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Centre for Earth and Environmental Science Research

Holocene Vegetation History of Lowland Heathlands in South East England

Executive Summary
ResearchersJon Groves, CEESR
Dr Martyn Waller, CEESR
Dr Michael Grant, CEESR
Dr Ed Schofield, Geography & Environment, University of Aberdeen
Funding Body/SourceKingston University
NERC Radiocarbon Dating Allocation: 1168.0406
NERC Radiocarbon Dating Allocation: 1140.1005
NERC Radiocarbon Dating Allocation: 1090.1004
DurationOctober 2002 - Ongoing
Project Summary

In lowland England, heathland (a form of vegetation dominated by dwarf shrubs belonging to the Ericaceae family) is confined to areas with acidic sandy soils. In south-east England this habitat type is largely found on the Cretaceous Greensands of the Weald and Tertiary deposits of the London Basin. The origins of lowland heathland have been much debated by ecologists over the last century (Webb, 1986). Early authors favoured a natural origin, with a combination of climatic and edaphic factors enabling members of the Ericaceae family to become the dominant vegetation. However, in the last 50 years the importance of human intervention, both in creating and maintaining lowland heathland, has been recognised, not least because tree invasion invariably accompanies the abandonment of management practices (such as grazing and burning). Heathlands are highly valued for a variety of reasons; these include their value as cultural landscapes, their historical associations, and their characteristic and frequently endangered biodiversity. They have been recognised as an important habitat at a national and European level (e.g. EU Habitats Directive) and many projects have been undertaken with the aim of conserving and restoring existing areas. Conservation strategies (the selection and management of sites) are often based on the assumption that heathland areas have been maintained for thousands of years by 'traditional' (those documented for the last few hundred years) land-use practices. This is mere conjecture, little is known of the long-term (Holocene) vegetation history of these areas.

The idea that the sandy lithologies of south-east England have sustained heathland over long periods is partially based on assumptions made by archaeologists. Despite possible sources of bias, the heavy concentrations of Mesolithic assemblages found, particularly on the Cretaceous Lower Greensand, are thought to be a reflection of the distribution of Mesolithic activity (e.g. Jacobi, 1978; Mellars & Reinhardt, 1978). Such an association is said to be a consequence of the well-drained soils, relatively open vegetation cover susceptible to fire and the availability of water sources. The early destruction of woodland has been widely inferred, though never convincingly demonstrated. The Lower Greensand in West Sussex appears to have been the focus of ritual activity during the early Bronze Age (c. 4000 BP) and several heathland sites contain groups of nucleated mounds dating to this period (Drewett, 1975; Drewett, 1976). The podsolised soils associated with this activity certainly imply the development of areas of heathland vegetation during the Bronze Age, though the belief that they have remained substantially open since this date is largely speculation.

Plan of Research

The project will make significant original contributions to knowledge in two main areas:

1) The identification, selection and analysis of sites which contain long term records of vegetation history from the sandy lithologies of south-east England.

2) The methods of data analysis, particularly the application to Holocene sequences of models developed from studies of modern pollen representation in fen carr environments (e.g. Waller, 1994; Binney et al., 2005; Bunting et al., 2005; Waller et al., 2005).

The project aims to elucidate the vegetational history of the acid lithologies of south-east England with particular reference to the origins of heathland communities. Comparative sites have been sought on the Tertiary beds of the London Basin and the Cretaceous sands of the Weald. Analysis of long Holocene sequences at Bagshot (adjacent to the Windlesham Formation of the Bracklesham Group in Surrey), Conford (adjacent to the Sandgate Formation of the Lower Greensand in Hampshire) and Hurston Warren (adjacent to the Folkestone Formation of the Lower Greensand near West Chiltington Common in West Sussex) are being undertaken.

Study Sites

Bagshot Conford Hurston Warren


Binney H.A., Waller M.P., Bunting M.J. & Armitage, R. (2005). The Interpretation of Fen Carr Pollen Diagrams: The Representation of the Dryland Vegetation. Review of Palaeobotany and Palynology, 134, 197-218.

Bunting M.J., Armitage R.A., Binney H.A., Waller M.P. (2005). Estimates of Relevant Source Area of Pollen Assemblages from Moss Polsters in Two Norfolk (UK) Woodlands. The Holocene, 15, 459-465.

Drewett P.L. (1975). The Excavation of a Turf Barrow at Minsted, West Sussex, 1973. Sussex Archaeological Collections, 113, 54-65.

Drewett P.L. (1976). The Excavation of Four Round Barrows of the Second Millennium B.C. at West Heath, Harting, 1973-1975. Sussex Archaeological Collections, 114, 126-150.

Jacobi R.M. (1978). The Mesolithic of Sussex. In: Drewett P.L. (ed.) Archaeology of Sussex to AD 1500. CBA Research Report 29, London.

Mellars P.A. & Reinhardt S.C. (1978). Patterns of Mesolithic Land-Use in Southern England: A Geological Perspective. In: Mellars P.A. (ed.) The Early Post-Glacial Settlement of Northern Europe. Duckworth, London.

Waller M.P. (1994). Paludification and Pollen Representation: The Influence of Wetland Size on Tilia Representation in Pollen Diagrams. The Holocene, 4, 430-434.

Waller M.P., Binney H., Bunting M.J., & Armitage R.A. (2005). The Interpretation of Fen Carr Pollen Diagrams: Pollen-Vegetation Relationships within Fen Carr. Review of Palaeobotany and Palynology, 133, 179-202.

Webb N. (1986). Heathlands. Collins, London.

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