1. Top of page
  2. Abstract
  6. Acknowledgments

Many lowland heathlands have been designated as Special Protection Areas under the European Union Birds Directive as they support populations of bird species of European importance listed in Annex I of the Directive, including Nightjar Caprimulgus europaeus, Woodlark Lullula arborea and Dartford Warbler Sylvia undata. Many lowland heaths are near to human settlements and are heavily used as open spaces by those living nearby. A number of past visitor surveys have established the range of uses to which urban heaths are subject, and the attitudes of those who use them. We have collated a number of these visitor surveys, many of which are unpublished reports relating to single sites, in order to provide a broad summary of access to heathlands. The majority of visitors to urban and suburban lowland heaths visit sites regularly and live nearby (within 5 km). A large proportion of visitors drive to sites and dog walking is the usual purpose for a visit. Visits are typically short, with the average dog walker travelling less than 2.5 km on the heath. Dog walkers typically stay on the paths, but most let their dog off the lead and consider it important to be able to do so. On large regionally or nationally known rural sites such as the New Forest, more visitors are day trippers and tourists, fewer are dog walkers, they stay for longer and their reasons for visiting differ from those of local residents. The information presented here is relevant in helping to inform decisions on the location of new housing development, and mitigating the impacts of existing and new settlements, as well as helping the heathland manager to make provision for visitors in ways that are most compatible with wildlife conservation.

Many lowland heathlands have been designated as Special Protection Areas (SPAs) under the EU Directive on the Conservation of Wild Birds (‘The Birds Directive’) as they support populations of bird species of European importance listed on Annex I of the Directive. There are three rare and vulnerable breeding bird species of lowland heaths listed on Annex I, the Nightjar Caprimulgus europaeus, Woodlark Lullula arborea and Dartford Warbler Sylvia undata. These species seem to be more dependent on heathland for breeding in the UK than in Europe (Tucker & Heath 1994). Lowland heaths hold over 40% of Britain's breeding Nightjars and Woodlarks and almost all the breeding Dartford Warblers (Morris et al. 1994, Gibbons & Wotton 1996, Wotton & Gillings 2000). Studies have shown that disturbance from humans and dogs affects all three species; effects can include changes in nesting distribution, lower breeding densities and reduced breeding success (Liley & Clarke 2002, 2003, Murison 2002, Mallord 2005, Murison et al. 2007).

Lowland heathland is often located close to major centres of human populations. For example, the conurbations of Bournemouth and Poole are adjacent to the Dorset Heaths and the Thames Basin Heaths are close to towns such as Reading, Guildford and Woking. Many heathland sites have a history of de facto open access (Norrington 1998) and the Countryside and Rights of Way Act 2000 (CRoW Act) gave the public a statutory right of access to most heathland (Bathe 2007). At the RSPB heathland reserve at Arne in Dorset, where visitor numbers are recorded annually, these increased by 65% to 56 200 in the 14 years to 2003 (RSPB unpublished Arne Annual Reports 1990–2003). Visitor numbers to such heathland sites can therefore be high, and the problems associated with high visitor pressure have been clearly documented (De Molinaar 1988, Haskins 2000, Underhill-Day 2005).

Settlement patterns of ground-nesting birds may be restricted by high levels of human disturbance (Liley 1999, Liley & Sutherland 2007), or the birds’ productivity may be reduced (Murison et al. 2007). One study estimated an increase of 13–48% in the breeding population of Woodlarks over 16 heathland sites if disturbance was to be removed, although the same study found that simply increasing visitors without altering their spatial distribution seemed likely to have little effect on this species (Mallord 2005).

The evidence suggests that between about 40 and 60% of heathland visitors know of the importance of heathland habitat and its wildlife, but fewer than 40% are aware of the European importance of such sites for birds (Atlantic Consultants 1998, 2003).

As part of their response to visitor impacts, heathland managers might seek to minimize these through manipulation of visitor behaviour through changes in the location and character of access points, by making some heathland routes more or less attractive to some types of user and by improving the presentation of available information or by education initiatives. Off-site, planners might seek to provide alternative open spaces to encourage heathland users to go elsewhere. In either case, this begs a range of questions on where heathland users come from, why they come to the heaths, where they go and what they do, once there.

