European heathlands

What are heathlands

Strictly speaking, heathlands are landscapes characterised by dwarf shrubs of the botanical family Ericaceae. However, the range of soil and weather conditions in which they are found and their rich association of wildlife make them much more than that.

This is the proposed definition of lowland heathland:
“Lowland heathland is characterised by the presence of plants such as heather, dwarf gorses, and cross-leaved heath and is generally found below 300 metres in altitude. Areas of good quality heathland should consist of an ericaceous layer of varying heights and structures, plus some or all of the following additional features: scattered trees and scrub; areas of bare ground; areas of acid grassland; on rare occasions calcareous grassland with limestone or chalk heath; gorse; wet heaths, bogs and/or open water. The presence and numbers of characteristic birds, reptiles, invertebrates, vascular plants, bryophytes and lichens are important indicators of habitat quality.”

Where can you find heathlands?

Heathlands occur in several parts of the world under similar soil and climatic characteristics, but they were first described in North-West Europe. These are the heathlands to which we refer in these pages. Their area is represented in the European map and extends from the north coast of Spain northwards through Brittany and Normandy in France, continuing into Belgium, the Netherlands, the north German plain up to Jutland in Denmark, the British Isles and the southern provinces of Norway and Sweden (Webb, 1986).

How do heathlands form?

Heathlands appeared in most cases after forest clearance, several thousands of years ago, although some coastal heathlands developed from severe climatic conditions. All along with their distribution in NW Europe, similarities in the climatic conditions, soil characteristics and mainly management have maintained heathlands during the last 3000 years in a similar appearance to the remaining patches that we know nowadays. During this time a variety of animal and plant species evolved and adapted to the range of habitats created by management in heathlands.

In the last decades, traditional management has nearly disappeared and since heathlands are not climax vegetation, they are being invaded by scrub, bracken or other vegetation with less ecological value. As they were considered as a “waste and barren land” they have been systematically destroyed and fragmented by afforestation and development.

Heatland protection

Heathlands were recognized as an important habitat at a European level by the EU Habitats Directive in 1986. Since then multiple projects have been carried out at national and international level with the aim of conserving and restoring existing patches and re-creating them in areas of previous distribution.