Step 1: Understand the basics about key habitats
We take pride in our natural environment here in Cornwall.
It’s at the core of our identity and heritage and is globally renowned for its beautiful land and seascapes.
Many areas of Cornwall are nationally and globally important conservation sites. Farmland is a vital feature of Cornwall’s rural heritage, community and economy; three-quarters of Cornwall’s land is used for farming. It’s useful to understand habitat types within your area – which ones do you notice on land within your local community?
Habitats are: the natural homes or environments of animals, plants, or other organisms.
Woodland habitats are dominated by trees, forming a closed canopy. Woodlands are made up of three distinct layers:
- The ‘canopy’ layer, which is the mature trees creating the overarching canopy of the woodland.
- The ‘understory’ which is made up of younger trees and scrub.
- The field layer and ground layer; these include ferns, grasses, flowering plants and mosses.
Woodlands can lock away carbon for centuries in their timber and soil, helping to combat climate change; mature woodlands are most effective at being ‘carbon sinks’. Woodland can also help prevent flooding, prevent soil erosion, and reduce pollution. Mature woodland is an important habitat because of the range of plants, animals, birds, invertebrates and fungi it can support.
Species often found in woodland include: badgers, deer, dormice, birds (such as wood warblers, wood peckers and crossbills) and woodland specialist bat species.
Grasslands come in two basic forms:
- Species poor grassland: these have been fertilised and improved for agriculture or planted for amenity use (such as sports pitches or parks).
- Species rich grassland: these are mown or grazed but are managed with little or no inputs of fertilisers or herbicides.
The type of grassland depends on the soil type; these include neutral grassland, calcareous grassland, acid grassland and wet grassland.
Species rich grassland are what they say on the tin; they support a range of species including important and rare plant species, invertebrates, pollinators, butterflies and moths, reptiles, amphibians, small mammals, bats and birds. Species rich grassland can also help with water storage and retention, prevent erosion of soils, lock away pollutants and sequester carbon!
A wetland is an area of land that is either covered by water, or ‘saturated’ with water. This can be seasonally or permanently. This water might come from streams, rivers, tidal flows, groundwater or rainfall.
Wetlands can be split into two main groups:
- Vegetated areas of land – where water stands at or near the land surface for a long enough period each year to support wetland plants. These include reedbeds, bogs and fens.
- Freshwater open waterbodies – such as lakes, ponds, rivers or streams.
They do amazing things; as well as serving as havens for plants, insects, birds and mammals, they clean water, store water, are vital natural flood defences and store carbon.
The types of species that wetlands support include: large numbers of waterfowl; water voles; otters, fish, dragonflies, damselflies and other invertebrates; amphibians and a range of rare and important plant species such as sphagnum mosses.
Our wetlands have been degraded through drainage, development, pollution, encroachment and peat-cutting. In Cornwall, wetlands are widespread but often fragmented.
Examples of wetlands in Cornwall include:
- Peatland bogs, common on Bodmin and Goss Moors
- Swamps and reedbed such as those found at Marazion Marsh and Gunwalloe
- Culm grassland found in the north east of Cornwall on the border with Devon
- Watercourses in Cornwall include the rivers Camel, Gannel and Hayle.
- Loe pool is Cornwall’s largest natural lake.
Heathland is the name given to wide open landscapes dominated by low-growing shrubs, such as gorse, heather and the heathland grasses that give it its name. Heathland has only a few trees and no herbaceous plants. Despite it looking ‘wild’, heathland has to be managed in order to stop it from developing into woodland.
Heathland plants (predominantly heather) support many distinctive reptiles, birds, lichens and species.
Heathland has been fragmented, as it has often been converted to other land uses, or naturally taken over by woodland or grassland. Heathland species, especially breeding birds are vulnerable to recreational disturbance.
