What’s so special about lowland heathland?

Heathland is a very rare and interesting habitat; supporting around 5000 species of invertebrates, over half of the UK’s dragonfly species, all six species of UK reptiles, and a multitude of rare plants and animals. It occurs on acidic, impoverished, dry sandy or wet peaty soils, and is characterised by the presence of a range of dwarf-shrubs. These include various types of heather and gorse.

Let’s first distinguish lowland heathland from upland heathland. Lowland heathland occurs below 300 metres, has light and sandy soils, and has a different mix of plant and animal species than that found in the more exposed and wetter upland heathlands, otherwise known as moorland. Being someone who dwells in the South of England, I will be focusing on lowland heathland where the conditions for this type of heathland are ideal.

Approximately 20% of the world’s lowland heathland is found in the UK, but this represents less than one sixth of the lowland heathland that was present in 1800. The heathland we see today is largely a man-made habitat, resulting from a relationship between people and land that has lasted thousands of years. Bronze Age settlers, about 4000 years ago, cleared great areas of forest in order to grow crops and graze their animals, resulting in large areas of heathland. Unfortunately, intensive agriculture, poor management and urban development has since resulted in its decline.

If left unmanaged, heathland would turn to woodland after being invaded by scrub, bracken or other vegetation with less ecological value. This natural process is called succession. In order to effectively halt succession and maintain heathland, it is regularly cut, burnt and grazed. You may think this effort is being wasted, considering the fact that heathland is man-made, but management is very important as this habitat is home to many threatened species.

The beautiful sand lizard and smooth snake are confined almost exclusively to lowland heathland. The rare Dartford warbler, woodlark and nightjar also reside in this habitat, as well as the striking ladybird spider (once thought extinct in the UK), and rare insects such as the southern damselfly and black bog ant. The delicate silver-studded blue butterfly, found in lowland heathland, chalk grassland and some sand dunes, is a priority species under the UK Biodiversity Action Plan as it has become extinct in many regions of the UK.

So next time you go for a walk in heathland, just think of all of those incredible little critters that rely on us to maintain their home – a fantastically diverse and wonderful habitat. If you live near heathland and would like to help protect it, there is often a local conservation group you can find and join by searching online.

 Arkive, (2014), silver-studded blue, [online], Available at: http://www.arkive.org/silver-studded-blue/plebeius-argus/ Accessed 29 June 2014.

 Forestry Commission, (2014), lowland heath, [online], Available at: http://www.forestry.gov.uk/forestry/lowlandheath Accessed 29 June 2014.

 JNCC, (2014), UK lowland heathland habitat, [online], Available at: http://jncc.defra.gov.uk/page-1432 Accessed 29 June 2014.

 Natural England, (2008), state of the natural environment, chapter 3.4 – heathland, Bob Gibbons/FLPA, [online], Available at www.naturalengland.org.uk/Images/sone-section3.4_tcm6-4733.pdf Accessed 29 June 2014.

 Natural England, (2014), European heathlands, [online], Available at: http://www.naturalengland.org.uk/ourwork/conservation/biodiversity/protectandmanage/europeanheathlands/facts.aspx Accessed 29 June 2014.

Wildlife Trusts, (2014), lowland heathland, [online], Available at  http://www.wildlifetrusts.org/wildlife/habitats/lowland-heathland Accessed 29 June 2014.

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Kate Dey

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