Coastal heathlands are one of the most distinctive and spectacular aspects of Jersey’s maritime environment. Developing largely on exposed cliff tops, our main areas of heathland are concentrated along the north coast, stretching eastwards from Les Landes, and in the extreme south-west of the island.
Heathlands are areas dominated by drought and fire-tolerant shrub vegetation such as heathers Calluna vulgaris and Erica cinerea, gorse Ulex gallii and broom Cytisus scoparius; they usually occur on sandy, low fertility acid soils. Much of Europe’s remaining heathland occurs in the British Isles, and the Jersey heaths are internationally important in ecological terms.
Although research indicates that some heathland areas may have had a largely natural origin, many probably developed after the original woodland cover was cleared to create farmland. The soils eventually proved to be too poor to support organised agriculture, and the land gradually turned into heathland. Despite this, heathland was definitely not regarded as useless wasteland; it was used for grazing (often by sheep), and as a valuable source of fuel. Gorse, for example, was traditionally used for firing baker’s ovens in Jersey, and bracken Pteridium aquilinum was also harvested for fuel and bedding. Heather honey is highly prized, and bee hives are still put out on some of Jersey’s heathland areas.
Heathlands can sometimes appear bleak and uninspiring during the winter months, but in spring and summer they erupt into a glorious sea of colour, as first the gorse, then the heathers, come into bloom, and the air is alive with buzzing insects. Many of these insects are species dependent on warm, sunny conditions which are seldom found elsewhere; they include the large and spectacular emperor moth Saturnia pavonia, whose caterpillars feed on heather, the striking blue-winged grasshopper Timarcha tenebricosa, the green tiger beetle Cicindela campestris and a variety of solitary bees and wasps which nest in dry sandy soils. Heathland warmth and sunshine is also favoured by reptiles, notably the green lizard Lacerta bilineata in Jersey, and breeding birds include the Dartford warbler Sylvia undata.
The biggest area of heathland in Jersey is at Les Landes in the north west, a site which supports over 200 plant species of which 56 have restricted distribution and a significant number are rare in a British context. Notable species include:
- Heath pearlwort Sagina subulata
- Spotted rock-rose Tuberaria guttata
- Sand crocus Romulea columnae
- Dodder Cuscuta epithymum
- Lesser skullcap Scutellaria minor
- Carnation sedge Carex panicea
- Common cotton-grass Eriophorum angustifolium
The wet area of Le Canné du Squez is a breeding site for the common toad Bufo bufo. Green lizards and slow worms Anguis fragilis also inhabit Les Landes.
Many bird species are recorded annually at Les Landes and the site is particularly important for:
- Peregrine falcon Falco peregrinus
- Skylark Alauda arvensis
- Meadow pipit Anthus pratensis
- Wheatear Oenanthe oenanthe
- Stonechat Saxicola rubecula
- Raven Corvus corax
- Dartford warbler Sylvia undata
- Common whitethroat Sylvia communis
- Linnet Carduelis cannabina
During the 20th Century, much of the heathland throughout Europe was lost to agricultural, forestry and building development. A large area of heathland at Le Don Paton was, for example, converted into farmland during the 1950s, prior to the land coming into the National Trust for Jersey’s ownership. This area is now being returned to heathland. The main threat to Jersey heathland today is lack of management. In the past, heathlands would have been managed by grazing with sheep and cattle or by cutting. The collection of gorse and bracken from the area was important in maintaining the area as well as in providing an essential resource to the people of the area. The loss of management may also be due in a large part to the historic downturn in the value to the Island of wool and the loss of this industry in Jersey.
This reduction in management of the habitat has had several undesirable results; bracken is increasing at the expense of heather on some Jersey heathlands, and in some areas, such as on Portelet Common in the south west, invading self-sown holm oaks Quercus ilex are a problem. Lack of management also leads to a build-up of dry, dead vegetation, resulting in very severe fires which may be locally disastrous for wildlife.
In order to maintain the biodiversity of this special area, management is vital. Tasks include:
- control of bracken to prevent it becoming dominant (especially in burnt areas);
- coppicing of gorse to create an uneven age and height structure, thus maintaining important bird habitats and ensuring that gorse does not dominate over heathers;
- creating differing age structures of gorse and exposing some bare soil for the solitary bees and wasps;
- species monitoring;
- site patrolling;
- encouraging heather re-growth where erosion has been excessive and some pathways may be temporarily closed.
Accidental furze fires can seriously damage heathland. Management today is aimed at minimising the impact of fire by encouraging a mosaic of vegetation at various stages of development. Each stage helps maintain the biodiversity of the site.
Self-guided walks at heathland sites
Leaflets detailing walks at the following Jersey heathland sites can be downloaded: