History, SSSI, Special
Protection Area, English Nature,
Clinton Devon Estates, RSPB,
The commons encompass many areas of historical and
archaeological interest, including a hill fort, some seventeen burial mounds and a fire
The commons are laid down on Triassic
pebblebeds that are thought to come from an area of desert that extended over the English
Channel to France. Vast rivers flowed across the basin depositing the layers of
pebblebeds which we now associate with the commons. (Visit Woodbury Geology for
During its life time, the commons were
on the edge of the last ice age, being mostly Arctic Tundra. As the ice age
retreated aforestation started to build the area into a vast forest.
Man then came along and started to
shape the face of the commons. Around 500-300 B.C. man moved into the area and built
a hill fort, now known as Woodbury Castle. This is a scheduled ancient monument.
Man gradually cleared the trees for fire wood, buildings, etc.
With the establishment of the local
manors and the division of the land into parishes, the Lord of the Manor allowed commoners
rights of grazing, turf cutting, the taking of bracken for bedding and the cutting of
certain sizes of trees for fuel. This went on for many years until the locals became
richer and stopped using their common rights.
The commons were then allowed to fall
into their own succession of growth from heather and gorse to the invasion of trees,
bracken, etc. If this had been allowed to go on unchecked, one of the most valuable
lowland heaths in the country would have been lost.
The Skylark - a bird typically found on heathland areas.
Photo courtesy RSPB
Site of Special Scientific Interest
The Area of the East Devon Pebblebed
Heaths covers all of Woodbury and the adjacent commons, and is a Site of Special
Scientific Interest (SSSI). This whole area is owned by Clinton Devon Estates and
together with Mutters Moor to the West of Sidmouth, falls within the East Devon Area of
Outstanding Natural Beauty (AONB). Woodbury Common
has the additional status of a "Special Protection Area" (SPA), as well as being proposed as a "Special Area for
Conservation" (SAC). Both of these are European Union designations and enable
European funding to be sought.
A management plan
was produced for the Estate by NCC (English
Nature) in consultation with other conservation bodies. Conservation work is carried
out in accordance with this plan by the Wardens assisted by volunteers.
Devon Estates are owners of most of the lowland heath locally known as Woodbury
Common. The Estate have always been proud of the commons and have successfully
managed it for many years, leasing out Aylesbeare and Harpford Common to
In 1989 the Estate employed a full-time
Warden/Manager who with other interested parties drew up a 10-year management plan.
All work has been approved by English Nature, the Government body responsible for SSSI
(Site of Special Scientific Interest).
Traditional lowland heathland covered
broad swathes of Southern Britain, but changes in agriculture, lack of grazing,
encroaching scrub and urban development have meant that the habitat has declined rapidly
with just isolated pockets remaining.
So how do we conserve this habitat?
It must be carefully managed with tree and scrub clearance, controlled burning of
vegetation at strategic points, both to clear dead material and to promote grass growth
for low intensity cattle grazing. Gorse has to be coppiced at regular intervals to
promote a better and more varied habitat. Bracken is also cleared - we do this in
many ways; the best way being to scrape an area with a bulldozer until just above the
pebble beds. If this is done in early February or March when we have frosts, the
bare rhizomes of the plants are exposed and die. We also use chemical spray and a
In areas of wet heath cattle are used
as a grazing tool. They will eat and break down the hard tussocks of grass, leaving the
wet areas open for a better type of flora and fauna to colonise. We now have four
areas which are actively grazed during the summer months. It is hoped that the
grazing cattle will open up the wet areas for the rare Southern Damselfly.
In 1997 Clinton Devon Estates decided,
as part of their ongoing commitment to this nationally important habitat, to clear fell 35
hectares of pine forestry and restore it to heathland. This has already shown signs
of success with heathland plants returning. During the summer of 1998 the rare Nightjar, a summer bird visitor, was spotted in
Nightjars are summer visitors to East Devon Heathlands and are
mainly active at night. Photo courtesy RSPB.
It is estimated that over 800,000
people use the commons in a year. The Estate is trying to both create the ambience
for the visitor and preserve the rare flora and fauna.
Link to Woodbury Common