Heather

©Mark Hamblin/2020VISION

Heathland

Heathland and moorland

These wild, open landscapes stretch over large areas and are most often found in uplands. Although slow to awaken in spring, by late summer heathland can be an eye-catching purple haze of heather.

The story of heathland

One of our most wild-seeming landscapes, heathland has actually been shaped almost entirely by human actions. It began at least 5000 years ago, when humans started clearing trees growing on infertile soils, probably to entice game into clearings to make hunting easier, and later to graze livestock. In some areas, layers of charcoal show that the forest was cleared repeatedly by fire for grazing or temporary crops. Most heathlands are thought to date from the Bronze Age some 3000 years ago.

Grazing and tree removal caused the nutrient levels to fall further and the soil acidity to increase. These conditions suited heathland plants, which were previously limited to coasts, cliff tops and mountainsides (where exposure prevented taller woody plants from flourishing), and temporary forest clearings after wind, drought or fire had reduced the tree cover over thinner soils. With the removal of the forest canopy by humans they were able to expand wherever the soils were suitable.

If undisturbed, heathland naturally develops back into woodland as tree species become established and gradually enrich the soil. However, heathlands became part of the farming system, providing livestock grazing, heather for thatch, turves for fuel, bracken for bedding and potash, gorse for bread ovens and livestock fodder, and sands and gravels for building. Constant disturbance prevented the natural succession and maintained a landscape that is now valued for cultural reasons as well as its unique wildlife.

Types of heathland

Heathland is found from sea level to about 1000m. Low soil fertility means heathland is usually characterised by a small number of plant species, normally dominated by heathers. Despite this, there are major differences in heathland depending on climate, altitude, terrain and wetness, as well as the nature of the underlying substrate.

Upland heath is found over shallow peat and mineral soils in the north and west of the UK, as well as in the southern uplands (e.g. Dartmoor and Exmoor). This is often called moorland, a term also given to other upland habitat such as blanket bog. Lowland heath is found below about 300m on more freely draining sands and gravels. Both habitats can include wet and dry plant communities.

Heathland can also be found in old stabilised acid sand dunes or, more rarely, on shingle beaches. Occasionally heath develops on limestone where a thin layer of windblown sand allows heather to flourish next to lime-loving plants such as dropwort and salad burnet.

These are “semi-natural” habitats, requiring human intervention to stop them developing into woodland - the only truly natural types of heathland are montane and maritime heath. Montane heath is found at high altitudes (above about 700m), where exposure prevents the development of taller shrubs or trees. Maritime heath is found on cliff tops, particularly on the Atlantic coast, where strong, salty sea winds keep the vegetation clipped short. 

The demise of heathland and hope for the future

In the lowlands, the decline in the value of heathland to the local economy led to fragmentation, abandonment and conversion to other uses. Around 85% of heathland has been lost over the past 150 years through agricultural ‘improvement’, development and the planting of conifers. The small, fragmented patches that remained fell out of use and natural succession (often aided by wind-blown seed from nearby plantations) led to the development of secondary woodland, resulting in the loss of many specialist heathland species.

Since then, conservation programmes have sought to reverse the decline of heathlands through management and restoration. Today heathlands are no longer seen simply as wasteland and are valued for their wildlife and cultural history. They are also appreciated as open space for recreation – although this can bring its own challenges, particularly where development has brought towns and villages closer to heathland.

In the uplands, the story was different. Moorlands retained close links with agriculture, but from the mid-18th century onwards sheep-rearing became more common. This led to the over-management of upland heathland that we are still struggling with today. Priorities again shifted with the rise of shooting estates in the 19th century and an increase in burning and grazing. This resulted in large areas of heathland turning into impoverished grassland, a problem exacerbated in the late 20th century by the way agricultural subsidies were given. Afforestation was also an issue in the uplands, with financial incentives leading to large area of moorland and blanket bog lost to forestry.

In recent decades, conservation efforts have done much to reverse the fortunes of heathland. The loss has been halted and restoration projects have increased the area of heathland. Livestock grazing is once again a common sight on larger heathlands, and focussed management seeks to bring many heathland rarities back from the brink of extinction. However, the challenge of how to restore relationships between heathland and local communities remains.

How you can help

Across the UK The Wildlife Trusts are working to restore this balance and protect our heaths by clearing encroaching scrub, reinstating grazing regimes and reseeding heathers. We are also campaigning for protection from development and encouraging local people not to disturb ground-nesting birds. This work is vital if our rare heathland wildlife is to survive.

The Wildlife Trusts manage many heathland habitats for the benefit of wildlife; support the work of The Wildlife Trust near you through membership or volunteering.