Heathland plants

Gorse flowers Setley Plain

Heathland is probably the most iconic scenery of the New Forest National Park with large swathes of open land turning a beautiful purple colour in autumn as the heathers flower.

The lowland heathland of the New Forest, and other parts of southern England, is very special because of the warm, dry climate and the fact that it is on sandy soils. These conditions favour many species and create a different type of heath to the moors (upland heath) of northern England, Scotland and Wales.

Worldwide, lowland heath is mainly found in north-west Europe, with the majority in the UK, Denmark and Holland. The UK has lost over 80% of its lowland heath since 1800, and now has about 20% of the world’s lowland heath, making it a very rare habitat.

Pony power

Relatively few species of plant can tolerate the acid conditions of the sandy soils. In order for these special plants to thrive, trees and scrub need to be prevented from spreading or be pushed back.  This work is best done by grazing animals like deer and New Forest ponies, which like to eat the shoots and leaves of young trees, thus preventing them from growing.

If areas are not managed, birch and pine trees rapidly take over and the area becomes too shaded for the specialised heathland flora and fauna. Once this happens the only way to bring the heathland back is to remove the trees. This is often done because heathland is a much rarer habitat than birch and pine woods.

Heathland management

The heathland habitat is also maintained by controlled burning or cutting and baling the heather. These can appear very destructive, but they are very important management methods. Heathland areas are subject to controlled burning only once in a generation - about every 25 years - and nature recovers surprisingly quickly. Burning revitalises many of the plants on the heaths, removing old growth and allowing a nutritious flush of new young growth for animals and wildlife to graze. It also provides thick cover for nesting and shelter. Controlled burning is carried out between the beginning of November and the end of March.

  1. Heathland plants (you are here)
  2. Bird’s-foot-trefoil
  3. Bracken
  4. Gorse
  5. Heather
  6. Lousewort
  7. Orchid
  8. Petty whin
  9. Tormentil
  10. Wild gladiolus
  11. Sundew


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