the topsoil, though this will have a significant medium term carbon footprint. The best system for this involves scarifying the land – removing some strips of turf while leaving others. This can be repeated, and is better for avoiding issues which arise from large-scale removal of grass, like runoff and soil compaction. On less-enriched soils, the grass can be grazed, or mown and the arisings removed and composted offsite.

Low water levels may require more drastic action, though digging ponds can ‘rewet’ the land and create valuable landscape diversity, too. Historic maps can show the existence of ‘ghost ponds’ – pools which were filled in during agricultural ‘improvements’. If these can’t be found, then ponds and scrapes (see below) should be dug at low points across the land. Clustering 2 or 3 together will create a wetland, which has much higher value for biodiversity. 

Mole drains may have been installed below the surface of the soil, and these can be removed, or their draining effect can be mitigated by excavating the margin of a ditch and crushing any pipes found. The impact of the drainage ditch itself can be minimised by installing simple rock weirs at intervals to raise the water level, by dropping brash into the ditch to form an obstruction or by creating a ‘leaky barrier’ with logs. If the project has substantial financial backing, then river restoration (‘rewiggling’) can reconnect a fen to its neighbouring watercourse, raising the water table and restoring a seasonal flooding cycle.

Seasonally-flooded fen habitats have high potential for biodiversity if the right balance of livestock and management is followed, with cattle and Konik ponies most suitable for grazing. These areas have typically been flattened over time for agriculture, or have silted-up, and the restoration of shallow wetland ‘scrapes’ is likely to create high value sites for amphibians and birds. These scrapes replicate the activity of Bison and Wild Boar, which dig their own wallows to access drinking water. If ground-nesting birds are present, then research shows that a structurally-diverse habitat increases the survival of young. With more tussocky grass and shrub, there is more availability of rodent prey, which appears to distract foxes from bird nests, reducing the need for unsightly ‘predator fencing’.

Invasive plants can rapidly colonise Fen Marsh and Swamp habitats, as water enables the flow of floating species and the spread of seeds. Once an invasive plant is established, it takes a lot of work to remove it, but this work can be worthwhile, as it will restore diversity and health to the ecosystem. Identifying invasive species early on is essential, as this is the point at which they are easiest to eradicate. So, it is worth familiarising yourself with the identification of these invasive plants:

  • Floating Pennywort (Hydrocotyle ranunculoides)
  • Giant Hogweed (Heracleum mantegazzianum) – dangerous to touch!
  • Himalayan Balsam (Impatiens glandulifera)
  • Japanese Knotweed (Reynoutria japonica)
  • Swamp Stonecrop (Crassula helmsii)
  • Water Fern (Azolla filiculoides)

 

If any of the above are identified, check into the relevant legislation, as you may be legally required to report the location under certain circumstances, and/or take action to prevent them from spreading beyond your land.

Bog

Info

Habitat info

A bog is a raised feature in the landscape, sitting above the local water table, which means its only water input comes from rain. This creates a nutrient-poor soil, as minerals from the rocks beneath do not flow into the system. So the vegetation is low-growing – a specialist plant community of moss, grass, stunted trees and shrubs.

The peat soils here form slowly, over hundreds or thousands of years, accumulating at about 1mm/year. This ecosystem is easily damaged by humans, due to its reliance on a high water table – harvesting peat for compost or fuel can start a decline that rapidly dries out the soil and kills off the sphagnum. But restoration is possible, and it is happening in many places across the UK.

Blanket Bog

f1a

Onsite condition: good

Status: Priority Habitat

Biodiversity Value: 2/3

Rarity Value: 1/3

Lowland Raised Bog

f1b

Onsite condition: poor

Status: Priority Habitat

Biodiversity Value: 2/3

Rarity Value: 3/3

Value

Peatland is a low diversity habitat with a specialist community of organisms that create a unique landscape which increases our current climate resilience. While the biodiversity here is low, the species that do survive are often threatened or found nowhere else, making protection and restoration of bogs essential in our fight to reverse the decline of nature.

