In late spring the simple 'Cuckoo' song gently wafting along…
Our heathlands are unique cultural landscapes that owe their existence to centuries of human clearance and animal grazing.
by Nigel Jones
Heathlands are beautiful places, vast swathes of purple and pink, dotted with the yellow of gorse, the patchwork of colours are both rich and vibrant. Since the 19th century we’ve lost 80% of our lowland heaths* and they’re now even rarer than rainforests. Heaths support a staggeringly wide range of wildlife, snakes take refuge along the quieter margins of paths, where they can bask in the sunshine. Bird varieties are usually numerous, Stone Chat, Dartford Warbler, Curlew, Nightjar to name but a few. If you’ve spent any time walking along heathland in the summer months, you can’t fail to have noticed prolific insect life, it’s said that there are 5,000 species of invertebrates associated with heathland habitat. All manner of bees, wasps, ants, damselfly, dragonfly, beetles, moths, butterflies and spiders, in fact those are just a few of the insects you see, but many remain unnoticed, the list goes on. In terms of plant varieties, heaths principally consist of dwarf shrubs of heather, gorse, as well as mosses, lichens, grasses, they all have their part to play, with trees such as hawthorn, blackthorn and bramble providing valuable nectar along the margins earlier in the year, when the heather is yet to come into flower.
The best heathland for wildlife occurs when there’s a wide range of growth stages within the plant life makeup of the heath, this is because different species survive on plants of differing ages. For instance the Lynx spider is very much a specialist that requires old heather plants to survive. On the other hand, Silver-studded Blue butterflies need young heather, and it’s know that the ‘growth’ phase of plants within heathland is said to support the maximum biodiversity*. Various practices are employed to attain this state of growth. Bare ground is important for many insects and birds, particularly on south facing slopes. This can be achieved by scraping out shallow pits, also by using a bulldozer, the surface vegetation can be scraped clear. Grazing in the most natural method of keeping vegetation down, with ponies, horses and cattle suppressing bracken due to their weight. Burning can also be employed, although it’s advised that it’s only used where there’s a history of this type of land management over the long term. Fire used on lowland heath can be hot enough to burn off the humus underneath the heather, exposing mineral soil which is beneficial to many species of insects. Of course there are two main variations in heathland habitat types, Lowland Heath and Highland Heath which is a cooler, wetter environment.
Sources of reference – The Wildlife Trusts and Buglife