A heathland is an open landscape dominated by low-growing plants, mainly species of heather and gorse as well as bracken, heathland grasses, herbs and mosses. These are interspersed with areas of bare ground and scattered trees, providing important habitat for a huge range of butterflies, wasps, beetles, birds and reptiles. Wetter heath areas and acidic ponds also provide important habitat for dragonflies and damselflies. Soils are acidic and free-draining with very low nutrient levels.
Heathlands developed over time as common-land areas. Historically locals would collect wood, bracken, gorse and heather for fuel, thatching and numerous other uses and villagers would graze their livestock. Over time this activity causes the heathland’s soil to become depleted of nutrients. Wildlife needs to be highly adapted to survive in such inhospitable conditions. The wildlife that has adapted to survive here, now depend on these rare heathland habitats for their survival.
As UK heathland is lost it becomes more and more difficult for these species to exist in Britain. Lowland Heathland is classed as a priority habitat under the UK Biodiversity Action Plan, with approximately 20% of the lowland heath in Europe being found in the UK. In Sussex, heathland makes up around 3000 hectares, or around 1% of the county, with the Ashdown Forest containing the largest surviving heathland area in South East England.
As well as lowland heath, there are also examples in Sussex of rare chalk heath, where chalk and acidic deposits overlap; playing host to a range of chalk grassland and heathland plants. In areas where the free drainage of the soil is impeded, you can also find areas of wet heath.
Where to see heathland: