Large parts of the higher ground on the Quantocks are covered with heath, which is generally considered a lowland habitat, and the most distinctive type of heathland on the Quantocks is Maritime Heath. This is composed of bell heather, ling heather, western gorse (smaller than common gorse), bilberry (known locally as whortleberry), and cross leafed heath. Between these coarser plants grow mosses, lichens and summer-flowering grasses and herbs, such as bristle-bent grass, tormentil and heath bedstraw.
The Quantock Hills are unique in Britain for having kept intact their entire coverage of this endangered habitat. However, the composition of the vegetation has changed. Most noticeably bracken is now covering larger areas and the non-native rhododendron has gained a foothold in some places. It is not known for certain why this change has happened; reduction in the number of grazing animals, climate change, the return of the heather beetle and long term natural cycles probably all have a part to play. What is certain is that, once lost, this habitat will be impossible to replace and so it needs to be carefully managed.
Heather grows in such a way that it eventually becomes derelict and woody. This old heather is ecologically valuable and should form part of the heath, however it can start to shade out its companion species and start to die off. Preventing this decline is the main point of management, and it has the added advantage of restoring its feeding value for grazing livestock. Management of the heather is achieved through 'Swaling', or controlled burning.
Planned swaling of the heather is carried out on selected areas during the winter months when both ground and weather conditions are right. It removes the woody undergrowth and encourages new growth, with the ash acting as a fertiliser. However, the effect of accidental summer fires, which are a constant threat, are different and can be quite damaging. Not only do summer fires present a real danger to wildlife during the breeding season but, since the ground is dry, they burn and kill the heather roots. This leaves large areas bare and open to invasion by problem species.
Bracken is a very successful and invasive plant. Although it provides a beneficial habitat to some species in its own right, over the past years it has started to colonise much larger areas. The danger is that it is shading out and killing off the heather, thus destroying the habitat for a much wider range of wildlife. Bracken has minimal feeding value - and it's not too good for walking through either!
The object of bracken management is to control its spread, and the methods used are rather different to those used on the heather. Bracken is a fern that grows from underground rhizomes which have a great ability to regenerate, which means they are difficult to get rid of - if you've ever tried to clear your garden of ground elder or bindweed you will understand the type of problem! Simply burning the bracken has little effect, in fact it can encourage new growth, although it is used for clearing bracken litter. Simply cutting the bracken yearly has no significant effect, although more frequent cutting can weaken it.
Bruising is recognised as the most effective method of controlling regeneration. If the fronds can be damaged so as to bleed sap the buds on the rhizomes are less able to produce rapid growth. Traditionally this was done by dragging a log behind a horse, or cattle allowed to trample on it. Recently a crimping machine has been used to make a more effective job. This has to be done twice a year and is not possible on the steeper gradients.
Spraying with herbicide is also undertaken and, although it was not the first choice of management technique, can be very effective. Indeed large areas of the Quantock Common have been sprayed from the air. A more recent development is the weed wiper, towed by a tractor or quad-bike, which allows closer targeting but is limited by terrain. Unfortunately it is difficult to rule out chemical control where bracken presents a serious threat to the heathland.
The threat posed by the beautiful rhododendron form Asia Minor is similar to that of bracken. It is very invasive, its dense foliage shades out lower growing plants and it is not compatible with native wildlife. Unchecked, it destroys valuable areas of rich habitat. Complete eradication of the rhododendron is not really a viable option and in some areas, such as Vinny Combe where it has a firm and attractive stronghold, its presence must be accepted. However this will remain as a large seed source that will continue to threaten the heath.
Rhododendron is controlled by pulling up (or roging)the young seedlings. Older bushes are cut low down and the stumps treated with herbicide. Medium sized bushes are sprayed directly. English nature supports the control of rhododendron in this was and have to approve the chemicals used and their method of application.