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 Path across Town Common, Christchurch, bordered by heather
Heathlands form in areas of low to moderate rainfall where there are well-drained acid soils and strong winds. In the British Isles, such conditions favour the formation of heathlands where the climax vegetation consists of heather (Calluna vulgaris).

Heaths and moors are characterised by being comparatively flat (although often at high altitude) and exposed to the sun and dessicating action of the winds. Usually the soils are of a sandy nature.

The exposed nature of heaths and moors greatly effect the usually sandy soils; the syrface layers are usually very dry as any rainfall readily drains away and such moisture as is left is evaporated away by sunlight and wind.

Beacause of the lack of water in the surface soil of heaths and moors, with conditions being too dry for the necessary fungi and bacteria, decomposition is very slow. Not only does this lead to a scarcity of nutrients but many of the intermediate products of decomposition which accumulate are acidic in nature giving the soils a high pH and making osmosis more difficult.

The lack of nutrients, the scarcity of water in the soil and the atmospheric conditions above which favour transpiration cause moorland and heathland plants to be adapted for absorbtion and minimising water loss through transpiration. Because of the lack of both food and water, plants in these habitats tend to be small.

The climax vegetation of heather may be altered by other factors including the actions of man - over grazing of heathland in particular, causes grasslands rather than heath to be formed as the animals browse and destroy the young heather.

Sometimes fire will destroy the heather covering of heath in which case it will regenerate after a period of time. Gorse or Furze, which burns particularly well and was once colectedas a fuel, causes heathland fires to spread very rapidly.

The conditions which prevail on sandy heaths favour reptiles in that they have vegetation for cover from the sun (being cold-blooded, they must regulate their temperature) and their predators as well as for the hunting of their prey. At the same time the bare soil warms up quickly and offers reptiles ideal locations to bask or lay their eggs. In some places such as Arne on the edge of Poole Bay in Dorset, all six native British reptiles may be found.


Lowland Heathland is extremely rare on a worldwide scale.

At 13%, Surrey's heathland contains a significant portion of the total heathland in England.

Lowland heaths are particularly important to nine species of British vertebrates because a great proportion of their British populations occur on such heathland.

These species are, in decreasing order of dependence on lowland heathland; Sylvia undata, the Dartford warbler; the smooth snake; the sand lizard; Bufo calamita, the natterjack toad; Lanius collurio, the red-backed shrike; Lullula arborea, the woodlark; Caprimulgus caprimulgus, the nightjar; Saxicola torquata, the stonechat; and Falco subbuteo, the hobby.


Dorset Heath *
Furze or Gorse
Fine-Leaved Heath
Heather or Ling
Gorse or Furze
Ling or Heather


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  Agglestone Heath, The Isle of Purbeck
  Matcham's Point, nr Ringwood
  St catherine's Hill, Christchurch
  Studland Peninsula, nr Poole Bay
  Town Common, Christchurch

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The type of habitat known as a heath is treated here under the title of heathland to distinguish it from the plants known as heaths.

GENERAL Heathland forms a characteristic open landscape, dominated by the shrubs of the heather family (Ericaceae), gorse, bracken and grasses along with areas of bog and scrub woodland.

Although natural in appearance, heathland has been created by the activities of man and his grazing animals over thousands of years; heathland began to increase on light sandy soils in the Neolithic period (some 6,000 years ago) as the broadleaved woodland was cleared.

Although the light soils were easily worked for agriculture, it soon became impoverished as the mineral and organic matter were washed out - this allowed the heathland to become established and maintained by grazing.

Heathland no longer plays an important part in agriculture and is disappearing as the traditional methods of heathland management are abondoned.

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