RAUK - Archived Forum - heathland management

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heathland management:

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Senior Member
Joined: 05 Dec 2010
No. of posts: 83

View other posts by Scale
Posted: 05 Dec 2010
Could someone explain to me why a controlled winter
heathland burn (excluding reptile foci)is a less
favourable option than a winter cut (assuming the plot
sizes are appropriate). I'm always reading 'avoid
heathland burns on reptile sites', however, the oft
quoted risks appear to be the same as cutting (does
burning have a more fundamentally negative affect on
regen/species composition etc?). Assuming direct reptile
mortality is avoidable and the extent and layout of the
burn controllable, what are the pros and cons of

Also at a Midlands heathland site i am finding good
autumn/spring congregations of grass snakes in dense
Bracken dominated areas (presumably hibernating in the
litter layer and concealed rabbit burrows). Why is there
such an emphasis on removing it from 'common' reptile
sites. Without locating such areas, i'm sure the
aforementioned Bracken stand would no longer exist (based
on recommended reptile site management in the absence of
a thorough site survey).

Thanks in advance for any comments and/or suggestions
Rob (P.S. this is my first post)

Joined: 20 Apr 2008
No. of posts: 39

View other posts by Vanderklam
Posted: 10 Dec 2010

Hi Rob,

Welcome to the forum! In answer to your question, there is a lot of evidence to suggest that species composition does change dramatically following winter burning. From what I have read in the past it tends to increase competitive interaction between floral communities. On some of my local sites in the south-west, it is typically acidic grassland and bracken that out competes/succeeds  heath and gorse communties following burns. Also much of the current literature does acknowledge the benefit of bracken stands to some UK reptiles. Similarly to you I often observe adders utilising dry, dead barcken stands to facilitate thermoregulation (among other purposes). The general consensus among the literature (or to the best of my knowledge) is that bracken stands do serve a purpose at spring assemblages of reptiles, but it has to be managed to prevent the shading out of key habitats (i.e. lying out areas, egg deposition sites in L.agilis). There is limited empirical data to support the idea that shading out of microsites by bracken alters the thermal micro-climate, but I suspect this is what occurs in such situations.



Kevin Palmer
Lecturer in Animal Management/Course Manager
Reaseheath College
Senior Member
Joined: 06 Apr 2005
No. of posts: 860

View other posts by Suzi
Posted: 11 Dec 2010
It can be no coincidence surely that adder markings are so like bracken fronds.

Robert V
Senior Member
Joined: 06 Aug 2004
No. of posts: 717

View other posts by Robert V
Posted: 11 Dec 2010

Suzi hi,

I agree, the Adder's markings appear to have evolved based upon the background of Bracken. Certainly in EF, as the Bracken is reduced / removed, so too do the Adders and Grass Snakes disappear.

Practically all of my Grass Snake matings have been observed among Bracken stands. I think as far as shading goes, trees such as Birch are much more of a problem and I know of one pond where encroachment from Birch seems to be killing off the once abundant life. Got a saw anyone!


Senior Member
Joined: 06 Apr 2005
No. of posts: 860

View other posts by Suzi
Posted: 11 Dec 2010
I think Tony Phelps has good things to say on bracken on this forum somewhere.
Senior Member
Joined: 27 Feb 2007
No. of posts: 694

View other posts by AGILIS
Posted: 12 Dec 2010
the adders camo apart from it being a hibenecular for many
other species nothing wrong with managing by cutting back
by hand but setting fire and bringing in the bulldozers to
root it out beggars belief as I have written about this in
some the last few years destruction on Dorset heaths by
the Rspb
Admin Group
Joined: 25 Jan 2003
No. of posts: 2090

View other posts by GemmaJF
Posted: 27 Dec 2010
Bracken is extremely important on many reptile sites. It gets bashed because it isn't desirable to some people's aesthetics.

I've been watching for years as reptile populations suffer because of Bracken bashing activities.

It's all down to having an understanding of 3 dimensional structure of the site and the importance of 3 dimensional vegetation structure to reptiles.

If you have a major fire, it's often a case that green Bracken stands will shade out the light and there is no ground layer - Bracken becomes bad for reptiles, left alone for long enough it will however increase in value.

If you have decades of natural Bracken growth with deep ground layers it's an entirely different picture. Even in the height of the summer there are piles of dried Bracken providing basking sites and cover, such areas often have very high reptile population density.

