England has 18 percent of the world’s remaining heathland. At the beginning of 2008 Natural England published the first survey of its kind in England to analyse the condition of heathlands outside of legally protected conservation sites such as National Nature Reserves (NNR) and Sites of Special Scientific Interest (SSSI). The study found that all surveyed sites were in poor condition and did not meet the standards set for SSSIs. Even those areas receiving payments for conservation management through agri-environment schemes were not up to the grade, although many did show signs of recovery.

Lowland heathland is a priority habitat under the UK Biodiversity Action Plan which sets targets to maintain the extent of all existing lowland healthland, improve the management of these sites and encourage the re-establishment of new sites.

The poor condition of lowland heathland across England is putting stone curlews, nightjars and sand lizards and other endangered species of animals and plants in even greater danger of extinction.

Why has there been a decline in the condition of lowland heaths? Edit

Lowland heathlands were widely used until the mid-19th century. Trees were cut for firewood or building material; bracken was used for animal bedding; gorse for fodder; heather for fodder, animal bedding or thatching. This and grazing maintained heathlands as open habitats in areas of nutrient-poor soils.

By the mid-1800s and early 1900s large cities were developed on heathlands including London and Bournemouth. Many heathlands were planted with conifers or, later and thanks to the development of inorganic fertilisers, they were transformed into arable land. At the same time, the remaining heathland fragments became isolated and less important in the farming economy, so they ceased to be managed and were ‘scrubbed up’.

Which plant and animal species are affected? Edit

Many of these species are endangered due to the reduction in the habitat available or the lack of appropriate management such as grazing. Birds that need bare ground and short heather and grasses for example stone curlew Burhinus oedicnemus, stonechat Saxicola torquata or Dartford warbler Sylvia undata which needs gorse, but also short vegetation; nightjar Caprimulgus europaeus also nests in open habitat although uses a variety of vegetation.

Other species affected by the lack of open ground or vegetation structure are sand lizards Lacerta agilis, which have a very restricted distribution. For invertebrates, the lack of diversity of flowering plants restricts the presence of nectar feeding species. Heathland plants that need open ground, usually provided through grazing, are marsh gentian Gentiana pneumonanthe or marsh clubmoss Lycopodiella inundata.

How much of the UK is covered in lowland heath? Edit

Most recent estimates are around 90,000 ha (nearly 60,000 ha in England) representing a high proportion of the European resource. Heathlands characterised by heather Calluna vulgaris are only present in Western-Atlantic Europe.

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