Threats to UK Lowland Heathland Habitats


UK lowland heathland habitats and their associated species are threatened by a range of factors. The text below lists the major pressures and threats and provides a summary of each. This is based on information in the 3rd UK Report on Implementation of the Habitats Directive, the UK Biodiversity Habitat Action Plans, and Common Standards Monitoring for Designated Sites: First Six Year Report.


Controlled burning of heathland, Cornwall © Tim J Phillips [GFDL ( or CC-BY-SA-3.0 (], via Wikimedia CommonsLack of appropriate site management

Lowland heathland is generally dependent on regular grazing by livestock, controlled burning, and prevention of encroachment by bracken, scrub or trees to maintain it in favourable condition. Many sites lack such management or are only recovering after recent re-instatement of such practices. Uncontrolled ‘wild’ fires have caused severe damage to a number of lowland heaths. However, given time, comparable heathland vegetation often reasserts itself.


Habitat loss & fragmentation

Many areas of heathland in lowland areas have been lost to housing, other urban development, planting mainly with coniferous trees, or conversion to farmland. This has also had the knock-on effect of leaving some areas of surviving heathland in a highly fragmented and isolated state – there is growing concern that opportunities for heathland species to disperse between such sites and to re-colonise sites under-going restoration are inevitably very limited.


Pine tree clearance at Brandon Park Heath, Breckland - part of Tomorrow's Heathland Heritage restoration project © Bob Jones [CC-BY-SA-2.0 (], via Wikimedia CommonsEncouragingly, the profile of the habitat has increased in recent years and losses have diminished greatly. In places, heaths have been re-established by removing conifer plantations and converting areas of former farmland (see a snapshot of heathland restoration across England). Nevertheless, development pressure remains a significant local threat.


Recreational & urban disturbance

Heathland is a popular recreational resource. This can lead to excessive disturbance of wildlife, pollution through dog-fouling and littering, and damage through trampling and erosion. This type of pressure is much increased where heathland sites are located close to built-up areas.


Air pollution

Cladonia heathAir pollution can result in the deposition of unwanted nutrients onto lowland heathland, which can critically alter the acidity and overall nutrient status of sites. Assessments indicate that critical air pollution loads for acidity and nutrient nitrogen are being exceeded on many lowland heaths, with dry deposition of ammonia very high in most parts of England, Wales and Northern Ireland. For further info: UK Air Pollution Information System (APIS).


Phytophthora disease

In recent years, dieback of bilberry/blaeberry on lowland heathland caused by species of Phytophthora has increased. These soil or water-borne fungus may have been introduced via the international horticultural trade. They have caused localised severe dieback of bilberry/blaeberry plants in the south-west and Midlands; this could spread and affect a wide-range of ericaceous dwarf-shrubs.


Water pollution and drainage

Wet heaths are dependent on adequate levels of unpolluted water. In places, such heathland is threatened by drainage or inflow of enriched water, which encourages non-heathland and rank vegetation to spread.