Common Moor

Common Moor Site of Special Scientific Interest


Common Moor is one of a few remaining sites of a type of wet heathland restricted to North Devon and Pembrokeshire and was designated a Site of Special Scientific Interest in 1988 in an attempt to protect its unique features. It is referred to as a ‘Culm grassland’ which is the local name given to species-rich wet mire, grassland and fen habitats found on the clay soils of north-western and central Devon and north-east Cornwall. All Culm grasslands are nationally important as this type of habitat is rare: North Devon holds more than 80% of the Culm grassland left in England.

The Moor typically has a mix of wet and dry heathland communities combined with tall herb fen. When in good condition, the site will support a diverse plant and invertebrate fauna and the major part of the Common Moor consists of wet grassy heath which is dominated by Purple Moor-grass, Heather, Western Gorse and Cross-leaved Heath. 

Unfortunately, it has deteriorated over the years and the loss of plant diversity since its original designation means that it was previously considered as ‘Unfavourable Declining’ by Natural England’s SSSI designation. The site was at risk of being taken over by scrub in the future if the lack of management continued and this would have changed the local landscape physically in terms of the views available but also ecologically.

The Management Plan

A Stewardship Agreement was approved in 2019 following an application by West and East Putford Parish Council. The Agreement is based on a Management Plan written by Devon Wildlife Trust and approved by Natural England. The plan (which can be downloaded here) identifies a strategy of scrub clearance and burning of grassland (swaling) over a 10-year period. The maintenance of two bowl barrows (Bronze Age cemeteries) is also being undertaken under a separate Conservation Management Plan.

As of February 2023, Natural England has confirmed that the moor has improved to ‘Unfavourable Improving’.

The work will be completed by 2029. More detail is in the Management Plan, but a summary of the timetable for scrub clearance and swaling is shown in the maps below.

Natural England Press Release - July 2019

Rare butterflies and orchids on abandoned wildlife site boosted by Natural England funding

  • Common Moor SSSI is officially brought into a recovering condition, following improved site management for the rare Culm grassland   
  • The abandoned and ownerless site has been unmanaged for over a decade
  • An array of rare plants and animals have had their habitat improved through funding from a Natural England Countryside Stewardship agreement  
  • The powerful partnership between Natural England, Putford Parish Council, and Devon Wildlife Trust has secured the future for local wildlife for years to come

Rare species including the marsh fritillary butterfly, lesser butterfly orchids and Cladonia lichen communities have been given a boost as their home in Common Moor Site of Special Scientific Interest (SSSI), Devon, is improved through funding from Natural England. 

Following more than a decade of decline - which saw scrub encroach on the rare delicate grassland - a partnership between Natural England, Putford Parish Council, and Devon Wildlife Trust (DWT) has today brought the site back into ‘unfavourable recovering’ condition through Countryside Stewardship (CS) funding. This condition means that the necessary management is now in place for the site to reach favourable condition.

Common Moor SSSI, spanning 55 hectares or more than 60 football pitches, is centrally situated within an arc of six other SSSIs in the North Devonshire countryside, and holds a vital role in connecting green corridors of habitat that allow threatened species to move between locations.  

The site is home to an array of rare wildlife – including the charismatic and colourful marsh fritillary butterfly – once widespread in Britain but now threatened across the UK and Europe.  

Wesley Smyth, Natural England’s Area Manager for South West, said: 

“Common Moor is a fantastic example of the difference that Countryside Stewardship can make to help secure the future of rare plants and animals.

“Strong partnership working between Natural England, the Devon Wildlife Trust and the Parish Council has brought the SSSI back into a recovering position, with more investment and support to come.

“This is a celebration of our partners’ commitment to nature conservation, and a springboard to future successes for the area.”

Robert Dixon, Natural England’s Lead Adviser for North Devon Land Team, said: 

“Having worked on Common Moor for several years, I am delighted to see the vast transformation that is occurring on this ownerless site.

“I am especially impressed at the three-way partnership which has enabled this to take place. Without any one of these partners, the project would not have commenced. However, it is the Parish Council that must take the highest credit for these achievements as entering into such an agreement is not commonplace for such a small council.

“The team effort of all partners involved has improved the quality of this rare Culm grassland, resulting in improved biodiversity and a better place for locals to enjoy.”

Careful management of Common Moor has resulted in huge improvements to this rare grassland. Current management tools include creating a network of firebreaks over the site and swaling (a method of controlled rotational burning). The management has allowed the growth of fresh vegetation by clearing the ground of overly dominant species and dead material which can swamp more fragile species which rare wildlife rely upon.

