Heathland

Credits: Chris Maguire

Heathland is one of our most threatened wildlife habitats: an open landscape of gorse, bracken, heathers and grasses, often with scattered birch and pine trees.

In the past heathlands were valuable to local people for grazing sheep, goats, horses, donkeys and geese. All sorts of useful products, from gorse for burning, bracken for animal bedding, sand and gravel for building, to wild foods such as blackberries, edible fungi and elderberries, used to be gathered from heathland.

 

However many of these open areas were enclosed and fertilised to create more farmland, or planted up with conifers. Other heathlands, especially in southern England, provided sites for house building. Even where they were left alone they turned naturally into woodland once their traditional use by local people as grazing land ceased.


Even rarer than rainforests, heathland is one of our most threatened habitats. Today many heaths are protected as nature reserves and local Wildlife Trusts are working to restore heaths, often by cutting down the birch and pine trees which now cover them. This work is vital if our rare and unique heathland wildlife is to survive.

 

Did you know?


More than half of all our lowland heathlands have been destroyed during the last one hundred years. Many of these heaths have histories dating back thousands of years and the specialised wildlife that depends on these habitats can live nowhere else.


Wildlife to look out for:


Birds


Viist heathland at dusk to hear the enchanting nightjars hunting moths and beetles and keep a look out for the rare Dartford warbler, which is completely restricted to heathland. Other birds you might be able to spot with beady eyes are stonechat, yellowhammer, linnet, the secretive woodlark, green woodpecker and the skylark, whose beautiful, melodic song can be heard soaring across the heath. 

 


Mammals


This fragile habitat is home to mammals such as rabbits, hares, stoats, weasels.




 


 

Amphibians and reptiles


Did you know heathlands are the most important area for reptiles in the UK? All six UK species of reptiles can be found in heathland as it provides the perfect habitat, with open areas for reptiles to bask (warm themselves in the sun) and provide ample food source due to invertebrate populations.

Amphibians also thrive, using the damper areas close to open water where they can lay their eggs. Keep a look out for common lizard, sand lizard (rare), adder, smooth snake (rare), slow worm, common toad, natterjack toad (rare).

 

Plants


Many beautiful plants can be found across heathlands. They're important for pollinators, and bees can often be seen buzzing around bell heather and ling heather. The scattered cover provided by plants and shrubs are perfect breeding grounds for birds.


Other plants to look out for are gorse, bracken, harebell, tormentil and lichens.

 

Minibeasts


Visit heathlands to catch a glimpse of bumblebees, solitary wasps, beetles such as sexton beetle and minotaur beetle, spiders, grasshoppers (such as the common green grasshopper) and crickets, butterflies such as small copper and silver-studded blue (rare).





 
Activities


Getting outdoors is so much fun, and as well as just enjoying the heathland habitat, there's some activities you can try too! Just click on the icons to download the activity sheets.