Birkbeck Lectures 2014: Whatever happened to Hardy's Egdon Heath?


Whatever happened to Hardy’s Egdon Heath? Our current efforts to save lowland heathlands

part of the series 'This blasted heath–the future of lowland heathland, acid grassland and mire'

Partner Event @ Birkbeck University of London, Lecture theatre B36

Free public lecture series, Autumn 2014.

18:30 Friday 17th October 2014

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In Act I of “Macbeth”, Shakespeare used a heath near Forres as the forbidding setting of a supernatural encounter. Heaths have long had a bad public image. Most heaths are ancient. They were established when woodland was cleared in places with an underlying geology forming an impoverished acidic soil, and maintained by traditional practices. However, they are diminishing throughout the country, even if pockets are still to be found in the southern counties and in the suburbs of London. These remnant heathlands are now much valued as natural open spaces. They are precious because they support a specialised biota, some of which is not found elsewhere. Loss may occur from ecological succession following the neglect of traditional management, or conversion to agriculture or to urban development. How can the remaining patches be saved? How can these important areas be managed to best effect? Management practices in different sites will be discussed and compared. Current problems will be highlighted and specialised conditions for particular groups of plants and animals discussed.

Oct 17th. Whatever happened to Hardy’s Egdon Heath? Our current efforts to save lowland heathlands. Dr Isabel Alonso, Natural England’s Senior Lowland Heathland Specialist.

Isabel Alonso is Natural England’s Senior Lowland Heathland Specialist. She studied Environmental Biology at the University of León, Spain. There she researched the impact of fire on Mediterranean vegetation and later the vegetation of a valley in the Cantabrian Mountains and its value for livestock (this did include a tiny patch of heather!). She then worked as a post-doc in the Institute of Terrestrial Ecology in Aberdeenshire on plant competition. After a brief return to Spain she moved to England to take up her current post, work that she has been doing for over 15 years. Her role is to provide technical advice on all aspects of heathland conservation, management and monitoring. She is involved in the development of the new agri-environment schemes; monitoring Biodiversity 2020 targets; Climate Change impacts; Commons; Designations (SPAs, SACs, SSSIs, NNRs); Ecosystem Approach; and providing training, all in relation to lowland heathland. She is member of the European Heathland Network standing committee.

Lowland heathlands, characterised by heathers and gorses, are a biotope found only in Western Europe. They are cultural landscapes created and maintained by people for millennia. They provided useful materials and grazing areas, in sites with very poor soils, where agriculture was not possible. A diverse and specialised wildlife adapted over time to this habitat. However, economic and demographic changes in the last century made many heathlands redundant in agricultural terms, whereas their recreational role increased significantly. Many of the large expanses of heath in the past are now small fragments, surrounded by houses or roads. The materials that result from management are considered “waste” and are costly to dispose of. However, the specialised wildlife has, in many cases nowhere else to go, and we have national and international commitments to ensure their survival. The talk will present current data on the condition and trends of lowland heathlands in England, what we are doing to maintain and improve them and the constraints on this.

This free public lecture is part of a series hosted by Geography Environment and Development Studies (GEDS), Birkbeck University of London. The lectures are suitable for those who may be considering, or undertaking, university courses in ecology, biological conservation or related subjects. They will interest environmental and ecological practitioners, natural historians, wildlife organisations and others with similar interests.

The lectures are supported by GEDS, Birkbeck University of London and would not be possible otherwise. They are organised and promoted by the Ecology and Conservation Studies Society, with assistance from the Linnean Society of London.

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