£1.44 million lottery funding will help endangered heathland wildlife

Ambitious work to restore and reunite areas of rare heathland in the South Downs National Park will start this autumn thanks to a £1.44 million grant from the Heritage Lottery Fund (HLF).

South Downs heaths are not only home to rare plants and animals – such as the sand lizard, woodlark and silver-studded blue butterfly – they are also important spaces for people. But heathland currently covers just one per cent of the South Downs National Park and has shrunk into ‘islands’ where isolated plants and animals are far more vulnerable to local extinction.

Less than one per cent of former heathland remains in the National Park and what’s left is fragmented, reducing the diversity of plants and animals that make heaths both interesting and scientifically important.

The Heathlands Reunited project, led by the National Park Authority with 10 partner organisations, aims to create and improve heathland at 41 sites – covering an area greater than 1,200 football pitches over the next five years.

Bruce Middleton, Heathlands Reunited Project Manager, said:

“Heathlands are ‘man-made’ and only exist because our ancestors used them to dig peat for fuel, harvest heather and graze animals, unwittingly creating a unique ‘mosaic’ of habitats which many plants and animals now can’t survive without.

“Without people working the ground our heaths have gradually returned to scrub leaving the wildlife trapped and vulnerable in a few remaining ‘islands’. A staggering 60 per cent of heathland species are dependent on bare, sandy, south facing ground.

“A key part of our work will be with the local people who use and enjoy the heaths, for example to get involved in scraping patches of bare earth or even encouraging communities to adopt and take responsibility for their heath.”

Rare heathland species that will benefit from the project include:

  • The sand lizard, Britain’s rarest reptile, needs open sandy ground to incubate its eggs.
  • The striking Minotaur beetle needs sandy ground to burrow in.
  • The natterjack toad, Britain’s rarest amphibian, hunts best in warm, open sandy ground and needs warm shallow pools to breed in.
  • In the 1980s less than 100 field crickets, Gryllus campestris, remained in the UK, on one heathland site in what is now the South Downs National Park. A careful reintroduction program saved the species from extinction but Heathlands Reunited will create more places where these insects can be reintroduced.
  • Like many UK butterflies the silver-studded blue has suffered a decline due to loss of its preferred habitat – warm lowland heath.

Stuart McLeod, Head of HLF South East, said:

“Heathlands support many rare and endangered species but are themselves among the world’s most threatened habitats. This is an important intervention that will not only restore and recreate many hundreds of acres of heathland but also greatly increase people’s understanding of just how vital these habitats are.”

The 11 partner organisations on the Heathlands Reunited project are the National Trust; Sussex Wildlife Trust; Hampshire and Isle of Wight Wildlife Trust, Ministry of Defence, Hampshire County Council, Amphibian and Reptile Conservation, Lynchmere Society, Forestry Commission, the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds, Natural England and the South Downs National Park Authority.