The habitat and ecology of Blackheath have changed substantially over the centuries.
The heath of the 1600s and 1700s, and even well into the 19th century, was indeed heathland, with abundant gorse and scattered trees providing ample cover for lurking footpads as well as a great variety of plants and animals.
That robbers were able to wait in ambush for unsuspecting travellers is a clear indication that the landscape of Blackheath at that time was very different from today.
The gorse was particularly spectacular. In the 18th century, Linnaeus, on first setting eyes on the display of gorse on the heath, is reputed to have fallen to his knees in thanks to God. Two centuries earlier, a passage had to be cut through the gorse to accommodate the procession when Henry VIII had the first, ill-fated meeting with his future fourth wife, Ann of Cleves, on Blackheath.
Habitat during the 18th and early 19th centuries
Blackheath was well known to botanists in the 18th and 19th centuries as a site where many typical plants of heathland and acidic grasslands could be found. The same is true of most of the impressive list of animals reported from the heath by the Greenwich Natural History Society in 1859, such as natterjack toads, stoats, weasels, hares, common lizards, voles, bats and a range of unusual birds including quail, ring ouzel and nightingale. Of these, only the bats remain, although an occasional ring ouzel might still stop off briefly on spring migration.
The two factors most responsible for Blackheath's transformation from a heathland paradise for wildlife to its present day state are landfill following mineral extraction, and sports. Gravel, sand and the underlying chalk were extracted from large areas of Blackheath during the 18th and early 19th centuries, leaving large pits in many parts of the heath. These were soon vegetated with grass and gorse, and contributed to the variety of wildlife habitat on the heath.
Vanburgh and Eliot Pits
In 1945 some of the pits were filled in with bomb rubble from the Second World War, leaving only Vanbrugh Pits in the north-east and Eliot Pits in the south-west corner. The infilled areas were then covered with topsoil and seeded with perennial rye-grass. This more fertile soil, combined with the rapidly-growing, highly competitive rye-grass, made it impossible for the original heathland plants to recolonise these areas of landfill. Even today, the infilled areas can be recognised at a glance, especially in late spring and summer, when the deeper green of the rye-grass contrasts sharply with the reddish tones of sheep's sorrel and the flowers of the natural grasses of the heath.