This paper seeks to review existing studies of access patterns on heathlands. We were aware of a number of access studies produced for single sites, often to help planners make decisions regarding development. Other studies have been commissioned in order to monitor tourists and in addition some recent work has been commissioned by English Nature to look at visitor behaviour across entire SPAs. We seek to bring these together to describe typical heathland access patterns, and we focus on those patterns which will be of most relevance to those involved with planning decisions or the management of access on sites important for Annex I birds.


  1. Top of page
  2. Abstract
  6. Acknowledgments

A number of unpublished studies of visitor patterns on heathlands were already known to us. In order to ensure a thorough review, we looked for visitor studies on English heathlands using the ISI Web of Knowledge using search terms synonymous with visitors and heathlands. No studies were found. We also searched the internet, using standard search engines, and contacted heathland owners, managers and advisers.

We were able to locate heathland visitor surveys from Staffordshire, Surrey, Sussex, Hampshire, Dorset and Devon and on a range of urban and rural sites, ranging from Sandford Heath SSSI in Dorset (50 ha) with 53 respondents to the New Forest (c. 20 000 ha) with 3000 respondents (University of Portsmouth 1996, Smith 2000, Turner 2000, Stride 2001, RSPB 2003, Crest Nicholson 2004, MORI 2004, Wealden District Council 2004). All studies found were included in the review.

Visitor studies on individual sites were conducted either by site managers, site owners or consultants, often commissioned by developers to conduct an Environmental Assessment. These studies typically varied in the reason why they were commissioned, the methods used, the sample size (number of interviews, number of access points) and in the depth of analysis.

More recently, three wider ranging studies have been conducted, which compare visitor levels across sites and allow comparisons and broad conclusions to be made on access patterns (Rose & Clarke 2005, Clarke et al. in press, Liley et al. in press). The analysis by Rose and Clarke (2005) was linked to a project across the urban heaths in Dorset under which urban heathland wardens were funded by the LIFE Programme of the European Union. This programme covered 18 different heaths and the analysis was based on interviews carried out by wardens as part of their normal daily duties. Date, time and location for the interviews was not predetermined or structured, and no information on survey effort was recorded. Interviews were carried out between 11:00 and 20:00 h during July–September 2003.

Studies by Clarke et al. (in press) and Liley et al. (in press) used questionnaire data that included information on where visitors had travelled from and the routes they took on the heaths, based on 20 and 26 access points, respectively. Both studies used the same methodology, with samples taken on heaths in both urban and rural areas at a range of access types from large car parks to pedestrian-only access points. Sampling was carried out for a total of 8 h on a weekday and again on a weekend day, split into four 2-h periods. Sampling was carried out between August and October 2004 (Clarke et al. in press) and in August 2005 (Liley et al. in press).

We use the distinction of single-site and multiple-site studies to structure our review. The multisite studies allow direct comparison between sites, whereas the studies of single sites show a marked variation in technique and approach, and comparisons are drawn as and where possible.


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  2. Abstract
  6. Acknowledgments

Single-site studies

The results from visitor studies on single heathland sites are summarized in Table 1. The proportion of visitors who arrived on foot varied from almost none to 100%. This depended on the location of the site in relation to local settlements and the type of visitors. Sites with a high proportion of visitors arriving by car were those that can draw people from a considerable distance. These sites, such as the New Forest, Cannock Chase and Ashdown Forest, are large, regionally or nationally known, and would therefore be expected to attract visitors from a wide catchment. In the New Forest study, it was noted that most residents used their cars, often to visit less frequented parts of the Forest which were not well known to tourists, and that they visited more often but for a shorter duration than tourists or day visitors (University of Portsmouth 1996). At Woolmer Forest in Hampshire and Sandford Heath in Dorset, where settlements immediately adjoined access points to the heaths and parking was very limited, most visitors arrived on foot, but at sites more distant from settlements, such as Winfrith in Dorset and Bourley in Hampshire, the majority arrived by vehicle (Stride 2001, RSPB 2003, MORI 2004).

Table 1.  Visitor studies on heathlands.
 Site area (ha)No. of respondentsArriving percentage of all usersMean distance travelled on heathPercentage walkers off tracksPercentage dogs off leadSource
On foot/ by carChildren*Walkers with dogsWalkers without dogs
  • *

    Children with or without dogs.

