A heath is an area of heather or low shrubs, usually found on free-draining, acidic soils. What most people usually think of as heaths are technically referred to as Lowland Heaths. An Upland Heath is another name for moorland, which is defined as being above 300m in altitude. In this page, Lowland Heaths will just be referred to as Heaths and Upland Heaths as moors. Heaths are fast disappearing and are now considered a rare habitat in Europe.
It is known, from Radio-Carbon dating of pollen grains preserved in sediments, that Heaths have existed in Britain for the past 14,000 years. This corresponded to when the last Ice Age ended and the ice sheets retreated. As the climate warmed up, a tundra-type vegetation including Heather became established. Between 10,000-6,000 BP (Before Present), the climate warmed further and allowed trees to become established over much of Britain. During this time, the Heather probably survived in open glades or on woodland margins where there was sufficient light for growth.
In Neolithic times (5,000 BP), Man began domesticating animals and growing crops. This is shown by a reduction in the amount of tree pollen and an increase in the amount of Heather pollen recovered from sediments of that age. It is likely that Man was clearing woodland to grow crops and, once the soil nutrients were exhausted, people moved on to cultivate a new area. Grazing by domestic or wild animals prevented the re-establishment of trees and created the heathland environment. By the Bronze Age (3,000 BP), heathlands were well-established over large areas of England. Traditional methods of managing those heaths included cutting of heather, grazing by cattle and burning to remove all above-ground vegetation yet leaving the roots unharmed for regeneration.
Forest clearance continued up to the 17th Century and villages were developed on areas of more fertile ground, adjacent to the barren heaths. The heathland provided Gorse for animal fodder and fuel. More trees were cut down for fuel and domestic animals were grazed on the heath. Turf and peat were cut for fuel under the right of turbary (see Common Land). All of these activities maintained the open nature of the heath and prevented it reverting to woodland. By the 18th Century, the introduction of fertilisers meant that previously abandoned heaths could now be turned into agricultural land. The enclosure of common land by Acts of Parliament in the 17th and 18th Centuries further reduced the areas that had previously been left as heaths.
The advent of cheap transportation in the 19th Century meant that commodities such as animal feeds and coal for fuel were now cheaply obtainable. People thus stopped using the heaths and many reverted to woodland. Of the heaths present in 1800, 82% have now disappeared.
The soil of heathlands is usually sandy (and therefore free-draining), acidic and very low in plant nutrients. Because the soils are free-draining, they do not hold water for long and heaths are therefore often subject to summer droughts. Under such conditions, fires are a constant hazard, particularly as much of the vegetation is very resinous and thus inflammable. Lowland heaths can be divided into 3 main types according to soil moisture levels.
- Wet Heaths occur where the water table is naturally high, or where underlying impervious rocks or clay prevent water drainage. This leads to the water table being consistently near to the soil-surface level.
- Dry Heaths occur where the soils are free-draining and where the water table remains well below the soil surface at all times.
- Humid Heaths are intermediate between the two.
Shropshire heaths are extremely poor in flora, which consists mainly of :-
Bristle Bent Grass
Sheep's Fescue Grass
In some cases, other plants are found such as :-
Purple Moor Grass
Tree seedlings such as Pine and Silver Birch are readily established on heathland and, if they are not controlled in some way, they will grow up until they shade out the underlying heath vegetation.
A number of animals are also found on heaths such as :-
Great Grey Shrike
Dark Green Fritillary
Small Copper Butterfly
Small Heath Butterfly
There are 46 sites of lowland heathland in Shropshire, covering an area of approximately 900 hectares. The only remaining large blocks of heathland are The Stiperstones (580 hectares), Catherton Common (69 hectares) and Silvington Common (43 hectares). The ‘Back to Purple’ project by English Nature has restored much lowland heathland on and around The Stiperstones. However, other areas are in dire need of protection. North Shropshire heathland is mostly fragmented into small isolated areas such as the Meres and Mosses Natural Area, the Midlands Plateau Natural Area near Telford, Hodnet Heath, Prees Heath and Brown Moss. The nationally scarce silver-studded blue butterfly is found on Prees Heath and this is the last surviving Midlands colony of this butterfly in England.
Gazetteer of Heaths