While some bogs may have begun life as reedbeds (particularly in the lowlands), and fen peat can be present at the base of these wetlands, once they begin raising above groundwater level, it is sphagnum that keeps them healthy. This family of mosses stores water in dead cells throughout their body – in fact, the moss is generally more dead than alive. This has led to the bog being described as a ‘sponge’ that can prevent flooding, but some peatland experts caution that we are still too early to confidently predict the power of this effect…

The evidence for peatlands’ power to reduce stormwater flooding downstream is confusing and contradictory. In models, a bog is not very effective at reducing runoff, as the water table sits just below the surface, so there is little capacity for additional storage when a storm hits. Yet, according to a number of different real-world studies of river flow, compared to a degraded peatland, a healthy or restored bog can produce more consistent stream water during dry periods, and regularly reduces stormwater peaks in wet periods downstream.

Then there’s carbon – a more thorny issue! A degraded bog releases greenhouse gases into the atmosphere, so restoring these ecosystems *can* help fight climate change in the short to medium term, but long term results are uncertain. The climate is changing, and the climatic zone that supports bogs is shifting northwards over time. As a result, many bogs will begin drying out as summer droughts and higher heat levels make conditions unsuitable for the specialist plant community which makes this habitat viable. By investing ‘carbon offsets’ in peatland restoration, we are creating a system that is likely to catastrophically fail in the future, leaving a legacy of even more greenhouse gas emissions for the next generation. There are certainly benefits to restoring bogs, but in the UK at least, carbon sequestration is a rationale that may not stand the test of time.

Protect

While bogs may be threatened by climate change, they are much more likely to be degraded by human activities. Any kind of peat extraction tends to be bad news, as it may allow a gulley to form, and these gullies are what lead to system collapse. As soon as a channel appears below the water table, the water table begins to drop, but sphagnum requires very consistent conditions to survive. Lower the water table, and the surface of the bog will dry out and quickly die off.

Gullies can be blocked up with either rocks, or with ‘plugs’ of peat that are extracted from within the body of the bog, creating a ‘borrow pit’. These plugs raise the water table again, and slow the flow of runoff down the gulley; this effect has been found to reduce stormwater peaks downstream.

If gully blocking does not occur, then, in the absence of sphagnum and other vegetation, the surface of the bog will revert to bare peat. This dries out and erodes, losing its embedded organic carbon in the process. It is also susceptible to wildfire, given the propensity of peat to burning, and the frequency of fires in upland areas. A long term study of a recovering peatland found that increasing the vegetation cover reduced damaging stormwater peaks and flow volume downstream.

While gullies may be caused by human activity, they may also be created by overgrazing of upland areas, particularly with sheep or deer. Sheep not only damage bogs, they are also damaged by bogs, as they may become trapped in quaking mires, so it is best to keep them out of this habitat.

Tree plantations have in the past been located on peatland, as this land was perceived as ‘wasteland’ or MAMBA – ‘miles and miles of bugger-all’ by locals and outsiders-alike. However, the trees often grew poorly on these nutrient-deficient, waterlogged soils, even after they were drained with artificial gullies (‘grips’). These plantations are now being felled, and the land beneath restored – the Lost Peatlands Project is a good example of this.

In certain parts of the country, peatland has, even until recent years, been drained for use as sheep grazing. This has involved the installation of ‘mole drains’ (tubes below the surface) and grips (trenches). As per the tree plantations, it may take centuries of restoration work to undo a few weeks of hard labour.

Restore

No matter the state a peatland is in, it is usually possible to restore the system. Even in lowland areas, where most bog has now been lost to agriculture, and changing back to a wild ecosystem would result in significant productivity loss, there is an option for farmers.

Paludiculture is the growing of plants under water, and peaty soils are ideal for this practice, as they are perfectly suited to the conditions. This is an option for farmers who wish to maintain productivity, while recovering their soils and boosting the carbon potential of their land, as wet peat retains more carbon. Current options being explored for crops are related to plant-based fibres, including native species like Reedmace.

On less-degraded land, rewetting the peat is still an important part of the process – restoring the water table is step 1 in any bog restoration project. This has to happen before sphagnum is reintroduced, as the plant is so sensitive to changes in the height of the water table. As mentioned above, blocking gullies with peat plugs is an important part of this work. However, bogs are also one of the only habitats where restoration requires reducing structural diversity. If a tree plantation has been felled, the site should be ‘tracked over’ with an excavator to reduce any surface abnormalities, flattening the bog to return it to a more stable condition.

