What is heathland and moorland?

Healthland in mixed woodland overlooking Loch Ness at Ariachan woods

Credit: Paul Glendell / WTML

Heathland

Heathland is characterised by plants such as heather, bilberry, gorse and bracken, which occur on infertile and well-drained soils. Open heaths have been highly modified by humans for centuries and are maintained by grazing or cutting. However, native ancient woodlands with oak, birch and Scots pine share many of the same plants and animals with these more open heathland landscapes.

A hazy landscape of heather flowering in moorland

Credit: The Big Picture / naturepl.com

Moorland

Moorlands are typically more upland and often wetter habitats. They can be characterised by low-growing shrubs, grasses and bog-mosses, and often on damper peaty soils. These include wet habitats such as blanket bogs and valley fens. Like extensive open heathlands, large areas of open moorland are maintained by humans, sometimes by burning, as well as grazing livestock and deer.

Key features

Open heaths and moorlands tend to be characterised by their lack of trees, but the distinction between woodland and heathland should be more blurred and dynamic.

Birch, rowan, willows and other trees can often feature in more open heathland landscapes, and when not maintained through grazing or cutting, these will develop into more wooded habitats.

Wildlife

Heathlands and moorlands can be home to specialist insects and ground-nesting birds. Some of these also occur within more open heathy woodland. Warm sandy heathlands and open heathy woods also provide ideal conditions for reptiles which spend their days basking in the sun.

Explore heathland

Upland heathland and moorland occurs in hilly areas, such as Dartmoor, parts of Wales, the Pennines and across Scotland. Most lowland heathlands occur in places like the New Forest, parts of East Anglia, Surrey, and scattered pockets in other areas, often with sandy infertile soils.

Sun shining through Scots pine in moorland

Credit: The Big Picture / naturepl.com

Threats

Heathlands are infertile habitats, low in nutrients, and are threatened by the enriching effects of increasing atmospheric nitrogen.

Moorlands are often subject to chronic over-grazing from sheep and deer, practices associated with game-shooting, or afforestation with dense conifer plantations.

Without grazing or other management, open heaths and moors become scrubbier and more wooded as trees regenerate.

Encouraging patches of scrub and tree regeneration is positive in many open moorland landscapes, but within denser heathy woodlands it is also important to ensure that there are enough open gaps and mosaics.

What we're doing about it

Where important pockets of lowland heathland occur within our sites, we do actively manage them. At Brede High Woods, for example, we use grazing to maintain heathy glades within the woods, providing a mosaic of habitats which blend into one another.