Heathland Basics

Habitat Definition

Lowland heathland is an open landscape, generally occurring on poor, acidic sandy soils below 300 metres in altitude. It is characterised by the presence of dwarf shrubs of the heather family, notably ling Calluna vulgaris, bell heather Erica cinerea, cross-leaved heath Erica tetralix and bilberry Vaccinium myrtillus. However, it is generally viewed with a wider perspective – as a type of landscape that includes areas of gorse, bracken, acidic grassland, valley bogs, bare sandy or peaty ground, scattered trees and shrubs and open water habitats.

Where is heathland found?

In European terms, heathland is restricted by climate. A ‘continental climate’ with harsh winters and hot dry summers is unsuitable for the development of heathland. The plants that make it up need the ‘oceanic climate’ of the western seaboard of the continent. This puts the British Isles in prime position climatically for heathland which is also found in southern Scandinavia, Denmark, Germany, the Netherlands, Belgium, Western France and the north and west of the Iberian Peninsula.

Geology is another important determinant of where heathland can develop. In southern and eastern Britain, the underlying geology of heathland is usually sands and gravels, sometimes clays, which have given rise to acidic soils. In the north and west, igneous and metamorphic rocks may underly heathland. In Surrey, heathland is largely confined to two natural areas: the Thames Basin (on Tertiary sands and gravels overlying the London Clay) in the north west of the county and the Wealden Greensand in the south west and centre. Additionally, there is some heathland (notably Headley Heath) on superficial deposits overlying the chalk in the North Downs Natural Area (please see ‘heathland areas’ for further details).

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How, why and when did heathland come about?

It is believed that many large areas of heathland have their origin in the Late Stone Age and Bronze Age, at least 4000 years ago. It was the activities of our ancestors who had recently become farmers that gave rise to the spread of a heathland landscape on a large scale. There is conjecture as to the character of the landscape of lowland Britain at the time farming first began. Some open areas may have been heathland or heathy in character. Nevertheless, the clearance of trees and impoverishment of soils following the growing of crops greatly expanded the heathland area. Removal of the original vegetation, and growing crops with associated leaching of nutrients by the rain on some soils, led to the development of ‘podzols’. These soils have very infertile acid upper layers above an ‘iron pan’. Heathland vegetation, adapted to these poor, acid conditions, followed after the land was exhausted by farming.

It is thought that this open heathy landscape, was perpetuated over the centuries by the grazing of domestic livestock and the cutting of fuel. It is likely that with changes of human population and cultural shifts, the area of heathland ebbed and flowed, there being times when woodland again took over areas, later to be cleared, but the scale of loss of heathland since the end of the 19th century is unprecedented.

In Surrey as in many areas, the decline of traditional practices, including grazing, began to happen in the 19th century, accelerating after the first World War and declining to practically zero after the last war. Large areas were lost to development in the late 19th and early 20th centuries and much of the loss since the last war has been to natural succession.

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History of Heathland in Surrey

Much has been written about the cultural significance of heathland. Although natural in appearance and possessing a ‘wilderness quality’, heathland is an ancient landscape that has been influenced by human activity over thousands of years. It is believed that in some parts of the country, Surrey included, heathland was already extensive by the Bronze Age as natural woodlands on acidic soils were cleared by felling, burning and grazing. Gradually, agricultural activities became the dominant land use. Heathland was enormously important for grazing and the gathering of wood, turf, peat, bracken, heather, gorse etc for fuel, building materials, bedding and other uses right up to the end of the 19th Century.

The rights of local people to use the products of heathland were jealously guarded, recognised and incorporated into commons legislation that has protected many such areas from enclosure for agricultural use until the present day. Since the start of the 20th century (and especially since the Second World War) heathland has become almost entirely disconnected from the farming communities that created it and which it helped to sustain.

Military use of heathland in Surrey began in the 19th Century and was very extensive during the last two wars. About 60% of Surrey’s heathland remains in MoD ownership that, over the years, has protected it against development. Development took large areas particularly in the late 19th and early 20th centuries but heathland also began to be lost at a progressively increasing rate through natural succession. With commoners no longer exercising their common rights, heathland rapidly began to revert to scrub and poor woodland. Additionally, much heathland was put to other uses such as golf courses and commercial forestry. Today, apart from military training, Surrey’s heaths are treated largely as amenity land for informal recreational uses.

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Contact details

Project Manager – Dr Rob McGibbon
Senior Project Officer – Marcus Turley

Project Officer  – Christina Smith

Surrey Heathland Project, Artington House, Portsmouth Road, Guildford, Surrey GU2 4DZ
e-mail:rob.mcgibbon@surreycc.gov.uk
Telephone: 01483 579713
Fax: 01483 579740


The Heathland Project is supported by:

Surrey County Council, Guildford Borough Council, Waverley Borough Council, Woking Borough Council, Runnymede Borough Council, Witley Parish Council, Wonersh Parish Council, RSPB, English Nature, MoD and the Herpetological Conservation Trust

Surrey County Council
working in partnership
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Surrey Countryside Management