Ashdown Forest, E. Sussex         Wealden DC (2004)
 All2590 218  1/99241729    
 Local residents (29%)   63  3/97 41     
Bourley & Long Valley 7992266 11/7612.47115< 800 m 8% 800–3200 m 42% > 3200 m 41%42 95MORI (2004)
Cannock Chase, Staffs.  68 km21002 14/81 82259   Smith (2000)
Chobham Common, Surrey 647 882  5842   89Crest Nicholson (2004)
Haldon, Devon1360 116       Turner (2000)
 Heath  60  45  5612    
 Forest1300  71  2044    
New Forest, Hants. 200 km2        U of Portsmouth (1996)
 All 3000  1/92 2149    
 Local residents (22%)  660  42     
Sandford, Dorset   53100/0 71 < 500 m 12% 500–1000 m 21% > 1000 m 67% 8100Stride (2001)
Winfrith, Dorset 145 106  8/89 68 < 500 m 5% 500–1000 m 16% > 1000 m 79%11 Stride (2001)
Woolmer Forest, Hants.1294 129 91/9 92 2  100RSPB (2003)

The only single-site study to give comprehensive data on the distances that people had travelled to visit the heath was for Bourley in Hampshire (MORI 2004). Of all visitors, 16% had travelled less than 800 m, 30% less than 1600 m, 57% less than 3200 m and 71% less than 4800 m to the heathland access point. Of those that had travelled less than 800 m to the site, 55% were walkers, 38% were drivers and 7% were cyclists. Of visitors who had travelled more than 800 m but less than 1600 m to the site, 89% were drivers, only 5% were walkers and 6% were cyclists, and 95% of those who had travelled more than 1600 m were drivers. The proportion of children among visitors varied between 8 and 24%. At Cannock, although only 3% of all visitors arrived by bicycle, 34% of all children were on bicycles (Smith 2000).

At most sites dog walking and walking were the main reasons given for visiting but in the New Forest and at Ashdown Forest, where visitors were divided between local residents and tourists, only 8–15% of tourists but over 40% of residents were dog walkers. Tourists were more likely to stay longer and to have come to camp, caravan, picnic and have barbecues than residents (University of Portsmouth 1996).

The proportion of respondents who gave walking as their main reason for visiting varied widely between sites, with no clear patterns. At most sites, walkers and dog walkers made up 60–100% of those questioned. The low proportion of these users at Ashdown was explained as possibly due to the way visiting was recorded; some of those questioned were sightseeing in their cars, and so visited the car parks but not the heaths (Wealden District Council 2004).

The results from Haldon showed a marked difference between the main reasons for visiting heath and forest, with 56% of respondents visiting the heath to walk their dogs, but only 20% of those visiting the forest doing so. Visitors to heathland were also more likely to go alone, were older and visited more often than those who visited the forest (Turner 2000).

At Bourley, 8% of visitors travelled less than 800 m on the heath, 42% between 800 and 3200 m and 41% over 3200 m (there were no data for the remaining 9%). Where visitors were asked if they left the paths, about 10% did so in Dorset and 42% left the main tracks at Bourley.

Finally, it was clear from all studies where it was recorded that most dog walkers let their dogs off the lead, and at Bourley, when asked, 94% of dog walkers thought it was important that they should be able to do so (MORI 2004).

Multisite studies

The results of three collective studies undertaken on a number of heaths are summarized in Table 2. From these, over 90% of all visitors arrived on foot or by vehicle and between about 10–20% of visitors were children. On the Dorset urban heaths (Rose & Clark 2005), 54% of visitors arrived on foot and 37% by car, but across a larger sample of both urban and rural heaths in the county (Clarke et al. in press), only 36% arrived on foot and 59% by car. There is a much higher use of cars (83%) to visit the Thames Basin Heaths (Liley et al. in press).

Table 2.  Results from generic visitor studies on heathlands.
 Dorset Urban Heaths (Rose & Clarke 2005)Dorset Heaths (Clarke et al. in press)Thames Basin Heaths (Liley et al. in press)
  • *

    Other arrivals by motor bike, pedal bike, horse.

  • Children with or without dogs.

