What is Heathland?

Heathlands are large, artificially created habitats which  date back to the Neolithic Age. They may have a few scattered trees, such as silver birch, but no herbaceous plants, instead being home to plants such as heather, gorse and bracken which grow on the infertile, well drained soil.


Origins of Heathland

It is thought that these wide, open landscapes began to appear due to increased agricultural activity. Woodland was gradually cleared to allow the planting of crops and over time, the nutrients in the soil would be exhausted and a new area then cleared and cultivated.

Animals, both domestic and wild, would graze on the abandoned land, preventing the re-growth of trees and leading to the development of what we know today as heathland. By the Bronze Age, it was well established over large areas of lowland England.

New Forest heathland
The New Forest has the most extensive area of heathland remaining in Europe (over 25,000 acres/10,000ha).

As forests continued to be cut down well into the seventeenth century, people generally settled on areas of fertile land rather than the heaths, but they still played an important role in day to day life.

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The tops of gorse bushes were chopped to feed animals and the thicker, older trunks were burnt for fuel, along with any trees that did regrow. Turf and peat also provided fuel, while bracken had a variety of uses.

It was gathered for animal bedding, as a further source of fuel and to provide potash for industries such as glass and soapmaking. All of this activity along with the grazing animals maintained the heath as an open space and prevented its reversion to woodland.

Types of Heathland

Heathland is found from sea level up to an altitude of about 1000 metres. Generally the low soil fertility means it supports a small number of plant species with heathers and bracken usually dominant. But there are big differences from heath to heath, due to climate, altitude, terrain, wetness and the underlying soil.

More commonly known as moorland, upland heath is found over shallow peat and mineral soils in the north and west of the UK, and in the southern uplands like Dartmoor and Exmoor.

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These wetter habitats are characterised by low growing shrubs, grasses and bog-mosses. A lot of upland heath has been overgrazed and replaced with poor quality grassland.

heathland soil
The soils in heathlands are usually acidic and low in nutrients, which makes them inhospitable for many plant species. However, the specialized vegetation found in heathlands has adapted to these conditions and can thrive in nutrient-poor environments.

Lowland heath is found below about 300 metres on more freely draining soils and gravels. The nutrient-poor sandy soil is well-aerated and is quickly warmed by the sun, which creates a very specific set of environmental conditions. Shallow heathland pools are home to many plants and insects such as dragonflies, which are rare elsewhere.

Natural Heath

The only two completely natural types of heath, occurring without human intervention, are ‘montane’ and ‘maritime’.

Montane heath is found at high altitudes, generally above 700 metres. Exposure to the elements at this height prevents the development of taller shrubs and trees.

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Maritime heath is found on cliff tops, where the strong salty sea winds keep vegetation short and at the same time provide ideal conditions for heather and gorse to thrive.

The Beginning Of The Decline

By the eighteenth century, advancing agricultural technology meant that ‘waste areas’ could be reclaimed. During the same period, the Enclosure Acts led to the development of field systems, an increase in arable farming and the beginning of a decrease in the overall area of heathland.

With the arrival of the nineteenth century, the value of heaths as a resource had all but disappeared.

enclosure map enclosure act
The map of Bere Regis in 1775, which predates the final enclosure by seventy years, provides insight into the significant amount of land already enclosed and transformed into individual farms and “closes.”

Transportation had become both cheaper and easier, and this meant that fuel and animal feed didn’t have to be sourced locally. As a result, the traditional activities which had maintained the heath were no longer carried out and many heathland spaces finally began to revert back to woodland.

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Heaths continued to be lost as technology advanced. Large areas have been reclaimed for both agricultural use and forestry. There has also been the extraction of sand and gravel on a large scale, and an insatiable need for building land.

This has all taken it’s toll and over 80% of the heathland which existed at the beginning of the nineteenth century has now gone.


Today what remains of Britain’s heathland is no longer seen as wasteland and is in the main legally protected, because of the wildlife, insects and plants which thrive there.

Many unique heathland species have already been lost, so conservation programmes have been set up to stop further decline and many rare species have been brought back from near extinction.

The heathlands are looked after by very strict and careful management methods, using a variety of practices which include cutting and even burning.

restored Heathland
Formerly heathland, then a conifer plantation since the 1960s and now heathland again, thanks to the Norfolk Wildlife Trust. An impressive range of heathland and wet mire species have recolonised since the trees have been harvested just over ten years ago. Some from nearby Roydon Common, others from further afield. Image Credit: © Venables

The grazing animals that helped create the first heathlands thousands of years ago, are still being used to maintain them today.

