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Heathland is rarer than rainforest. The New Forest has the most extensive area of heathland remaining in Europe (over 10,000ha – the equivalent of 14,000 football pitches). Drier areas are dominated by heather, with bracken and gorse and a very rich lichen flora.

The term heathland is used to describe a number of different habitats such as heather dominated heaths, grasslands and waterlogged bogs or mires.

Each of these elements of heathland has its own characteristic species and ecology. Heathlands develop where the geology and soils suit the heathland vegetation.

It is of particular importance for birds, invertebrates and reptiles and supports the largest breeding population of Dartford warblers in the UK. Britain’s rarest reptile – 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 greater sundew.

Dominant species
Common heather (ling) and related low growing shrubs belong to the heather family of plants (ericaceae). Heath habitats are dominated by these ericaceous shrubs with different species favouring different soil conditions.

Dry heath
Dry heaths are dominated by ling, bell heather and gorse. They are found on the dry, freely draining podzol soils. The diversity of higher plants is usually low but interesting lichen communities develop. Mature dry heath is important for the Dartford warbler, sand lizard and smooth snake.

Wetter heath
As the ground becomes wetter, ling cannot compete and wet heath plants such as cross-leaved heath, purple moor-grass and deer grass are common. This type of community is found on gently sloping valley sides and low lying depressions.

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