Following on from his work celebrating the sand lizard last year writer Philip Parker tells us about his heathland contribution to the 26Habitats writing project

I love to see the old heath's withered brake
Mingle its crimpled leaves with furze and ling

John Clare

The ‘26Habitats’ project is a collaboration between writers’ organisation 26 and The Wildlife Trusts and seeks to shine a light on the threats facing our diverse habitats, as well as the role of their restoration in helping to combat climate change and the decline of biodiversity.

From hedgerow to peatland, from woodland to coasts, 26 writers have explored some of our most distinctive and important habitats – and responded in a unique way. Each writer has composed a poem of exactly 100 words (called a centena) which are released online throughout September. Designer Lydia Thornley visited most of these locations and has created beautiful illustrations of each to accompany the posts.

My contribution to this project is a companion piece to my poem for last year’s ‘26Wild’, which celebrated the sand lizard – one of 133 priority species of lowland heaths. Guided by staff from Amphibian and Reptile Conservation (ARC), I found some on the tiny Crooksbury Common, near Farnham. (Like so many place names, there’s a clue to the landscape – Farn is derived from the Anglo Saxon for fern.)

Crooksbury heathland illustration by Lydia Thornley

I have since become a heathland afficionado exploring them in Surrey and Sussex and enjoying the colour change of heather and fern across the seasons, and spotting more reptiles including a glorious smooth snake, plus nightjars and small heath butterflies. So I returned this year to the rather hidden Crooksbury Common (which is managed by ARC) and discovered Crooksbury Hill. A high point in the area - superb views from the 160m high summit - I wondered why it was so different from the Common, consisting of silver birch and Scots pine and just a small south-facing clearing of heather. After some research I discovered that this part of the common had been enclosed in 1848.

Heathland is not entirely natural but bears the footprint of human interaction. Several thousand years ago our ancestors discovered agriculture` and felled the wildwoods that spanned England. When soils became exhausted – especially sandy, acidic soils – the farmers moved on. Settlers grazed livestock and cut saplings for building, preventing the land from reverting to woodland – and heaths were formed. For perhaps 200 generations ‘common lands’ like these supported the ‘commoners’. They enjoyed inherited rights of access to land which was ultimately owned by a wealthy individual or monastery. This was to change after around 1700. Enclosure began – land was fenced off by the owners to ‘improve’ what they perceived as wasteland with plantations and agriculture for capital return. More than 5000 Acts of Parliament authorised enclosure of one-fifth of England – with repercussions for the land and the poorest who subsisted on it.

So it was at Crooksbury Hill where rural people were excluded from their age-old foraging and grazing rights. And over time the Hill reverted to woodland.

Crooksbury Hill by Philip Parker

This put me in mind of the poet John Clare. He witnessed the impact of enclosure on the poor as well as the decline in wildlife in his own lifetime. It is thought this hastened the decline in his mental health. To me Clare is the ultimate ecological poet, and so I decided to write my piece in a form he favoured – iambic pentameter. He is the heathland dreamer.

Destruction of heaths accelerated in the twentieth century – urbanisation, agriculture and tree planting. Lowland heath is today an internationally endangered habitat found only on Europe’s western edge. We have lost 85% from the UK. We hold 20% of the world’s remaining heathland. I was amazed to find out that statistically this makes it rarer than rainforest – something I knew I had to say in the poem. All the more reason for committed organisations like ARC and Wildlife Trust to practically conserve and campaign for their preservation and restoration.

At the end of the poem I wanted to bring the story up to date, while still referencing the idea of the ‘commons’. Arguments can become politicised: some claiming that Enclosure was the start of capitalism which accelerated the shift to a market economy. There is the often-misunderstood expression, ‘The Tragedy of the Commons’. And since the mid-20th century the talk is of the ‘global commons’ – the shared resources of oceans and atmosphere. While not ‘owned’ they too have been metaphorically privatised: dumping grounds for waste – with the impact left off the economic and ecological balance sheets… so my final lines try to link the local to the global, the past to the present.

The 26 poems are published daily at and on twitter (@26characters) and Instagram (@26characters_)

And there’s more - 26Habitats is the first in a trilogy of interlinked writing projects from 26. October will see the launch of 26Pledges, where more writers reflect on the work of 26Habitats and explore how they can have a personal impact on the climate and biodiversity crises. Finally in November, coinciding with COP26, New Zealand writers of ‘26’ launch their 26Habitats, with a focus on their priority endangered environments including drylands and offshore islands.



Rarer than Rainforest. Heath land dreamer

Recalls the old counties purpled with ling.

Shared by the commoner and the creature,

Lair for green lizard, rest for nightjar’s wings.

Bracken for thatch, furze feed for the drover,

Seasons counselled the poor. The land grab grows:

Fences, ditches, hedges of enclosure

Circle the heath, push the poor to ghettoes.

‘Waste Land’ to Capital; pines and plough horse;

Creeping concrete and woods smother the heath.

The last Silver-studded flits from the gorse.

The Dreamer sees the Commons we bequeath –

Soils, seas and vaulted skies accrued with waste.

Balance the books? Rarer than Rainforest.

Philip Parker  twitter @parkerpj01

Heathland – 26 Habitats (                  

[Sand lizard] – 26 Wild (