Site area (ha)   – 4582 8400
Number of respondents  193  632 1144
Arriving: % on foot/by car*54/3736/5913/83
% children 19.5    9   16
% walkers with dogs   45   80   59
% walkers without dogs   14   10   32
Mean distance travelled Dog walkers 2181 ± 612 mDog walkers 2508 ± 1319 m
on heath (± sd) Others 2522 ± 1417 mOthers 2838 ± 1023 m

Overall, about half the users were dog walkers. Rose and Clarke (2005) found that 80% of dog walkers visited once a day, whereas only 30% of other heath users visited daily. Clarke et al. (in press) found that 90–94% of dog walkers let their dogs off the lead. This study also found that although nearly 80% of dog walkers stay on the main tracks and paths, 47% of their dogs went off the paths and tracks onto the heath and the numbers of dogs leaving the paths tended to be higher where there were more than two dogs together.

Both Clarke et al. (in press) and Liley et al. (in press) obtained information from visitors on where they had been on the heath, by questioning them as they left the heath, helped by maps and aerial photographs. On the Dorset heaths, there was no significant difference in the distance walked on the heaths between those who arrived by car or on foot (Clarke et al. in press). On the Dorset heaths, dog walkers travel an average of 2181 m, less than other users (2489 m). On the Thames Basin heaths, the mean length of route for dog walkers was 2500 m, more than walkers and picnickers (2300 and 1200 m, respectively), but less than joggers, cyclists and horse riders (3900, 4900 and 3200 m, respectively) (Liley et al. in press). In Dorset, dog walkers typically walked a circular route and on average penetrated no more than 700 m out onto the heath (Clarke et al. in press).

Clarke et al. (in press) and Liley et al. (in press) also asked visitors to give their postcode, allowing comparative straight line measurements to be made between their point of origin and the heathland access point they used. In Dorset 68% and on the Thames Basin heaths 63% of people gave a full postcode. Of the remainder, in Dorset 16% and on the Thames basin heaths 33% gave the first half of their postcode (the postcode stem). In both cases, where the recorded distances for all visitors to a particular access point from places with the same postcode stem was relatively small, the missing distances from the same stem postcode to the same heath were set to the median of the observed distances. However, this made little difference to the distribution of distances travelled, so analysis in both cases was based on estimated distances to the access points based only on full postcodes. The cumulative distances visitors travelled to the access point by car and on foot are given in Table 3. In both studies, fewer than 10% of visitors arriving by car had travelled less than 1 km, with about 50% travelling between 3 and 5 km and a small proportion over 10 km. Some 80–90% of walkers travelled less than 1 km, but with a marked difference between the Dorset and Thames Basin heaths, with the latter tending to travel further on foot, such that Clarke et al. (in press) reported that 75% of Dorset visitors walked less than 500 m but only half those reported by Liley et al. (in press) did so. Clarke et al. (in press) also noted that the median distance travelled to heaths with no parking provision was 400 m, but where parking was available the median distance travelled was nearly 4 km. In both studies, calculations showed that the proportion of local residents who visited the heaths declined with increasing distance from the heaths.

Table 3.  Cumulative percentage of visitors travelling different distances by vehicle and on foot to access the Dorset heaths.
 Distance travelled (km) to reach site
< 0.3< 0.4< 0.5< 1.0< 1.5< 2.0< 3.0< 5.0< 5.3< 10.0
By car/van
 Clarke et al. (in press) 0  2 8 3143 7598
 Liley et al. (in press) 0 1 2 920   70  
On foot
 Clarke et al. (in press)44 7589 9295   
 Liley et al. (in press)3040517990  100  


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  2. Abstract
  6. Acknowledgments


The studies reviewed here had varied objectives, used different sampling methods and asked a range of questions. In a number of studies, the sampling may have been unrepresentative as some samples were small and sampling times may have missed significant user groups. For example, on the Dorset urban heaths (Rose & Clarke 2005), the proportion of dog walkers recorded (45%) might have been higher if the survey had extended to early mornings when many people exercise their dogs before going to work (Barnard 2003, RSPB 2003).

The location of the questioner is also important. When questioning is undertaken only at access points where visitors are able to arrive by car, arrivals on foot from other access points (e.g. from back gardens adjoining the heath) might be overlooked.

The phrasing of questions and consistency of approach is all-important in visitor surveys. The indication that a much higher proportion of interviewees went off the paths at Bourley compared with Dorset may have been a result of the phrasing of the question. In Dorset, visitors were asked if they had been off the paths, whereas at Bourley, they were asked if they had gone off the main tracks in the area. At Bourley, there is a dense network of small footpaths on the site.

