EU Habitat Action Plan 4030: Maintaining and restoring European dry heaths

HeathlandThis EU Habitat Action Plan was published by the European Commission in 2020. It provides guidance to maintain and restore European dry heaths to a favourable conservation status. Dry heaths are wide open landscapes, typically occurring on free-draining soil that has a relatively low nutrient content. These areas are dominated by plants such as heathers, gorse, dwarf shrubs, rough grasses and is interrupted by scattered trees. These historic landscapes are essentially a man-made habitat, derived from woodland through a long history of grazing and burning.

Moorlands are also managed by humans but are slightly different to heathlands. They are more upland, wetter habitats with low-growing shrubs and grasses, often found on damper peat soils. To compare, peatlands are wetlands, where the soil is comprised of organic matter from dead and decaying plants.

Experts from across Europe, including the UK, were asked by the EU to review how to best manage heathlands. These experts examined case studies and previous research focused on dry heath, focusing on the risks to dry heaths and what the best management methods are. It is important for those who are interested and involved in the conservation and management of dry heaths, including organisations, local communities, habitats specialists, etc.

Key points

Most of the European dry heath vegetation is semi-natural, derived from woodland through a long history of grazing, cutting and burning over millennia. Continuing this level of management helps preserve dry heath habitat. When focusing on conservation efforts, there needs to be appropriate, and consistent management of dry heath, keeping nutrient levels in the soil low.

The main threats to dry heaths:

  • Stopping or decreasing traditional management methods such as grazing, cutting, turf-cutting or burning.
  • Overgrazing or under grazing.
  • Air pollution (nitrogen deposits) and field runoff that produces too many rich nutrients in bodies of water, ultimately causing dense plant growth.
  • Re-establishing forests or planting trees where there was no tree cover before. 
  • Splitting habitats and reducing their connectivity.

Methods to manage dry heaths:

  • Extensive grazing or cutting.
  • Cutting turf or soil scrapping.
  • Controlled burning.
  • Restoring degraded patches and expanding areas of heath.

Risks to heathland and appropriate actions

This section discusses the specific risks to dry heathlands, and the actions that are needed to return them to a favourable conservation status in more detail. This includes the threats to heathlands, what the likely causes are, and the methods suggested to improve conservation.

Heathland environment and management needs

Dry heaths habitats are very variable because of differences in climate, altitude, soil conditions and management intensity (e.g. grazing and burning). There is also a variation between dry heaths in southern and northern areas of Europe, as southern heaths are more species rich. Most European dry heaths are semi-natural, derived from areas that were originally woodland, and came into existence when forests were cleared by Neolithic man. They have remained because of a long history of continued management, such as grazing and burning by humans, preventing them from reverting back to scrub and woodland.

Most heathland habitat types are dependent on agricultural practices, although these are often carried out as conservation management. Grazing, cutting, burning, topsoil removal and sod cutting have been the main practices carried out by humans on heathlands for many years, but recently the movement of people toward cities in many areas has meant less of these activities. This allows a gradual progression to scrubland and on to woodland, losing the open heath.

The use of fire is key to maintaining heathlands, but post-fire management is still needed to prevent abundant grass or adjacent woodland dominating the heathland. Dry heath, like other heathland types, is a dynamic ecosystem. After prescribed burning, the early stages of growth are important for a variety of insets and lichens, which depend on open vegetation and patches of bare soil with no litter. When the vegetation starts to grow and shade the ground, this can affect their habitat. To support a wide variety of species, a well-developed heathland should ideally consist of a mosaic of patches of the different development phases of the heather.

The pressures and threats to heathlands

There are a number of threats to the heathlands including management of vegetation, active destruction and pollution.

Inappropriate management of the vegetation

Grazing can become an issue, with undergrazing leading to vegetation taking over and forest expansion. Over time, the different species of plants will change and grow, altering the landscape. The invasion of alien plant species such as rhododendron, sea buckthorn and Japanese knotweed can have a big impact. However, overgrazing by livestock, sheep and deer has a negative effect on vegetation structure and composition, which can be magnified when combined with inappropriate burning. Uncontrolled high frequency burning, known as wildfire, can damage the long-term practicality of this habitat, destroying nutrients and vegetation. An increase in fire frequency or fire followed by heavy game and livestock is an important pressure on this habitat.

Active destruction of the heathland habitat

Humans can be involved in the destruction of dry heath, mainly through development of forests and breaking up heathland areas through fragmentation. This is where the habitat is split and isolated within forests or rural landscapes, causing a loss of many species, which, in turn, affects genetic diversity and long-term viability of species’ populations. Climate change is a growing concern, with warmer temperatures causing grass species to become more dominant, leading to a shift from heathland to grassland. This could impact the amount of carbon stored or emitted from the heathlands and increase the chance of wildfires. Land changes, especially urbanisation where residential and industrial areas are developed in close proximity to dry heath, have a negative effect on the wildlife.

Pollution

When nitrogen and other pollutants increase to a higher level than they naturally should be, either in the soil or bodies of water, different plants can start to thrive including algae, affecting what is naturally there. This is especially important for mosses and lichens as nitrogen enters and damages the tissues directly. Also, nitrogen can affect the stress sensitivity of heather, decreasing its domination over other vegetation.

Conservation and restoration measures

Dry heath conservation and restoration methods need to focus on how best to adapt to these threats and pressures. Management of the heathland is most important, planning for any unexpected changes such as wetter condition and a smaller window for winter management. Maintaining a variety of different types of vegetation will provide a wide range of micro habitats, including bare ground, areas dominated by mosses, dwarf shrubs varying in age, wet heath, and scattered trees and shrubs.

