What is a Heath? Hardy's obsession with Egdon

One of the most prominent figures in Hardy’sThe Return of the Nativeis not a human character, but the physical landmark- Egdon Heath. The heath's central role is obvious from the beginning. The novel opens with an extensive description of the heath at dusk. Hardy begins by saying: “A Saturday afternoon in November was approaching the time of twilight, and the vast tract of unenclosed wild known as Egdon Heath embrowned itself moment by moment” (Hardy 3). Even though the main story focuses on the relationships between Eustacia Vye, Clym Yeobright, Wildeve and Thomasin, the heath is the central figure. Many of the events occur on or around Egdon Heath, and equally as important- all of the characters have their own special relationship with the heath.


            When first reading Return of the Native, it is hard to miss the fact that this heath is such an important part of the book. But, for many, the question sometimes remains: what is a heath? What does a heath look like? Hardy does an award-winning job at extensively describing Egdon heath for his readers. He even brings the heath alive: “The sombre stretch of rounds and hollows seemed to rise and meet the evening gloom in pure sympathy, the heath exhaling darkness as rapidly as the heavens precipitated it” (3-4). However, this extensive description and detail is so specific that it is hard to really understand what a heath simply is unless one already has knowledge of heaths. Simply put, a heath by definition is “A tract of open and uncultivated land; wasteland overgrown with shrubs” (www.dictionary.com).  The HeathThe Dorset Heathland website describes heathland as usually being “open areas with few trees, and heather and gorse are usually the main vegetation.” Currently, the heathland in England is being threatened by many modern factors in today’s world. Thus, there are several organizations that are trying to combat these threats and protect the remaining heathlands. One of these heathlands currently under protection is that of Puddletown and Black Heaths about 4 miles outside of Dorchester in Dorset. These two heaths surround Thomas Hardy’s cottage and were the inspiration for Egdon Heath.

            Interestingly enough, heathland is not as natural as it may seem. Most heathland was created about 4000 years ago by the actions of humans- hence they are actually man-made. The original native woodlands were cleared so that the residents could farm and live in the area. Much of the soil in these cleared lands tend to be very sandy and full of poor nutrients. Because of this, plants like heather and gorse came to dominate the area. The heathland was important to its human inhabitants for thousands of years. It was often used for grazing cattle and ponies that were raised; and the heather turfs and gorse were commonly used for fuel. Flints and other tools have been found on heathlands in the Dorset areas, as well as other heathlands around England. These are prehistoric proof that human civilizations were present in the area thousands of years ago.

            Today, much of the soil found on the heathlands are either sandy or full of gravel and lack nutrients because of the primitive farming techniques. The poor ways of farming were unable to prevent the leaching of nutrients from the soil. Eventually crops in these places failed and the land was abandoned- leaving it perfect for the growth of the heath plants known so well today. Some of the plants that are commonly found on a heath are: Ling, Bell Heather, Gorse (Common, Dwarf, Western), Tormentil, Milkwort, Bedstraw, Slender St. John’s Wort, Dodder (parasite twining over gorse and heather), Bracken, Bilberry (Whortleberry), Silver Birch, Rowan, Aspen and Scots Pine. Some of these plants are rare and are only found on the heathlands. Along with a unique group of plants, there are several birds and animals that are extremely unique to the heathlands and are being threatened by the loss of heathland. Some of the rare birds and animals are the Dartford Warbler, Sand Lizard, Smooth Puddletown Forest and HeathSnake and the Natterjack Toad.


            Unfortunately, seventy percent of heathland has been lost since 1830 due to agriculture, forestry, industry, housing and neglect. It seems that Hardy knew at the turn of the nineteenth century that the heath was already being threatened by the growth of industry and agriculture in the area. In his first chapter he says, “Civilization was its enemy” (The Return of the Native 5). It is oxymoronic to think that mankind is threatening something man-made, like the heathland. Some of the current threats to heathland are: 1. Little or no grazing is taking place in order to stop the spread of Birch and Scots Pine scrub. 2. Recreational use is leading to erosion, 3. Fires killing animals and cause the development of a degraded habitat that is dominated by Bracken and Gorse. These fires also mean that the heather is burnt before woody clumps, favored by sand lizards, can be formed.

            To help with the conservation of heathland in the United Kingdom, the Wildlife and Countryside Act of 1981 was passed which allowed for a large amount of lowland heathland to be notified as SSSI. Other groups, like Action for Heaths and Operation Heathland, some of the heathland in the UK are being reclaimed and protected from the looming threats. Some of the plans in action today hope to restore the heathland by performing scrub clearance and an introduction of groups to help ensure that the habitat continues to improve. Along with the desire to protect the unique flora and fauna of the heathlands, these reclamation programs hope to maintain these habitats for the rare birds and animals that rely on the heathland. Without the heathland these animals are unable to survive. Thus, it is important to care about the welfare of the heathlands and ensure that modern threats do not destroy the heaths of the United Kingdom.

© Copyright Clare Keating & Katie Hickey 2007