Effects on Annex I species

All the disturbance studies on heathland birds have concentrated on breeding season effects (Liley & Clarke 2002, 2003, Murison 2002, Mallord 2005, Murison et al. 2007), but both walkers and dog walkers use the heaths all the year round (University of Portsmouth 1996, Wealden District Council 2004, Liley et al. in press). Nightjars are summer visitors, but Dartford Warblers are resident all the year round on the heaths. Some Woodlarks also forage in winter on associated habitats such as acid grassland and disturbed ground such as firebreaks, and the evidence suggests that in the UK they are mainly sedentary (Mallord 2005). Winter disturbance may therefore have additional effects on these species, for example on foraging rates and survival, but this has not been studied on heathlands. If these impacts exist, they may be more severe when combined with hard weather or other urban effects such as wild fires. Dartford Warblers are known to be both site faithful outside the breeding season and susceptible to hard winter weather (Bibby 1977). These aspects of disturbance effects on heathland birds deserve further study.

Visitor behaviour and further work

The data from the nationally or regionally known sites of Cannock Chase, the New Forest and Ashdown all suggest that tourists tend to arrive by car, fewer are dog walkers, they tend to stay longer and they come for different reasons than residents.

However, most tourist activity is in summer, so that overall, residents may still have a greater impact on the heaths and their wildlife (University of Portsmouth 1996). It is clear from most of the visitor studies reviewed here that dog walkers are the largest group to make use of most heathlands. Not only are the disturbance impacts of this group important because of their numbers, but such effects are compounded by the regularity with which they visit. Dog walkers visit all the year round and are the most regular visitors to heaths, many visiting at least once a day (Clarke et al. in press, Liley et al. in press). These factors, combined with the additional disturbance caused by people walking dogs compared with walkers alone (Taylor et al. 2007), suggests this group has the greatest potential for causing disturbance to Annex I bird species breeding on lowland heathlands.

The proportion of visitors to heathland who allow their dog to run off a lead (89–100%) seems to be higher than for some other habitats. A Scottish study found that 68% of respondents allowed their dogs off leads overall on farmland, forestry land, country parks and a range of semi-natural habitats (NFO System Three 2001). On moorland, 28–66% of dogs were recorded off the lead (Yalden & Yalden 1988, Anderson 1990). On a wet meadow site, most dogs were recorded as being on leads, but on a sand dune system, 89% of dogs were off leads, a figure similar to those for heathlands (Taylor et al. 2005).

As expected, the proportion of local residents who visit a local heath either by car or on foot declines with distance away from the heath. These proportions provide a way of calculating the expected number of visitors from changes in the surrounding settlement patterns, such as a substantial new residential development for example.

Figures from Bourley show that whereas 16% of visitors (of whom 55% are walkers) travel less than 800 m to get to the heath, once there, 83% are prepared to walk over 800 m on the heath. On small urban sites with little or no parking, virtually all visitors arrive on foot, but on other sites where most visitors arrive by car, the availability of parking could be an effective means of controlling both the numbers and the points of access of many visitors. To manipulate the behaviour of visitors on the heaths to minimize their impact, there is a need to know more about the on-site factors that dictate their decision-making processes. Clarke et al. (in press) found that most people in Dorset stay on the paths and thus the spatial use of the heaths tends to be determined by the location of access points and the footpath network. A knowledge of which paths are attractive to users and why (and which are unattractive), and how the siting of features such as seats or ponds can change visitor distribution would help the design of visitor management plans to reduce impacts on Annex I birds. Information on visitor preferences on non-heathland sites is also needed, to help design alternative open spaces that might attract users, especially dog walkers, away from the heaths.

Further work involving questionnaire surveys of visitor likes and dislikes in relation to heathland features is needed. Monitoring of visitor reactions to different experimental approaches on matters such as path design, information boards and signs, and the provision of different types of vegetation alongside heathland paths would also be valuable to inform site management. Information on numbers and types of user to different access points and visitor patterns on the heaths could also allow modelling of potential disturbance levels across heathland sites. These data, combined with distribution patterns of breeding Annex I birds, could inform management of visitor access and circulation routes, leading to amelioration of disturbance effects.


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  2. Abstract
  6. Acknowledgments

We are grateful to English Nature and Footprint Ecology for allowing us to use parts of the unpublished report on visitor patterns on the Thames Basin heaths in this review. We thank Richard Archer, Allan Drewitt and the referees for making a number of suggested improvements on a draft of this paper.


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