Lisa Schneidau, Northern Devon Nature Improvement Area Manager for Devon Wildlife Trust, said:  

“Devon Wildlife Trust has always seen Common Moor as a very important site.  

“We are delighted that Putford’s local community have taken on responsibility for this ownerless common land. The new CS agreement means that funding will now be available for the Parish Council to carry out essential management work to maintain the valuable Culm grassland as a haven for wildlife. 

“The support provided by Natural England throughout has been invaluable, and we look forward to continuing to work alongside both Natural England and the Parish Council on this beautiful site.” 

This effective three-way partnership will continue in the coming years, with the Parish Council expected to take on management of the site later this year.  

Councillor Myles Thomas from Putford Parish Council said: 

“The Parish Council has wanted to protect Common Moor for many years but have not had the resources to do so.  

“We are very grateful to Devon Wildlife Trust and Natural England for their help and support in setting up this Countryside Stewardship agreement to stop further deterioration and improve the status of the moor.  

“This will bring wider benefits to the parish and we are very much looking forward to seeing the changes in wildlife over the coming years.”

The 10-year Countryside Stewardship agreement will see further funding and management, securing the long-term future of the site.  

Today’s announcement secures an important contribution to the government's target as set out in the English Biodiversity 2020 Strategy to maintain 95% of SSSIs at favourable or recovering condition.  

2019 marks the UK Government’s Year of Green Action, a year-long drive to help people to connect with, protect and enhance nature. The Year was a commitment in Defra’s 25 Year Environment Plan to put people at the heart of nature by working closely with others and developing shared objectives at a landscape-scale.  


For further enquiries please contact the Defra group press office on 03459 33 55 77 or 0345 051 8486 out of hours. 

Notes to editors

  • Common Moor was designated a SSSI in 1988 for being one of a few remnant sites for a type of wet heathland restricted to North Devon and Pembrokeshire. The site also supports a diverse invertebrate fauna. 
  • The marsh fritillary butterfly is listed on the IUCN Red List as a vulnerable species with a high conservation priority. Marsh fritillary populations are highly volatile and the species requires extensive habitat networks for its long term survival. More information can be found here.
  • The lesser butterfly orchid is classified as ‘vulnerable’ and is included as a species “of principal importance for the purpose of conserving biodiversity” under Sections 41 (England) and 42 (Wales) of the Natural Environment and Rural Communities Act 2006. More information can be found here.
  • ‘Culm grassland’ is the name given to a distinctive suite of semi-natural, predominantly wet, vegetation communities that occur on the poorly drained acid soils of the Culm measures (Carboniferous shales and sandstones) of North-East Cornwall and North-West Devon. It is in fact a slight misnomer since the main vegetation communities include wet heath, purple moor-grass and rush pasture, fen meadow, mire and scrub, which often occur together in intimate mosaics. The Culm grassland has resulted from the combination of an oceanic climate, poorly draining, acid soils and a long history of management as pasture. It supports an outstanding assemblage of plants and animals, including a number of rare species, such as the marsh fritillary butterfly Euphydryas aurinia.
  • Please see attached images available for your use to support the announcement:

About Natural England 

Natural England is the government’s adviser for the natural environment in England, helping to protect England’s nature and landscapes for people to enjoy and for the services they provide. 

Within England, Natural England is responsible for: 

  • Promoting nature conservation and protecting biodiversity 
  • Conserving and enhancing the landscape 
  • Securing the provision and improvement of facilities for the study, understanding and enjoyment of the natural environment 
  • Promoting access to the countryside and open spaces and encouraging open-air recreation 
  • Contributing in other ways to social and economic well-being through management of the natural environment 
  • Follow us on Twitter @naturalengland and visit online at the Natural England website

Year of Green Action 

  • 2019 marks the Year of Green Action, a year-long drive to help people to connect with, protect and enhance nature 
  • The Year is a commitment in the 25 Year Environment Plan to instil a legacy for the future, with a focus on children and young people 
  • Visit the Year of Green Action website for more information on how to get involved

About Devon Wildlife Trust 

The Devon Wildlife Trust is a member of The Wildlife Trusts partnership covering the county of Devon, England. It is a registered charity, established in 1962 as the Devon Naturalists Trust, and its aim is to safeguard the future of the county's urban, rural and marine wildlife and its environment.  

Read our media blog here.

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Common Moor meadow thistle. Credit - Tom Parsons.jpg

Common Moor heath spotted orchid flowering. Credit - Tom Parsons.jpg