by Mr Mark Relf, the current Lord of the Manor of Layer Breton.
Layer Breton Heath forms a part of the Manorial Wastes belonging to the Lord of the Manor of Layer Breton and has been open heathland for at least 250 years. Prior to the Law of Property Act of 1925, the Manorial Wastes were used by copyhold tenants to graze their own cattle, as opposed to those belonging to the Lord of the Manor. Originally, the land would have been amongst the poorest quality of the land owned by the Lord of the Manor. As is typical for the area, the land was very poor in nutrients and only just retained enough goodness for the few animals grazing upon it.
The heath would have been grazed and also "fired" once a year keeping saplings, shrubs, weeds etc under control. There was a small oak woodland in the North East corner, as there still is. Apart from a couple of isolated oak and ash trees there were no other trees on the heath, other than those in the bordering hedgerows.
It is understood that under the previous Lords of the Manor, the grazing continued until World War 2, when the heath was used to help with the nation's food supply.
After the war the practise of grazing more or less ceased due to the availability of cheap mechanised machinery, which allowed the heath to grow a bit more readily, although the local rabbit population did their best to control excessive growth. This natural control process was hindered by the large outbreaks of myxomatosis which killed the majority of rabbits in the late 1950s and early 1960s.
The heath was still very poor in nutrients and therefore not much growth took place over the next decade or so. During the hot summer of 1976, the heath caught fire, which killed off the recovering rabbit population. In addition to that however the fire added a lot of nutrient rich material which, combined now with nothing to graze the heath, allowed the majority of the heath to nurture silver birch saplings. It is no coincidence that the next village up the main road is called Birch. By the mid 1980s most of the heath had become woodland and scrub with a few of rides or paths across it.
The Lordship of the Manor changed hands in 1955 but there were no changes in the management, or lack of it, of the heath. The Commons Registration Act of 1965 made it a requirement that all Commons and those people claiming Rights of Common registered those rights and eventually in 1971/72 those registrations were made final. Under the act, the heath was created parcel number CL13 and only two people registered rights, Mr John Blomfield of the Manor House and Mr Paul Partner of St. Lawrence. However, it is understood that the rights actually belong to the property and not to the individual. Until his death, Mr Blomfield exercised his right to graze geese on the western side of the heath. Mr Partner also exercised his rights to graze geese and take fallen timber, blackberries etc. until he moved house. He still lives in the village, but no longer has any Rights of Common, as these belong to the occupiers of his former home, which he still owns. Nobody currently exercises any rights across the heath or have done in the past 10 years.
Early in 1973, a number of local residents approached the Lord of the Manor concerned that heath land was being eroded by other residents. A local Heath Management Committee was set up by the Lord, comprising a number of interested locals, long term residents of the village and a local historian. This committee liaised with Colchester Borough Council on behalf of the Lord of the Manor over various matters including planning applications, driveways and occasional grass cutting on the heath. Eventually the committee was chaired by the Lord's son (the current Lord of the Manor) who, along with a number of local inhabitants, expressed an interest in returning the heath to its former historic state of open heathland. Small working parties were encouraged to help clear some of the trees on the heath with help from locals, British Trust for Conservation Volunteers (BTCV) and, eventually, Essex Wildlife Trust (EWT). Colchester Borough Council originally helped with payments to BTCV, in lieu of cutting any grass areas but these had petered out in the 1980s.
As Layer Breton Heath is one of only three large areas of open heathland in Essex, it was felt that some form of more formal management, with the aim of restoring much of the heathland to open heath rather than woodland, would be a worthwhile exercise. With this aim in mind, EWT approached Natural England and a 10-year Higher Level Stewardship (HLS) scheme was approved with payments via the Rural Payments Agency.
As such a small village, Layer Breton does not have a Parish Council but holds Parish Meetings three times a year which are open to all residents of the village. Since the partnership between the Lord of the Manor and EWT, the heath management committee has not met as the Lord of the Manor attends every Parish Meeting, providing progress reports on the HLS scheme and answering any queries regarding the heath and other manorial land.
The scheme has progressed well over the past years, eventually clearing a large proportion of the main heath. It had been agreed that it would be impractical to remove all trees and scrub, apart from the bio-diversity they offered. The area cleared now needs a manageable way of being kept clear of invasive plants and this current proposed course of action was recommended within the HLS, as agreed by Natural England.
We encourage use of the heath, particularly by the local school and are happy that people do use the heath. However, if we do not manage the heath in a suitable manner it will return to being an impenetrable woodland in a short space of time as it was in the 1980s.
15.1.2002 to the present: Mark John Relf
20.10.1967 to 15.1.2002: Teresa Lilian Relf-Jones
8.1.1955 to 20.10.1967: John Relf
1.6.1928 to 8.1.1955: Horace Frederick Beaumont, John Lionel Beaumont, and Amy Beaumont (Amy Beaumont to 5.4.1944), as personal representatives.
27.8.1906 to 1.6.1928: George Frederick Beaumont
15.8.1905 to 27.8.1906: Caroline Harrod; Henry Herbert Harrod and Emily Maud Harrod (Executors)
5.6.1896 to 15.8.1905: Charles Digby Harrod
7.10.1886 to 5.6.1896: Harry Tiffin
30.9.1867 to 7.10.1886: John Tiffin
5.7.1866 to 30.9.1867: Edward, Henry and Joseph Gripper (Executors)
??? to 5.7.1866: W Gripper
??? to ???:Edward Gripper (Courts held May 1828 and October 1839)
1789 to ???: John Gripper (Court held May 1804)
1754 to ???: daughter of CC Rebow
??? to 1754: Charles Chamberlain Rebow
??? to 1726: Sir Isaac Rebow (Knight, March 1693)
(dates uncertain): Walden Family
(dates uncertain): Breton Family (via William the Conqueror)
(dates uncertain): Ralph Piperell (Domesday Book 1068)
(dates uncertain): Ailmar (c.1042-66 ~ Edward The Confessor)
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