This level of diversity, especially open spaces and age of shrubs and heather, can be achieved through the management methods of grazing, cutting and burning. These methods also can reduce the impact of nitrogen. Within these sites, it is important to have areas that can offer refuge for creatures, including insects and mammals, from the effects of climate change. This can be achieved by using a variety of plants and shrubs for shelter, and by keeping good movement of water throughout the area. To protect water flow, artificial drainage needs to be blocked to reduce the amount of water removed.

There are a number of considerations when constructing a variety of habitats within dry heaths, also known as a habitat mosaic. Most importantly, a fire contingency plan. The heath design needs to reduce the risk of fire by introducing breaks in the vegetation and maintaining moisture in the bog. Reducing the amount of heather will also help reduce the risk of fire. Furthermore, the use of broadleaved, not conifer, woodland in localised areas will provide a buffer to urban areas but also a break in any potential fires. The heathlands are at risk of fragmentation, where areas of the heath have been separated. To restore and reconnect these areas, trees need to be removed and sprouting scrub and trees need to be controlled, along with invasive species that might require removal.

Research has shown that management of heather moorlands by regular burning and the prevention of overgrazing helps to maintain a young and healthy heather canopy. This may also prevent grass invasion, by allowing the heatherto grow over potential invading grass species and outcompete them for light.

These three management methods are the most commonly used and can help achieve conservation and restoration of dry heathlands.

Burning

The aim of burning is to remove above-ground vegetation cleanly yet leave the roots unharmed for regeneration. Controlled burning can be used to mimic the natural fire cycle of heathland and to reduce nitrogen content. However, burning is not suitable for areas with other fire sensitive habitats. It needs to be very carefully controlled and may be impossible if the area is surrounded by forestry or housing. Controlled burning is used to create a mosaic of different patches of habitat for wildlife and/or game for hunting, e.g. for red grouse in Scotland. The characteristics of the fires are especially important, such as their frequency, temperature, intensity, time and size. These characteristics depend on a range of factors including the type of fuel used, the structure of the fire, location and weather conditions. The impact on the soil also depends on the soil and habitat conditions at the time of burning.

Grazing

Grazing has been historically used on heathlands with traditional breeds of sheep, cattle, horses and wild herbivores, such as rabbits and deer. Grazing helps to control the growth of scrub and trees and has been a part of the maintenance of dry heaths. It can be considered a suitable management measure, provided appropriate grazing pressure and timing are established, producing a greater diversity of habitats. However, grazing may not be sufficient to keep the habitat in nutrient-poor conditions, especially in areas where there is a large amount of airborne nitrogen. The impact must be considered in terms of the intensity of grazing and the livestock used, as negative effects can arise impacting the biodiversity.

While grazing can be an effective management option for lowland heath, evidence for a number of negative impacts on habitats has been recorded, highlighting the need for improved monitoring and experimental analysis of the effectiveness of grazing. Reducing heather cover is a key objective, but if grazing is stopped, this can allow habitats to recover where grazing pressure has been too intense. Grazing needs to be carefully controlled, looking at the initial situation of the habitat, its conservation status and the objectives to be achieved.

Cutting

Heather cutting has been practised since ancient times. In regions where the re-introduction of livestock grazing is not viable, mowing alone is considered to be a practical and an affordable substitute. However, studies showed that grazing creates a more open vegetation structure and reduces competing grasses more successfully than mowing, due to selective feeding. The timing of cutting needs to be sensitive to animals on the heath and it should be avoided during summer breeding seasons. The cuttings should always be removed to prevent them decaying and enriching the soil and when possible, all mowing techniques should be combined with other measures, such as grazing or prescribed burning.

Conservation management and restoration for wildlife

An important aim of heathland conservation and restoration is often to provide habitat for protected species and various invertebrates. In the UK, the following species occur in dry heaths: red grouse, hen harrier, merlin, twite, short-eared owl, whinchat and golden plover.

The most important factors for all these species are appropriate vegetation structure and the availability of a sustainable amount of food resources. The availability of invertebrate prey is important for chicks such as curlew and is a possible factor affecting the recolonisation of birds such as nightjar. Birds such as Dartford warbler and woodlark require large areas that are maintained through burning, cutting and grazing while nightjar need a good proportion of old mature heather with gaps for nesting.

It is also important to consider pollinators, a significant part of the heathland cycle. This can be achieved with a variety of vegetation (a mosaic) including moss, lichen, herbs and different ages of heather. More details on management methods for pollinators can be found in the full report.

What does this mean?

Heather burnThere are many threats to dry heaths, most importantly the stopping or decrease in traditional management methods such as burning, grazing and cutting. Other threats include overgrazing and changing the habitat by splitting the area or replanting forests. The best method to continue to conserve the heathlands is consistent management and maintenance of the soil. This can be achieved by controlled burning, extensive grazing or cutting, and restoration of degraded areas or expanding the area. It is important to carefully control whichever management method is used, examining the initial situation of the habitat, its conservation status and the objectives to be achieved. Combining management methods can also be beneficial to the heathland, for example, when cutting, controlled burning and grazing should be used in conjunction.

Furthermore, it is important to create a variety of habitats within the heath to promote and conserve the wildlife present. This can be achieved using the above-mentioned management methods and creating a mosaic of habitats, including different types of vegetation and different heights within that vegetation.

Funding that is available

To achieve this level of conservation and management, funding is available through these organisations:

  • EU’s Common Agricultural Policy (CAP)
  • European Agricultural Fund for Rural Development (EAFRD) is the most important source of funding for heathland management for biodiversity in some EU countries, including through agri-environment measures, training for implementation of measures, and investments in restoration.
  • European Regional Development Fund (ERDF) has been used for heathland restoration and management in some EU countries.
  • The LIFE programme continues to be a very important source of funding for restoration of this habitat type.

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