Pebblebed Heaths becomes a National Nature Reserve, joining the UK’s ‘crown jewels of nature conservation’

The East Devon Pebblebed Heaths has received international acclaim after being presented with the much coveted declaration of National Nature Reserve.

The 1,160 hectare site makes up the largest expanse of lowland heath in Devon and will join a host of other National Nature Reserves (NNRs) across the UK.

NNRs are designated by Natural England and are acknowledged as rare and precious areas which protect some of our country’s most important habitats and the species which make them their home. There are more than 200 NNRs in England. The first NNRs were declared in the 1950s and today they support research, education and recreation, allowing people to enjoy and engage with our natural heritage.

The heaths have been dedicated for public access by Clinton Devon Estates since 1930 and largely come under its ownership. Since 2006 the site has been managed by the Pebblebed Heaths Conservation Trust which was set up by the Estate to promote, for the benefit of the public, the conservation, protection and improvement of the physical and natural environment of the heaths and the Otter Estuary.

Clinton Devon Estates is one of a new breed of private Estates making the commitment to NNRs, working closely with partners Devon Wildlife Trust and RSPB.

Tony Juniper CBE, Chair of Natural England, said: “National Nature Reserves – like the one I’m proud to help launch at East Devon Pebblebed Heaths – are often regarded as the UK’s ‘crown jewels of nature conservation’. Clinton Devon Estates demonstrates how a private estate can contribute to nature recovery and provide services for wildlife and the public, in addition to support for local businesses, through forestry, agriculture and recreation.

“Its own charitable body, the Pebblebed Heaths Conservation Trust (PHCT), has shown exemplary conservation management and the Estate’s ‘Space for Nature’ prospectus sets out a clear ambition to improve its wildlife habitat.

“With thousands of visitors, an active volunteer group run and a Friends of the Commons Group, the Pebblebed Heaths NNR is truly a place where people can connect with nature.” 

Lord Clinton proudly holds the NNR declaration certificate at the launch with (L-R) Dr Sam Bridgewater and John Varley (Clinton Devon Estates), Edrick Hopkinson (Devon Wildlife Trust), Kevin Cox (RSPB Chair), and Marian Spain and Tony Juniper CBE (Natural England).

At the heart of the heaths is a Site of Special Scientific Interest (SSSI), and the site is also a Special Area of Conservation (SAC) and a Special Protection Area (SPA).  These designations reflect the national and international importance of the East Pebblebed Heaths for wildlife and the exemplary wildlife management of the Heaths by Clinton Devon estates, Devon Wildlife Trust and RSPB.

A biodiversity audit in 2016 documented more than 3,000 species across the range of habitats on the heaths – and more than 10% of these have been shown to have high conservation value. Among the key species which benefit from the habitats the heaths provide are Dartford warblers, nightjars and the southern damselfly.

Dr Sam Bridgewater, Head of Wildlife and Conservation for Clinton Devon Estates, said: “The heaths have been loved by generations of people and attract around 400,000 visits a year. As well as providing space for some of our rarest species, they play an important role in supporting mental and physical health and wellbeing, providing contact with nature and a place to exercise, socialise and enjoy.

“Being granted National Nature Reserve status by Natural England is a recognition of the hard work not just of the staff of the three partner management organisations but the many volunteers who give so much of their time through groups such as the Friends of the Commons, all of which are invaluable.

“This declaration also helps ensure the future of the heaths and their wildlife because National Nature Reserves benefit from the highest level of conservation protection available under UK legislation.”

Due to the current Covid-19 restrictions, a virtual launch and celebration of the new NNR declaration will be held on Thursday 13th May. It will be chaired by RSPB Chairman of Council Kevin Cox.

Mr Cox said: “The RSPB applauds and welcomes the declaration of the East Devon Pebblebed Heaths as a National Nature Reserve. It is a really unique place, much loved by local people and visitors alike, that well deserves this national recognition.

“At Aylesbeare we have been involved in managing part of this special landscape for its wildlife since the 1980s, and would like to pay tribute to the great work of Clinton Devon Estates and the Pebblebed Heaths Conservation Trust who have done so much to protect and enhance it.  The heaths have long been a site of both UK and European importance, designated as a Special Protection Area and Site of Special Scientific Interest. These represent England’s “crown jewels” when it comes to nature.  This additional declaration is a reminder of the importance of statutory protections as we address the Nature and Climate Emergency and the need to keep such wonderful places in the best possible condition, for wildlife and people.”

Peter Burgess, Director of Nature Recovery at Devon Wildlife Trust, said: “Devon Wildlife Trust is delighted to see the launch of the East Devon Pebblebed Heaths National Nature Reserve. This declaration recognises the great value to local people and wildlife of this unique and beautiful landscape.

“In Venn Ottery and Bystock Pools Devon Wildlife Trust has for decades managed two nature reserves at the heart of the heaths. These special wildlife havens now occupy key positions within a wider landscape which has the protection of National Nature Reserve status. We look forward to working alongside local communities and with partners including the RSPB and Clinton Devon Estates to ensure that wildlife throughout this landscape flourishes now, and for generations to come.”

You can view the full recording of the NNR live online launch event, via the link at the bottom of this page. Read Countryside Matters magazine, an NNR Special, via the link below.

Countryside Matters NNR Special May 2021