Once a bog area has been sufficiently rewetted to allow the reintroduction of sphagnum, then fist-sized clumps of native moss, ideally sourced locally, should be planted across the site. These grow at a very slow rate, but they can be planted sparsely, and allowed to colonise the site over time, as budget and logistical constraints usually prevent widespread planting. To prepare the site in late Autumn or Winter, other vegetation, particularly Molinia (Purple Moor Grass) should be strimmed down to ground level. Then, the bottom of the moss – what look like the sphagnum’s ‘roots’ – are thrust into a hole 6 inches deep, created with a garden dibber, and the ground around the moss squashed back into place.

On bogs which have been so degraded that the surface is rapidly eroding, some stabilisation may be required before reintroducing sphagnum. The typical strategy taken here is described as the ‘Lime-Seed-Fertiliser-Mulch’ (LSFM) approach. This temporarily establishes a non-native grass community on the peat surface, which, in previous studies, was shown to raise the water table height sufficiently to begin reintroduction of bog species.

Some bogs may be suffering from encroachment of scrub or woodland habitat. However, this is likely to become more common as climate change progresses, and attempting to resist the spread is simply working against natural processes. Likewise, the Common Haircap moss slowly pulls sphagnum out of the water, forming tussocks across the bog. While it is recommended that you avoid widespread accidental introductions, this is a native moss that is part of the succession process, and eradicating it completely would run contrary to the idea of nature restoration.

Dunes & Vegetated Shingle

Info

Habitat info

Sand dunes make up about 5% of our coastline in England (where data is readily available), while about 2% is shingle, and very little of this is vegetated. But these zones are more than just diversity-supporting habitats – they are also an essential part of our coastal infrastructure. With climate change causing sea levels to rise, shingle and sand are being eroded away, but they’re still the front line of our defences against the sea in many cases, forming natural berms that hold back tides and storm surges.

These can be pristine habitats with little human influence, but in many, if not most places, coastal vegetated shingle and sand dunes have high levels of disturbance. They’re the gateway to the beach for many people – an ecosystem that is experienced only in passing. These habitats are also fairly unique in the terrestrial realm as they naturally shift either towards *or* away from scrub and woodland, depending on the extent of coastal erosion.

Sand Dunes

s3a

Onsite condition: moderate, good

Status: Priority Habitat

Biodiversity Value: 2/3

Rarity Value: 2/3

Coastal Vegetated Shingle

s3b

Onsite condition: moderate

Status: Priority Habitat

Biodiversity Value: 2/3

Rarity Value: 3/3

Value

Sand Dunes generally develop on wider, exposed beaches, where dry sand is swept up above the high water mark by wind, then colonised by Marram Grass. After this, the system evolves from shifting, embryonic dunes into a more mature system, with low ‘dune slacks’ that often contain wetlands. These habitats may be colonised over time by scrub and then woodland, stabilising the sand, while depositing layers of new organic matter. Depending on the state of the dune system, different communities of organisms will be present, and some of these habitats can be extremely biodiverse. The dune slacks at Braunton Burrows are allegedly the most diverse wildflower meadows in the country with over 400 species of plant.

However, the diversity of dunes varies a huge amount between systems, depending on human disturbance, erosion, management regimes, and the presence or absence of invasive species of plant. These may be low value lumps of sand with sparse Marram cover, or high value ecosystems with a mosaic of meadows, ponds, scrub, open sand and closed woodland. In either case, their value also comes from their coastal protection. As ‘natural sandbags’, dunes prevent tidal surges and spring tides from flooding coastal properties. In many cases, they may have been artificially stabilised with defences, ‘nourished’ through dredging of offshore waters, or engineered to make them stronger.

Shingle is less common than sand dunes, not just in the UK, but worldwide – in fact, northwest Europe contains a significant share of this habitat. Rarer still is vegetated shingle – like sand dunes, shingle banks may shift over time, but eventually they can stabilise, with the help of vegetation. But this vegetation may naturally be damaged in storms, and rising sea levels increases the height of these storm waves over time. This sensitive habitat, often destroyed by human activities, from gravel extraction to trampling, is home to a specialised community of invertebrates and plants which are adapted to the harsh, drought-like conditions.

