Lowland heathland is characterised by the presence of ericaceous dwarf-shrubs such as heather and is generally found below 300 m in altitude. It is often found in association with open water, bogs, scattered trees and scrub, bare ground and acid grasslands. Lowland heaths have a different complement of plants and birds to the more exposed and wetter upland heaths.
Nationally, lowland heath is a priority for nature conservation because it is a rare and threatened habitat, with around 80% of the lowland heaths in England having been lost over the last 200 years. The varied suite of habitats that lowland heaths support encourages a wide diversity of plants, mosses, lichens, insects, reptiles and birds, including many rare and specialised species.
The UK has some 58 000 ha of lowland heath, which represents about 20% of the world total of this habitat. The largest areas of lowland heath nationally can be found in the south and south-west, Staffordshire, East Anglia and south and west Wales.
56% of the lowland heath present in the UK before 1940 has now been destroyed. Within the North East, lowland heath is a scarce habitat and the examples present are generally small and highly fragmented. Many of these sites are declining in quality. Several of the Region’s areas of heath lie at or above 250 m and have been classified by some as ‘mid-altitude’ heath because of their mixture of upland and lowland characteristics.
All of the larger lowland heath sites within the Region have been notified as SSSIs. These include Waldridge Fell and Longhorsley Moor.
- Lack of management, such as light grazing and cutting, can lead to a loss of structural diversity and the encroachment of trees and scrub.
- Developments such as housing or road construction can lead to habitat loss, disturbance and fragmentation.
- Agricultural improvements can lead to a loss of lowland heath.
- Some sites suffer from recreational pressures which cause damage and disturbance to fragile habitats and create problems with fires.
Opportunities for protection and enhancement
- A number of local authorities have initiated heathland re-creation schemes on degraded or post-industrial sites.
- Derwentside District Council has set up a heathland nursery which can provide locally grown heather for restoration schemes.
- Payments for the management of lowland heath are available through Natural England's Environmental Stewardship Scheme.