What is lowland heathland?
Lowland heathland is a landscape characterised by plants like the heathers - especially common ling and the gorses - and trees such as Scots pine and birch. It lies below 300 metres - above 300 metres it becomes moorland - and is usually found on poor and acidic soils.
Lowland heathland on the scale that we see today probably did not exist before the arrival of Bronze Age settlers, about 4,000 years ago. These early farmers cleared trees - either by cutting them down or burning them where they stood - and introduced grazing animals and grew early cereals. This human activity, coupled with a change to a wetter and cooler climate, eventually led to the heathland landscapes we see today.
Lowland heathlands and their wildlife have developed through a process of tree removal, grazing and burning that in some areas continues today.
How much lowland heathland is there in Britain?
There are 58,000 hectares of lowland heathland in Britain, about 20% of the total world resource. But over 80% of Britain's lowland heathland has been lost since 1800 - 17% in the last 50 years. Today, lowland heathland is found in Cornwall, Devon, Dorset, Hampshire, Surrey, Suffolk, Norfolk, Staffordshire, Pembrokeshire, west Glamorgan and west Gwynedd.
What species live on lowland heathland?
Lowland heathland supports breeding populations of rare birds, such as the Dartford warbler, woodlark and nightjar. It is habitat for the 6 types of reptile native to Britain, the adder, grass snake, common lizard, slow worm, sand lizard and smooth snake (the sand lizard and smooth snake are rare and endangered species and are confined almost exclusively to lowland heathland).
Spiders, such as the very rare ladybird spider, and rare insects, such as the southern damselfly, large marsh grasshopper and black bog ant, are also found on lowland heathland.
Lowland heathland is also culturally important in some areas with, for example, the ancient system of commoner's rights is still exercised in the New Forest and Forest of Dean.
What are the threats to lowland heathland?
In the past, the main threats to lowland heathland have been from human activity - farming, forestry and development leading to fragmentation of the areas. Today, the main threats are from a lack of management and from development and fragmentation.
How we manage our woods
Lowland heathland is a rare and threatened habitat. It supports many different types of rare plants and animals and is a priority for conservation. We are working with partners including English Nature, the National Trust, RSPB, Ministry of Defence and local naturalist trusts to protect lowland heathland. In many areas, trees are being cut down to allow the heathland to re-establish, drains have been blocked to restore water tables, and ponies and cattle are grazing heathlands again.