Protect

Sand Dunes aren’t just one habitat, but a spectrum of different communities at various stages of succession from open beach to closed woodland. Typical management encourages the formation of this mosaic habitat and protects it by removing scrub and woodland where these late successional stages threaten the earlier, specialist communities of plants and invertebrates, which are unique to dune habitat. This usually involves scrub management (i.e. not just brushcutting, but also scraping off topsoil) and coppicing or removal of woodland.

Bare patches of sand are valuable habitats for a variety of invertebrate and reptile species like Sand Lizard, while shallow depressions in sandy areas may create pools suitable for threatened amphibians, including the rare Natterjack Toad. These bare sandy patches occur naturally in wild dune systems – particularly those disturbed by large herbivores. At Kraansvlak in the Netherlands, Bison create wallows in coastal sand dunes and disturb the dune system, maintaining a constantly-evolving habitat. At Braunton Burrows in Devon, military exercises are used for the same purpose, creating a variety of states of succession across the site. In the absence of Bison or the army, a combination of cattle and manual interventions – coppicing, scrub clearance and soil disturbance – can mimic this activity.

Dune systems are often colonised by invasive non-native plants – particularly Sycamore and Japanese Rose (Rosa rugosa). These species swamp natural vegetation, reducing biodiversity and rapidly shifting embryonic dunes towards more mature systems. Invasive species removal work is an essential part of an effective dune management plan. However, while government documents and leading charities claim that Sea Buckthorn is non-native outside of the East of England, our own scientific research and consultation with experts uncovered that this is probably not the case. This species likely used to be widespread across most of the British Isles, and it may have been eradicated from the West coast due to shifting sea levels and a high density of woodland in the early Holocene.

Sea Buckthorn does tend to dominate dune systems, but this seems to be due to the absence of a balanced guild of wild herbivores, not its questionably native status. As with any form of scrub, in the absence of Bison and similarly-sized herbivores, it will slowly encroach across the system. However, Sea Buckthorn has value for biodiversity, supporting invertebrates like the Oak Eggar moth caterpillar, providing a perch, refuge and/or food for birds including Stonechat, Starling, Wheatear and Fieldfare, and creating shade that may be used by reptiles and amphibians in the harsh heat of a dune system. The plant also aids in stabilisation of dunes which are increasingly subject to erosion due to sea level rise.

Both Sand Dunes and Vegetated Shingle are affected by human disturbance – dog walking can cause significant issues for ground-nesting birds (and reptiles in dunes). In dunes, this includes Skylark and Ringed Plover, while on shingle, terns and gulls are more common. The physical trampling of vegetation can tear apart root structures over time, which hold together both shingle and sand. Marram Grass is quite resilient to this, and recovers easily when areas are temporarily fenced off (typically with chestnut palings). But on Shingle, many species are not evolved to cope with trampling at all, and high disturbance can easily destroy entire areas of vegetation. In fact, vehicle disturbance to shingle systems can cause visible damage that may last for hundreds of years.

While sandy shorelines tend to be threatened by erosion hotspots created by coastal defence structures upwind, the erosion of these same structures (especially riprap) may actually nourish shingle beaches, though the overall impact may still be a sediment deficit if shingle-rich cliffs are protected. Offshore dredging can also decrease the availability of new sediment inputs. Vegetated shingle has historically been threatened by gravel extraction, development and vehicle access, though most British habitats are now protected against these threats.

Restore

On Sand Dunes, in the absence of Sea Buckthorn, hard engineering work may be used to protect and stabilise dunes. However, this is more effective in the absence of coastal protection upwind, which blocks sediment inputs. Groynes, sandbags and even dead Christmas trees may be used to shore-up dunes in decline, but none of these can protect the system if sea levels continue to rise and sediment inputs continue to remain low or fall (see e.g. Dawlish Warren). Dredging of sand for extraction is therefore also a threat to sand dunes.

The ecology of dunes is ever-shifting,but we’re now missing many wild herbivores; particularly the ‘mega-herbivores’ which would have engineered these habitats in the past. In their place, we often have rabbits that create a very different ecosystem. This may be biodiverse in places, but scrub tends to encroach over time, and large patches of bare sand are often missing. The wildest dune systems in Europe are those managed by a combination of different herbivores, including Bison. On very large reserves, Bison are an option, but they need huge exclusion zones due to interacting poorly with dogs.

