Field and heath
The High Weald’s rolling hills are draped with small, irregular fields – edged with ancient boundary features and often containing flower-rich grassland.
Colourful areas of heath – with patches of purple heather and yellow gorse – are found on the high, sandy ridges.
This pattern of small, irregular fields grew out of the way the High Weald was settled, and is the result of the patient work of many small farmers.
Field and Heath is a key component of the High Weald’s natural beauty. Policy objectives for field and heath are set out in the High Weald AONB Management Plan, pages 46-51.
Temporary becomes permanent
After the Anglo-Saxon period, settlers began moving into the High Weald in increasing numbers.
The temporary camps of the previous seasonal dwellers – using the ‘dens’ of the High Weald – gradually changed into permanent farms and hamlets as the people settled here.
These early pioneer farmers began clearing the surrounding woods and scrub to make fields for crops and livestock.
Unplanned and piecemeal
These clearances were done in an unplanned, piecemeal fashion by the individual farmers, probably one field at a time.
This is why the High Weald’s fields are relatively small and irregular in shape.
At the edge of each field was the woodland itself, which is why so many fields have boundaries formed by strips or ‘shaws’ of old woodland.
This process was largely complete by the 14th century, and the High Weald – with its irregular fields, small woods and heathy commons – looked much the same way as it does today.
The landscape of the High Weald is essentially medieval: this can be said of few other places in the country.
Havens for livestock and wildflowers
With their heavy clay soils and steep slopes, many High Weald fields have never been ploughed up to grow crops and have traditionally been used for rearing domestic livestock instead.
Compared to many areas of Britain, the area still has a relatively high number of ancient, undisturbed, wildflower-rich hay meadows and pastures.
These ‘unimproved’ grasslands are some of our most important habitats for wildlife conservation, supporting up to 100 kinds of grasses and wildflowers – which, in turn, support a great variety of insects and other creatures.
Heathlands were first created by clearing and were then maintained by grazing on the poor, sandy soils that occur on the high, sandstone ridges of the High Weald.
A prime example is Ashdown Forest at the very heart of the High Weald (pictured) – the largest expanse of open heathland in the South East. A former Royal hunting forest, Ashdown is the best surviving example of four medieval forests that existed on the AONB’s highest sandstone ridge, known as the Weald Forest Ridge – the others being: St Leonard’s, Worth and Broadwater Forests.
In much of England heaths have disappeared, but the High Weald area is an important stronghold for this dramatic type of landscape. Heaths, with their special conditions, support rare and unusual wildlife species, including the Dartford Warbler and Silver-studded Blue Butterfly.