The south Devon heathland, of which Bovey Heathfield is an example, may appear natural but it is a landscape created and manipulated by human activity. It was formed more than 5000 years ago when people began to cut down the trees that covered the area in order to create land to grow crops and to provide pasture for animals. The underlying soil was sandy and acidic and of low fertility. Nutrients were soon exhausted and these early farmers then moved on leaving the land to be colonised by heather and gorse, creating heathland as we know it. At its peak, the heathland in south Devon encompassed an area of more than 400 hectares and for hundreds of years, until industrialisation, its inhabitants eked out an existence grazing animals and cutting heather and gorse for fuel. This way of living also prevented recolonisation by trees, so contributing to the maintenance of the heath. Then ball clay was discovered and from the 17th century onwards, much of the heathland habitat was destroyed to enable extraction of this lucrative resource that lay beneath the surface. These deposits are the largest and highest quality sources of ball clay in the UK putting considerable pressure on continuing extraction to satisfy worldwide demand for sanitaryware and wall and floor tiles. To this day, hills covered with white clay are a common sight around the town of Newton Abbot to the south of Bovey Heathfield.
At its peak, the heathland in south Devon encompassed an area of more than 400 hectares and for hundreds of years, until industrialisation, its inhabitants eked out an existence grazing animals and cutting heather and gorse for fuel
Some parts of the heathland were spared exploitation for clay mining but because the underlying soil was of low fertility these were often treated as waste ground of no value. During the Second World War, some of the remaining heathland was used as a training ground for allied troops. The land was damaged by these essential operations and damage continued in peacetime when Bovey Heathfield became an informal centre for off-road vehicles. People travelled long distances to race here and considerable damage was inflicted on the land. Burnt out cars were abandoned freely and rubbish was dumped. When in the 1980s, more land was taken to build the nearby industrial estates and associated housing, there was the possibility that heathland might have disappeared altogether in south Devon. Eventually, in 1989, the importance of Bovey Heathfield was recognised and it was designated as a Site of Special Scientific Interest. Even with this protective designation, off-road motor racing continued but by 2002 it was fenced off and taken over by the Devon Wildlife Trust who now manage the land, helped by local volunteers.
Despite its destructive history, the site now prospers as a nature reserve and the huge ruts in the ground created by the off-road vehicles are gradually disappearing as heathers and gorse take back the land. Typical heathland species of birds, reptiles and invertebrates flourish but pieces of rusty metal or old rusty wheel hubs can still be found scattered among the vegetation, reminders of the site’s previous existence. Taken together, Bovey Heathfield and the nearby Chudleigh Knighton reserve represent only one tenth of the area of heathland that once covered this part of south Devon. This massive loss of habitat must have severely reduced the populations of heathland specialist species. In spite of its regeneration Bovey Heathfield is surrounded by industrial estates and busy roads and this isolation may cause some populations of insects to become inbred so reducing their long-term viability.
According to Thomas Hardy, the only time that heathland looks ‘gorgeous’ is when the heathers explode into flower softening the look of the land for a few weeks each year. I wanted to see this for myself, so on a sunny morning at the beginning of September last year I went to Bovey Heathfield. I parked near one corner of the grim modern industrial estate that borders the reserve and found a stony path sandwiched almost apologetically between waste ground and a long faceless building named Endeavour House. Wildflowers were doing their best to brighten the rough track and purple buddleia spears hung downwards attracting a scattering of painted lady butterflies in the early September sun. At the end of the path I opened a metal gate and ahead of me was a tract of open heathland glowing with the pastel hues of flowering heather. A few stunted birch trees were scattered about, together with thick clumps of low gorse adorned with lemon-yellow flowers. It was as though I had passed through a portal into another world.
Pale sandy paths crisscross the heath and I followed one of these towards a high point in the centre. The path edges were lined by flowering heathers and at first sight it seemed as though this was mostly ling with its tiny lantern-shaped mauvish-pink flowers. The ling grows so densely across the reserve and its flowers are packed so tightly along each stem that it lends the heath a new colour and a brightness that it lacks for the rest of the year. But the ling was not the only colourful player on the heath that day. Patches of bell heather with its many urn-shaped purplish-pink flowers were scattered about and I also found a few clumps of cross-leaved heath with clusters of small pink bells above stems decorated with tiny green leaves. The colours of all these flowers were intense, and, in the day’s bright, low sunshine, an almost fluorescent light arose from the heath.
As I wandered about, looking at the flowers, I saw many honeybees and a few plump stripy bumblebees busily feeding in the bright sunshine and collecting pollen. I noticed holes in the sandy tracks, some with crumbly soil scattered about and on the far northern edge of the reserve, where the land rises again, I found one of the occupants, a large yellow and black solitary wasp, the ornate tailed digger wasp, resting in the sunshine. Large dragonflies with pale blue and bright green-banded markings basked briefly on scrubby gorse bushes. Swallows swooped across the reserve hawking for insects and a buzzard mewed overhead.
But what I had really hoped to see had so far eluded me – one of the species of solitary bee that appears in early autumn and specialises in using pollen from ling for feeding their larvae. Having gazed at the ling flowers all over the reserve to no avail, I had mostly given up and was heading towards the exit. Then, suddenly, I saw a bee that looked different. It was smaller than the predominant honeybees and I noticed the thorax with buff hairs and the prominent black and white stripes on the pointy abdomen. This was one of the heather specialist mining bees (Colletes succinctus) that I had been seeking, found only on heathland.
As I drove home, I reflected on the day’s visit. Bovey Heathfield is a beautiful place with much to see and I love to come to the reserve and look for the heathland flora and fauna. I felt reassured by the pace of regeneration and the ability of nature to recover and I considered myself lucky to have encountered some of the unique heathland specialist species that day.
But I also felt unsettled. Bovey Heathfield is so small and isolated, surrounded by industrial estates and busy roads, an island of biodiversity adrift in alien seas. Humans have caused the natural world to contract and fragment without pausing to consider the effects on species other than ourselves.
These small, isolated but rich nature reserves can also give a false sense of security. Visitors may see the biodiversity and think that all is well. But without some knowledge of the history of the place it is hard to appreciate the challenges faced in maintaining this habitat – and easy to remain blind to the losses that have occurred.