In the absence of Bison, we can use a combination of Highland Cattle and Exmoor Ponies to recreate a healthier system. In larger herds, bull cattle will dig ‘bull pits’ when competing with each other for females during the mating season. This clears areas down to bare sand, naturally creating this valuable habitat, but also comes with the risk of high testosterone animals in a public area. Cattle push through scrub, keeping the area open, while the ponies keep grassland trimmed to a short sward, maintaining this habitat and preventing further scrub encroachment. Stocking levels are key to sand dune conservation – too low and scrub will encroach; too high and erosion could threaten the survival of this sensitive coastal barrier.

Artificial materials and coastal defences are often used to reinforce dune systems. Most of these are dependent on a stable supply of sediment into the system, and a net sediment deficit will eventually lead to their loss. Wooden groynes can mitigate some wave strength and trap drifting beach sand, creating a wider shoreline. This protects dunes against the ‘coastal squeeze’ that climate change is causing. But without sediment input, groynes can’t trap sand that doesn’t exist, and their linear structure doesn’t protect dunes in storms that occur at a right angle to the line of the beach.

Hard engineering work to restore dunes and reinforce them with massive geotextile sandbags (‘Geotubes’) took place at Dawlish Warren in the 2010s. But, in a system which was already suffering from a sediment deficit and rising waters, this work may have undermined the dunes. Marram grass failed to establish effectively in areas where the work had taken place, and the bags were soon exposed all along the coast, creating an eyesore at this major tourist destination. While many dune systems, like Dawlish Warren, are being eroded, there are places in Britain, like Weston-super-Mare, where sand dunes continue to grow over time due to a net sediment input.

On sensitive Vegetated Shingle habitats, given the impacts of human activity, experts advise that the best course of action in these areas is to leave them to recover on their own. Any kind of mechanical input can destroy the root system of plants and shift the fragile berms, so removal of invasive species is the most intensive activity that is typically undertaken here. If the water table has been degraded by draining and abstraction, these systems should be restored to a natural state where possible.

Inland Rock

Info

Habitat info

One of the least-studied British habitats, Inland Rock is, like Bog, home to a specialist community which thrive in these nutrient-poor habitats. This category takes in a range of seral ecosystems – over time they are colonised by plants. The way this happens depends on the habitat – we have both vertical and horizontal rock faces represented here.

Vertical faces – inland cliffs – degrade into smaller rocks, which fall into scree at the base of the slope. Horizontal faces – limestone pavements – were scraped clean by glaciers, but may succeed to scrub or woodland if there is low grazing pressure. Exposed rock habitats are also created by quarrying, and these may develop into similar ecosystems over time. One outlier here is Calaminarian Grassland, which forms atop toxic soils (rich in heavy metals from mining or natural processes) and occasionally on contaminated river sediment.

Inland Rock Outcrop and Scree Habitats

s1a

Onsite condition: moderate

Status: Priority Habitat

Biodiversity Value: 2/3

Rarity Value: 2/3

Limestone Pavement

s1b

Onsite condition: good

Status: Priority Habitat

Biodiversity Value: 2/3

Rarity Value: 3/3

Calaminarian Grasslands

s1c

Onsite condition: good

Status: Priority Habitat

Biodiversity Value: 2/3

Rarity Value: 3/3

Other Inland Rock and Scree

s1d

Onsite condition: poor

Status: None

Biodiversity Value: 1/3

Rarity Value: 2/3

Value

The primary value of these habitats is in their unique plant, lichen and bryophyte (moss and liverwort) communities, though there are invertebrates and birds which can be found here, too. Inland Rock Outcrop and Scree Habitats include some of the UK’s wildest ecosystems, with very little human influence, and a relatively natural level of grazing pressure in some places. With such low value for resource extraction or agriculture due to the inaccessibility and hazardous rock face, these habitats have often benefited from benign neglect.

In contrast, Limestone Pavement tends to occur in areas with high levels of disturbance from tourism and grazing. Without these factors, the habitat has high potential for biodiversity, with lush communities of plants growing in the crevices, and a nutrient-poor sparse scrub habitat developing in well-managed areas.

