Southern damselfly

More than 350 rare or endangered species have been found living on the East Devon Pebblebed Heaths, a major new study has revealed.

Providing Space for Nature, a report produced by the Pebblebed Heaths Conservation Trust, shows that in total more than 3,000 different species of animals and plants have been recorded in the area in recent times.

The report has been written by Dr Sam Bridgewater, Nature Conservation Manager for Clinton Devon Estates, alongside Lesley Kerry, an independent ecologist with a lifelong interest in heathland ecology.

The work is based on an analysis of more than 18,000 records, some going back 30 years, compiled by a wide range of voluntary and professional organisations.

Dr Bridgewater said:

We’ve always known that the Pebblebed Heaths are a very important place for nature and biodiversity. They are recognised as such in law, and are a Site of Special Scientific Interest (SSSI), a Special Area of Conservation, and a Special Protection Area.

This report underlines the fact that the heaths are a special place not just for the hundreds of thousands of people who visit them each year, but also for the thousands of species of plants and animals which can be found there too. Many of these are ecological specialists unique to heathland landscapes.

Left untouched and unmanaged, the heaths would quickly revert to scrub and then woodland. Although other wildlife might benefit if this were allowed to happen, those rarer species that depend on heathland would be lost, as would the cultural open landscape which is so loved locally.

Covering over 1,000 ha, the Pebblebed Heaths are actually a big mosaic of a variety of different habitats, which together provide a home for a great number of characters which make up our heathland society.

The records show that 3,108 species have been recorded to date within the Site of Special Scientific Interest. What is particularly noteworthy though, is that 10 per cent have significant conservation value. This is a high number.

Of those species which live permanently on the heaths, or which are regular visitors, 375 have a conservation designation of one kind or another. Nationally, there is a list of more than 900 of our rarest and most threatened species: nine per cent of these have been found on the Pebblebed Heaths. 

Over the years the heaths have been studied by many different organisations and individuals, both voluntary and professional, including the RSPB, the Devon Wildlife Trust, the Botanical Society for the British Isles, the Devon Moth Group, Butterfly Conservation, the Devon Biodiversity Records Centre and many more.

This report pulls together previous studies and datasets, which have helped us confirm the presence, or historical occurrence, of 148 species of birds, 38 species of mammals, 50 species of butterflies, 517 species of moths, 243 species of beetles, 575 species of true flies, 605 species of plants and 377 species of fungi. Specialists have  also identified 121 arachnids, and examples of 434 other species from various additional groups.

I would be surprised if, in future, we found many more species of higher plants, but for some groups we have only scratched the surface. For example, it is highly likely that we will uncover many more species of beetles in the future. By their nature they can bee much harder to find and fewer people are able to identity them.

It is estimated that there are 1.9 million annual visits to the SSSI each year, with many people visiting regularly. As the local population grows, Dr Bridgewater expects more and more people to be attracted to the heaths, which are enjoyed by walkers, cyclists and riders alike.

He said:

It is wonderful that the Pebblebed Heaths are enjoyed for recreation and provide a place to experience nature. However, the intensity of use of the Pebblebed Heaths can cause significant disturbance to wildlife, with adverse impacts of people and pets including predation of ground nesting birds, trampling and erosion of paths and tracks, along with nutrient enrichment through dog mess.

The SSSI contributes much to the physical and mental wellbeing of the local population, and there is a need to better understand and quantify this social value. Reconciling the demands of nature with those of the public will be a challenge over the coming years.

Dr Bridgewater added:

The information in this report will be invaluable when it comes to preparing future management plans for this much-loved environment, will raise the profile of the heathland, and will help inform and guide others when preparing local plans. We also hope it will inspire people to go out and find species that aren’t yet on the list.

We’re very grateful to everyone who has contributed to this report through their own hard work. We continue to value the many strong partnerships we have formed to help manage and maintain this very special environment, which Lord Clinton has called the conservation jewel in the Estates’ crown.

  • The 172-page report, East Devon Pebblebed Heaths, Providing Space for Nature, is available to download from the website.

 

Four of the best

In part, the current designation of the heaths relates to the presence of the Dartford Warbler, a species that remains all year round and which thrives in dense gorse. In 2015 there were 73 pairs found on the heaths – a significant proportion of the British population.

Out of the 12 native species of reptiles and amphibians, nine can be found on the heaths. The rarest is the Smooth Snake, which was reintroduced to the heaths after a 50-year absence in a programme launched in 2009.

The Silver-studded Blue Butterfly was once relatively common across the country, but habitat loss means it underwent severe declines in the last century. It only flies a dozen metres or so, so is susceptible to habitat fragmentation. Its ecology is closely associated with ants, and it requires heathland of a young age to thrive.

The Pebblebed Heaths are one of the few remaining British strongholds of the Southern Damselfly, one of Europe’s rarest and most threatened damselflies. A quarter of the global population is located in the south and west of Britain.

East Devon District Council has recently formed a new partnership with Teignbridge District Council and Exeter City Council to protect three internationally important conservation sites, including East Devon Pebblebed Heaths, across the three authority areas.

The councils have established the South East Devon Habitat Regulations Executive Committee, to protect the East Devon Pebblebed Heaths  and other places such as the Exe Estuary, and Dawlish Warren for future generations to enjoy.

This new committee is working with partners including Natural England, Clinton Devon Estates, National Trust, RSPB, Exe Estuary Management Partnership and Devon Wildlife Trust to off-set the effects of new developments and population growth on these protected conservation sites.