Lowland heathlands occur on impoverished soils created by centuries of agricultural use.
They are made up of a range of vegetation types, including dry and wet heath (dominated by heathers), acid grassland, trees, scrub, bracken and bogs.
The mosaic of habitats is what makes heathland so valuable to wildlife including specialist birds, insects, plants, mammals and reptiles. However, surviving heathlands are now much reduced in both area and wildlife quality through loss of traditional management, urbanisation, afforestation and land improvement. Remaining lowland heathland need careful management to help sustain the wildlife.
Lowland heathland is an important and rare habitat, and over 75% has been lost in the last 200 years. The remaining areas support an incredibly wide variety of species. This includes reptiles, migratory birds, scarce plants and over 5,000 species of insect, including the rare ladybird spider and the iconic silver-studded blue butterfly.
Heathlands generally have a greater number of grasses, rushes and sedges compared with flowering plants. Dry heath is dominated by heather, bell heather and some gorse, but may be grassier in East Anglia; humid heath with heather and purple moorgrass (Molinia), or heathers with bristle bent in south west England; and wet heath characterised by cross-leaved heath, purple moorgrass, Sphagnum species, bog asphodel and cotton-grasses. Many of the plants are uniquely suited to nutrient-poor, acidic conditions. Bog-loving plants such as the insectivorous round-leaved sundew and the rare marsh gentian can abound on heaths.
Heathland supports the majority of the UK populations of nightjars, dartford warblers and woodlarks. These birds nest either on the ground or in low growing vegetation and are vulnerable to disturbance. Other bird species use heathland on their migration or winter routes, such as ring ouzels and hen harriers.
Heathlands are the most important habitat in the UK for reptiles, supporting all six species. Heathlands with a good mosaic of vegetation types provide warm, open areas for basking, an abundance of prey and longer vegetation for shelter from predators and extremes of temperature.
Much of the remaining heathland is protected due to its wildlife and landscape value.
The unique mix of habitats and species on each heathland means every site should be considered individually for its management. Some of the rarest species may require bespoke management, so it is important to find out about the important species and habitats present before initiating new management. A range of the techniques described below is likely to be required.
Bare ground is a key habitat of heathland. It allows heather germination from seed and also provides nesting habitat for many insects, reptiles and birds such as the nightjar. A number of insects use open areas for nesting, chasing after prey and basking. Sand lizards use bare sandy ground for egg laying. Annual plants growing on disturbed ground provide some pollen and nectar for insects when heather is not in flower.
The best place to create bare ground is south-facing warmer slopes. The ground can be cleared by hand or with machinery. It will need to be maintained with periodic management.
Grazing can benefit heathland. The actions of livestock create a mosaic of structure maximising the habitats available to wildlife. Careful consideration is required before grazing is introduced, as higher stocking levels can damage fragile habitats and species living in them. Some species such as reptiles can be particularly affected by changes to grazing levels.
Stocking rates should be set to create or maintain a mosaic of habitats and vegetation structure. Under-grazing may lead to build up of coarse grasses, whilst overgrazing may damage heather structure and reduce species diversity. Stocking rates are likely to fall within the range of 1-2 cows per 10ha. Ponies can also be used at a similar density to cattle. Sheep can be used, at a recommended stocking rate of 10-25 ewes per 10ha, but they are not suitable for wet sites and can target low-growing herbs leaving heathers totally ungrazed.
Summer grazing is the traditional grazing period, however if there is little fresh forage available turnout should be delayed until the grasses are flushing. Winter grazing may be a small help to control birch and pine but the risk of damage to the dwarf shrubs is high and the ability to remove the animals if overgrazing is beginning to occur is vital. Supplementary feeding, except mineral licks, should be avoided as this can lead to nutrient enrichment.
The main livestock types used on heathland are cattle, ponies and sometimes hardy sheep. Each impacts in a different way. Available local stock, fencing, shelter, water and public use of the site (especially dog walking) may influence the practical choice of livestock. The table below is a very brief summary of the effectiveness of different livestock types on heathland management requirements:
How to choose the most effective livestock for heathland management
Rank Grass Control
Bare Ground Creation
|Cattle||Highly effective||Highly effective||Trample mulch when bracken treated||Slightly effective||Slightly effective||Slightly effective|
|Ponies||Effective||Effective||Slightly effective||Highly effective||Slightly effective||Slightly effective|
|Sheep||Not effective||Not effective||Not effective||Slightly effective||Slightly effective||Effective|
The challenge of re-introducing livestock onto heathland is considerable and advice should be sought.
Burning is used to create fresh forage for livestock and removes the standing heather sward and some grass/heather litter. Burning always requires careful consideration, particularly where less mobile species occur. It can be highly damaging to reptile populations, and burning is best avoided on heathlands where these are present. Seek expert advice where reptiles occur and make sure a full assessment and burning plan can are completed. The size, time and frequency of burning should be part of this planning process. Burning of heather and grassland is covered by Heather and Grass Burning Regulations.
Turf-stripping and cutting vegetation
Turf-stripping and cutting dwarf shrub is done to diversify the vegetation structure and regenerate heather stands. The earth clods and cuttings should be removed to avoid an accumulation of nutrient and litter. There is a range of machinery which can be considered for use on heather stands each with advantages and disadvantages. Timing and the actual cutting pattern and method should be carefully considered to avoid damage to the sward and species.
Scrub is important habitat of heathland, however, left unmanaged it can take over heathland leading to succession to woodland. Deciding which areas to keep and which to remove can be difficult so it is best to seek expert advice. Further information is provided in our ‘scrub’ advice note and the links below.
Key habitat features to consider
Maintain a range of habitats
It is important to maintain a mixture of habitats across the heathland. Scrub and scattered trees provide nesting, forage, shelter and roosting areas for a range of wildlife. Areas of spring-flowering scrub (gorse) provide early nectar and pollen sources for insect pollinators. Ponds, with peaty margins or bog moss fringes are valuable for dragonflies, damselflies and other insects.
Provide a diversity of vegetation structure
Aim to maintain structural diversity in the vegetation to provide a wide range of habitat niches for wildlife. Maintain heather of all ages to provide structures for web-spinning spiders and shelter for invertebrates, especially for those overwintering. A mosaic of hot basking spots which are ideally bare ground, and readily available cool, humid shelter, especially areas with a deep moss and lichen layer, on dry heath provides ideal habitat for all reptiles. Mature and degenerate stands of heather are also important for reptiles. Similarly reptiles favour areas of mature purple moor-grass tussocks and tussocky acid grassland.
A Practical Guide to the Restoration and Management of Lowland Heathland (2003). Nigel Symes & John Day. RSPB.
Selecting Environmental Stewardship Options to Benefit Reptiles (2011). Amphibian and Reptile Conservation, Bournemouth.
Edgar, P, Foster, J & Baker, J (2010). Reptile Habitat Management Handbook. Amphibian and Reptile Conservation, Bournemouth.
Offer, D., Edwards, M. and Edgar, P. (2003). Grazing heathland: a guide to impact assessment for insects and reptiles. English Nature Research Reports No.497. English Nature, Peterborough
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