Calaminarian Grassland is an odd habitat, typically found on spoil heaps of waste from mines. Here, the heavy metal-rich substrate acts like a nutrient-poor soil, resisting plant growth and resulting in a unique plant community which can also be found in certain scarce wild places with the same characteristics.

Other Inland Rock and Scree covers mining and quarrying operations, which could over time succeed to one of the habitats above, but at this stage have low vegetation cover. These habitats currently have low value for biodiversity, but in the case of disused sites they may already provide nesting opportunities for birds (Raven, Peregrine Falcon), and are likely to be of higher value in the future.

Protect

Horizontal and vertical rock faces suffer from two major threats – overtourism and overgrazing…

Overtourism includes climbing of vertical surfaces and use of horizontal surfaces for hiking and as secure locations for climbing anchors. The impact of climbers ‘gardening’ ledges to keep them clear of soil and vegetation is a reduction in biodiversity and a pause in successional processes in these locations. Some plants, like Dark-red Helleborine, are uniquely adapted to rocky ledges, and as pioneer species, they aid in the colonisation of these exposed outcrops, boosting their biodiversity value. Fencing-off sensitive habitats and creating informative signage that helps tourists understand the value of these rare species can aid in their protection.

Overgrazing (and undergrazing) can lead to a decline in the habitat quality of horizontal rock faces – i.e. Limestone Pavements. While this can also be an issue in scree and vertical habitats, the inaccessibility means that only nimble livestock like goats would pose a significant issue. When pavements are overgrazed, the lush vegetation typical of crevices in the rock is lost, and a sparse scrubland is not permitted to develop. However, low browsing pressure can lead to the succession of woodland habitat over time, and the loss of specialist rock-dwelling plant communities.

Calaminarian Grasslands are a unique habitat which also have some complications – with heavy metals present in the soil, and many sites in riparian (river edge) locations, there is an ongoing debate as to whether we should treat the toxic soils or conserve the habitat. If the habitat is to be protected, then sheep are the best livestock to graze here, as heavy metals are still bioavailable in their dung, unlike with cattle, which tend to ‘graze off’ the contaminants over time. If the area is grazed with sheep, the existing low sward can be maintained. But this habitat is seral in nature – it would naturally shift over time and be colonised by birch and gorse scrub.

Other Inland Rock and Scree sites have huge potential for future biodiversity if restored correctly, but even during productive operation, protection can help to ‘set up’ the habitat for the future. Experts recommend that certain quarry areas are set aside as protected zones, allowing for the colonisation of Inland Rock species – these can be introduced as seed from the local area or in soil from other mining sites (beware of invasive species). Alternatively, rotating mining operations across the site can allow pioneer species to take hold.

Where possible, non-native Buddleia should be controlled in Inland Rock habitats as it is highly invasive in these ecosystems. Flowerheads can be cut off in Autumn as seeds won’t set until the following year.

Restore

In some cases, restoration of Inland Rock habitats is not necessary as these habitats are effectively self-managing. Remove any invasive species and bringing grazing pressure to a normal level will allow the habitat to recover by itself – vertical rock faces and scree are self-renewing, as they continuously evolve when more rock falls. However, other habitats here, like Calaminarian Grassland and Limestone Pavement, will gradually shift towards woodland due to succession. Whether or not to intervene in these processes depends on your philosophy of land management. Our recommendations below are based on what would naturally have occurred, in the absence of human disturbance and the presence of a healthy wild guild of herbivores.

With even relatively low levels of grazing pressure, as might be expected in a wild upland ecosystem, Limestone Pavement will remain exposed, or form a sparse scrubby ecosystem. In fact, our evidence for this comes from the present day existence of these relict habitats, which have survived intact since the last Ice Age. This makes maintaining a low level grazing presence seem like a logical management practice which ‘leans in’ to wild processes, working with, rather than against nature.

In contrast, Calaminarian Grasslands appear to succeed to scrub and then woodland over time in the absence of sheep. Given that sheep are not naturally present in the British Isles, and that the wild herbivores which would likely have been found here (bovids) lock up the heavy metals in their dung, then maintaining this habitat feels more like working against the force of nature than working with wild processes. Some of the methods used for restoration of these habitats appear to underline this… While it is possible to restore a ‘degraded’ Calaminarian Grassland, this involves stripping off woodland soil and felling trees, reversing the process of succession. We can maintain this habitat in good condition, and this may be desirable to preserve rare plants, but restoration is of questionable merit, given that it typically exposes toxic soil to the elements.