In areas such as Ashdown Forest, temporary moveable grazing enclosures are created on large areas of heath for livestock, such as Exmoor ponies and Hebridean sheep, which prevents scrubland plants from encroaching.

Left Unchecked

If not managed, this scrub would eventually lead to the re-establishment of forest. Silver Birch is the main species that would grow and it has to be cleared regularly, as it produces a lot of airborne seeds.

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These become saplings which drop leaves, threatening the heather. To prevent this, the saplings are cleared by tractor-mounted mowers known as flails. Rotary swipe cutters are also fitted to tractors to mow bracken which can also take over the heath if left unchecked.

New Forest heathland
Heathland view towards Hasley Hill, New Forest. Image Credit: Jim Champion

Heather has to be cut back to keep it at an even height to make it a suitable habitat for invertebrates. A forage harvester is used which cuts the heather but retains the seeds, so they can later be planted on other areas of  the heath.

Sometimes turf stripping or scraping is employed. An excavator will be used to clear small areas of all vegetation, which encourages the restoration of the bare soil. The heather which is cut as part of this process is used for compost.

Controlled burning when employed only happens in the winter, to limit the risk of the fire spreading. Its purpose is to clear away the leaf matter which builds up under the vegetation, exposing the soil for the invertebrates who’s existence depend on it.

Rare Species

There are in fact many plants and animals that without heathland wouldn’t survive at all. It supports many invertebrates as well as some very rare species, such as the heath grasshopper, the dusky cockroach, the potter wasp and the ladybird spider.

Ladybird Spider
Ladybird Spider: It is classified as endangered by the British Red Data Book and hence protected under the 1981 Wildlife and Countryside Act. This is mainly due to deprivation of an appropriate habitat.

The silver-studded blue butterfly makes its home amongst the heather, along with three species of dragonfly that are only found on lowland heaths.

Take a walk on your local heath and you might be lucky enough to see rabbits, a weasel, a stoat or even a hare, and if reptiles are your thing, all six of the UK’s native species can be found there.

The warm open areas are ideal for them to bask and lay their eggs, as well as being a rich source of food.

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Due to the loss of habitat, the sand lizard, one of the UK’s rarest reptiles, now only survives in a few heathland areas, mainly in Dorset, Hampshire and Surrey. The smooth snake which is now also very rare, is found  in the same places.

Adders, grass snakes and slow worms also thrive on heathland, along with common lizards. The warm shallow pools typical of lowland heaths also provide breeding grounds for amphibians such as the natterjack toad.

Threats to Heathland

More than 80% of lowland heathland has gone since the beginning of the twentieth century.

With land at a premium and an increased need for housing, developers are also now more than ever turning their eyes towards heathland which poses a further threat.

A lot of upland heath has been overgrazed, while some lowland heath has been drained, making it less able to sustain some of the wildlife. Not all heathland has been managed and the areas that have been left, are gradually reverting to woodland.

Disposable bbq
Disposable barbeques are a huge threat to heathlands with hundreds of acres destroyed each year by them

Nitrogen, ammonia and other modern-day airborne pollutants harm heathland vegetation, particularly mosses and lichens. This pollution has a particular effect on heathland plants because the soil is low in nutrients.

In a 2006-2008 study nearly 30% of dwarf shrub heaths and 97% of montane heaths were found to exceed their critical load for nitrogen.

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With temperature records now seeming to be broken year after year, there is an ever increasing risk of fire. The types of plants that grow on heathland are highly flammable and a piece of broken glass magnifying the sun’s rays or a carelessly attended barbecue can have devastating consequences.

Sadly some fires are also started deliberately.

The Future of Heathland

So how does the future look for the UK’s heathlands? The areas that remain today are fragmented and make up small percentage of what existed even just a hundred years ago. It’s important that what is left of this unique habitat is protected and there are now a number of conservation projects, which have been set up to do just this.

Wildlife trusts carry out the maintenance work mentioned above, which includes clearing encroaching shrubs, reintroducing grazing and reseeding heathers.

The RSPB has mapped all of the lowland heath in England.

Their Heathland Extent and Potential (HEaP) maps are available to download, so that support can be targeted where it’s most needed, to help with future restoration and protection programmes. With the ecological value of heathland now realised, hopefully no more will be lost.