Arguably the most important habitat we are lucky enough to have on our doorstep, and certainly one of the few of global significance, is the lowland heath. Sites such as Woodbury Common, Aylesbeare, or Fire Beacon Hill, are more than just lovely places for a leg-stretch, they are examples of one of the most threatened habitats in Europe. Because of this significance, there are lots of conservation groups locally which take its continued good management very seriously indeed.


I consider myself very lucky to work on a heathland Local Nature Reserve just outside Sidmouth, a site owned by Sidmouth Town Council and managed by the RSPB all that leaves for me is to wander over it photographing adders and waxing lyrical about it to visiting school groups and in newspaper articles like this one. Fire Beacon Hill is a small, but perfectly formed treasure!


A small herd of Galloway cattle have been employed on site recently to tackle the habitat management of Fire Beacon Hill.  In the past staff and volunteers from the RSPB and the District Council Countryside Service have carried out scrub control and cut and burned old heather to maintain the quality of the rare lowland heath habitat. But now the slightly more hairy workers are doing a 24 hour job: eating invading weeds and trampling the bracken.


Toby Taylor is the RSPB’s local heathland expert and site manager of Aylesbeare Common reserve, he explained to me why cattle grazing was such a positive thing for this little site in particular. “It’s a cost–effective and traditional method to manage the heath,” he said, “we were encouraged by Natural England, the government watchdog that looks after these sensitive sites and have introduced five cows onto the site. What’s more, they drink less tea than the volunteers!” 


Trina Jarrett of Sidmouth Town Council has been very pleased with the results of this initiative, “the cows are doing a great job! We are very grateful to the RSPB volunteers who have done so much hard work on the nature reserve in the past, but these guys work twenty-four/seven. You can already see the improvements they have made to the habitats.”


At the moment the cattle are being contained by electric fences. But this is not an ideal situation and requires a lot of management. So EDDC  and STC are considering putting permanent fencing round the outside of Fire Beacon Hill, so the cows can wander freely over the whole site.  “This would mean you would just need to go through one ordinary gate when you come onto the Hill and another when you leave, rather than dealing with the fiddly wire ‘gates’ in the electric fences” said Toby “We think as a long term solution to keeping the site healthy, this is the one people would prefer”.


But to be allowed to fence common land you need permission from the government’s Planning Inspectorate, and proposals like this need to be discussed with all the people who use the commons in an open and public consultation. So, a consultation exercise is about to start. 


An open day will be held by Toby and his colleagues from the RSPB on Thursday 14th October on Fire Beacon Hill, between 10.00am and 4.00pm, when everyone can discuss the proposals with staff and, most importantly, have their opinions recorded. There will also be letters sent to neighbouring landowners and local organisation to canvass opinions. For people who are not able to make the consultation on the 14th, Toby can be contacted through the RSPB regional headquarters in Exeter on 01392 432691.


Heathland has just passed through its fiery best; late summer blooms with a vivid purple hue on the heath. However it is this next seasonal period when the hard work, often in horrible wet and cold conditions, takes place to ensure that next year’s heath is in as good a condition, if not better, than this.


One final plea: If you are one of the thousands of people who enjoy walking a dog on the pebblebed heaths, or any heathland site in East Devon, please pick up the poop! On such big and open expanses, it is easy to feel that there is no consequence from leaving it to rot away into the turf, but the impacts of this added ‘fertiliser’ to a habitat which thrives in impoverished soils, are stark.