Restoration of quarry and mining sites post-operations tends to differ depending on the water table. Sites with a high water table are likely to be flooded, and this can, as is the case at Cotswolds Water Park, create a high value ecosystem, rich in biodiversity. However, sites which are above the water table may still be of value to nature, and interventions can improve the speed and quality of succession.

In high water table sites, rather than leaving the landscape to ‘rewild itself’, it is better to strategically plant native species which will develop into self-sustaining ecosystems. This active approach was taken at Cotswolds Water Park, with a diverse riparian community of trees planted which now protects the site from wind exposure and creates both structural diversity and biodiversity. At Attenborough Nature Reserve, supplementary planting of floating reedbeds and marginal vegetation enhanced the biodiversity of deepwater habitats. In low water table sites, strategic relocation of soils and seed from similar, high quality habitat elsewhere can help to establish threatened plant communities on exposed rock and gravel substrates.

Shoreline Cliffs & Slopes

Info

Habitat info

About 2500 miles of the British coastline has been designated as ‘cliff’ habitat, but the definition is a bit sloppy. Anything from a modest outcrop or muddy bank to a towering rock face gets lumped in under the same category. These ecosystems may be liberally sprayed with salt or get only a light dusting depending on the prevailing wind direction, height and foreshore conditions.

Nevertheless, the vertical rock face, harsh winds and frequent mud- or rockslides make it hard for trees to get established here, so the dominant vegetation is low-growing, with some salt-tolerant scrub mixed in. The rock type will have an influence on which plant community will thrive, as well as the form of the cliff itself – soft rock results in slumping slopes while hard rock creates huge vertical walls. Harder cliffs are more suitable for nesting, and they may be home to huge colonies of breeding seabirds, with enormous biodiversity value.

Maritime Cliffs and Slopes

s2a

Onsite condition: moderate

Status: Priority Habitat

Biodiversity Value: 3/3

Rarity Value: 1/3

Value

Maritime Cliffs and Slopes are not only of value to the species living in this habitat, but also to the ecosystems below and above. At sea level, the eroded sediment from sea cliffs enriches beach sediment, while this large surface area absorbs salt spray and protects the land from climate change-caused sea level rise. The inaccessibility of these vertical habitats, which often have dangerous sea and rocks at the base, has made them ideal refuges for a wide range of wildlife, turning them into biodiversity hotspots along our shorelines.

In hard rock, the cliff is fractured and pitted by holes, crevices and caves which create refuges for bats, seabirds and a hardy community of plants, lichens and bryophytes (mosses and liverworts). In soft rock, the slow slumping of the slope creates a dynamic habitat which favours pioneer species, creating a diverse ecosystem with high variability in soil moisture levels (including springs, seeps and pools), exposure and sunlight. This ‘undercliff’ ecosystem can in turn support a range of microhabitats from scrub to reedbed, while also being home to an abundance of specialist invertebrates. The ephemeral ponds created during slumps can even be important habitats for threatened amphibians like Great Crested Newts.

Cliffs have not just biodiversity value, but also strong cultural value, with certain areas benefiting from tourism due to their fossiliferous rocks, their cultural resonance or their beauty. At the intersection of sea and land, their erosion creates conflict between the interests of biodiversity (and long term coastal protection), and the shorter term protection of property and infrastructure.

Protect

Protecting a sea cliff is not as simple as installing a sea wall at its base. In fact, hard engineering will degrade the quality of this ecosystem and the resilience of the coastline. Cliff erosion is a key contributor to beach sand – when cliffs are walled-off from wave action, this reduces the input of new sediment into the system by as much as 50%, leaving beaches vulnerable to erosion. Beyond the benefit of new beach sand, wave action also creates structural diversity in the face of the cliff, as rockslides alter its shape over time. New niches and crevices become colonised by pioneer vegetation, which slowly succeeds to scrub and may briefly turn to patches of woodland or isolated trees before sliding down to the beach below.

