A BID to save a rare and endangered habitat is being made by Tavistock Town Council, which for the first time in its history is set to implement a management plan for Whitchurch Down.

Town councillors have supported a scheme to tackle gorse and improve the flora and fauna on the Down, which extends to 460 acres and includes a SSSI (Site of Special Scientific Interest).

The town council will work with the Whitchurch Commoners and Natural England to implement the ten-year plan.

The authority was told at a meeting last week that if a bid for the Higher Level Stewardship Scheme was successful, a grant of £2,500 a year would be forthcoming from Defra.

The council's works administrator James Clapp, who has put together the draft management plan, told members of the council's properties committee that Whitchurch Down was the largest and most widely-used asset the town council possessed.

As registered common land, the Down was subject to rights of access on foot and horseback and was actively grazed.

The SSSI designation from Natural England put heavy restrictions on any work carried out on and near the area of lowland fen, marsh and swamp on the north side of the Down.

Mr Clapp said it was essential that the town council, as owners, played a lead role in protecting and shaping its future.

It should also recognise the importance of the area for the local community, the many varied recreational uses, the rights of the commoners and the intrinsic value of the natural habitat it provided.

The majority of land on the Down is classified as lowland heath — one of the world's rarest habitats, of which 20% is found in the UK. Lowland heath is important for its diverse range of invertebrate species.

Mr Clapp said that gorse had been cut back, but no scrub management had occurred for 20 years on any useful scale.

Scrub encroachment was now degrading habitats and limiting public access.

'The traditional methods of controlling the land are swaling and grazing, but recent changes restrict swaling in the winter months meaning it is less effective as a management technique,' he said.

It is proposed that with the funding from Defra regular gorse removal can take place by mechanical means, with some controlled burning on site.

Cllr Debo Sellis said she welcomed proper systematic management of Whitchurch Down: 'If we can attract more wildlife it is of terrific benefit, not only for people using the Down but also ecologically.

'I walk it regularly and the gorse is beautiful in bloom but it is easy to get disorientated.

'We are lucky to have such an area and we are really duty bound to protect it. I welcome the expertise to look after such a sensitive area.'