Sherwood Forest Heathland - John Smith
What is it?
In prime condition, heaths are the lowland equivalent of wild, open, windswept moorlands typical of much higher altitudes. Now an international rarity, lowland heathland is home to a distinctive and diverse range of plants and animals, and provides a unique cultural and recreational resource.
Once confined to glades and open areas maintained by wild herbivores such as deer, the UK’s lowland heathland expanded in area as primeval woodland was cleared for fuel and livestock-grazing which were needed to support the increasing population. By the end of the 18th century, vast stretches of heath cloaked much of East Anglia, the Midlands and southern and western England, providing a valuable resource for local people. Bracken, heather and gorse were cut for animal bedding and winter feed, turves were used for heating, and livestock was grazed on open commons.
Where is it found?
Approximately 58,000 hectares of lowland heathland (20% of the world’s total) are found in the UK. Even so, this represents less than one sixth of the heathland that was present in 1800. Lowland heath is now mainly restricted to Staffordshire, Suffolk, Norfolk, the south and west of England from Surrey to Cornwall, South and West Wales and the eastern Scottish lowlands.
Why is it important?
The range of conditions associated with lowland heath, from dense heather and lichen heath to acid grassland, supports an extraordinarily rich variety of wildlife including a staggering 5,000 species of invertebrates. Over half of all the UK’s dragonfly species are found on lowland heathland: downy emerald and golden-ringed dragonflies, along with small red damselflies, favour bogs and open water.
While ling heather thrives on drier heaths, bog-loving plants such as the insectivorous round-leaved sundew and multi-coloured sphagnum mosses can be found in wetter places like peat bogs. These mosses form a living carpet and play a very important role in the creation of peat: they hold water in their spongy forms, preventing the decay of dead plant material which eventually forms peat.
All six species of UK reptile can be seen on lowland heathland, including the rare sand lizard which needs sunny, sheltered patches of bare ground found on drier heaths.
Lowland heathland is also important for birds, such as nightjar and stonechat, as well as the rare Dartford warbler which is completely restricted to this habitat.
Is it threatened?
Many former heaths have been lost to agriculture or forestry, or have been fragmented by development, road improvements and mineral extraction. Recent research indicates that as much as 15% is still being lost every decade, and that over 75% of remaining heathland is in poor condition.
Lack of management causing the invasion of bracken and scrub is a problem on many sites, particularly those with restrictions on fencing. And our ground-nesting birds are under increasing pressure from heathland users, particularly those walking dogs which may scare brooding birds from their nests.
How are The Wildlife Trusts helping?
Lowland heathland is the product of thousands of years of partnership between humans and their grazing animals. Left to its own devices, this habitat would deteriorate, resulting in the loss of many much-loved species. The Wildlife Trusts help to protect and restore lowland heathland by managing nature reserves which contain it sympathetically, and by providing advice to landowners on how to look after these fragile places.
We’re also working with local planners and developers to ensure that what is left of our heaths is not lost to urban encroachment.
What can I do to help?
- Take part in conservation measures on your land – ask your local Wildlife Trust for advice on grazing and management of lowland heathland.
- Support the work of your local Wildlife Trust for heathland wildlife and become a member.
- Volunteer with your local Wildlife Trusts and help your local heathland wildlife; you could be involved in everything from scrub-cutting to dragonfly surveying.
- Protect nesting birds by keeping your dog on a lead and staying out of restricted areas when you’re walking on heathland.