This dynamic (‘seral’) ecosystem is what the community of cliff-dwelling organisms have evolved to expect. Rare pioneer species rely on the rapid turnover of cliff habitat – as one niche is lost, another appears elsewhere. But a stabilised cliff, with rock armour and a sea wall at the base, bolts and netting covering the face, will lead to the development of a stable, unnatural habitat, with valuable nesting opportunities becoming lost over time and specialist plant communities swamped by scrub and woodland. Therefore, protecting a cliff means avoiding hard infrastructure at the base where possible, but this is clearly not going to be an option in developed locations where property is at risk.

The ever-changing community of a cliff is also influenced by human activity from the top down. Non-native invasive species like Holm Oak, Buddleia and Sycamore can take over these habitats and reduce biodiversity. Runoff of fertilisers and pesticides from agriculture can destroy or shift sensitive plant communities towards a system dominated by agricultural weeds. Overgrazing can erode cliff edges, but when herbivores are removed entirely from the system, valuable cliff top grassland and undercliff habitat can revert to rank grasses and scrub.

Britain doesn’t have a native goat or sheep species, so it’s hard to know what level of grazing pressure would have existed in some of these precarious habitats in the past (particularly the undercliff). However, short sward clifftop lawns appear to be essential habitat for our native Chough (a fancy Crow), suggesting that wild horses may have maintained this type of ecosystem in our ancient past.

Some leisure activities can damage cliff ecosystems, particularly in areas with high tourism. Fossil hunters climb cliff faces and access sensitive undercliff habitats in areas with soft rock such as the Isle of Wight. Access paths may create damage to clifftop grassland and increase erosion of these areas, creating public pressure for hard protection measures at the cliff base. Climbing and coasteering are known to have negative impacts on coastal vegetation and animal life, disturbing and destroying communities through trampling and ‘gardening’ of rocks and ledges to clear detritus. Chalk residue from heavily-climbed routes may impact ferns and mosses, while access trails at the cliff base may also destroy biodiverse sites. However, given the approximately 2,500 miles of cliff habitat in Britain, and the localised nature of most leisure activities, a balanced response may be most appropriate – educational signs, marked paths and access restrictions at sensitive sites are likely to be effective.

Restore

While restoration of cliffs is difficult to achieve without removal of hard protection at the base, it is not impossible to create a similar effect with livestock. In Bournemouth and elsewhere on the south coast, goats are being used to restore lower vegetation height and an earlier successional stage on miles of undercliff habitat. Here, hard protection is still in place, and the cliff face is not permitted to erode further due to the impact this would have on valuable property situated at the cliff edge. However, the non-native goats can recreate the same kind of conditions that might have been found in the undercliff habitat while it was still dynamically eroding. This will allow threatened species of wildflower and specialist communities of invertebrates to thrive, without scrub and woodland dominating this ecosystem.

Elsewhere, the restoration of cliff ecosystems also requires restoring livestock at the top – Natural England is partnering with landowners across the Southwest of England to create a grassland buffer zone along clifftops. This zone is ideally grazed by animals similar to the wild horses which would have existed here in the past and created short grazed lawns that favoured certain wildflowers, invertebrates and the Chough. And indeed, Exmoor Ponies (a close relative of these ancient wild horses) are being used in some places, like on the Lizard in Cornwall. However, in these narrow coastal strips with public access and a high cultural value placed on horses, there can be issues with this system. Welfare concerns have been raised about this practice by concerned members of the public fearful of the cliff edge proximity, and feeding of the animals is common, which can affect their health and ability to keep the habitat in good condition. As ever, interpretation boards and public signs are a good, though not foolproof, way to address these issues.

Removal of hard protection at the cliff base will inevitably lead to erosion of the cliff itself, but could protect communities further down the coastline. Armouring one section of the coast against erosion prevents eroded sediment from the cliff (i.e. sand/shingle) entering the system, leaving the next section downwind exposed. Over time, the area in front of the hard infrastructure is also ‘scoured’, requiring artificial replenishment of sediment. This double-whammy creates high erosion hotspots beyond hard structures, and leaves beaches or sand spits downwind vulnerable to disintegration due to a lack of inputs. By removing cliff reinforcements where they are not essential, and sacrificing some property to the sea, we can restore the health of the rest of the coastline, including a biodiverse and beautiful ecosystem on the eroded section of cliff.

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