What is lowland heathland and why is it in decline?

Lowland heathland is a habitat found less than 300m above sea level that is dominated by grasses and dwarf shrubs, such as heather and gorse.

Lowland heathland is now a protected habitat

It supports a diverse range of wildlife, including many rare species like the nightjar.

Unfortunately, lowland heathland has been in decline for many years and became a priority habitat under the UK Biodiversity Action Plan.

Where did lowland heathlands come from?

Most heathlands are man-made.

Thousands of years ago, woodlands were cleared for farming and timber. The soil became exhausted and heathland plants thrived in the acidic, low-nutrient soils.

Activities such as grazing animals, and cutting gorse and bracken for fuel maintained the open nature of heathlands and prevented them from developing into woodland.

Gritty British Soldiers - a species of lichen found in heathland

Why is heathland in decline?

Over many years a lack of appropriate management such as grazing and bracken removal, has resulted in shrubs and trees colonising lowland heathlands and reverting them back to woodland.

Many heathlands have also been lost to commercial agriculture and urban development.

It's estimated that 80% of Britain’s lowland heathland has been lost since 1800.

More recent threats to heathland include:

  • dirt-bike riding – this disturbs wildlife, damages vegetation and causes soil erosion
  • nitrogen pollution – increased nitrogen in the soil promotes the growth of faster-growing species which out-compete heathland plants
  • Phytophthora disease – this fungus has killed many bilberry plants, and may spread to other heather plants.

Go inside the lab - discover Ed Tripp's research into heathland decline

The Nightjar is on the IUCN Red List of Threatened Species

What species live in lowland heathland?

In addition to dwarf shrubs, such as heathland and gorse, you will find several species of flowering plant, different species of grass, scattered trees such as birch, as well as diverse communities of lichen, fungi and moss.

It is an important habitat for insects and spiders too. Many species are restricted to heathland because they rely on the plants there.

Lowland heathland is one of the only habitats in Britain that can support all six native reptile species. It's also important for birds, and provides the primary habitat for many rare and endangered species such as the nightjar.

13 stunning images of heathland wildlife

When is a good time to visit a lowland heathland?

Heathlands are at their most attractive between July and September, when many of the plants are in flower.

When visiting heathlands, remember that they are rare and fragile habitats and many are designated as Sites of Special Scientific Interest (SSSIs).