Wide open spaces that are often exposed to the elements, healthlands are right on the doorstep for many of us - but it’s likely that we don’t know very much about what these rolling hills and grassy, often close-by habitats do for us on a daily basis. In fact, with a rich tapestry of flora and fauna set against a backdrop of stark and austere beauty, heathlands are some of the modest biodiverse landscapes within our immediate reach.
Heathlands make up some of our wildest, yet most accessible landscapes. They are essential to the maintenance of our lives because, as well as being home to thousands of species of animal (including 5000 types of invertebrate) they are an essential part of the United Kingdom’s rural economy. Livelihoods, fuel and food are all quietly created here.
Although familiar to many of us, these landscapes are not just a feature of the United Kingdom. Across the planet, heathlands have taken on names that reflect their surroundings - from the matagal or mato in northern and central Portugal, to the kwongan in south-western Australia and the fynbos in South Africa.
Working in the background to keep our landscapes protected are shrublands, which store over 15 tonnes of carbon per hectare in areas including Australia and South Africa. In these arid locations, where shrublands have existed uninterrupted for thousands of years, strong ecosystems that support small animals, plants and bird-life are continuing to thrive.
- Short trees
- Rocky earth
- Grass coverage
- Low shrubland (also known as phrygana or batha)
- Maquis (in the Mediterranean)
- Exposed to the weather
- Woody shrubs
- Semi-wooded areas
- Evergreen plants
- Wet and dry seasons
- Colourful flowers
- Acidic or infertile soil
- Low altitudes
There are various human threats to heathlands, including pollution from air and rubbish, development of urban areas that encroach on the habitat, removal of trees, and lack of management. It has been calculated that 80% of the UK’s lowland heathland has been lost since 1900. This has consequences not only for the ecosystem of the heath, but also for people: removal or destruction of vegetation increases flood risk, and plants and peat found on the heath can store carbon, mitigating the effects of climate change.
In shrublands, the often dry climate increases the risk of fire - something that is increasingly likely when droughts take place. Both of these things can lead to loss of species that rely on these biomes for their survival. Shrublands are also often converted into commercial or farmland, again causing problems for the animals that live there.
Walking or hiking, bird watching, visiting conservation areas, and stopping off in villages to eat well and sample local hospitality are all potential activities during a trip to the heathlands. You might find that activities such as cycling, horse riding or orienteering are possible too, depending on your location. Heathlands are also great locations for wild camping, allowing you to cook for yourself and really feel immersed in the surrounding countryside.
In temperate shrublands, activities are likely to be very similar to those that you’d find in heathlands. California and Australia are good options for hikes, camping, and wildlife spotting, and also offer great opportunities for photography.
There are numerous areas of stunning natural beauty amongst heathlands. In the UK, Suffolk has been recognised as an outstanding example of this kind of habitat, and in the north of England Yorkshire includes a wealth of rolling heathland that has inspired generations. Exmoor and Dartmoor, in the south west, are equally as impressive.
Various species of animal, including wood rabbits, salamanders, yellow warblers, snakes, and insects such as butterflies, have been known to live in shrubland. In heathlands, rabbits, stoats, hares, weasels, spiders, dragonflies, ants, toads, and birds including the otherwise rare nightjar are common.
Shrub and heathlands often don’t feature tall trees, but are instead home to plants such as heather, gorse, bracken, and various grasses. In shrublands in particular, there is often little rain, so plants have adapted to drop their needles in order to survive.
Shrubland and heathland are actually found in very different parts of the world, with shrubland being most dominant on the coast in countries including Mexico and Chile (where it is known as matorral), as well as South Africa and Australia. Shrubland can also be found in the US state of California, and in western Africa. Heathland is more common in western and northern Europe (including in the UK, Spain, France and Italy), but can also be found in Greece and Israel, as well as North and South America, New Guinea, and Madagascar.