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Nature Features

You are in: Devon > Nature > Nature Features > A 240 million-year-old gem

Woodbury Common

Woodbury Common - part of the heathland

A 240 million-year-old gem

A new conservation trust has been set up to help protect the future of the prehistoric East Devon Pebblebed Heaths.

The unique East Devon Pebblebed Heaths may be right here in the South West of England, but their origins were actually in France.

The Triassic pebbles which are such an amazing feature, miles inland from the East Devon coast, were dumped from a river bed during a major geological event some 240 million years ago.

And the pebbles aren't just just on the surface of the heathland: they extend down 30 metres.

The pebblebed heaths are 7km from end to end, and they cover 2,800 acres. They form a Site of Special Scientific Interest, a Special Area of Conservation, and are in the East Devon Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty.

The heathland is made up of several areas which are all next to each other, including Woodbury Common, Aylesbeare Common and Colaton Raleigh Common.

Pebble path on Woodbury Common

The pebbles go down 30 metres

This lowland heath is among the rarest habitats not just in Britain, but globally - and dozens of key species love it.

During the summer, more than 30 types of butterfly wing their way here, along with 21 species of damselfly - including the rare southern damselfly.

Birds also set up home on the heathland - the area is particularly well known for its population of Dartford warbler.

The plant life is equally special, with sundew and pale butterwort among those on show.

The pebblebed heaths have had an exciting history, and it's hoped they will also have a good future, with the setting up of a new charitable conservation trust to help protect them.

The East Devon Pebblebed Heaths Conservation Trust has been created by the landowners, Clinton Devon Estate. The trust's area also takes in the picturesque Otter Estuary.

The heaths have been in the estate's ownership since the 17th century, but the independent charitable trust will be able to tap into more funding and backing from environmental bodies.

One of the trustees is Professor Denys Brunsden, who successfully led the bid for the Jurassic Coast in East Devon and Dorset to be designated a World Heritage Site. Another is renowned ornithologist Pete Gotham.

Estates director John Varley is also a trustee of the new trust. He says the pebblebed heaths are a natural treasure and they need to be looked after.

John Varley

John Varley says the heathland faces challenges

"The flora and fauna is very special, and not just to Devon but are of global importance.

"We want to be more transparent, with the community, agencies and environmental groups. The trust will provide a strategic steer for the future.

"It has already been awarded a High Level Stewardship Scheme by Natural England (formerly English Nature). We're probably one of the first and one of the biggest to get that."

John says there are big challenges ahead for the heaths: "This is a Triassic site and is low in nutrients so the indigenous species probably won't be as affected by climate change as in other areas - although the migratory species might be affected.

"But it's not just climate change. There are other challenges as well. The increasing population in East Devon will put more pressure on the heaths. It's a popular recreational area for walkers, cyclists and riders.

"There are 240 million years of fascinating history here - the prehistoric history and the social history. We want the community to enjoy it, and we will be working with schools and universities.

"The more people understand it, the more they'll look after it."

To mark the launch of the trust in July 2007, a book was specially commissioned from author and BBC wildlife film maker Andrew Cooper.

Andrew Cooper

Andrew Cooper has written a book about the heaths

Andrew, who was born and bred in Devon, was amazed to learn so many new things during his 12 month research into the pebblebed heaths.

"It's just the extent of the place," he said. "It's one of the largest areas of intact lowland heath in southern England.

"As a consequence, we have real rarities such as the Dartford warbler, as well as bog plants and heath plants.

"And the views! I can't think of any other lowland heath in Britain where you have such fine views of the sea and the estuaries. You can appreciate why they built castles here with the views all around.

"The heaths here have such an amazing story to tell."

* East Devon Pebblebed Heaths - 240 million years in the making, by Andrew Cooper is published by Impress Books, price 14.99.

last updated: 21/02/2008 at 15:43
created: 19/07/2007

You are in: Devon > Nature > Nature Features > A 240 million-year-old gem

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