“ You can enjoy a walk along firm paths over quiet heathland here and have a chance of seeing Dartford warblers and stonechats in summer. The woodland fringes, streams and ponds abound with butterflies, dragonflies and damselflies. Stay late on a summer evening to see nightjars at dusk. „
Heathland is one of the rarest and most spectacular landscapes the British Isles has to offer. We have unfortunately lost over 80% of this special habitat in the last two hundred years, but the remainder makes up over 20% of the total remaining healthland in the world.
As is the case which much of the countryside, the residual heaths are under threat from mismanagement and conversion to other uses. In our crowded islands, there is always pressure to convert heathland to farmland or space for housing.
We are fortunate that some of our heaths are controlled by conservation bodies such as the National Trust and the RSPB, so hopefully protected for future generations. One of the largest and most accessible tracts of heath is owned by the RSPB: Aylesbeare Common in Devon.
The common is easy to get to. From Junction 30 of the M5, follow the A3052 towards Lyme Regis for around six miles. The reserve is just off the A road. There is ample parking on the side of the minor road that cuts through the common, but there are no other facilities on site.
The underlying landscape of the common is truly ancient. Forming part of the East Devon Pebblebeds, a massive desert river laid down huge deposits of rounded pebbles over 200 million years ago. These pebbles (known locally as 'pobbles') can be seen at the sides of the paths on the common.
The best time to visit the common is spring or summer. It's then that the flowering plants will be at their best. Two common plants dominate the heath; heather and gorse. Carpets of pink heather compete for attention with bushes of brilliant yellow gorse. The result is a dazzling display that seems to glow even on the cloudiest days. Much rarer flowers abound; bog asphodel, heath milkwort, heath dog violet and the insect-eating sundew.
There are many paths that wind through the heather and the largest is reported to be suitable for wheelchairs. This path takes the visitor to the heart of the common, but there are plenty of other paths to explore taking in some of the other habitats the common has to offer. A small woodland can be found here, and there are many small pools and streams with boggy areas to trap the unwary.
With the reserve covering a massive 251 hectares, it never seems crowded. With the winding nature of the paths, and the undulating terrain, it's easy to feel that you have the whole reserve to yourself. Despite the proximity of roads and towns, the centre of the heath has a real wilderness feel due to the isolation and the knowledge that the landscape has not changed for hundreds of years.
The views can be far ranging, with the colourful splendour of the heath fading into the distance and lovely views towards Sidmouth Gap and Mutters Moor. The sea is visible from the highest areas as a distant blue glimmer.
In spring and summer, the heath is rarely quiet, but it's the natural sounds that dominate. The monotonous, disyllabic call of the cuckoo is common here, turtle doves purr from the woodland, yellowhammers sing "a little bit of bread and no cheeeeeeesssse" constantly from the gorse bushes, and warblers and other songbirds compete for a mate from the shelter of the scrub.
Many rare birds make their home here, but the site is famous for two in particular. The gorgeous little Dartford Warbler is common and can often be seen perched on a bush. The other rare resident can only be encountered during the dusk and dark periods. The nightjar is an amazing bird which displays in the evening to nightfall, with only two white patches on his wing showing, whilst 'churring' an eerie, incredibly atmospheric sound in the gloaming.
Butterfly enthusiasts will love this site, with over 30 species being found here including the silver studded blue and silver washed fritillary. Dragonflies are very common, too, with over 18 species living here. The dragonflies live in constant danger as the hobby, a spectacular falcon, hunts them down on the wing here.
Less likely to be seen, but still common are four species of reptiles. Adder, slow worm, common lizard, and grass snake may be spotted sunning themselves in the morning if you're lucky (and quiet).
A whole morning or afternoon is needed to explore the network of paths on the site. Heathland is a wonderful habitat and visitors are sure to be affected by the open wildness of the place and will hopefully see many of the rare inhabitants of the common.
For summer visitors to Devon looking for a place to stretch their legs, Aylesbeare Common offers a scenic insight into the ancient and natural history of the British Isles.