Heathland rarer than rainforest shows its true colours

New Forest National Park. Credit Martin Brown

Published Tuesday 9 September 2014

The New Forest National Park is putting on a spectacular display of purple haze thanks to a habitat which is rarer than rainforest.

The New Forest has the most extensive area of lowland heath remaining in Europe (over 10,000 hectares) and is home to many threatened species of birds, insects, reptiles and plants.

In August and September the heather, which is made up of three species – ling, bell heather and cross-leaved heath – bursts into bloom creating a spectacular carpet of purple across the landscape.

However it is estimated that 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.

The New Forest National Park Authority’s Community Wildlife Officer Angela Peters said the famous New Forest ponies and cattle play an important part in helping the habitat to thrive.

‘Relatively few species of plant can survive on the acidic sandy soils,’ she said.

‘To help these special plants to thrive, the ponies are the best way to graze the area to prevent trees and bracken invading and shading out the heathland wildlife.

‘However people also play their part – maintaining and restoring heathland is vitally important for these rare species and this is done through controlled burning or cutting and baling heather.

‘Burning – which takes place between November and March - can appear very destructive but it’s only done in the same area once in a generation and it’s important to manage the habitat in this way to help it survive. It revitalises many of the plants by removing the old growth and enabling a burst of new young growth which is nutritious for animals and wildlife.’

The New Forest is particularly important for heathland birds such as Nightjar, Woodlark and Dartford Warbler. Much of the New Forest is a Special Protection Area (an international wildlife conservation designation) because of these three species.

Heathland is good for these and other birds because of its open nature with scattered bushes and few trees, its warm and dry habitat and the abundance of insects.

A recent survey by the New Forest National Park Authority recorded 550 male nightjars in the National Park, showing that the management of the Forest is providing good habitat for these rare birds which can be seen at dawn and dusk.

People have traditionally used heather in a variety of ways. Ling was used for thatching, basket-making, brushes and besoms, rope-making, bedding (with the roots downwards and the tops to lie on) and for fuel and wattle. The flowers make a satisfying tea, provide the source of delicious heather honey and have also been used to make heather ale.

New Forest heathland facts

  • Home to the largest breeding population of Dartford warbler birds in the UK
  • The smooth snake is found in good numbers despite declining elsewhere due to loss of heathland in other parts of southern Britain
  • Wetter areas support unusual plants such as marsh gentian and the carnivorous greater sundew.

For more details visit: www.newforestnpa.gov.uk/heathland and see our gallery of New Forest heathland photos.

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Notes to photo editor:

Caption: New Forest heathland at Mogshade Hill, credit Mark Simpson

Notes to editor:

About the New Forest National Park Authority

Protect - Enjoy - Prosper

The New Forest National Park Authority’s statutory purposes are to:

  • Conserve and enhance the natural beauty, wildlife and cultural heritage of the Park - Protect.
  • Promote opportunities for understanding and enjoyment of its special qualities – Enjoy.

We also have a duty to:

  • Seek to foster the social and economic well-being of local communities within the Park – Prosper.

The New Forest National Park was designated in March 2005. Its unique landscape has been shaped over the centuries by grazing ponies, cattle and pigs which roam free. Majestic woodlands, rare heathland and a spectacular coastline provide fabulous opportunities for quiet recreation, enjoyment and discovery.

Visit www.newforestnpa.gov.uk to find out more.

Media Contacts:
Hilary Makin, Communications Manager, New Forest National Park Authority
Tel: 01590 646608
Email: hilary.makin@newforestnpa.gov.uk

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