What is it?
Often thought of as windswept and bleak, upland heathland is more commonly known as ‘moorland’. An iconic landscape full of drama and intrigue, upland heathland is distinguishable from its lowland counterpart by both the higher altitude (over 300 metres) at which it is generally found and the different plants and animals which it supports.
Upland heathland occurs on nutrient poor, acid, peaty soils. Although it is characteristically dominated by woody-stemmed dwarf shrubs, upland heathland is usually found as part of a mosaic of habitats including wet and dry heath, blanket bog and acid grassland.
Where is it found?
The UK’s 3.7 million hectares of upland heathland are of international importance for nature conservation: this habitat is confined to north-west Europe, especially the UK. It provides the basic resource for hill farming and for grouse shooting. The wild nature of upland heathland is a much-loved feature of the landscapes of Devon, Cornwall, Wales, the Pennines, Lake District and Scotland. In many places, upland heathland harbours a rich archaeological heritage.
Why is it important?
Heather is probably the best known plant of upland heathland, but vegetation varies according to climate, altitude, aspect, slope, management and the extent of influence from the coast and sea. Typical dwarf shrubs include bilberry, crowberry and gorse. In the wetter north and west, cross-leaved heath, purple moor-grass and bog mosses are often dominant, and juniper, a UK BAP priority species of shrub, may also be present. Some wetter upland heaths are particularly rich in lichens, liverworts and mosses, while sphagnum moss is notably common where blanket bog is found.
Red grouse, twite, golden plover, ring ouzel, curlew, merlin and hen harrier are but a few of the many breeding bird species associated with upland heathland, many of which are nationally rare. At least 40 species of insect feed on heather alone and upland heaths support a wide range of invertebrates including dragonflies and bumblebees.
Upland heathland also provides an important recreational and cultural resource for people; it provides a place for everything from hill walking to archaeology, birdwatching to sheep farming.
Is it threatened?
Over the UK as a whole, some 25% of heather cover has been lost since 1945 due to unsympathetic management, agricultural improvement and afforestation. Atmospheric pollution and climate change are also resulting in widescale change. Black grouse is one of the characteristic species which is likely to become extinct in the next 20 years if the decline in upland heathland continues.
Upland heathland can benefit from a mix of low intensity grazing and burning to keep the variety of plants. However, grazing and burning too often or leads to reduction in the cover of dwarf shrubs and increasing dominance of mat grass, or purple moor-grass in wetter areas.
How are The Wildlife Trusts helping?
The Wildlife Trusts are working to prevent further loss of our upland heathland by looking after many areas as nature reserves. We use traditional management techniques, such as grazing and burning, to maintain them, and we are restoring areas that have deteriorated.
The Wildlife Trusts also provide advice and guidance for landowners and farmers on wildlife-friendly practices in these areas. By ensuring that the land surrounding our reserves is looked after sympathetically for wildlife, we can create a Living Landscape: a network of habitats and wildlife corridors across town and country, which are good for both wildlife and people.
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 upland heathland.
- Support the work of your local Wildlife Trusts for heathland wildlife and become a member.
- Volunteer with your local Wildlife Trust and help your local heathland wildlife; you could be involved in everything from heather planting to scrub-cutting.
- Protect nesting birds by keeping your dog on a lead and staying out of restricted areas when you’re walking on heathland.