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.
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is a mere remnant of its past, with over 80 per cent having been lost as the more traditional land management became superseded by modern agricultural practices.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.