The trouble is some land managers don't see the picture at all. It's very much a case of Bracken is just bad. Well it depends on the site and targetted survey is the only way to understand the site before management of any type is undertaken. Of course you then have the school of thought that all Bracken is bad because it is not as aesthetic as heather and adds nutrients to the soil... good bye to a few more reptile sites as those that seek to conserve throw the baby  out with the bath water..

And to add, it's often the Bracken areas best suited to reptiles that get the bashing, because the layers are deep and therefore obviously a 'big' problem that needs lots of funding and plant machinery to sort out. Funny though if you check the sites in the spring you'll find the widespread reptile species all thrive in it, emerging from hibernation, mating activity, egg laying for Natrix, foraging, it all happens in the Bracken. The effort should be put into clearing Pine and leaving the mature Bracken as it is.

Gemma Fairchild, Independent Ecological Consultant
Senior Member
Joined: 05 Dec 2010
No. of posts: 83

View other posts by Scale
Posted: 06 Jan 2011

Thank you all.

I swear i get more useful nuggets of information from this forum than any other source, its fantastic thanks.

I still find the existing literature on Bracken ambiguous though; on the one hand the importance of the Bracken/reptile correlation is well noted (even to the extent that it has influenced the evolution of camouflague in at least one species!), on the other hand it is highlighted as the exemplary herpland undesirable (especially in some of the older management literature). It may precisely be this type of advice that gets transposed into the prescriptive management pamphlets used by some land managers (lacking herpetological knowledge) who wish to cover the myriad of other species requirements (with good intentions). Unfortunately (in the midlands) we don't have the Smooth Snake or the Sand lizard to aid site protection or to help generate the funds necessary for pre-management and monitoring surveys. It just ain't on the agenda, unfortunately. I guess that is why all the serious herpers seem to live in Farnham! (come to think of it all the good naturalists seem to come from that area)   

Referring to what Gemma wrote, the Bracken stand i mentioned originally is longstanding, has a deep litter layer and would have been one of the first areas to be removed as a result. Gemma, i have read your stuff before and i have to say that you have incredible insight and frequently note things that i have never seen elsewhere. e.g. the increase in adder numbers at a communal hibernation site, due not to habitat improvement but habitat destruction and resultant influx (inspired thinking and somewhat relevant to the above, albeit in gorse format). More people should be writing books! 

Cheers everyone and have a Herpy New Year


Admin Group
Joined: 25 Jan 2003
No. of posts: 2090

View other posts by GemmaJF
Posted: 11 Jan 2011
It is often the case Rob that what ends up in the literature is based on a narrow view rather than wider picture. One persons experience for example of a given habitat or species over a lifetime is very useful but only when it is taken in context. The fact that publications based on such material are taken as the answer to everything, is often the root cause of the problems.

I've come across people who should know better who insist a chalk grassland or coastal marsh will not harbor reptiles. Based I guess on the perception that reptiles are heathland animals from literature.

I've no doubt for example that much management guidance currently published relates to the rare species rather than the widespread species. Often it's quite irrelevant if the rare species are not present to the conservation of reptiles on a given site.

I guess that is why I created RAUK in the first place, it was pretty obvious to me that we had a case of the blind leading the blind and at times what was missing was fieldwork based observation. Glad to say we now have plenty of members with plenty of field experience who can discuss the issues.

The bottom line is any management involving soil disturbance, burning, plant machinery or grazing is generally detrimental to reptile populations. This is not to say that these activites are ruled out on a given site nor that in the longterm the activities may offer benefits to reptile populations. But rather it then becomes imperative to figure out what areas are important to reptiles and should remain undisturbed. Often the view is that if a particular species is present it occurs in an even spread over the site and all habitat is of equal value. Not the case in reality at all at any site.

What actually really gets to me is that when I offer my services as an ecological consultant without charge to many nature conservation organisations they simply do not want to know. Perhaps they percieve themselves as the 'experts' or perhaps they simply do not welcome outside interference. Often I'm accussed of promoting 'single species management' as opposed to a 'holistic' approach. Fact is I simply see what is going on, usually the solutions are extremely simple but none of these organisations are of a mindset to listen to often simple advice which would have a huge benefit to reptile species conservation during management works. There is nothing at all 'holistic' about destroying a component in a system when it wasn't necessary.

Unfortunately I've met a number of people in different fields including entomology and Botany who have had exactly the same expriences and simply gave up trying in the end, or like me found themselves 'excluded' by the organisations as a 'trouble maker'. It sure is sad and I guess many of us just end up jaded and critical but we never start that way.

Just glad Rob you find RAUK useful.
Gemma Fairchild, Independent Ecological Consultant

- heathland management

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