Black Country heath restoration (Walsall)
LocationCounty: West Midlands
Contact detailsOrganisation: Walsall Countryside Service
Tel: 01922 459813
Website: Walsall Council countryside webpage
Restoring the Black Country heaths
Published in Enact 4 (2) Summer 1996 © English Nature 1996
The largest remaining area of lowland heath in the Black Country lies in the Borough of Walsall, in the West Midlands. Dave Haslam examines the land-use history and explains the council's programme for restoring these industrialised heaths.
Lying between Chasewater Heaths SSSI in the north and Sutton Park SSSI in the east, Walsall heaths form an important ecological link within this southern area of the Staffordshire heathland complex. The Borough of Walsall has 200 ha of heathland, split into four main sites with several small fragments surrounding them. The northern heaths have developed upon a thin layer of peat over mudstones, ironstone and coal, giving rise to humid heath, while the eastern heaths have developed upon freely drained sand and gravels, resulting in dry heath.
Maps from 1775 show a large expanse of continuous heath 10 km wide in places from Cannock Chase to Sutton Park, a distance of over 30 km. It has been suggested that even during this time heathland was already in decline through agricultural improvements and small scale mineral extraction. Within Walsall, the dramatic decline in heathland area occurred during the Industrial Revolution. The underlying minerals of coal, ironstone, sand and clay, together with large deposits of limestone elsewhere within the borough, were the basic ingredients fuelling the heavy industry of this region. During the industrial peak of the 1880s there were more than 30 collieries recorded on the northern heaths, and on one heath, Pelsall North Common, a large ironworks occupying 10 ha was in full production. All that remains of this industrial past are the canals connecting the former mining areas and the imprints of the multitude of mineral lines that connected pits to major railway lines as well as small spoil mounds of coal and furnace slag.
A popular myth often associated with the West Midlands, and especially the Black Country, is that the heavy industry with its associated pollution decimated any areas of ecological value. This was not the case. The industry itself was very localised, unlike the sprawling industrial estates and open-cast mines of today. Mine owners saw little point in spending money outside the immediate boundaries of their colliery buildings, so a single pit may have taken up as little room as 0.5 ha. Coal was immediately transported from pit head to furnace so there was little stock piling. Consequently the surrounding land, in this case the heaths, were still maintained as rough grazing. All industrial activity upon the northern heaths ceased by 1903, but quarrying is still active, although on a small scale, along the eastern boundary of the borough.
Walsall has faced considerable problems in managing its heathlands, with insufficient resources to cope with the many open spaces acquired by the borough over the past 50 years. All traditional heathland management had ceased by the 1950s, with the resultant conversion of heather-dominated areas to rank, tussocky grassland.
The pressures upon open spaces within urban areas are immense. Natural open space is often perceived as derelict land ideal for woodland planting, or for the grand 'improvement' and 'reclamation' schemes of landscape architects. The more traditional forms of heathland management cannot be practised in urban locations. Grazing is not feasible owing to problems with fencing common land, stock safety on adjacent main roads and extensive public use. Burning is not an option, owing to the urban location, small size of the sites and local byelaw restrictions.
The support of the public and elected councillors is essential for the success of heathland restoration. This has been achieved through the active support and promotion of the Staffordshire Heathland Partnership, and the backing of English Nature and the Countryside Commission. Heathland is identified as a legitimate landscape type within the Forest of Mercia Community Forest.
Each heathland site has a ten-year restoration plan, with clearly stated aims and objectives (see key points below). These plans are made available for public consultation and are subsequently amended in response to public views and concerns.
Assess local support by interviewing site users and local residents.
The restoration programme initiated in 1991. Cutting grass tussocks and scarifying the turf was the first priority. Cutting was undertaken with a forage harvester which proved to be very expensive and totally unsuitable for the terrain (the tractor link snapped during operation). Cutting heather-dominated areas successfully regenerated the heather, but in adjacent grass-dominated areas only resulted in more grass, despite seeding some areas with heather brash.
Repeated mowing of the grass over a period of years may, eventually, be successful in restoring heather to these areas. However, the public often demand more instant results before they lose faith in the scheme, and ultimately in the integrity of professional advice.
The extensive turf mat that had built up over the previous 40 years of neglect limited the success of the cutting. The best solution was therefore to remove the turf completely, since scarification did not provide suitable bare mineral soil for the period required for heather to germinate and establish. The underlying seed bank was not assessed before turf removal, but it was known that heathland seed banks could remain viable for at least 60 years. If the plots failed to regenerate as heathland then they would recolonise as acidic grassland which could receive additional treatment, for example, seeding with brash. The exposed substrate would provide much needed bare ground for invertebrates and common lizards.
During November 1993, a JCB, tractor and trailer was used to remove 0.25 ha of turf. Vehicle access to the heaths is very restricted, therefore only small-scale machinery was practical. At one site, part of each plot was covered in heather brash as a secondary heather seed source in case of failure. Fortunately, the buried seed bank germinated in the first year, producing an abundance of heather seedlings as well as pill sedge, cross-leaved heath and, on one plot, crowberry. The plots that had been seeded with brash produced an abundance of heather seedlings and very little else. This suggests that heather brash is capable of suppressing the existing seed bank.
Turf-stripping has successfully and reliably restored Walsall's heaths, maintaining public confidence in the restoration programme. Its main drawbacks are cost, disposal of unwanted vegetation and the potential damage to fragile areas by heavy machinery.
To avoid the disposal of large volumes of turf and to reduce costs, we have recently (November 1995) trialed the BLEC Stoneburier, which inverts the turf, on 0.5 ha of heath. Possible drawbacks to turf inversion are that the buried turf will release nutrients, and the roots of any heather seedlings, once they have penetrated the inverted turf, may not survive.
Cutting Forage Harvester £1,176.20
All restoration work is being carefully recorded and assessed. Walsall MEC has contracted the University of Wolverhampton to assess soil nutrient levels in the stripped and inverted plots against nutrient levels within the undisturbed heath. The results of this analysis will be available in the summer of 1996 and will influence future decisions about the most suitable restoration method. The next step is to formulate techniques for the long-term management of the restored vegetation. Grazing and burning will be limited options, so some programme of periodic disturbance will be required.
I would like to thank Sue Sheppard (Project Officer Staffordshire and West Midlands Heathland Partnership), Professor Ian Trueman (University of Wolverhampton) and colleagues in Walsall Council for their constructive comments regarding this article.
Dave Haslam was the Nature Conservation Officer for Walsall Council.