The Lodge Living Heath
Written by: Peter Bradley
Heathland habitats at RSPB The Lodge have been created from conifer plantations or significantly improved over the last 10-15 years. Since 2017 this project has supported RSPB to carry out further, dynamic management of these habitats to reach our ecological aim of readiness for sustainable management (e.g. using low intensity grazing). Between 2017 and 2021 contractors, staff and volunteers have repeatedly cleared c.28ha of birch regeneration, bramble, and bracken, mown heather and created new bare ground features.
The project has enabled us to reach new target audiences, using new interpretation, and through the construction of a natural (heathland) play area, helping visitors develop appreciation of heathland wildlife. We have explained why the land supports these habitats, told the story of the land, heritage, and people, and built on local involvement (increasing numbers of volunteers and visitors).
New information panels interpret the heathland wildlife and iron age hillfort. Other interpretation along a short new trail provides immediate engagement with heathland, and a raised viewpoint was built (and since duplicated at smaller scale in other parts of the trail network).
We have shared new heathland restoration techniques with other local land managers (e.g. use of ‘tree poppers’, creation of bare ground ‘dinosaur footprints’), and we have developed the technical skills of those involved in land management and communications with the public (staff, contractors, volunteers).
The project has been a success, with significant improvement of the heathland habitats 2017-2021 and successful promotion of heathland ecology and heritage to visitors. Visitor numbers and volunteer numbers have grown. In 2018 a pair of nightjar bred at RSPB The Lodge for the first time in over 40 years, and in 2021 grazing by Dartmoor ponies was introduced to manage the heathland sustainably.
Visitor numbers have increased from 50k to an estimated 75k. The natural play area is a massive draw for families, and the new path loops are well used. The heathland looks terrific, and we feel that we are in a much better position with regard to birch, bramble and bracken regeneration – and are now in a better position to sustainably manage the heathland with light pony grazing. Hobbies have bred all but the last year; stonechats bred for 2 years, and nightjars had their first nesting attempt in 2018. While no natterjack toads are known to have reached the new heath, spawn has been moved top ponds on the new heath in each of the last 4 years, and mowing and bare ground creation has greatly improved the ecological potential of heathland for establishing this species.
Benefits to People
The project has benefitted many local people through an energized volunteering scheme; as well as involving adults, many young people 13-18 have helped, often as part of a DoE scheme. Visitors have also been able to discover the history of the Iron Age hillfort on Galley Hill and get closer to wildlife along the new heathland path.
Families of small children have increased in number, many attracted to the heathland natural play area, where children can play with natural structures (climbing, stepping, drumming, building bug hotels and dens) and adults sit in a very attractive area of heathland.
Benefits to Heritage & Landscape
The ecological works have benefitted the landscape by developing superb heathland views, which people can better enjoy from new paths and wheelchair accessible raised viewpoints. The new paths and natural play area allow more people to become intimately acquainted with heather, gorse, acid grassland and their associated wildlife of hobbies, solitary bees and wasps, green tiger beetles, and more recently our small herd of Dartmoor ponies.
Challenges & Lessons Learnt
I would probably be bolder in getting HLF to fund more works, possibly being vaguer about what we would be doing – I had to ask for variations a few times through the project, and although they were all granted as being appropriate, it was a worry that they might not be. The keeping of timesheets was a big job for our wardens / volunteers – I would like to see if there were a simpler way to do this.
‘Thanks to HLF and GCLP for supporting us through this 4-year project. It’s achieved a very great deal at RSPB The Lodge – a beautiful, sustainable heathland, much loved natural play area, and engaged lots and lots of visitors (nearly 0.25m) with what we are doing to care for our heritage and develop this living heathland. It has helped us through the final few steps, to enable nightajrs, Dartford warblers, stonechats and specialist insects to make The Lodge’s heathland their home.’
Peter Bradley, RSPB Senior Site Manager