Conserving Exmoor's Heather Moorland


Exmoor National Park has teamed up with the Exmoor Hill Farming Network, National Trust and the Somerset and Devon Fire & Rescue Service to raise awareness of the need to seasonally burn the moorland to conserve the habitat and cut risk of summer wildfires.

Together they are hosting a special walk this Friday 16th November for people to find out more about the centuries-old practice - known locally as swaling – and its role in moorland management.

Exmoor Hill Farming Network Chairman Dave Knight, who is hosting the walk at his farm on the National Trust’s picturesque Holnicote Estate, said: “My family have farmed this land for over a hundred years and swaling has long been an important part of the toolkit used to regenerate the moor ready for grazing in the summer. This walk is open to anyone interested in discussing the issues and I look forward to welcoming as many people as possible.”

Moors are a rich mosaic of habitats, the rarest of which is heather moorland, which is globally scarcer than rainforest. But since the end of World War II, the UK’s heather moorland has been in steep decline despite efforts to protect it as a Site of Special Scientific Interest (SSSI). On Exmoor the area of heather has decreased by around 40 per cent in the past forty years.

The reasons for this aren’t fully understood, but there is evidence that changes to traditional moorland management practices, such as a reduction in swaling and grazing animals, may be partly to blame.

Exmoor National Park Ranger, Tim Parish, said: “The swaling season takes place each year between October and March, when farmers and land managers burn small targeted areas of less than 10 hectares at a time. The heat and smoke help to germinate heather seed and stimulate fresh growth in the spring, creating a mosaic of different aged heather that is ideal for grazing livestock and moorland wildlife.

“Without regular burning, the heather moorland would be slowly replaced with gorse, bracken and trees, and this delicate habitat would be lost forever, along with its rare wildlife and heritage.”

Firefighter Adrian Woollaston, from Somerset and Devon Fire Service, said: “There is a lot of misunderstanding about the use of burning in the management of heather moorland and we welcome this chance to highlight its role in reducing the risk of uncontrolled fires. Keeping on top of the burning cycle is important to limit the build-up of flammable woody material and prevent potentially catastrophic wildfires during the dryer months.”

To join the Swaling Walk, meet at Bossington Hill Car Park (SS910476) at 2pm – no need to book. Please wear suitable outdoor footwear and clothing. The event is free, but donations to CareMoor for Exmoor are welcome. For more information contact Heather Harley on or 01398 322277.


Published: 12 November 2018

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Ailsa Stevens
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