Where to see heath­land spe­cial­ists

In his se­ries of great places to watch wildlife in the UK, the star of BBC1’s The One Show this month takes us on an out­ing to dis­cover the na­tion’s low­land heath, with tips on see­ing its re­mark­able in­hab­i­tants.

BBC Wildlife Magazine - - Contents - MIKE DILGER’S

Britain con­tains an im­pres­sive 20 per cent of the world’s re­main­ing heath­land, mak­ing us a cus­to­dian of the spe­cialised wildlife that chooses to make a home in the heather.

Heaths are char­ac­terised by sandy soils with low nu­tri­ent lev­els, sup­port­ing a com­mu­nity of plants dom­i­nated by heathers and gorse. How­ever, on closer in­spec­tion, the best heath­lands are ac­tu­ally a com­plex mo­saic of mi­cro habi­tats, in­clud­ing scat­tered trees, scrub, ar­eas of bare ground, wet heath, mire and open wa­ter. Once con­fined to glades and open ar­eas, low­land heath ex­panded dra­mat­i­cally as Britain’s primeval for­est was cleared for fuel and graz­ing live­stock.

By the end of the 18th cen­tury huge swathes of heath­land cov­ered south­ern and cen­tral Eng­land as peo­ple cut bracken, heather and gorse for bed­ding and win­ter feed, and dug up peat for heat­ing.

Today’s heath­land is a mere rem­nant of its past, with over 80 per cent hav­ing been lost as the more tra­di­tional land man­age­ment be­came su­per­seded by mod­ern agri­cul­tural prac­tices. This led to huge swathes of heath­land be­ing con­verted to farm­ing and forestry, ex­ploited for sand and gravel ex­trac­tion or lost to ur­ban de­vel­op­ment. The frag­mented pock­ets that sur­vive are still un­der threat from a lack of man­age­ment, which can re­sult in the in­va­sion of bracken, scrub and trees as the heath­land re­turns to wood­land. For­tu­nately, the vast ma­jor­ity of our best sites are now well

pro­tected and man­aged.

What to see

July is a won­der­ful time to visit heath­land as the whole land­scape takes on a hazy pink and pur­ple qual­ity, with ling heather and bell heather flow­ers pre­vail­ing in the

drier partsparts, while cross-crossleaved heath takes refuge in the wet­ter patches. Flora aside, heath­lands are in­cred­i­bly rich sites for in­ver­te­brates, with half of all our drag­on­fly and dam­selfly species con­fined to the bogs and pools. Spe­cialised heath­land birds, such as night­jars, Dart­ford war­blers and wood­larks will al­ways draw the crowds, but low­land heaths are also the holy grail for those who pre­fer scaly wildlife. As­ton­ish­ingly, all six of our na­tive rep­tiles can be found on a num­ber of south­ern heath­lands, but to catch up with the en­tire sex­tet in one visit would need ei­ther local knowl­edge or an align­ment of the stars.

When to go

Heath­land is not a habi­tat worth vis­it­ing when it’s rain­ing, but con­versely rep­tiles can be equally dif­fi­cult to find on hot days. The best way to en­sure a rep­tile fix is to make an early start on a day that prom­ises an en­tic­ing mix of sun and cloud. A prac­tised her­petol­o­gist will walk slowly while scan­ning for dis­creet bask­ing spots – of­ten close to foot­paths – that of­fer a southerly or east­erly as­pect and hence a marginally warmer mi­cro­cli­mate. Don’t for­get, July can be dis­con­cert­ingly quiet for many birds which are busy rais­ing fam­i­lies and un­der­go­ing their an­nual moult, but mid­sum­mer can also be the time for other crea­tures to take cen­tre stage. The sil­ver­stud­ded blue but­ter­fly, for ex­am­ple, will be happy to put on a show right through the heat of this month’s mid­day sun.

“For­tu­nately, the vast ma­jor­ity of our best sites are now well pro­tected and man­aged.”

Sika deer pre­fer habi­tats on acidic soils such as heath­land.

Dogs should be kept on a lead dur­ing a heath­land walk.

Vis­i­tors look for spe­cial­ist heath­land birds at Westle­ton Heath.

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