Heathland is a man-made habitat maintained by traditional farming practices like livestock grazing. Since 1945 Cornwall has lost 60% of its heathland.
Before people began to change the landscape, small areas of heathland occurred naturally within woodlands. As humans cleared woodland, grazing wild animals like deer reduced the growth of trees, maintaining open areas of heathland. Later, domestic flocks or herds of livestock helped to clear away larger wooded areas, creating even more open land for rough grazing. By 1500BC the large areas of heathland visible in Cornwall today had been established by communities.
Although the open land was suitable for grazing, the soil was often too poor to grow crops. To solve the problem, farmers grazed animals on heathland or outfields and collected the manure, spreading it on enclosed fields (known as infields) to improve the soil quality for crops. The manure produced by animals overnight in a byre (shed) or pen was also used to nourish the soils in the infield. It was common to move animals during summer to graze on the rough ground further away from home and then bring them back for winter grazing so that they could manure the fields. It’s thought that this may have been the job of girls, who would leave just after Mayday celebrations and return again at Halloween. As well as grazing, heathland was used for the collection of gorse (known as furze) and turf for fuel, bracken for bedding for livestock, and rushes and heather for thatching.
Grazing animals on open land continued through medieval times with ‘commoners’ rights’, which meant that tenants had rights to use the heathland. During the past 500 years huge areas of heathland have been ‘improved’ to create productive agricultural land. Because of fields and hedges, the landscape is now owned by individuals rather than communities. In the past 200 years 80% of Cornwall’s rough ground has been lost, either by being converted to pasture, developed for settlement and industry like china clay pits, or just abandoned and overgrown. As traditional practices die out some hardier breeds of cattle and ponies that could easily survive on the heath have become extinct.
As heathland areas disappear, the unique wildlife they support becomes even more endangered. A mix of plant and animal species depend on heathland, and traditional farming practices are crucial to their survival. In recent times, efforts have been made to bring back hardy grazing livestock and use scything and burning techniques known as ‘swaling’ to care for the remaining heathland. Grasses and flowering plants such as western gorse, Cornish heath, purple betony, heath spotted-orchid, milkwort and yellow bartsia attract butterfly species like the monarch butterfly. Other wildlife includes adders, lizards, spiders, grasshoppers, skylarks and stonechats. The best time of year to enjoy the colourful display of heather is between July and October.
Did you know?
If a Cornish place name contains the words Goon, Woon, Noon or Hal it probably is, or was, part of an area of heathland.
More than 20,000 species of insects live on heathland.
The Lizard Peninsula is second only to Teesdale in the whole of the British Isles for its botanical richness.