Natural England - Facts

Facts

Interesting facts and information regarding heathlands.

Beverlo Heath, Belgium

What?

Strictly speaking, heathlands are landscapes characterised with more than 25% cover of dwarf shrubs of the botanical family Ericaceae. However, the range of soil and weather conditions in which they are found and their rich association of wildlife make them much more than that. Dwarf shrub heath includes both dry and wet heath types and occurs in the lowlands and the uplands across Europe.

Upland heath in the UK is typically dominated by a range of dwarf shrubs such as heather Calluna vulgaris, bilberry Vaccinium myrtillus, crowberry Empetrum nigrum, bell heather Erica cinerea and, in the south and west, western gorse Ulex gallii. In northern areas juniper Juniperus communis is occasionally seen above a heath understorey. However, in the mountains of Spain taller heather species such as Erica australis, Erica arborea sometimes dominate. Although generally species poor, an important assemblage of birds is associated with upland heath, including red grouse, black grouse, merlin, hen harrier, short-eared owl and cuckoo.

Lowland heathland is characterised by the presence of plants such as heather, dwarf gorses, and cross-leaved heath and is generally found below 300 metres in altitude. Areas of good quality heathland should consist of an ericaceous layer of varying heights and structures, plus some or all of the following additional features: scattered trees and scrub; areas of bare ground; areas of acid grassland; on rare occasions calcareous grassland with limestone or chalk heath; gorse; wet heaths, bogs and/or open water. The presence and numbers of characteristic birds, reptiles, invertebrates, vascular plants, bryophytes and lichens are important indicators of habitat quality.

Wet heath is dominated by mixtures of cross-leaved heath Erica tetralix, deer grass Scirpus cespitosus, heather and purple moor-grass Molinia caerulea, over an understorey of mosses often including carpets of Sphagnum species.

Southern European heathland are more diverse in terms of both, flora and fauna, than the northern counterparts.

The invertebrate fauna is especially diverse.

Where?

Heathlands occur in several parts of the world under similar soil and climatic characteristics, but they were first described in North-West Europe. These are the heathlands to which we refer in these pages. Their area is represented in the European map and extends from the north coast of Spain and Portugal, northwards through Brittany and Normandy in France, continuing into Belgium, the Netherlands, the north German plain up to Jutland in Denmark, the British Isles and the southern provinces of Norway and Sweden (Webb, 1986).

How?

Heathlands appeared in most cases after forest clearance, several thousands of years ago, although some coastal heathlands developed from severe climatic conditions. All along their distribution in NW Europe, similarities in the climate, soil characteristics and mainly management have maintained heathlands during the last 3000 years in a similar appearance to the remaining patches that we know nowadays. During this time a variety of animal and plant species evolved and adapted to the range of habitats created by management in heathlands.

Why?

In the last decades traditional management has nearly disappeared and since heathlands are not climax vegetation, they are being invaded by scrub, bracken or other vegetation with less ecological value. As they were considered as a "waste and barren land" they have been systematically destroyed and fragmented by afforestation, agricultural improvements and development. Current threats also include nutrient enrichment from atmospheric deposition.

And now?

Heathlands were recognized as an important habitat at a European level by the EU Habitats Directive in 1992. Since then multiple projects have been carried out at national and international level with the aim of conserving and restoring existing patches and re-creating them in areas of previous distribution.

Further information

For information on distribution and descriptions of heathland types in the UK visit the Joint Nature Conservation Committee (JNCC) website:

Relevant publications

Gimingham CH, 1960. Biological flora of the British Isles: Calluna vulgaris (L.) Hull. Journal of Ecology 48: 455-483.

Gimingham CH, 1972. Ecology of Heathlands. Chapman & Hall, London.

Webb N, 1986. Heathlands; a Natural History of Britain's Lowland Heaths. Collins, London