Within Cornwall, there is extensive heathland:
- In West Penwith
- On Bodmin Moor
- On the Lizard Peninsula
English hedgerows are linear, man-made landscape features that connect habitats such as isolated patches of woodland, scrub and grasslands. Ancient hedgerows are important for biodiversity and are typically species rich.
Cornish hedges have been around for about four thousands of years, and there are about 30,000 miles of Cornish hedges in the county. They are surrounded by a stone face, making the hedge extremely resilient. Behind this stone face is a tightly compacted soil. The tops of Cornish hedges are often populated with trees, shrubs and other plants. Cornish hedges act as habitats and wildlife corridors, to allow species such as adders, harvest mice and bats to move safely from one habitat to another.
Cornish hedges are under more threat now than ever before. They’re not classed as ‘hedgerows’ and therefore not offered protection under the Hedgerow Regulations 1997. However, they need constant repairs to their structure, which requires time, money and expert craftsmanship.
Three quarters of Cornwall’s land is used for farming. Farmland is dominated by fields used for crops and livestock, but also includes other habitats such as woodland, health, orchards, ponds and hedges. Over three quarters of Cornwall’s farm businesses involve animal agriculture and arable cropping that supports it.
Types of farmland include:
- Arable: Arable land is land used to grow short term crops like cereals and potatoes. Intensive use of chemicals has led to a decline in vulnerable plant species on these pieces of land, such as cornflowers.
- Pasture: Pasture is enclosed grassland fields used to graze domesticated livestock throughout the year. Use of fertilisers and the planting of specific
- Hedgerows: Hedgerows often border fields used for agriculture. English hedgerows are linear, man-made landscape features that connect habitats such as isolated patches of woodland, scrub and grasslands. Ancient hedgerows are important for biodiversity and are typically species rich.
There are ways in which we can manage farmland for wildlife. Restoring habitats on farmland helps stop soil erosion, support pollination, and regulate air and water quality.
Our coastline here in Cornwall is iconic. Much of our coastal fringe is made up of beaches, dunes, estuaries, strandlines, and rocky shore habitats.
The coast in Cornwall is home to many important lichen, plant, insect and bird species. Our cliff vegetation is vital for species like nesting seabirds and there are many nationally important dunes at sites like Penhale, Padstow and the Towans that host important fungal, liverwort and plant communities.
The coastal strip is also a valuable foraging site for small mammals and bats. Hayle and Gwithian Towans support approximately 1/5 of Cornwall’s plant species. Habitats thriving between the tides also include extensive rocky reefs, mobile sands, saltmarshes & mudflats.
Urban habitats are those developed and shaped by humans and are generally found in towns and cities. We can work together to make them more ecologically diverse. Types of urban habitat include:
- Private Gardens/ Allotments: gardens and allotments can offer refuges for wildlife in the urban environment.
- Amenity Grassland/ Open Greenspaces: these are types of grassland that are closely mown and are used primarily for recreational purposes, such as sports pitches and parks. These are generally species poor due to extensive fertiliser and pesticide use, as well as intensive management regimes that discourage species diversity.
- Roadside Verges: these can act as important connections between habitats, allowing a range of species to travel to and inhabit in new areas. Roadside verges can be managed in the same way as grassland meadows, and support over 700 wildflower species in the UK.
- Brownfield: Brownfield land is land that has previously been developed upon and is now not currently in use. Whilst these pieces of land may seem devoid of nature, the lack of human intervention on them means that they are often excellent places of some insects and reptiles, with lots of opportunities for foraging and shelter. They are made up of ‘successional habitats’ – habitats in the first stage of a habitat’s journey to becoming a forest. Therefore, they are very important.
Urban habitats have a variety of benefits for nature: they can sustain biodiversity in heavily developed areas; provide connectivity between habitats; support species such as hedgehogs, foxes, badgers and some bat species; improve air quality and reduce surface water runoff, flooding and pollution levels.
These habitats are ones that are more likely to be surrounding and within residential areas – and where we as local communities can make a difference.