Natural England - England’s neglected heathlands

England’s neglected heathlands

21 January 2008

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, warns Natural England today (Monday 21 January).

This warning comes as Natural England publishes the first survey of its kind in England to analyse the condition of heathlands outside of legally protected conservation sites. The study found that all surveyed sites were in poor condition and did not meet the standards set for Sites of Special Scientific Interest (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.

Sir Martin Doughty, Chair of Natural England said: “We need to act now to help save these areas from total degradation to ensure that the plant and animal species supported by them are not lost forever. With 75% of heathland in protected areas in favourable condition we should consider giving more of these areas protected status.

“There is clear evidence that many of the larger heathlands – such as the Devil’s Punch Bowl in Surrey and the East Lizard peninsula in Cornwall - managed for conservation and recreation are in better condition. To help restore other sites to these high standards we must ensure that they are properly targeted through stewardship schemes to secure appropriate management,” concluded Sir Martin.

The condition of lowland heathland: results from a sample survey of non-SSSI stands in England is the first survey of its kind for heathlands in England. Over 100 areas across the country were surveyed as part of the research project. 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.

Which plant and animal species are affected?

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.

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

  • 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’. See also Lowland heathland

How much of the UK is covered in lowland heathland?

  • 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.


Notes for editors:

Natural England works for people, places and nature to conserve and enhance biodiversity, landscapes and wildlife in rural, urban, coastal and marine areas. We conserve and enhance the natural environment for its intrinsic value, the wellbeing and enjoyment of people, and the economic prosperity it brings.

The condition of lowland heathland: results from a sample survey of non-SSSI stands in England is. A random sample of English non-SSSI lowland heathland stands, both inside and outside of agri-environment agreements, was surveyed during 2005 and 2006 to provide baseline information on condition. English Nature, the Rural Development Service (both now part of Natural England), Defra, the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds (RSPB) and the Joint Nature Conservation Committee (JNCC) commissioned this survey. A summary of the report and the full report are available.

For further information on the UK’s Biodiversity Action Plan, visit

For further information contact: The National Press Office on 0845 603 9953,, out of hours 07970 098005.

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