Lowland Heathland is uncultivated land with sandy mineral soils that are nutrient-poor. As the name suggests, it generally occurs on lowland areas below 300 metres. It is characterized by dwarf shrubs such as heather & gorse and supports species that are not present on Upland Heathland.

Key Characteristics

  • Site: Lowland areas < 300 metres
  • Soil: Sandy mineral soils, nutrient-poor
  • Main species: Heather and gorse (dwarf shrubs)
  • UK: 58,000 ha
  • NI: 5,000 ha (underestimate)

Habitat Description

  • Lowland Heathland is a restricted habitat in Europe but is of fundamental importance due to its biodiversity.
  • Lowland Heathland can be classified as wet or dry heath, depending on the environmental conditions. Wet heaths occur when the water table is high, or where passage of water is restricted due to underlying impervious rocks & clay. Dry heaths occur where the water table remains below the soil surface & soils are free-draining.
  • Rathlin Island is a main site of dry heaths (lowland maritime heaths) whereas wet heaths are present throughout Northern Ireland.
  • Dwarf shrubs such as common heather Calluna vulgaris and bell heather Erica cinerea are characteristic of lowland Heathland. Western Gorse Ulex gallii is restricted to lowland heathlands. These shrubs cover over 75% of dry heaths when it is of high quality.
  • Dwarf shrubs cover 50-75% of wet heaths in good condition (NIEA, 2005). Wet heaths support different species in addition to heather, such as cross-leaved heath & purple moor-grass.
  • Lowland heathlands are diverse in structural terms. In addition to the characteristic shrubs, many have habitat mosaics of trees, scrub, bracken, bryophytes, lichens, bare ground, wet heath, mire & open water (NIEA, 2005).
  • Lowland Heathland in Northern Ireland support similar plant communities to those in the NVC of Great Britain. These include: H10 Calluna vulgaris – Erica cinerea heath, H7 C. vulgaris Scilla verna heath, H8 C. vulgaris Ulex gallii heath & M16 E. tetralix – Sphagnum compactum heath.

Current Status in UK & Northern Ireland

  • Lowland Heathland is a threatened habitat that suffers from overgrazing, burning, forestry, planning developments, drainage to convert areas to grassland, trampling & invasive species.
  • The UK represents approximately 20% of the international total of lowland heathlands. The UK has an estimated 58,000 ha of lowland Heathland.
  • The NICS (2000) estimated that lowland Heathland covers 5,000 ha but this is an underestimate as it is based on land below 150 metres which is lower than the definition for lowland heathland in the NIEA Habitat Action Plan (2005).
  • The NICS (2000) recorded an 11% decline of lowland wet heath, no loss of dry heath & an increase in dry & wet lowland heathland mosaics. There was no significant loss in Northern Ireland within a six year period (1992-1998) (NIEA, 2005).
  • Lowland Heathland in Northern Ireland is fragmented and generally restricted to the Mourne Mountains, Ring of Guillion, Rathlin Island & narrow coastal strips of Counties Down & Antrim (NIEA, 2005).

Designated Sites

  • Rathlin Island
  • Rathlin Island Ballycarry
  • Rathlin Island Ballyconagan
  • Rathlin Island Ballygill North
  • Rathlin Island Kebble
  • Grangemore [Bann Estuary]

Further Information