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The heathlands of the New Forest, which form part of what is known as the Open Forest, cover around 12,500 hectares (31,250 acres) and are made up of a variety of habitats. In order to maintain this traditional character and benefit the local wildlife, the Forestry Commission undertakes controlled burning of heathland every year. The Controlled Burning Programme normally starts around the beginning of February, when the worst of the winter weather is over. The process involves burning gorse and heather to encourage new growth, which is beneficial to a variety of flora and fauna as well as providing food for the forest’s ponies and other stock.
As Open Forest Manager, I’m now meeting with the Forestry Commission’s Open Forest team to carry out the burning. We’ll conduct a ‘test burn’ first to gauge the readiness of the vegetation, but it’s about this time of year when it’s quite dry, the still-wet ground offers protection to the peaty soil, and the impact on wildlife, particularly breeding birds and reptiles, is minimised.
Once the test has taken place and conditions are considered to be right, a team will be put in place to run the programme for the duration of the settled weather. At first, there are only a couple of sites each day that we burn on, but this will then lead to around 10 controlled burns a day across the New Forest. Although it’s an annual programme, the Forestry Commission only burns two to three per cent of our heathland each year and this only takes place after careful on-site consideration the previous summer.
Sometimes people can misunderstand the reasons for the burning as it may seem unnatural, but many don’t realise that heathland is a low nutrient habitat and we need to maintain this through controlled burning. If we allowed vegetation to rot and decay instead, it would return nutrients to the soil which can affect and, ultimately, destroy the delicate balance of our heathlands.
The wildlife and vegetation actually benefit from the burning, as vigorous new growth helps to create a diverse environment. Woodlarks, for example, do well on newly bare ground, marsh gentians enjoy reduced competition from more vigorous plants, and reptiles and insects benefit from the ‘edge’ effect created. Controlled burning also results in a mosaic of different aged habitats which creates habitat diversity and effective fire breaks to protect large areas of heathland, woodland and private property from wildfire.
For more information about the New Forest, visit www.forestry.gov.uk/newforest.
Dave Morris, Open Forest Manager